At this point in time, it’s by no means a revelation that a number of Hollywood actresses in the 1920s and 1930s loved women, including major stars like Alla Nazimova, Greta Garbo, and Marlene Dietrich. The private lives of these women take centre stage in Diana McLellan’s book The Girls: Sappho goes to Hollywood, in which the author promises “a rich stew of film, politics, sexuality, psychology, and stardom”.
A heady mix indeed. First things first: this book is tremendously entertaining. I’ve read it a couple of times before, and it’s fun and breezy, with McLellan generally doing a good job of weaving different characters in and out of her narrative, and animating various figures in an engaging manner. The major caveat is that The Girls is, at best, highly speculative. McLellan was a gossip columnist for many years, and it certainly shows in the resulting work. The reader is apprised of this from the very start, when in the foreword, McLellan states a principle that guided both her former work in newspapers and her research for The Girls: “One big, proven lie reveals far more than dozens or widely reported ‘truths’—once you understand why it was told”. Well, then. QED?