Los Angeles started as other Southwest American cities. There was nothing unusual about her birth. It was Hollywood that eventually dressed her up in funny clothes, gave her personality. When great barns were erected and cameras began to grind, riches came and depravity followed, the likes of which had perhaps not been seen since the days of ancient Rome (one of the silent era’s favorite settings).
Cecil B. DeMille’s office is still around from this time, exactly as it was. After running away from stage disappointments and creating a career as master of the cinematic spectacle, DeMille worked at an office on Vine, just south of Hollywood Boulevard. It has since been moved to Highland, across from the Hollywood Bowl where it remains today as part of a sad little museum (the nearby blind palm reader gets more foot-traffic).
Walk a block south and there’s a movie theater built ninety years ago to resemble an Egyptian temple. The first premiere at the Egyptian was Robin Hood. Douglas Fairbanks shot his epic swashbuckler only two boulevards south of the theater. His studio is still there and for many years I’ve driven by, always imagining I could see the Robin Hood castle rising into the clouds high above studio walls. Back when Fairbanks was king of Hollywood, his playgrounds were visible from miles away.
Tragically, while Manhattan and the nation’s capital flaunt their history, Los Angeles hides hers. She insists on obsessively transforming herself to appear young and trendy. She disguises herself as a Vanity Fair for giants. But if you travel on foot beneath billboards and wall adverts you might discover a few places where she hides her relics.
While Mann’s Chinese Theater, the Hollywood sign, and various movie studios have been re-contextualized into our modern era, there are many lesser known locations that have maintained the aesthetics of their times; these are the places that intrigue me the most.
When Douglas Fairbanks separated from Mary Pickford, he stayed at the Trianon Apartments. The French Normandy building is still there, looking exactly as it did then. Both Ronald Reagan and James Cagney lived for a time at the Montecito. The first Academy Awards ceremony was held at The Roosevelt Hotel in 1929, and while renovations have occurred, the Spanish-style hotel continues to serve as a portal to an earlier Hollywood. The Alto Nido Apartments was home to Fatty Arbuckle for three years, and still stands only a couple doors up from where Nathanael West wrote The Day of the Locust (Personally, I hate West. Judging from his most famous novel where he demeans marginal figures among the Hollywood community, he would’ve hated me. He’s lucky he’s not around today cause I’d punch his lights out.).
I’ve lived in Los Angeles for over twenty years, and have been reading about Hollywood’s history most of my life. My new novel, Ten-A-Week Steale, began with a single inspiration: to write a story that accurately resurrected Hollywood during the 1920s. All locations are real. Steale’s apartment still stands (barely). In fact, in my research, I discovered two silent film actresses lived at the Leland Avenue apartment during the 1920s. Classic films and action-oriented pulps influenced me a great deal as to story and characterizations. But the first inspiration was my love of this extraordinary city.
Occasionally, I catch her looking at me. “Do you know who I am?” she asks. “How much do you know about my past?” Truthfully, it’s hard for me to see beyond the beauty she once was.
Returned from the Great War, living in 1920s Hollywood, Walter Steale is hired as muscle by his politician brother while a platinum blond, renowned for playing empty-headed nymphets in the flickers, rekindles his faith in the world. But before long, lies stack up around his work, and Steale finds himself on the front lines of corruption.Once he confronts his brother, Steale’s dirty work is used against him to protect powerful state leaders. Forced into the life of a fugitive, with the secret love of a film star at his side, the former GI fights to expose the state’s true enemies while hiding in the shadows of a thriving new metropolis where everyone is dancing fast, chased by sorrow, drugged by the dream of change.