I spoke with author Carles Casillo about his latest book Elizabeth and Monty–The Untold Story of Their intimate Friendship.
How did you start writing about classic films (articles, books, etc.)?
I started my writing career as an entertainment journalist doing celebrity interviews and personality profiles, mostly of contemporary stars. But I’ve always been more fascinated with the Golden Age of Hollywood. A lot of my interest started with Marilyn Monroe. I saw a photo of her in a magazine when I was a child and became obsessed with her. I started reading everything I could about her and, as an offshoot, I began reading biographies of other stars and before long I was a real classic film buff. Even though as an adult I was writing about the celebrity culture of today for newspapers and magazines, my first book was about Marilyn—and that was the start of me writing about classic films and stars.
Many of your books are about iconic actors and actresses – and certainly this book fits that bill. Why are you drawn to write about the stars and the films they starred in as opposed to the industry as a whole?
I used to say, “I’ve always been very friendly with the dead.” I felt sort of isoandlated and lonely as a kid. At the time, classic movies were shown on television in the afternoons and on the late, late show. In addition to Marilyn, I used to stay up late to watch Cary Grant, Jean Harlow, Clark Gable, Rita Hayworth, and stars like that. And of course, Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift. They were beautiful to look at and entertaining to watch. Most of them were already dead even when I was a kid, but somehow I came to look at them as friends. It’s hard to explain, I’ve always felt somewhat like a man out of time. I feel more at home with the music, fashion, movies—everything—from the 1930s, 40s and 50s.
You mention in the acknowledgements that you planned on writing a book about Montgomery Clift years ago but you dropped that project. How helpful was the research you did for that unfinished book for this one?
It was very helpful in the sense that I got a chance to talk to a lot of people who knew Monty and worked with him—people who have since passed. The insights of people like Jack Larson (who played Jimmy Olsen in the television series Superman and who was a lover of Monty’s), Shelley Winters and Kevin McCarthy were invaluable to understanding Monty. I feel lucky to have had the chance to talk to them.
Why did you decide to write a book about the friendship between Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift rather than books about them individually?
After looking at it objectively, I felt that there was enough in the story of their relationship to warrant an entire book exploring the relationship. Even if you take away the legendary names of “Elizabeth Taylor” and “Montgomery Clift,” you have the story of a beautiful, seventeen-year-old movie star in love with a gay matinee idol in mid-century, homophobic America. It was an era when a star’s public façade was everything and homosexuality had to be hidden.
Can you talk about your research process. What archives you visited, who you interviewed, any surprise sources of information that proved key in writing the book?
I like to say that one of my favorite places on the planet is the Margaret Herrick Library, which is a part of the Academy of Arts and Sciences. Many Hollywood luminaries donate their papers to the collection there. So a researcher can spend hours going through the papers of a legendary director like Fred Zinnemann or the files of notorious gossip columnist Hedda Hopper. It’s like getting in a time machine and having the opportunity to meet and interview characters from the past. After spending a day , I’d stumble out disoriented into the late afternoon light and it felt like I was stepping out of another era into the present. One of the things that I discovered in researching the book is just how deep and life-altering the relationship between Elizabeth and Monty was. It really changed the directions of both their lives.
What are somethings that you didn’t know before you worked on this book about Taylor and Clift that you were surprised wasn’t more well-known (or known at all) to the public?
One of the things I learned about Monty was that, although he was self-destructive, his emotional pain didn’t exclusively come from his homosexuality. In some circles, Monty has a reputation of being this self-loathing gay man which wasn’t the case at all. He was, at times, quite comfortable with his sexuality. Even to the point of kissing a boyfriend openly in a restaurant—in the early 1950s! He didn’t like pretending being something that he wasn’t.
For Elizabeth, I knew that she had a big heart but I didn’t know the extent of her loyalty to friends…and her kindness. She had a big appetite for life—for men, for jewels , for excitement, but she gave as good as she got.
I’m always curious with books about people (when the person has died) how you handle conflicting stories from interview subjects. Nobody is going to remember the same story twice, after all. Was that an issue with this book?
It’s interesting because a biographer spends part of the time being a detective trying to uncover the truth. After spending a lot of time researching a person there comes a time when you get a “click.” A light bulb goes off and you “get” your subject. That is to say, you understand the personality type. No one can ever know another person entirely—but when writing someone’s life you have to have some sort of understanding and empathy for your subject—but also be unflinching enough to explore and report the flaws too.
I know that was going off the subject but, with that being said, a biographer gets to a point where he can almost feel when someone isn’t telling the truth or is embellishing a story. It’s a mixture of your own understanding and intuitiveness with the facts you already learned. Sometimes something someone is saying just doesn’t jive with everything you’ve learned from other people or from studying what the subject said during his or her lifetime. It’s a lot of comparing interviews with different people with quotes from the subject with magazine articles and interviews from the day with the way someone remembers it today. And, also, to the best of your ability, just putting the pieces of a complicated puzzle together.
What are your favorite Clift and Taylor film performances?
Usually it’s the one I’m watching! But if I had to choose, I would say for Monty it’s his performances in A Place in the Sun, From Here to Eternity, and The Misfits. For Elizabeth, I also love her in A Place in the Sun. I think she is the perfect “Maggie” in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and I only wish that the censorship of the day didn’t have to neuter that script. She is also wonderful in another Tennessee Williams piece, Suddenly, Last Summer. I watch that a lot and it has both Elizabeth and Monty in it.
What parts of the book (or perhaps the lives and careers of Taylor and Clift) do you hope readers will come away with after reading your book?
I hope that people are touched by their relationship and have a better understanding of them as real people beyond their iconic movie status. But, also, I hope it brings to life how difficult it was for gay people, the hatred and bigotry they faced, their orientation was painful and shameful to the point of having to live secret lives — and how far we have come as a society in the past seventy years or so.
What parts of the book were the most challenging to write?
I think that the early life of a movie star can be a challenge because their lives aren’t as well documented as the lives they led after they became famous. Also, because their childhoods were so many decades ago, it’s a real challenge to find someone who was around at the time who might be able to add some details to that period.
Do you have an idea of what the subject of your next book might be?
Nothing for certain yet. But I’m keeping one ear to the living and the other to the dead and waiting for someone to speak to me, saying they want their story to be told.
Elizabeth and Monty–The Untold Story of Their intimate Friendship is out now. (I definitely recommend it)