An hour into my interview with veteran Hollywood columnist James Bacon, it hits me—I can’t name one legendary star he doesn’t know like a close relative. I throw him a question about actor Robert Blake, who’s behind bars awaiting trial for killing his wife. “It’s hard to call that case,” muses the 88-year-old Bacon. “You really don’t know whether he is telling the truth or not. I met Blake when he was 16 years old. He talked like a young Richard Burton. Years later he got the television series, Baretta, and began talking in real life with ‘dees’ and ‘dems.’ That floored me because he had wonderful diction and a great voice.”
Okay, let’s hear about Richard Burton: “I started drinking with Burton in 1949. He could outdrink anyone but Elizabeth Taylor. I have always thought that is why their marriage broke up. Who wants to be a legendary drinker married to a wife who can drink you under the table?”
To test him further, I ask about silent screen star Buster Keaton. “I knew Buster very well,” he shoots back. “I once saw him in a film where he dangled from a 500-foot cliff. I later asked him why he didn’t use a stunt double. Buster replied gruffly, ‘Stunt men don’t get laughs.’”
James Bacon is a Stargate into the hidden worlds of Hollywood. He stepped through the surreal cords of Tinsel Town in 1948 as a brash reporter for the Associated Press. Since the A.P. fed his stories to more than 8,000 newspapers in the world, Bacon didn’t stay a stranger in a strange land. He not only got interviews but also invitations to A-list parties
He joined Humphrey Bogart’s infamous Holmby Hills Rat Pack, a drinking club that included Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra, David Niven and Spencer Tracy, among others. Named for the area where Bogart lived, the Holmby Hills Rat Pack drank cases of Jack Daniels “thanks to Sinatra, who got us hooked on the stuff,” Bacon recalls today, relaxing at his Northridge, California, home. “One night Sid Luft, Judy Garland’s husband, got so drunk that he brushed a row of books off Bogart’s bookcase, climbed into the empty shelf, and passed out. The next morning Bogie called me at home and said, ‘What the hell am I going to do with Luft? He is still in that bookcase!’ I told him, ‘Let him sleep it off, he’s a frustrated bookend, I guess.’”
Since Luft couldn’t drive Judy Garland home that night, Bacon did. “I knew her for years. No one would ever know she had drinking and financial problems by talking with her. She masked everything with a sense of humor.”
Bogart had a sharp wit, too, even while dying of cancer. He became so angry over morbid rumors of his impending death that he summoned Bacon to his house and gave him this press statement: “I have heard that both my lungs were removed and replaced by a pump salvaged from a defunct Standard Oil Station. I have practically been on the way to every cemetery in town, including several where I am certain they only accept dogs.” At the end, he snarled, “You bastards.”
Bogart’s opposite was Luft, who was so ill-tempered he once tried to punch Don Rickles for insulting him during his nightclub act, says Bacon. After spotting Luft in the audience, Rickles taunted, “Laugh it up, Sid! Judy has written you out of the will!” An enraged Luft stormed the stage, but security guards hauled him back.
Bacon claims he launched Rickles’s career one night when he convinced Sinatra and Lauren Bacall to attend the struggling comic’s act with him. “When we arrived at the nightclub, the owner didn’t sit us ringside, he put a table on the stage for us,” Bacon remembers. “Near the end of his act, Rickles got brave and said to Sinatra, ‘Remember the good old days, Frank, when you had a voice?’ Suddenly, the world stopped. Every eye in the place turned to Sinatra. No one dared to laugh unless Frank laughed first. After a pause, Sinatra broke out laughing. The audience, as if on cue, laughed, too. Rickles was made that night.”
Bacon enjoyed a close friendship with Sinatra, who was notorious for waging legendary feuds with the news media. How did he do it? “It was easy: I just treated him like any other god,” Bacon jokes. “Seriously, in all the years I knew Sinatra, he was always the most charming guy you would ever want to meet. He was never mean to me.” Bacon’s most vivid memory of Sinatra is touring with him and landing on a remote airstrip in southern Africa and seeing hundred of natives emerge from the jungle foliage chanting, “Frankie! Frankie!” “Those tribesmen couldn’t speak much English, and I’m sure they didn’t own many radios, but they had heard Sinatra’s music somewhere and fell under his spell like the rest of us,” Bacon recalls, shaking his head.
