There’s James Dean, perfect hair and a smirk — cigarette in one hand, “The Complete Poetical Works of James Whitcomb Riley” in the other. Audrey Hepburn, a classics connoisseur, is cross-legged on a shag carpet, eyes fixed on the open book in front of her. And Orson Welles is supine, smoking a pipe and focused on a weathered copy of “A History of Technology, Vol. III: From the Renaissance to the Industrial Revolution.”
Stars, they’re just like us! Provided you consume your reading material while draped in a silk robe and posed seductively.
In “The Hollywood Book Club,” photo archivist Steven Rea curates 55 photographs of classic film stars “with literature (or not) in their hands — or on their laps, or in the general vicinity.” The full-page images — candid pictures, publicity shots and production stills — are black-and-white, and they’re stunning: Rita Hayworth and Ginger Rogers are otherworldly; 25-year-old Marlon Brando’s gaze is so smoldering, one worries about the flammable book he’s holding. Each photo is accompanied by just a few lines of text, a simplicity that keeps the focus where it belongs: on the images.
Rea groups the photos into categories, including the stars luxuriating in their personal libraries; reading to their kids; studying source material for film interpretations; and passing time on set.
An eclectic taste in reading is apparently timeless: Sammy Davis Jr. relaxed with a paperback edition of Lloyd C. Douglas’ biblical epic “The Robe,” and Lauren Bacall perused a pictorial history of 20th-century conflict. John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands read “Baby Animals,” a picture book by Garth Williams, to their son, Nick, who grew up to be an actor and a director.
Some stars used books as props: In a photo from the 1971 film “Pretty Maids All in a Row,” Angie Dickinson studied the “Illustrated Book of Love,” a guide to sexual positions. And three Ziegfeld Follies girls — Mary Jane Halsey, Diana Cook and Edna Callahan — balanced titles from the MGM library on top of their well-styled heads.
Others were notably voracious readers. In a 1951 photo, Marilyn Monroe was curled up on a sofa bed, wearing a silk bathrobe and sultry expression while reading “The Poetry and Prose of Heinrich Heine,” an 874-page collection. Books were stacked on every nearby surface, too — Ernest Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises,” Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace,” John Steinbeck’s “Tortilla Flats.”
In another photo, Bette Davis, outfitted in stylish riding gear, read a book concealed by a dust jacket. (There’s an ad for a 1930s spiritual movement on the back: “Explore Your Mind!” is visible in bold print.) Davis’ reading habits became the subject of national attention in 1938, when the New York Times reported that her husband wanted a divorce because she read “to an unnecessary degree.” Her fellow stars, one imagines, would have disagreed.
“The Hollywood Book Club” is a striking collectible, a delight for bibliophiles and cinephiles. The glitz and glamour are palpable, and the photos Rea selected awaken a nostalgia for those golden years of the silver screen. Assume your best movie-star pose, and savor the book on your velvet chaise, leveling its pages with your sauciest gaze. One never knows when a camera is lurking nearby.
The Hollywood Book Club
By Steven Rea
Chronicle. 120 pp. $16.95.