Cupcakes and Crotch Kicks: On Alex Belth’s “What Makes Sammy Jr. Run?”

Tom Zoellner considers the eternal game of cat and mouse between celebrities and journalists in Alex Belth’s “What Makes Sammy Jr. Run? Classic Celebrity Journalism Volume 1 (1960s and 1970s).”

Cupcakes and Crotch Kicks: On Alex Belth’s “What Makes Sammy Jr. Run?”

What Makes Sammy Jr. Run? Classic Celebrity Journalism Volume 1 (1960s and 1970s) by Alex Belth. 366 pages.

ONE MUST pity journalists who profile celebrities. The glamour may seem appealing at first: they get to fly out to New York, Los Angeles, or Taos and spend the week with a famous person; they go shopping with them or fly-fishing on a private Rocky Mountain stream, performing a simulacrum of friendship while coolly searching for a key to the celebrity’s personality that nobody else has discovered; they extract juicy anecdotes with a jeweler’s care, displaying them on velvet before a national audience, wrapped in the form of a tightly told Chekhovian tale of bested adversity that will make them look smart, perhaps even empathetic. And they get paid for it all.


But all is not well in this journalistic paradise. The days of unlimited budgets and high word rates have disappeared along with the full-page Chivas advertisements. Publicists now run the show with all the grace of a junior high school detention proctor, scolding writers for questions deemed too personal and punishing offenders with permanent exile. What used to be weekends hanging out with the stars in Maui has turned into 45 minutes in the anteroom of a hotel suite. The pay won’t cover a month’s rent on a studio apartment in Wichita.


Perhaps worst of all, the editors want a finished product as formal as a French minuet. Each note should be hit in precise order: 1) Open on a scene that captures the subject in “a revealing moment.” 2) Flip to the person’s origins in darkest Indiana. 3) Show the upward struggle via a single demon, like insecurity, addiction, childhood loss, or some other hardship. 4) Find a clue, however thin, to “the real person behind the image,” ideally as confided to the magazine writer whom they just met. 5) Plug their current project.


Despite these current pressures, the reader’s appetite for celebrity profiles is as peckish as ever, thanks to the persistence of parasocial relationships between celebrities and their fans, only fueled by the internet in the last quarter century. We feel we know these people as friends, and the profiles serve a need similar to that of a get-together over coffee. A skilled artist of the pen portrait can provide that, even if the subject isn’t nearly as fabulous as we want them to be.


“Most movie stars are not interesting,” observed a sharp-eyed Warren Beatty, “so to sell papers and magazines in the fading publications field a writer has to end up writing his ass off to make somebody look more interesting than he really is, right?”


For those who side with Beatty’s jaded viewpoint, the celebrity profile is less about the person under scrutiny than about the larger culture that surrounds them. In the best profiles, the star fades into a pale abstraction, “a hole in the screen,” as the director David Lean once said about anyone with the misfortune of co-starring with Robert Mitchum, and the true subject sharpens into the goofy American drama of fame itself—the wealth, the hype, the luck, the poor decisions, and the fear of decline. This is where the gold lies.


Editor Alex Belth has created an unusual literary anthology of some of the best celebrity magazine profiles from 1959 to 1979, what is generally regarded—at least by publishing old-timers—as the peak years of the genre, before the ferret-faced publicists cracked down on honesty and budgets ran dry. What Makes Sammy Jr. Run? Classic Celebrity Journalism Volume 1 (1960s and 1970s), published by the Sager Group this spring, puts 18 long-form stories about well-known actors, writers, and musicians into one place. The result is like a walk through a delightful museum of postwar America, with all its bright spots and faults.


The nostalgia for a lost era runs even thicker. Not only have celebrity profiles gotten flatter and duller—the canned hotel room conversation hardly makes for fun reading—but the entire medium of magazines has also taken serious economic blows and thinned out. Celebrities now do more direct and manageable communications with their fans through social media. Who needs to invite the annoying writer, that jealous guttersnipe hiding a knife in their back pocket?


We may soon view the 20th-century celebrity profile as a faded artistic medium, like big band music or custom silverware. This collection does a service in preservation, while creating an immensely good time for readers who are interested in cultural figures from the recent American past—those who once commanded outsize attention and now inspire only quizzical looks from most under the age of 40.


Belth has a sharp eye for good writing, and he understands the inner ghoul of curiosity that makes these profiles tick. “With their beauty, ability, and fame, celebrities charm us, and we yearn to know if that charm extends to their daily lives,” he writes in the introduction. “We want to know everything about them.” The title itself is a reference to the soul-consuming nature of fame: the 1941 Budd Schulberg novel What Makes Sammy Run?, which was itself appropriated for Thomas B. Morgan’s formative 1959 Esquire profile of the performer Sammy Davis Jr.


