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, whose children, sons-in-law, etc. have plenty to say here. Jack Warner, lucky and rich, controlled the fates of a big family, whose members’ views of him differ a lot: someone quotes his wife as saying he was “just this little Jewish guy” when she met him. “He was a tremendous failure where it counts. Human relationships: zero,” says his son Jack Warner Jr., but also “a lot of fun to be with before he made it big.” “The mixture of vanity and gross vulgarity in that man Jack Warner was something to behold,” says Arthur Miller. “Whatever people say about him otherwise, Mr. Warner was a wonderful father,” says his stepdaughter Joy Orr. Was he? Another Warner daughter, Barbara, says of this half-sister, Joy, “I think I never heard Joy say what she really felt about anything. Usually she just loved everything….” And so on, leaving much for the reader to decide.
In such a potpourri, you find you want an editor’s point of view to explain the central focus and to define the tone of the book, whether satirical, ironic, bitter, or credulous. Here, differing perceptions pass without comment from Stein. She grew up amid these movie millionaires, and one senses her ambivalence. She had actually met the random collection of seedy brothers-in-law and down-and-out uncles that the central characters refer to, and her awareness of their humanity inevitably softens the edges of her editorial choices; it’s the reluctance, known to every writer, to hurt the feelings of people you know and like. You get the impression that she may feel them and their children looking over her shoulder.
The world Stein excavates is not that of the great silent-screen stars, of directors like Ernst Lubitsch, or screenwriters like William Faulkner and F. Scott Fitzgerald, but Los Angeles in the 1940s and 1950s with the rise of the big studios, stars like Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner, and the founding Warners and Selznicks. Though it included such titans, this second generation was also peopled with the younger sons, B actors, and minor English aristocrats hanging about; the glamorous 1930s fast set had subsided into living like generic rich people, with cars and jewelry and psychiatric problems—ordinary people with rich people’s concerns about boredom, drink, social rivalries, and health. Anybody’s world might touch theirs; anyone might be in their carpool or have the same personal trainer; for instance, when my now-middle-aged children were in nursery school in West Los Angeles, one of the little Warners was in our carpool; my children, with graduate student parents, reported in awe after play dates that the Warner kids had a kids’ refrigerator, full of treats like ice cream, apples, and juice, and they got to take anything they wanted, anytime.
Stein’s subjects were used to the grown-up equivalents of ad lib indulgence, but they were also concerned about good taste and bought it if they didn’t have it themselves. Enormous, fancy houses play a large part in Stein’s narrative—no faux pas here in the vein of the Iranian rich who escaped to LA in the 1980s and scandalized their neighbors with mega-mansions and garishly painted statues. Nor did the Warners and their friends’ ideas of classiness come from movies themselves, in which the usual Hollywood style, exported to the world, was Deco and French, with those merino-trimmed satin peignoirs, Greek columns, mirrors, statues of panthers.
Instead, they were Anglophiles. Studio executives like Warner, or at least his advisers, admired and emulated such upper-class English as Duff and Diana Cooper, who appear in Stein’s book. Jack Warner’s mistress Jackie Park, despite her affect of cheerful tart (“My mother used to have different boyfriends and then she abandoned me to the Catholic Charities. I was abused sexually, but I got a good education”), claimed to be a peer’s granddaughter; Warner loved to introduce her as “Lady Scarborough,” and would tell people she had “a heart of gold and a snatch to match.”
Today the Doheny mansion is open to the public. The Warner house, which Stein describes as being as big as the Parthenon, was sold to David Geffen, the Hollywood showbiz executive and cofounder of DreamWorks. Taking seriously his arrival at the pinnacle of entertainment world success, he felt he ought to live up to the local traditions of grandeur; he tells Stein about buying the house and all its contents as “an homage to an idea about the way people lived in Hollywood. I got caught up in the whole gestalt and I bought it,” for $47 million. Later he told a friend, “I don’t know why the fuck I bought it. What is a Brooklyn boy doing here?”
