First House North of the Gates: Busby Berkeley’s Home in Hollywoodland
August 21, 2009 § 1 Comment
You see it as you drive through the Hollywoodland gates, a large Spanish Colonial house directly ahead, though the road goes to the left. The property wraps around the curve, and the house is so blindingly white and prominently sited that it’s impossible to ignore. Unlike many old houses, it looks the same as when it was built in 1923, as pictures taken during Hollywoodland’s early years attest. (A gate now hides the front steps and the current garage doors lack the originals’ honeycomb details, but that’s about it for exterior changes.)
The first house (and second building, after the Hollywoodland Realty Company) to be built in the Hollywoodland tract, it was owned by Busby Berkeley, whose name still evokes the glamour and inventiveness of the lavish musicals he choreographed and directed at Warner Brothers, Fox and MGM.
A native Angeleno and the son of actors, William Berkeley Enos (1895-1976) gave us such dance classics as “Lullaby on Broadway,” and “I Got Rhythm.” From 1933-1937 he directed and/or choreographed 14 Warner Brothers musicals, including “Gold Diggers of 1935,” “42nd Street” and “Footlight Parade.”
His success afforded him the house on Beachwood Drive where he lived with his widowed mother, to whom he was devoted, and whomever he happened to be married to at the moment. (He had between four and seven marriages, depending on the biographical source.) His matrimonial success no doubt was hindered by his work, which required auditioning thousands of young female dancers for the 150 he would ultimately choreograph in each film. His drinking probably didn’t help matters, either. In 1935, while driving drunk, Berkeley caused a crash that involved two other cars and killed three people. He was acquitted of homicide charges after three trials, largely because he was his mother’s sole source of support.
While Berkeley was one of the biggest stars in Hollywoodland, his house was–and still is–arguably the least private because of its location in Village’s commercial district. Besides the Realty Office next door, the house boasts a bus stop directly outside, and has since 1925. The top photograph shows passengers transferring from the public bus to the Hollywoodland jitney, which took them further up the Canyon to their homes.
Berkeley was long gone by the time the actor Ned Beatty bought the house in the 70’s, after “Deliverance” had made him a star. During Beatty’s years in residence, large buses ran up and down Beachwood Drive, rather than the Dash buses that make the run today. The old buses were too big to make the U-turn in front of Beatty’s house and would grind and rev their engines in the attempt. On one occasion the bus actually became stuck, creating such a racket that an infuriated Beatty came out and hurled empty liquor bottles at it.
Like Busby Berkeley, Ned Beatty eventually moved to greener and less congested pastures. Still, many people still call the place the Ned Beatty House, though others prefer the original Busby Berkeley title.
While Busby Berkeley’s name would seem to evoke a more genteel era, his life was anything but. In addition to the vehicular homicide trials and many divorces, Berkeley struggled with suicidal depression after the auto accident. A serious suicide attempt after his mother’s death in 1946 made the newpapers and landed him in a mental hospital. Nevertheless, he survived to the age of 80, long enough to experience a career revival in the 1960’s. New generations discovered his films of the 1930’s and 40’s, which began to be shown on television and later found new life on video and DVD. By the time Berkeley died in 1976 in Palm Springs, his place in Hollywood history was assured.
James M. Cain’s Beachwood Years: A Hard-Boiled Writer in Hollywoodland
August 15, 2009 § Leave a comment
James M. Cain (1892-1977) came late to the writing that would earn him lasting fame; his first novel, “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” was published in 1934, when he was 42. By the time he was 40, Cain had been–to varying degrees of failure–a singer, insurance salesman, teacher, newspaper reporter, playwright and magazine editor (at the New Yorker, where he lasted a year). Unhappy with literary life in New York, he signed with Paramount and hopped a train to Hollywood, arriving in 1932, the trough of the Depression. Though he would remain a screenwriter for the next 15 years, only three of his screenplays–the now rarely seen “Stand Up and Fight,” “Gypsy Wildcat” and “Algiers”–made it to the screen.
