Robert Wagner's You Must Remember This (Book Review)

In 2008, movie legend Robert J. Wagner released an autobiography, Pieces of My Heart, which details  his life from childhood to the present day. In 2014, the star of  Prince Valiant released a memoir (co-written by Scott Eyman) titled You Must Remember This: Life and Style in Hollywood's Golden Age.

This is not a followup to the previous tell-all offering. You Must Remember This is largely a stream of consciousness, reminiscent of Tony Randall's Which Reminds Me. The book offers a hodgepodge of memories (and tales told to the author) from the 1900s to the 1960s in Southern California.

These are glances of Hollywood stars outside of work - their houses, their parties, their personal wardrobe. However, the book does not dive too deep into anyone's life. You're offered the ambience of early Hollywood more than anything.

These are cobbled together in sections, including "The Houses and Hotels" and "The Land."

You Must Remember This travels up and down the highways and byways of early Hollywood, filling in details of its architecture, economic history, how Hollywood actors and moguls lived and played. These are Wagner's own memories as well as those of older people (with whom he spent a great deal of time) who were on their way out as Wagner was on his way up into stardom in the 1950s. the author also acknowledges help from a few history books to round out his tales.

The chapter titled "The Land" discusses early Hollywood, the surrounding towns, the social and physical divisions (early Bel Air was off limits to nouveau riche people of the film industry), the drivers of the economy (agriculture and real estate, then movies) how people traveled (horse, trolley, then cars), the feel of the place (leisure and open spaces, sage brush and bridle trails).

Wagner discusses a part of the surrounding area and then will mention someone he has met there. For instance, in Palm Springs, the author discusses having a conversation with a retired William Powell (The Thin Man), having Christmas parties at Frank Sinatra's compound, and his own years living there near a favorite childhood author- Zane Grey. Then the author swiftly moves on to other places where denizens of Southern California might live or vacation.

In the "Houses and Hotels" section, Wagner discusses Hollywood architecture , that the place is filled with people from all over the world, bringing with them their own tastes and ideas . This creates a mish-mash of architecture, so there is no one solid house tradition. Architect Frank Lloyd Wright decried it all in resignation saying that California's, "eclectic procession to and fro in the rag-tag and cast-off of the ages was never going to stop." This is a designer in defeat.

Wagner also discusses early city planning. Explaining that it was by design that in Beverly Hills, the Santa Monica and Wilshire Boulevard areas were for lower income families, Sunset Boulevard and the hills above were given wider plots and were meant for the very wealthy. Anything between these streets were for the middle classes. This explanation gives a better understanding of movies such as Sunset Boulevard and what it means to characters in that film to travel into the hills and visit a movie star's house.

Wagner says that Beverly Hills was largely barren until major movie stars, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford married and created their vast compound - Pickfair. That's when, "the world began beating a path to Beverly Hills."

Other famous names make appearances in this book.

Movie mogul Jack Warner lived in refined elegant homes, not the gauche trappings that Wagner expected of a man who made gangster films. Fred Astaire's last home was not decorated with art of famous painters, but that of family and friends.

James Stewart's Tudor home on Roxbury Drive was understated inside, featuring photos of family and friends with a few frames of some of his films. He and his wife bought the house next door, tore it down and planted a garden.

Wagner was surprised to learn that legendary film star James Cagney owned a house in Cold Water Canyon that was a relatively unpretentious farm; there were no wild Hollywood parties there; the Cagneys kept to themselves.

But there were those who did give parties. Wagner mentions Carole Lombard's hospital themed party where guests ate from an operating table.

You were still invited to A-list house parties even if your star no longer shone bright in Hollywood, says Wagner. You were simply not seated at the A table.

There is an entire section on wardrobe titled "Style". These Discussions of Cary Grant's Kilgour suits on and off screen and how Fred Astaire copied the Duke of Windsor's clothing choices.

There are also plenty of golf memories. Wagner's father was a member of the Bel Air Country Club, Wagner became a caddy there (and met Cary Grant, Gary Cooper and others, which solidified his determination to be in movies) and eventually became a member himself.

There is a handy index to help you find names of stars or streets.

The author playing golf in the 1950s

 Though this is mostly a book about movie star residences and play time, the author does swing through work life a little in the section titled "The Press."

A run-in with a gossip columnist -who could kill your career with a breathe of scandal- was often greeted with strained gentility. Wagner recounts the tale of how he heard of Marilyn Monroe's death. Columnist Sheilah Graham yelled the news of the film star's demise out of her window in "exactly the same way she would have announced that her building was on fire."

However, an actor could not afford to make disdain for the press obvious; the press had power. Wagner would court them, send flowers. "It was part of the game," says Wagner, "You could get tired of it, but you couldn't show it. That's why they call it acting."

Wagner changes topics frequently and swiftly in the same manner that Hollywood  reinvents itself from year to year. You Must Remember This is a slim volume. However, it is ultimately a love letter to a time when Hollywood felt like a big small town, a place where you could pop into a restaurant or be invited to a house party and bump into the innovators of your industry.


This post is part 1 of 6 of Raquel's Summer Reading Classic Film Book Challenge Blogathon. Read more at the Out of the Past website.


  1. I've not read the book, but the idea of stream-of-consciousness bits of recall on Hollywood during this time is interesting. Thanks for a closer look.

    1. Jacqueline,

      I found it while in a city on the rare occasion of browsing around a big box book store. (Remember those? :) )

      It's refreshing not to have a tell-all book from a Hollywood actor. This is an effort of love for Wagner.

  2. These sort of memoirs are right up my alley. Thanks for this review and for participating in my challenge!

    1. I'm having fun with the challenge, Raquel. Thanks for introducing it.
      --- Java/Deborah


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