MARCH 5, 2016
“WHEN MILLIONS of dollars are involved, people do weird things.”
That’s Ed Moses breaking it down. Ed Moses, one of the more louche and wild-ass de facto Virgils taking reader-Dantes on an insider’s tour of big-money madness in West of Eden, Jean Stein’s hellaciously entertaining, merciless, and vividly executed oral history of four of Los Angeles’s wealthy, demented, and world-changing families, and one simply wealthy and demented one. (By Los Angeles, in this universe, the author means the part that extends from Beverly Hills to Malibu. All circles of this inferno pretty much share the same zip codes.)
Wealth and weirdness, of course, go together like empty Kleenex boxes and Howard Hughes’s feet. In fact, if I had a quibble, which I don’t, it’s that the subtitle — An American Place — does not do justice to the glittery depths of psycho-emotional derangement that the book actually delivers. On the other hand, An American Place sounds better than the more accurate Five Kinds of High-End-LA-centric Madness, Violence, and Family-destroying Delusional Behavior. So what do I know?
Stein’s big-ticket subjects include Los Angeles’s founding family, the Dohenys, and Hollywood’s founding family, the Warners, and the family of mob-adjacent MCA founder Jules Stein. Two chapters are devoted more to individuals than their families: heiress Jane Garland (no relation to Judy — except by pathology), and the fetchingly neurasthenic actress Jennifer Jones (wife of David Selznick and Norton Simon, respectively.) It is, I might as well toss in here, one of the book’s piquant pleasures to find out how the most unlikely luminaries are related to these monstrously moneyed giants of the past. The author’s father was, in fact, Jules Stein; her famous daughter, Katrina vanden Heuvel, runs The Nation — no small irony considering that that granddad is the man who grew Ronald Reagan from GE shill and FBI snitch to leader of the free world and massive tool of the mogul class.
Edward Doheny, on whom Daniel Day-Lewis based his character in There Will Be Blood, made his ungodly fortune by bribing more or less the entire Mexican government to secure the country’s oil rights. Years afterward, we learn, the robber baron needed armed guards to protect him from the Mexican revolutionaries who were rumored to be heading north to wreak revenge for his pillage. Doheny’s personal life was equally tumultuous. His first wife killed herself by drinking battery acid after he’d left her for his second one, and his son blew his brains out.
Here’s the great Richard Rayner describing the situation of Estelle Doheny, Mrs. Doheny 2.0, who went from being a 9-to-5er to marrying the richest man in the United States:
Can you imagine what it would have been like to have found yourself in that situation, in that time? For god’s sakes, you go from being a telephone operator to having Steinway make you a piano with a bust of your child on either side of the keyboard? You can go look in the Steinway catalog. They made a piano with Ned’s head carved into it. This is not reality — this is an altered state.
(Rayner’s spot-on snippets will, without doubt, make you want to go back and read his own masterpiece of LA historical noir, A Bright and Guilty Place. Along with my other fave, his Los Angeles Without a Map.)
During the Teapot Dome Scandal — when Doheny was caught cheating his way to rights for petroleum reserves in Wyoming — the great man was staring down the barrel of personal and financial ruin. To claw his way out of it, Doheny asked his special friend and bagman, Hugh Plunkett — who was scheduled to testify against him — to enter an asylum instead. Plunkett declined the invitation. With good reason. In Chandler novels, Rayner reminds us, “people are always being hidden away in cure homes or locked away by evil doctors in loony bins — in fact, held prisoner by some rich family.”
Before there was noir, it would seem, there was Los Angeles. Aspects of the Doheny saga loom large in Chandler’s work from The High Window to The Big Sleep. A mere two years after Teapot Dome, Chandler himself was an oil exec, VP of the Dabney Oil Syndicate, which sounds as shady as anything that ever showed up in his fiction, and gave him a ringside seat on the entitled sins of the city’s elite. At one point, Chandler has Marlowe describe a killing and say, “You read it in the papers […] but it wasn’t so. What’s more you knew it wasn’t so and the D.A. knew it wasn’t so and the D.A.’s investigators were pulled off the case within a matter of hours.” And in a letter he wrote, “The law is where you buy it and what you pay for it.”
To quote again the ever-quotable Rayner:
[Chandler] completely saw the way that power works in Los Angeles, which along with corruption became his broadest subject. And he kept going back to the Doheny story. It’s glanced at in different ways throughout his work, and it lingered with him as a paradigm for what he saw as the rotten heart of paradise.
Oral history, by its nature, is based on anecdote. And it’s easy to knock anecdote as the porch furniture in the stately architecture of biography. They’re by nature casual, history scrawled on a cocktail napkin. But it’s the casual details that resonate. Who does not want to hear from Jennifer Jones’s maid that, while she’d wash all their boss’s bras, they never washed any panties? Because she didn’t wear any. “And she didn’t wear pantyhose either.” Even in her dotage, we learn, Miss Jennifer liked to keep the lines of communication open.