Then came “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” a blockbuster of a book. Cain had found the themes–loser men, dangerous women, violence, sex, financial desperation–that, recombined in all his future novels, would make him a successful writer. The money that rolled in purchased this magnificent Norman manor on Belden Drive where he lived with his second wife, Elina Sjosted Tyszecka:
Ironically, his bestsellers didn’t make him a success at screenwriting–in part because Cain remained contemptuous of movies and the people who made them. Though his novels were perfect for the movies, they were adapted by other screenwriters; the excellent results brought acclaim to their stars. The 1946 adaptation of “Postman,” by Harry Ruskin and Niven Busch, made an icon out of Lana Turner. “Double Indemnity,” (1944) by Raymond Chandler and Billy Wilder (who also directed) was a huge success for Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray and is considered by many to be the greatest example of film noir. “Mildred Pierce,” (1945) by Ranald MacDougal, William Faulkner (no less) and Catherine Tunney, was a triumph for Joan Crawford, who won an Oscar for her portrayal as a long-suffering working mother with an unhealthy attachment to her sociopathic daughter. It also made a star out of Ann Blyth and became an enduring classic–so enduring that a new “Mildred Pierce” mini-series starring Kate Winslet has just been announced.
Cain reacted to his literary success by drinking even more heavily–he was a lifelong alcoholic–and grousing about being labeled a “hard-boiled” writer along with Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. “I belong to no school, hard-boiled or otherwise,” he wrote archly in 1947. It’s true that his novels don’t feature detectives or mysteries (except to the extent that readers wonder what attracts losers to sociopaths and vice versa). But what else do you call a novelist whose books deal with adultery, violence, incest, conspiracy and murder?
Raymond Chandler, forever linked to Cain through “Double Indemnity” and the “hard-boiled” designation, returned the favor. “He is every kind of writer I detest, a faux naïf, a Proust in greasy overalls, a dirty little boy with a piece of chalk and a board fence and nobody looking,” he wrote of Cain. Chandler, though also an alcoholic , had a much more successful career both as a screenwriter and novelist and lived out his life in Los Angeles.
In contrast Cain had burned through Hollywood by 1947. Washed up as a screenwriter, he divorced his third wife, actress Aileen Pringle, married his fourth, opera singer Florence MacBeth Whitwell, and returned to his hometown of Anapolis, MD. There he continued to write, though none of his later work matched his early novels’ popularity or critical acclaim. He outlived Whitwell and died of a heart attack in 1977, at 85.
Remembering Julia Child
August 10, 2009 § 6 Comments
I started watching Julia Child’s show “The French Chef” at 6, while visiting my grandparents in North Carolina, and started cooking not long afterwards. While I don’t remember the first show I saw, the first one I took detailed notes on concerned puff pastry. My grandmother wanted to make croissants; in lieu of sending money for the recipe, she ordered me to write everything down. I dutifully filled several notebook pages with instructions, which involved lengthy breaks for refrigeration between rollings and a mindboggling amount of butter. As far as I know, my grandmother never tried it. When I finally got around to making puff pastry years later, I used Lindsey Shere’s recipe. But it was Julia’s cheerful, can-do manner that guided me through the process.
Seeing the film “Julie and Julia” this weekend not only brought back memories but made me miss Julia Child more than ever. A big part of the reason is Meryl Streep’s uncanny performance, which is less an act of impersonation than a resurrection. Streep goes beyond mastering Julia’s concertina-like vocal cadences; among other feats, she somehow manages to walk exactly like Julia despite lacking her tremendously long legs.
I can attest to that fact that Streep replicated her gait perfectly because I once found myself walking directly behind Julia and Paul Child as they made their way along Massachussetts Avenue in Cambridge. I was twenty, a visiting scholar of Japanese studies at Harvard and an avid cook revelling in my first, bare bones kitchen. Harvard’s relaxed schedule (compared with that of Wellesley, where I had spent the past two years) gave me plenty of time to cook and bake, while the TV my father had insisted on buying for me brought Julia Child back into my life. Between studying all things Japanese and cooking with Julia, I was in heaven.
But because she was a Cambridge neighbor, Julia Child was more than a TV personality or a name on a cookbook. A slight detour on the route that took me from my Mt. Auburn Street apartment to Japanese class on Divinity Avenue took me by the Childs’ house on Irving Street. That sprawling clapboard house–its location was common knowledge–contained the famous kitchen that now resides in the Smithsonian; passing by, I had to fight the urge to peer through the window at it. To the extent I could afford to, I also shopped where Julia did, at Savenour’s, a specialty market famous for its meat. The hugely flirtatious proprietor would report to me on what Julia had bought on her last visit and what she planned to make with it.
One night that year, I made Julia’s stewing hen–which was stuffed with bread and herbs and simmered in stock, rather than roasted–and served it to my boyfriend and his best friend. “Do you cook like this every night?” the friend asked incredulously. Not wanting to seem domestic (though I was) or unstudious (because I wasn’t), I stammered, “Not really.” “Yes,” my boyfriend replied proudly. He was the only person who truly valued my kitchen prowess, so I quickly changed the subject.
