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.

The Reading Hour.

It’s that time of year again and, in the spirit of tonight’s Reading Hour, I thought I’d tell you what I’ve been reading since last years’ event.

Rookie Yearbooks 1 & 2 by Tavi Gevinson.

I fell in love with Tavi Gevinson at last years’ Melbourne Writers Festival and had to snap up Rookie Yearbook One at the event’s bookstore. The second yearbook I got after visiting the U.S. late last year. They both compile the best of the Rookie website for those who don’t always have the chance to check it out. My favourites were anything by Sady Doyle and Lena Dunham’s interview with Mindy Kaling.

Hollywood Babylon by Kenneth Anger.

My former housemate bought this at a secondhand bookstore in Geelong when we went there for an exhibition and surprised me with it for my birthday. I ended up using some of the intel I gleaned from the book for an article on the dark side of Hollywood that I’m shopping around, and it informed me when I went to the Museum of Death in Los Angeles, to which Kenneth Anger is a benefactor.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins.

I read this around the time the second movie came out and I think I enjoyed the big screen version much more than the print one. I liked how the film streamlined much of the at times unnecessary plot additions.

Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn.

Gillian Flynn has fast established herself as one of my favourite writers, and this is not only my favourite book of hers, but also one of my favourites in general. Couldn’t recommend it highly enough. A gritty page-turner that kicks Gone Girl’s ass.

Mateship with Birds by Carrie Tiffany.

I was unimpressed by last years’ Stella prize winner.

Inferno by Dan Brown.

I made the mistake of taking this hefty tome on my trip to the U.S., thinking I would get most of it read on the plane but I was still lugging it around for weeks after I returned home. I think because I read it pretty sporadically throughout the trip I didn’t get as into the story as I have with other Brown books. I did like the notions of overpopulation and the need to eradicate part of the population for the greater good of the human race, though.

Well Read Women by Samantha Hahn.

This is more of a picture book than anything with read substance, but I was gifted it in the States for my birthday after having mentioned it months and months before!

Floundering by Romy Ash.

I really enjoyed this debut novel from Ash, which was shortlisted for many a prize upon its release. If you like evocative Australiana in an alternative style, I urge you to pick up Floundering.

The Way We Lived Then: Recollections of a Well-Known Name Dropper by Dominick Dunne.

A sort-of pictorial autobiography of my favourite author that I picked up from New York’s famous Strand bookstore.

Reel Religion: A Century of the Bible on Film by the Museum of Biblical Art.

I couldn’t tell whether this guide to the exhibition of the same name at New York’s Museum of Biblical Art was propaganda or, as it asserts in its title, a history of the Bible on film. Either way, if you ever have some spare time in Central Parker West, check out the free museum.

How Did You Get This Number? by Sloan Crosley.

Crosley seems to have lost her allure since I last read her work in book form, I Was Told There’d Be Cake, a few years ago.

Flowers in the Attic by V.C. Andrews.

What a horror show this was! I primarily read it so I could watch the Lifetime movie of the same name starring Heather Graham and Kiernan Shipka, but I had been wanting to satisfy my curiosity for it for quite a while.

The Family Law by Benjamin Law.

Laugh-out-loud funny as Law always is.

The Fabulous Moolah: First Goddess of the Squared Circle by Mary Lillian Ellison with Larry Platt.

Another one I got in New York at Westsider Rare Books and, as an autobiography of perhaps the most famous—and certainly the longest active—female wrestler, I had to snap it up.

Dark Places by Gillian Flynn.

This marks the third and final Flynn book I’ve read, and while the colleague I borrowed it from found it boring, I loved it almost as much as Sharp Objects. It features another eleventh-hour plot twist that Flynn has become famous for. Can’t wait to see what her next release will be.

John Belushi is Dead/Hollywood Ending by Kathy Charles.

I’d been wanting to read Hollywood Ending for quite a few years, but little did I know that the book was also published under the title of John Belushi is Dead, so there I was with two copies of the same book and no place to go. It turned out to be a spectacular waste of money as I was sorely disappointed by this narrative.

