Wherever I go to talk about Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II (which by the way makes an outstanding present at the holidays), I’m asked what I’ll write about next. It’s a natural question for people to ask, and a difficult one for me to answer. I always say, “Audrey’s a tough act to follow,” and I mean that. I’m inclined to write a book about Mickey Simpson, the mountain of an actor who usually played a bad guy in Westerns of the 1940s and 50s but also showed up in pictures as diverse as Flynn’s Adventures of Don Juan, a Weissmuller Tarzan, a Three Stooges short, and the Adventures of Superman. Life must have been a blast for Mickey Simpson because he was always working! Always at a different location in and around Hollywood, hanging out with all sorts of famous actors and always up to some kind of crazy no-good. He did 13 episodes of The Lone Ranger alone. He was a rare actor who at 6-foot-6 could stand eye to eye with Clint Walker’s Cheyenne Bodie—he appeared nine times on Cheyenne, always as a henchman. That was his specialty, serving as loyal muscle for the brains of the operation, never the one coming up with evil plans. It’s easy for me to have a soft spot for Mickey Simpson.
Only problem is, how many people want to read a book about Mickey Simpson? I wish someone would write one because I’d buy it in a minute, but that author won’t be me; I need a topic that has commercial potential. And something that hasn’t been done. And in an area where I already have an audience. In other words, this ain’t easy.
There’s another problem I’ve run up against lately. I thought I had a topic in a Hollywood personality from the 1930s and 40s (I won’t say who it is because I still might do it sometime). But this prospect had a personality disorder—could have been borderline, or bipolar, or narcissistic—and after spending three years with Audrey Hepburn—I’m sorry, a fatally disordered mind isn’t for me.
My colleague Scott Eyman hilariously described his time spent writing a superb biography of director John Ford as “like being locked in a telephone booth with 12 Eugene O’Neill characters, and they’re all mean.” In other words, Ford wasn’t a warm guy, but as Scott also noted, “Talent doesn’t care who it happens to.” Many brilliant people are deeply troubled—in some cases their disorder contributes to the talent. For me, though, at this stage of my career, I want to enjoy the required two or three years locked away with my subject.
Writing a biography can be like going on a blind date. I always thought Olivia de Havilland was both beautiful and pleasant, but after deep research dives for Errol & Olivia I discovered the driven, complex, and meticulous loner underneath. Jim Stewart was nothing like I thought he’d be—certainly nothing like the character who would show up to bumble his way through appearances with Johnny Carson. You just never know what you’re going to get when you start down the path and get to know your subject.
As of this writing I may have my answer. A good friend suggested it, and at first I said what I always say (being something of a skeptic and also something of a pessimist): “I can’t do that!” But then I thought about it and asked for opinions here and there and maybe it can be done. I’m not yet near the go/no-go point, where you either keep fishing or cut bait. First comes foundational research and then requests for the holdings of specific archives. If it’s there, then we’re a ‘go.’ If not, well, damn. I’m nowhere.
I’ve been blurting out my friend’s idea, and I’ve decided I need to stop that because if this thing is a no-go after all, I’ll be wiping egg off my face. For the time being let’s just say, it’s possible there’s a book in my future that’s every bit the story of Fireball, Mission, and Dutch Girl.
How about doing a biography on director Victor Fleming? Author David Stenn, who wrote worthy bios of Clara Bow and Jean Harlow – both maligned for decades – once announced his intentions to write about the largely-forgotten director of Gone with The Wind and Wizard of Oz, but never followed through with the project…
I appreciate the thought, Peter and second your praise for David Stenn, who gave me help at a critical time as I was launching the Fireball project. As for Fleming, a very interesting guy and artist and definitely old-school, I have to yield this ground to Michael Sragow for his 2008 Pantheon release, Victor Fleming: An American Movie Master.
Robert, are we talking Ida Lupino, because if so I an help a bit, not that I ever met or spoke to her, but Louis Hayward, her first husband, was both my dear friend and client. Barry
Which Three Stooges short featured Mickey Simpson?
Gents in a Jam, 1952, with Shemp.
I wish someone would take on the Fatty Arbuckle/Virginia Rappe scandal or the Thelma Todd suicide/murder or William Desmond Taylor or George Reeves or Lana Turner/Johnny Stompanato/Cheryl Crane or the death of Ted Healy or a really good look into the life and early death of Irving Thalberg. There are so many great old Hollywood stories to tell. The Olivia DeHavailland/Joan Fontaine feud. George Sanders and his marriages to TWO Gabor sisters and his suicide because he was “bored” with life. A really good book on Hattie McDaniel, the first African-American Oscar winner. (<—— someone needs to do that. She deserves it.)
I love Fireball and Carole Lombard. I have an old book from the 70s called Powell & Harlow & Lombard & Gable. It's a short book and I've always loved how their lives intertwined – I wish someone would redo that book with better research, more pictures and more information. Powell/Harlow/Lombard/Gable are my four favorite actors and actresses and I would love to find a picture of the four of them together. I know Gable and Lombard and Powell and Harlow double-dated for the Oscars in 1936, so there should be a picture somewhere of them together. Even back then, you would think Photoplay would be all over that – but I have yet to find any pictures of the four of them together.
Or Leslie Howard and his plane crash. Or the death of Carole Landis. Or anything about John Barrymore – great actor, huge mess of a personal life. Or George Raft and his mob connections.
Sorry, two more. Then I’m done. Promise. The murder of Ramon Novarro and the WEIRD strange death of Albert Dekker (google THAT one!)
So many interesting topics to delve into and I would buy a book any of the topics above that I suggested.
Thanks for the book Dutch Girl. I enjoyed the book very much. My father (Frisian) immigrated before the war but his father sisters and brothers did not. So I always wanted to understand the war in Nederlands and your book helped to undestand the war. I also love Audrey.