I want my wings

Andrew O’Hagan

  • BuyWest of Eden: An American Place by Jean Stein
    Cape, 334 pp, £20.00, February, ISBN 978 0 224 10246 9

Modern Hollywood isn’t really Hollywood – it’s Calabasas. With everyone now the David O. Selznick of his own social picture, gossip replaced with tweets, and fan magazines with selfies, the grandeur of old Hollywood can seem mythical. Like proper myths, its stories are almost exclusively about metamorphosis, self-destruction and things going wrong, but they are at least stories as opposed to advertisements. Jean Stein’s book deploys a wonderful grace in uncovering a monstrous reality – it tells brilliant stories, sometimes very personal ones, and lets their accretion work its own magic.

The Steins lived at 1330 Angelo Drive in Beverly Hills, in a big house called Misty Mountain, now owned by Rupert Murdoch. Stein’s father, Jules, founded the Music Corporation of America, which looked pretty classy: no one would easily have guessed at the company’s deep connections with the Mob. But Raymond Chandler is there in Stein’s evocation of twisted men and violet evenings; and there’s a touch of Sheila Graham in the Garden of Allah, with Fitzgerald drunk on the floor. Kenneth Anger is deep in conversation with Nathanael West at the counter of Schwab’s drugstore, Joan Didion’s desert air is wafting in under the door, and Ben Hecht is taking notes. Stein has an ear for Americana at its most bewildering, most politically servile, and she listens carefully, knowing that characters can fill out a culture. West of Eden is an oral biography of a few addresses, and the history Stein captures was spoken about and overheard, but not written down, until now. It is a book about Hollywood that has the authority of the smartest girl at the party. Stein speaks to the butlers and the chauffeurs, the studio wives, the bit-part players, to the Arthur Miller, Dennis Hopper and Gore Vidal part of the universe, and none of them lets her down, or lets her off. It is a wild compendium of stories about what it is to be a child in a world of childish adults, and her book feels political, a meditation on the moral consequences of being looked after by powerful monsters with sick egos.

The corruption in companies like MCA was never supposed to touch the children. ‘Great’ politicians benefited from the connections with the Mob: Ronald Reagan was helped on his way by MCA agents who arranged for his deferment from military service before greasing his way through what Connie Bruck in the New Yorker has called ‘the political thickets of Hollywood’. ‘Much attention has been paid to Reagan’s appearance as a friendly witness before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947,’ Stein writes, ‘but Reagan made his political debut before that, taking the side of the studios – and the Mob – in a critical episode in Hollywood’s long-running violent labour wars. His 1946 presentation in front of the Screen Actors Guild during that battle probably paved the way for his election as SAG president the following year.’ And there’s more: ‘As SAG president, Reagan granted MCA a blanket waiver that permitted the company to operate as a talent agency, MCA Artists, and also a new television production company, Revue Productions. This was otherwise prohibited because of the inherent conflict of interest in simultaneously being agent and employer.’

When the actress Jennifer Jones’s alcoholic first husband died after an injection given by a dodgy psychiatrist, Selznick, who was in love with her and would marry her after a decent interval, was desperate to manage the publicity. He got his way by creating a cover story saying that it was all about protecting Jones’s two boys. ‘I have no question about it,’ Daniel Selznick – David’s son from his first marriage – said to Stein. ‘I’m not looking forward to seeing this in print, but it’s the truth. Let’s be honest with each other, it’s horribly damning. He was so selfish, so needful to protect his own reputation.’ Jones’s older son, Bob Walker, remembers Charlie Chaplin coming over to him at a party in Malibu. ‘“You know, kid, whenever I need an adjustment, I just bend over like this.” And he turned his back to the ocean, bent over, and looked out between his knees … A beautiful gift.’ In Stein’s book, the adults who fail to find a suitable adjustment simply torture their children.

In later life Jones went to bed in full make-up and hair – it took four hours every day – just in case she was taken ill in the night and had to go to hospital. Stephen Sondheim remembers seeing her in Ravello during the shooting of John Huston’s madcap movie Beat the Devil. ‘I recall her sitting at an umbrella table in the square,’ Sondheim says, ‘rehearsing a scene with Edward Underdown, who played her husband. Above the surface of the table she was bantering blithely with him, but below it she was tearing her napkin into shreds. This was not in the script.’ At home, she never appeared before 6 p.m. This was the only time of day she ever saw her daughter, the child of her marriage to Selznick. This was a world in which parents who spent their afternoons in psychoanalysis spent their evenings berating their children. Selznick was addicted to Benzedrine; Jones tried to drown herself; one of her sons shot himself; and her daughter, Mary Jennifer, jumped off a building at the age of 22. ‘She was a very pretty girl but not movie star pretty,’ her brother says. ‘I think there was some disappointment with it. She magnified it to the point where she got very self-destructive. She couldn’t handle being young and almost beautiful.’

