March 22-28, 2006

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Book Reviews


The First Lady of Hollywood: A Biography of Louella O. Parsons
So much of journalism today depends on celebrity—whether Angelina's womb is full or Lindsay's stomach is empty. Despite famed gossip columnist Louella Parsons' flaws as a writer and a person, she was essential to how our nation became drunk on fame. Biographer Samantha Barbas frames her subject as a pitilessly hard worker from Dixon, Ill. (Ronald Reagan's birthplace), who understood the force of cinema and how it would shape the 20th century. Barbas sketches Parson's days as a $20-a-week scenario writer at Essanay Studios in Chicago. (The company later opened a studio in Niles in the East Bay.) Moving into journalism, Parsons worked for William Randolph Hearst's papers (her column ran from the 1920s to 1964). For decades, she promoted the "Chief"'s movies—a media synergy 75 years before it became a common corporate strategy. Relocating to L.A. because of her tuberculosis, Parsons became a participant in the silent film era's revelry, enjoying crap shooting, toga parties and plenty of booze. Parsons was widely popular, receiving some 1,000 letters a week in her prime in the 1930s. As a gossip columnist, she acted as both a scourge and a whitewasher. Parsons insisted on the domestic virtues of transient, hard-pressed and fanciful people who, if you believed the hype, "never drank and were unfailingly monogamous." When the actors broke this public image, Parsons was merciless. She went after Rita Hayworth and Ingrid Bergman and helped to blacklist Citizen Kane, with its unflattering portrait of the Chief. Although less vindictive and less ultraright-wing than her rival columnist Hedda Hopper (as Barbas frequently reminds us), Parsons could nonetheless be an unappetizing customer. Still, this rigorous, colorful biography recognizes "Lolly" as a crucial gear in the studio-era machinery. (By Samantha Barbas; UC Press; 418 pages; $29.95 cloth)
—Richard von Busack


Death in the Haymarket: A Story of Chicago, the First Labor Movement and the Bombing That Divided Gilded Age America
Thanks to unpaid overtime, we now honor the eight-hour workday mostly in the abstract. In the late 19th century, the fight for a shorter working day inflamed America's cities, especially Chicago, which was filling up with immigrant workers bearing radical ideas. In the 1860s, socialists and anarchists began railing against wage slavery. The Great Upheaval, as it was known, seemed on the verge of victory when workers struck on May 1, 1886. Three days later, on May 4, at a rally in Haymarket Square, someone threw a bomb, and the police starting firing wildly. By the time the smoke cleared, seven police were dead or wounded (along with four onlookers), and the labor movement was in tatters. No one ever found the dynamiter, but a packed jury railroaded eight anarchists. On flimsy evidence, the anarchists were convicted simply for having delivered incendiary speeches advocating that strikers be armed and prepared to defend themselves, although no proof was forthcoming that they had any knowledge of the bomb itself. Four were eventually hung; the other three received pardons; one hung himself in prison. After a long slog of scene setting, labor historian (and proud of it) James Green embarks on a suspenseful, day-by-day, almost minute-by-minute, recounting of those hectic days in May. He follows with an equally thrilling account of the trial, a spectacle that captivated the nation. Tabloid journalists led a Nancy Grace-like chorus of outrage, calling the anarchists "ungrateful hyenas" and "slavic wolves," while some prominent figures (including attorney Clarence Darrow and novelist William Dean Howells) decried the miscarriage of justice. The blanket condemnation of the protesters as violent foreigners kicked off an era of red-baiting that effectively cost Chicago "any chance for the social peace all classes desired." The labor movement didn't begin to see real gains again until the Depression. (By James Green; Pantheon; 383 pages; $26.95 cloth)
—Michael S. Gant

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