‘West of Eden: An American Place’, by Jean Stein

Ebe92657-86dc-4256-be98-1dea74e0d465Danny Leigh at The Financial Times:

“I smelled Los Angeles before I got to it. It smelled stale and old like a living room that had been closed too long.” So wrote Raymond Chandler in The Little Sister, his 1949 detective story of missing brothers and movie starlets. At that point, a spell writing screenplays had only honed his distaste for the place. Later, he takes another swing: “Real cities have something else, some individual bony structure under the muck. Los Angeles has Hollywood.”

A quote from Chandler also opens Jean Stein’s West of Eden, this time from his debut The Big Sleep. Inevitably, a tone is set.

West of Eden is an LA history, which makes it a Hollywood history too. But film stars pass by only fleetingly, as if we were watching them from a café window. Beginning with the city still taking shape and extending into the 1980s, the book focuses on five emblematic old LA families, portrayed via the collage of oral history. Stein, a former editor at the Paris Review who used the same technique with Edie, her biography of the model Edie Sedgwick, weaves together the words of family members, business partners, butlers, lovers and a smattering of famous names: Arthur Miller, Joan Didion, Gore Vidal and so on.

For a prologue, Stein greets us on the flatly tacky Hollywood Boulevard. It’s a sight that sinks the heart even now, but this is the squalid early 1970s, with tourists stepping over prostrate junkies to reach the celebrated handprints outside Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. A tour bus is parked up: the guides don’t know where the stars really live, so they make it up and no one knows the difference.

more here.