In Los Angeles, literary landmarks give the city its mystique

March 9, 2012

I don’t envy future archaeologists having to dig through all the layers of 20th-century Los Angeles. It won’t be easy finding what’s left of RKO’s back lot, the Coconut Grove, Ciro’s or any of L.A.’s lost landmarks. Actually, it’s not that easy now.

Los Angeles isn’t like most cities. It’s not even like Los Angeles, at least not for long. The sprawling metropolis exists in a constant state of change that makes people and places seem so temporary that the only lasting feature could be palm trees. Some experts think even they’re on the way out.

I spent time in L.A. when I wrote for a magazine that, like so much else here, has since disappeared. I hadn’t been back in a while, and before coming out on a business trip, I started rereading a few of my favorite Los Angeles novels. This time, I noticed something I had missed earlier. L.A. fiction, which often gets turned into films about L.A., is a virtual GPS tour through the city’s vanished past. Authors from F. Scott Fitzgerald and Nathanael West to Joan Didion and Walter Mosley have made forgotten movie sets, bars and crime scenes permanent fixtures on the literary landscape.

Were any of these places still around? In a town where the latest starlets are older than half the buildings, I had my doubts. Just the same, I wanted to see what was left of old L.A., the dangerously seductive city described in “The Big Sleep,” “Double Indemnity” and the other books I brought along as travel guides.

“Don’t get your hopes up,”says my son, Brendan, when I mention my plan. Brendan is in the movie business and knows Los Angeles better than I do. But that wasn’t going to stop me.

The morning I arrive, Hollywood and Vine is full of sightseers. Heading west on the Walk of Fame, past a celebrity wax museum with a likeness of Johnny Depp in the window, I come to the legendary Musso & Frank Grill. If any place is a portal to L.A.’s literary past, this is it. At the same address since 1919, Musso & Frank is the oldest restaurant in Hollywood. It’s also been the watering hole of choice for some of the biggest names in American literature.

With its endless supply of material, Los Angeles has always attracted writers. Not even Washington offers a comparable mix of power, money, sex and violence, or as many strange characters in search of an author.

Musso’s popularity “began with the Screen Writers Guild, whose offices used to be across the street,” says manager Mark Echeverria. “In the 1930s, and ’40s, the movie studios hired a lot of novelists to come out to Hollywood and write screenplays. Of course, the studios would hack their work to pieces. So, they’d walk over here to get drunk and vent.”

In addition to Fitzgerald and West, clientele included William Faulkner, Raymond Chandler, Dorothy Parker, James M. Cain, Budd Schulberg, John O’Hara, Dashiell Hammett, Lillian Hellman, William Saroyan and Ernest Hemingway. Many were exiles from the East Coast, and the dimly lit steak-house was a refuge from the glittery Hollywood they satirized in their novels and stories.

Entering Musso’s for the first time is like turning back the clock. The dark wallpaper, wooden phone booth and corner banquettes look like the backdrop in a film noir. “Raymond Chandler wrote parts of ‘The Big Sleep’ in here,” Echeverria tells me. Faulkner, Chandler’s drinking buddy, co-wrote the movie version of the book that starred Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Why am I not surprised to hear that the current chef’s father was Bogey’s stunt double?

With the Stanley Rose bookstore right next door, the 6600 block of Hollywood Boulevard was L.A.’s literary epicenter. Musso’s back room — the writers’ unofficial hangout — was later taken over by a theater, but some important artifacts survived. The coat stands, chandeliers and 25-foot mahogany bar are all in the “new” dining room that opened in the Rose bookstore space in 1954.

“You see writers in here all the time passing around screenplays and making deals,” says Echeverria, whose family has owned Musso & Frank for four generations. In Charles Bukowski’s “Hollywood,” a fictional account of the bar-hopping novelist’s own brief screenwriting career, the hero is a steady customer: “I liked the bar at Musso’s. ... I used to go to the Old Room to eat. But I never actually ate. I just looked at the menu and told them ‘Not yet,’ and kept ordering drinks.”

***

Nathanael West, like most of his Musso & Frank colleagues, was well acquainted with the seamy side of Hollywood. West barely survived as a screenwriter, but no one captured the world of bit actors and studio hangers-on better than he did in his 1939 novel “The Day of the Locust.”

West’s last movie job was at RKO Radio Pictures in Culver City, where he co-wrote his final screenplay and put the finishing touches on the novel that would make him famous. Brendan works for an agency that represents screenwriters, and when I tell him I’m going to visit the old RKO, he’s eager to come along.

Screenwriting these days barely resembles what West and his friends did for a living. For one thing, according to Brendan, “Most Hollywood movies are made for kids, and depend more on special effects than snappy dialogue.” Since overseas markets represent an increasing source of studio revenue, the less said (in English) the better.

RKO is now Culver Studios, a collection of 16 soundstages that fill roughly five city blocks. Over the years, several different production companies have owned the property that once included a 28-acre back lot, converted to an industrial park in 1976. “Citizen Kane,” “Gone With the Wind” and scores of Hollywood classics were made here.

