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Charles Higham, Noted Film and Political Biographer, Dies at 81

The author profiled, often in controversial fashion, the likes of Errol Flynn, Howard Hughes, Katharine Hepburn and Orson Welles.

Charles Higham, the prolific author of best-selling and sometimes controversial biographies of film stars and political figures, died April 21 at his home in Los Angeles of an apparent heart attack. He was 81 and had broken his hip in a fall.

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Among Higham’s most notable books were Kate: The Life of Katharine Hepburn, his first best-seller, in 1975, and The Duchess of Windsor (1988). Certainly his most controversial was Errol Flynn: The Untold Story (1980), in which the author offered evidence that the actor had worked as a Nazi spy, stirring up a frenzy of denials and debate that still persists. His Howard Hughes: The Secret Life became the main source for Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator.

Two of Higham’s most enduring works dealt directly with American business and financial complicity with the Third Reich and its sympathizers before, during and after World War II: Trading With the Enemy: An Expose of the Nazi-American Money Plot, 1933-1949, and American Swastika: The Shocking Story of Nazi Collaborators in Our Midst From 1933 to the Present Day.

The son of Sir Charles Frederick Higham, the English advertising tycoon and member of Parliament, young Charles was raised in upper class London until his father died when the boy was 7. With his mother, long since divorced from her husband, Charles lived in much reduced circumstances during World War II and thereafter until, in 1954, he emigrated to Australia.

Working as a journalist and film critic in Sydney, he began profiling Hollywood stars and directors as well as contributing to international film journals. Based on his reputation as a poet, he was invited to be Regents Professor and Writer in Residence at the University of California at Santa Cruz in 1969 and shortly thereafter settled permanently in Los Angeles, where he became a regular Hollywood feature writer for The New York Times and conducted interviews for Time-Life Books’ phonographic history of American films.

He also quickly became notorious in some circles due to his contention, in his generally admiring scholarly book The Films of Orson Welles in 1970, that the celebrated director suffered from a “fear of completion” that helped explain his many unfinished film projects. During the next 35 years, Higham wrote biographies of well over a dozen major show business figures, including Welles, Florenz Ziegfeld, Cecil B. DeMille, Marlene Dietrich, Cary Grant, Bette Davis, Charles Laughton, Ava Gardner, Marlon Brando, Audrey Hepburn, Lucille Ball, Merle Oberon, Louis B. Mayer and the sisters Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine.

Still, Higham’s personal favorite among his biographies was of an author, The Adventures of Conan Doyle: The Life of the Creator of Sherlock Holmes (1976); his father had served on World War I committees with the famous writer.

Among Higham’s many other books were Hollywood in the Forties and The Celluloid Muse (both with Joel Greenberg); The Art of American Film, 1900-1971; Dark Lady: Winston Churchill’s Mother and Her World; Murder in Hollywood: Solving a Silent Screen Mystery, about the notorious 1922 murder of film director William Desmond Taylor; The Midnight Tree: A Fairy Tale of Terror; and five volumes of verse. His frank autobiography, In and Out of Hollywood: A Biographer’s Memoir, was published in 2009. He also wrote many plays, most notably His Majesty Mr. Kean and Murder by Moonlight, which were staged in Los Angeles and New York. Higham received the French literary prize, Prix des Createurs, in 1978, as well as the Poetry Society of London Prize.

Higham had been married once, in the 1950s. His longtime companion, Richard Palafox, died two years ago. He leaves no survivors.