Hollywood in the FiftiesIssue: Section:
an excerpt from "The Torch Singer"
a novel by Robert Westbrook
I grew up in the shadowlands of Los Angeles, the noir part of town. Beverly Hills, to be precise – an anxious corner of the planet full of the insecure rich, everyone struggling to hang on to their fragile moment of success, knowing it all slips through your fingers in the end. The secret of this city, usually apprehended dry-mouthed at three in the morning, is that beauty, fame, and fortune is a mirage that vanishes the closer you get, pure puffery that can never last.
I know what you’re saying: Poor rich boy! Still, if I’d had my way, I would have grown up somewhere else. Paris, maybe – now, that’s my idea of glamour. Or better yet, a small island in the South Pacific where there were more coconuts than people. But children aren’t given the choice. We land where our parents put us, and my mother brought me here.
At least, the Beverly Hills of my childhood was a more romantic place than what you’ll find today. Our lives were ruled by dreams, however foolish, rather than spread sheets and the bottom corporate line. Occasionally you saw gods and goddesses driving in their convertibles along the palmy streets. Or at least, that’s what I remember, looking back.
In the Beverly Hills of my childhood, there were hardware stores on Rodeo Drive, quite ordinary places, and five-and-dimes and soda fountains where you could sit at the counter and sip a coke in a paper cone with shaved ice. The part of Rodeo Drive from Santa Monica Boulevard to Sunset had an actual gravel bridle path running down the middle bordered by low green hedges for people to ride their horses.
Our maids were Colored, we had Filipino gardeners, there wasn’t a Saudi prince anywhere in sight. Many of our homes were Midwestern in appearance, as though they had set down in the Land of Oz from Kansas on the backs of tornados. Of course, being Los Angeles, we had a sporting mix of styles – castles, English manor houses, Mediterranean villas, and quite a selection of Southern Plantation mansions a la Scarlett O’Hara, big two-story homes with white colonnades and front porches where no one ever sat. Since it was the 1950s, we had a scattering of modern architecture as well, houses built in odd shapes with generally a great deal of glass and sterile rock gardens out front instead of lawns, no need to water or rake leaves.
In the Beverly Hills of my childhood, every house had an incinerator in the backyard where we burned trash, little free-standing crematoriums with protruding chimneys in which we sent our daily offering of smoke and garbage to the gods.
In the Beverly Hills of my childhood, I remember a shoe store on North Canon Drive with an x-ray machine shaped like an old-fashioned nickelodeon in which you could put your feet in the bottom, peer down through a viewer, and see your own skeletal bones. The idea was very scientific according to the optimistic notions of the times, to be able to look at your bones and judge for yourself if the shoes were the right size. If Superman had x-ray vision, so could we.
We believed in progress. We believed in frozen orange juice. We believed in cutting down orange groves in order to build a new kind of road where the way would be always free – freeways, we called them, because freedom was what we craved, ribbons of concrete and clover leaves on which we might travel faster and faster to any destination at all.
The war was over. We believed we could be happy in our paradise by the sea. There would be blue skies, nothing but blue skies from now on.
That was what California was all about.