“The burning of Atlanta was filmed right down the street,” says a security guard, pointing in the direction of what used to be the back lot.

We decide to get a closer look, but there’s nothing to see except a brush-covered field and warehouses. Some of the most memorable scenes in movie history were shot here, and you’d never know it.

“I told you,” Brendan says, as we walk back to the car. “Los Angeles is about forgetting the past, not remembering it.”

***

In “The Last Tycoon,” his unfinished novelabout studio bosses, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that Hollywood “can be understood ... but only dimly and in flashes. Not half a dozen men have ever been able to keep the whole equation of pictures in their heads.”

Nathanael West was less interested in what movie executives were thinking than in the effect their films had on fans. Shortly after coming to Los Angeles in 1933, to be a screenwriter at Columbia Pictures, he began going to premieres at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard to study the frenzied crowds that still show up to see their favorite stars on the red carpet.

“It was a mistake to think them harmless curiosity seekers,” West wrote in “The Day of the Locust.” “They were savage and bitter.” Lured to Southern California by the promise of eternal happiness, they were soon feeling “cheated and betrayed.” Finally, “nothing can ever be violent enough” to satisfy their need for revenge, and the novel ends at a big premiere with an enraged mob wrecking everything in sight.

Good friends in Hollywood, Fitzgerald and West never succeeded in the motion picture business. “I just couldn’t make the grade as a hack,” Fitzgerald confided to a friend. West had already quit RKO by the time he was killed in a car crash on Dec. 22, 1940. Fitzgerald died of a heart attack the day before and is buried in Rockville with his wife, Zelda, who died later. West’s casket, in a touch of Movieland irony he might have enjoyed, departed Union Station in Los Angeles for New York just as he’d arrived seven years before: on the Santa Fe Super Chief, known as “the Train of the Stars.”

***

Like many practitioners of pulp fiction, James M. Cain was fascinated by Southern California’s effect on the criminal mind. Cain, who was born in Annapolis and worked as a reporter (as I once did) for the Baltimore Sun, relocated to Los Angeles in the mid-1930s to write for the movies. While his name appears in the credits of only three pictures, the 1944 screen version of his novel “Double Indemnity,” starring Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck, was nominated for seven Academy Awards and is regarded as one of the earliest and best examples of Hollywood film noir.

Brendan and I eat lunch at a taco stand under the 405 Freeway before heading to the Hollywood Hills, where “Double Indemnity” begins. The colorful Spanish colonial house on Quebec Drive that was used in the movie doesn’t look nearly as ominous as it did in black-and-white, or grab your attention like the one Cain introduces in the first paragraph of the book. Insurance salesman Walter Huff (“Neff” in the movie), whose affair with a customer’s wife leads to homicide, tells the story in the form of a confession: “I drove out to Glendale to put three new truck drivers on a brewery company bond, and then I remembered this renewal over in Hollywoodland. I decided to run over there. That was how I came to this House of Death, that you’ve been reading about in the papers.”

People in L.A. like to put their wealth on display, frequently in the form of gravity-defying real estate. Property values tend to increase with the elevation, but the higher you go, the greater the threat of mudslides, fires and other unfortunate circumstances.

On the other hand, not all of the risks attached to life in Los Angeles are posed by nature. I’ve never seen so many high fences and front-yard security signs. Brendan says they’re common in areas of town where the only thing separating haves from have-nots can be “the perfect crime.”

In “Double Indemnity,” it’s a $50,000 accidental death policy taken out on an oil company executive who’s set up for murder. In Chandler’s “The Big Sleep,” it’s a blackmail scheme involving a wealthy invalid, his attractive daughters and a pornographer posing as a rare book dealer. Enter private detective Philip Marlowe: “It was about eleven in the morning. ... I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt. ... I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it.”

Looking through the two novels now, it’s hard to believe I’m in the same city. Fifty thousand dollars wouldn’t last long in present-day L.A., and I can’t imagine there’s a powder-blue suit anywhere between here and the Fresno Goodwill.

One of the things about the city that hasn’t changed is the street names. And Chandler seems to have known every intersection and alley, especially in Hollywood. Marlowe lives on Franklin Avenue and has a sixth-floor office in the Cahuenga Building on Hollywood Boulevard. As the plot unfolds, he asks a cabbie to follow a truck he suspects of transporting stolen porn. The result is a chase through the private eye’s own neighborhood.

“I went back to the boulevard ... and found a taxi standing at a fireplug. A fresh-faced kid was ... behind the wheel. I leaned in and showed him a dollar: ‘Tail job?’

... I caught a glimpse of the truck turning east on Franklin and told my driver to close in a little. ... The truck [was] two blocks away when we got to Franklin. We had it in sight to Vine and across Vine and all the way to Western. We saw it twice after Western. ... The truck, now far ahead, turned north again. ... When we got to Brittany Place, the truck had vanished.”

Brendan and I cover the same route in 10 minutes, weaving our way through traffic just like Marlowe and the fresh-faced kid. I can picture Chandler, with his well-known obsession for accuracy, doing the same thing while he was working on “The Big Sleep.” It’s said he never made anything up. He didn’t have to. He knew L.A. cold.