There’s a moment in Rebel without a Cause, when Jim Stark (played by James Dean), Judy (Natalie Wood) and Plato (Sal Mineo) climb up to an old Hollywood mansion that’s now lying empty. They pretend they’re going to live there together, with Jim and Judy as the ‘parents’ in this haunted house. Plato mimics an estate agent, showing them round the house. ‘Oh, we’re safe here,’ Plato says. ‘I hope.’

‘What about … ?’ Jim Stark says.

‘Children?’ Plato says. ‘See, we really don’t encourage them. So noisy and troublesome, don’t you agree.’

‘Yes, so terribly annoying,’ Judy says. ‘Oh yes, I don’t know what to do when they cry, do you, dear?’

‘Drown them like puppies,’ Dean says, in the voice of W.C. Fields. And they climb down into an empty swimming pool, to see what it’s like.

‘Nothing ever looks emptier than an empty swimming pool,’ Chandler wrote in The Long Goodbye. And the empty mansion seems to suggest the way a whole generation of postwar kids felt about their parents. The adults didn’t understand them and the kids couldn’t take it any longer; they would rather build a future of their own in an abandoned house, a home that was free of duff politics, free of authority, free of sexual normality and money and jobs, a home free of everything. Dean would die in a car crash, Natalie Wood would drown off Catalina Island, and Mineo was murdered, stabbed by a pizza delivery man. Was it the future that failed? ’If you think you’re enlightened, go spend a weekend with your parents,’ Bob Walker said to Stein.

Jack Warner was the type of man whom Stein’s father might have thought of as a business legend. Here’s Dennis Hopper:

I was very young in 1955, when Warner Brothers did Rebel without a Cause – 18 or 19 years old. We’d started shooting in black and white, and two weeks into it Jack clearly saw that something was going on with James Dean. He said, ‘Change this picture to colour. The kid’s going to be a star.’ He’d found his new Rin Tin Tin.

Then one day, the next year, Jimmy Dean and I were coming out of the commissary on the Warner Brothers set, and Jack Warner came up to introduce the banker Serge Semenenko to Jimmy: Semenenko put out his hand to shake hands, and Jimmy reached into his pocket, threw a bunch of coins at their feet, and walked off. They looked completely stunned. I followed Jimmy like a puppy dog and said: ‘What the hell was that all about?’ So he told me that Jack had convinced [his brother] Harry that they should sell the studio, and they sold it to Semenenko; then, the day after, Jack bought back in. All he had really done was to buy his brother out. So that was Jimmy Dean’s reply to what Jack had done.

The men who built Hollywood were all like Jack Warner. They made millions and they created scandals, and unless they had a special gift, they ruined their children. Just as she did 35 years ago in Edie: An American Girl (about Edie Sedgwick, another lost child), Stein excavates the monied world of the parents in order to understand the child’s rebellion. The oil tycoon Edward L. Doheny left his first wife in such a humiliating way that she killed herself by drinking battery fluid. But the man just kept building and building – his mansion was a little Pompeii, with his temper as Vesuvius – and he asked Cecil B. DeMille to film his life story. But that was before his son Ned was shot and killed by his secretary. Old man Doheny was deep in bribery with the Harding administration and was almost brought to book by President Coolidge. The man he gave the $100,000 bribe to, Albert Fall, the secretary of the interior, was convicted for taking the bribe but Doheny, a noted philanthropist, was not convicted for offering it.

Such men rule the world, or they ruled Stein’s world, but there’s nothing vengeful in the portrait she paints of her hometown, a ghost conurbation set up by men who saw other people’s solidity as an affront to their own ethereality. Jack Warner and his kind were made of special stuff, and their needs were not like anybody else’s. His mistress told Stein a wonderful story about being taken around by Jack:

I went to the command performance of My Fair Lady in London with him. We didn’t have to go through customs – the FBI took us right through, because Hoover was his buddy. And, because my great-grandfather was from the aristocracy, Jack started introducing me as Lady Scarborough. He said: ‘This is Lady Scarborough, and she has a heart of gold and a snatch to match.’ The next day, all the lords and ladies were looking for me to have tea.

But God help the wife. A man made of special stuff will never find a wife who ‘understands’ him. How could she when she’s been programmed to fail? Her life will begin in taffeta, and end in tatters, the blame magically transported to her. Stein traces it carefully, as if understanding her own life depended on establishing the true facts. Powerful men in that world led women into a fantasy that destroyed them. Jack Warner built a house for his wife that resembled a white Southern mansion and left her there to shrivel and die. ‘I worked as a butler and a chauffeur for Mrs Warner for 12 years,’ Jan Ival told Stein. ‘She acted her life like a scene from Gone with the Wind. She had an explosive character. We’d go out to dinner almost every night … In the beginning, she was afraid to have people see what she looked like.’ He took her to many places, and tried to keep her happy:

One day we were driving down Third Street, and … there was a little restaurant on the side street. It was kind of shabby and dark but very clean. Every table was taken, and there was a counter at the end with a display case full of chicken wings and mashed potatoes. Mrs Warner told the man behind the counter that she wanted the chicken wings. He said: ‘You have to pay first.’ So I went down to the register, and the woman said: ‘Let me see your Social Security card.’ It was a welfare restaurant. So I went back to Mrs Warner and dragged her out. She said: ‘But the food looked good, and the people looked so happy eating it.’ And I told her: ‘Mrs Warner, this is a welfare place where you have to leave your Social Security number, and I don’t think it would look right to have Mrs Jack Warner eating here.’ She said: ‘I want my wings’. So I took her to the car, went back in, passed over my Social Security card, paid a dollar, and took the wings out to her.’

