Memories of my years spent down and out in Beverly Hills flooded back the other day when I read that the town is celebrating its hundredth anniversary.
The Westside Los Angeles enclave, formerly a bean field transformed in the 1920s into a kind of sun-kissed Olympus for cinema gods and goddesses, remains the best known small town in America. The words Beverly Hills still resonate with all the clichés of Hollywood opulence. Even though I was probably the town’s poorest resident, people always look impressed when I tell them I once lived there.
Ostensibly, I moved to Los Angeles to write a book about movie stardom (it was eventually published in the U.S. titled, If The Other Guy Isn’t Jack Nicholson, I’ve Got the Part). However, there were other, more complicated reasons having to do with divorce, leaving a job, reinventing oneself. I was, as it turned out, in the world capital of self reinvention. Everyone there was from somewhere else. Everyone wanted to be something other than what they were.
I was right at home.
From the outset, I decided that if I was going to live anywhere in L.A., it was going to be Beverly Hills. As a kid from small town Canada who had grown up fascinated by the lore of Hollywood, I couldn’t imagine residing anywhere else.
Together with my longtime pal and soon-to-be roommate, Alan Markfield, we found an apartment at 320 North Palm Drive. At that time, the California economy was in such bad shape, rental units were going begging– they even gave us a month’s free rent in order to induce us to move in.
One of the many great things about having Alan as a roommate–other than the fact he was a pretty fair cook–thanks to his job as a movie stills photographer, he was seldom in town. I had this big, airy apartment overlooking North Palm Drive pretty much to myself.
One of the residents at three-twenty had written a screenplay about a talking baby. Another arranged flights for American businessmen to fly to Moscow to meet eligible Russian women looking for husbands. A petite young woman with a gravelly voice had once been a child actor on a popular kids’ TV show.
The white-washed four-story apartment building in which we all resided surrounded an open courtyard and featured a rooftop swimming pool right out of the 1940s. I would swim in the pool in the afternoons, and it didn’t take much to imagine Esther Williams doing laps alongside me.
North Palm Drive was the loveliest street I ever lived on. Each spring about this time, the Jacaranda trees lining either side of the street would break into bloom and form a violet-colored canopy.
At dusk, the crimson light that is so special to Los Angeles–the Chinatown light, I used to call it–would filter through the flowering Jacaranda and Beverly Hills would be turned into a beautifully lit, enchanted land where surely all your dreams could come true. Never mind that by the next morning they wouldn’t. For that one brief nighttime moment, you could believe anything, and life didn’t seem so bad at all.
Every morning, I jogged through the strip of parkland running along Santa Monica Boulevard where once the denizens of Beverly Hills rode their horses. You would encounter the most unexpected people on these morning runs: the actress Linda Hunt, also out jogging; Eartha Kitt, dressed head-foot in black strolling along the park’s pathway; the actor Gene Barry (the star of TV’s Bat Masterson and Burke’s Law) also out for a walk, nodding hello.
I never once drove along Sunset Boulevard in my rattletrap Mustang without thinking excitedly, “Gee, here I am, driving along Sunset Boulevard!”–evidence you can take the kid out of small-town Canada, but you can never quite take small-town Canada out of the kid.
I unfailingly got a charge out of seeing a movie (however bad) at the legendary Grauman’s Chinese Theatre (now called the TCL Chinese Theatre) that has dominated Hollywood Boulevard since 1927 and in whose forecourt you could stop to view the foot and handprints of Hollywood’s greatest stars–including Trigger’s hoof prints.
The Polo Lounge at the Beverly Hills Hotel was no longer quite the place to see and be seen, but it was so full of history it didn’t matter. Middle-aged screenwriters led by Carl Gottlieb, the guy who wrote the script for Jaws, gathered regularly at Barney’s Beanery in West Hollywood to grumble about their lot in movie life.
