June 25, 2016 by John Wilcock
Chapter Twenty-three (cont'd):
Although the first commercial buildings went up on Sunset Strip in 1924, it remained a two-lane dirt road until 1935 when it was widened, paved, and the following year strewn with flowers from a low-flying plane to mark the dedication ceremony. One of the pioneers on Sunset Strip in the 1930s was the Clover Club at 8477 Sunset, a gambling club frequented by mobster Bugsy Siegel and the regular haunt of racketeer Willie Bioff. Because the Strip is in West Hollywood, not LA, it came under county jurisdiction, which tended to be laxer about the gambling laws, and was usually left alone; but it was raided in 1937, “surprising more than 100 smartly dressed film and society notables”. On another occasion the sheriff’s men penetrated behind mirrored walls through secret doors to find roulette wheels, $1,000 poker chips, and a Turkish bath.
Billy Wilkerson founded the Hollywood Reporter in 1934 and later renovated an Italian restaurant at 8610 Sunset, reopening it as the Trocadero. Ronald Reagan, Lana Turner, and Judy Garland were among the early customers and, for a time, Nat King Cole was the house pianist. Columnists Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons both had tables and Joseph Schenck gave a party there to welcome Sir Alexander Korda. Thelma Todd was at the Trocadero the night her fiancé, Pat de Cicco, walked in with another woman. Todd left and drove home, next day to be found dead in her car. It was accounted a death by monoxide poisoning but rumors about murder have persisted to this day. The Trocadero was sold by Wilkerson in 1938 and when you go by today you’ll see only a trio of weed-covered steps.
The Villa Nova, where Vincent Minnelli proposed to Judy Garland and where Marilyn Monroe met Joe DiMaggio on a blind date, is now the Rainbow Bar & Grill. After a $40,000,000 restoration, the graceful 12-storey Sunset Towers where Howard Hughes rented apartments for his girlfriends, has now become an elegant dining club, complete with British phone box in the driveway.
The most fabled part of the boulevard, the section between Crescent Heights and Doheny Drive, is the Sunset Strip, whose most notable aspect today are the huge billboards, known to the industry as “vanity boards” because so often they have been paid for by movie companies to enhance the egos of their stars. The location of these huge ads was chosen, of course, because until recent years they were so often on the route of producers and agents between their offices and their homes in the Hollywood hills.
On New Year’s Eve, 1935, the Club Seville opened at 8433 Sunset with a thick glass dance floor over a fish tank containing live fish. Eventually it closed and was reopened by Wilkerson with the name Ciro’s. One of its customers was a mysterious former hotel clerk from Waco, Texas, the widower of two wealthy ladies. Introducing himself as Jean Harald Edward Rex de St Cyr, he paid $7,000 to rent Ciro’s for the night, hired costumes for the waiters and provided caviar and champagne for 500 of Hollywood’s elite, who were invited by telegram to his Valentine’s Day party. For the party he dressed in silken caballero trousers, a lace-trimmed satin blouse and a sequined gaucho hat. In a newspaper interview, a nightclub waiter named him (along with mobster moll Virginia Hill) as the biggest tipper of all time although he disappeared from social history almost as suddenly as he had appeared.
Ciro’s was often featured in the gossip columns. Johnny (Tarzan) Weissmuller threw a plate of spaghetti into the face of his wife, Lupe Velez, one night and on another occasion a photographer grabbed a shot of a bare-chested, inebriated Darryl Zanuck chinning himself on a trapeze bar. After Wilkerson sold it in 1946, Ciro’s was run by Herman Hoover, who hosted Dean Martin’s wedding at his Beverly Hills home, with Jerry Lewis as best man. The team often performed at the club, which was sometimes pretty rowdy. “Only three fights to a customer”, Hoover joked to his bouncer. Hoover went bankrupt in 1959 and the club was sold. It is now the Comedy Store.
Across the street at 8426, the delightful enclosed patio of Butterfields Restaurant looks much as it did when it adjoined the guesthouse to John Barrymore’s home. Geoff Miller, then editor of Los Angeles magazine, invited me there one day to a lunch with his staff and it didn’t require much imagination to pretend Erroll Flynn was watching us from the windows above where he used to stay as Barrymore’s guest.