Today, Bacon and his wife, Doris, are just as eager to attend a birthday party for their grandchildren as a star-studded party with close friends Bob Stack, R.J. Wagner and Red Buttons. “I’m a member of the ‘old school’ of Hollywood,” he proudly admits. “I don’t think any living actor today can rival Clark Gable or John Wayne. I’ve never met Brad Pitt, and the closest I ever got to Julia Roberts was at the premiere of Ocean’s Eleven. I’m amazed at her beauty. She is a hundred times more beautiful in person than on the screen. I like Jim Carrey, he’s a great comedian, but I don’t think he’ll become a legend like Cary Grant. I haven’t spent any time with contemporary directors like Martin Scorcese. I knew John Ford, Howard Hawkes and Frank Capra in their later years when they couldn’t get work. They were old-fashioned directors, which means they went over budget.”
The reels of time have been kind to Bacon. His gray hair is thick and rakish; his eyes are a vivid soft blue; his facial wrinkles conspire to give him a ruddy look. He still hits the links twice a week, where he shot a 125-yard hole-in-one in 1996. TV and documentary producers consult him for authentic details on “old Hollywood” stars or locales. Radio talk show host Larry King invited him twice last winter to join panel discussions on legendary stars. He might do a solo interview with King. In the 1970s, he published two best-selling books of memoirs, Hollywood Is a Four Letter Town and Made in Hollywood. Reviews in The New York Times and Variety for the first book were so great that “I honestly could not have written them better myself,” says Bacon. Such celebrities as Sinatra, Lucille Ball and Clint Eastwood crowned Bacon as “one hell of a newspaperman” (Frank’s words) who lived his stories alongside the stars. But he is not through yet. He is thinking of publishing a collection of his columns.
There’s a framed photograph of Bacon and Marilyn Monroe on his wall. He met Marilyn when she first arrived in Hollywood and quickly became her confidante. “She was soft and sweet,” Bacon says, gazing at the photograph. “That was her charm.” She also was insecure. “Marilyn never finished high school, so she had a great desire to better herself intellectually. I once told her I had attended Notre Dame for three years, and she thought I was God. She called me all the time to ask what she should read.”
The actress was promiscuous, he continues. She slept with directors, photographers, columnists, anyone whom she thought might advance her career. She told Bacon intimate details of her sexual trysts with John F. Kennedy before and after he became president. “She was very much in love with him, but Kennedy didn’t care how she felt. There were no niceties in sex with Kennedy. . . . For Kennedy, Marilyn was just another girl. He had so many of them.” Contrary to popular belief, Marilyn Monroe never had an affair with Bobby Kennedy, says Bacon. The only time she saw Robert Kennedy was when he tried to dissuade her from pursuing his brother.
In August 1962, Bacon was the only reporter who got into Marilyn’s bungalow on the night she killed herself. He arrived at her Brentwood home nearly as fast as the police, after being tipped by an AP photographer who had heard the report on a police scanner. He slipped by the cop at the door by claiming he was from the coroner’s office. “I took a quick look into the bedroom and saw her nude body sprawled on the bed. I don’t know how long she had been dead, but she was sure as hell dead. There were empty vodka bottles and empty pill bottles everywhere. I got out right away before I was discovered.”
To this day Bacon doesn’t believe Marilyn committed suicide. “I was with her five days before she died, and she was drinking champagne and vodka and popping pills. I said, ‘Marilyn, the combination of those things will kill you.’ She took another drink, and popped another pill, and said to me, ‘It hasn’t killed me yet.’ Five days later she was dead. It wasn’t suicide—she took one pill too many and one drink too many.”
The most beautiful woman he ever saw in Hollywood was not Marilyn but Elizabeth Taylor. “In her prime, no one touched her beauty,” he states emphatically. The biggest scoop of Bacon’s career was his 1958 interview with Elizabeth Taylor the night her husband, producer Mike Todd, was killed in an airplane crash. Bacon says he was scheduled to ride on the private plane with Todd to New York that fateful night, but the stormy weather spooked him. He begged off at the last minute. His intuition proved right. The storm took down Todd’s plane over New Mexico.
Elizabeth Taylor had also stayed behind because she had a cold. Bacon was alerted to the tragedy in the middle of the night when a fellow AP reporter called him from New Mexico after reading his name on the plane’s passenger list. He went with Taylor’s secretary and doctor to her house to break the news. Opening the door in her nightie, Elizabeth’s first words were: “He’s dead, isn’t he? He was supposed to call me from Tulsa at 2 o’clock this morning. He didn’t call.” She then became hysterical, Bacon recalls, running and screaming through the house until her doctor tackled her and gave her a shot that knocked her out. Bacon remained in the house while scores of reporters waited outside. Later, Elizabeth called him upstairs and gave him a story. It made Page One all over the world.
