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Before the Rat Pack, another wild bunch

July 30, 2005|Richard Rushfield | Times Staff Writer

On Bundy Drive just north of Sunset Boulevard, in the leafy, hillside section of Brentwood, a postage stamp-sized Tudor-style lodge lurks unobtrusively behind a row of hedges. In a block of rebuilt insta-mansions and multimillion-dollar homes, there is little about this low-key cabin to suggest that it was, at the height of Hollywood's Golden Age, headquarters to a clan of the movie industry's most famous names and its most celebrated group of over-the-hill scalawags.

Approaching the house, however, a hint of its devilish past reveals itself. On the heavy wooden front door, above a brass lion's head knocker, a garishly colored escutcheon leaps out -- what appears to be a family crest until one looks closely at the words sketched below the two heraldic unicorns: "Useless. Insignificant. Poetic."

The words proudly fluttering across the door were the motto of the infamous group's ringleader, the cabin's onetime resident, John Decker, a painter whose shadowy life left behind a trail of mystery only beginning to be unraveled. It was in this unassuming lodge that Decker played kingpin to a flamboyant boys' club of Hollywood's most notorious rakes, a club that will be memorialized this weekend when the descendants of its members gather for the first time for a "Farewell Toast to the Bundy Drive Boys."

The group was led, alongside Decker, by actors W.C. Fields, John Barrymore, Errol Flynn, journalist Gene Fowler, and art critic/aesthete Sadakichi Hartmann, a group of men each rapidly approaching the ends of not only their storied careers but, for most, also of their lives. Activities careened from epic drinking bouts to late-night impromptu Shakespeare stagings (while cutting out the boring parts).

In his 1954 memoir of the group, "Minutes of the Last Meeting," Fowler wrote, "That brown beamed studio was a place of meeting for still-lively survivors of Bohemian times, an artists' Alamo where political bores never intruded and where breast-beating hypocrites could find no listeners .... These men lived intensely, as do children and poets and jaguars."

The Bundy group's rambunctious antics and its blend of irreverent highbrow inebriation brought it to the public eye as much for its brushes with the law as for its members' day jobs.

An art opening at Decker's West Hollywood gallery in 1946, to take a typical incident, degenerated into a drunken brawl that had to be dispersed by the police; Fields, for his part, was in perpetual hot water for tax evasion; and Flynn's statutory rape trial was the sensation of the decade.

Explained Ronald Fields, grandson of W.C. Fields and author of two biographies of his forebear, "I don't mean to minimize the Rat Pack, but this group was very different from them. These guys had just such depth in artistry. They probably in the long run squandered their great talents by drinking and having fun, but then again they just didn't take themselves too seriously. They pretty much felt as W.C. said in one of his movies, 'Life's a funny thing. You're lucky if you can get out of it alive.' "

At the center of the group brooded Decker, a painter noted in his day for comic caricatures in the style of the Old Masters (his portrait of Fields as Queen Victoria famously hung in the entry of Chasen's restaurant until its closing in 1995).

His life described in depth for the first time in "Bohemian Rogue," a 2005 biography by Maine attorney Stephen Jordan, Decker emerges as one of the great mysterious figures in Hollywood history -- a man-about-town who hid a secret past, including internment during World War I as a German spy, three simultaneous marriages and, recent evidence suggests, a lucrative sideline as an art forger.

"His story has it all," Jordan said of Decker. "Crime, amazing talent, bigamy, success, tragedy and malicious humor."

By the time of Decker's death in 1947, at age 53, the Bundy group was largely disbanded.

Hartmann, Fields and Barrymore preceded Decker to the grave, while Flynn and others were largely estranged from their former ringleader. The moderate favor that Decker found as an artist during his lifetime largely died with him and, according to author Jordan, no exhibit of his work has been held since a memorial show shortly after his death. And with its membership largely deceased, memory of the Bundy Drive Boys quickly faded, soon to be supplanted in public imagination by that much sprier latter-day clique, Frank Sinatra's Rat Pack.

Shortly after publishing his book in April, Jordan made contact with Rita Saiz, the current resident of the Bundy studio, who told him that the house, which she has rented since 1980, had just gone on the market -- the modest cabin a likely target for tear-down in a neighborhood where super-sized upgrades are becoming the rule.

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