Stein herself grew up in a pile called Misty Mountain, almost as big as the Warner house, which was eventually sold to Rupert Murdoch, with all the contents. Joan Didion, who knew the house, was amazed by the vast grounds. She reminds Stein, “I remember making our way to the pool. That was the last night you would have possession of the house…. I had not even known this pool was there, ever.” Murdoch left everything unchanged except for adding Murdoch family photos. Years later, Stein’s mother’s cookbooks were still in the kitchen, with her marginal notes. Geffen didn’t change things at the Warner house either, at first.
The subject of the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings is still alive for many of Stein’s respondents, especially the involvement of Ronald Reagan and of course Jack Warner himself, who like Reagan named everyone he could think of and was a great friend of J. Edgar Hoover, who fixed it so that Warner and his family didn’t have to go through customs. These are the sorts of details that make the book fascinating.
The section on Jane Garland is a bit of an outlier: a manic-depressive girl living in Malibu in a big house on the beach with her often-married mother. Her father had died, leaving Jane a sizable fortune, with which the mother hired college boys to mind her, her madness finding an echo in the section on Jennifer Jones, whose daughter with David O. Selznick was also disturbed and eventually committed suicide. Jane’s principal caretaker was Ed Moses, the artist, hired to be her keeper as an after-school job. He eventually lost touch with the Garlands, as did his friend Walter Hopps, who would later become director of the Norton Simon Museum, the Corcoran, and other galleries.
The Jane Garland story, potentially tragic, is thus a sort of a shaggy dog, since we don’t know what happened to her. But despite her madness, it is one of the most positive of Stein’s stories, for the compassionate and scrupulous young men Hopps and Moses, who resisted her direct sexual advances and some of the machinations of the doctors and family, who suggested that one of them marry her: “It would be very lucrative for you, and your children would be taken care of for the rest of their lives.” The reader is struck by the humanity of the young artists dealing with this damaged young woman, compared to the conspicuous lack of it in many of the Hollywood lives.
Other sections are more complete dramatically, with developments and denouements, especially that of Jennifer Jones’s daughter, Mary Jennifer Selznick, whose precarious mental health had everyone who knew her in a permanent state of stress, relieved only when she finally did as she had long threatened to and jumped from a twenty-two-story building. You can’t help but notice the baleful influence of psychiatrists on many of Stein’s subjects. Robert Walker’s gave him a fatal injection. People traveled with their shrinks.
Milton Wexler, prominent in the 1960s for his important work on hereditary diseases, saw Jennifer Jones “every single day.” Since his daughter Alice Wexler says that “my father became Jennifer’s analyst around 1967 and remained so for forty years,” this comes to more than 14,000 hours of talking about herself. Wexler adds: “I was kind of horrified by the story of her coming to Dad to get his approval of Norton Simon before she married him. I wouldn’t ask my therapist about things like that,” but you can imagine how they cast around for subjects of conversation. Milton Wexler also comes into the Jane Garland section, and ends up dating a girl Walker Hopps also admired. He’s also Ed Moses’s “psychologist,” and among his patients were Frank Gehry, Julie Andrews, and Blake Edwards. The UCLA psychiatrist Judd Marmor was Jane Garland’s doctor for a long time, but was eventually replaced by the one who with Jane’s mother encouraged Hopps or Moses to marry the troubled girl, presumably as a way of handing her off to someone else. No one was able to help the doomed Mary Jennifer.
There’s a lot of dramatic death—the Doheny murder, Mary Jennifer Selznick’s suicide—but in general, Stein’s subjects died old, in their beds, most of them escaping the peculiar miasma of doom that often seems to hover over the rich, with their propensity for accidents in sports cars, speedboats, airplanes. For this LA elite, there’s money for treatment at the hands of feel-good doctors, and although, usually, the most arcane diseases lie in wait for people who can pay for them, it seems that Stein’s people succumbed to normal things—strokes, obesity, and alcohol-related deterioration—depriving the narrative of any larger moral about hubris or greed.
