By Frank Segers
Tucson, AZ Aug. 19, 2021
Joe Morella, former Variety staffer who became a biographer of numerous Hollywood stars, died Aug. 13 of Covid19-related illness at Sharp Coronado Hospital in San Diego, Cal.
He was three months shy of his 82d birthday.
Morella was the widely published author of at least a dozen biographies — often co-authored by Edward Z. Epstein — of prominent stars including Loretta Young, Lucille Ball, Lana Turner, Rita Hayworth, Judy Garland, Clark Gable and Bob Hope.
He also wrote books on more contemporary stars such as Marlon Brando; Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward; and Simon and Garfunkel. He occasionally wrote about non-show biz subjects including Nutrition and the Athlete. In 2012 his novel, Murder on the Hearst Yacht — speculating about the death of Twenties silent film producer Thomas Ince – was published.
In 2011, Morella with Frank Segers, another Variety alumnus, founded the website ClassicMovieChatwhich has since posted more than 2,700 blogs covering a wide array of topics relating to classic Hollywood output from the earlyThirties to the late Fifties. The announcement of his death drew this comment from a reader: “I’m really sorry to hear this news. You guys always manage to bring new information and fresh perspective to classic film.”
Morella was born Nov. 19, 1939 to a large, middle class Italian family in Nutley, N.J. He was drawn to celebrity early; Martha Stewart was a high school classmate. After attending Montclair State University, Joe gravitated toward show biz journalism, and took a job in the late Sixties as a reporter for Variety.
There he met and began a lifelong friendship with John Madden, the indispensable administrative assistant to then Variety editor Abel Green.
It was the late Madden (godfather to Frank Segers’s son, Matthew) who bequeathed Joe several shoe boxes full of informal unpublished movie star photographs taken by the late Donald Gordon (a former Hollywood actor and Madden’s landlord) that ultimately became a regular staple on ClassicMovieChat.
Among the Gordon collection are superb candid shots of memorable Hollywood stars from Joan Crawford to Sydney Greenstreet.
At one point in his variegated career Morella found himself employed at Universal as publicity-promotion agent in behalf of the studio’s Sixties films and tv productions. The job involved touring such venues as state fairs and regional sporting events to baby-step stars pitching their latest products to ordinary folks.
Joe rarely discussed himself in this context except for occasional anecdotes about the personal peculiarities he discovered among some of his marquee charges. As he grew older Joe developed an aversion to being photographed. Attempts to illustrate this obituary with his photo, alas, came up empty.
In his later years Morella – along with his longtime companion and husband, Jim Bliss – developed real estate properties in Tucson, Arizona and in San Diego. Joe also centered in Tucson a surprisingly large circle of friends and cohorts in various endeavors including film showings and playwriting seminars.
Morella was also an inveterate traveler whose adventures aboard various foreign cruises prompted good-natured joshing among his closest confidants.
Joe was a good friend whose singular grace, humor and ability to light up a room will be deeply missed. As he mused recently, “I’ve had a good life.”
Morella is survived by Jim Bliss, and numerous nephews, nieces and cousins.