A Life Well-Lived: An Interview with Anne Helen Petersen


In 2011, Anne Helen Petersen wrote a Hairpin post about Ingrid Bergman. If this was a movie about Anne’s life that’s when the success montage would start. Since then, Anne has written about all kinds of celebrities — scandalous and virtuous, living and deceased, celebrities who are still strong cultural presences and the ones who have faded away.

Scandals of Classic Hollywood is now a book, conveniently also titled Scandals of Classic Hollywood and coincidentally in stores today. I spoke with Anne about media literacy, her favorite celebrities, and hating Audrey Hepburn.

Ok, first: who is Anne Helen Petersen? And how did she get started studying celebrity culture?

Since college, I’ve been really into film studies in general, but it wasn’t until my very first year of my masters degree — the very first class I took was called “Female Stardom,” and that was where I got the idea that stars had images and that you could look at those images and think about what’s going on with the ideologies of a certain moment. I have a very vivid memory of going to this class, on that first day, and being like this, “this is it.” Since then, I’ve been studying stars specifically, but also celebrity gossip, the history of celebrity gossip, and it’s just been fascinating to me. It’s a great thing to talk about. Anywhere you go, you can ask, “Who’s your favorite movie star?” and know what that person represents to them.

I had been reading The Hairpin since the very, very beginning, and it had really gotten me through a lot of my dissertation, which just involved me being by myself and writing about the history of People magazine. When I turned in my dissertation I was like, “ugh, I don’t want to write in an academic tone.” I was so sick of it. I wanted to write something just to write. I thought, what if I wrote up one of the stories of the stars I know really well, who had a lot to do with the gossip industry, and do it really quickly. I think it was about 2,000 words and it was about Ingrid Bergman.

It was really easy in the beginning — I could write a Scandal in like, two or three hours, because those early posts were ones that I had already really thought about how their story had been mediated. Then I got deeper. People would make requests and I would have to spend more time really researching and figuring out how this person endured scandal or, you know, half the stories in the book are about people who avoided scandal. Everyone’s life is a scandal in some way.

I did notice that when I was reading the book. There’s so many near-misses with scandals. And that’s really more about the culture at large, like what people are willing to believe, I guess.

Yeah. And I think complicity on the part of the press to not make that stuff public. Because they had to. If they didn’t, if they went against the wishes of the studio, they would lose their primary source of content. The story, for me, isn’t about whether or not it happened, it’s more about how did this story get told when it happened.

But what is so sad for me to realize — and I didn’t even realize this until I put all the stories together in the book — the people who can get away with it are almost always white, straight males. White, straight, not-fat males, because Fatty Arbuckle is the exception there. The ones who are really punished are men who are ethnic in any sort of way, or feminized, and women, especially sexual women.

Just like in real life, I suppose.

Yes. Exactly.

Is there anything that’s the same from the column? Anything different?

Yes, it’s 98% new material. There are a couple of stars who I wrote columns on and then I also wrote a chapter on, but I did all new research and rewrote it, going much deeper. Clara Bow, Fatty Arbuckle…so maybe there will be a paragraph I kept in.

I think the analysis is very much the same. That’s the real thing that connects the columns and the book, that I’m trying to both show how this star is super interesting and why people love them, and show what was going on in the culture in terms of gender, sex, race at that time. It’s less bloggy. Less all-caps. Less exclamation marks. In part because I wanted it to appeal to more than just Hairpin readers. Although a book just for Hairpin readers would be really awesome. I think that it’s better for that; now I can get some grandmas to read it as well.

Totally. Oh yeah, I am going to get this for my grandmother. I think she would like it. Because — and this is something I think about all the time, especially when I first started reading the Scandals columns — my grandmother hates Audrey Hepburn. Which I think is the funniest thing in the world.

I also hate Audrey Hepburn!

When she talks about why she hates Audrey Hepburn, it really is like listening to someone complain about why they don’t like Zooey Deschanel. She doesn’t use the word twee, but that’s what she’s getting at. So it really is just history repeating itself forever for a certain kind of celebrity.

It’s the same tropes over and over again. I do find talking to our grandparents generation about stars is such a great way to find a common point. A lot of times, when people are older, their memories of what happened last week aren’t clear, but their memories of being a teenager are really clear. I used to talk to my granddad, for whom the book is dedicated, and I would always ask him, “What did you think of this star? What did you think of this movie?” And the things he had to say were always much more evocative of what he used to be like than anything else.

Did he have any surprising opinions about celebrities of classic Hollywood?

Oh, not surprising at all. “Lana Turner was a hussy!” Which was exactly how she was framed!

Do you think — and this is a grand, sweeping generalization, so, sorry — but do you think people today are more media literate with regards to celebrity culture than they were, say, in Ingrid Bergman’s time?

I think, probably, more people are aware of what’s going on. The other thing we forget is that in the 1950s, everyone went to the movies. It’s not like now, where you’re like, “maybe I’ll go to the movies” once a month. There was no television. You went to the movies and you listened to the radio. And so even if people didn’t know the absolute ins and outs of John Wayne’s love life, everyone knew who John Wayne was. So I think that the star power was bigger, but that it wasn’t necessarily an awareness of who stars are, in terms of name and what they look like, but that you could avoid or be aware of the intricacies of their lives according to your interests.

