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Upside Of The "Poisoned Rainbow"

Higham Cannes 1950
A Personal Tribute By Philippe Mora
Charles Higham, famed biographer and bestselling author, our friend, passed away April 21 at his home in Los Feliz after a fall. Charles Higham was born February 18, 1931 in London. He was internationally famous as a prolific and controversial biographer of the stars. He was also a distinguished and award winning poet, journalist, novelist and historian. Explosive, entertaining bestsellers on the Duchess of Windsor, Howard Hughes (the basis of Scorsese's The Aviator), Errol Flynn, Katherine Hepburn, Cary Grant, Marlene Dietrich, and Bette Davis are just a small sample.

Higham was a recipient of the Prix des Createurs of the Academie Francaise (1978) and the Poetry Society of London Prize. An aggressive biographer, Higham often put his head above the trenches, but was never hit by much incoming fire over the years by irate members of the Hollywood and British establishment. Coming from the English establishment himself he enjoyed using embarrassing facts as whoopee cushions, and more seriously hunted down possible treason with a vengeance.

The man himself was a dedicated gourmet of cinema with an encyclopedic knowledge of Hollywood in every respect. His father, Londoner Sir Charles Higham, a member of Churchill's Cabinet and an early advertising maven, had a Hollywood mistress, starlet Betty Compson.

Higham went to Sydney Australia in 1953 with then wife Norine. Why Australia? Per his often dramatic memoir In and Out of Hollywood (2009), she had a bad physical fight with Charles' mother who attacked her, and they wanted to start a new life. Young Higham rapidly became a journalistic star in Sydney working for the Sydney Morning Herald, the Bulletin and also young Rupert Murdoch's Daily Mirror. He described Murdoch, "my boss," in those early Fifties years as exuding "enormous energy, charm, and chutzpah." He wrote what he called "hysterical historicals" for Murdoch, a harbinger of sensations to come.

He arrived in Hollywood in 1963 after Bulletin editor Peter Coleman persuaded Sir Frank Packer to send Higham to Hollywood. He would increase the magazine's circulation by interviewing stars, to be announced on Sydney billboards as CHARLES HIGHAM'S HOLLYWOOD. After infuriating Orson Welles and friends by publishing his opinion that Welles could not complete films, Higham became famous. In Sydney he had learned a tough school of journalism where the ability to irritate could flush out facts and sell papers. With an acquired Australian disrespect for Holy Cows and his own polite contempt for the nouveau rich stars of Los Angeles, his old school sleuthing produced a string of bestsellers.

Crisscrossing Hollywood for decades, he delivered countless pieces and books on old and new Tinsel Town. He once described it as a "clump of shacks at the end of a poisoned rainbow." For years you could find him enjoying a break at Musso and Frank, Scandia, Cock 'N Bull, Tail of the Cock, Le Dome, Dresden Room and similar icons of a lost Hollywood. The poisoned rainbow always had its upside.

When he found files in the National Archives showing Errol Flynn helped Nazi SS agent Herman Erben, his Flynn biography made world news. My wife Pamela and I saw Charles through that uproar on an almost daily basis and for years afterwards he remained a friend. Without going into the details suffice it to say anyone who wants the facts can see the hundreds of files in the Charles Higham Collection at the USC Cinematic Library of the Arts. Higham tracked Erben down in 1980 and located him in a leper colony in the Philippines. The controversy and fact hunting never died, with Higham calling on the British Government to release its secret Flynn files in 2000. It refused.

We lived in Errol Flynn's old apartment in West Hollywood so Charles' visits held another dimension for him. Cary Grant had also lived there. On one occasion King Vidor and Charles came for dinner. Vidor's reaction to Flynn's fascist aura was blase. After all, he had slightly succumbed to what Susan Sontag called Fascinating Fascism himself, when he went to meet Leni Riefenstahl in New York in 1938.

Charles, always a connoisseur of the macabre and black humor quoted sarcastically from Riefenstahl's memoir called The Sieve of Time, which he renamed The Sieve of Memory. He laughed, for example, at her sentence: "That evening I felt that Hitler desired me as a woman."

Highams's staunch and lifelong abhorrence and attacks on Nazism, I believe, stemmed from his father and his patriotic background. He grew up, he said, on Churchill's knee on occasion, and was part Jewish. He joined with the Simon Wiesenthal Center to publicly go after the 1983 Vatican appointment of Hitler's banker, Herman Abs (formerly of IG Farben) to investigate Vatican banking anomalies. His examination of Nazi-American business ties in Trading with Enemy (1982) and American Swastika (1985) testify to his zealous research, and they are highly regarded books on the subject.

Dorothy Parker had written: "Scratch an actor and you'll find an actress." One could say Charles took this as a theme and scratched many an actor to the point where most of his male and female subjects are revealed to have gay aspects or lives. He did not spare himself, however, and his memoir is quite a grand and explicit coming out painting a picture of himself as a successful gay Don Juan in New York, Hawaii and Hollywood. Growing up in different, straitlaced times one can feel his late public liberation jump off the page.

Sometimes a cliche is apropos: Charles was not one to suffer fools gladly. He was also someone who would never forget a slight, and his abnormally powerful memory was often better than a photocopy. With almost alarming energy he could recall documents, dates, names and events completely. A fan of crime books, he wrote a biography of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Charles himself would have made an excellent Sherlock Holmes.

But beneath the conscientious researcher, the old school journalist, lay a genuine love of film, Hollywood and actors. He was a skeptic, but he could turn into a fan. He describes in fan-like prose how John Wayne turned off the air conditioner in his trailer because it was so noisy at Universal, when Charles interviewed him. It got hot and Wayne suggested they take their shirts off. The idea of Wayne and Charles shirtless together is quite an hilarious image if you read In and Out of Hollywood. The book had not been written yet but if it had, and Wayne had read it, the mighty Duke may not have taken his shirt off.

Sometimes treated as a gadfly, many egomaniacs in Hollywood underestimated Charles Higham at their peril. Those who took him seriously and appreciated his sincerity, like Wayne and others were treated with respect.

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