The Empty, Molding Ballroom: Jean Stein's WEST OF EDEN

Jennifer Jones, modeling Charles James, in 1952

     “Everyone who goes to Los Angeles—Hollywood—does so willfully, and willfully ignorant,” Dennis Hopper once said. “It is a desert dream constantly irrigated, manipulated, consecrated to the particular dreams of its residents, and those dreams involve power. Power of money; power of stardom; power of sex. Raw, persistent power.”

     Dennis Hopper plays a role—albeit a small one—in Jean Stein’s superb West of Eden (Random House), as does his former wife, Brooke Hayward, whose 1977 memoir Haywire (Vintage) is something of a vintage perfume bottle on the deep shelf of memories and grudges and fantasies that this book becomes. Hopper came to Hollywood, as did many others, a wild and handsome kid, and he frolicked on the manicured lawns and back lots crafted by the people who built what Stein maintains—I think correctly—is a distinctly American place.

    “My memories of that place,” Hopper said, “in that time, the 1950s and 1960s, was of being always stoned and always reading ‘Ozymandias,’ or ‘Thanatopsis,’ and digging the irony that we had everything—or could send out for it in a hurry—but we were right on the precipice of a cliff, waiting to hurtle to our deaths. It was fucking fantastic and crazy and brief.”

     More writers than we have time to reconsider have tackled the theme, the meaning, the full import of Los Angeles, and many of them have drowned in the wealth of rich material that always appears. Stein is wise to return to the form she herself revolutionized in Edie, an almost flawless oral history that revealed--in its moldy, venereal beauty—the 1960s of New York and Warhol and an artist in every minute on every corner. By inviting a fascinating assortment of witnesses into an imaginary ballroom, and having them give their eyewitness perspective to the characters and events of a time and a place, and fearlessly and astutely leaving them plenty of room to bleat and opine and rage, you learn a great deal, while at the same time understanding that we can never know what happened to whom or why. Even though the book turns back upon Stein, as she recounts her own life as the daughter of Jules Stein, who founded the Music Corporation of America (MCA), and, with Lew Wasserman, revolutionized both the representation and production of talent, she is agonizingly distanced, balanced, fearless in what will be revealed.  With no agenda or reams of prose to introduce or clarify what is said, we can hear the various voices talking, all at once, a bit inebriated at times, and come to our own, contradictory conclusions.

    E.B. White maintained that no one should live in New York City unless they were prepared to be lucky, and no one should be prepared to live in Los Angeles, it would appear, if they have more than a passing relationship with reality. To read the chapter on actress Jennifer Jones, whose moral vacuity almost deserves a wing of study in some schools, is to see the rage that attaches to those who have tasted money and power, who change their hair and wardrobe various times in a day, who are massaged and tucked and re-planed and refigured, and still find themselves aging and alone and unwanted and sad. Throughout these studies of people who reached a pinnacle of sorts is a sense of intense disappointment that reality still crept into those flawless homes, and no amount of help could keep them from life. Jennifer Jones spent every day with a therapist, and she dallied with various forms of prayer and spirituality, but seems entirely divorced from her daughter, Mary Jennifer, to whom daddy David O. Selznick promised the moon and the stars, and who threw herself from a skyscraper and had her remains sealed in a small bucket. Jones called her daughter’s therapist and remarked on how hard this must be for her, with all the revenue from sessions now cut off. Jones saw her daughter as competition, as a reminder of age, of time slipping away, not really a daughter. Jones abandoned her first husband, Robert Walker, a difficult, despondent man, and hitched herself to the great showman Selznick, who crafted her as a great star, but could not implant within her any talent or depth. Everyone was in on the charade, even as they admired the staging and the lighting and the endurance of it. If you think of West of Eden as a theatrical enterprise (and I do), you can imagine looking to the boxes of the house and finding Federico Fellini and Borges and David Lynch and Nathanael West and Raymond Chandler having a great time with this material. It is intoxicating and sad, and you may find yourself thinking you’ve broken into an abandoned mansion, spooky and beautiful, glorious clothes in trunks, tarnished Oscars on the mantel, yellowing, curling photos on the wall, rats in the attic. The desiccated pavilion out by the pool once hosted Elizabeth Taylor, and in the living room Bette Davis smoked and Ronald Reagan brokered dirty deals, but the house is now dark, windows shot out by local teens, pipes burst. Reminders of a time now gone.

David O. Selznick, Mary Jennifer Selznick, and Jennifer Jones, in 1962.

     You can read West of Eden and revel in the deals of modern-day gangsters and brokers and agents, and it is fascinating. I find myself drawn most to what is revealed about the women in these times, former showgirls gone to fat and flab, burdened with troublesome daughters, and trying very hard to find a role that suits them. Grace Garland, married at various times to a businessman, later a sportsman who fooled around, and a director, Gregory LaCava, who earned Oscar nominations for My Man Godfrey and Stage Door, is the mother to Jane, a victim of a special form of schizophrenia (never an ordinary disease in the best homes of Hollywood) that doesn’t respond best to hospitalization, but to controlled social interaction with men, with whom she seems most comfortable. Hired for this lucrative employment are artists Ed Moses and Walter Hopps, who take her bowling and out to restaurants, where she performs cartwheels that reveal her revulsion toward underwear and hygiene. A softly pretty girl with rosacea and an insatiable sexual appetite, she forms attachments to her caretakers, and seeks sexual pleasure when she is not stabbing herself with an ice pick, one of the “sharps” the boys have failed to hide from her. The mother is locked away, as if in a vault, in an upstairs room, creaming her face and over-perfuming, until the daughter sets fire to a Christmas tree, and she is smoked out. The daughter is heir to a trust fund, and when the mother is on hard times, she enlists more and more aid for the daughter, to keep the spigot of cash running toward her and the home that encases her. That two figures of importance in the Los Angeles art world spent their formative years caring for this woman, and then heading back to the galleries to stretch some canvases cries out for a film or a longer study, and again Dennis Hopper is on these fringes, and he spoke to me of this time, this girl, and the debates among the “boys” as to whether they should just marry or fuck the girl to keep them solvent.

