WEST OF EDEN: An American Place. By Jean Stein. Random House. $30.
When Walt Whitman was writing “Pioneers! O Pioneers!” his long, thumping hymn to Western advancement, he spotlighted the usual pistols and axes, and didn’t weep over “primeval forests felling.” But one stanza might have been written just yesterday about the 20th century dreamers in Jean Stein’s “West of Eden”: “All the hapless silent lovers, / All the prisoners in the prisons, all the righteous and the wicked, / All the joyous, all the sorrowing, all the living, all the dying, / Pioneers! O Pioneers!”
Stein, who wrote the fabulous oral biography “Edie: An American Girl” with George Plimpton, is a child of the Hollywood frontier. Her father, Jules Stein, founded MCA.
“West of Eden” is an insider’s story, juicy and addictive. In five chapters, she spells out the plot of coarse and hungry men who build a city in the desert, of unhappy wives and discarded children, of sexual piracy, of imprisoning illusions, of secrets within secrets. In some way, each story starts fresh and turns sour. Stein does something interesting here by synthesizing the polyglot immigrant West with the mythical dream-factory West.
She launches her book with an origin story gone wrong. Ed Doheny’s rise and downfall are the most remote in time, He brought the oil industry to California in the 1920s. His wealth, made quickly and gloriously splashed about, built Greystone, a house that Raymond Chandler mythologized in “Farewell My Lovely,” bought the Hope diamond, and erected St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church, with a corner statue sculpted to look exactly like Doheny himself.
It was all toppled by scandal: publicly, Teapot Dome and, privately, the murder/suicide of his son Ned and Ned’s best friend and secretary Hugh Plunkett.
Next up is Jack Warner, whose story is a fascinating one, full of swashbuckling excess and titanic betrayals. Jack Warner Jr. remembers the early silent-movie days of Warner Brothers, when they lived close to the studio and walked there together as a family. Back then, all the extras were friends who were paid with a box lunch.
“Success ruined my father,” says his son. In his later years, whenever he had an argument with someone, Warner would take them to the window and ask, “Whose name is on the tower?” It said Warner Brothers.
In the 1950s, Warner named names (“I was a schmuck,” he told his son). Privately, he loved temptation and often succumbed. When he decided to leave Jack’s mother, Warner just sent his masseur, Abdul, to fetch his things.
His second wife, Ann, enters the narrative as a mysterious beauty and ends up trapped, a face in an upstairs window.
Among the book’s many inconvenient children is Barbara Warner, who was conceived out of wedlock. She spent the first three years of her life living in a gatehouse at the edge of the property.
When she was 3 and her parents were married, the Warners threw an “adoption party,” and she moved over to the big house.
The motif of children as fallout continues with the third chapter. Jane Garland is the odd one out, a troubled rich girl without parental connections to the film industry. Her psychiatrist cooked a weird plan of hiring male UCLA students to escort her about and promote a semblance of ordinary life.
Garland’s story segues into the messy saga of Jennifer Jones, who had a love affair with therapy. Many voices question the relevance of someone like Jennifer Jones, a product of the studio system who outlived her talent.
By expeditious marriages (to David O. Selznick and Norton Simon), she earns a place in Stein’s volume.
Jones started life as Phylis Isley, the only child of a couple of peep show owners in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
After a short career (“Song of Bernadette,” “Duel in the Sun,” etc.), she settled in to doing what she did best: seeing her therapist every day, practicing yoga, getting her hair dressed, having clothes brought in and taken away.
When they gave dinner patties, she emerged two hours late, in full evening garb, and left periodically for costume changes.
Poor Mary Jennifer, her only daughter, was brought in to see her mother at 6 p.m. every day. At 21, she jumped off a building to her death. Stein knows when to click the shutter.
As an octgenarian, Jones went to the funeral of her long-time psychiatrist, Milton Wexler. “I miss him,” she told her son. “Were we ever married?”
The final chapter belongs to Stein’s own family story. There is no visible hand behind the arrangement of voices in “West of Eden,” though artistry is evident.
Stein’s people talk, and she registers what they say, in all its contradictions. It’s a shame that the volume doesn’t include an index or a detailed record of her interviews: dates, frequency, under what circumstances they were conducted. These are quibbles that in no way overshadow a major project.
The story of Jules Stein’s early forays into show business is charming. In those days, he knew every town in the Midwest with a dance floor. The son of Lithuanian immigrants who owned a dry goods store in South Bend, Ind., he worked his way through college and medical school playing violin and saxophone in dance bands. He left a successful opthalmology practice to start MCA.
The fairy tale details of the Steins’ life in L.A. — a home, Misty Mountain, that had once housed Katherine Hepburn, or Judy Garland singing “Over the Rainbow” at Jean Stein’s coming-out party — seem to resonate with Stein only long after she’s left that world behind. Speakers like Joan Didion or the photographer William Eggleston chime in to testify to the magic.
When Stein’s mother died, Lew Wasserman negotiated the sale of Misty Mountain to Rupert Murdoch, who insisted on having all the contents, too. Impersonation is rampant in Hollywood. To impersonate a Hollywood mogul, Murdoch puts up Stein photographs from Hollywood’s glory days, the cook re-creates Mrs. Stein’s recipes, and his family eats with Stein flatware. The whole effect is eerie and absurd, like so many of the book’s stories. Stein lets a security guard at Misty Mountain have the last word, with the hilariously downbeat line, “Nothing ever happens down here.”
Reviewer Catherine Holmes teaches English at the College of Charleston.