Friday 19 January 2018

Final chapter for Hollywood's bitchiest celebrity biographer

Charles Higham, who has died aged 81, was a much-feared and notoriously bitchy celebrity biographer whose works fell squarely in the "unauthorised" category.

The British-born Higham, who began his career as a poet, wrote some two dozen biographies, exposing the "guilty secrets" of, among others, Howard Hughes, Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy, Cary Grant, Orson Welles and the Duchess of Windsor.

His most sensational work was Errol Flynn: The Untold Story (1980), in which he alleged that the swashbuckling matinee idol was an unscrupulous Nazi spy and rampant bisexual whose appetites led him to Mexico for the procurement of young boys and who had affairs with Truman Capote, Howard Hughes and Tyrone Power -- to name only a few.

The book became a bestseller but was roundly denounced. Higham himself was forced to admit that he did not have any documentary evidence that Flynn was a Nazi, but claimed to have "pieced together a mosaic that proves that he is". Flynn's family tried to sue for libel, but since the actor had died in 1959 the suit was dismissed.

The Flynn biography was a typical example of Higham's approach, and much of what he wrote (particularly about those who were no longer alive to sue) was regarded as the product of a self-serving imagination.

In his unashamedly self-promoting memoir, In and Out of Hollywood (2009), Higham presented himself as a sort of Chandleresque figure, dedicated to sniffing out dark secrets.

Yet as he admitted, he hated interviewing people for his books, and critics remarked on how much of his work was based on the testimony of anonymous witnesses.

The themes of fascism, closet homosexuality and sexual perversion that had proved so productive in the case of Flynn were themes that Higham would mine again and again.

That his motives were probably financial is suggested by his admission that there was "a difference of an enormous number of sales" between his poetry books and his biographies.

His Duchess of Windsor: The Secret Life (1988) might have been more aptly titled "Fascist, Lesbian Harlots at the Court of St James", suggested one reviewer, who went on to observe that for the duchess to have been guilty of even half the peccadilloes attributed to her, "early on she would have succumbed to exhaustion".

Higham claimed she was the mistress not only of Count Ciano, but also of Ribbentrop. He maintained that the duchess's attractions included exotic sexual techniques that she had picked up on visits to the brothels of Peking, which allowed the Prince of Wales to make the best of his supposedly modest endowments. He set a tone for vilification later explored by other biographers.

Meanwhile, Higham's Cary Grant: The Lonely Heart (1989, with Roy Moseley) included allegations of homosexuality, wife-beating and miserliness.

The work was variously described as "tongue-smackingly nasty" and "prissily judgmental".

Higham won similarly excoriating reviews for Howard Hughes: The Secret Life (1993), in which the tycoon was presented as a gay sadist who (in between affairs with Grant, Bette Davis and Katharine Hepburn) frequented male brothels and hauled boy prostitutes into his car for sex.

Nonetheless, his biography proved particularly lucrative as it formed the basis of Martin Scorsese's 2004 film The Aviator, starring Leonardo DiCaprio as the eccentric magnate.

Given his record, therefore, it is difficult to know how much of his account of his own early life is to be believed. Charles Higham was born in London on February 18, 1931. His father, Charles Frederick Higham, had risen from being a salesman to a Conservative MP from 1918 to 1922 (he was later knighted).

His parents divorced when he was very young, and his father's new wife, he claimed, sexually abused him. After his father died, when Charles was seven, he went to live with his mother, now remarried, a mentally unstable, sexually rapacious alcoholic, according to his account. In 1952 he married Norine Cecil and two years later they moved to Australia, where he continued to write poetry.

His growing awareness of his own homosexuality soon brought an end to his marriage (his wife, meanwhile, confessed that she loved a woman) and he threw himself into pre-Aids era promiscuity, featuring orgies and prostitutes.

In Australia, Higham began to write about celebrities for a newspaper which sent him on assignments to Hollywood. He later moved to Los Angeles full time and became a Hollywood correspondent for The New York Times.

In 1970 his Films of Orson Welles was published. The book was castigated by the film historian Peter Bogdanovich as being so full of inaccuracies that it was "an illustrated textbook on how to criminally impair an artist's career".

Although this was a pattern Higham would repeat, his first commercial success -- Kate (1975), a biography of Katharine Hepburn -- had been, unusually for him, authorised.

Higham was not pleasant company. He often insulted waiters in restaurants, sitting at the table for 45 minutes before deigning to consult the menu.

He lived with his long-term partner Richard Palafox, a Filipino nurse, until Palafox's death in 2010.

Charles Higham, born February 18, 1931, died April 21, 2012.

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