Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Sterling Hayden's Wars by Lee Mandel

Sterling Hayden's Wars
by Lee Mandel
University Press of Mississippi
May 2018
Hardcover ISBN: 9781496816979
368 pages

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“Sterling Hayden, the individualist who could never quite belong or find contentment.”

This is not a biography about the actor Sterling Hayden. This a biography about a man and the struggles that plagued him for his 70 years on earth. There’s very little information in this book about Hayden’s acting career. Probably because Hayden himself was so indifferent about his movie roles. His acting was just a means to an end. To get the money he needed to finance his true passion: sailing.

Sterling Walter was born March 26, 1916 in New Jersey. His father died when he was only 9 years old and his mother remarried James Hayden, a shifty businessman who eventually gave Sterling his new surname. They moved around quite a bit, always staying fairly close to the sea. In fact the Hayden family lived for several years in my home state of Massachusetts. He even worked for a short stint at the legendary (and now demolished) Filene’s Basement in Boston.

As Hayden biographer Lee Mandel describes it, Hayden was “enchanted by the ocean” and dreamed of going out on adventures. He went on his first voyage at the age of 17. As a sailor he was a natural fit. He was eager to learn, becoming an expert in no time, and could handle long and grueling voyages. Each new trip just fueled the flames and he’d spend the rest of his life always trying to get back to sea.


Photo Source: University Press of Mississipi/Catherine Hayden

Being a full-time sailor didn’t pay well and his seafaring friends encouraged him to find another job that would help fund his interests. Two of his drinking buddies thought the tall, handsome and brawny Hayden had the looks and charisma to become a movie star. One buddy had the connections and the other helped him get an audition with Paramount executive Edward H. Griffith. Hayden had absolutely no acting experience and had never entertained the idea of becoming an actor. It might have seemed like a gamble but Griffith saw a lot of potential in Hayden. Paramount's publicity campaign to launch Hayden into the stratosphere involved proclaiming him “the most beautiful man in Hollywood” and giving him the second male lead in Virginia (1941) alongside stars Madeleine Carroll and Fred MacMurray.

As soon as Hayden’s acting career started it was put on hold when the U.S. entered WWII. Hayden had recently married his co-star Carroll but the two would spend the war years apart and their marriage never got the foundation it needed. They eventually divorced. Hayden enlisted in the Marine Corps but quickly discovered that his newfound fame was a burden. Not wanting any special treatment, he legally changed his name to John Hamilton to separate himself from his public persona (he changed it back to Sterling Hayden in 1958). Mandel’s book goes into painstaking detail about Hayden’s years as a Marine. Readers learn about Operation AUDREY, the HACIENDA mission, his work for the Office of Strategic Service and his time in Yugoslavia. He rose in ranks to Lieutenant and then Captain and received medals for his service.

Hayden’s time overseas heavily influenced his politics and when he came back to the states he joined the Communist party. He quickly grew disillusioned and after 6 months. When the HUAC (House of Un-American Activities Committee) began their Communist witch hunt, Hayden at first hid his former political ties. He even joined the Hollywood delegation that fought back against the HUAC. When things took a turn, he followed his lawyer’s advice to contact the FBI and voluntarily testify at a HUAC hearing. Naming names was “the price of forgiveness” and while he was able to bounce back into his acting career his decision adversely affected the careers of others. He regretted the decision for the rest of his life.


The Asphalt Jungle was a turning point in his acting career and according to Mandel, Dr. Strangelove “proved to be a sort of renaissance for Hayden, who seemed to have recreated himself as a character actor." Mandel briefly touches upon Hayden’s films such as Blaze of Noon, Journey into Light, The Star, Johnny Guitar, Suddenly, The Killing, Hard Contract, The Godfather and The Long Goodbye. When he wasn’t acting, he regularly attended therapy sessions and sought financing for ocean voyages. Hayden’s post-HUAC life included a contentious marriage with his second wife Betty which lead to their divorce and bitter custody battle for their four kids. Hayden won custody and worked hard at being a good father (a rarity among Hollywood actors). He married his third wife Kitty and they remained together until his death in 1986 at the age of 70. It wasn’t a perfect marriage but they stuck with it. Mandel paints a glowing portrait of Kitty as a long-suffering wife who was a veritable saint to stick by Hayden through the many problems that plagued him in his later years.

Lee Mandel’s Sterling Hayden’s Wars is not a typical biography. Especially not one about an actor. Instead of the traditional biography, this book focuses closely on Hayden’s battles which can be broken down into the following list:

WWII
HUAC
Finances
Self-doubt
Second marriage
Custody of his children
4 month trip on his schooner The Wanderer
Alcoholism
Depression
Cancer

"We are brainwashed by our economic system until we end up in a tomb beneath a pyramid of time payments, mortgages, preposterous gadgetry, playthings that divert our attention from the sheer idocy of the charade... The years thunder by. The dreams of our youth grow dim where they lie caked in dust on the shelves of patience. Before we know it, the tomb is sealed.” – Sterling Hayden

I’d be lying if I said I was okay with there not being much information about Hayden’s acting career. With that being said, in Hayden’s story I found someone who was real and relatable. I could empathize with his disconnect between the career that paid and the passion that didn’t. I shared some of his social ideals and his fervent desire for travel and adventure. I admired his natural ability to write and his deep, brooding thoughts. However, he could also be a very frustrating figure to understand. Self-doubt and a need to be taken seriously constantly got in the way of rational decision making. I was interested to learn that Dalton Trumbo, a victim of the HUAC and Hollywood Blacklist, approached Hayden to play Joe’s father in the film adaptation of Johnny Got His Gun. Hayden turned down the role because it hit too close to home. I wish he had gone through with it.

If it wasn’t such a damn interesting story I would say skip this book because of the lack of content of Hayden’s acting career. But the truth is Lee Mandel’s Sterling Hayden’s Wars is more than worthy of your time. If you've read Hayden's memoir Wanderer and wanted to keep that voyage going, make sure you give Mandel's book a shot.


Thank you to University press of Mississippi for sending me a copy of Sterling Hayden's Wars to review.

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