He sees Elizabeth occasionally. Both are friends of pop star Michael Jackson. “I knew him when he was black,” Bacon quips. “He has always been a very nice kid, but his recent behavior has become more and more bizarre. I attribute some of that to the fact that he never had a childhood. He went to work when he was about 6 years old, performing with his brothers in the Jackson 5. Now that he is grown, Michael is living out the childhood he never had. It’s a common tragedy for child stars.”
Bacon refuses to dwell on tragedy, however. He knows enough funny stories about Hollywood to hit the comedy circuit. He tells a tale of two press agents who were assigned to publicize Mae West’s next picture. They bought 300 parrots and every day for two months kept repeating the film’s title, It Ain’t No Sin, to the parrots. They intended to send the parrots to film reviewers across the country, who would unwrap the cage and immediately hear the parrot plug the film. The very day the agents crated the parrots to ship, a memo came from the front office changing the title of the 1934 movie to Belle of the Nineties.
Another story involves Hollywood director Raoul Walsh—known for such films as High Sierra and The Naked and the Dead— who bribed a funeral director with $500 to lend him the corpse of the just deceased John Barrymore. He spirited the corpse to the home of Barrymore’s pal, Errol Flynn, who was driving home from the actor’s wake. The meticulous director propped the corpse into Flynn’s favorite chair with a drink in his hand. When Flynn walked into the living room, “I aged 30 years on the spot,” Flynn later confided, adding: “Barrymore would have appreciated that crazy thing.”
Jim Backus, the actor-comedian who was the voice of Mr. Magoo and played the millionaire on Gilligan’s Island, told Bacon about a prostitute in Rome who hit on him for $50. Backus rebuffed her by joking he never paid more than $5 in America. When Backus and his wife walked past the same streetwalker an hour later, the harlot commented, “See what you get for $5.”
The funniest comedian Bacon says he ever met was Milton Berle, who became a lifetime friend. “He had absolutely the best timing of any comedian in show business,” says Bacon. “I first met Berle in 1933 when I attended his show at the Palace Theater during the Chicago World’s Fair. A woman sitting next to me kept elbowing my ribs during Berle’s punch lines. At the end of the show, Milton introduced the woman as his mother, who then turned to me and said: ‘Do you want to go backstage and meet my son, the comedian?’ I went backstage and we became close friends.”
Berle’s mother made Milton a comedian by advising her son to deliberately sabotage a dance troupe number in which Milton was performing. She told him to start off on his left foot rather than the right like the other dancers. Milton’s faux pas threw everybody off, and pandemonium erupted on the stage. That night Milton Berle the comedian was born.
Born in Buffalo, New York, in 1914, Bacon attended Notre Dame from 1933-36, leaving his senior year to help his parents, who had lost their home in a flood. He earned a journalism degree from Syracuse University in 1943 and then served in the Navy. After leaving the Associated Press in 1966, he wrote briefly for the Hollywood Reporter and then for 17 years for The Los Angeles Herald-Examiner. He still pens a column for Beverly Hills 213, a periodical that is available only in the Hollywood area and on the web at www.beverlyhills213.com.
In person, Bacon is remarkably laid-back and soft-spoken for a man who once held his own with the biggest egos in the world. He serves lunch and insists his guest take the leftovers. The only trace of an ego comes when he reveals that he has perfect recall. “I never used a tape recorder or took notes when I interviewed stars,” he says. “When the stars noticed my empty hands and blank expression, I could almost hear their minds scream, ‘I got to say something to get this guy interested,’ so they came across with the goods.” When asked how he managed to escape the perils of alcoholism after cavorting with legendary drinkers of his era, Bacon smiles. “I don’t think I succeeded too well, not with that crowd. I drank a lot, but I haven’t had a drink for two years this May. My doctor eighty-sixed me for good because of heart problems. I’ll tell you the truth: I don’t miss it. The only time I miss drinking is on Saint Patrick’s Day.”
In 1947, one of Bacon’s early A.P. jobs was boarding Al Capone’s funeral train traveling to Chicago from Florida, where the notorious mobster had died. On his way to the baggage car to view Capone’s casket, Bacon ran into Capone’s brother, Ralph, who recognized him and asked where he was going. When Bacon replied he was going back to see Al’s body, Capone said: “You don’t want to do that, do ya?” The words stopped Bacon cold. He quickly answered, “No, I don’t” and left. “Mafia hoods have a way of telling you something that has nothing to do with the words coming out of their mouths,” Bacon chuckles.
