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Elizabeth Taylor had 7 husbands, Evelyn Hugo had 7 husbands...What other things do they have in common?
Taylor Jenkins Reid's 2017 historical fiction novel The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo has been and continues to be a huge success, making waves on the New York Times Best Seller list - partially due to its popularity on Book Tok. There's even a Netflix movie in the works, causing fans to urgently submit their picks for the book's larger-than-life characters.
If you haven't read it yet, the book's title sets up the main premise: Evelyn Hugo is an aging former Hollywood starlet who agrees to give her life story to a journalist. She talks about the truth behind her infamous seven husbands and her experiences trying to make it in on the Silver Screen.
Evelyn's story feels so vivid and real, it's almost as if it was based on a real person. Jenkins Reid's novels set up a fictional world in the middle of a very real one, creating new characters in the midst of historical moments in time. Was Evelyn Hugo's character inspired by real starlets from Old Hollywood? It was an age of gossip tabloids, multiple marriages, dramatic roles, and women fighting their way to the top. It's very possible that Evelyn's character was an amalgamation of some of the most famous women of that era.
But whose life story was the main source of inspiration for TJR? Was it Rita Hayworth, Ava Gardner, Marilyn Monroe, or Elizabeth Taylor? All were iconic starlets back in the day. Let's go through the evidence we have for each.
TJR has previously stated that there are two main actresses she had in mind when writing her popular character Evelyn. One was Rita Hayworth.
Evelyn Hugo was born to a family of Cuban immigrants and changed her name from Evelyn Elena Herrera to Evelyn Hugo. She grew up in Hell's Kitchen in New York, dreaming of a way to get out of her abusive household. When she got to Hollywood she realized that minorities were constantly cast in only "exotic character" roles. So, she bleached her hair blonde to get more starring roles.
Rita Hayworth was originally born Margarita Carmen Cansino in Brooklyn, New York. Her grandfather was a dance instructor and taught her how to dance at a young age. When her father felt that her dancing could be featured in motion pictures, he moved the family to California.
She was featured in a few minor roles as the "exotic foreigner" character under the name Rita Cansino. She was then encouraged by studio executive Harry Cohn to change her last name to her mother's maiden name, which was of British origin. They also suggested she dye her hair red and undergo electrolysis to raise her hairline.
Rita Hayworth had 5 husbands and divorced her last in 1961.
Rita and Evelyn both grew up in New York and eventually changed their originally Latina names to appeal to a broader American market. Both met and worked with a man named Harry in their early days in Hollywood, and they both changed their appearances to nab more starring roles. They also both had multiple marriages that ended in divorce.
Ava Gardner was another Hollywood starlet that may have inspired the story of Evelyn Hugo
Ava was married 3 times, her last husband being Frank Sinatra. She was ranked number 25 on the American Film Institute's list of greatest female screen legends. At the end of her life, she enlisted the help of journalist Peter Evans to help her write her autobiography. They met many times and talked extensively about her life story until she received news that Peter Evans and the BBC were once sued by her ex-husband Frank Sinatra. Evans decided to step away from the project and Gardner finished the book with the help of other writers on her own.
After Ava Gardner's death, Peter Evans received the permission from the manager of her estate to publish "Ava Gardner: The Secret Conversations" which included transcripts of their conversations and interviews.
At the end of her life, Evelyn Hugo enlists the help of Monique Grant in helping to write her life story. She presents it as an opportunity for Monique to further her writing career, and for Evelyn to set the record straight on her marriages and life in the public eye.
TJR seems to have been inspired by this journalist/starlet relationship and definitely uses it as a major anchor point in the novel!
Marilyn Monroe is arguably the most iconic starlet and sex symbol from Old Hollywood. She was born Norma Jean Mortenson and bounced around to different foster homes and orphanages in the beginning stages of her life. She married a neighbor's son at 16 but felt soon after that they were not a match, stating that she was bored in the marriage.
While her husband was deployed, she decided to start modeling and they later divorced as he did not support her career. 20th Century Fox encouraged her to change her name to Marilyn after Marilyn Miller and Monroe after her mom's maiden name. She met film executive Harry Cohn and would often network with male producers and gossip columnists to keep her name in the running for roles.
She bleached her hair blonde and was given a look by the studio modeled after pin-up bombshell Rita Hayworth. She had multiple marriages that didn't work out.
Evelyn Hugo also married a neighbor when she was extremely young and knew she wanted more than just the life of a housewife. She went through a name and appearance change to satisfy studio heads and met a producer named Harry who helped her with her initial career. She networked and used the gossip columns to her advantage and leveraged her sex symbol status to gain advantage for herself in Hollywood.
Although Marilyn hasn't been expressly mentioned as inspiring the character of Evelyn Hugo, I can definitely see the similarities in their stories!
Elizabeth Taylor was one of the most bankable movie stars of the 1960's and had a career peppered with success and scandal.
She starred as Amy in Little Women in 1949 and went on to nab several other critically acclaimed roles at MGM and beyond.
She increasingly felt that the studio controlled her and her life and the public's evisceration of her romantic dalliances hurt her image. She had 7 husbands and 8 marriages (1 man she married twice). Her conduct in her personal life was condemned by the Vatican at the time.
One of the biggest similarities between Evelyn Hugo and Elizabeth Taylor is that they both had 7 husbands! Evelyn also starred in Little Women opposite Celia St. James. Evelyn and Elizabeth were both fodder for gossip columnists at the time and were in part remembered for their large number of marriages.