The Mocambo at 8588 Sunset got itself some publicity in its early days when the ASPCA demanded that the club be kept quiet during the day so that its cockatoo, parakeets and macaws could get some sleep. But it got even more attention after Ready Eddie Judson took his date there one night, dancer Margaret Cansino, whom he renamed Rita Hayworth. She dressed in a $500 gown, ostentatious enough to catch the eye of director Howard Hawks and studio boss Harry Cohn, who promptly signed her up to co-star with Cary Grant on Only Angels Have Wings. Writer/Director Preston (Sullivan’s Travels, Miracle of Morgan’s Creek) Sturges built the Players at 8225 Sunset.
Beverly Hills begins at Sunset and Doheny Drive, up which is the 50-room Greystone Mansion, built on a 400-acre estate in 1926 by Edward Doheny, who was the first person to strike a substantial supply of oil in downtown LA. With its intricately carved woodwork, marble floors and distinctive chimneys, the house—now owned by the city—is now rented by film companies for much of the year.
From here onwards, the canyons running north off Sunset are the setting for many movie star homes. The legendary Pickfair, the then-isolated hunting lodge to which Douglas Fairbanks took his bride Mary Pickford in 1920, stood up Benedict Canyon until it was demolished in 1990 by its new owners, Pia Zadora and Meshulam Riklis. Also up Benedict was John Gilbert’s immense mansion (demolished in 1986) where he cavorted by the pool with Greta Garbo; Rudolph Valentino’s Falcon’s Lair; Harold Lloyd’s stunning Green Acres estate; and the house where Sharon Tate and her friends were murdered by Charles Manson in 1969.
At the foot of the canyon, just off Sunset on North Roxbury Drive, were the homes of Marlene Dietrich (822), Jimmy Stewart (918), Lucille Ball (1000) and Jack Benny (1002). Beverly Drive, lined on both sides of Sunset by gigantic palm trees, was where William Randolph Hearst lived out the final years of his life accompanied by Marion Davies, in a house large enough to accommodate the 1,000 guests at singer Johnny Ray’s wedding reception, which was held there in 1952.
The $1,000-a-night poolside bungalows of the famously-pink Beverly Hills Hotel at 9641 Sunset are still in demand, just as they were when Howard Hughes paid $250,000 a year to keep one ready in case he should need it. Elizabeth Taylor’s father once ran an art gallery in the lobby and the Polo Lounge was named for the favorite sport of Darryl Zanuck and Will Rogers, who used to play in the grounds at Will Rogers’ ranch, off Sunset a few miles west.
With a succession of curves and sharp bends, Sunset swoops down to the coast, skirting UCLA’s campus above Westwood Village and passing through Brentwood and Pacific Heights. Marilyn Monroe died in Brentwood on 5 August 1962, in a secluded bungalow at 12305 Fifth Helena Drive and, not far away in an apartment on Shetland Place, novelist Raymond Chandler wrote two of his Philip Marlowe books. Chandler’s hero liked driving along Sunset. “When Marlowe has a problem”, observed Elizabeth Ward and Alan Silver, “he takes a drive around town... to look at the view and to look for answers”.
After completing the Los Angeles book I was assigned two more: Seattle and Vancouver, and as I didn’t fancy paying $1000 or more to store my possessions while I went north for a couple of months, I had to find a place to live and I went to see Ed Lange up in the Santa Monica Mountains and told him I'd like to join his community. Twenty years previously, Chicago-born Ed had founded Elysium, a nine-acre nudist resort in Topanga Canyon, which ran through the Santa Monica Mountains between the Pacific Coast Highway and the Santa Fernando Valley. He had been fighting a battle to keep it open ever since, countering the legal assaults of prudish neighbors led by Supervisor Mike Antonovich (who later became a fan and supported Ed’s nomination as Topanga’s Citizen of the Year.)
“Let’s see if we can find you a mole-hole” was Ed’s jocular response and we circled the premises before we hit on a furnished but otherwise empty garage in which the LA Free Press’ Art Kunkin had stowed his stuff. It had been built to look like a garage, to fool the housing authority, but never used as such, and had most necessities including large bed, table, sofa, shelves, refrigerator, clothes hangers behind a curtain. A cold water tap was outside, a toilet down the hill and the front opened up with a standard garage door.
