D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray (D) joins Kojo, Tom Sherwood and Mike DeBonis in the studio.
Lyle Talbot’s Hollywood career spanned four decades, from near-stardom alongside Humphrey Bogart and Bette Davis, to roles in Ed Wood’s famously terrible B-movies. He ended up in television as a regular on now-classic shows like “Leave it to Beaver” and “Ozzie and Harriet.” Margaret Talbot’s new book paints a portrait of her father and Tinseltown’s golden years in “The Entertainer.”
- Margaret Talbot Author, "The Entertainer: Movies, Magic, and My Father's 20th Century"
Photo Gallery: Lyle Talbot: Family And Film
Images from “The Entertainer: Movies, Magic, and My Father’s Twentieth Century” by Margaret Talbot. All photos courtesy the author.
Read An Excerpt
Excerpted from THE ENTERTAINER: Movies, Magic, and My Father’s Twentieth Century by Margaret Talbot by arrangement with Riverhead Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc., Copyright © 2012 by Margaret Talbot.
Shirley Temple with Lyle Talbot in the 1935 movie “Our Little Girl.”
Lyle Talbot in a scene from the 1932 film “Three on a Match” with Joan Blondell, Bette Davis, Ann Dvorak and Warren William.
“And she Learned about Dames,” a trailer for a Busby Berkeley movie in which Lyle gives the winner of the “Miss Complexion” contest a tour of the Warner Brothers lot.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIMargaret Talbot grew up on her father's glamorous Hollywood tales. Lyle Talbot's career touched the highs and lows of the entertainment business. He started out in traveling theater troops and landed in Hollywood on screen with iconic actors like Bette Davis, Shirley Temple and Humphrey Bogart, but never quiet reached leading-man stardom. His career slipped to -- boom -- B-movie status in the movies of Ed Wood, director of the famously terrible films like "Plan 9 from Outer Space."
MR. KOJO NNAMDIHe finished out his career in television as a regular in classic shows like "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet" and "Leave It to Beaver." His daughter's new book paints a portrait of both her father and of a century of show business. Margaret Talbot joins us in studio. She is the author of "The Entertainer: Movies, Magic, and My Father's Twentieth Century." She's a staff writer for The New Yorker and a contributing writer to The New York Times magazine. Margaret Talbot, welcome. Good to have you here.
MS. MARGARET TALBOTHi there. Great to be here.
NNAMDILyle Talbot was part of pretty much every major form of entertainment through the 20th century. Can you describe for us what that trajectory was like for him?
TALBOTYeah. Well, he was born in 1902, so his career really spanned the century. And he started off in these traveling carnivals as a hypnotist's assistant, having rocks broken on his chest. He was a shield in the audience who was supposed to prove that the hypnotist could put somebody into a very deep slumber where they wouldn't notice a rock being broken on their chest.
TALBOTAnd he went on to these tent theater companies that would go into little towns all over the Midwest, ironically in sort of the tornado region since they performed in tents, and would put up a tent, put on a show, were a big deal in these towns before there were movies, and, yeah, then went to Hollywood in the early '30s, was a founder of the Screen Actors Guild, was a leading man briefly for Warner Bros., on the verge of stardom, as you say, never made it, ended up in these, yeah, B-movies and exploitation movies in the '50s and finally cropped up in kind of iconic family sitcoms in the 1950s.
NNAMDIOne can only imagine what it's like to live in a home with somebody like that and the kind of stories that you hear. This book is your father's story, but it's also the story of Hollywood's golden era. Why did you decide to go beyond memoir or biography in writing this?
TALBOTWell, you know, partly because he was this kind of Zelig-like character who was never the star but who turned up at all these moments. And so I was able to tell a bigger story. I didn't -- it wasn't like when you write a biography of a major figure, like if I had been Humphrey Bogart or something and you really feel you have to be comprehensive and mention all those movies. And with my father, I really felt I could sort of hopscotch around to the interesting bits. And it allowed me to tell this bigger story. I couldn't really have written a straight biography, I don't think, of somebody like him.
NNAMDIIt's a fascinating, bigger story. In case you're just joining us, we're talking with Margaret Talbot. She is the author of "The Entertainer: Movies, Magic, and My Father's Twentieth Century." She's a staff writer for The New Yorker and a contributing writer to The New York Times magazine. If you'd like to join the conversation, call us at 800-433-8850.
