For years, Karina Longworth has made her living off film. In 2005, she helped launch Cinematical – the first blog for cinema geeks, at a time when a “blog” was still a novelty – and has written for everyone from L.A. Weekly to Time Out New York. She’s published books about George Lucas and Al Pacino for Phaidon, a tome on Hollywood still photography for Princeton Architectural Press, and a feminist study of Meryl Streep that would make Trump cringe.
But her latest ongoing project might be her most accessible – and the most popular. In early 2014, she launched You Must Remember This, a podcast she bills as a look into “the secret and/or forgotten history of Hollywood’s first century.” Pairing her extensive research with thoughtful critiques and clever voice actors, she started by looking at Hollywood greats – Frank Sinatra, Howard Hughes, Liz Taylor – but after a year of mostly one-offs, she began tackling meatier subjects as multi-part “seasons.” First came 13 episodes on Hollywood legends during World War II (“Star Wars”), then a 12-parter about Charles Manson’s L.A. connections that got her on the radar of every true-crime aficionado around. (That might not have been her favorite, though: “A lot of my friends are really into these murder podcasts and stuff – I only got into this to talk about Hollywood,” she says.) After that, she moved back to the classic subjects (MGM’s heyday, HUAC and the Black List, Joan Crawford’s life), avoiding the grisly subjects she’d dealt with while diving into the cult behind the infamous Tate-LaBianca murders.
For the latest season, which launches today, Longworth decided to go back to a more macabre subject – albeit one with an even more obvious Hollywood history. The new season, “Dead Blondes,” examines our fascination with the rise and fall of beautiful, fair-haired actresses – and what makes them so special in our minds. We talked to Longworth about how she came to cover the subject, why she finds this subject so fascinating and what it is about Marilyn Monroe that makes her the epitome of the blonde bombshell.
Why is it you wanted to focus on blondes this season?
Doing the podcast, I’ve noticed that there’s an appetite for stories about the murder or otherwise untimely death of these beautiful, young blonde women. Some of the most popular episodes I’ve done have been the Charles Manson episodes, and ones about women who have had tragic lives. And I started thinking, what is it about a young blonde woman, specifically, that makes [her] this “perfect victim”?
And while there are not that many blonde actresses that have been murdered, there are a lot of stories that follow similar patterns of these actresses having quite a bit of success early in there career, and then they self-destruct or something tragic happens. So I played around with a lot of different ideas to approach these issues. I finally decided that I would pick a combination of stories that I think people think that they already know about – like Marilyn Monroe – and then some actresses that are barely even remembered at all today. I wanted talk about, basically, these two issues: How they were perceived when they were alive; and how they were they perceived in death, and what blondeness has to do with it.
So what is it about blondes that we find so fascinating?
One of the texts I was reading while I was putting the season together was called On Blondes by Joanna Pitman. In it, she talks a lot about the history of blondes and visual representation. You know, going back to Ancient Rome, there weren’t a lot of natural blondes, but women would do what they needed to in order to become a blonde because of this idea that this was exceptional. Even if you were a prostitute dying your hair with saffron, you were doing it to try and achieve something that was almost supernatural.
Which 11 women to profile in this series?
I don’t want to say them all – but I can say some of them. Some are stories that I’ve already done in the podcast that I’m not going to revisit, like Carol Lombard, who died young in a plane crash, and Judy Holiday, who died relatively young of cancer. But there are a couple stories that we talked about before that I’m going to re-present and reframe – like, you can’t really talk about the history of tragic blondes without talking about Jean Harlow [the original “blonde bombshell” who died in 1937 at the age of 26.]
Without revealing who all the women you profile are, can you tell us about some of the people you chose, and why you thought they were important?
Well, the first episode was about Peg Entwistle, who was mostly a theatrical actress. She was in one film, but her part was mostly cut out of it, and shortly after that she killed herself from jumping off the “H” in the Hollywood sign. So what most people know about her, if they know anything, is the story of her suicide. And I was really surprised and intrigued to find out that her life up until that point was much more complicated than what we’ve been led to believe by just her despondent death.