Because of its outré associations, Southern California is often assumed to be focus of American nudism but that isn’t actually true. Of the more than 200 resorts listed in the Guide to Nudist Resorts in North America in the late Seventies, only 24 were in the state and of these Elysium was the solitary one in the Los Angeles area.
Ed, a former Conde Nast photographer, had once been the publisher of “naturist” magazines, had battled the post office for the right to mail his publications, and then for 27 years and at a cost of $1million—the longest legal dispute in Los Angeles history—to establish his club, before being granted a conditional permit to operate. From the beginning it was different, defying the standard practice of most resorts which banned hugging and touching and which bent so far over backwards to banish accusations of sexuality that some resorts even prohibited staring at other bodies below the waistline.
“Nude is not lewd” the avuncular Ed used to emphasize to all who would listen, and sexuality, indeed, was not overt and—to me, at least—invisible. In the early days there were always a few tales about activity in the meditation rooms but these were eventually closed and by the time I arrived most of the gossip was about a certain resident who pleasured herself with the aid of a certain jet in the hot tub.
“One nude draped on a settee in a dimly-lit room may be sexy”, wrote Jane & Michael Stern in The New Yorker, “but a hundred nudes standing in line for tuna salad at high noon are anything but.”
MANY PEOPLE HAVE a peculiar antipathy to nudists, prompted by deep misunderstandings and probably some undefined fear. Their attitude manifests itself with feeble jokes and false assumptions that mask an underlying fascination.
Recently California’s San Onofre beach, which had welcomed nudists for generations, was back in the news when a new Parks Superintendent said that nakedness would be banned following complaints from “shocked” visitors. The obvious question to be asked, again and again, is why people felt they had to go and be shocked by conduct that they could avoid by going elsewhere.
What’s with it with prudes? The old joke comes to mind about the woman who complained to the police about seeing her naked neighbor undressing in his home across the street. When an officer dropped by to check it out and said he couldn’t see anything, the lady replied: “Oh, you have to stand on this chair”.
In Britain the Naturist Council estimated that one per cent of the population—that's about half a million people—enjoyed being nude, although usually in the privacy of their own garden. (Amusingly enough, magazine writer Cressida Connolly reported that finding themselves naked in front of a group of strangers was one of most people’s "three standard nightmares", the other two being whisked back to school and treated humiliatingly as a child, and having Queen Elizabeth arrive unannounced at the dreamer's home to demand dinner. "Sometimes" Cressida added, "the three are amalgamated into one: being naked at school and inspected by Her Majesty").
As for myself, I was familiar with nudity after many visits to Greek and Yugoslavian beaches, and settled into my little hut in the mountains with great joy. Elysium was a beautifully tranquil place, sprawled over a grassy, tree-lined hillside with swimming pool, sauna, hot tub and tennis courts. Traffic being far away, the only sound at night was the occasional howling of coyotes.
Anybody who has spent time around nudists is well aware that they represent a fair cross-section of the population with all its blemishes, beauty and imperfections. Aspiring nudists have well-charted fears—for men that they will get an embarrassing, unwanted erection, and for women that they are overweight. (I can't remember ever meeting a woman who didn't believe she was overweight). Both these fears are unwarranted because, apart from their desire to be naked, nudists are unfortunately just like every-body else. I say 'unfortunately' because most of the people we meet are boringly unimaginative, and nudists are certainly no exception. My opinion is that most folk are bizarre in at least one specific way and nudists, using up their quota on being nudist, are otherwise disappointingly conventional.
There's no doubt, however, that it's a healthy lifestyle. "When I pop open the buttons on my jeans", raved one middle-aged member, "and when I feel the sun and air on my unclothed body, I feel the pleasure of just being". And there is evidence that growing up around nakedness goes a long way to removing the inhibitions about the body that plague most of us from adolescence onwards. Elysium, like many nudist resorts, was a family place and many people brought their kids some of whom, although usually unself-conscious, initially tended to be more inhibited about exhibiting themselves than did their parents.
