Discovering Old Hollywood Among the New – My 2012 Tinseltown Adventure

Almost 30 years since I made my first to Tinseltown, Hollywood still has a pull over me. There’s a line in an Eagles song that goes something like, “You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.” Although I’ve come and gone countless times over the past three decades, flying in and out of LAX, I don’t think I’ve ever really left.

Officially, my trip to LA last week was a research venture for my new book, Hairpins and Dead-Ends: The Perilous Journeys of 20 Actresses Through Early Hollywood, which is a companion volume to Dangerous Curves atop Hollywood Heels. I spent four full days at the Academy’s Margaret Herrick Library, going through their vast collection and researching the lives and careers of the actresses I want to include in the new book: Evelyn Nelson, Belle Bennett, Corliss Palmer, Mary Miles Minter, Alma Rubens, Mary MacLaren, Florence Deshon, Margaret Gibson, Edwina Booth, Lottie Pickford, Valeska Suratt, Lilyan Tashman, Jetta Goudal, Katherine MacDonald, Marie Walcamp, and several others.

Before checking in at the library every morning, I drove around the neighborhood of Hollywood in search of the homes where these luminaries of the silver screen live, loved, and died (sometimes). I located the house where poor Alma Rubens died in 1931 after a hard fought battle with drugs.

Alma Rubens died in this house in 1931.

Unfortunately, the house on DeLongpre Avenue where Evelyn Nelson committed suicide in 1923 is no longer there. It was razed to make room for a medical facility. Almost directly across the street, however, the house where Florence Deshon lived during her time in Hollywood was still standing.

The mysterious Florence Deshon will be included in my new book.

If I had any time to spare in the morning before barricading myself in the library, I would wander among the graves and tombs at Hollywood Memorial Cemetery.  (Yeah, I know the name has been officially been changed to Hollywood Forever, but it will forever remain Hollywood Memorial Cemetery.) That cemetery is absolutely one of my favorite spots on God’s green earth.  You don’t have to worry about a parking place or traffic and no one is going to honk at you to get out of their way — unless it’s the geese.

A flock of geese live in and around the pond at Hollywood Memorial Cemetery.

The pond and the Hollywood Sign.

This trip, a mother goose was sitting on her nest, which was nestled into the top of a cast iron pot on the steps leading down to Douglas Fairbanks’ tomb.  Daddy goose waddled after me and hissed until I got the message and walked in another direction.

Mother Goose

Minutes after I fled papa goose, I went to another part of the cemetery to look for Mae Murray’s brother. I stumbled upon a peacock that was discouraged me from getting a closer look. By the time I raise my camera, this bird was fluttering its feathers and edging closer and closer. I was sure this creature was the reincarnation of dear Mae Murray and she was doing her dance from Peacock Alley.

That peacock got close ……

… and closer!

I sought refuge from the birds of the cemetery inside the mausoleum, where I paid my respects to Rudolph Valentino, William Desmond Taylor, and Barbara La Marr. There are always fresh flowers and lipstick prints around Miss La Marr’s crypt.

Barbara La Marr’s final resting spot

I had to wonder whether someone was leaving those lip prints on the marble, or was Barbara trying to give me a kiss from the great beyond?

I couldn’t leave town without paying my respects to Mae Murray at Valhalla Cemetery. One afternoon, I drove out to North Hollywood and spent some time with Eve Southern, Belle Bennett, and Miss Murray.  I tried setting up the camera so I might get a shot of me and Mae’s grave marker. The shot looked more like an ant looking up at me from the grass.

An ant’s eye view of me at Mae Murray’s grave site.

This is the best I could do.

Michael’s shadow over Mae’s marker

This trip was also about making connections. I spent several hours in Santa Barbara with the daughter of silent film actress Katherine MacDonald. She gave me an insightful interview about her mother and their struggles together. It will be included in Hairpins and Dead-Ends. I had lunch one afternoon in Studio City with relatives of silent film actress Evelyn Nelson. They supplied me with number of stills to use in the book.

Evelyn Nelson frequently played opposite Jack Hoxie in the early 1920s.

Brandee Cox also gave me a fascinating tour of the Pickford Center. Astounding!

I reconnected with fellow writers Jim Parish, Tony Slide, and André Soares. At an Italian cafe in Santa Monica, André and I talked non-stop for three hours without ever taking a breath, much less a bite of the pizza we ordered. We had to box it up to go. Have you read André’s bio of Ramon Novarro?  If not, it is a must!

A favorite book from my collection.

Speaking of books, I spent some time at Larry Edmunds and Iliad. Alas, I didn’t bring back a suitcase full of loot this time, but I found some interesting items. I finally found a copy of Jim Kirkwood’s There Must Be a Pony, a novel based his parents, Lila Lee and James Kirkwood.

Check out his dedication…..

I also found a signed copy of a book by Carole Landis.  Not exactly a signed book.  A fan, Jimmy Jarnisch, apparently met her and got her autograph in the 1940s. He pasted it into a book Carole wrote, Four Jills in a Jeep, about entertaining the troops during World War II. I like Carole Landis, so I couldn’t resist.

This trip was also one of firsts.  After almost 20 years of searching, I finally found the garage where Thelma Todd breathed her last. I had been to her home on the Pacific Coast Highway many times.

Thelma’s beach home

When I climbed into the hills behind the house, however, I could never locate the garage where Thelma died. This time, I took a street off of Sunset and worked my way around until I made the discovery.  Apparently, she died in the garage on the right.

Thelma’s garage

This trip was also the first time I used GPS.  I had always depended on my trusty 1994 Thomas Brothers maps to get me around the city.

