Very Big in LA

Jack Warner with Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, stars of the Warner Brothers film What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, circa 1962
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Jack Warner with Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, stars of the Warner Brothers film What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, circa 1962

1.

Jean Stein’s West of Eden is an oral history about Los Angeles, shaped from interviews collected over a period of thirty years. It focuses on five influential civic founders and major figures in the early cinema, beginning in the 1930s with the Dohenys, one of the great LA fortunes, now commemorated in the names of a street, a park, apartment buildings, a historic site, and more. Next come the film entrepreneurs the Warner brothers, principally Jack Warner and his descendants; someone called Jane Garland—no relation to Judy—whose significance is less clear; Jennifer Jones, the actress and wife of, first, Robert Walker the actor, then David O. Selznick, then Norton Simon the multimillionaire industrialist, philanthropist, and art collector; and last, Stein’s carefully neutral account of her own family. From modest Jewish beginnings, her father became a successful Hollywood agent and cofounder of the enormous agency MCA; he and her mother hoped that Jean would marry into nobility.

Snippets of interviews with people who knew or were related to these subjects are stitched together without editorial comment into a narrative collage, a technique Stein has used before in her books with George Plimpton on Warhol groupie Edie Sedgwick (Edie: American Girl) and Robert Kennedy (American Journey: The Life and Times of Robert Kennedy). And of course other people have used this method—Frances Kiernan’s biography of Mary McCarthy comes to mind, or the work of Studs Terkel, though the latter two writers use much more editorial material.

The superficial outline of much of the Doheny history has long been known, if only because of the film There Will Be Blood, whose protagonist, the paradigm of a ruthless, striving entrepreneur, is said to have been inspired by the oil tycoon Edward L. Doheny. The views expressed by the people Stein talked to may be surprising to those who follow LA history. Edward Doheny’s son Ned Doheny was famously involved in a murder-suicide in 1929, the details of which have always been murky and disputed, and fascinated many at the time; some of the details appear in Raymond Chandler’s The High Window. Official biographies of Edward Doheny have held that Ned was murdered by a crazy “family confidant,” Hugh Plunkett, but Stein brings out the insider view that it was the reverse: the alcoholic Ned murdered Plunkett, and then shot himself; or if Plunkett shot first, he wasn’t crazy, but had some discreditable reason involving both of the two men.

The rough-and-tumble rise of Doheny sets the tone for the Warner brothers, in particular the youngest brother, Jack Warner, the dominant figure in the movie studio,…



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