The Dark Side of Hollywood.

hollywood sign in ruins

Ever since reading Dominick Dunne’s Another City, Not My Own—a fictionalised account of his time spent chronicling the O.J. Simpson murder trial for Vanity Fair—a few years ago, I’ve been fascinated by the dark side of Hollywood. You know, the Tate–LaBianca murders, the Black Dahlia mystery, the strangulation murder of Dunne’s own daughter, Poltergeist actress Dominique, at the hands of her former partner… The list goes on.

Recent pop cultural products that tap into said fascination include The Black Dahlia novel and subsequent film, the Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone­-helmed Gangster Squad, and the first season of American Horror Story, which renewed my interest in the macabre underbelly of Los Angeles and prompted me to book a Dearly Departed Tragical History tour of the city as well as visit the Museum of Death on Sunset Boulevard on a trip there a couple of years ago. (Warning: extremely graphic contents abound in the Museum of Death. I was so overwhelmed by the objects on display that I had to exit the gallery space, so only those with a strong stomach and dull imagination should give their patronage, as there are no refunds.)

Despite not being a fan of horror movies due to my overactive imagination, I somehow thought the Museum of Death was a good idea. After all, they had crime scene and autopsy photos of Nicole Brown Simpson and JFK, respectively, among other morbid memorabilia such as serial killer artwork and letters, which I do have an interest in. But the Museum of Death also houses the decapitated head of the Bluebeard of Paris, graphic images of bodies in various stages of death, and an effectively frightening layout that saw me having to leave after ten minutes. The overwhelming watermelon­-scented cleaning products that seem to be favoured by much of America’s hospitality and tourism industry and that wafted through the museum elicited in me an aversion to the aroma. It just so happens that watermelon-­flavoured gum is also my sister’s breath ­freshener of choice and now whenever she’s chewing my heart races, I start to perspire and I feel a headache coming on. Sisters: they really know how to push your buttons.

When my companion was done touring the museum while I sweated my anxiety out and chatted to the proprietors in the gift shop, she escorted me back through to the Hollywood section, much of which I’d already seen online and was prepared for, with my eyes closed lest I happen upon something grisly and be (further) scarred for life. Having recently read prolific filmmaker, actor and author Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon, which delves further into famous Tinseltown deaths, prior to my visit I recognised many of the objects on display at the museum as being donated by him.

When it comes to Anger, though, some might argue that certain details in his books are fabricated. The following day, on the Dearly Departed Tragical History tour, it was alleged that when destitute actress Marie Prevost was found dead in her apartment of acute alcoholism in 1937, her body was not partly eaten by her dachshund, as Anger wrote, but that the pet was merely trying to rouse its master by nipping at her. It is true, however, that an IOU for $110 to Joan Crawford, who ended up paying for Prevost’s funeral, was among some of her belongings. In the wake of Prevost’s death, the Motion Picture and Television Country House and Hospital was set up to prevent similar fates for others in the industry. Speaking of stars forking out for their peers funerals, it emerged on the tour that Frank Sinatra was quite generous when it came to interments. He ensured that Bela Lugosi, who played the original Count Dracula, Judy Garland and Sammy Davis Jr. were all given fitting farewells in the wake of their troubled demises.

It is also alleged by Hollywood historians, most recently Jackie Ganiy in Tragic Hollywood: Beautiful, Glamorous, Dead, that Anger’s account of Lupe Velez passing out and drowning in her toilet bowl is trademark Anger sensationalism. It is more likely that Velez died making her way from her bed, where she ingested hundreds of Seconal pills in a suicide attempt, to the bathroom upon her body rejecting the overdose. This theory was cemented in with the first publication of Velez’ crime scene photos in the 2012 book Beverly Hills Confidential: A Century of Stars, Scandals and Murders by Barbara Schroeder and Clark Fogg.

Another Hollywood legend that’s seemed to gain traction despite its unknown origins is death ­by­ jumping ­off ­the Hollywood sign. In actual fact, as pointed out by Dearly Departed tour guide Brian (but is also easily found in many a Hollywood history exposé), Peg Entwistle was the only person to ever have committed suicide­-by­-Hollywood­-H in 1932.

