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West Words

Sifting Facts and Gossip to Scout Out the Ghosts of Old Hollywood

April 04, 2001|JONATHAN KIRSCH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

As a former "snoop" for gossip columnist Liz Smith, David Wallace is adept at digging out nuggets of rumor and revelation about famous people. "Gossip," he quips in "Lost Hollywood" (LA Weekly Books/St. Martin's Press, $23.95, 224 pages), "is news running ahead of itself in a red satin gown." Still, to his credit, Wallace uses those nuggets only as decoration in an admirably fact-filled history of the motion picture industry during its glory years.

Wallace conjures up the golden days of Hollywood by recalling what is not here anymore, not only the long-gone celebrities but the places where they worked and romanced and hung out during the first and most colorful half-century of movie-making in Southern California. "Ghosts exist," he insists. "The ghosts of Hollywood embody and animate our collective and individual consciences."

At its best moments, "Lost Hollywood" allows us to see both the splendor and the squalor of old Hollywood, a world that makes the contemporary movie business seem like child's play. Wallace, for example, points out that Hearst Castle at San Simeon was not the favorite getaway of William Randolph Hearst's lady friend, Marion Davies--she much preferred "Ocean House," a palatial beachfront house in Santa Monica. That's where Gloria Swanson, escorted by Joseph Kennedy, showed up for one of Davies' legendary costume parties, and that's where Davies led Winston Churchill on a tour of the home's 55 bathrooms in search of something to drink: Davies stashed her gin in the toilet tanks to avoid Hearst's disapproving eye.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday April 12, 2001 Home Edition Southern California Living Part E Page 3 View Desk 1 inches; 18 words Type of Material: Correction
Misidentification--A photo caption in last week's West Words column reversed the identification of Lou Costello and Bud Abbott.

Wallace delights in the ironic interplay between life and art, but he never allows us to forget that Hollywood was, first and always, a business. All of the founding fathers of the motion picture industry on the West Coast--Samuel Goldwyn, Cecil B. DeMille, D.W. Griffith--worked in fear of saboteurs in the pay of the New York-based "Trust," a corporation whose movie-making monopoly they were challenging.

DeMille, for example, received several death threats and was shot at twice. He routinely wore a .45-caliber revolver on his belt and slept with a shotgun to protect himself and his precious canisters of film.

The glories of old Hollywood are mostly gone now, of course. Fittingly, the corner of Hollywood Boulevard and Highland Avenue, site of the former Hotel Hollywood--"Just about everything that counted in Hollywood," writes Wallace, "took place at the Hotel Hollywood"--will be the permanent venue for the Academy Awards.

But the Garden of Allah, the notorious bungalow hotel where Robert Benchley held court and Frank Sinatra once romanced future wife Ava Gardner, was replaced with a mini-mall. "What's been lost to progress," the author laments, "is a tragedy for film buffs."

Not everything in "Lost Hollywood," however, has been torn down and built over. In fact, the book is so full of detail that it could readily serve as a sourcebook for a self-guided tour of what's left of old Hollywood. The KTLA studio near Sunset Boulevard and Gower Street, for example, is where "The Jazz Singer" was shot. The Spanish Revival apartment house at the corner of Franklin and Grace avenues, where Greta Garbo and Stevie Wonder once lived, was built as a real estate speculation by Cecil B. DeMille, who figured that all the eager young starlets flocking to Hollywood needed a place to live.

Some of the strangest artifacts of old Hollywood, in fact, are hidden in plain sight. The iconic Hollywood sign started out as a gimmick to promote "Hollywoodland," a 1924 housing tract whose investors included director Mack Sennett and newspaper publisher Harry Chandler, then publisher of the Los Angeles Times. Only when the subdivision was forgotten and the last four letters had fallen down did it take on its current mythic significance. Still, the sign was only 5 years old when a failed starlet named Peg Entwistle chose the H for a suicide leap.

"Like her career, even her suicide was not a success, at least not immediately," deadpans Wallace. "Instead of hitting the stone ground more than five stories below and dying instantly, Entwistle landed on a cactus. Despite a number of operations, she died a painful death several days later."

The tragicomic death of Peg Entwistle may resemble the final scene of a dark comedy, but it reminds us that the movies are, after all, just smoke and mirrors.

"Which is more real, the airport in the opening scenes of 'Casablanca' or the Van Nuys Airport in the San Fernando Valley?" Wallace asks. "They're one and the same, but which one is more real? And which is the ghost?"

*

West Words looks at books related to California and the West. Jonathan Kirsch can be reached at jkirsch@kirsch-mitchell.com.

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