Peculiar practices

<strong>The Intimate Sex Lives of Famous People</strong>

Irving Wallace, Amy Wallace, David Walle

This is a highly dubious addition to any reference library. A brazen interloper on the shelf, it will grope your Larousse, tickle your Chambers and probably give your DNB nits, if not something more embarrassing. Watch out! Perhaps you had better keep it in your loo - for The Intimate Sex Lives of Famous People, first published in 1981 (when Auberon Waugh called it "hugely entertaining") and now reissued, updated, by the American publishers Feral House (whose backlist includes Hot Girls of Weimar Berlin as well as many a lengthy exegesis on the paranormal), is scholarship at its seediest.

Perhaps you have a sudden need to know which venereal contagion was carried by Mao Zedong? (Trichomonas vaginalis.) Possibly you wish to verify which sportsmen Clara Bow seduced? (The University of Southern California football team.) Perhaps memory fails you and you would like to double-check which fruit the severed genital organ of Rasputin most resembled by the time it was presented in a box in Paris in 1968? (A blackened banana.) Or maybe you're just a bored old pervert. In all of these circumstances, The Intimate Sex Lives of Famous People is invaluable.

The range of famous names degraded here is impressive, from Adelina Patti (alleged to have seduced a midget) to Ernest Hemingway (ostentatiously swallowed sexual sedatives). Roughly 70 researchers are credited - if that is the right word - with having worked on this book, under the direction of the Wallace family, America's most prolific writing clan. There is the potboiler writer father Irving, the novelist mother Sylvia, the son David (whose works include the annual Parade magazine feature "World's worst tyrants") and the daughter Amy (sometime acolyte of the sexual shaman Carlos Castaneda; the entry on him here is particularly biting). What a touching picture of family unity, all of them working together on this exhaustive compendium of smut.

The Wallace parents are now deceased, but their children maintain the family work ethic, diligently writing up F Scott Fitzgerald's foot fetish, the cock-warmer Carole Lombard hand-knitted for Clark Gable, etc, etc. Although advertised, the new entry on Diana, Princess of Wales has not materialised, but this edition does name and shame 11 fresh celebrities, including Ayn Rand (made love on a mink coat, like a true capitalist) and Anna Nicole Smith (whose diaries, sold on eBay, disclosed "I hate sex"). The correlation between sexual dysfunction and fame is demonstrated so thoroughly that you begin to think there is a causal link, a two-way hinge.

There is plenty of prim padding here, however. Each subject is given a lengthy "straight" biography before the kinks are revealed, which means that often there is a whole page without anything salacious at all. In this bizarre book it is deemed necessary to explain who George Gershwin was ("one of the most significant and popular American composers"), but not what a cluster-fuck is, only that Aleister Crowley enjoyed them. The prose is dismayingly soupy, (many cooks have been at this broth, after all) and the paragraphs are a mess. Few sources are attributed, so the tone of authority becomes simply pompous, and the faux-scholarly veneer perilously thin. It feels hard to trust this book, and some small mistakes ring big bells, such as Somerset Maugham's affair with a 17-year-old, still, apparently, at "prep school". But nevertheless, some details are too wonderfully vivid to have been made up. James Joyce, "a dyed-in-the-wool underwear fetishist, carried a pair of doll's panties in his pocket . . . Fortified by liquor, he would sometimes slip the tiny underpants over his fingers and cakewalk them across a cafe table . . ." Usually you have to read all of Richard Ellmann's life of Joyce to remember only that detail; now, this book has spared you the dignity.

The subgenre of dodgy reference books has a fine tradition that stretches from medieval bestiaries (with their authoritative accounts of meetings with dogheads) right up to William Donaldson's masterpiece of misdirected scholarship, Brewer's Rogues, Villains and Eccentrics. The Intimate Sex Lives of Famous People is an undistinguished contribution to an undistinguished genre, and with a harrumph I will retire to bed with it for a week.

This article first appeared in the 01 September 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The truth about GM food