The Hollywood Book Club

By Steven Rea

Chronicle. 120 pp. $16.95

Reviewed by Angela Haupt

There’s James Dean, perfect hair and a smirk — cigarette in one hand, The Complete Poetical Works of James Whitcomb Riley in the other. Audrey Hepburn, a classics connoisseur, is cross-legged on a shag carpet, eyes fixed on the open book in front of her. And Orson Welles is supine, smoking a pipe and focused on a weathered copy of A History of Technology, Vol. III: From the Renaissance to the Industrial Revolution.

Stars, they're just like us! Provided you consume your reading material while draped in a silk robe and posed seductively.

In The Hollywood Book Club, photo archivist and former Inquirer film critic Steven Rea curates 55 photographs of classic film stars "with literature (or not) in their hands — or on their laps, or in the general vicinity.” The full-page images — candid pictures, publicity shots and production stills — are black-and-white, and they’re stunning: Rita Hayworth and Ginger Rogers are otherworldly; 25-year-old Marlon Brando’s gaze is so smoldering, one worries about the flammable book he’s holding. Each photo is accompanied by just a few lines of text, a simplicity that keeps the focus where it belongs: on the images.

Rea groups the photos into categories, including the stars luxuriating in their personal libraries; reading to their kids; studying source material for film interpretations; and passing time on set.

An eclectic taste in reading is apparently timeless: Sammy Davis Jr. relaxed with a paperback edition of Lloyd C. Douglas’ biblical epic The Robe, and Lauren Bacall perused a pictorial history of 20th-century conflict. John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands read Baby Animals, a picture book by Garth Williams, to their son, Nick, who grew up to be an actor and a director.

Some stars used books as props: In a photo from the 1971 film, Pretty Maids All in a Row, Angie Dickinson studied the Illustrated Book of Love, a guide to sexual positions. And three Ziegfeld Follies girls — Mary Jane Halsey, Diana Cook, and Edna Callahan — balanced titles from the MGM library on top of their well-styled heads.

Others were notably voracious readers. In a 1951 photo, Marilyn Monroe was curled up on a sofa bed, wearing a silk bathrobe and sultry expression while reading The Poetry and Prose of Heinrich Heine, an 874-page collection. Books were stacked on every nearby surface, too — Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, John Steinbeck’s Tortilla Flats.

In another photo, Bette Davis, outfitted in stylish riding gear, read a book concealed by a dust jacket. (There’s an ad for a 1930s spiritual movement on the back: “Explore Your Mind!” is visible in bold print.) Davis’ reading habits became the subject of national attention in 1938, when the New York Times reported that her husband wanted a divorce because she read “to an unnecessary degree.” Her fellow stars, one imagines, would have disagreed.

The Hollywood Book Club is a striking collectible, a delight for bibliophiles and cinephiles. The glitz and glamour are palpable, and the photos Rea selected awaken a nostalgia for those golden years of the silver screen. Assume your best movie-star pose, and savor the book on your velvet chaise, leveling its pages with your sauciest gaze. One never knows when a camera is lurking nearby.

Haupt is a freelance writer and full-time health editor in Washington, D.C. She wrote this review for the Washington Post.