And what about Marilyn Monroe?
I’ve done episodes on her in the past, and I’m going to try to fill in the blanks that I haven’t gotten to yet. So that’s sort of the centerpiece of the series, several episodes right in the middle talking about Marilyn Monroe’s life and death.
In what context did you approach her story before?
I’ve done kind of one and a half episodes on her. There was one when I did a series on World War II, which basically covered her childhood and early life, up until the point she becomes famous. Then in the “Black List” season I did an episode on Arthur Miller, which is about one-third about his relationship with Marilyn Monroe and the play that she inspired, called After the Fall. And, of course, [the 1961 film] The Misfits on which they collaborated.
For this series, we’re going to rerun that first episode. Then I think the plan is to do two new episodes about her: one that’s about the peak of her stardom and why that didn’t necessarily solve her problems; and then one that’s about her last years, how she died and why there has been conspiracy theories about that.
Who else have you included in this set of episodes?
In the Joan Crawford series, I did an episode about Franchot Tone, [an actor] who was one of her husbands, and the last third of that episode is about him and his later wife, Barbara Payton. I’m going to take that kernel and flesh it out into a whole episode on Payton, which is easier than it would have been at the time when I made that episode, because now I was able to get a re-released copy of her autobiography, called I Am Not Ashamed.
Nice. And what was her story?
She was a blonde pinup actress of the late 1940s, early 1950s. Her most memorable film was called Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, which was a noir with James Cagney. But she was more famous for being famous than for being an actress. Her relationship with Tone was very heavily covered in the tabloids of the day – she had an affair with another guy, and Tone punched him out. This became front-page news in Los Angeles for weeks because a trial ensued; she became branded as this wanton bad girl, and her stardom really couldn’t survive that. She ended up dying young, after having been reduced to becoming a prostitute.
You’ve been doing this podcast for almost two years now. What’s your process going into a new season?
This time around, I had a really hard time settling on a topic. “Dead Blondes” was basically the first idea I had had, way back in the summer, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to commit to it. Then, over Christmas break, I got kind of close to committing to another idea and I started reading some books, and I just decided that most of the ones relevant to that topic weren’t very good. I didn’t really feel like I had the energy to begin a season that’s going to take me months and months of research when the biographies about the people involved seemed not that trustworthy.
A lot of my process is reading as much as I can about a subject and starting with a commercially available biography – going to research libraries, trying to find old clippings, things like that. Then I put all this information together and try to decide what feels the most accurate, when you push aside mythology and publicity.
Are there any people for this series that you wish you could have covered, but there just wasn’t enough information out there?
Not really. I have been, over the past few weeks, researching Veronica Lake [who is included in the series,] and she’s somebody about whom there is one biography that has no sources listed … so it seems like you need to read it skeptically. She also wrote an autobiography, which heavily ghost written and currently out of print. I managed to find it in a library, but I do wish that there were a biography that did her justice.
This might be impossible to say, but about how many hours does it takes you to make one 45-minute episode?
It really varies on the topic. For instance, the Peg Entwhistle episode, I was surprised and delighted to find that there’s a really well-written, well-researched biography on her. At the Academy’s library [the Margaret Herrick Library in Beverly Hills], I went through some of their censorship files (for reasons that become obvious in the episode). But for the Veronica Lake episode, because the two books are a little bit hard to trust, I had to do much more research. And in her case, because she didn’t make that many movies, I felt like it was important that I watch as many of her movies as I could. So that one took a lot more time than some of the other ones.
Over the course of researching this series, did your opinion of how we look at blonde actresses change?
I don’t think so. But every time I do an episode, I feel like I learn so much. If I do have any preconceived notions that I had about the topic, they change and evolve. I get such a fuller idea of them, and that’s really the goal of the podcast: to take somebody who you might have an image of – especially somebody like Veronica Lake who is most famous today for having a haircut – and to learn the full story of her life and be able to share it with people. That’s the core of what I try to do.