An Interview with Karina Longworth

Jake Greenberg

In November 2018, Karina Longworth released Seduction: Sex, Lies, and Stardom in Howard Hughes’ Hollywood, a biography of both the businessman himself and 10 of the Hollywood women who entered and eventually left his life. The Hughes decades of Hollywood are a vessel for Longworth’s snapshots of movie stars as well-remembered as Katharine Hepburn and as lost-to-history as Billie Dove. The bulk of the book covers Hughes’ bursting onto the movie scene in the ‘20s to his gradual retreat into seclusion in the ‘50s.

The facts of Hughes’ Hollywood career remain stunning, 40-plus years after his death. Seduction investigates the Hughes publicity machine, one that exerted significant control over the press and was successful in positioning Hughes as America’s favorite rich aviator. Unknown to the public was Hughes’ incredible security network, the armada of drivers, associates, and spies he collected in large part to surveil the actresses he was constantly signing to contracts. Seduction tries to get to know a man who was known as both a wildly charismatic figure and an uncomfortable, unknowable personality.  

Just weeks ago, Longworth announced that her podcast, You Must Remember This, will go on hiatus due to the expiration of her current contract to make the show. Since 2014, Longworth has taken on stories big and small, and dedicated seasons to matters as disparate as the Blacklist and echoes of the Manson murders in ‘60s Hollywood . More than 140 episodes in, You Must Remember This has taken on some of the 20th Century’s most enduring and misunderstood cultural legacies.

The podcast’s form follows the abundant research Longworth pours into each season, as evidenced by the bibliographies she puts together for each episode. Synthesizing the conflicting accounts originally told by people who have long-since passed is a large part of a cultural historian’s work; with YMRT’s latest and perhaps final season, “Fake News: Fact-Checking Hollywood Babylon,” Longworth made that work the series’ subject, as she attempted to separate truth from fiction in the famous Kenneth Anger gossip collection.

Each YMRT season has acted as a canvas for the smaller stories Longworth is so skilled at telling. In Charles Manson’s Hollywood, Dennis Wilson, Terry Melcher, Kenneth Anger, and Roman Polanski each get their own one-episode biography. The Dead Blondes series uses this style more explicitly, dedicating an episode to the life and times of 11 actresses. With Seduction, she has translated that style from audio to print, producing expansive, decades-long stories without sacrificing or overindulging in the details of the lives that helped sculpt Hollywood’s “Golden Age.”

When I first encountered Longworth’s You Must Remember This, I was thrilled by the Hollywood story she unearthed on the peripheries of the Manson murders: the industry figures who were drawn in and the legacy Manson’s hoodwinking left in ‘70s moviemaking. The efforts to separate the cultural legacy of a Hollywood touchstone from the day-to-day reality of the people involved is why I’m a fan of the show and now Seduction.

I spoke with Longworth over the phone, sitting at the same crowded desk where I had read Seduction, reconsidering the Golden Age as we know it.

Jake Greenberg: Was there a star you found most unknowable in the book?

Karina Longworth: I mean, Howard Hughes (laughs). But aside from him, Jean Peters [Hughes’ last wife] was never very forthcoming, certainly not in talking about her relationship with Hughes. Every interview with her that I came across read like it was written by a publicist, so trying to figure out who she actually was was pretty difficult. The closest thing I feel like I have to something that I didn't have reason to doubt the veracity of were the depositions she gave during the long battle to figure out who was Howard Hughes' legitimate heir and, probably more significantly, which state he would be taxed in. She seems to be speaking the most candidly there. But at the same time she's looking back on this period that was many years before. She has the benefit of hindsight, but is also still holding grudges. So it was fascinating trying to figure out what she was actually thinking and feeling during the time period that most of the book is about.

JG: Was there a star, and maybe it was Jean Peters, whose work you were most surprised by when you revisited it?

KL: Well it wasn't really a question of revisiting Jean Peters' work because, besides for Pickup on South Street, I don't think I'd ever seen a movie she'd been in. Same with Terry Moore — she was someone who was completely new to me. I don't know that anyone else was that surprising, but I did have occasion to see a lot of films that I'd never seen before — Billie Dove was another person whose work I didn't know until I wrote the book. And I watched certain Katharine Hepburn films that I don't think are appreciated as classics, that maybe should be. I think that Christopher Strong is a lot better than its reputation led me to believe. I think Morning Glory is really, really good. It has this reputation of having a good performance but not being a good movie. But I actually do think it's a very good movie.