Don’t get wrong, I still used these maps, but I introduced Hazel into the fun.  Hazel is my name for GPS. Charlie and I named it Hazel several years back when we were traveling from Heidelberg to Munich. Hazel and I have a love/hate relationship. She got us to the hotel, but she waited until it was almost too late to direct us to the turnoff.

This time, as I left the car rental agency at LAX, I typed in the address of the hotel. Rather than taking me up the 405 to 10 towards Los Angeles, Hazel decides to direct me to back streets I had never heard of.

“Oh, come on, Hazel,” I yelled out at this little box on the seat next to me. “This is your first trip here.  I’ve been coming to Hollywood for almost 30 years.” She kept quiet!

Hollywood, Here I Come!

In one month, I will be in the heart of Hollywood!  I’m making my umpteenth journey to the land of dreams, the city that never disappoints.  This trip is dedicated to researching my new book, Hairpins and Dead Ends: The Perilous Journeys of 20 Actresses Through Early Hollywood. It is a companion volume to my 2010 book, Dangerous Curves atop Hollywood Heels.

I’ve already imagined the cover.  Well, it’s a working cover. The publisher will most likely alter it in some way, but it’s a starting point.

The actress on the cover is Edwina Booth, one of the subjects I am researching. Here are some of the actresses I am including in Hairpins and Dead Ends: Evelyn Nelson, Belle Bennett, Margaret Gibson, Gladys Brockwell, Dorothy Sebastian, Mary Thurman, Virginia Lee Corbin, Kathleen Key, Mary MacLaren, Peggy Shannon, Mary Miles Minter, Lilyan Tashman, Valeska Suratt, Corliss Palmer, Lottie Pickford, Marie Walcamp, and Alma Rubens.

You may not know some of the names, but their stories, their journeys through early Hollywood, are riveting.

On my upcoming trip to Hollywood, I’m interviewing relatives, visiting their former homes, paying respects at their final resting places, and researching their contributions to film history at the Motion Picture Academy Library.  As a writer and journalist, it is important for me to visit the places where they lived, loved, and died. It helps me put together the puzzle pieces that make up their lives. Being there helps me understand who they were.

As I prepare for upcoming trip, I can’t help but reflect on my very first trip to Hollywood. It was in the mid-1980s.  I had just started my writing career as a newspaper reporter. I was also interviewing former silent film actors and actresses for a column I had in Classic Images.

Dorothy Revier was one of the first actresses I reached out to. I thought her Hollywood portraits were stunning.

Although she was reluctant at first, we started a conversation, first through the mail, later by phone.  Here is her first letter.

She lived a lonely existence, I suspected, in her little Hollywood apartment. She was estranged from her only child, a daughter. She maintained close relationships with her sisters and writer Richard Lamparski. Dorothy became a regular correspondent. She sent pictures of herself in 1986 and urged me to visit her, if I ever made the trip West.

Dorothy Revier in 1986, a stunner still!

It was in the summer of 1986 that a trip emerged for me. I was invited to go with a theater troupe on their summer trip to Disneyland. I jumped at the chance.  Knowing nothing about southern California, I figured Disneyland was in the heart of Hollywood. It was actually over 30 miles away. It might as well have been a million. My sole purpose for joining the tour was to get to Hollywood, to see old Hollywood, to visit Dorothy Revier.

Fortunately, a writer friend of mine, Joyce (her last name escapes me), offered to pick Charlene (a co-worker from the newspaper) and me up at our hotel in Anaheim, drive us into Hollywood, and show us the sights.  Here’s what we did that unforgettable day in Tinseltown.

Knowing I was a Valentino fanatic, Joyce took us to Hollywood Memorial Cemetery (now Hollywood Forever) and to Valentino’s crypt. Who knew that Barbara La Marr and William Desmond Taylor were neighbors of Rudy’s?

Approaching Valentino's crypt on the left

Hollywood Memorial Cemetery with the Hollywood sign in the background.

We to Paramount. I looked, but didn’t see Gloria Swanson.

Michael at the Paramount gate.

Grauman’s Chinese Theatre was a must. I marveled at the foot and hand prints.

Mary Pickford's hand prints.

We had lunch at The Pink Panda on Orange Avenue. It’s probably long gone.

Well, the sunglasses WERE in style in the '80s.

Joyce drove us into Beverly Hills. The highlight was passing Lucille Ball’s home and driving up the long, winding street to Falcon Lair, Valentino’s famed home. The view from that street, Bella Drive, left no doubt, I had arrived in the land of my dreams.

Later in the afternoon, we pulled in front of 1275 North Havenhurst Drive. Dorothy Revier met us in the courtyard and invited us into apartment #6, her home.  Dorothy was gracious, fun, and outgoing. I had met and interviewed my first silent film actress. Her interview is featured in my book, Broken Silence: Conversations with 23 Silent Film Stars.

Dorothy, Michael, and Charlene

Later in the trip, I visited the Queen Mary ocean liner in Huntington Beach, but wouldn’t you know it, my sights were still on Hollywood.

On the Queen Mary

I even got myself on the cover of a magazine.

People are always asking, isn’t Hollywood a disappointment? True, it’s not what it was in the 1920s when Valentino was making hearts flutter and Mae Murray was striking poses with her bee-stung lips. But, it’s still there. You just have to dig a little deeper to see the Hollywood of the past. (As I write that last line, my heart is heavy with the news that plans are underway to raze Mary Pickford’s studio. Why do we Americans insist on destroying, nor preserving, our past?)

There would be many more pilgrimages to Hollywood over the years, but I’m kind of nostalgic.  You never forget your first time!