NNAMDIAre you a fan of early Hollywood movie with stars like Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart and Joan Blondell? 800-433-8850. He was in films with Humphrey Bogart before Bogie was Bogie, and he starred in films with Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck. He lived the Hollywood life, dating actresses, parties at William Hearst's mansion. What was it like being in Hollywood at that time?
TALBOTI think it was a combination of, on the one hand, incredibly hard work because they would work 14- and 15-hour days...
NNAMDIOh, we'll get to that.
TALBOTYes. They would work on Saturdays till late -- and, frankly, a lot of fun because there they were in this kind of isolated place in a way. It was the Depression, obviously, but Hollywood was faring pretty well compared to the rest of the country. It was kind of in its own little world in the sense that it was difficult to get to other places in the country when there wasn't really commercial air travel once people sort of washed up in -- or arrived in Hollywood.
TALBOTYou know, they called it the movie colony in those days, and it did have this sort of self-contained quality to it. And at the same time, my father used to describe it as being like a small town. You'd walk down Hollywood Boulevard. It was like Main Street. You went to the same barber. You went to the same tailor. You went to Musso and Frank.
TALBOTSo I think he was quite fond of it. And, yes, you know, they would go out a lot, sometimes on studio-sponsored dates because you were meant to go out and be seen and photographed with whatever other star or starlet they were promoting at that moment. But, yeah, I think it was -- he remembered it very fondly.
NNAMDIAnd that's what the book was able to do for me, to describe and demonstrate what life was like in that era. The AFI Theater in Silver Spring is featuring your father's films in a series opening Saturday. They're all films from the early '30s, the so-called pre-code era. Remind us, what was that and why was it significant?
TALBOTYes, well this series, I'll just say, starts Saturday at 4:00 with a movie called "Three on a Match" with Humphrey Bogart and Bette Davis and Joan Blondell and my father and Ann Dvorak. And I'm so glad they're putting it together. Todd Hitchcock, who's the director of programming at AFI, is doing it. And, yes, so these are movies that were early Warner Bros. movies, first of all, so it kind of showcases the style of those movies which they always said timely topical and not typical and torn from the headlines.
TALBOTThey were very -- and, of course, Warner Bros. was the sort of gangster movie studio par excellence. They made "The Public Enemy" and "Scarface." And so they had these very sort of taut, little, urban melodramas that were fast-paced and really kind of holed up well partly because our attention spans are shorter these days. And these were, like, 70 minute movies, and they moved along in a clip. And the pre-code era, yeah, this was the era when the Hays Code, the morals code was -- that governed what you could show in movies was technically on the books.
TALBOTBut producers were ignoring it as best they could. And so you get these movies in that era, in that couple of year period, that are racier, kind of more full of double entendres, more -- a little more cynical because, frequently, the malefactor comes out on top, which was, you know, something that Hays Code specifically tried to avoid. They wanted to see good rewarded and evil punished. So, yeah, it's a really different feeling to those movies.
NNAMDIWell, here's a clip from one of the films. These are showgirls, one of them played by Joan Blondell chatting while dancing on stage in "Havana Windows."
NNAMDIAn indication at the kind of dialogue you were talking about. That film's from 1933. In the film, the showgirls are fed up with the low pay, the lousy conditions of their work, and, as we heard, they wisecrack. Would that kind of thing be allowed once the code was enforced?
TALBOTNo, it really wasn't. So for many years, you wouldn't have the kind of dialogue like that. That was too sassy and too, you know, showed these women as kind of very practical, world-weary and, you know, sexed up.
NNAMDIOn the other hand, there was a lot of creativity and innuendo after the code. It was a challenge for writers.
TALBOTThat's right. And, in fact, I think, it, you know, contributed to what we think of as the golden age of Hollywood, the fact that these directors had to work around the code, had to suggest things, had to imply things. And, you know, a lot of directors, I think, did their best work under the constraints of the code. To me, "Hitchcock" is an example of that. I prefer the pre-code "Hitchcock" to the later movies myself.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Margaret Talbot. She is the author of "The Entertainer: Movies, Magic, and My Father's Twentieth Century." Margaret Talbot is a staff writer for The New Yorker and a contributing writer to The New York Times magazine. We're inviting your calls at 800-433-8850. Have you seen classic television like "Ozzie and Harriet" or "Leave It to Beaver"? Give us a holler, 800-433-8850.
NNAMDIYou mentioned earlier that Warner Bros. was known for its -- well, both for its ripped-from-the-headlines kinds of stories and for the tough guy themes of some of its stories. Can you talk a little bit about that? Why did they take that approach?
