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Actor Robert Wagner recalls old Hollywood’s style

This book cover image released by Viking shows "You Must Remember This: Life and Style in Hollywood's Golden Age," by Robert J. Wagner with Scott Eyman. (AP Photo/Viking)

This book cover image released by Viking shows "You Must Remember This: Life and Style in Hollywood's Golden Age," by Robert J. Wagner with Scott Eyman. (AP Photo/Viking)

Long before movies could talk, the people on the big screen were setting trends and styles for the rest of us. Even today, there’s a sense of curiosity about what the stars are doing behind the gates of those great old mansions. If only we knew somebody who could get us in the door for a peek.

In terms of grace and style, you couldn’t ask for a better tour director than actor Robert Wagner. You Must Remember This is his valentine to the Hollywood he knew as a kid and enjoyed even more as a gape-worthy star in his own right.

Wagner’s father, a successful businessman, moved the family from Detroit to the Bel Air neighborhood of Los Angeles in 1937 when Wagner was 7. He saw his share of celebrities while clearing tables at the Bel Air Tea Room, caddying at the country club and hanging out with the sons and dating the daughters of movie stars and studio executives.

By 1949, when 20th Century Fox began grooming him for stardom, Wagner was well on his way to knowing quite a few of Hollywood’s most interesting residents. Those intimate connections give You Must Remember This a personal touch as Wagner recounts how an orange grove became a city of dreams and desires with a unique nightlife and playtime.

Where the stars lived probably said as much about them as real people as anything. For example, James Cagney’s house in Beverly Hills was small and rustic by star standards, mainly a place to stay when he was away from his East Coast farms. James Stewart lived in a homey but unpretentious Tudor-style home in Beverly Hills – and bought and tore down the house next door to make room for flowers and vegetables.

The home of producer William Goetz and his wife, hostess extraordinaire Edie Goetz, didn’t stand out in L.A.’s Westwood district. Inside, the walls were covered by artwork the Louvre would envy – Cezanne, Renoir, Van Gogh, Manet and more. “A Degas bronze ballerina sat on a table,” Wagner recalls. “I remember touching its skirt with awe, and hoping nobody noticed me.”

Clothing styles could show off a star’s best qualities or hide the flaws. It wasn’t coincidence that Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby wore hats in public as their hair thinned, a fedora being easier to slip on and off than a toupee. The sartorially fastidious Sinatra preferred single-color ties of silk and a folded handkerchief in his breast pocket. “He liked to fix the handkerchief of any man who couldn’t fold one as perfectly as he could,” Wagner says, “which definitely included yours truly.”

Parties could be sumptuous and sometimes carried a theme. One night in the 1930s, for a hospital theme, actress Carole Lombard asked guests to wear hospital gowns over their evening clothes and had dinner served on an operating table. A different kind of fun could be found aboard the gambling ships moored just beyond the reach of local authorities.

Wagner’s amusing and interesting reflections carry a touch of wistfulness. As he notes, the huge mansions became too expensive to maintain, the business itself diversified and demanded more time, and old Hollywood began dying off.

“It was a lesson to me that nothing lasts forever,” Wagner says. “Except the movies.”

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