Well, a thing I feel like I hear all the time now — it’s the new “I don’t own a television” — is this “I don’t even know who that celebrity is.” “I don’t even know who Kim Kardashian is.”

Totally. But they also absolutely know something about the Kardashians. The idea that it’s this badge of honor, yeah.

Yeah, they know enough to know that they’re supposed to be ashamed of that knowledge.

Just like with the fan magazines of the 1930s and 1940s were very much like the magazines today — directed at women, working, middle-class, and that hasn’t changed. But something like TMZ has really expanded the purview of gossip. They have, I think, a 60/40 breakdown of women to men. They don’t label themselves as gossip but it absolutely is.

When you write about celebrities — I’m thinking of the really big ones, like Marlon Brando — did you ever find yourself having a hard time separating the research from the mythology?

I really tried to root all my understanding of that star in the way that they were mediated. The way that I did that — you know, I didn’t read biographies that were written like ten years ago. And I didn’t really read autobiographies, because all of those are really hagiographies. Trying to give you a very specific understanding of the star. Instead I tried to rely on a sort of cultural excavation of what was actually going on then, trying to rely uniquely on the way people were talking at that time, which made it easier to exclude the mythology of someone like Brando or Dean.

Fatty Arbuckle’s story was one of the original columns that really stuck with me. I think it might be because I knew nothing about him before I read it, it introduced me to who he was, what his persona was, and then how his persona was ruined.

It’s so sad.

So sad! I was really shocked! And I wonder: do you think of Scandals as something that has the potential to change public opinion of a celebrity, or is it more about contextualizing a certain opinion of a certain time?

I was doing an interview with someone and they were asking about Hollywood Babylon, which they said they had read to prepare, which is a book often held next to mine, and in many ways what I was attempting to do with this book was offer a corrective to Hollywood Babylon. They took all the stories — the most juicy and salacious stories — and with no regard to their veracity before printing them on the page. There’s something to be said for why people believed the things that they believed. A rumor about someone that sticks tells you a lot about what their image is.

For people that were actually victimized by those rumors — the two that really stick out to me are Fatty Arbuckle and Clara Bow — I wanted to show the details of how those rumors got started and why they stuck, why they still stick. I hope that people will see that there’s a way to correct the damage that’s been done by persistent rumors of both stars.

Do you think we need a certain amount of distance before we can really understand a celebrity image or celebrity culture in general? Like, you have written about Angelina Jolie, for example, but she’s someone who there’s no way of knowing what her legacy will actually be. She could be working for another forty or fifty years.

I do think it’s going to be really interesting to see what the legacy of Tom Cruise will be. We’re too close to see that right now. Or — and I won’t say any names — but there are people who are prominent A-list stars that everyone agrees are reminders of the persistence of the closet. When and if those people are outed, perhaps posthumously, their stardom will be a reminder of how seemingly progressive American Hollywood culture was, but that these stars still felt the need to pretend heterosexuality. But that’ll take a while.

Here’s another really big generalization — why does celebrity culture matter? What would you say to that person pretending to know nothing about the Kardashians?

I think that at any point celebrities are indicative of what matters to us at a certain moment. The images are always either acting out or trying to shore up ideologies under threat. You can look at our stars and see the things we’re trying to, as a society, figure out, in terms of femininity and masculinity and race performance and sexuality. The way we talk about celebrities is so illuminating.

The thing I always get, again and again, when people respond to my work, is: “I knew there was a reason I liked reading about stars, but I couldn’t articulate why.” I think my book does give a blueprint on how to think with nuance about things that we are interested in, naturally.

It’s just very refreshing to read something about pop culture that takes pop culture seriously. But not so seriously, as you said, that it becomes academic.

The other thing that I think is really important is that I love stars. There’s been so much written about celebrity and stardom that’s clearly from people who think that celebrity culture is worthless. And so, like, why are you wasting your time?

Do you have any favorite Scandals?

One of my favourites is the Mae West story. She’s so smart and so savvy. Even after her Hollywood career dwindled down, she just lived this fabulous life in New York with so many boyfriends. It seemed like she had a life well-lived. Jean Harlow and Dorothy Dandridge and Judy Garland are just all so sad. It was hard to do those and to just see, especially with Dandridge, that there wasn’t this big tragedy, it’s just that the story dwindled down until she was dead.

And I do think that really came across in the original columns and in the book! I could always feel your genuine enthusiasm for celebrity culture. Like you were never Scandal-splaining readers. What do you hope readers leave your book with?

I think — and this is such a hokey history teacher thing — but I remember my history teacher had a printout on the wall that said “Those who don’t learn history are doomed to repeat it,” and, I mean, this is the history that shows how are all these scandals are not that different from the treatment of various stars today. I hope by showing those tropes we can be more insightful and thoughtful in how we choose to be or not be scandalized by stars.