Nudity is still more inflammatory in America than in most European countries where topless beaches are now fairly commonplace, and when it comes to naked bodies there's still a double standard—"women first and foremost and men under wraps" as Susanna Andrews wrote in a New York Times story. Because female nudity was so common, she argued, audiences took it for granted, although the double standard still upset some people.
"What's happening (sends) a message that a woman in a naked state is not private anymore, that her body is public property" declared movie producer Linda Obst.
Male nudity tends to bring a movie a restricted NC-17 rating. What finally made Basic Instinct acceptable to the Motion Picture Association of America was not just the cutting of an oral sex scene, but also the elimination of a shot of Michael Douglas’ penis—although he was still seen naked in the version screened in Europe. Jack Valenti, the former MPAA president explained: “In a heterosexual society there is more interest in the female form than in the male body. That’s the way it is”.
And psychologist John Ross, author of The Male Paradox says simply: “Male nudity in movies can make men feel inadequate and also anxious. Naked men don’t turn most women on”.
WHAT I CONFIRMED at Elysium was that clothes do play an important part, a discovery I made one afternoon while observing a woman gather her belongings together and prepare to leave. Watching her slowly don panties and bra was strangely as arousing as her earlier strip had been.
Discussing the plethora of different laws about nudity that exist in various communities of the Hamptons—the chic resorts on which upscale New Yorkers descend—publisher Dan Rattiner wrote that the whole issue had become “a lawyer’s field day”. Although New York State officially overturned all local dress ordinances that discriminated between men and women so far as wearing tops was concerned, some communities had introduced new rules, yet to be legally challenged.
This has produced the bizarre situation in some places—East, South and Westhampton villages, for example—where it was against the law for men to take off their shirts on a hot day but not illegal for women, although breast feeding in public was banned everywhere except Sag Harbor Village, where “private or intimate parts” must be covered up. In some villages you could wander 500 feet from the beach wearing only a swim suit, in others only 300 feet if at all.
Rattiner suggested in Dan’s Paper that his readers may only be able to understand the full picture by visiting individual town or village halls to personally check the ordinances “I would suggest wearing mittens, boots, a scarf, hat and full length coat” he added.
In an article, ‘The Naked and the Dead End,’ Backstage West concluded that, on most occasions, displaying nudity was barely worth it. “Actors are so vulnerable” scoffed veteran casting director Joe Reich. “They don’t want to complain or make waves. They’re so desperate for work that they are, in a sense, their own worst enemy”. It’s easy to tell if the person doing the casting has ulterior motives, Reich explains. “If you go alone and they say. ‘Let me see your legs, let me see ,your body’, then—if you’re still interested—say ‘OK, I’ll come back tomorrow with my boyfriend’. If they are serious about the project they won’t care if you bring a whole professional football team with you”.
SAG, the actors’ union, had built in protection against sexual exploitation by stipulating that when sex or nude scenes are filmed, the set be closed to all uninvolved persons and, further, that still photographs of such episodes be used only with the written permission of the performers.
In general, Backstage West concluded, nudity should be avoided by those just starting their acting careers “because it can set the tone for a career leaving an actor less known for the caliber of his/her craft than for the fullness of his form”. And performances in pornographic movies inevitably categorize one as an adult film actor. Usually “an indelible smirch on one’s career” and from it is difficult to make a transition to serious actor. There are always exceptions:
Manhattan Memories is available at amazon.com.
An updated A Guide to Occult Britain, complete with new illustrations, is also available at amazon.com.
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National Weed (1974, issue #3)
Forty years ago the second of my three books about magic was published, A Guide to Occult Britain (Sidgwick & Jackson) covering a wide range of sites from Stonehenge to Loch Ness and King Arthur country to the witches of Pendle Hill. It is now available as an eBook
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An authorized comic book biography of John Wilcock,
This IS a book-length comic series on John Wilcock. People who enjoy focusing on underground and alternative media are occasionally familiar with John's work, but most often the response is "who's that?" Outside of small press historians and collectors, John remains very unknown. Which makes no sense, the more you learn about him. We're very excited about the opportunity to tell his story. Art for THE STORY OF JOHN WILCOCK is by me and co-conspirator Scott Marshall. Story comes from an extended and ongoing year-long interview with Wilcock, himself. The focus is John's years in New York, roughly 1954-1971.