JG: One thing I noticed in the book is you kept interrupting these scenes where you'd be talking about Katharine Hepburn, for example, to flash to Jane Russell as a young girl watching Hepburn in a movie theater. You used the same device to show Marilyn Monroe watching Jean Harlow.

KL: I always think about Hollywood as a continuum, and I think it was especially vivid in the 20th Century. I don't really know how people who are entering the film industry look at film history now, but I know for me, being born in 1980, growing up watching movies you really felt this sense of there being echoes of things happening in the present day in the past, and so I'm always trying to understand events as being part of a continuum.

JG: What was the relationship you were most interested in at the beginning, when you first started thinking about this as a book?

KL: There wasn't an individual relationship I was most interested in. I was interested in the scope, and of Hughes' time in Hollywood basically being the exact same years as we consider to be this classical Hollywood era. Just how fascinating that was, and how he was so prolific as a man involved with women, or rumored to be involved with so many women, at the very least. So you could actually make this portrait of what it was like to be a woman in Hollywood, and what it was like to be written about and thought about as a woman in Hollywood, during the most important time in Hollywood's history.

JG: Are there movies you're particularly excited that people might discover in reading Seduction?

KL: Yeah, I think for a lot of readers most of these movies will be new. One thing that's been cool is in promoting the book, I've done a number of events where we've done a screening of a movie, and two different venues, one in Toronto and one in Austin, requested to show Wait ‘Till The Sun Shines, Nellie, which is a movie I had never heard of before I started writing this book. I think it's completely off the radar of even a lot of cinephiles, even people who are fans of the director Henry King. It is available on DVD, it's just kind of a bad color transfer. So those events were really incredible because Fox has this pristine technicolor print of the film that nobody ever rents. It was just so great to be able to share that with audiences, so that would be the number one. But, of the dozens of movies I talked about in the book, I think there are only a couple that are widely revived or seen today.

JG: There’s a passage from Seduction I keep coming back to: “By the end of Hughes’s life, when he was a codeine addict who spent his days and nights nodding in front of the TV, the former star aviator playboy would suddenly perk up when an actress he had once spent time with appeared on the screen. Hughes would allegedly call over one of his many aides, point, and say, ‘Remember her?’” There's something extremely haunting about it.

KL: I think he was most successful as a spectator. He did try to be a collector, but ultimately in the end, he lost all of these women. He didn't have what it took to hold onto them in any meaningful way. And over the course of time, he didn't really even want to be in the room with anybody.

JG: How aware were you of the vastness and extent of his security operation before researching all this?

KL: Oh I don't think I knew anything about it, other than what you see in [Scorsese’s] The Aviator of Hughes buying up photographs and stuff like that.

JG: It's stunning to read about him hiring dozens and dozens of people to do this work, and people presumably not knowing that much about it at the time.

KL: Yeah, I think that there were rumors, but from what I could tell, the women who became involved with him either didn't believe the rumors, or they just thought, "Oh, well, of course, he's a rich and powerful man. He needs to protect his interests." And they didn't think having all these bodyguards and drivers around could be used against them, which is really interesting.

JG: By the end of your research, did you feel like you had a better understanding of what made him so charismatic?

KL: Until his plane crash in 1946, he was super handsome. And I think that there was something in the culture through this whole time, and really until he kind of disappeared from public view, where women were supposed to try to find men like this. In Hollywood and throughout America there was this idea that if you were a young woman, your American Dream was supposed to be to find a rich husband. And he specifically was held up in the media as the most eligible bachelor in America. Terry Moore talks about this: she's a teenager, alone in a room with this guy and she thinks he’s a creepy old man, but, you know, you weren't supposed to say no to Howard Hughes. If he wanted to hang out with you, you were supposed to let him.

JG: Transitioning to the You Must Remember This side of things, a uniting style of Seduction and You Must Remember This is the mini-biography. When you first started making the podcast, were you thinking that you wanted to tell larger stories through a series of biographies, or did that form just take hold because of the stories you wanted to tell?

