Pop culture writer fascinated with solitary Dean Martin

August 06, 1992|By New York Times News Service

When Nick Tosches told friends and acquaintances that he wanted to write a book about Dean Martin, most of them looked skeptical and said: "Dean Martin? Is he still alive?" Yes, he's still alive, Mr. Tosches would answer patiently.

Actually, a good deal of his fascination with the entertainer came not only from the fact that Mr. Martin is still alive, but also from the way he is living out his autumn years. Today, at 75, Mr. Martin, star of stage, screen and television variety hour, spends most of his time alone in a big house in the Bel Air section of Los Angeles watching old cowboy pictures.

He does not socialize. He does not make charity appearances. He does not release multi-CD box sets in honor of his diamond jubilee. In fact, he seems utterly content to let the phantom of his fame slip away.

Mr. Tosches is just perverse enough, just cynical enough, to find all of this wildly intriguing. And admirable.

Because Mr. Tosches, who has been writing about pop culture and celebrityhood and music since the late 1960s, has a pet peeve about the American way of idolatry. It is the Elvis syndrome, the Marilyn syndrome.

"America loves the dead," he said. "They love to have people crucified for the sake of their love. It's very ghoulish."

Tosches's book "Dino: Living High in the Dirty Business of Dreams" (Doubleday) is as much a breakdown of the American myth-making machinery as it is a celebrity biography. Through his chronicle of Mr. Martin's escapades, scandals, inebriations and eventual divorce from public life, Mr. Tosches exposes the emptiness at the core of fame.

"What I really wanted to do with the book was get to the heart of this thing called popular culture, the heart of this great delusion that is show business," he said. "At one point [Martin] stopped going to his movies, and then he stopped listening to the records he made. He seems to have been very successful at erasing the world around him. He's never read a book in his life. He has no desire to communicate anything . . ."

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