The following year, a Wellesley friend who came over to a party mocked me for cooking all the food myself. “You’re so domestic,” she said acidly. “For roasting a turkey?” I asked. My penchant for making Julia’s Swordfish a la Grand Chartreuse would remain a secret until well after graduation.
During my fall semester in Cambridge, I struggled with my desire to write a fan letter to Julia Child. Though my boyfriend thought she would be flattered, I eventually deemed the the idea creepy and gave it up. I kept watching “Julia Child and Company” on WGBH but assiduously avoided going by her house on my way to and from class. (Recently I learned that Julia kept her phone number listed and happily talked to strangers who called with questions about her recipes; perhaps if I’d known this, I would have been bolder.)
It was around this time that my boyfriend and I found ourselves walking behind the Childs in Harvard Square. It was late fall. Julia walked arm-in-arm with Paul, who wore a cap and scarf. Aside from their height difference–she was noticeably taller–the thing I noticed immediately was their closeness; unlike many older couples, they seemed enthralled by each other and kept up a steady stream of conversation. “That’s Julia Child,” I whispered, thrilled. We lost them in a crowd around Boylston Street; that was as close as I ever came to meeting her.
Twenty years later, while finishing work on my documentary, “Jim Thompson, Silk King,” I learned that Julia Child, who like Jim Thompson had served in the OSS, was posted to Ceylon during the same period as Thompson in World War II. I also knew that she was now widowed and living full-time in Montecito. When my mother called to report that a family friend had invited the French Chef to lunch and was having a nervous fit over it, I asked if I could contact Julia for my documentary.
“She’s awfully old,” my mother said dubiously.
“But she’d remember meeting Jim Thompson, wouldn’t she?”
“Oh, honey, don’t bother her. Say, how’d you like to have to cook for Julia Child?”
“I’d love to.”
“It wouldn’t make you nervous? I’d be a wreck.”
“No. Why would it?”
Apparently my mother missed Julia Child’s essential message: I learned to cook the classics and so can you. Unlike today’s TV chefs, who fall into two camps–the pros whose cooking says don’t try this at home and the non-pros for whom processed foods and shortcuts trump technique–Julia didn’t see the need for either snobbery or dumbing-down. Her cuisine was classic French as handed down by Escoffier; there was no pretense or trendiness in it. The recipes, though sometimes difficult and time-consuming, were accessible to any home cook in possession of basic techniques and a desire to learn. In every episode of “The French Chef” and “Julia Child and Company,” as well as every cookbook she wrote, her point was that we–the home cooks–could do it too.
I’m proof of this. And though I’ve learned from Alice Waters, Ken Hom and many other chefs, Julia Child remains my guiding spirit. If I’ve often failed to heed her dictate, “never apologize, never explain,” I’ve certainly upheld her can-do spirit through thousands of meals. Soon I’ll be making yeast for pain levain, something I’ve been wanting to try for years. I’m not sure Julia Child ever made her own yeast; at any rate, it’s not her recipe. (It comes from Steve Sullivan of Acme Bread in Berkeley, one of the world’s greatest bakers.) But it’s a sure bet I’ll be thinking of her when I do it.
Peter the Hermit Resurfaces in England
August 8, 2009 § 3 Comments
Thanks to the magic of the Internet, my entry on Peter the Hermit was read by an Englishwoman named Suzanne Summers, who came across a portrait of Peter and his greyhound at a car boot sale. She bought it without knowing anything about Peter or his odd profession because she loves greyhounds and recognized the picture’s artistic merits.
The photo is expertly composed and lit in a way that highlights Peter’s haunting, pale eyes. The photographer was Bruno of Hollywood, a prolific local portrait photographer. Ironically, it was Bruno who shot the infamous half-nude that Kenneth Anger claimed was of Peg Entwistle in his 1959 book, Hollywood Babylon. It wasn’t until I asserted the model wasn’t Peg in my documentary “Under the Hollywood Sign” that anyone questioned the portrait’s veracity. (Though the model has platinum hair, as Peg did in her final year, her face, especially the nose, is completely different. Yet no one noticed, probably because they were focussed on her bare breasts.)
But the man in the portrait above is definitely Peter, who had no imitators. Though his world probably encompassed three miles–the distance between his tent in Beachwood Canyon and his workplace on Hollywood Boulevard–his portrait, framed and labeled “Peter the Hermit of Hollywood, Calif.,” has traveled across the Atlantic and back again, this time in digital form.