Morgan helped set a methodology for thousands of like articles that would follow. Get permission to hang around the star and their entourage, watch for key details, write down the quotidian banter, and simply let the person talk at length until you hit a certain groove. When Morgan sat down to make sense of his voluminous notes after spending more than two weeks with Davis, the piece “came out virtually as a short story, using dialogue, atmosphere, and character development.” Davis had been written off even in his own time as a campy lounge act, but he emerges here as a full human being—“I’ve never been the kind of guy who was ashamed,” he tells Morgan—an upstart who overcame racism and ridicule to succeed on his own terms.


Just as writers of short fiction look for efficient and memorable points of entry into their characters’ hearts, the profiler studies the faces and mannerisms of the celebrities in their crosshairs, looking for what isn’t a part of the accepted public image. Sometimes it’s a foul temper. Or a sloppy morning face. Or a physical characteristic that becomes that most prized of tidbits: a character clue. Brock Brower, assigned to get under the skin of the wicked-smart novelist Mary McCarthy, focused on the smile she routinely flashed during conversation. “She can hold it there—flicking its long, white upper blade of handsome, emphatic teeth this way, that way at every threatening conversational turn—for sometimes five, ten minutes at a stretch,” he wrote. “Nothing cows it. She can smoke through it, argue through it, spill the beans through it, even smile through it.”


These physical descriptors—while often used in misogynistic and objectifying tones with female subjects—could occasionally be turned upon men. When Sally Quinn profiled the Soviet emigrant dancer Rudolf Nureyev, she lavished a pulp novelist’s attention on his appearance. “He has those high Tatar cheekbones, the slightly slanting eyes, the full cruel mouth slashed by an old scar, the taut muscular body, strong but gentle hands, tousled brown hair, and a provocative half-mischievous, half-soulful look in his eyes,” she wrote. “And, of course, there is his behind. He has a fabulous behind.”


Other times, the literary point of entry is, quite literally, the point of physical entry by which the visitor approaches the celebrity’s luminescence. When Doon Arbus went to see James Brown at his “strangely exotic home in the St. Albans section of Queens,” which she described as “part castle, part hacienda,” she prepared the reader to meet a regally clad Brown with a description of the front rooms. “I go up the winding staircase into the main hall with the bright glass chandelier and the spongy green carpet protected with long strips of plastic. It is as if the whole house were being preserved against the hazards of being lived in, as if it were being prepared for a great future as a museum.”


Brown decided he liked the moxie of the 20-year-old Arbus, let her come on his tour in the South, and gave her extraordinary access to the peculiar and “solidly insulated” language he used with his entourage. He came off well—both eccentric and electric—in the resulting 1966 profile in the New York Herald Tribune.


But not all who confide and trust are thus rewarded. At the height of his fame—and his famous fall from grace—Truman Capote spent a few days with Anne Taylor Fleming and made her turn off the tape recorder to listen carefully. He should have known better. She was the daughter of an actor who had once played opposite Elizabeth Taylor and never attained that level of stardom again. “The downside of fame was apparent,” said Fleming, in one of the smart mini-biographies of the journalists that anchor each piece. Her father had learned an early and important lesson about celebrity: “Don’t chase this. This is a false value. If they fawn today, they won’t tomorrow.”


Even though Capote was officially on the wagon, Fleming observed that he was still drinking, and dangerously so. His equally strong attachment was to the early notoriety he had gotten as one of New York’s most entertaining dinner guests, wielding “a charm that’s complete and compulsive and scary almost in its effectiveness and in its need.”


Fleming saw through it in a 1978 portrait for The New York Times Magazine that painted the lion in winter in gray tones. “There were small signs along the way that underneath that skin, all was not well,” she wrote. “He was aging not quite easily, his eyes were sometimes bloodshot, sometimes hidden behind dark glasses, his rounding middle not hidden.”


Capote showed his contempt for the article by not saying anything, which was uncharacteristic of him. Fleming made no apologies, summing up the essential compact between interviewer and subject: “I think he thought I was nice and charming, but the portrait was poignant and pointed because of the place he was in his life. He was miffed that I’d gotten as much as I’d gotten. But he let me get it.”


A warning label should appear on the business cards of any celebrity profiler: “Caveat subjecto—let the subject beware.” Also, don’t drink with any of them. For Esquire in 1966, The acerbic movie critic Rex Reed made mincemeat of Ava Gardner after listening to her self-absorbed rants before decamping to a bar for a whistle-wetter: “Two tequilas later (‘I said no salt!’) she is nodding grandly, surveying the bar like the Dowager Empress in the Recognition Scene. Talk buzzes around her like hummingbird wings and she hears nothing.” Reed set a bar for future profile artists who specialized in drawing out their subjects—the subjects only later realizing they had been drawing out their own hanging ropes.