Entwistle was a Broadway star who migrated West to make it in the movie business. She married fellow actor Robert Keith who neglected to mention he’d previously been married, a union which produced a son, Brian Keith. Entwistle’s unwitting stepson would go on to star in the original Parent Trap and TV series Family Affair. Another tragic young suicide would haunt Brian in his later years, though; his daughter committed suicide in 1997 at the age of twenty­eight using a gun he gave her. Brian, suffering from lung cancer, emphysema and grief, would use this same gun to end his life two months later.

Tour guide Brian made mention of this family curse as we drove through Hollywood, but the only other reference I could find comes from James Zeruk, Jr.’s book, Peg Entwistle & the Hollywood Sign Suicide: A Biography.

In addition to the marital abode of Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio; the “Nightmare on Elm Drive” property, as Dunne so accurately wrote in an account for Vanity Fair, where the wealthy Jose and Kitty Menendez were slain by their own sons, Lyle and Erik; “the cheapest house in Beverly Hills”, as Brian put it, previously owned by American Idol’s Simon Cowell; and Johnny Depp’s secluded abode overlooking Sunset Boulevard, another house featured on the tour was that in which Lana Turner’s teenaged daughter (allegedly) stabbed to death Turner’s lover, mobster Johnny Stompanato, during a domestic dispute in 1958. It is widely believed that Turner was the one who committed the crime but the star reasoned that no jury would convict a young girl endeavouring to protect her own mother. Dunne, in his pictorial memoir, The Way We Lived Then: Recollections of a Well­-Known Name Dropper, writes that he lived around the corner from Turner when the murder took place. As we drove past this Beverly Hills property whose history helped form the bedrock of Hollywood’s golden age, I eerily noticed children’s toys and bikes strewn across its front yard. I wonder if the current owners are aware of the debauchery and tragedy that occurred in their family home years earlier?

Speaking of, a suite of homes even the shrewdest real estate agent would have trouble moving happens to be situated across the street from Lea Michele’s modest pad and only blocks away from where I stayed during my vaycay.

In 2004 screenwriter Robert Lees, best known for his work on Lassie, Alfred Hitchcock Presents and with Abbott and Costello, was decapitated by a drug­-addled, breaking-­and-­entering homeless man Kevin Lee Graff in his home on Courtney Avenue at the age of ninety-­one. The horror story doesn’t end there, though: Graff then took Lee’s severed head and entered the neighbouring residence of Morley Engleson and murdered him before stealing his car to make a getaway. The following day Graff was noticed by guards at the entry to the Paramount Pictures lot due to his erratic behaviour and was picked up by police. He is currently serving two life sentences without the possibility of parole.

Brian also cruised by famed Mexican eatery, El Coyote, which isn’t so much known for its food as its clientele. Its biggest claim to fame is that Sharon Tate’s last meal was eaten there before her murder by the Manson Family. But after eighty years of service, there must be something else about the place that keeps ’em coming back. (It was at this point on the tour that I found out I don’t just dislike coriander [or cilantro, its Mexican derivative]; I’m allergic to it, as is tour guide Brian. The allergic reaction manifests itself as a soapy or metallic taste when consuming the herb. You learn something new every day!)

The apartment building where budding ingénue Rebecca Schaeffer was shot dead by a stalker in 1989 is located in the Fairfax district of L.A., also the home of the famed outdoor shopping mall and celebrity hangout The Grove. After hearing the story of how overzealous fan, Robert Bardo, obtained Schaeffer’s address from the Department of Motor Vehicles by paying just $1 to access their records, we stopped at The Grove to revive our blood sugar and relieve our bladders. Laws have since been put in place to prevent such access to DMV records.

It wasn’t all doom and gloom behind the scenes of the golden age of Hollywood, though: when Mae West’s landlord at the exclusive Ravenswood apartment complex barred her boxer boyfriend, Gorilla Jones, from the premises because he was black, she bought the whole building and abolished his ruling! Fun fact: the current phone number for residential enquiries is the same number that was listed as West’s in the phone book way back when, before her death in 1980.

