Never having prospected for gold, I can't say for sure, but I suspect the thrill of unearthing a good, untold story is similar to what miners felt when they discovered a shiny raw nugget in a Yukon riverbank. When I chanced upon the story of William Haines more than a decade ago, I knew I had struck gold. Of course, Haines's official story wasn't new; it had been around for decades. “No one will publish a book about a forgotten silent film star,” I was told. But it wasn't the official story that interested me. I wanted to reveal just how it happened that this man, king of the box office in 1930, could be so ignobly kicked off his throne a short time later, all for refusing to give up—like Edward VIII across the Atlantic—the love of his life. In Haines's case, the love of his life was another man, and the Archbishop of Canterbury was Louis B. Mayer. Now there was a story.
When Wisecracker: The Life and Times of William Haines was published in 1998, many people became convinced of the rich mine of untold stories that lay just under the surface of gay lives. Today Haines, if not quite the household name he was 80 years ago, is at least no longer forgotten: this fall, cameras are set to begin turning on a feature film based on Wisecracker. After Haines, I found additional untold tales, sometimes in places that already seemed thoroughly rooted through: the life of Katharine Hepburn, for example, the real Hepburn, yielded an abundance of fresh stories far more interesting than anything the official legend had served up. So many, in fact, that even more than 600 pages of Kate: The Woman Who Was Hepburn could not contain them all.
Good stories, of course, are only good if they can be backed up and documented. That's the challenge when writing about lives where the official record has been constructed to keep us away from the raw nuggets in the riverbank. Too often our public figures come wrapped in unchallenged “truths,” cheap garments woven together by press agents entrusted with keeping their wayward charges safely moored to the boundaries of convention. But stories that uphold the status quo are boring—fool's gold. Far better are those that upend expectations and defy tradition.
It's not only gay lives that can be hidden in plain sight. The aim of my latest project, a study of Elizabeth Taylor due in October, was to pry loose the story that has always existed underneath the famous headlines and telephoto pictures: how this rather simple-hearted woman became the greatest movie star of all time. We know all about the affairs and the addictions, but we don't understand the myriad ways in which Taylor, and those around her, laid down the blueprint for the enterprise of fame that exists today. It's not Taylor's story that is overly familiar: it's Brad and Angelina and Britney and Miley who are old hat, merely reruns of Elizabeth in her heyday. That's why we're calling the book How to Be a Movie Star.
I also write novels; the latest, Object of Desire, comes out this month. Some have classified them as “gay fiction,” but I just consider them stories that haven't been told before. Fiction and nonfiction require different strategies and techniques, of course. But ultimately I'm faced with the same challenge: to find a good, fresh story and tell it well. That, for me, is the gold standard.
|William J. Mann lives in Provincetown, Mass., and Palm Springs, Calif..|