One of those guys seemingly born to wear a tux, Robert Wagner proves an expert tour guide in the sometimes dishy, always perceptive You Must Remember This: Life and Style in Hollywood’s Golden Age.
In recent years, Wagner has come to be known for small screen roles on “Two and a Half Men” and “NCIS”—as well as deadpan appearances in the “Austin Powers” film franchise. He was married to the luminous Natalie Wood (for the second time) at the time of her still-puzzling 1981 death. But Wagner also enjoyed movie stardom in the ’50s and early ’60s. And he has long mingled with the rich and famous, having grown up in swanky Bel Air.
And so, with historian-critic Scott Eyman, R.J., as he’s known, has written what he calls “a mosaic of memory.”
The book was inspired, in part, by the wacky 2002 wedding of Liza Minnelli and David Gest. Though “not exactly a Fellini movie, it was close,” Wagner says, recounting how Liz Taylor kept a church filled with guests waiting, because she didn’t like her shoes; when the ceremony at last concluded, Gest “tried to suck the lips off Liza’s face.” (“Ewww, gross,” whispered actress Jill St. John, Wagner’s wife since 1990.)
To document a lifestyle “that has vanished as surely as birch bark canoes,” Wagner gives us a mix of history and I-was-there recollections. Like the dinner party at Clifton Webb’s home, where guest Judy Garland gave an impromptu serenade at the piano—for nearly an hour—as 15 other attendees gathered ’round. Once a caddy for Fred Astaire, Wagner went on to become a regular golfing buddy; he played softball with John Ford’s “group,” which included Duke Wayne and Ward Bond; and he spent New Year’s Eves at Frank Sinatra’s famed Palm Springs digs.
Wagner tells us about favorite decorators (the gay Billy Haines ruled), fashion trendsetters (the Duke of Windsor), the liveliest and even most unlikely night spots (including how Don the Beachcomber’s came to be), all the while dropping yummy nuggets. (Sinatra’s aftershave was witch hazel, or Yardley’s English Lavender.)
Wagner does it all with grace—never taking overt shots at today’s Hollywood, but making one thing clear: The so-called golden age was no cinematic fantasy.