KL: I don't think that's ever been a conscious goal. When I started the podcast, I just was interested in this idea that cultural memory is very short, and that Hollywood history is full of things that people either think that they know - like they think that they know who Marlon Brando was, or Marilyn Monroe, or Judy Garland - but they don't actually know the fullness of the whole life, or they don't remember specific incidents accurately. And I was interested in whole careers that have just been lost to the cultural memory. Some of my favorite episodes are about people like Kay Francis, and about zero people remember who Kay Francis was. So the podcast was just about trying to bring to life some of these stories that have either been misrepresented or forgotten.

JG: When did Hollywood Babylon the book come into your life?

KL: I think I was about 20. I was in art school in San Francisco, and I don't remember how I heard about it. But I remember buying a copy on Amazon, which is funny because now if I need to look up something about Hollywood Babylon and go to the Amazon page, it says, you bought this book on, like, April 5, 2000.

JG: You touched on this earlier, but do you think of the accessibility of film history as a goal of the podcast?

KL: Yeah, I definitely hope that people will watch some of these movies. I think that some people found the podcast because of different true crime stories I’ve told, so that kind of exposes people who may not think they're interested in Old Hollywood to these Old Hollywood stories. But it doesn't really matter to me if they don't subscribe to FilmStruck, R.I.P., or start watching TCM, or start buying some of these really good biographies.

JG: The Manson season [“Charles Manson’s Hollywood”] was my way into the show, and I just kept going from there. I knew the basics of the Manson story, but the Hollywood angle I certainly wasn't familiar with.

KL: Yeah. I kind of only did that season because I had stumbled across the fact that, initially, the police and the newspapers were spreading the notion that the Family had gone to Cielo Drive that night looking for Doris Day's son. So I was just kind of fascinated with this idea that Doris Day and Charles Manson were part of the same story.

JG: What feels to you like the biggest story you've told on You Must Remember This, or the most expansive?

KL: I don't know. The Hollywood Babylon season was really difficult, because it meant starting from scratch every week, which is the hardest way to do this kind of storytelling. It's much easier to do something like “Jean and Jane,” [In 2017, Longworth released a You Must Remember This season about the contrasting careers and activisms of Jean Seberg and Jane Fonda.] where the scope is limited to just these two actresses, and just the period of time when they were active. With the Hollywood Babylon season, it was 19 episodes that ranged from the teens to the late sixties.

JG: My next question was actually about “Jean and Jane.” I think it’s become my favorite season. Did it change the way you think of celebrity activism?

KL: I don't know that it changed anything for me. It was just more interesting to think about these two specific examples. You could say that Jane Fonda has recovered from the bad publicity she received; it doesn't seem like it's really holding her back any longer, though it is in the air, and maybe it's in the air more than it had been 10 years ago because we have the alt-right now, who still hate her. Whereas, everything that happened with Jean Seberg is just not part of the public conversation anymore. And if she is part of any public conversation, I think it's usually because of Breathless. So it was really interesting to see these two people doing similar kinds of things, and Jane Fonda is able to survive it - not untarnished, but survive it - and Jean Seberg really isn’t. It really destroys her.

JG: What was interesting to me was the scope of both of their activism. I think that that's very rare for celebrities, for at multiple points for both of them to abandon a lot of what they were doing in Hollywood to support the Black Panthers or go to North Vietnam.

KL: Right. It's interesting because Jane Fonda has this sort of career resurrection after she does a lot of this stuff. Whereas with Jean Seberg — I think what we don't think about often with that period of Hollywood is that the things that liberal/leftist activists were supposedly fighting for were so against the grain of what Hollywood was doing as a business. So Jane Fonda was able to stand up for things she believed in, and to some extent to renounce the commercialism and consumerism of Hollywood, but she ultimately went pretty hard back into capitalism, kind of as hard as you could go. And with Jean Seberg, it was really a pure thing, of putting the activism first and not caring about how it would affect her financially or how it would affect her capital as a star. And ultimately, you can't say that she made decisions that were good for her, even if she was following what she believed in.

JG: On a personal taste level, who are the movie stars you find yourself returning to the most?

KL: I think it varies. With the work that I do, I have to become newly obsessively-interested in whoever I'm researching this week or this month.