I am partial to the odd rogue (fully aware that, as the narrator of “The Spy Who Loved Me” would say, it reads better than it lives) and partial to the obituary page of the Daily Telegraph and that august publication’s 2012 farewell to the trashy biographer Charles Higham is a masterpiece of the genre:
His most sensational work was Errol Flynn: The Untold Story (1980), in which he alleged that the swashbuckling matinee idol was an unscrupulous Nazi spy and rampant bisexual whose appetites led him to Mexico for the procurement of young boys and who had affairs with Truman Capote, Howard Hughes and Tyrone Power — to name only a few.
The book became a bestseller but was roundly denounced, not only by the actor’s widow but also by other biographers, who accused Higham of altering FBI documents to sustain his charges against Flynn. Higham himself was forced to admit that he did not have any direct documentary evidence that Flynn was a Nazi, though he claimed to have “pieced together a mosaic that proves that he is”. Flynn’s family subsequently tried to sue for libel, but since the actor had died in 1959 the suit was dismissed.
The Flynn biography was a fairly typical example of Higham’s approach, and much of what he wrote about the rich and famous (particularly those who were no longer alive to sue) was regarded by many critics as the product of an overactive and self-serving imagination.
In his unashamedly self-promoting memoir, In and Out of Hollywood (2009), Higham presented himself as a sort of Chandleresque figure, dedicated to sniffing out other people’s darkest secrets. Yet as he admitted, he hated interviewing people for his books, and critics remarked on how much of his work was based on the testimony of anonymous witnesses.
The themes of fascism, closet homosexuality and sexual perversion that had proved so productive in the case of Flynn were themes that Higham would mine again and again. That his motives were probably financial is suggested by his admission in an interview that there was “certainly a difference of an enormous number of sales” between his poetry books and his biographies. His Duchess of Windsor: The Secret Life (1988) might have been more aptly titled “Fascist, Lesbian Harlots at the Court of St James”, suggested one reviewer, who went on to observe that for the Duchess to have been guilty of even half the peccadilloes attributed to her, “early on she would have succumbed to exhaustion”.
Higham claimed she was the mistress not only of Count Ciano, but also of Ribbentrop. He maintained that the Duchess’s attractions included exotic sexual techniques that she had picked up on visits to the brothels of Peking, which allowed the Prince of Wales to make the best of his supposedly modest endowments. He set a tone for vilification later explored by other biographers.
Meanwhile, Higham’s Cary Grant: The Lonely Heart (1989, with Roy Moseley) included allegations of homosexuality, experiments with LSD, wife-beating, miserliness, and a claim that the actor was in the grounds of actress Sharon Tate’s house “visiting a young male” on the night in 1969 when Charles Manson’s so-called “family” went on its infamous killing spree.
The credibility of these and other allegations was undermined by the book’s numerous inconsistencies: at one point Higham concludes: “There is no evidence that the relationship between Cary and Sophia Loren was physically consummated” — only to refer to the actress four pages later as Grant’s former lover. The work was variously described as “tongue-smackingly nasty” and “prissily judgmental”, with one critic going so far as to dismiss it as a “back-stabbing rat’s book, the literary equivalent of grave robbing”.
Higham won similarly excoriating reviews for Howard Hughes: The Secret Life (1993), in which the tycoon was presented as a gay sadist who (in between affairs with Grant, Bette Davis and Katharine Hepburn) frequented male brothels and hauled boy prostitutes into his car for sex. One reviewer observed that Higham seemed to have “reached the point where most of his subjects have slept with one another”.
Telegraph obituaries have a knack of dissecting the tragedy of a life in a few short lines:
Higham was not pleasant company. He had an irritating habit of insulting waiters in restaurants, and often sat at the table for 45 minutes before deigning to consult the menu.