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SUNDAY READING

Picture Perfect : Once, Beverly Hills Was Strictly a Company Town, and a Peaceful Village. Today, It's Sleek, Super-Modern, a City

December 08, 1985|Nora Johnson | Nora Johnson, daughter of screenwriter-producer Nunnally Johnson, lives in New York and writes both fiction and nonfiction. Her new novel, "Tender Offers", will be published in February

On a recent visit to Los Angeles, I looked down on Beverly Hills from a high floor of the Century Plaza hotel. Billowing mists clung to the foothills, and the black mountains behind were incrusted with habitation. Closer in, sparkling lines of high-rises flanked a long diagonal gash that had to be Wilshire. Just below, Olympic swung forth, freeway-like, toward the center of the city. The hum of traffic never stopped.

Was this really my hometown?

Nowhere was that pinkish, peaceful mellowness I associate with what I stubbornly persist in thinking of as my old village. Even my location was bizarre. I was 19 floors up--once the height limit had been seven. The hotel stood on ground that used to be the 20th Century Fox back lot, sold off, as all the world knows, to pay for "Cleopatra." Somewhere below me had been the Western street and all the other sets where, when I was a child, the real and unreal met in poignant metaphor. Nearby had been that vast tank of water for shipwrecks and the like, where stunt men sputtered and "drowned," leaving only a life preserver on the surface.

I first knew Beverly Hills as a bicoastal child commuting between parents. It seemed natural to me, and not strange, to arrive every summer at a different rented house on the flats--seven or eight in all. Whether this ruthlessness was a function of my family's disruption or the transitional nature of the movie business is unknown and unknowable. In the '40s, as my father's career climbed, so his houses also rose north of Sunset.

Beverly Hills was then a village with a couple of movie theaters, a train track on little Santa Monica where a freight train occasionally appeared, bridle paths flanked by neat hedges on Sunset and Rodeo, and Will Wright's Ice Cream store. It had the serene, sunlit monotony of any small town in midsummer. There were kids on bikes and a few shoppers going to Bullock's or the Thriftimart. A few nannies pushing carriages in the park across Santa Monica Boulevard were testimony to affluence. Beverly Drive was the main shopping street. Rodeo was nondescript except for the Brown Derby. The other two restaurants we went to were Chasen's and Romanoff's, where I once found a pearl in my oyster, put there by Prince Mike Romanoff himself. On Sunset, toward the Strip, were Ciro's and the Trocadero, where I longed to go dancing in a black sequined dress. There was Martindale's bookstore, where I sometimes went with my father to browse and buy whatever new books he might make into what he always called "pictures."

There were no freeways. Long, hot treks to the Valley or downtown were dreaded by the adults, who gave cries of joy upon arriving home. "Lord--I'm glad that's over! Let me out of this car and into the pool." (In those days cars were hot and pools were cool.) Clearly this palmy space between Whittier and Doheny drives was paradise. There were the nonsensical contrasts of the frontier town. Just yards from elegant patios and gardens peopled by the rich and famous, coyotes howled in the canyons and rattlesnakes slithered in the dusk--and the dazzling gowns that appeared on those patios had usually been bought in New York or Paris.

Beverly Hills was insular, inward-turned, something of a backwater--and strictly, devotedly, a company town. A director once said how bored and uncomfortable he felt among Regular People and how happy he always was to get back home. There was industry talk over lunch at the studio commissary, dinner at home, in the Cadillacs, on phone calls by the pool, in the Polo Lounge, over the wickets when Zanuck got everybody playing croquet. Like Hershey, Pa., or a Mideast oil town, everybody in Beverly Hills was in the same biz. My father once said, "All that you ever heard of or knew existed was pictures." If you weren't a producer or writer or director, or a spouse or child thereof, or one of those glorious creatures who dropped by occasionally--Ty Power or Ginger or Bogie or Betty--or struggling and worshipful and on the way up the entertainment ladder, you were better off in Pasadena or Hershey, Pa. But I'll drop spouse, child and Regular People from this list, or hang them around the edges where they always ended up anyway. As I got older and more Eastern and alien, and was less and less a part of this rarefied world, I chose the more welcoming, less demanding East for my home.

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