Friday nights I would go up the street to meet my old Windsor Star colleague Ray Bennett at Dan Tana’s restaurant where he and his journalism pals from the Herald Examiner and the Hollywood Reporter held court at the bar, rubbing shoulders with regulars such as actors James Woods and Dabney Coleman.
At lunch you could spot the director Billy Wilder engrossed in conversation–and marvel at being able to sit there staring at the legend who created Sunset Boulevard and Some Like It Hot. Zsa Zsa Gabor would be at the next table. Not far away, Arnold Schwarzenegger lit a cigar in the days before he became The Governator of California. Milton Berle entered wearing a fedora and, of all things, an overcoat.
It seemed to me every time I ate out in the neighborhood, George Hamilton managed to show up. And here was Pierce Brosnan wandering around Book Soup, the best bookstore in Los Angeles–and there he was again entering the bar at the Four Seasons Hotel on Doheny Drive, just around the corner from my apartment.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but the Northridge earthquake marked the beginning of the end of me and Beverly Hills. The worse earthquake in the modern history of Los Angeles struck at 4:31 A.M., shaking me out of a sound sleep.
With the whole building trembling violently, I hopped out of bed in my darkened bedroom. Not knowing what else to do, I stood in the doorway, vaguely recalling that a reinforced area would provide some protection.
It didn’t–and it is exactly the wrong thing to do, as I discovered when the door frame shook as badly as the rest of the building. No sooner was I thinking that this was a mistake, and wondering what to do next, than the shaking stopped. I couldn’t believe it. I had survived an earthquake in Beverly Hills.
I hurried onto the street where the rest of the neighborhood was already gathering. The power had gone out, but someone had a transistor radio tuned to coverage of the earthquake. One broadcaster noted, “It was like being shaken around in a shoe box.” Exactly what it was like.
Despite the widespread damage–including a freeway collapse just south of where I lived–I had escaped unscathed. By the time we were allowed back into the building, it was a beautiful Los Angeles morning. With nothing else to do, I went up to the rooftop and lay beside the swimming pool, reading a book.
Suddenly, the door to the penthouse apartment on the far side of the pool opened and a lovely blond-haired woman burst into view dressed in nothing but a thin bathrobe, and–I kid you not–high-heeled slip-ons. As she raced toward me, she started yelling something I couldn’t understand.
“What is it?” I said.
“Fire,” she cried. “There’s a fire!”
I couldn’t believe it. What fire? Frantically, she pointed behind me. I turned to see black smoke billowing up from the courtyard. Someone had left a candle burning in their apartment and the flame had ignited sheets of plastic.The apartment building was on fire.
The half-naked blonde and I made our escape down a flight of stairs.
Again, my luck held. Half the apartment building was destroyed–but not my half. I didn’t even suffer any smoke damage. Still, as it was for so many that morning, the earthquake acted as something of a wakeup call.
What was I doing with my life? I asked myself that question a lot over the following days. I was thousands of miles from home and family, down and out in a strange place where one moment the Jacaranda trees were blossoming and the next moment, the whole world was shaking.
Not long afterward, I met my future wife, Kathy. She made it very easy to decide to leave. Beverly Hills floated into Jacaranda-scented memory.
These days, the closest I get to Los Angeles is via the Showtime television series Californication. It’s a raw comedy about the life and loves of an L.A. writer named Hank Moody (played with a certain insouciant charm by David Duchovny).
Hank is a troubled soul but irresistible to endless numbers of beautiful young women with perfect breasts who can’t wait to get him into bed.I tell my wife that’s exactly what my life was like when I lived in Beverly Hills.
She rolls her eyes.
Gee, earthquakes and Eartha! You have a way of making one’s life seem so damn dull in comparison. There’s a book in these columns Ron, get at it! Think, Do You Sleep in the Nude?
Earthquakes and Eartha–I should get you to write the headlines, Alison…thanks as always for your kind note…I always feel better when I hear from one of my favorite writers–hurry home! The joint ain’t the same without the two of you around here…