Tragic Hollywood: Beautiful, Glamorous, Dead by Jackie Ganiy.

This book nicely elaborated on much of what I learned on my visit to the Museum of Death and a Tragical History tour of L.A. but, as a self-published effort, it was riddle with spelling and grammar mistakes and continuity errors.

Audition by Barbara Walters.

While I think Barbara Walters gets kookier and more conservative with age, she was once a pioneer for women in broadcast journalism, and her autobiography was fascinating if, expectedly, long.

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent.

Another one I’d been putting off, but it lived up to the hype. I’m excited to see how the story of the last woman executed in Iceland will play out on the big screen as it has been optioned for film.

2Pac VS. Biggie: An Illustrated History of Rap’s Greatest Battle by Jeff Weiss & Evan McGarvey.

Didn’t tell me what I didn’t already know about Tupac Shakur, but I’d never really been a Biggie fan, so this book did shed some light on one of rap’s biggest stars.

An Inconvenient Woman by Dominick Dunne.

I picked this up along with Dunne’s autobiography at The Strand, and it was quite enjoyable.

Mary Ann in Autumn by Armistead Maupin.

I always enjoy Maupin’s stuff, and this marks the likely second-last installment of his Tales of the City saga, in which he revisits his beloved characters from 1970s and ’80s San Francisco in the modern day.

Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang by Joyce Carol Oates.

You never know what you’re going to get when it comes to Joyce Carol Oates, which can be thrilling and disconcerting. I’d have to go with the latter in this instance.

Changed for Good by Stacy Wolf.

Two of my favourite things: feminism and Broadway musicals. For anyone who’s got an interest in either of these things, this is a fascinating look at both, with a particular focus on Wicked, which I went to see for the seventh time on the weekend!

The Fictional Woman by Tara Moss.

Perhaps the Aussie book of the year, Tara Moss can be seen everywhere promoting her latest book—part memoir, part exploration of female tropes and stereotypes—and talking about everything from the Bechdel test to her rape and miscarriage. She writes in accessible terms and makes strong points.

The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas.

This book, a present from my housemate, has been languishing on my to-read pile for three years, so I thought it was high time I see what all the fuss was about. I’d watched the series so I was familiar with the premise and its aftermath, but I was quite taken aback by the misogyny and racism of pretty much all of the characters. Whether that was impeccable storytelling by Tsiolkas or the author’s biases I’m not sure; I guess I’ll have to read more of his work to find out. Next of his on my list: Barracuda.

The First Stone by Helen Garner.

Speaking of ingrained misogyny, Garner attempts to unpack the alleged sexual assault of two female students by a male authority figure at Melbourne University in the 1990s. What she actually ends up with is an out-of-touch, victim-blaming, second-wave VS. third-wave piece of misogyny. I would direct all readers away from this and towards Anna Krien’s Night Games: a much more balanced take on similar events.

Animal People by Charlotte Wood.

I’d been wanting to read this since I saw Charlotte Wood as part of the Melbourne Writers Festival a couple of years ago, and I devoured it in the space of the day. (I was without electricity so there wasn’t much else to do!) Pretty easy reading with a nice juxtaposition between human idiosyncrasies and animal mannerisms.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn.

I’ve already read this book, but I’m rereading it currently as research for a piece about the upcoming film adaptation. This is the third Flynn book I’ve read in the past year.

What are you reading for the Reading Hour?

Related: The Reading Hour 2013.

The Reading Hour 2012.

Tavi’s World at Melbourne Writers Festival.

Taking a Bite Out of the Big Apple: My Guide to New York City.

Cherchez la Femme Fatale, Take 2.

Stella: A Prize of One’s Own at The Wheeler Centre.

The Slap & Men Who Cheat.

Why Young Feminists Still Have “A Long, Long Way to Go” in the Eyes of Second-Wave Feminists.

Night Games by Anna Krien Review.

You Animals.

Elsewhere: [Rookie] Sady Doyle.

[Show & Tell] Tara Moss On Ner Latest Novel The Fictional Woman & the Bechdel Test.

[SMH] Under the Skin.