Editors' Note: Guest blogger Brett Abrams is Historian in Residence at American University in addition to his work with the National Archives. A ravenous devourer of movies, plays and books, he focused his doctoral studies on gender, sexuality and culture in the media of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which eventually led to the publication of his first book, Hollywood Bohemians: Transgressive Sexuality and the Selling of the Movieland Dream. The author also writes about sports - his 2009 release is Capital Sporting Grounds: A History of Stadium and Ballpark Construction in Washington, D.C.
Unlike many adults, I have not outgrown the habit of asking questions. I enjoy discovering the back stories that shape what exists around us. What's more exciting, sometimes amazing, and other times disheartening are the discoveries of what could have been.
My curiosity about people and places has always been especially focused on the US entertainment and leisure worlds. Both film and sports cultures forge highly dramatic environments filled with stars who bask in the limelight and adulation of fans. Yet each has a place for role players who can rise to prominence with one amazing performance.
My books reveal another commonality between these cultures. In Hollywood Bohemians, we learn how the early publicity machine around the stars forged Hollywood's identity. In my second book, Capital Sporting Grounds (2009), I demonstrate that stadiums in Washington, D.C. are located and designed as tourism vehicles, promoting the city as a great place to visit.
Research is detective work. There is a range of likely sources of information that one keeps in mind---local newspapers, industry publications, the papers of notable persons and organizations. I read all these sources for insight into the issues and I also look for new names and details to follow-up additional sources and ideas. I take notes everywhere I go. I whip out pen and paper anywhere that I may be and write in short bursts, from coffee houses to standing at the bus stop. I notice that I get a lot of my ideas after random contacts.
So many unusual stories about Hollywood exist that I had to fight the impulse to share them with the people around me. I laughed when I read that during Rudolph Valentino's divorce trial, his wife testified that he liked using her perfume. It surprised me to learn that Spencer Tracy had a public romance with Loretta Young years before his relationship with Katherine Hepburn. Unbelievably, a Life magazine caption for a photograph of Clark Gable and Carole Lombard called them a couple, while mentioning that Gable was still married to another woman.
Making these stories available to the public is part of what I relish about writing history, being an archivist, and teaching. Archivists play the key role in saving original information sources that preserve the nation's history. We make information available to others who then write new incredible stories about our world. Teaching the history of sexuality and romance, and particularly the roles that the media have in shaping our understanding of these concepts, offers me the opportunity to share stories--those I have written and those of others.