TALBOTWell, partly they were cheap. The Warner Bros. were notoriously cheap. So they didn't necessarily want to commission a lot of expensive original high-class scripts. They wanted to use real-life stories that would be cheaper to acquire from journalists and people they thought they could hire a little more inexpensively.
TALBOTSo there was a practical reason, but also Darryl Zanuck, who was the head of production at that time, just really liked these kinds of stories. He thought they were -- they made movies seem au courant, very vital, and that was kind of his style. And they also tended to attract a lot of these -- Robert Sklar, a film historian, calls them city boys. They were kind of the, you know, Humphrey Bogart and John Garfield, actors like that who are really urban types.
TALBOTAnd sometimes more ethnic types too like Jimmy Cagney, very Irish, you know? So that was kind of their style and they made it their stock in trade. And I think, you know, each of the studios had a little bit of a separate identity, and that was definitely a part of Warner Bros.
NNAMDIWell, you mentioned earlier "Three on a Match." Here's a clip from that movie with Lyle Talbot and Humphrey Bogart.
NNAMDINo, Bogey's voice did not change that much. And that was not Lyle Talbot. I said Humphrey Bogart.
NNAMDIActually that was another clip from "Three on a Match," a scene in which three friends got together for lunch and talk about their lives. That was Bette Davis, Joan Blondell and Ann Dvorak, strong women were a feature of movies of that era. Can you talk a little bit about that?
TALBOTYeah. I mean, I think one of the things you see a lot is the idea that, you know, it's the Depression and people are making their way as best they can and, particularly women, kind of do what they have to do, you know? And sometimes that means, you know, trading whatever they got going on for, you know, for lunch. And that's sort of conveyed in a fairly realistic way in these Warner Bros. movies.
TALBOTAnd also, these kind of female friendships actually that -- this was something I really came to appreciate about these movies that sometimes, you know, they're very tough, they're very wisecracking, but they have a real bond between them, you know? They'll be -- people like sort of Glenda Farrell and Joan Blondell, who are these really fast-talking dames, you know? But they have this connection that's very -- that's kind of warm that's at the center of them.
NNAMDIAnd in that case, in "Three on a Match," they were talking about a woman who was unhappy in her marriage. Many of the films at -- that are going to be at the AFI used to be very difficult to see. They were not even available on DVD. So how do you feel about able to see them now on the big screen?
TALBOTOh, I'm thrilled because, yeah, most of them I was not able to see. When I was growing up, they didn't show these movies on TV 'cause they were still considered too racy, or they showed edited, expurgated versions. So at AFI, they've, you know, tracked down prints. They borrowed prints from the Library of Congress in UCLA. So it's going to be great for me to see it, and in this beautiful 1938 theater too. So that'll be terrific.
TALBOTAnd, yeah, I mean there are movies like -- there's one movie in the series, "College Coach," which is made by the director William Wellman. They called him Wild Bill. He was a, you know, a notorious tough guy, made a lot of great movies including the original "A Star Is Born" and "Wings," the first movie to win an Academy Award. But this movie, "College Coach," is a very, in a way, prescient movie about corruption in college football and, you know, fixing grades and hiring recruits.
TALBOTAnd, again, what's interesting is the lead coach who's played by Pat O'Brien is not, in fact, punished. At the end, he sort of triumphs, so it's kind of a realistic social satire, in a way, about the world of college football. And it has a funny cameo with John Wayne 'cause John Wayne had been a football player at USC. And so all his initial roles were these -- many of them were as football players, and this was his last sort of bit part. After that, he moved into westerns and leading roles.
NNAMDIThat -- was "College Coach" a pre-code movie?
TALBOTYes, it was. Yeah.
NNAMDIYeah, because the bad guy didn't always get the punishment that was coming to him in the pre-code movies.
NNAMDIOn to the telephones. Here is Eileen in Silver Spring, Md. Eileen, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
EILEENHi. It's great. I've been looking forward to this interview with Lyle Talbot's daughter. I think it's a wonderful thing that you've paid this tribute to your father. I started going to movies in the mid-'40s when I was a kid. I was always aware of him. His was one of the first names I learned. He always was very convincing, whatever he was doing, and it was always comforting to me to see him. I think...
EILEEN…he probably had the same effect on the people he was working with. He was one of a legion of supporting players who just, you know, made the show. And congratulations on doing your book. I look forwarding to reading it. Thank you.
TALBOTOh, that's such a nice thing. Thank you. Thank you.
