Wednesday , February 28 2024
If you're looking to read a biography about Humphrey Bogart, this ain't the book.

Book Review: Humphrey Bogart: The Making of A Legend by Darwin Porter

Humphrey Bogart, The Making of A Legend could possibly be the worst book ever written. The only reason I hesitate calling it definitely the worst is because Porter has written so many other books based on dead movie stars who can’t defend themselves or their reputations that I’m sure there are some other contenders for the title.

Porter cites no sources, but has a handy dandy paragraph at the beginning of the book claiming that every conversation can be cited — although he incudes no citations, but merely a list of books on Hollywood in the bibliography at the back of the book that he may or may not have read and taken stories from. He writes the book in the present tense, with full-blown conversations and details as to what Bogie, or “Hump,” as he claims he was called for most of his early life, was eating for breakfast, lunch, and dinner on a particular day — practically always ham and eggs. Bogie was in as endless a pursuit to find a plate of ham and eggs as he was a drink in a speakeasy or nightclub, but Porter rarely mentions what specific alcohol he was swilling, or his smoking, which he was supposed to have been doing in as much abundance.

Boring meals inventory aside, what the book is truly about is sex, sex, sex. The “making” of Humphrey Bogart — get it? According to Porter, not only did Bogart “ball” every actress he met, but they all came on to him, as well as every other actor he met. From his tender years growing up in Connecticut and even before he got kicked out of Andover, everyone he encountered was sex-obsessed and bisexual or gay, including his old man. His father and all of Hollywood may or may not have been bisexual. That doesn’t matter. It’s Porter’s prurient way of portraying every other person Bogie comes across, his implication that what they were doing was sleazy, that becomes distasteful.

Supposedly Bogie’s first wife, Helen Menken, was bisexual, as was almost every starlet he had an affair with and every actor he worked with once he got to Hollywood — Barbara Stanwyck,  Spencer Tracy, Gary Cooper, George Raft, etc., etc. Porter throws in more well-documented gay actors, such as Tallulah Bankhead and Marlene Dietrich to add credibility to his “everybody’s gay” motif. I’m not sure why he feels so compelled to out stars from so long ago. Does he really think anyone would be surprised or even titillated to know that actors and actresses, people on the stage and attracted to the arts, would be gay? Outing frequently appears a very short step from self-loathing.

When he isn’t outing actors, Porters’s cataloging sexual trysts that occurred over 80 years ago. If he was revealing something that everyone didn’t already know about Hollywood, that many actors and actresses had to (and still have to, or choose to) sleep with someone to get ahead, it might be more interesting. But the sheer purported volume of Bogie’s liaisons, true or not, becomes numbing. By the time he had supposedly fallen in love with co-star Ingrid Bergman during Casablanca I had long ceased to care. Lauren Bacall is strangely given short-shrift, treated as not a great romance, but a side note, as Porter instead concentrates on Bogie’s hairdresser (who supplied hairpieces and wigs in the ’40s and ’50s to conceal his rapidly receding hairline) and alleged mistress Verita Thompson, going so far as to include two images of covers of her highly suspect tell-all, Bogie and Me.

Bogie himself doesn’t indulge in the Hollywood bisexual parade, except to get constantly propositioned by handsome actors and confided in by pal Spencer Tracy about his latest boy toy. But all of these revelations soon lose any impact they might have had as long bogus conversations soon make the book read like fiction rather than biography or even gossip. Except Humphrey Bogart, The Making of A Legend is not even on par with a trashy romance novel, as everyone only talks about one thing — how to get laid or how they just got laid. I have no doubt that Broadway in the ’20s and Hollywood in the ’30s and ’40s was a bawdy place, but surely the conversations were more interesting than this purported post-coital one between Bogie and Barbara Stanwyck:

“It was Mae Clarke who taught me the joy of lesbian love. But, as you also know from tonight, I’m not completely weaned from men either. I don’t want to deny myself any pleasure. Too much was denied me as a girl. As a woman, I’ll go after what I want. If I want to get fucked by a man, you know I can go for that the way I bagged you tonight. If I want a woman, I’ll chase her down and get her. I’ve already set my sights on that blonde German bitch, Dietrich. Who knows? Marlene and me might become a thing.”

“Invite me over,” Hump said. “From what I’ve seen of Dietrich I’d go for her in a minute. …” 

If that sort of stilted dialogue trying to pass as “oral history” sounds interesting to you, then by all means, go ahead. There’s 501 more pages of this shit (a word Porter claims Bogart hated and refused to use). At the end of the book the publisher, Blood Moon Productions, is described as “publishing that applies the tabloid standards of today to the tinseltown scandals of yesterday.” That pretty much sums it up. How convenient to write about the dead, too. Porter has also written salacious biographies of Merv Griffin, Michael Jackson, Steve McQueen, Marlon Brando, Howard Hughes, Katharine Hepburn, and Paul Newman.

I was hoping for a fun, even trashy read about one of the great actors in the movies. But by the time the book gets to when he made Casablanca, long before he finally met Lauren Bacall, I was pretty worn out. And strangely, once Bogie starts getting successful, the typos in the book escalate. Maybe spell-check doesn’t work so well when one cuts-and-pastes from too many celebrity biographies. It might be worth skipping through the pages of this mess if you see it in a bookstore or the library (where I should have left it) if you want some completely unsubstantiated gossip about people who have been dead for decades. But if you want to read a biography about Humphrey Bogart, this ain’t the book.

Images from top: Humphrey Bogart, c. 1943, Helen Menken and Bogart, c. 1926, Bogart and Ingrid Bergman filming Casablanca.

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