Among the hung-out was Robert Mitchum, the stone-faced leading man who spun out any number of jazzy anecdotes and boxing stories for Brad Darrach in 1972, to the latter’s frustration. The patient on the profiler’s therapeutic couch just wouldn’t sit still. “There was a big man in there somewhere and I wanted to meet him,” wrote Darrach. “But I couldn’t get under his jab-jab-jabber.”


Then Mitchum made the strategic error of inviting Darrach over to a family breakfast in Topanga Canyon, near Los Angeles. The champagne began to flow, along with the multigenerational resentments. A crying infant granddaughter finally broke the temper of the villain of The Night of the Hunter (1955). Darrach recounts how “Mitchum crossed the room, put his mouth an inch from the child’s ear and shouted: ‘SHUT UP!’” The entire family was mortified upon publication. A daughter acknowledged that it was accurate but said she was dismayed at the invasion of privacy in an unflattering moment.


Some celebrities got wise to the seduce-and-kill formula. The serial womanizer Beatty knew a thing or two about this technique and wasn’t going to give anything to Helen Lawrenson, a bon vivant herself, who arrived for a 1970 profile with lots of questions about his trail of former girlfriends and flings. She managed to get in a low blow—“I thought him utterly resistible”—after reporting a wide range of unfavorable opinions from his colleagues. “The mildest comment was from a female publicist: ‘He’s not well liked. He’s not like Cary Grant.’ He sure isn’t,” she wrote. “Nor is he easy to interview. Having discovered how easy it is to sound asinine in print if you are misquoted or misinterpreted, Warren has grown increasingly wary of the press.”


Belth’s collection indulges in a few of these expert fillet jobs but does not make them the centerpiece. Indeed, some of the best of them elicit a curious sympathy for their subjects, who come across as slightly pathetic, despite their wealth and power. Nora Ephron did almost none of the talking when she was sent to profile the editor of Cosmopolitan, which had rebranded itself as a racy life guide for shy young women and was “practically printing money” for the Hearst Corporation.


“I am in Helen Gurley Brown’s office because I am interviewing her, a euphemism for what in fact involves sitting on her couch and listening while she volunteers answers to a number of questions I would never ask,” wrote Ephron. “What she is like in bed, for example. Very good. Whether she enjoys sex. Very much. Always has. Why she did not marry until she was thirty-seven. Very neurotic. Wasn’t ready. It all seems to pour out of her, her past, her secrets, her fears, her innermost hopes and dreams.”


One of Brown’s many bits of wisdom that might as well have been slapped directly onto the Cosmopolitan mock-up boards: “You cannot sit around like a cupcake asking other people to come and eat you up and discover your great sweetness and charm. You’ve got to make yourself more cupcakable all the time so that you’re a better cupcake to be gobbled up.”


Brown did not object to this cringeworthy portrayal that ran in Hearst’s Esquire in 1970, and one gets the sense that it only enhanced her stature. Even while reporting an otherwise negative 1968 profile of schlock novelist Jacqueline Susann for Harper’s, titled “The Writing Machine,” Sara Davidson knew she was dealing with someone who wouldn’t care about bad publicity as long as her name was on it. “Jackie is almost uninsultable,” she writes. “A snide question, a bitchy interview, brings out the best in her. She reads vicious reviews and grins, ‘I think it’ll sell a lot of books.’”


Why would anyone with a dignified cast of mind want to participate in such a cold transactional exercise? Why would the subject allow a stranger into their orbit for a few days, knowing that this interloper will function as a combination of tape recorder and amateur Freud, committing to paper and public memory an impression that may be inaccurate—or even worse, close to accurate and highly unflattering?


Belth’s collection helps take some of the mystery out of this common bargain. Mark Jacobson spent time walking around Manhattan with Pam Grier, the queen of the so-called blaxploitation genre, for a 1975 piece in New York called—splashily enough—“Sex Goddess of the Seventies.” He made himself so insufferable to her that she punched him in the crotch (a real-life martial arts move that many others have doubtlessly wanted to enact upon entertainment journalists). He made the incident the final scene of his profile, which brought lots of attention to them both.


“There’s no secret about any of this stuff,” Jacobson concluded. “I want to write a magazine piece; they want to be more famous.”

LARB Contributor

Tom Zoellner is an editor-at-large at LARB and a professor of English at Chapman University. He is the author of eight nonfiction books, including The Heartless Stone: A Journey Through the World of Diamonds, Deceit, and Desire (2006), Uranium: War, Energy, and the Rock That Shaped the World (2009), The National Road: Dispatches From a Changing America (2020), Rim to River: Looking into the Heart of Arizona (2023), and Island on Fire: The Revolt That Ended Slavery in the British Empire, which won the 2020 National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction and was a finalist for the Bancroft Prize in history.

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