SHELF LIFE

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Most celebrity biographers don't like to begin at the beginning. They'd rather plunge in with a dramatic pen portrait of their star in rehab, washed up - or basking in glittery triumph. Elizabeth Taylor's two newest biographers, Donald Spoto (Elizabeth Taylor, Little, Brown £17.50) and C David Heymann (Liz: An Intimate Biography, Heine-mann £16.99), amply illustrate this tendency. The latter begins with a panicked and pill- popping Liz waking up to life at the Betty Ford Clinic, having to do her own washing and hoovering for the first time ever. Spoto accentuates the positive by plumping for the happy day of wedding number eight, to Larry Fortensky at Michael Jackson's estate, Neverland, though by page 5 he's found somebody to dish the dirt about Liz's relationship with Jackson, a friendship designed "to promote each other".

Fred Lawrence Guiles' Joan Crawford: The Last Word (Pavilion, £17.99) kicks off with the irresistible image of the great star doing the publicity rounds for Strait Jacket, the tacky schlocker in which she played an axe- murderess - her 78th movie role. Willing to oblige the producer, the showman and publicity genius William Castle, Crawford gamely went on the road to meet her public, show off her frocks and pose with an axe. While Guiles doesn't attempt to shrug off daughter Christina's testimony of abuse, he does aim to reinstate Crawford as a genuine and focused - if flawed - star.

Barbara Leaming begins Katharine Hepburn (Weidenfeld £20) dramatically: the star bursts, unannounced, into the office of the superintendent of Prospect Lawn cemetery in New York State, demanding to be shown the grave of her maternal grandparents. Why is Hepburn so obsessed with her past? "No one has ever known the whole story until now," promises Leaming thrillingly. So crucial is the past that we don't get to Hepburn's birth until page 136. But this is a won-derful story of her family, its suicides, secrets and malevolent patriarchs, and the inspiring feminist women with whom she grew up.

TV star Michael Barrymore also goes for the rehab theme in Back In Business (Hutchinson £14.99), self-lacerating diary of the skinny man's stint in detox. Great pix of Britain's favourite entertainer, often with his ever- beaming wife Cheryl, and one of their cute dog, worryingly captioned "My name is Candy, and my father's an alcoholic."

Ronald Bergan wins the award for most outrageous - if confusing - opening with Anthony Perkins: A Haunted Life (Little, Brown £17.50): Tony P arrives at the Bates Motel, hears an eerie voice: "You're a Mamma's boy!" Norman answers the door. Tony pulls a knife and lunges! Norman gives a cry of anguish as the blade enters his heart! Relax - it was all a dream. Bergan is one of those godlike biographers who even know what their subject is thinking.

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