The stories in Stein’s book come out like secrets finally revealed. And sometimes she just lights on a person who seemed to be an incarnation of something she vaguely knew when she was growing up. Jane Garland lived at 22368 Pacific Coast Highway, a house that would later belong to Jennifer Jones and Selznick. Garland was a schizophrenic whose mother had been Miss Cleveland 1912. Jane, like many Hollywood girls, was plainer than her mother, and with her ruddy cheeks and her unpredictability she ended up in the psychiatric ward at UCLA. Jane wasn’t a star, but her craziness activated a fear in many of those who knew her, a fear of being suffocated by a stronger, commanding parent. The artist Ed Moses was hired to take her on outings. ‘My mother’s life never materialised,’ he told Stein, ‘so she had to blame somebody, and I was the thorn in her side. There was something very ominous about Jane’s situation that totally terrified me. I have no idea what happened to Jane … certain people have bodies, bodies that walk around, but they’re not real people. And there was something about Jane like that.’ And there is maybe something in all Hollywood lives that is like that, and in all lives affected by Hollywood, with its sense of how to manufacture a self much bigger than reality.

Gore Vidal knew all the corruptions, and dined out on them. His mother, Nina, was best friends with Stein’s mother, Doris. He labelled them as a couple of drunks. ‘Your mother had showgirl values,’ he told Stein. ‘She knew a good rock when she saw one.’ Whatever Stein thinks of her mother, she’s not afraid to set Gore Vidal on her. But, then, he cleared his throat on every occasion by talking about his own mother: ‘She was one of the most horrible people that ever lived,’ he said, not entirely hedging. ‘All I wanted to do was murder her and I never got around to it. My half-sister, Nini, had a nervous interior. She tried to be a good girl and she’d get knocked across the room, you know, teeth falling out.’ Nini remembered that Mrs Stein once had a diamond ring. ‘It looked like the Rockefeller ice rink,’ Nini said, ‘open for summer practice. Our mothers together were like two guys looking for more guys. For prey. For my mother, it was an excuse to get out of bed and get dressed. I can’t ever remember her kissing me or hugging me or anything. There are pictures of her being nice to me as a baby. But she said she didn’t like girls.’ Stein adds her own dismay to the mix. ‘Walter Hopps always said that my sister, Susan, and I were like props. When the stars came to the house, we’d be brought down to curtsy like little dolls in our silk dressing-gowns.’

Stein wasn’t supposed to have the life she has had. Her mother and father wanted her to marry somebody from a noble family. ‘It was like a Henry James novel set in Hollywood,’ Stein writes. But the 1950s showed a lot of people, Stein included, how to ask questions that had never been asked before. And that became something of a programme in that next decade, when a girl like Edie Sedgwick, an heiress from a long line of Massachusetts senators, could become ‘Girl of the Year, 1965’. Edie once said she never wanted to see her parents again. She died when she was 28, another beautiful girl with great hopes who was consumed by an inner failure.

Everybody wants to outwit their parents’ account of them. Nobody wants to embody their parents’ version of the truth. West of Eden is a rare and original attempt to expose the subcutaneous struggle, not only for Hollywood, but for the life of the author and her generation. Her parents were old Hollywood, and their fights weren’t her fights and neither were their values or their politics hers. ‘During the Pentagon Papers trial,’ Stein writes,

I invited their defendants and their lawyers to a screening at our house. I’d gotten to know them by helping to raise money for the defence. The trial had caused a serious rift between generations in the Hollywood community. Those who had lived through the blacklisting period felt very threatened by the issues that were at stake. After the guests departed, my father informed me that he didn’t want those people in his home ever again. I sensed something primitive in his attitude, as though the pogrom could return to get him.

Most memoirs could be called either ‘Goodbye, Mummy’ or ‘Goodbye, Daddy’. Some have the children in mind, and they carry an invisible dedication to those who didn’t make it to the farewell party. What Stein has really put together is a book of friends, most of whom remember how it was, and how it was once so difficult to say how it was. ‘Men like my father rarely have friends,’ she writes and then immediately recalls the day of his death. ‘I remember we were all standing around in the entrance to Misty Mountain before we left for Father’s burial at Forest Lawn, and I heard Edie Wasserman say to Lew: “Well, it’s about time.” Even though I was distraught, I thought: Now that’s too good to be true. Edie was wearing a diamond ring that said: “Love”.’