NNAMDIWell, I'm glad you brought that up, Eileen, because it gives us the opportunity to go back to that clip with Lyle Talbot and Humphrey Bogart so that you, Eileen, and others can hear his voice once again. Here's that clip from "Three on a Match" with Lyle Talbot and Humphrey Bogart.
NNAMDII found that clip fascinating. I haven't seen the film. Hope to see that film this weekend. But just listening to your dad say Harve so many times is one indication of just how nervous he is about this at this point.
NNAMDIAnd this was in the early era of talkies. We're talking with Margaret Talbot. She's the author of "The Entertainer: Movies, Magic, and My Father's Twentieth Century." We're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue our conversation. You can call us at 800-433-8850. Do you think movies and TV are now too direct, showing too much? Would you have approved of the code? 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. The book is called "The Entertainer: Movies, Magic, and My Father's Twentieth Century." The author is Margaret Talbot. She's a staff writer for The New Yorker and a contributing writer to The New York Times magazine. If you'd like to join the conversation, give us a holler, 800-433-8850.
NNAMDIDo you think we'll see another golden age like the early Hollywood era? 800-433-8850. You can send us a tweet, @kojoshow, or go to our website, kojoshow.org, and join the conversation there. Margaret, you started telling us earlier that life for a studio actor in the early '30s was, on the one hand, glamorous, on the other hand, not so much. What were his days like?
TALBOTWell, they were cranking movies out in that era, and so, yeah, he would work sort of 14-, 15-hour days, including on Saturday. He used to say that the Irish actors who wanted to go to Mass on Sunday morning would make it home just in time to go to Mass because, presumably, they went out after they got off work on Saturday night. And, yeah, he used to say that he would ride around the studio a lot on his bicycle with the movies, the scripts for the movies he was making in the front basket and the ones for the movies that were next in the back basket and...
TALBOT...trying to memorize them all simultaneously. So, yeah, it was -- and, of course, you didn't -- you know, it's truly the heyday of the studio system where you didn't really have any say over what your roles were. So you might be playing, you know, an Irish cop on the beat one week, and, you know, the next week, a sort of playboy gangster and not really have any option to turn it down.
NNAMDIBut, you know, having to memorize all those things at the same time apparently had the effect on your father of having a very retentive memory, which -- as a result of which you benefited from hearing all of these stories from him.
TALBOTWell, that's right. I also...
NNAMDIAnd then when you checked on them, the accuracy of his memory.
TALBOTExactly, exactly. Yeah, I often wonder if they've ever done sort of memory studies on actors. Maybe someone out there knows that. But I feel like that use of the memory is a muscle which, you know, he continued to perform in theater and so on into his 80s. And so -- and memorized, you know, large chunks of text. So I think that actually did help his memory a lot.
TALBOTAnd as you say, when I went to check out these stories, 'cause, you know, I've grown up hearing them a lot, and, you know, sometimes you tune out a little bit and hear him over and over again and -- but, you know -- and then I started working on this book after he had died. But I did, as a journalist, sort of go and try and confirm the stories, the names and the dates, and they checked out remarkably well. So that was -- I was pleased about that.
NNAMDIYou say your father was no firebrand, but he was nevertheless one of the founding members of the Screen Actors Guild because, as you pointed out, beyond the glamour, there was a darker side to life as a contract actor. Is that what let him in to being a founding member of SAG?
TALBOTYeah. I think the hours and kind of the crushing weight of those at times, and also, you know, he had come from the theater world where there was a union. Actors' Equity had been around since around 1913, and there was a lot of sort of camaraderie in that world. And a lot of the founders, the original founders of the Screen Actors Guild, had come from the theater as well and didn't have the same sense of hierarchy that Hollywood had where, you know, the extras, you really didn't talk to the extras, and, you know, there were all these ranks.
TALBOTAnd I think, you know, people who came from the theater maybe had a little bit more of an ensemble kind of feeling and felt you had to look out for everybody in the cast. So I think that motivated him as well.
NNAMDIAnd the six weeks of vacation they had in their contracts turned out to be purely theoretical.
TALBOTThat's right, because they were often loaned out to other studios, and, again, they didn't have any say over that. So that time really evaporated pretty quickly.
NNAMDIOn to the telephones again. Here is Charles in New Carrollton, Md. Hi, Charles.
CHARLESHey. How you doing? Love the show, Kojo. New fan, by the way. I love all your guests and everything and especially your guest today 'cause when I was a little kid, I always liked to watch shows like "I Love Lucy," "Leave it to Beaver." And also, one of my favorite movies of all time is -- I watched it when I was, like, 15 -- was "Casablanca" with, you know, Humphrey Bogart and just, you know, the way the movie was shot and the characters.
