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“Sunset Blvd.” Star Tells All

Want to see a classic film historian geek out? Get her on the phone with the Oscar-nominated star of her all-time favorite movie.

The fan is me. The star is Nancy Olson. The film is Sunset Blvd.

We talked for an hour, and Olson patiently answered every question I posed, including the most crucial one: “Was Bill Holden a good kisser?” (Short answer: Hell yeah!). I play clips from our conversation whenever I host the movie. She’s the most down-to-earth performer I’ve ever interviewed, and couldn’t have been nicer as I fangirled all over her.

Now, thanks to the release of Olson’s memoir, A Front Row Seat, you can savor her inside “dish,” too. Not only did Olson co-star in one of the best motion pictures ever made, she married legendary Broadway lyricist Alan Jay Lerner (My Fair Lady, Camelot), and later, Alan Livingston, a Capitol Records executive who did everything from creating Bozo the Clown to signing four unknown British mop tops to a recording contract. (Olson’s reaction to hearing I Want to Hold Your Hand for the first time is priceless.)

Olson’s Cinderella story unfolds like a three-act play. Part One: She’s a UCLA college student, nicknamed “Wholesome Olson,” who’s discovered at age 20 by a Paramount talent scout, and hand-picked by Billy Wilder for Sunset Blvd. Part Two: She moves to New York as Lerner’s muse, but his serial cheating straps her onto a roller coaster ride of heartache. Part Three: She divorces Lerner, finds wedded bliss with Livingston, and focuses on a traditional wife-and-mother role, while occasionally resurfacing on screen (Pollyanna, The Absent-Minded Professor) – that is, when she’s not doing super-cool things like hosting private parties at her house with John, Paul, George and Ringo.

A Front Row Seat is packed with juicy scoops about A-List celebrities. Olson spills untold secrets about John F. Kennedy (before and after he became president), Joan Crawford, Judy Garland, Ira Gershwin, John Wayne, Bing Crosby, William Holden, Gloria Swanson, Marlon Brando, Salvador Dali, Nat King Cole, Howard Hughes, Ronald and Nancy Reagan, Frank Sinatra, Marilyn Monroe, Walt Disney, Grace Kelly, Natalie Wood, and writers William Faulkner, Norman Mailer, and Clifford Odets.

Olson candidly covers the highs and lows of her life, which began on July 14, 1928. She writes about her (mostly) idyllic Wisconsin childhood, her passion for acting (but not movie stardom), and the charming moment when she inspired Lerner to craft My Fair Lady’s hit song, “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face.” Yet Olson also doesn’t paper over Lerner’s shocking betrayals (when we spoke, she dryly told me, “I was the third of Alan’s eight wives!”); her struggles as a single mother and stepmom; and how psychotherapy helped Olson make peace with her past and herself.

From movie studios to Broadway stages, Olson puts us in the Front Row Seat of entertainment history. She captures the seductive power and price of fame, but navigates its landmines with her integrity intact, in this page-turning, “must-read” book.

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