It makes sense that Karina Longworth’s favorite place to get a cocktail is Musso & Frank Grill in Hollywood; it’s there along the polished wooden bar and within its storied back room that the glimmering aura of Golden Age Hollywood still lingers.
Longworth, host of the podcast “You Must Remember This,” and one of America’s preeminent Hollywood historians, spends much of her time chasing down stories like the ones that took place there to unveil the lurid and glittering truths of the film industry’s heyday.
“At Musso’s I always have a Chopin Martini, slightly dirty,” she says. An American institution, Musso & Frank Grill opened in 1919, its red leather banquettes the throne of silver screen icons like Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Lauren Bacall and Marilyn Monroe. “Ever since I read Anjelica Huston’s memoirs, I’ve been meaning to go there and order a Bull Shot,” says Longworth referring to the restaurant’s famous vodka and beef consommé cocktail.
Unfortunately, we are not at Musso & Frank or even in Los Angeles. Following a particularly brutal New York City snowstorm, which left her stranded in D.C. for a night without luggage, Longworth has swept into the Metrograph theater on Ludlow Street right from a train. She’s wearing a long furry coat, her dark bob and red lips evoking all the glamour of her life’s research. Here, there is no exalted Martini to speak of, so we are attempting to telegraph warmth and Old Hollywood in a candlelit corner booth with a rye Manhattan (she) and a glass of Julien Courtois’s funky romorantin (me). Longworth, who recently published Seduction: Sex, Lies, and Stardom in Howard Hughes’s Hollywood, is here to present The Barefoot Contessa, a 1954 film starring Ava Gardner and Humphrey Bogart. The film is believed to have been based on the infamously mercurial Hollywood mogul Howard Hughes and Gardner herself.
In Seduction, Longworth documents Gardner’s relationship with Hughes—which concluded with him punching her in the face and her smashing a bronze bell over his head—along with relationships he carried on with nine other women, both personally and professionally. The book is not a biography of Hughes, but rather a study of the women—including actresses Billie Dove, Jean Harlow, Ginger Rogers, Katharine Hepburn and director Ida Lupino—whose lives were affected by one man’s enormous accumulation and manipulation of power. As in her podcast, what Longworth often accomplishes in Seduction is a re-contextualization of supposed truths and re-examination of power disparities. “It’s not so much revising as it is revealing,” she says.
A former film critic for LA Weekly, Longworth, who has a suffers-no-fools air about her, started her podcast in 2014 as a conduit through which she could remain engaged with film, while taking a step back from the contemporary showbiz milieu. In making “You Must Remember This,” she set out to tell forgotten stories about Hollywood, partly inspired by the moment when the allegations concerning Dylan Farrow and Woody Allen resurfaced.
“I’ve never done an episode on it and I probably never will,” she says, “but suddenly there was a renewed conversation, and I felt like a new generation was discovering this for the first time. It made me think about how fast things disappear from the cultural memory.”
Considering the upheaval Hollywood is currently undergoing, it seems more imperative than ever to reappraise events from the era in which the industry was formed. But while Longworth knows that tracking parallels between eras is irresistible, she resists drawing any straight lines from Hughes to disgraced modern-day moguls like Harvey Weinstein, et al. “The studio system was a completely different animal economically and in terms of power. Today, every studio is a small chunk of a multinational corporation that’s usually run by people who have nothing to do with movies,” she says while clasping the stem of her coupe glass. “I understand why people want to make comparisons, and some of them are there, but you’d have to gloss over some really important changes to say that Howard Hughes is just like Harvey Weinstein.”
Oddly enough—though perhaps not odd at all when considering Hughes’s many personal idiosyncrasies—the playboy was a notorious teetotaler, favoring milk and cake over cocktails and steak. “He had all of his dad’s pre-Prohibition booze in his cellar and would give it to people for bribes and gifts,” says Longworth, “I found evidence that when he was battling censorship over The Outlaw [one of the two films he directed], he bribed a guy by sending him three bottles of pre-Prohibition bourbon.”
Hughes was a master of presentation and publicity; he didn’t drink, but he liked to carry a drink because of the image it channeled. “There’s a story about Hughes holding a tiki drink on a yacht when [actress] Faith Domergue arrived, and he’s spilling it all over the place. It’s a story that comes up over and over again. Hughes walking around, holding onto a rum drink.” There’s something childish about such an image, something deeply weird and sad about brandishing dominance with a fallow tropical cocktail. When I ask Longworth if she has any sympathy for Hughes, she doesn’t hesitate. “I do. He died alone, surrounded only by people who were paid to be there. And that’s sad,” she says.
With only a few minutes before The Barefoot Contessa is to begin, Longworth is pulled from the booth by a rep from The Academy at Metrograph. Her Manhattan drained, red lipstick still in place, long furry coat over an arm, she takes her leave looking not unlike a silent-era starlet herself. Longworth would likely resist the comparison, but she’s spent enough time steeped in the lurid and glittering underbelly of Hollywood to have developed her own kind of shimmering aura.