Today, movie stars are easily accessible to us: on TV, by way of streaming services and, of course, via the internet, usually even via that star’s very own Twitter and Instagram. In fact, celebrities—of every conceivable stripe–are so omnipresent that it seems hard to imagine, or remember, a time when even our most famous film stars were as unattainable to us as the stars in the night sky.
But think of it: if not at the actual movie theater or, occasionally, appearing as themselves on radio broadcasts, how did fans learn about or “interact” with their favorite cinema personality?
This remoteness—and the hunger it generated—helped create the fan-magazine phenomenon that, for decades, put on the neighborhood newsstands an endless array of publications like “Photoplay” and “Modern Screen.” And though these ‘zines were an important part of the film industry and fan experience, sometimes, to some true devotees, even they were not enough.
Hence, in the early 1940s, Whitman Publishing Company of Racine, Wisconsin, struck upon a new and innovative way of satisfying the desires of film fans—or at least the young and female ones—to know and even spend more time with their favorite film star.
The publisher put out a series of hardback books each “starring” a well-known, real-life film star involved in a completely made-up adventure. This series of books was known as the Whitman Authorized Editions, though how “authorized” they were is up for debate; while the stars’ studios might have approved, did the stars themselves even know?
The series, published between 1941 and 1947, eventually totaled 19 different titles and starred various famous, above-the-title young actresses in various “above-the-title” (or, more accurately, in the title) adventures. Some of the actresses featured in these tales (playing, um, themselves) were Shirley Temple, Gene Tierney, Betty Grable, Jane Withers, Dorothy Lamour, and even Judy Garland, among others. But it wasn’t just female stars—ingénues—that got to have pretend adventures in Whitman’s pages. Three male stars (each with a sort of teen appeal) also got written into the act: these matinee idols were Gregory Peck, John Payne and Van Johnson.
Though the Van Johnson book is more of a sanitized, carefully-crafted studio biography than a true work of fiction, all the rest of the Whitman books are illustrated adventures that always seem to involve stolen jewels, haunted houses or other creepy goings-on. The plots are very Nancy Drew-ish and, once again, friendly to a young reader.
Of course, the real selling point of the books was probably not so much the plots as the cover dust jackets which, even today, have a sort of pizzazz about them: colorful, fun, evocative and adorned with a glamorous portrait of that book’s “star.”
Deanna Durbin kicked off the series with two titles released in 1941. “Her” first book, “Deanna Durbin and the Adventure of the Blue Valley,” has Deanna going off on a vacation with some family friends at their picturesque family farm in Blue Valley. But, from the moment she arrives, something is amiss! The family is distant! They are thinking of selling the farm! And some strange sounds emanating from an unknown source have driven everyone to distraction! Can Deanna solve this mystery and save the day?!
That same year, Durbin also appeared in “Deanna Durbin and the Feather of Flame.” “Flame” has an interesting plot, with Durbin being hoodwinked into attending a meeting of a strange subversive group. Trapped in a warehouse with them, can she escape?
Both of the Durbin tomes were written by Kathryn Heisenfelt, an author of children’s books. Heisenfelt would go on to write most of the Whitman movie tie-ins and, sadly, never saw her name on the cover of any of them, since the film “star” of the story always got that honor. (The other authors of the books were also children’s books authors.)
Nineteen forty-two saw the release of four of the Whitman books. Bonita Granville was the star of one escapade; her participation in the series made a kind of sense, as Granville had, just a few years prior, become film’s very first Nancy Drew. Also in the mix: Ann Rutherford (“Ann Rutherford and the Key to Nightmare Hall”), Jane Withers (who would go on to be the most featured star of the series with three books: “Jane Withers and the Hidden Room,” 1941; “Jane Withers and the Phantom Violin,” 1944; and “Jane Withers and the Swamp Wizard,” 1944), and Ginger Rogers.
The Ginger Rogers entry (“Ginger Rogers and the Riddle of the Scarlet Cloak”) is an especially interesting one as it was authored (apparently) by Rogers’ own mother—Lela A. Rogers. Its plot is deeply intriguing: in it, Ginger is not a major movie star but a hotel switchboard operator who soon gets pulled into some WWII intrigue. Additionally, in the book, Rogers has a first time meeting with her biological father. Hmmm? Where does fiction end and real life begin?
This leading lady-is-not-a-star-but-has-the-name-and-the-visage-of-the-star is the approach that exists in about half of the books, and it’s confusing to say the least. For example, in Dorothy Lamour’s 1947 adventure, “Dorothy Lamour and the Haunted Lighthouse,” Dottie was either not an actress at all or she has fully eschewed her stardom so that she can, in the book, become the secretary to a lighthouse keeper! The other books in the series with this same approach are the aforementioned two Deanna Durbin titles, Ann Rutherford’s, Betty Grable’s and two of the Jane Withers editions.
Each of the Whitman books is about 250 pages long, and sprinkled in each are a handful of drawings that illustrate each novel’s goings-on. Because many of these books came out during the US war years, they often reflect the times: the female characters live with single mothers (dad is overseas?) and the leading ladies often talk of “doing their part” for their country.
How many books Whitman sold of this series during its almost 10-year run is not easy to find out. But they must have been plentiful for a time, as various online booksellers and auction sites each offer a bounty of the vintage tomes. Additionally, they can often be found at local antique malls and estate sales. Interestingly, most of the books today come lacking their colorful dust jackets–presumably, long after the book itself had been regulated to the back of the shelf, the lovely picture of its cover star was still tacked to the fan’s bedroom wall.
Below is a full list of all of the movie-related Whitman books, their author and year of publication; those marked with an asterisk have a copy housed at the Library of Congress’ Packard Campus:
“Ann Sheridan and the Sign of the Sphinx”–Kathryn Heisenfelt (1943)*
“Betty Grable and the House of Cobwebs”–Kathryn Heisenfelt (1947)
“Betty Grable and the House with Iron Shutters”–Kathryn Heisenfelt (1943)
“Bonita Granville and the Mystery of Star Island”–Kathryn Heisenfelt (1942)*
“Deanna Durbin and the Feather of Flame”–Kathryn Heisenfelt (1941)
“Deanna Durbin: The Adventure of Blue Valley”–Kathryn Heisenfelt (1941)
“Dorothy Lamour and the Haunted Lighthouse”–Matilda Bailey (1947)
“Gene Tierney and the Invisible Wedding Gift”–Kathryn Heisenfelt (1947)
“Ginger Rogers and the Riddle of the Scarlet Cloak”–Lela A. Rogers (1942)
“Gregory Peck and the Red Box Enigma”–Kathryn Heisenfelt (1947)
“Jane Withers and the Hidden Room”–Eleanor Packer (1942)
“Jane Withers and the Phantom Violin”–Roy J. Snell (1944)*
“Jane Withers and the Swamp Wizard”–Kathryn Heisenfelt (1944)
“John Payne and the Menace at Hawk’s Nest”–Kathryn Heisenfelt (1943)*
“Judy Garland and the Hoodoo Costume”–Kathryn Heisenfelt (1945)* [no dust jacket]
“Shirley Temple and the Screaming Specter”–Kathryn Heisenfelt (1946)
“Shirley Temple and the Spirt of Dragonwood”–Kathryn Heisenfelt (1945)*
“Van Johnson, The Luckiest Guy in the World”—Elizabeth Beecher (1947)