West of Eden by Jean Stein

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“Everything was a reminder that it can be strange to receive bad news in Los Angeles, a city where one’s gloom is so often at odds with the climactic beauty all around.”—Cord Jefferson, On Kindness

In Los Angeles there will always be bad news. The beautiful blond actress will be rejected; the city will catch on fire; the water will never come quickly enough. The bad news will be a surprise because there isn’t supposed to be bad news in the city of angels, but it will still come, and there is nothing anyone can do to stop it. Wealth cannot buffet against death or mental illness or even the loss of wealth, and so as long as people have been coming to Los Angeles to fulfill their dreams, they have had their dreams dashed.

People have kept coming, though, and Jean Stein’s West of Eden is an unapologetic gawk at those who have come and succeeded in creating some form of paradise under the California sun. The book is a history of three prominent Los Angeles families and two individuals—the Warners (as in Brothers); the Dohenys; Jane Garland; Jennifer Jones; and the Steins, the author’s own family, who was behind the founding of Music Corporation of America (MCA).

It is hard to overstate the pleasure of reading West of Eden, which has all the best qualities of a Hollywood memoir. I kept the book in my bag and snuck away with it during breaks from jury duty; it was my constant companion and the source of most of my conversation during the week that I read it. On a lunch break from jury duty, I read Gore Vidal reminiscing about Hollywood in the 1940s: “It was a totally lesbian scene. Yeah. They were all raging.” And then there was Jackie Park, one of a string of Jack Warner’s lovers, lamenting the fact that he was “very beaten down–he needed shots from a doctor to make him virile.” Park’s solution was to take Warner to a hypnotist who would convince him that he could get it up–and he did! West of Eden is Hollywood at its most salacious–no gossip unreported; no rumor left unsaid. It is the progenitor of tell-all books like Bette Davis’s The Lonely Life and Empty Mansions, the book about the reclusive heiress Hugette Clark. It is a page-turning, one-upping, revelatory account of life in and among Hollywood’s most powerful families in the 1940s and 50s, with every bit as much intrigue and heartbreak as the topic would suggest.

The life of the author holds almost as much intrigue as those of her subjects, from whom she has been collecting interviews for the last thirty years. Raised in Los Angeles, Stein is the daughter of Jules and Doris Stein. Her father founded the MCA, a large media company now owned by Geffen Records. Stein attended Wellesley, but took off for the Sorbonne before she graduated, and it was during that time that she met and struck up a romance with William Faulkner. Stein parlayed a 1956 interview with Faulkner into an editorship at The Paris Review, which was followed by stints with Esquire, Grand Street Magazine, and two books–both oral histories–one on Edie Sedgwick, and one on Robert Kennedy. Stein pioneered the form of oral history in her books Edie: An American Girl and American Journey: The Times of Robert Kennedy—using a tapestry of other people’s voices to bring inscrutable subjects to life.

Jean Stein

Jean Stein

In West of Eden, Stein returns to the form, although the book suffers from an unclear aim. If the purpose of the book is to get to know Los Angeles better, I can think of a dozen books the reader should turn to before reading this one. Stein doesn’t spend any time on the founding of the city, and barely glances over the beginning of Hollywood and the film industry. For a book that purports to be “a work of history both grand in scale and intimate in detail,” the question of whose scale and detail comes up time and again. Hollywood is not Los Angeles, and these five families are not Hollywood, but these substitutions are made regularly. Additionally, the disparate voices featured in the book create a fragmented narrative, one that never gets deep enough to make a significant or coherent argument about Los Angeles. Like many oral histories, this book is a survey, but instead of one topic at its heart, there are five different families. That makes it difficult to know just what West of Eden’s focus is.

It is almost painful to criticize West of Eden, though, because once you get past the fact that the title and the scope of the book do not match up, it is 335 pages of dishy, delicious fun. Stein has been interviewing subjects for West of Eden for over thirty years, and people like Dennis Hopper and Stephen Sondheim and Lauren Bacall show up in its pages. Hopper recalled a time when he and James Dean, while filming Easy Rider, were introduced to Serge Semenenko (who had just bought Warner Brothers) by Jack Warner. “Jimmy reached into his pocket, threw a bunch of coins at their feet, and walked off,” Hopper reported. Apparently, Dean was none too pleased with Warner’s move.

The anecdotes continue throughout West of Eden: Warren Beatty watching Jules Stein eat boysenberry sorbet and predicting that Ronald Reagan would become president. David Geffen buying a Monet water lily painting at the suggestion of Norton Simon. Rumors that Ned Doheny shot his secretary and lover, Hugh Plunkett, just moments before killing himself in the family home. No one in Stein’s Los Angeles acts independently—everyone is obsessed with their image, with what other people think of them, and how much more they can get away with.

Stein’s choice to devote an entire chapter to Jane Garland is a curious one. Garland was the daughter of William, a railroad builder, and Grace, a beauty queen “brought west by Sam Goldwyn.” Garland suffered from numerous mental illnesses including schizophrenia, but was the subject of a school of psychology that suggested she live as normal a life as possible and, in time, she would be brought back in touch with reality. She was cared for by a bevy of young men from Los Angeles, since she didn’t get along with women, and they were all paid the handsome sum of $2 an hour to escort her to dance halls, take her to lunch, and report on her state of mind to her mother and psychologists. Other than the fact that she was adjacent to Hollywood fame, Stein gives no indication why Garland is included in the book when the other four chapters are devoted to famous men and women whose mental states, while not perfect, were more or less healthy. That chapter is an anomaly; an interlude into pity in a book that otherwise took aim at the powerful.

The worst parts of Los Angeles are also the parts that make it tabloid fodder—think of the opening scene of Sunset Boulevard, when the narrator tells you to follow him if you want to get the facts straight—“before those Hollywood columnists get their hands on it.” The facts, it turned out, were dramatic enough on their own. They didn’t require embellishing for Sunset Boulevard, and, as Stein has shown with West of Eden, the truth stands alone again. It is full of bad people getting bad news and behaving badly, which is just the way we like Hollywood to be.

Laura Turner is a writer and editor living in San Francisco. More from this author →