CHARLESI mean, you know, all the quotable lines like, you know, this might be the beginning of a beautiful friendship, you know, that sort of thing. There's so much of that great era. And I wonder, do you think that, with today's television and movies and such, how does it, like, compare the writings? I know you said, compared to, like, movies, you know, (word?) and all that kind of stuff. What do you think, like, compared to writing from back in the day to now, is it better? Is it worse? I think it's some ways better, and I think some ways a little bit worse. That's my personal take.
TALBOTMm hmm. Mm hmm. Mm hmm.
NNAMDIWhat do you say, Margaret Talbot?
TALBOTI think you're right about that, and I think, you know, this always -- this happens with books, too, of course. You tend to -- the movies you tend to see from the past are the best movies, right? So "Casablanca" is a fantastic movie, right? So if you compare "Casablanca" to, I don't know, some, you know, average rom-com that's out now, it's not -- you know, that average rom-com is not going to look very good.
TALBOTBut if you compare it to a great current movie, it's a little bit different. So, you know, partly, I think we compare it to the greats of the past, and maybe that's not fair. But there are beautiful things about the movies that we have lost, and that it's nice that some people are interested in preserving. I mean, I think black and white is beautiful.
TALBOTAnd I, you know, I work at The New Yorker. I'm doing a piece now about Alexander Payne, the filmmaker who made "The Descendants" and "Sideways" and "Election." And he's shooting his current movie in black and white, although it's a contemporary movie. So it's like Woody Allen's "Manhattan." It's, you know, it's -- he wanted to make a movie in black and white because a lot of true film, you know, film appreciators really love the look of black and white.
NNAMDII'm one of those who love -- still loves the look of black and white. Charles, thank you for your call. Again, talking about comparisons, here is Lissette in Greenbelt, Md.
NNAMDILissette, your turn.
LISSETTEHi. Yeah. I just wanted to make a comment about basically -- just wondering if anyone else notices the similarity between some of the current shows, the current hot shows like "Scandal" and like "Grey's Anatomy." The delivery of the lines, the speed is similar to some of the movies of that era. And I'm just wondering, is the sort of dancing between the characters just -- the way that I -- when I watch those older movies, I see those similarities, and I'm wondering if you all felt that way or if you had thought about that.
LISSETTEIt's just that the delivery is very similar to the "I Love Lucy" or the times of those lines because they're so -- they speak so much faster. And, you know, it's a very punchy and things you can remember. So that was my comment. I'd like to see you do a piece on that if possible because I really do -- they're written differently for many other shows on, specifically "Grey's" and "Scandal." And I always -- it just reminds me of those older movies because of the way they deliver the lines here.
NNAMDICertainly on any Aaron Sorkin series, you'll find a lot of lines being delivered very, very quickly as a matter of fact.
TALBOTRight, right. Yeah, that's interesting. I think the pacing of movie, sometimes you think, oh, you know, we're so much -- the movies are paced so much faster now. But, yeah, if you compare them to some '50s television and to some '30s movies, they are really similar. Then you have eras like the '70s, where movies were very slow-paced actually, and you'd stop to have sort of the equivalent of, like, a music video in the middle of it, like, you know, "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" has "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head" for a long time in the middle of the movie.
TALBOTSo I think, you know, sometimes when we think about that, we think about those movies that maybe some of us grew up on. But actually if you go back further, you get the faster-paced movies.
NNAMDIAnd, of course, anybody who was writing for Cagney had to write for somebody else who spoke very, very quickly.
TALBOTYeah, yeah. Exactly, rapid fire.
NNAMDILyle Talbot never quite reached movie stardom, although it seemed he was on the verge in the early '30s. He was dropped by Warner Bros. in 1936. Did his activism with the Screen Actors Guild have any effect on that, do you think?
TALBOTHe speculated later that maybe it did. He was one of the only kind of young actors who was sort of on -- in the running for leading man status, who was a founder. A lot of the other actors were older and character actors by that time, so he wondered if maybe that did have an effect. He also -- one of the women he was dating in that era was this real character named Lina Basquette, who had been married to one of the Warner brothers who died, and the family had not been fond of her.
TALBOTShe was a Catholic showgirl, and they were Jewish and not supportive of that marriage. And they ended up taking Lina and Sam Warner's daughter to raise. And so sometimes he wondered if his relationship with her, you know, was a black mark on his record with the Warner's. But I think also, you know, and it's interesting to think that he -- there was a quality he didn't have, you know? He didn't have that ineffable something that make stars.
