Hitch: The Life and Times of Alfred Hitchcock by John Russell Taylor
1978 – Berkley Publishing – 333 pages
I’m not sure which phrase on a book’s cover bothers me more: “authorized biography” or “unauthorized biography.” This book is the one and only instance of the former for Alfred Hitchcock. John Russell Taylor was a film and theater critic who came to prominence in Britain in the 1960’s. Over time he became friendly with Hitchcock, and at some point in the early 70’s he proposed penning Hitchcock’s biography. At first Hitchcock politely declined, but eventually he consented, in his usual roundabout way. He didn’t say yes directly; rather he said to Taylor, almost as an aside “When you write that book of yours…”
On the one hand, an authorized biography means cooperation with the subject, and often with family members and work associates as well. And that seems to be the case here. There are even a couple of direct quotes from Alma Hitchcock. I wish there were more. I find it very frustrating that, for all the praise Alma received and continues to receive (and deservedly so) as half of the Hitchcock team, there are very few interviews available. Taylor also spoke to many people from throughout Hitchcock’s career; several people from the early British period were still alive in the 1970’s, such as Charles Bennett and Michael Balcon. That makes this the only significant biography of Hitchcock for which the author was able to speak directly not only with Hitch himself, but also a great number of those who were close to him. That alone makes it an interesting read.
The danger of an authorized biography is that the subject may have a final say in what information is included, and what omitted. Certainly Taylor was a great fan of Hitchcock; he was not on a muck-raking expedition. There may not have been all that much muck to rake anyway. But one does occasionally wonder if certain incidents were “spun” to cast Hitchcock in a good light.
The book balances the personal and the professional, covering the major milestones in Hitchcock’s life, as well as every movie he directed. Now, many of those movies may have only half a page dedicated to them, but at least nothing is completely glossed over. Pat Hitchcock, Alfred and Alma’s only child, also gets considerable coverage of her personal and professional life; I imagine Hitchcock wanted her achievements included, and they are a nice touch.
In light of many weightier Hitchcock tomes written subsequently, the biggest complaint one can level towards Russell is that his book feels very slight at a hair over 300 pages. It is also, as are many biographies, front loaded; much more time is spent on the early years, while time becomes more compressed the closer one gets to the present day.
That being said, it is a charming read. If one wishes to read only one biography on Hitchcock, head for Patrick McGilligan’s Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, which I consider definitive. For the more than casual fan, that can’t get enough of Hitchcock lore, this biography comes highly recommended.