So fine is Stein’s ear for the well-told nugget that, as a reviewer, the temptation is less to analyze than simply march out a gaggle of samples and say, “Aren’t these great?” Here’s Barbara Warner Howard on her daddy Jack:
I used to go for walks with my father after dinner. He always carried a flashlight and a big cane with a rubber end to it, not because he limped but because he used it to kill snails. He hated snails. Another time he had a gun, a .22, and he shot a rabbit. He said it had been eating the lettuce and carrots in our victory garden. […] It took me a long time to trust him again.
Well, yeah … On the surface what we’re getting is personal history, but at the same time, what we’re really getting is voice. The character of the character talking about the characters. Stein’s books, when you break them down, consist of a succession of mini-monologues. It’s like reading a William Gaddis novel — except we know who’s speaking. All Stein’s books feature world-class era-defining oral-tainment — Edie pretty much wrapped up the sixties in a toxic bow — but the narrators in this volume are, as they used to say in ’14, next level. Along with the ever-entertaining Rayner, Stein loves to hand the mike off to Ed Moses and Walter Hopps, whose bits pack a bent but prescient LA tang that’s equal parts street and Beat.
Moses and Hopps feature prominently in my favorite chapter in the book , the one devoted to Jane Garland, the wildly schizophrenic daughter of a real estate baron and a former Miss Cleveland–turned-actress whose star never ascended. Rather than put Jane in an institution, the parents decided to keep her at home and construct a kind of Potemkin social world for their troubled spawn. To do so, they hired a bunch of young men, at two or three dollars an hour, to keep her company and take her out to do all the stuff that non–clinically insane young people do: go to movies, go out to eat, or go bowling. (This was the R. D. Laing Era — when commingling therapists and patients was a thing.) Only young men were hired because, thanks to a sadistic nanny in her early years, Jane had a pathological fear of women. While Mom was off being glamorous and Dad was making millions, said nanny routinely tied up and tortured their little girl, trying to get her to sign over her money.
Happily, among the young men enlisted to try and bring some joy and normalcy into this madness were two budding visionaries looking to make a buck — the aforementioned Ed and Walter. Young Jane, by the time our hipster heroes show up, seemed to be equal parts Female-phobic and Boy Crazy. And her story, like so many in this fur-lined jaw-dropper of a book, would seem to owe as much to Jim Thompson as Joan Didion. (If it isn’t already the plot of a Ryan Murphy pilot, it should be.)
In the midst of all these larger-than-life zillionaires trampling their way to immortality, the stories of Moses and Hopps, a couple of out-of-work artists trying to scrape by with shitty gigs and fucked-up attitudes, is a high point of the book. Tales of babysitting Ms. Garland are equal parts hair-raising and hilarious.
What her parents wanted was a cross between gigolo, male nurse, and actual friend. Here’s Moses on the strangely focused verbal genius of his charge:
Every once in a while she’d say these incredibly succinct things that cut right through everything, and the rest of the time there was this talking in tongues, this weird kind of chattering and clattering about. There were certain things she’d say when things had gotten out of hand and she was about to become dangerous. One of her famous phrases was, “There is a rat in the refrigerator.” That meant some bad shit was about to happen, some real bad shit.
The last day of Moses’s employ, that bad shit included standing at the top of the stairs, rocking back and forth and dripping blood from between her legs. Even the unflappable Moses remembers being scared by this one. After giving him her rat-in-the-fridge alert, Moses discovered the cause of the trauma:
She has both of her hands behind her back and I say, “What’s in your hand, Jane?” She put out her left hand and then puts it back again. So I said, “Let’s see your other hand.” […] She smiled and she stuck it out. She had an ice pick pitted right down through the center of her wrist, straight through to the other side.
Not, mind you, that the future art kings of Los Angeles had nothing but bad times with Jane Garland. Hopps, for his part, remembers a banner day when he and Ed took her to Disneyland:
Moses had brought some grass along, and he and I were smoking it. It’s the only time I’d been there, and I don’t ever need to go to Disneyland ever again — I’ll tell you, for me it was the way to see it. To experience it stoned, in the company of a charming, totally delighted schizophrenic girl — that’s the only way to see Disneyland.
Los Angeles was always, to march out that tired cliché, a fantasy factory. But what West of Eden reveals is that it wasn’t the studios that were creating the fantasy. It was Los Angeles itself — more specifically, in Stein’s batch of poison bonbons, its most notable families, spinning their fictions of happy family life, while the reality was generations of trustafarian offspring raised by distracted wolves.
By the end, you realize, Fitzgerald may have been slightly off. It’s not that the rich are different than you and me. There’s just a lot more cushion on their crazy.