TALBOTAnd, you know, it sounds like a cliché to talk about the chemistry but, you know, I think that's true. You know, there is a certain chemistry that some performers have with the audience that maybe he lacked.
NNAMDII got to tell you, when I see some movie actors on the street, they can pass by and nothing look different about them. But the minute you see them on the screen, somehow or the other, they're arresting and there is that...
NNAMDI...difficult something. Was the fact that he did not make leading men status difficult for him after he came so close?
TALBOTYou know, this was something I really thought about in writing the book and really came to appreciate about him because I don't think it was. Or if it was, he didn't show it. He really had this sense of being lucky, of being really fortunate to be able to work in his chosen field and not have to do anything else, as many actors do to make a living, you know, to support a family, raise a family. And I think he really had a sense that, you know, to work in a creative field and be able to do it all your life is actually a privilege.
TALBOTAnd it's true that you may not be a star and it's true, you know, but it didn't make him bitter. And so I think that's actually something I, you know, I find -- I don't know -- moving to think about it in my own life, and I think I came to appreciate that quality in him more in writing this book.
NNAMDIHere's Mark in Washington, D.C. Mark, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MARKHi, Kojo. Yeah, I have a question 'cause you're talking about Warner Bros. I've always wondered why no one's ever done, to my knowledge anyway, a good study or a book about the Warner Bros. television activity that took place in the late '50s and the early '60s, shows like the "Hawaiian Eye," "77 Sunset Strip" and "Sugarfoot." I mean, there was a whole slew of one-hour productions that Warner Bros. produced, casts with all kinds of interesting new faces.
MARKAnd it was always, to me, like kind of a replication of what they were doing in the studio. And there were some really popular shows that came out. I would one time wanted to sell a book idea of that 'cause I think that's a really neglected area, especially the Warner Bros. story. And I'm not sure if that's valid or, you know, if Ms. Talbot has anything to comment on that whole aspect of (unintelligible).
NNAMDIWell, let's ask her. Margaret Talbot.
TALBOTYeah. I don't know if there's a study or a book on that. I do know that the Warner Bros. archives are releasing a lot more, you know, sort of digging into the vaults and releasing more movies and may be releasing more of those TV series as well, which would be great if you wanted to write a book or for anyone else who wanted to look at those. So that's kind of an exciting development for, you know, film and TV nerds like us.
NNAMDIIn the final analysis, your father seems to have been an optimist. Was it painful, difficult to learn so much about the tougher parts of his life?
TALBOTYou know, in some ways. But I think because in a way he clearly believed -- I mean, this was an act of will to some extent, this optimism that he had. And so I came to respect that, you know, that, you know, especially as I say, working in a field where there's such a visible hierarchy, such a visible star system and he didn't make it to the very top.
TALBOTBut he was able to enjoy so much what he did do. He didn't sort of, you know, fall off the rails. He might have. He came pretty close to it. He had a serious alcohol problem for a long time. He had a number of failed marriages. But, you know, he -- partly because he met my mother, he was able to turn his life around and able to appreciate what he had done. And that's, you know, that's a really good quality, I think.
NNAMDIAnd you've said you've been able to get a new appreciation for some of his qualities now that you're older and...
NNAMDI...doing something that you like to do.
TALBOTRight. Exactly, exactly.
NNAMDIWell, you mentioned his failed marriages. Those weren't things that you apparently knew about your entire life. You learned some things in your research, including...
NNAMDI...the fact that he'd been married a few more times than you thought.
TALBOTThat's right, that's right. We knew there had been, you know, perhaps one or more former marriage. My mom was 26 years younger than my father, so we, you know, we knew that obviously. But my parents really did have a great love story, and they didn't -- part of their love story and part of their agreement was they really didn't talk about the -- his past. So, yeah, it turned out in the course of doing this research, he had been married to a total of five times. My mother was the fifth wife, so that was a revelation. Yeah.
NNAMDIWell, in the final analysis, he was your father, the only father you had and knew. Margaret Talbot is the author of "The Entertainer: Movies, Magic, and My Father's Twentieth Century." She's a staff writer for The New Yorker and a contributing writer to The New York Times Magazine. Margaret Talbot, thank you so much for joining us.
NNAMDI"The Entertainer" will expand your knowledge about show business in the 20th century. Thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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After five years in a Cuban jail, USAID contractor and Washington area resident Alan Gross is home. We explore the role the local Jewish community played in winning his release.