Monday, 25 February 2019

West of Eden - Jean Stein

The subtitle is "An American Place". The place is Hollywood. Stein - herself a Hollywood child as the daughter of Jules Stein, founder of MCA - gives us five chunks of multi-voiced narrative from the earliest times - the arrival of the Doheny family, a decade or so before the movie makers - to round about the Millennium and the final crumbling of the Hollywood Dream.

The Doheny family was into oil. One way or another, the first Ed Doheny was probably the richest man on earth at one time. The story seems to be that he lost a lot when the degree of corruption beneath was revealed, but he still managed to keep enough for all his descendants to pass untroubled by the need to work. Coincidentally, I came across the story of his son, Ned Junior, on the internet the other week. The scandal seems to be that he and his male lover committed suicide together. Oddly, Stein doesn't explore that in any detail. The style she set herself may have prevented it. She has gone for quoting dozens of connected people with no explanatory sections whatsoever. In other words, if the family doesn't want to talk about it, nobody else will either.

She also makes it about the houses these people lived in. Home for the Dohenys was Greystone, the mansion where Chandler set The Big Sleep. Doheny's story is also behind Upton Sinclair's Oil!, now better known as the movie There Will Be Blood.

Angelo Drive was home to Jack Warner, most outré and obnoxious of the Brothers. At the studio he was a god, at home a willing doormat for his domineering wife Ann. Their daughter Barbara was the apple of Jack's eye, so much so that he was willing to exclude Jack Junior from his life. It's a sad and squalid story but nowhere near so sad as that of Jane Garland (Part Three) or Jennifer Jones (Part Four).

The latter hinge on another theme of the book - psychiatry and the ludicrous quacks who practised it in the Sunshine State. Jane Garland was the daughter of a railroad pioneer and Miss Cleveland 1912. There was a considerable difference in age. The old man died when Jane was very young and Mrs G put her daughter in psychiatric hospital. It's not really clear if Jane was mad when she went in. She certainly was when this segment is set - the late Forties. The idea was for the pubescent girl to live at home in the company of civilised young men who would take her out and also act as in-house nurses. Needless to say it didn't work and Jane went back to the hospital. The story has a surprising twist at the end: one of the former nurses believes he saw her out and about in the Seventies. If that's not true, she may well be still in hospital yet. Nobody knows or cares.

Jane was given to standing on her head and revealing her lack of panties. Jennifer Jones was equally opposed to undergarments. Otherwise her story begins as an absolute fairytale. She wanted to be an actress and married the actor Robert Walker when they were both teenagers. Both went to Hollywood. Robert Walker is still famous from movies like Strangers on a Train and The Clock, but he drank himself to death at 32. He was divorced from Jennifer by this time (and two other wives) and she had married the legendary David O Selznick of Gone with the Wind fame. She had also starred in Song of Bernadette and won the Best Actress Oscar on her twenty-fifth birthday.

Jones continued to make movies through the Fifties, all big budget star vehicles. Selznick died in 1965 and Jones married the hugely wealthy businessman and art collector Norton Simon. She retired from movies and pretty much from life. She became a recluse and virtually the prisoner of various unscrupulous head doctors. She said she was in therapy from her early twenties - and she lived to be ninety. Walker had suffered mental problems and her younger son by him, Michael, never recovered from the Sixties and lived an alternative life. Her daughter by Selznick, Mary Jennifer, threw herself off a twenty-two storey building.

And finally we have the Stein family story. The Steins lived at Misty Mountain, apparently sold to Rupert Murdoch, no less, at the time this book came out in 2016. This is the story of the eye-doctor who became an agent, the agency that became a studio, and how the whole thing was sold to the Japanese. It's not the most interesting story but it has its attractions and it has to be there to round out the picture. We have the pre-movie money, the studio era, the independent and the rise of the agents, all united by failure in the end and damage to subsequent generations.

It's a book I don't like the style of, which I never felt really grabbed me - and yet look how long this review is! I guess that says something in itself.

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