Hollywood has always had a sort of mythological feel. The movies it produces build worlds from scratch and the actors and actresses who create those new worlds acquire a sort of god-like aura around them. Which, in short, explains why we hold celebrities in such high regard.
This phenomenon isn’t new. It’s one that’s been around since the beginning of the entertainment industry. Today, you can follow your favorite celebs on Snapchat and Instagram, which makes them feel infinitely more relatable and knocks them down several levels from “god-like” to just “cool person.” But in the early 1900’s, when Hollywood was just beginning, the distance between actors and viewers was infinitely larger, and the Hollywood lifestyle felt far less attainable.
The distance between actors and viewers is what gave old Hollywood a kind of glamour and secrecy surrounding it that’s lacking in Hollywood today. If you’re as obsessed with that bygone era as we are—reading every article and watching every documentary about the golden age—then you’ll love these five novels that all deal with 1930s-1960s Hollywood.
All of the books cited in this post may be made available for purchase by clicking on its cover.
The synopses in this post were provided courtesy of Amazon and Goodreads.
1. The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, Taylor Jenkins Reid
Synopsis: Aging and reclusive Hollywood movie icon Evelyn Hugo is finally ready to tell the truth about her glamorous and scandalous life. But when she chooses unknown magazine reporter Monique Grant for the job, no one is more astounded than Monique herself. Why her? Why now?
Monique is not exactly on top of the world. Her husband has left her, and her professional life is going nowhere. Regardless of why Evelyn has selected her to write her biography, Monique is determined to use this opportunity to jumpstart her career.
Summoned to Evelyn’s luxurious apartment, Monique listens in fascination as the actress tells her story. From making her way to Los Angeles in the 1950s to her decision to leave show business in the ‘80s, and, of course, the seven husbands along the way, Evelyn unspools a tale of ruthless ambition, unexpected friendship, and a great forbidden love. Monique begins to feel a very real connection to the legendary star, but as Evelyn’s story near its conclusion, it becomes clear that her life intersects with Monique’s own in tragic and irreversible ways.
Why we love it: Kirkus Reviews described it as an “entrancing novel that speaks the Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor in us all” and it’s exactly that. Reading it feels like being in a movie, it’s full of all the drama, juicy rumors and ridiculous rules of old Hollywood. You’ll find yourself wishing you could step back in time if only to have the chance to live in Evelyn Hugo’s world.
2. Beautiful Ruins, Jess Walter
Synopsis: The story begins in 1962. On a rocky patch of the sun-drenched Italian coastline, a young innkeeper, chest-deep in daydreams, looks out over the incandescent waters of the Ligurian Sea and spies an apparition: a tall, thin woman, a vision in white, approaching him on a boat. She is an actress, he soon learns, an American starlet, and she is dying.
And the story begins again today, half a world away, when an elderly Italian man shows up on a movie studio’s back lot—searching for the mysterious woman he last saw at his hotel decades earlier.
What unfolds is a dazzling, yet deeply human, roller coaster of a novel, spanning fifty years and nearly as many lives. From the lavish set of Cleopatra to the shabby revelry of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Walter introduces us to the tangled lives of a dozen unforgettable characters: the starstruck Italian innkeeper and his long-lost love; the heroically preserved producer who once brought them together and his idealistic young assistant; the army veteran turned fledgling novelist and the rakish Richard Burton himself, whose appetites set the whole story in motion—along with the husbands and wives, lovers and dreamers, superstars and losers, who populate their world in the decades that follow.
Why we love it: This novel spends less time actually in old Hollywood, but it remains a heavy theme in the story. The loss, heartache, broken dreams and various iterations of love will have you sucked in from the first page and wishing for more on the last.
3. All the Stars in the Heavens, Adriana Trigiani
Synopsis: In this spectacular saga as radiant, thrilling, and beguiling as Hollywood itself, Adriana Trigiani takes us back to Tinsel Town’s golden age—an era as brutal as it was resplendent—and into the complex and glamorous world of a young actress hungry for fame and success. With meticulous, beautiful detail, Trigiani paints a rich, historical landscape of 1930s Los Angeles, where European and American artisans flocked to pursue the ultimate dream: to tell stories on the silver screen.
