“West of Eden: An American Place” by Jean Stein (Random House, 334 pages, $30)
Both a titanic boor and memorable vulgarian, Jack Warner Sr. nevertheless ran one of the most successful movie studios in Hollywood during its so-called “Golden Age.” His son, Jack Jr., wound up as General Bradley’s assistant photo officer during World War II and was eventually promoted to lieutenant colonel. Back stateside Jack Jr. commanded a reserve unit in California and was promoted to colonel. One day he went to the studio in full uniform and walked into his old man’s office. “Hey,” he said, “you were only a lieutenant colonel, you’ve got to salute me.” The old man said to his son, “Around here, I make the jokes.” When he was a kid, Jack Jr. knew only that his dad was originally named Jacob, and grew up a street thug without schooling. Jack Jr. knew his dad’s middle name, Leonard, was stolen from a favorite minstrel act, but knew nothing of his real family name. He asked his dad about the family name. “Jack, get me a cigarette,” his dad said. Then he let the smoke curl up, and he looked at his son and said, “I don’t remember.” Once in 1931, Albert Einstein visited the studio. Jack Sr. told him: “You have your theory of relativity and I have mine. Never hire a relative.”
Jean Stein’s mesmerizing, engrossing and brilliantly constructed new book about Hollywood, “West of Eden,” is part ghostly Jacquerie, layered and nuanced and peppered through with tribal echoes; part oral biography of a distinctive time and place; and part insider memoir absent the chain of sensationalism common to more commercial enterprises. Stein’s father was Jules Stein, founder of the famous agency MCA, which came to dominate the movie star business like no other outfit in town. Over the years, Stein interviewed famous and not so famous people, Hollywood stars like Lauren Bacall, Dennis Hopper, Jane Fonda and Warren Beatty, former secretaries, butlers, security guards and grandchildren, many of them now long gone. The result is a work of art about a place that was never about art.
“West of Eden” circulates around the story of five families: The Dohenys, hugely successful in the early southern California oil business, a tribe that came to dominate the conservative, race-conscious, anti-Semitic and archly Republican city government under a halo of civic virtue, a family saga culminating in a ritualistic murder-suicide that was hastily covered up; The Warners, of Warner Brothers fame, whose dysfunction, adultery, and brutalism is legend; the vast Selznick clan, famed for their production of “Gone With the Wind,” and whose leader, David O. Selznick abandoned his wife for Jennifer Jones; the Steins themselves, whose presence in Hollywood was a larger than life grace note to symphonies of power and wealth that dominated the business; and finally, the Garlands, a small group of minor movie actors whose daughter was schizophrenic in Malibu.
Everything about “West of Eden” reverberates with the kind of gossip, back-biting and revenge that is Shakespearean in scope and depth, revealing at its inner core a town built on feudal power wielded by tyrannical men. In order to get by, the women nearly all built themselves towers of manipulation, from which they pursued the only open course, the use of sexual wiles and physical allure. The net result of this kind of social structure is almost surely physical and mental illness, a disablement so serene that it almost comes to seem normal. A particularly horrific example is the Garland family whose daughter Jane was clearly bi-polar. In 1957, Ed Moses (who went on to become a world-famous L.A. painter) was a graduate student at UCLA. Needing a job, he showed up at the neuropsychiatric ward of the university hospital and was hired by Dr. Judd Marmor to “squire” Jane to various activities around town, to spend time with her at her family home in Malibu, and let her vent – on the theory that being with “normal people” would normalize the illness. He’d had some medical training in the service. It seemed like he could do the job. What transpired over the next couple of years was a nightmare, made all the more real by memories Moses evokes like a series of misplayed jokes gone badly wrong. And then there was Jennifer Jones, second wife of Selznick, whose personal dementia included long periods seclusion in her room (spending at least four hours a day on hair, nails, skin and clothes) until she’d magically appear at 6 p.m. for dinner and drinks. Mary Jennifer, her daughter, had terrible dreams of flying as a child, then caught the drugs and alcohol bug early, eventually flying off a roof in downtown Hollywood 22 stories up.
These days “oral history” has achieved a certain cachet with the awarding of the 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature to Belarussian writer Svetlana Alexievich. Stein’s new book (along with her 1982 classic “Edie,” about Edith Sedgwick, Andy Warhol’s arm candy muse in New York), cements her reputation as a master craftsperson working in a genre capable of imparting deep truths. It doesn’t hurt that “West of Eden” is delicious as only entertaining popular history can be, appealing to we gossipy, nosy humans and our all-too-worldly voyeurism.
Gaylord Dold is a crime novelist based in Wichita. Visit his website at www.gaylorddold.com.