It’s been a while since Central Connecticut State University alumnus William J. Mann has stepped foot on campus. But the well-known American novelist, biographer and Hollywood historian is coming for a visit on March 4. Mann, who has written biographies on Hollywood stars including Katharine Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor and Barbra Streisand, will discuss “Writing Hollywood” at the free program that begins at 4:30 p.m. at the university library. A 1984 CCSU graduate, Mann has written several works of fiction as well as non-fiction. His biography “Kate: The Woman Who Was Hepburn” earned him a Notable Book of 2006 by The New York Times.
Formerly co-editor of the Hartford-based, gay-lesbian news magazine Metroline, Mann was also one of the founders of Alternatives, a gray lesbian cultural organization in Hartford and organized the first Connecticut Gay and Lesbian Film Festival. Mann, who has a new book coming out in the fall, was in New York City when he graciously dished and Spilled the Beans with Java.
Q: Your CCSU bachelor’s degree was in history, then a master’s in liberal arts from Wesleyan. That is serious stuff. But then you go and write about movie stars which some might contend is a bit frivolous. When did the celebrity bug and I guess the writing bug bite?
A: I always loved movies. I saw used to love the Planet of the Apes movies and Poseidon Adventure. And then I discovered old movies as a teenager. I remember Channel 30, (do they still call it that?) and they had an office over near Corbin’s Corner and hosted a classic movie night. You could submit your name to introduce films. I think the show was on at 11:30 at night. I wanted to introduce “Dinner at 8.” I think it was 1981 or ‘82. They picked me and I was this college kid then and I went and got to introduce the classic film. At that moment I realized I loved talking about movies and the people who make them and I started thinking “I would like to write about that.”
Q: Katharine Hepburn, Barbra Streisand, Elizabeth Taylor, you shoot high when you decide to write a book. What’s the one that is still in your head that you would like to do?
A: I have to say writing about these celebrities, these divas, was never my goal in life. It was really editors who told me who to write about. Hepburn was my idea, though, and I had a lot of interest and she had just died and I had a lot of connections. Then editors suggested the others. I have a new book coming out, “Tinseltown: Madness, Morphine and Murder at the Dawn of the Movies.” I like to do stories about time and place and perhaps aspects of not just Hollywood but also popular culture that we need to look at more closely.
Q: Do you ever feel badly about digging up dirt?
A: I always use this analogy. Being a biographer is like being a burglar. You are breaking into someone’s house and going through their drawers and making off with the loot. You have to do that, dig around and find out stuff. As a biographer we also have the responsibility to do that in a way that is respectful and provides the context. So you find out someone did something that they didn’t want anyone to know about. As the writer you have the responsibility to explain the circumstances and the context of that information. You can’t just throw it out there. I am not into sensationalizing. When I write about Hepburn in the 30s, I needed to understand the 30s. Same with Streisand in the 60s. You have to understand the challenges and the times and the place and the people.
Q: Tell me about the new book.
A: The new book is one I have wanted to do for years and years and years. I have a new publisher who is very excited. The cover looks fantastic. It is a book about Hollywood in 1920s, before all the rules had been set down and the studio system was just coming together. Moviemakers were just making out the process and in this midst of figuring out and building these new structures, there were a series of scandals that unraveled, especially a murder of a popular director, William Desmond Taylor. A murder that has stumped historians for 100 years now and I think I found the answer by going through some old FBI records that t no one ever thought to look at. The answer is in there. I am telling two stories, the murder and hunt for a killer and how Hollywood came to be, how they made movies and sold them and turned it all into a huge industry.
Q: So you can tell me who did kill Taylor?
A: I am not going to tell. You can get the answer around page 400.
Q: Your celebrity biographies are unauthorized. Have you ever been sued by the celebrities or their families?
A: I have never been sued. I have had certain celebrity’s friends and families say ‘if you are going there I am not going to talk to you anymore.’ Even with Streisand, with her reputation as private and uncooperative, I heard from people around her that she did not object to it, of course you never get her to say she liked it. But she didn’t attempt to stop me when I interviewed her friends and co-workers and the book was only on her first five years in the business. I think if you tell the truth with a degree of respect and responsibility.
Q: somehow I can’t imagine such interesting and detailed biographies on the “celebrities” of today like Beyonce or Bradley Cooper or Sandra Bullock. In part because between Facebook, Twitter and all the other immediate online ways we get information, there are no secrets anymore. What do you think?
A: We are getting much more information on celebrities now than we did. But the information is micromanaged, even the information they don’t want to come out. A biographer years from now writing about George Clooney is not going to have letters like I had when I did the book on Hepburn. You can sort through people’s lives through letters. With Hepburn, I went to the library at Harvard and they gave me a box full of letters and said ‘just dig through them.’ there were lots of letters from one of her best friends. When you go through letters you can see a person’s life. That doesn’t exist anymore. Even emails don’t exist the way they did. Now it’s just tweets and text messages. Writing about somebody is going to be a different kind of project in the future and I certainly wouldn’t even want to think how we would do it.
Q: Did you ever find yourself doing research and saying ‘whoa, I never imagined that about him or her?’
A: You don’t know what you are going to find. You can’t have preconceived notions about people. I am fortunate in that all the books I worked on came with more admiration for my subjects than less. I actually liked them better because I saw them as bold human beings. I knew their challenges, knew them better. Actually the real women behind those legends turned out to be way more fascinating and vulnerable and complex. I ended up liking them better.
Q: You are coming home to CCSU to speak. Has it been a while? Best college moments?
A: I was at the campus two years when I took my niece who was considering school there. The place has sure changed. My best memories? Probably working with some of the professors. Barry Leeds was fantastic. I had him for American Lit. I was very involved in the nuclear freeze movement and left wing politics of the time. I was young and idealistic. When I think about my college years, I think about the protests, you can change the world and all that.
Q: If someone was going to write an unauthorized biography about you, what would be your worse fear as far as what they would “find out?”
A: Certainly nothing I am going to tell you. I am pretty much an open book and for a long time, I was very tired of talking about myself. The people I write about are interesting, not me. I guess if I had to say something it would be that I am horribly shy. I am a good public speaker when I come to an event and have to talk or publicize a book, But when I walk into a room with just small talk, I just want to go home.