Royalty in various forms runs through these four biographies. In the domains of the silver screen, the age of Swing, and television, these women reigned supreme.
ELLA FITZGERALD: A BIOGRAPHY OF THE FIRST LADY OF JAZZ, by Stuart Nicholson (Scribner, 334 pp., $23). ``To live is to perform; there is no other meaning or reason for being alive,'' Stuart Nicholson writes about Ella Fitzgerald's indomitable outlook. His splendid biography proves the point, demonstrating that the woman who at age 21 was dubbed ``The First Lady of Swing'' in 1938 and who continues to wear that mantle, has been more successful on stage than with her unhappy personal life.
With a touch of dry irony, Nicholson notes that writing a biography of the scat-singing Ella is no time for improvisation. There have been too many gaps and inconsistencies in what we have known of her life and career - some perpetuated by the notoriously private Ella herself. He carefully revises many assumptions and half-truths with a documentary precision that, happily, is never cold or impersonal - ranging from correcting her birth date to detailing for the first time her relationship with band leader William (Chick) Webb. The author also has interviewed many associates, including singer Charles Linton (who discovered her), business associates like Norman Granz (her longtime manager/producer), and friends and admirers, like Mel Torme (who, to his avowed regret, never made a record with her).
There are hints of abuse at the hands of her stepfather, a grim chronicle of her childhood on the Yonkers and Harlem streets, and fascinating glimpses of her associations with such jazz greats as Duke Ellington and Dizzy Gillespie. The personal disappointments were many - including two failed marriages and many affairs - but there was always the stage and ``the people,'' as she called her audiences.
AUDREY HEPBURN: A BIOGRAPHY, by Warren G. Harris (Simon & Schuster, 318 pp., $23). Biographer Warren G. Harris makes no secret of the fact that Audrey Hepburn is his favorite movie actress. And while this devotion has produced a book impressively packed with detail and anecdote, it has also impaired his objectivity. ``She had the aura of a true princess,'' Harris gushes on the very first page. This sort of thing does disservice to Hepburn.
It has also led author Harris to overlook, perhaps inadvertently, some of the darker implications of the data he accumulates so exhaustively. Otherwise, the book is too often awash in inconsequential matters, such as her relations with fashion designers like Hubert de Givenchy, travel itineraries, weight-loss problems, and errant husbands.
The book's real contribution is its treatment of Hepburn's troubled childhood in the years just before and during World War II.
STANWYCK, by Axel Madsen (HarperCollins, 434 pp., $25). ``There is nobody to explain Barbara Stanwyck,'' author Axel Madsen candidly admits at the beginning of his lengthy, richly textured biography. Stanwyck may have been, as Madsen writes, ``the most natural American actress'' - but her screen roles nonetheless served as brittle, protective facades.
Born Ruby Stevens in Brooklyn in 1907, her early years were marked by poverty and privation. By 1927, bit parts on Broadway had led to screen tests, and by 1930 the newly-dubbed ``Barbara Stanwyck'' - the name purportedly came from stage impresario David Belasco - was in Hollywood for her breakthrough picture, a Frank Capra talkie, ``Ladies of Leisure.'' First-rank stardom (and four Oscar nominations) came in the 1930s and 1940s with her classics, ``Stella Dallas,'' ``Ball of Fire,'' ``Double Indemnity,'' and ``Sorry, Wrong Number.'' Undaunted by the waning of Hollywood's golden age in the late 1950s, she turned to television and won three Emmys. At the time of her death in 1990, ``Queen Babs,'' as Madsen calls her, was honored as one of the last of the screen's true aristocrats.
Madsen's admirably researched, insightful portrait of her aloof nature, two unhappy marriages, ambivalent sexuality, virtual abandonment of her adopted son, and final years of seclusion reveal she was always torn between her ``wish to give of herself and her need to be in control.''
A DREAMIS A WISH YOUR HEART MAKES: MY STORY, by Annette Funicello with Patricia Romanowski (Hyperion, 237 pp., $22.95). On the morning of Annette Funicello's wedding, in 1965, Charles Schulz's ``Peanuts'' comic strip showed Linus clutching his security blanket and crying, ``This is terrible! How depressing ... ANNETTE FUNICELLO HAS GROWN UP!''
To many who grew up with her and shared the 360 episodes of ``The Mickey Mouse Club,'' on television from 1955 to 1958, the sentiment was not surprising. We ourselves might grow up, but it was a surprise - almost a betrayal - that wholesome, ever-young Annette would grow up, too. Now, since her diagnosis in the late 1980s with a serious illness, Annette has come to exemplify a different image.
In her memoir, she looks back on her years of association with Walt Disney - he's always ``Mr. Disney'' - as the happiest, most secure in her life. Aside from a few surprises - for example, that she has always fought chronic timidity and feelings of inferiority, that she participated in a never-completed project in 1959 to make a sequel to ``The Wizard of Oz,'' and that Disney himself vetoed her wearing a navel-revealing swimsuit in the ``Beach Party'' pictures - she insists her relations with Disney were entirely positive and that her life has lacked ``the requisite tormented childhood as well as tawdry Hollywood affairs.''
The last third of the book deals with her battle with her illness, which has led to her occasional confinement to a wheelchair. Paradoxically, it is in these quietly moving pages that she evinces the sturdy, shining spirit that captured a generation of viewers so long ago.