Maybe too cold. By the end of the novel, with the case closed and police collecting dead bodies, Marlowe “stopped at a bar and had a couple of double Scotches.”

Back in the day, a stiff drink was the only moral support a hard-boiled detective could count on.

***

After dropping Brendan off atwork, I stop at the Urth Caffé in West Hollywood for a cup of World Peace organic coffee. There are several other sites I wanted to see, but I am starting to think most of the old L.A. I had in mind is probably buried under shopping malls and organic cafes.

Watching sightseeing buses drive by on their way to the homes of the stars, I’m considering calling it quits when I remember that Mark Echeverria at Musso’s knew someone who might help. Richard Schave conducts true crime tours of the city, and I give him a call.

He likes that I followed Philip Marlowe’s trail around Hollywood. “Good beginning,” he says, then starts talking about all the interesting L.A. stuff there must be in the Library of Congress. “That’s the place I’d like to go.”

I could have stayed in Washington and done that.

There is one overlap between L.A. crime and L.A. lit that I may want to look into, he says: the notorious Black Dahlia murder. That was on my list. There have been two brilliant novels written about the case. But the crime scene is 20 miles away in South Central, so I’ll have to go by freeway.

“Tough neighborhood,” Schave says.

***

Old-timers lament that afterWorld War II,Los Angeles wasn’t the same city. Along with more people and cars came freeways and smog. Joan Didion grew up in Sacramento and moved from New York to L.A. to write screenplays with her late husband, novelist John Gregory Dunne. If freeways are California’s signature contribution to 20th-century transportation, Didion, in 1970, published what could be the best freeway novel ever written, “Play It As It Lays,” the story of a washed-up movie actress, Maria Wyeth, who can forget her problems only when she’s driving L.A.’s freeways.

“Again and again she returned to an intricate stretch just south of the interchange where successful passage from the Hollywood onto the Harbor required a diagonal move across four lanes of traffic. On the afternoon she finally did it without once braking or once losing the beat on the radio she was exhilarated. ...”

I know the feeling. When you hit an open stretch of freeway, the urge is to keep going as fast and as far you can. But getting anywhere fast right now is out of the question. After crawling along in traffic for a half-hour, I exit on Crenshaw Boulevard, take a left on Coliseum Street and pull into Leimert Park, location of the unsolved Black Dahlia murder, as the newspapers labeled it.

The 1947 killing of Elizabeth Short is the subject of Dunne’s “True Confessions” and “The Black Dahlia” by James Ellroy (published in 1977 and 1987, respectively). A wave of violent crime hit L.A. in the late 1940s. Growing prosperity, a larger population and an influx of ex-GIs exposed to the brutality of war were all blamed at the time for the upsurge in lawlessness. Whatever the cause, there’s nothing left to remind anyone what happened here. The vacant lot on South Norton Avenue where Short’s body was found has been developed into part of a quiet palm-treed subdivision of modest ranch-style homes with manicured lawns, not what you’d associate with a grisly homicide.

That’s the problem with trying to connect dots on a literary map to dots on a real map. Real maps change, although not as much in places such as nearby Watts, the fictional turf of crime writer Walter Mosley. Rather than fight freeway traffic, I decide to have a look around.

The same corrupt tendencies that Cain and Chandler locate in the more affluent sections of town, Mosley finds in Watts, scene of the 1965 race riots. After World War II, African Americans and other minorities came to Southern California in search of the good life only to end up in communities where, according to Mosley, hardship and poverty took on “a new class.”

Mosley, who lived in Watts, introduced private detective Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins in his 1990 novel “Devil in a Blue Dress.” The setting is postwar L.A., which seemed at first “like heaven. ... People told stories of how you could eat fruit right off the trees and get enough work to retire in one day. The stories were true for the most part but the truth wasn’t like the dream.”

Watts, in a way, is what I’d wanted to find. It’s the same now as it’s always been: the same liquor stores, barbershops and pastel-colored houses with bars on the windows. Mosley often reflects on the existential dilemmas posed by life in L.A.’s ghettos, one of them the constant urge to get out, but in 1950s Los Angeles there was nowhere else to go.

***

By the time I get to Musso & Frank, Brendan is there, and we’re both ready for a drink. Raymond Chandler, F. Scott Fitzgerald and other former regulars have all left the building; still, this is the place that fueled the invention of fictional Los Angeles, the stories and characters that will always describe the city, no matter how much it changes.

I’m tempted to have a double Scotch in honor of the hard-drinking heroes of L.A. fiction. But not wanting to get smashed before dinner, I order a glass of wine, resting my elbows on the bar where some of the best authors in the business had rested theirs.

“Cabernet, merlot or pinot noir?” asks the bartender.

That word again. Noir ... Dark, moody with a hint of mystery Philip Marlowe would appreciate.

“Pinot,” I reply. “Make that two.”

Bill Thomas, an author and journalist, is a regular contributor to the Magazine. To comment on this article, send e-mail to wpletters@washpost.com.

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