If one were to summarize the subject here, is it finally about corruption in the world of cinema? The banality of rich people, and their inclination to be fools and drunks like people in any business? The evils of alcohol? The futility of worldly success and aspiration? The moral of it all is nonspecific but cautionary, and luckily for them, Stein’s surviving informants, looking back on their lives, seem mostly to have pulled themselves together and moved on.
You come to realize that an apparently simple project to assemble some interviews is mined with bibliographic pitfalls, perhaps imposed by publishing realities. Central is the absence here of crucial biographical information. Is it stodgy to wish for birth dates and family trees, and simple ways of keeping everyone straight? The people being interviewed speak in the first person about their own lives, so they quite naturally say “my father,” “my brother,” sending you to the index to try to work out or remember who that would be. But there is no looking back for the original reference in the text, because there’s no index.
There’s a glossary of names, but to find in it that “Ann Smith Black’s aunt was Lucy Smith Doheny” doesn’t help much, because Lucy Smith Doheny isn’t there at all, neither as Smith nor as Doheny. You will come upon her under Anson Lisk: “Anson Lisk’s aunt, Lucy Marceline Smith Doheny was the first wife of Edward L. Doheny, Jr.” However, who was Anson Lisk? Whose daughter is Barbara Warner Howard?
It may have been a hindrance to the author that she herself knows perfectly well whose father was whose, and so has misjudged the depth of the readers’ ignorance. At best, an assemblage of interviews can have considerable coherence and force, as did Edie, Stein’s book about Edie Sedgwick, with its portentous prelude by her cousin John P. Marquand Jr. and some other Sedgwick relatives, but it can’t develop much narrative momentum if the reader constantly has to be referring to the glossary, and there, too often, learns too little.
Another problem emerges with the use of verb tenses in the glossary. “Is” and “was” mostly denote someone who’s alive and someone no longer alive: “Gore Vidal was,” “Jack Warner, Jr. was,” “Joan Didion is.” But sometimes past tenses might just mean “used to be.” And “Marsha Hunt has been a film, theater, and television actress” allows us to infer she’s alive, but to say Lyla Hoyt “married Warren Hoyt, the first child of Grace Garland” is vague on that point. These uncertainties could have been solved by using dates (1934–) or (1934–1956). “Arthur Miller was”: many of Stein’s people died since being interviewed. Judging from the number of occurrences of “was”—nearly half of the people in the glossary of names “were”—Stein was prescient to collect their unpublished recollections in time to add to this evocative portrait of the place and period.
Finally, the effect of these first-person accounts, though informative and readable, is slightly diluted. The form has the charms of immediacy and liveliness, but it has the pitfall that as history, it is triply subjective, filtered through people’s self-deceptions as they tell their stories, the author’s biases in choosing which bits to print, and the reader’s biases in deciding whether to believe, for example, when it comes to the House Un-American Activities hearings, Roy Brewer, the vigorous anti-Communist, who once said that “no motion picture made by Communists can be good for America,” or the blacklisted Ring Lardner Jr. In all, the results can seem closer to gossip than gospel, hardly definitive history but fun to read, like anything to do with Hollywood.
Stein’s work sits on a continuum between historical record and subjective memoir, somewhere in the middle with art, shapely but relying for its undoubted satisfactions on its formal qualities rather than its intellectual contribution. To get a full history of this period, you’d read, say, the California historian Kevin Starr’s definitive and detailed accounts (The Dream Endures, Embattled Dreams) or, for lurid satisfaction, any of dozens of “poor me” or “as told to” movie-star memoirs, like Peter Evans and Ava Gardner’s Ava Gardner: The Secret Conversations: “‘I miss Frank,’ she said after a small silence. ‘He was a bastard. But Jesus I miss him.’ ‘Was? Is he dead?’ ‘Not as far as I know, honey.’”