No matter what they do to Los Angeles, and lately they’ve done quite a lot with all the traffic, hyper-development, and electric scooters, they can’t get rid of the movie ghosts. The accumulated haunt of a century-old industry, those pop up in nooks and crannies, sometimes where you least expect them. There are a couple next door to Katy Perry’s coveted convent-house in Los Feliz, for instance. That’s where the Manson family killed the LaBiancas a night after murdering Sharon Tate and friends, setting off Hollywood’s Helter Skelter panic. The address on the curb has been changed. But the ghosts are still there.
A mostly gentler sort stalk one of my favorite memory pockets, Santa Monica Canyon. Geographically, that’s a leafy trough that runs between the Pacific Palisades district of Los Angeles and the City of Santa Monica. It has identity issues. The postal addresses, a lot of them, say “Santa Monica,” but the street signs belong to L. A.
As for the ghosts, some living, some dead, they are the remnants of a film community that used to feel like a glorified village full of brilliant, defective, very real characters whose cumulative bumping and grinding created something known as “show business.”
Along the top of the canyon, at 145 Adelaide Drive, of course, is a house that was long inhabited by Christopher Isherwood, whose fictionalized personae would surface in movies like Cabaret and A Single Man. Neither was shot in the canyon. It appears that few films ever were. But Isherwood, who died in 1986, shuffled down hills and up streets that were populated by those who were often busy making movies someplace else. Peter Bart, the erstwhile film executive and a Deadline colleague, was a neighbor. By my dim recollection, Harry Colomby, Michael Keaton’s long-time manager, has or had a place on the nearby Ocean Ave. Extension. (I now see him listed on Main St.)
Further down the extension (but not quite as far as the house once watched by the FBI as a hub for the pro-Hitler Bund), and around the corner on Mabery Rd., is what once was the home of Salka Viertel. An Austrian émigré, she was both an actress and screenwriter, but is probably better remembered for entertaining the likes of Billy Wilder, Charlie Chaplin, Sergei Eisenstein, and, of course, Christopher Isherwood at her endless salons. Her son Peter, another movie ghost, worked as a writer on at least a dozen films, including John Huston’s The African Queen, and White Hunter Black Heart, based on Viertel’s experiences on the Huston film.
Local gossips say Mabery is now being gobbled up by social media money. But the tip of the street, where it turns into Ocean Way, is still haunted by film ghosts in tennis whites. The house at 99 Ocean Way, according to Santa Monica Canyon: A Walk Through History, by Betty Lou and Randy Young, sits on what used to be a cliff-top court owned by Matthew Moore, a silent film star who played there with Leslie Howard, among others. Film director Edmund Goulding, known for his work with Greta Garbo, had a home a few steps away at 129 Ocean Way; rumor said his occasionally nude dinner parties sometimes ended with a trip to the Golden Butterfly, about two blocks away. (According to the Youngs, that place had roots as a “house of ill repute.”) And in between Goulding’s and the tennis court was a home, still standing, that was owned by the actor Richard Bennett, whose daughters—the actresses Constance, Joan and Barbara—got into heaven only knows what mischief inside.
If you look over the bluff, you can see the Santa Monica beach house once owned by William Randolph Hearst’s mistress, Marion Davies, who was a great friend of the Bennett girls. Winston Churchill is said to have disappeared there once. He had stayed with Hearst and his wife Millicent at San Simeon, then later apparently holed up at the beach house. But it was thought unseemly to have Churchill spending time at the Hearst girlfriend’s home; so the newspapers “lost” him for a while.
Up the canyon, on San Lorenzo St., you can still hear the mad-dog growl of Ned Tanen, one of the smartest, craziest film executives of the modern era. His ghost is in good company. On San Lorenzo, near Tanen’s one-time home, is the Marquez cemetery, where 13 members and guests of the old land-grant family were buried in 1910 after dying of botulism poisoning from canned peaches eaten at a New Year’s Eve party.
Charles Morgan, once a chief copyright enforcer for Lew Wasserman, used to be on San Lorenzo. His father Harry, a heavy in High Noon and forever known for Dragnet, almost surely stopped by.
At Patrick’s Roadhouse, on the ocean end of the canyon, Arnold Schwarzenegger used to be a regular. Once, a crusty old guy behind the counter grunted that I’d have to move because I was sitting at agent Jim Wiatt’s regular table. “I’m waiting for Jim,” I grunted back. “Hrmph,” he re-grunted. Just another ghost, I guess, from a movie world that won’t quite disappear.
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