Unless you include TMZ presenter David House, who gave an intimate tour of Hollywood’s hotspots to myself, my friend April and two other patrons on my first rainy day in L.A., and a former World Wrestling Entertainment Superstar I’d met through friends earlier that year, I didn’t encounter any celebrities in Tinseltown. Dearly Departed tour guide, Brian, wagered that the most opportune time to get up close and personal with your favourite celebs is Halloween: hire a car, bring your kids or borrow someone else’s, get gussied up and go trick or treating in Beverly Hills. As door knocking in the neighbourhoods featured in Star Maps is illegal every day except October 31st, All Hallows Eve not only blurs the line between the living and the dead, it blurs the line between the famous and the non­-famous.

Related: Another City, Not My Own by Dominick Dunne Review.

Image via Epic Times.

Book Review: The Mansions of Limbo by Dominick Dunne

 

The author states in the introduction that the phrase “the mansions of limbo” came to him “years ago, reading a book whose title I no longer remember.”

If you are familiar with Dominick Dunne (if you’re familiar with this blog, you’re familiar with Dunne; he is my favourite author and I will jump at any chance to drop his name. Funnily enough, the subtitle of his memoir is Recollections of a Well-Known Name Dropper), you will know that he profiled the lifestyles of the rich and famous for twenty five years in Vanity Fair. But more interestingly, he focussed on the justice, or rather injustice, system in relation to celebrities, such as the Menendez brothers, O.J. Simpson and the murder of his daughter, Poltergeist star Dominique Dunne, in 1982.

His award-winning account of the murder of Jose and Kitty Menendez by their sons, Lyle and Erik Menendez, “Nightmare on Elm Drive” opens the tome, while Dunne’s majestic profile of Queen Noor al Hussein of Jordan wraps it up. In all honesty, as blasphemous as it is to say, those are probably the only two articles worth reading in this out-of-print collection. There is also a humorous write-up on the Collins sisters, Joan and Jackie, but the majority were written before I was born or in my early years of life, about subjects who have gone down in little-known infamy.

However, I do recommend Dunne’s work to anyone who will listen.

I first became familiar with him after reading the O.J. Simpson confessional If I Did It, which is well worth your money/library card. I then stumbled across his fictional account of the double murder, Another City, Not My Own which I can confidently say changed my life and immediately became my favourite book. (I will be posting a review here in the not-too-distant future; but don’t let last week’s negative Amazon reviews turn you off!)

Elsewhere: [Marie Claire] Dominick Dunne: Hollywood’s Diarist.

[Vanity Fair] Nightmare on Elm Drive.

Taking a Leaf Out of Amazon’s Book: Bad Customer Reviews

Jeanette Demain recently wrote for Salon.com an article on “amateur critics” bemoaning the plotlines of her favourite books, most of them canonical.

At the end of her Amazon search-related compilation of readers’ negative comments on classics from “The Grapes of Wrath to 1984”, she urges readers to peruse Amazon’s customer reviews of their favourite books.

So, I thought I might take a stab at this, and compiled my very own list of attacks on the books that “changed my life forever”.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.

One of the finest pieces of modern American literature, I was hard pressed to find bad reviews on this one. The harshest was from three-star-rater Jane A. Marshall, who said To Kill a Mockingbird was “a good book but not as good as the movie. The exact ending as to how the attacker was killed left too much doubt as to who actually was the killer—I don’t think this was a good way to end the book.” Mmm, good, good, good. And more good.

Seriously, though, for my money Harper Lee crafted one of the best endings of all time. So much so that I defaced my copy by highlighting the passage for easy retrieval when I want to marvel at the beauty and power a good writer can wield.

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger.

One Amazon discussion thread was titled “Catcher in the Rye should be banned”, and continued with “not because it’s obscene or perverse”—ever read Bret Easton Ellis, my friend?—“but…because it’s a lousy book.” Eloquently put.