The movie business is booming in 1935 when twenty-one-year-old Loretta Young meets thirty-four-year-old Clark Gable on the set of The Call of the Wild. Though he’s already married, Gable falls for the stunning and vivacious young actress instantly.
Far from the glittering lights of Hollywood, Sister Alda Ducci has been forced to leave her convent and begin a new journey that leads her to Loretta. Becoming Miss Young’s assistant, the innocent and pious young Alda must navigate the wild terrain of Hollywood with fierce determination and a moral code that derives from her Italian roots. Over the course of decades, she and Loretta encounter scandal and adventure, choose love and passion, and forge an enduring bond of love and loyalty that will be put to the test when they eventually face the greatest obstacle of their lives.
Why we love it: This one is based on a true story, which makes the drama and heartbreak in it all the more resplendent. Grab a glass of wine, slap on your best red lipstick and prepare to literally lose yourself in the glamour, heartbreak and rigid rules of 1930’s Hollywood.
4. The Hollywood Daughter, Kate Alcott
Synopsis: In 1950, Ingrid Bergman–already a major star after movies like Casablanca and Joan of Arc–has a baby out of wedlock with her Italian lover, film director Roberto Rossellini. Previously held up as an icon of purity, Bergman’s fall shocked her legions of American fans.
Growing up in Hollywood, Jessica Malloy watches as her PR executive father helps make Ingrid a star at Selznick Studio. Over years of fleeting interactions with the actress, Jesse comes to idolize Ingrid, who she considered not only the epitome of elegance and integrity, but also the picture-perfect mother, an area where her own difficult mom falls short.
In a heated era of McCarthyism and extreme censorship, Ingrid’s affair sets off an international scandal that robs seventeen-year-old Jesse of her childhood hero. When the stress placed on Jesse’s father begins to reveal hidden truths about the Malloy family, Jesse’s eyes are opened to the complex realities of life–and love.
Why we love it: This one starts out slower than the others, but if you push through the first few chapters the family drama, mental health discussion, personal growth are well worth it. It brings Ingrid Bergman to life in a way that her on-screen roles never did, and you’ll find yourself feeling deeply for the struggles these women go through.
5. Woman Enters Left, Jessica Brockmole
Synopsis: In the 1950s, movie star Louise Wilde is caught between an unfulfilling acting career and a shaky marriage when she receives an out-of-the-blue phone call: She has inherited the estate of Florence “Florrie” Daniels, a Hollywood screenwriter she barely recalls meeting. Among Florrie’s possessions are several unproduced screenplays, personal journals, and—inexplicably—old photographs of Louise’s mother, Ethel. On an impulse, Louise leaves a film shoot in Las Vegas and sets off for her father’s house on the East Coast, hoping for answers about the curious inheritance and, perhaps, about her own troubled marriage.
Nearly thirty years earlier, Florrie takes off on an adventure of her own, driving her Model T westward from New Jersey in pursuit of broader horizons. She has the promise of a Hollywood job and, in the passenger seat, Ethel, her best friend since childhood. Florrie will do anything for Ethel, who is desperate to reach Nevada in time to reconcile with her husband and reunite with her daughter. Ethel fears the loss of her marriage; Florrie, with long-held secrets confided only in her journal, fears its survival.
In parallel tales, the three women—Louise, Florrie, Ethel—discover that not all journeys follow a map. As they rediscover their carefree selves on the road, they learn that sometimes the paths we follow are shaped more by our traveling companions than by our destinations.
Why we love it: Part old Hollywood tale, part road trip epic, this book is primarily composed of journal entries and letters. It’s a quick read, but it focuses a lot on the relationships that define us, and the strong power of female friendships. You’ll walk away from it with a new perspective on the importance of second chances.