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Splitsville

We know the short shelf life of Hollywood marriages, but we want to know why.

Aug 21, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 46 • By JUDY BACHRACH
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The Hollywood Book of Breakups

by James Robert Parish

Wiley, 312 pp., $16.95

Let's say you need to know why Madonna couldn't stay married to Sean Penn for more than a minute, or what Ava Gardner had against Frank Sinatra, even after he told her, "You're all I want," and then threatened to kill himself if the feeling wasn't mutual. (It wasn't. He didn't.)

Or for that matter, let's assume you are still wondering, six years later, why Ellen De Gen eres, after necking up a storm in public with the skinny actress Anne Heche, couldn't manage to make their relationship endure. Where do you go to get the dirt on divas?

Well, one answer is The Hollywood Book of Breakups, a compendium of weepy tales by a clip-master with fine organizational skills and a brisk cheerleader for the underdog in each failed romance. ("Such are the ways of Hollywood," James Robert Parish writes bitterly after Clint Eastwood wins a 2004 Oscar for Million Dollar Baby, while the career of his dumped girlfriend, Sondra Locke, founders.) Another solution to such unquenchable curiosity is, I'm afraid, Google, which is $16.95 cheaper than The Hollywood Book of Breakups and, in certain instances, juicier and more authoritative.

Not that I'm knocking Mr. Parish's métier. It is always gratifying to discover that the wealthy, famous, and beautiful can be every bit as dumb in love as the poorer and plainer--even dumber, in certain wonderful instances. For example, we discover in this book, after hearing that her second husband Eric Benet was involved with a pretty model from (of all places) Milwaukee, the actress Halle Berry and her mother leaned on Eric to enter a clinic that specializes in sexual addiction. Yes, they did.

Alas, Mr. Parish describes this sex rehab interlude as a "seeming confirmation of Eric's unfaithfulness," which is pretty namby-pamby verbiage for a summer read. Also, it might have helped had the author done some hard digging on his own (or perhaps more comprehensive clipping). That way he could have discovered, for example, that Meg Ryan left Dennis Quaid not merely because of boorish-but-hunky interloper Russell Crowe, but because, as Ryan told me, Quaid had a wandering eye.

(I know, I know. Publishing house lawyers are famously even more stupid and spineless than those who frequent sex addiction clinics on the advice of their mother-in-law. But still.)

More interesting than the summaries of modern celebrity heartaches (Uma Thurman, JLo, Cher, etc.)--which, thanks to the beauty parlor, we have all by now committed to memory--are the long-ago splits of the Ur-stars. Who knew that Barbara Stanwyck, like her husband Robert Taylor, was "reputedly bisexual"? Or that she called him "Junior." Or that he messed around with Ava Gardner, along with an Italian babe named Lia Di Leo and a ballerina named Ludmilla Tcherina? Part of the charm, for me, of this compendium is the number of times I found myself saying, "Who?" and never entirely finding out.

In fact, the book would have benefited greatly from some cross- referencing. For example, in the chapter entitled "Debbie Reynolds vs. Eddie Fisher," we learn that in June 1954 at the Cocoanut Grove club in Los Angeles, Eddie first made eyes at Debbie. At this point some "fanciful beauty" named Pier Angeli, who thought she was Eddie's date, "fled in tears." (In Mr. Parish's book, almost everyone, not just the fanciful, does this sort of thing. Also, they don't necessarily fall in love. They have "amours.")

It would have been helpful had the author reminded us that this fleeing Pier was the same "petite performer" beloved of James Dean and Kirk Douglas some 200 pages earlier. Or that, ultimately, Pier wed neither of her previous amours but instead chose the singer Vic Damone in 1954. Except, as you probably guessed, the Damone/Angeli union "proved stormy," perhaps because "his movie making career fizzled and hers waned."

(On the other hand, as the author frequently points out, movie career failure is by no means the only cause of marital angst. Another blow to enduring love is movie career triumph. Mr. Parish memorably observes that "success, money and fame were not enough to keep Jennifer Aniston's and Brad Pitt's high-profile lives on the same track." This is possibly not good news for Angelina.)

Why so much emphasis on girl grief? Because that's life. That is also, as it happens, the way the author has composed his book. All chapter headings begin with the lady's name. A gallant gesture, certainly, but one that can lead to a good deal of head-scratching: "Phyllis Gates vs. Rock Hudson," for instance, or "Lupe Velez vs. Johnny Weissmuller."