James “Jim” Bacon, the last of the colorful chroniclers of Hollywood’s Golden Era, died today of congestive heart failure in his sleep at his Northridge home. He was 96. In his many decades as a Hollywood journalist, columnist and author, Bacon traveled Vietnam battlefields with Bob Hope, sipped Jack Daniels with Frank Sinatra, hung out with John Wayne, and was a confidant of Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor, according to his official biography. Bacon was a reporter and Hollywood columnist for the Associated Press for 23 years, and a Hollywood columnist for Hearst’s now defunct Los Angeles Herald Examiner for 18 years. He received his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on April 6, 2007. His last Hollywood column appeared on June 6th in Beverly Hills 213 where he had written for 10 years. He was the author of three best-selling books, two chronicling his Hollywood years, Hollywood Is A Four Letter Town (1976), and Made In Hollywood (1970), and a third writing comedian Jackie Gleason’s autobiography, How Sweet It Is (1985).
I was fortunate to have known Jim Bacon — we’d both spent many years reporting for the AP from around the world in our careers — and I’d occasionally take him out to lunch and just listen quietly while he’d tell me about his many years covering Hollywood. The story I remember best? How the old MGM and MCA publicity machine had conspired with him to cover up a rape committed by then huge star Mario Lanza.
According to his official biography, Bacon broke many major stories of Hollywood’s Golden Era. He was the only reporter in the actress Lana Turner’s bedroom as she detailed the fatal stabbing of her lover Johnny Stompanato by her daughter Cheryl Crane. (A longtime Lana pal, he’d palmed himself off as the coroner to get past the police barricade.) It was Bacon who accompanied Elizabeth Taylor’s physician to her home to break the news that her third husband, impresario Mike Todd, died in a plane crash in New Mexico. Bacon had declined Todd’s invitation to accompany him on the flight and was on the plane’s manifest. Bacon was the only reporter allowed in the house and briefed the reporters outside. A few years later, Bacon traveled to the tiny Mexican fishing village of Puerto Vallarta where Liz was having a very public romance with Richard Burton while he filmed Night of the Iguana there. The actress’ 4th husband, singer Eddie Fisher, refused to give her a divorce. As Bacon later related, he reached Fisher by ship-to-shore phone to ask why he wouldn’t accept the multi-million dollar settlement. Fisher replied, “Because I’m still married to Elizabeth.” To which Bacon replied, “Let me be the first to tell you that Richard Burton is down here having a helluva lot of fun with your wife.” Years later Liz told a television interviewer, “He has always been one of the most forthcoming, honest, true, unbitchy [journalists] …a dear, dear friend.”
As his official obit points out, “Bacon’s wit, his capacity for Dom Perignon champagne and whiskey, as well as the accuracy and world-wide reach of the Associated Press made him a favorite companion of many of Hollywood’s legendary stars. Clint Eastwood, in a 1999 E! True Hollywood Story, said of him: “Jim always made you feel like …he was a pal looking to hang out.” That was why John Wayne confided his battle with cancer to Bacon, who broke the story.
James Bacon grew up in small central Pennsylvania towns and would write that he began his fascination with motion pictures at age 6 at the lone movie house. “The first movie I saw was an Art Accord two-reeler Western directed by a young William Wyler, freshly arrived from Germany,” Bacon once recalled. “About 35 years later, Wyler, by then a top Hollywood director, told me he not only had a shaky knowledge of English back then, but also had no idea what a Western was.” He would later graduate from Syracuse University. After a stint in the Navy during World War II, Bacon rejoined the Associated Press in the Chicago bureau in 1946 and transferred to the Los Angeles bureau in 1948. He first met a teenage Betty Grable in 1933 when she appeared at Notre Dame. She later introduced him to Frank Sinatra.
Some 25 years later, Bacon was filling in the wee small hours with Frank Sinatra at intimate star-studded parties after the singer’s performances in Las Vegas showrooms. In 1958, former actress Grace Kelly, then newly Princess Grace of Monaco, invited Bacon to attend her first Red Cross gala. Sinatra was performing and afterwards Sinatra kept the party going in his suite at the Hotel de Paris while Noel Coward played piano and Somerset Maugham applauded. Bacon one time countered Sinatra with his own version of the singer’s “Come Fly With Me,” at 3 AM. Sinatra awarded Bacon his famed straw pork-pie hat. By then, Bacon was an “honorary mouse” in Humphrey Bogart’s Holmby Hills Rat Pack whose partying membership included Sinatra, Judy Garland, Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracey, David Niven, restaurateur “Prince” Mike Romanoff, novelist John O’Hara, New Yorker cartoonist Charles Addams, and Democratic presidential nominee Adlai Stevenson.
Bacon recounted to me and in his book Hollywood Is A Four-Letter Town his own longtime friendship and months-long affair with Marilyn Monroe. She introduced him to Howard Hughes. Bacon spotted them at a secluded table at the famed Coconut Grove nightclub of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. Hughes asked Bacon to refrain from disclosing their date, and the reporter agreed. “I wouldn’t have written about them anyway,” Bacon later said. “The AP didn’t carry stories about ‘twosomes’.” Convinced of Bacon’s discretion, Hughes from then on telephoned him frequently, and eventually agreed to cooperate in a multi-part AP series on the reclusive billionaire. It was Bacon’s later debunking of the phony “autobiography” of billionaire Howard Hughes by Clifford Irving which became one of his biggest stories.
On Dec. 7, 1971, McGraw Hill announced it would publish The Autobiography of Howard Hughes based on 100 supposed hours of secret interviews conducted by its author Clifford Irving. Hughes’ spokesmen declared the book a hoax and agreed to a telephone press conference with the reclusive billionaire. NBC gathered a panel of newsmen to determine if the man on the phone was Hughes. Only Bacon, who had known Hughes for some 20 years, was able to authenticate his voice. Bacon famously said, “I have heard your voice so many times, and the minute you started talking, I knew it was Howard Hughes.”
During his career, Bacon also became acquainted with several U.S. presidents. He obliged President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s request for an autographed photo of the singing Lennon Sisters. He astonished Bob Hope when Bacon was warmly greeted by President Jimmy Carter at a White House reception. He met a young oil supply salesman named George H. W. Bush who was staying at the same Hollywood motel. He first met Ronald Reagan in the early 1950’s after a Warner Brothers publicist asked Bacon to give the actor a “a mercy interview” on the way to interview actress Virginia Mayo. That interview grew into a lifelong friendship with the future President and, later, First Lady Nancy Reagan. Bacon’s friendship with John F Kennedy endured until the President’s death in 1963. Two months earlier, Kennedy had debarked in Palm Springs for a vacation. Spotting Bacon on the tarmac dressed in yellow shorts and a blue-and-white checked sports shirt, Kennedy strolled over and quipped: “Only a Hollywood reporter would meet the President dressed like that.”
On Bacon’s 80th birthday, both Berle and Bob Hope traded gags during an intimate birthday celebration at famed Jimmy’s restaurant in Beverly Hills. “They were all at the center table and everyone in the room was trying to listen in,” recalled owner Jimmy Murphy.
As Jim’s official bio notes, Angie Dickinson, on the E! True Hollywood Story about Bacon, summed up his career best: “I would like to be James Bacon, because he had one of the greatest lives there ever was.”