January 2, 2011
A way with Andy Warhol : John Wilcock recalls life in iconic pop artist's inner circle
During a journalism career that began when he was 16, John Wilcock has interviewed celebrities — Marilyn Monroe, Marlene Dietrich, Milton Berle, Steve Allen and Bob Dylan, to name a few — was part of enigmatic pop artist Andy Warhol's intimate circle in the 1960s, traveled to exotic locations all over the globe, has written dozens of books ranging from frugal travel to magic, was one of five founders (Norman Mailer was one of them) of the Village Voice and co-founded Interview magazine (still in circulation) with Mr. Warhol.
“The Return of the World's Worst Businessman”
John Wilcock is not what you would call a household name, and yet, he has had a measurable impact on art, journalism and culture-at-large over the last century. He co-founded Interview with Andy Warhol. He also was one of the co-founders of The Village Voice. He has written for countless print and online publications: Frommer’s, The Daily Mirror, The Daily Mail, The East Village Other, The Huffington Post, The New York Times, The Ojai Orange, etc. So why, one feels inclined to ask, is he relatively unknown? The answer seems simple: Wilcock has called himself “the world’s worst businessman.” This self-description makes sense because listening to him one hears the voice of a writer and a traveler and an enthusiast, not at all the voice of a businessman. In an age when it seems like everyone is all about business—art as a business, fashion as a business, everything as a business—it is refreshing to hear someone self-identify as “the world’s worst businessman.” It seems less like he has failed as a businessman and more like he has refused to become one. In addition to all his other accomplishments,...
Wednesday, December 29, 2010
Jewcy Top 10 Art Books of 2010
This brilliant remake of a pop primary document is brought to you by John Wilcock, probably the Most Interesting Man in the World in the realm of writers. The Village Voice cofounder had also edited Warhol’s seminal mag Interview in the 70s. The fruit of the book is in the genius of its redesign. After 40 years out-of-print, the newly edited edition is “beautifully redesigned in a bright, Warholian palette” that surrounds a trail of Harry Shunk’s internationally Pop-art-informed camera as well as transcribed interviews with those closest to Warhol that ultimately make up an oral history of the artist’s Factory period. By looking at him through the scope of his peers, this book is the equivalent of Pittsburgh’s Warhol Museum in illuminating qualities of Warhol’s warped mirror on which our American culture was briefly reflected.
Monday, November 15, 2010
A Reader Comment from the recent New York Times Frugal Traveler post
Not only did John Wilcock shake up staid publishing in the USA, from the Village Voice to the East Village Other, his influence extended to several continents, including Australia & the UK, where - in his mild mannered way - he pushed the boundaries of image and speech. The counter culture was nothing but a dull puddle, until John kicked out the jams and ignited the Underground Press, which attracted absurd prosecutions, that of course boosted circulations. An unsung hero of the sixties,
It was the first handwritten letter I’d received in 5 years. Or maybe 10. Signed by John Wilcock, a man I’d never heard of, and postmarked Ojai, Calif., it was waiting for me when I returned from my Săo Paulo-to-New York summer trip. Mr. Wilcock wrote that he had been an assistant editor at The Times Travel section back in the 1950s, and had written the first editions of “Mexico on $5 a Day,” “Greece on $5 a Day” and “Japan on $5 a Day” for Arthur Frommer in the 1960s.
By George, I thought. This man was the original Frugal Traveler.
“A GOOD WAY to describe John Wilcock is to say that he is a talented bohemian counter-culture journalist who once played a major role in the emergence of America’s underground press. Born 1927 in Sheffield, England, he left school aged 16 to work on various newspapers in England, and on Toronto periodicals before moving to New York City. There in 1955 he became one of the five founders of the Village Voice in which he and co-founder Norman Mailer wrote weekly columns. Wilcock called his column “The Village Square”, an intended pun. He and young Mailer were not quite friends, although Wilcock was at times annoyed, but always amused, by Mailer’s monstrous ego.”