   Ann Warner, the pretty, Southern girl who became Mrs. Jack Warner, threw parties and divided loyalties among the brothers Warner, until she became fat and inebriated and kept herself locked upstairs, while people ate and drank and entertained themselves downstairs, guests without a hostess but with full bellies.  Even in her enforced retirement, Ann Warner had people fired, helped to shift opinions, and kept children on edge about their legacies.  Beneath all of this is the little girl—pretty and ambitious—who came to Hollywood from Ferriday, Louisiana, and a shady past, and sought stardom in the hills. She found it—sort of—but the price was steep, and she spent her later years gorging on chicken wings from a restaurant in town that catered to citizens on welfare.

   The author’s own mother, Doris Stein, was a grand, stylized woman who drank heavily (with Gore Vidal’s mother of all people), and they sat and passed judgment on the parade of flesh that wandered past. I initially thought I might welcome a book or an article on what was said between these two women, who saw and heard a lot, but I think it might be too much poison too soon, and Stein is judicious in doling out their stories, giving us just enough to make her points.

   The mind stays with Jennifer Jones, however, because we know her best, we can return to her films, we can link her to the creator of her body of work, the same man who gave us Gone with the Wind, and was one of the great buccaneers of Hollywood. Reading about these two is like heavy doses of Clifford Odets, reminders of the treacherous beauty of life in this Eden riddled with snakes. Selznick played tennis with cigarettes in his hand and mouth, gulped amphetamines, and craved order in the world of his films that he could never find in his life. After his death, Jones was adrift, madly in love with her therapist, whom she nicknamed Fig Newton, made bad, unseen films, and staged a suicide that lacked only a press release alerting everyone where they could find and rescue her. She was dragged from the ocean and taken to the hospital, to therapy, and ultimately to marriage to Norton Simon, a ruthless millionaire who bought and sold art, who sought hipness, and who mingled with the “young folk,” including those in the art world who cared for Jane Garland. The only substantial change in the life of Jennifer Jones after her suicide attempt was a determination to never be without full makeup and hair care, so that she would look her best when taken to a hospital, if the time ever came again when things fell apart.

Jennifer Jones is rescued from her carefully staged suicide attempt, in 1967.

     In her later years, despite a silly comeback in an all-star disaster film called The Towering Inferno, Jones became a hostess, a patroness, someone whose films faded from memory but who was regarded by the cool set as someone who was once somebody. It seemed to fit her, and she became allied, however tenuously, with a small, New York version of herself named Ruth Ford, and I came to know Jones briefly and oddly through this woman, whom I interviewed in the early 1990s.. Ford was born in Mississippi, was oddly pretty, sexually voracious, and minimally talented. She married well (Zachary Scott, whom you may now Google), and she had a youthful affair with William Faulkner (who clearly got around, as you’ll learn), and for whom he wrote a play called “Requiem for a Nun.” Ford lived in the Dakota, and up in the eaves she stashed her gay brother, Charles Henri Ford, who made experimental films, edited a bisexual bi-monthly, and hung out in the salons of the avant-garde in Paris. His lover was Pavel Tchelitchew, and this was all very heady for the Broadway and art-scene crowd in Manhattan, who flocked to the teas and dinners in the huge apartment of Ford, where they could see Greta Garbo and Leonard Bernstein and Andy Warhol. Ruth Ford mentioned me  to Jennifer Jones, after I explained that Tennessee Williams finally understood how to write the character of Laura Wingfield in “The Glass Menagerie” after seeing, many times, The Song of Bernadette, in which Jones played Bernadette Soubirous of Lourdes, and for which she won an Oscar. This fascinated Jones, who called me and wanted to know more about Tennessee, and who wanted to remind me of how important she was, and how angry she was that she had been forgotten. “I am unwanted,” she told me, “and I want this to change. I want you to tell people I’m still here.” The poignancy of her need is nothing compared to her inability to realize that an unknown writer, working at that time as a copy editor at Penthouse magazine, could do nothing to change the obscurity, however grand, in which she lived. “I’m not like Ruth,” she told me, “even though we both hate our daughters. We had horrible times with our daughters, and Ruth doesn’t talk to hers. I should have protected myself that way. Ruth throws lovely parties but that is all we have in common. I was significant.”

   Competition, envy, need. These are the dominant themes that run through this captivating book, and I am left with one image that seems to sum up Jennifer Jones, this book, and the time it studies.  In 1968, Senator Robert Kennedy, running for the presidency, needed a place to relax and prepare for his speech after the California primary, of which he was sure he would be the victor. The Malibu beach house of Grace Garland was chosen, and Kennedy and his brood of children found themselves on the beach, frolicking and laughing. One of the children was swept under and was frightened, and Robert Kennedy rescued the child, but scraped his forehead on the ocean floor. Film director John Frankenheimer was sent over with some of his wife’s makeup, and the abrasion was covered. Grace Garland, seeing all the wild children, and learning that they had a menagerie of wild animals at home, offered as a gift a spider monkey that belonged to daughter Jane, who no doubt fumed that her pet was being given away without her permission. The children played with the monkey, then tied it between two trees. They went off to the Ambassador Hotel, where their father was mortally wounded by Sirhan Sirhan. The monkey was forgotten, tied between the trees, moving back and forth. A neighbor watched it for days, moving about, abandoned, and then it was gone.

   Talents and people and desires and things exchanged, used, abandoned. This is a brilliant, bracing book.


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