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West of Eden: An American Place

Jean Stein

(London Times)

There are still traces of the once-mighty Doheny family all over Los Angeles. Running north to south through Beverly Hills is Doheny Drive. A library, an eye hospital and a state beach all carry the name, and at 905 Loma Vista Drive stands Greystone, the stately mansion that patriarch Edward Doheny, once America's richest man, built for his son Ned. In 1892, Doheny, the inspiration behind Daniel Day-Lewis's character in There Will Be Blood, was the first to drill a successful oil well in Los Angeles.

While his family played their part in making the city a place of wealth and possibility, their power was short-lived. First, Doheny became enmeshed in a cash-for-drilling-rights scandal. Then, on February 16, 1929, Hugh Plunkett, Ned's personal secretary and possible lover, apparently (although by no means certainly) shot his employer in the head before committing suicide. The family, Edward especially, never rallied. Greystone still stands, though, an Ozymandian relic, a museum, and home to occasional murder-mystery plays.

The first of the five chapters in Jean Stein's story-rich book, the Dohenys' rise and fall sets the haunted tone for what follows. Each section begins with an address and the name of the people that once lived there (the Warners, the Garlands, Jennifer Jones, the Steins themselves), before Stein edits together the dizzying array of interviews she has collected, weaving them into a subtly revealing oral history that illuminates Hollywood life from the 1920s to the 1990s.

There is no novelty in the idea that Hollywood has a dark side - Raymond Chandler, James Ellroy and Kenneth Anger, among others, have long since pulled back that particular curtain - but Stein is peculiarly well-placed to construct this book. She has already orchestrated similar histories of Edie Sedgwick and Robert F Kennedy (who has a bizarre cameo here, presented with a pet monkey by a failed actress on the last day of his life). She is also the daughter of Jules Stein, the one-time ophthalmologist who had the vision to found MCA (Music Corporation of America), becoming one of Hollywood's premier power brokers.

She coolly dedicates the final chapter to her own family and their Beverly Hills house, Misty Mountain, a psychogeographer's dream. Katharine Hepburn once lived there, killing the snakes that slithered into the sitting room, while a later guest, Fiona Shaw, describes the view as 'mountain lions over here, Sharon Tate over there'.

Stein occasionally turns interviewee, too. In the chapter dedicated to Jack Warner, head of Warner Brothers studio, and his wife Ann, she recalls visiting them at Angelo Drive, and being scared of the portrait of Ann, painted by Salvador Dali, that hung on the wall: 'I'd avoid looking at it, like the painting was possessed.'

Dali was the perfect artist to capture Stein's subjects, their lives distorted by money, half-melted by power, any normality racing further away into an increasingly surreal horizon. Jack Warner Jr, whose tempestuous relationship with his father is detailed here, is clear: 'Success ruined my father.' Stein's connections let her negotiate this unstable terrain from the inside out. She speaks to butlers, secretaries, security guards. She knows how to draw out friends and family, too: Joan Didion, Lauren Bacall, Stephen Sondheim, an IMAX whirl of distinguished voices.

She also understands the importance of the houses, a realm that was far from domestic. Jack Warner's mansion, his son reveals, was initially furnished by his studio's props department. Doheny Sr's own house, Chester Place, had a ballroom inspired by Pompeii. Good times before the ashes.

Stein does exit these grand mausoleums to look at the wider world. She collects interviews from Arthur Miller and Ring Lardner about the effects of the House Un-American Activities Committee, where Jack Warner testified against 'ideological termites', and has a detailed account of Ronald Reagan's power grabs during Red Scare paranoia.

For all this oppressive context, however, the book's impact comes mainly from the smaller picture. These are stories full of lost boys and girls, children who fell into the California weeds. A chapter is devoted to the Oscar-winning actress Jennifer Jones and her second and third husbands, the producer David O Selznick and the art maven Norton Simon. There is a sweep of changing Hollywood history here, Jones's three costume changes per soiree giving way to her new Hollywood neighbours Dennis Hopper or Jane Fonda's idea of a party (hiring the Byrds).

Tragedy lurks around every gilded corner, though: Simon's poet son shot himself; one of Jones's sons from her first marriage descended into dysfunction; her daughter with Selznick, Mary Jennifer, threw herself from a building aged 21. Psychoanalysts, not surprisingly, riddle these accounts, and Mary Jennifer's therapist Dr Beatriz Foster repeats her ominous warning to her patient against climbing on roofs: 'Those California winds, they'll blow you away.'

It is the middle chapter (rooted at the 'gloomy' Spanish castle at 22368 Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu) that is most harrowing, however, as Stein excavates the story of Jane Garland. The twentysomething daughter of a failed actress and railroad baron, Garland was diagnosed with a 'schizophrenic reaction - mixed type' according to a court petition. In a curious experiment, she was looked after by a series of male students hired from UCLA, who would take her dancing or bowling, trying to maintain an 'ordinary' life.

Among her carers was Ed Moses, an artist, whose memories of Jane's sexual advances and nightmarishly mangled language ('There is a rat in the refrigerator' was a warning that something bad was about to happen) are the most profoundly disturbing in the book. Garland seems to be sadly emblematic of a hideous collapse of boundaries, the victim - and product - of a time and place that struggled to keep a functioning moral compass.

It is not relentlessly bleak: West of Eden can be funny, gossipy, wittily edited. Yet throughout, it is clear that this unique 'American place' is built on shifting ground. Names can be changed - Stein includes Selznick's memo demanding a new identity be found for the starlet Phylis Isley. (It was: Jennifer Jones.) Society beauties end up eating chicken in welfare restaurants. Houses change hands. Families fall. In all these voices, so meticulously collected, there is the sound of that California wind, and the distinct, insistent scrabble of rats in the refrigerator.

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