The general consensus in response to that thread was a) who are you to judge whether a book should be banned based on it’s lousy-ness, and b) we are not in favour of censorship. My sentiments exactly.

Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann.

While I will agree that this book is somewhat fluffy compared to the others on this list, I wouldn’t say that it was “a huge disappointment,” according to A Customer. They go on to say that, “I have loved the movie version of Valley of the Dolls for a long time. Admittedly, it is a BAD movie, but its camp sensibility and generally over-the-top style make it a classic of the ‘bad movie’ genre.”

Put a different way, Wayne M. Malin calls it a “silly soap opera that follows three women… [through] death, suicide, lesbianism, cancer, marriages, tons of drug abuse, institutionalisation, etc…” Yes, but isn’t that the appeal of the thing?!

I will agree on one of the most common allegations, that protagonist Anne Welles “ is perhaps the dullest character ever created,” said QueensGirl.

The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova.

The author of this book, whose “plot unfolds through three points of view—a 16-year-old girl in search of her father who disappeared into vampire land in 1972 and reveals himself through letters to her, the father who was searching sixteen years earlier for his abducted thesis advisor who secondarily reveals himself through a trail of letters, and the thesis advisor who was searching for Dracula through historical research,” has apparently “committed an act of such brutality that it rivals any atrocity that Vlad Tepes [aka Dracula] ever committed,” reviewer Carlos asserts. (Thanks for the plot summation, William J. Meggs!)

Meggs goes on to say that “if you would enjoy the tedium of being an historian digging through old libraries, you might enjoy the tedium of reading this book.” I would, and I did, thankyou very much!

Tietam Brown by Mick Foley.

It was difficult to find a bad review for this novel, “because only wrestling fans read it.” Which is probably 90% true, but even non-wrestling fan reviewers found it a struggle to comment negatively on it.

But lo and behold, I found the diamond in the rough in A Customer’s (again—take credit for your opinions, people!) response: “The dialogue is painfully bad, I’d rather be stuck in the ring with Mick for ten minutes than be subjected to reading another ten minutes of this book.” With Foley’s trademark barbed wire-encased baseball bat and thumbtacks? That is a fate worse than death.

Harsh.

Watership Down by Richard Adams.

Mostly light-hearted fun-poking to be found in the Customer Reviews section for this book. Caraculiambro says, “I suppose my threshold for silliness for books with talking animals (particularly bunnies) is The Wind in the Willows. Anything more sophisticated than that is preposterous, I think… on the whole, it’s hard to take it seriously unless you’re a pre-teen girl. But if you are, good luck with the language.” Touché.

Much in the same vein, Lucy the Bargain Hunter says, “this book is really boring, but since there was no bad language or sex, I didn’t have any excuse for not trying to get through it.” She then goes on to ask, as I have many a time after ploughing through a Jane Austen or Stephenie Meyer, “everyone else loves this book. Maybe there is something wrong with me[?].” To borrow a phrase from the late Brittany Murphey’s Tai in Clueless, “everyone’s entitled to their own opinion, a’ight?”

A Lion’s Tale by Chris Jericho.

Again, another WWE alumnus’ tome, so it is geared towards a very niche audience with mostly glowing reviews. The most damning assessment comes from Sean M. Hurley, who says the autobiography doesn’t live up to that of Mick Foley’s debut, Have a Nice Day, or even “The Heartbreak Kid” Shawn Michaels’ ghost-written memoir. “My main gripe with the book is that Chris doesn’t get as personal with the reader as one would have enjoyed. Mick really exposes himself and allows himself to be vulnerable, while Chris still seemed to be holding back…” he says. Funny, as I found A Lion’s Tale to be on par, if not better, than Have a Nice Day

Another City, Not My Own by Dominick Dunne.

Dredging through page after page after page of one star reviews hurt, as this is my absolute favourite of all the books on this list.

To dig the knife in even further, A Customer says “I had to rate the book at least one star for the review to be kept. Actually, it’s worth zero.” Show your face, nameless hater!

Next week, the positive reviews! Yay!

Elsewhere: [Salon] Amazon Reviewers Think This Masterpiece Sucks.