Humphrey Bogart Lived Here
August 6, 2009 § 14 Comments
The reason moviegoers don’t remember Humphrey Bogart as a youthful actor was that his career didn’t really begin until he was 35, when Robert E. Sherwood’s play “The Petrified Forest” made him a star on Broadway. Though Bogart reprised the role of Duke Mantee–after an intervention by Leslie Howard–in the Warner Brothers version of “The Petrified Forest” in 1936, real stardom didn’t arrive until 1941, when his starring roles in “High Sierra” and “The Maltese Falcon” made him a bona fide leading man.
Although Bogart’s long road to stardom was traveled mainly on the stage–he had made his New York debut at 22–he was under contract to two other studios before Warners signed him in 1935. The first stint, from 1930-1932, was at Fox, where he played minor parts in forgettable movies. A second contract with Columbia in 1932 yielded no better results. Bogart, whom the studios considered not handsome enough to be a romantic lead, spent his time playing gangsters. Worse yet, supporting gangsters in B-movies.
He had better luck on the stage, where he played leading roles and worked steadily for a decade. In 1932, he was cast opposite Peg Entwistle and Billie Burke in the romantic comedy, “The Mad Hopes,” which sold out its run at the Belasco Theater in downtown Los Angeles. He also briefly dated the 24-year-old Peg , who played his young love interest in the play. When I interviewed Peg’s brother Milt for “Under the Hollywood Sign,” he remembered meeting Bogart when he came to the Entwistle family’s home at 2428 N. Beachwood Drive. He was “a very nice person and [there was] nothing haughty about him, nothing ‘I am a star’ or anything like that.” [For more about “The Mad Hopes,” and Peg Entwistle, visit www.thehollywoodsigngirl.com]
At the time of his date with Peg, Bogart was still married (at least in name) to his second wife, Mary Phillips, a stage actress with a much bigger career that kept her in New York. (Bogart had four wives, all actresses, and except for brief periods around his three divorces was a married man from 1926 until his death in 1957.) Interestingly, he was also a Beachwood neighbor of Peg’s, living less than a mile north of the Entwistles in this huge Tudor-style house.
The house was one of the first to be built after construction on the Hollywood tract began in 1923. It still stands, barely visible behind dense foliage and all but unrecognizable. Located on Ledgewood Drive, its large sloping lot reportedly has a stream running through it. Because the vantage point of the old picture would be impossible to match today–the house is completely obscured by newer houses in the foreground–here’s how the west facade looks from uphill:
Although I haven’t been able to find his dates of residence, it seems unlikely that Bogart stayed in the house beyond 1937, the year he ended his marriage to Phillips. Pictures of him at home with his third wife, Mayo “Sluggy” Methot, clearly show them living elsewhere. His final marriage, to Lauren Bacall in 1945, took him farther west, to a suburban house in Brentwood.
In spite of the brevity of his stay in Hollywoodland, everyone still calls the place the Bogart House. Though the current owner, Dean Torrance of the 60’s band Jan and Dean, bought it decades ago, his name has never replaced Bogart’s among locals. Torrance lives elsewhere now; the house is a rental and exudes a fairytale charm from behind its garden walls. If only they could talk.
Krotona Flight: Beachwood’s Original Staircase
August 1, 2009 § Leave a comment
Krotona Flight is a monumental staircase located on Vista del Mar Avenue, at the southwestern edge of Beachwood Canyon. Though less famous than the granite staircases of Hollywoodland to the north, it is arguably more fascinating. Like the Hollywoodland stairs, Krotona Flight had its practical and decorative uses but also an equally important symbolic function.
Designed by the architectural firm of Mead and Requa, Krotona Flight was built in 1914-1915. The stairs not only provided access to the Knudsen residence to the east but served as the south entrance to the hillside Krotona Colony, the utopian community founded by the Theosophical Society in 1912.
Krotona colonists used the stairs to get to and from the trolley hub at Argyle and Franklin Avenues. Returning from their jobs in Hollywood and Los Angeles, they only had to walk uphill for a couple of blocks–passing land that was then mostly fields–before reaching the stairs. Although the original plans called for a large gateway at the bottom of Krotona Flight, it was never built. Instead, the stairs fulfilled the function of delineating the Colony from the ordinary world.
The fountain on the first landing, though no longer working, makes it plain the stairs were more than functional. Writes the architectural historian Alfred Willis of Krotona Flight: “Simple yet grand, this staircase once symbolized for those who climbed it the ascent into those spiritual realms of which Krotona in Hollywood was a kind of earthly correspondent.” (Architronic v. 8, 1998)
For more about the Krotona Colony, purchase the documentary “Under the Hollywood Sign” at http://hopeandersonproductions.com/?page_id=3361
The film is also available for rent at https://vimeo.com/ondemand/uths
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