“In those days, I used to eat in Ricci’s restaurant on Randolph Street in Chicago. It was the hangout of Frank ‘The Enforcer’ Nitti and the Mob. They knew I was a newspaperman, we would say hello and that was about it. I didn’t want to get involved with them in any way. Believe it or not, the Chicago police would arrest those guys for vagrancy. It was the only way the police could get them off the street for a while. I would go down to court when they were pleading. Those guys were loaded with dough. Al Capone’s income used to be a couple million dollars a month. He had whorehouses, gambling joints, loan-sharking, everything. He always needed money to pay off judges and cops.”
Years later, Bacon believes the Mafia killed The Outfit, a gangster film that ridiculed the Mob. It starred Robert Duvall and Robert Ryan; Bacon had a bit part (he has moonlighted in more than 600 films). When MGM previewed the The Outfit in Chicago and Detroit, the Mafia hated it so much that a Mob boss allegedly called the head of MGM and threatened to burn down one of his Vegas hotels if the film was released nationally. Fact or not, the studio pulled the film.
Hollywood still plays it too safe for Bacon. “I started here when the studios exercised total control over the actors. Then I saw the agents capture Hollywood from tyrants like Jack Warner and Harry Cohn. Those eras produced great films. Now corporate committees that always keep their eyes on the balance sheet run Hollywood. The end result is all the lousy movies we have today.” Because of those “silly films with car crashes and electronic special effects,” he doesn’t attend many movies.
His favorite film of all time is Casablanca, which never had a completed script. “Bogie told me they would get new pages every day,” he says. Runner-ups are Citizen Kane, Gone with the Wind and The Godfather. He watches classic films and Seinfeld reruns at home. He never reads the trades. His favorite author is still the late John O’Hara, author of Pal Joey and a fellow member of the Holmby Hills Rat Pack.
The most fascinating person Bacon ever met was Howard Hughes, the renowned aviator and movie producer whose fame sky-dived after it was revealed that he lived his last years as a batty long-haired recluse. Bacon defends his pal: “There’s been no man like him in our time. Hughes accomplished everything in aviation. He broke all the speed records, he flew around the world, and he designed planes. In 1953, about 90 percent of the aircraft flying in the world were either designed by him or had a Hughes part in them. He did more for aviation than anybody.” When he entered the film industry and became head of RKO Pictures, Hughes had to fend off starlets. Lana Turner was so sure she was going to wed him that she had all her towels and linens monogrammed HH. When Hughes refused, she cried, “What am I going to do with all my towels and linens?” Hughes told her: “Marry Huntington Hartford!”
Once, during an interview, Bacon mentioned to Hughes that he was hungry. So Hughes flew him from Santa Monica, California, to Tucson for a hamburger. On another occasion, Hughes treated Bacon to a dinner at the ritzy Chasen’s restaurant in West Hollywood, but they ate at a table in the kitchen, away from the glamour crowd. “I once wrote a book that included a whole chapter on Hughes. If Hughes hadn’t died before its publication I would have sold a million copies—he would have bought all of them. He hated publicity that much!”
Hughes was probably worth $2 billion, but he never had any money on him, Bacon says. He once borrowed a nickel from Bacon to make a pay-telephone call. He sold TWA for $500 million and then carried the crumpled-up check in his pocket for six months before he cashed it. “He had no concept of money,” says Bacon.
In 1971, Hughes personally picked Bacon to sit in on his press conference from the Bahamas, where he debunked the Clifford Irving autobiography hoax. That was the second biggest story of Bacon’s career. Bigger still, it showed the world how the high and mighty knew Bacon as well as he knew them.
I look back at my life today, and all I can say is, it was a lot of fun—much better than pumping gas at the Shell station. If I had to live my life over again, I would change only one thing: I would be a golf pro making a living on the PGA tour. Seriously, I had the best newspaper job in the world. I not only covered Hollywood, I traveled the whole world. Even when I was at home, the AP would often roust me from my nest to cover other news stories, everything from the World Series and Super Bowls to presidential visits, brush fires, floods and even the Watts Riots, where I saw more combat than my tour of duty in World War II."
The biggest scandal Bacon ever discovered about big stars was how nice they were, he says. “People like Cary Grant, Clark Gable and John Wayne were the nicest guys you would ever want to meet. Hell, I don’t think John Wayne ever knew he had become the top actor in the world. He only saw himself as a guy living on a ranch, where he loved to be.”
Like his friend, Duke Wayne, Bacon never took Hollywood too seriously. “I always looked upon it as a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta,” he says. “I just sat back and enjoyed it.”
Robert Cubbage is an award-winning journalist who currently writes for an alternative newspaper in Spokane, Washington.