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Golden Age gone

TV icon Wagner remembers lavish lifestyle

You Must Remember This is a light but tasty nostalgia-fest.

It's like a print version of the formerly popular TV show Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous -- trouble is, many, if not most, of the people featured in this book are no longer famous. They're dead.

The Associated Press files


The Associated Press files



If you can remember the names -- Robert Wagner drops a lot of them, 24 on the first two pages alone -- you might just like this book.

Wagner is a longtime Hollywood insider who joined the movie industry in 1947 at the peak of its Golden Age. He was a leading man in mostly forgettable movies of the 1960s and 1970s. From 1968 to 1984 he became known as the "suave icon of American caper television" for his starring roles in To Catch a Thief, Switch and Hart to Hart.

He continues to find distinctive TV and movie roles -- as Number Two in the three Austin Powers movies and, just this month, he continues as heartthrob Tony DiNozzo's father in NCIS.

Wagner's a handsome, affable, ingratiating type who seems to have hung out with and befriended anybody and everybody he's ever worked with. He's got the inside skinny.

The book's title is from the song As Time Goes By in the 1942 movie Casablanca, but Wagner hardly mentions this, or any other movie or studio.

Instead he provides a first-hand account of the way the elaborate fantasies of the movies of the Golden Age bled over into the social and personal lives of the stars, studio heads and others enriched by this money-minting industry.

They built palatial homes, often designed by their art directors, that were well beyond the means of ordinary millionaires, much less the average moviegoer.

They partied like pashas, played polo and croquet on finely manicured lawns, golfed and yachted, and partied some more. They frequented hotels, nightclubs and restaurants that worked assiduously to outdo one another in lavishness.

Ah, the good old days -- when studios paid everyone to keep private lives private and the press kept a tight lid on intimate secrets.

But this is not a scandal-mongering book. There's hedonism galore, and some mostly tactful anecdotes about gambling, drunkenness and adultery. It's more about the Ninth Commandment than the Sixth or Tenth, or the others.

It's about coveting thy neighbour's goods -- and there's plenty to covet here.

Take the side-by-side estates of funnyman Harold Lloyd and studio head Jack Warner. According to Wagner, Warner's place was "probably the most opulent house I have ever been in." It was an immense Georgian mansion of 13,000 square feet, custom-built on nine acres of prime real estate with two guest houses, three hothouses, a nursery and a nine-hole golf course.

Next to it stood Greenacres, Lloyd's Italian Renaissance mansion built on 22 acres. It had 40 rooms, a seven-car garage and covered 36,000 square feet.

It also had an Olympic-size pool, tennis courts, handball courts, a 245-metre-long canoeing lake and a nine-hole golf course.

For those who wanted to play a full 18 holes of golf, Warner built a bridge over the fence between the adjoining properties.

They were nothing compared to actress Marion Davies' house on the beach in Malibu, so big it could reputedly stage a party for 1,000 people. It was built for her by her lover, William Randolph Hearst, to rival his castle at San Simeon. (She didn't like it all that much and preferred to live in her other mansion in Beverly Hills.)

Such was the extravagance of the Golden Age. It's almost all gone now: the mansions demolished, the restaurants mostly closed, the people long gone.

Wagner describes these places and their people in a chatty, rather superficial and mostly non-judgmental manner.

After all, he did own one of the signature mansions and an infamous yacht; he golfed at the finest country clubs, went to the themed parties, dined and danced at all the fashionable spots. Now in his mid-80s, he clearly misses them.

The book could use a good editor. Evidently his collaborator, Scott Eyman, who assisted Wagner on his 2008 tell-all autobiography Pieces of My Heart, was just a fact-checker or fact-provider for this new book.

Eyman could have helped eliminate some of the repetitious stuff and should have convinced Wagner to delete the section that's just braggadocio about the time he beat the great Sam Snead in a game of golf.

You Must Remember This is mildly diverting: urban history and enviable, fantastical architecture combined with celebrity scuttlebutt.

If you've always wondered "how the other half lives," or lived, in Hollywood's Golden Age, this is the book for you.


Gene Walz recently retired from teaching movie courses at the University of Manitoba.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 15, 2014 G5


Updated on Saturday, March 15, 2014 at 7:46 AM CDT: Tweaks formatting.

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