Death Valley Superstars
~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp ~
I was looking for a book about Steve Cochran, who died at age forty-eight in 1965 on his yacht with an all-girl (and inexperienced) crew somewhere around Tahiti. The non-English speaking girls didn’t know how to navigate the yacht. They drifted until they were rescued, by which time Steve Cochran had been dead for ten days. His body was badly decomposed in the tropical heat; positive identification was difficult.
In case you’re wondering who Steve Cochran is, he was a movie actor in the forties and fifties who specialized in tough-guy roles. He was in a few good movies, such as White Heat and The Best Years of Our Lives, and plenty of bad ones. If you had ever seen Steve Cochran, you would remember him. He was dark, swarthy and dangerous-looking. He almost always wore a dark suit. He had thick black hair and smoldering eyes. If you messed with him, it would be at your own peril.
Nobody has ever written a book about Steve Cochran, though. The closest thing I found was a book of “essays” entitled Death Valley Superstars by a writer named Daryl “Duke” Haney. He is a writer and actor, born in 1963. The thing is, you have to read all the way to the end of Death Valley Superstars to get to the part about Steve Cochran. The essay about him is the last chapter in the book.
The subtitle of Death Valley Superstars is Occasional Fatal Adventures in Filmland. On the front cover we are told that it’s “A kaleidoscopic investigation of American pop culture and cinema; at turns dark, intimate and hilarious.” I was never once moved to hilarity in reading Death Valley Superstars. My interest was engaged by most of the essays in the book, even if I didn’t learn anything I didn’t already know before. If you don’t find Jim Morrison wildly fascinating, as so many people do, you can skip the chapter on the séance conducted in a Hollywood motel room where he was known to have stayed. If you just barely remember (or maybe not at all) a movie from the late 1960s called Zabriskie Point, starring a little-known actor named Mark Frechette, you can probably skip over the essay entitled “Pluto in the Twelfth House.” It’s the longest essay in the book and I thought it would never end. The most interesting thing about Mark Frechette (in my humble opinion) is that he robbed a bank to finance a proposed movie and died in prison bench-pressing weights at age twenty-seven.
The essay about actor Christopher Jones, “Catch Me,” is a glimpse at a would-be “star,” an “almost-star,” who quit acting just as he was solidifying his reputation as the “Next James Dean.” He was in a handful of movies, including Ryan’s Daughter and Wild in the Streets. He died at age seventy-two in 2014.
In between sections on Marilyn Monroe, which kicks off the book, and Steve Cochran, ending the book, are sections on:
- Hugh Hefner, a polarizing figure from the mid-twentieth century who revolutionized girlie magazine publishing while promoting the swinging lifestyle of a voraciously sexual bachelor.
- Errol Flynn’s son, Sean Flynn, born into show business, disappeared mysteriously in Vietnam in the 1960s.
- Lee Harvey Oswald, the “patsy” who (supposedly) assassinated President John Kennedy, was influenced by politically themed movies. (Does anybody really believe that Oswald acted alone? He was murdered to shut him up. What a story!)
- The author’s brief encounter as a child with Elizabeth Taylor at a public appearance event and then recounting her brief (and probably unhappy) marriage to a U.S. Senator from Virginia.
- William Desmond Taylor, a shadowy movie director murdered in Hollywood a hundred years ago. A whole list of suspects was assembled, but the murder has never been solved.
Books on Hollywood lore can make for interesting reading. Death Valley Superstars is not quite like any of the others. Don’t I have anything better to do that read books like this? Probably not, as I am a compulsive reader. Whenever I see a book online that interests me, I have to get my hands on it. Sometimes it’s a mistake but most of the time it turns out all right.
Copyright © 2022 by Allen Kopp