June 18, 2016 by John Wilcock
Chapter Twenty-three (part 1):
WHEN I WAS HIRED by Insight Guides to write their book about Los Angeles, I pondered the bromide that “you can’t get around LA without a car” and wondered how I could help visitors who didn’t have one, or didn’t care to rent one. And it didn’t take long to figure out that although buses took a very long time, they still covered the place pretty thoroughly.
So I organized the book in four main chapters, charting respectively the east to west boulevards—Wilshire, Santa Monica, Sunset and Hollywood—that by and large, run from downtown Los Angeles to the coast. By noting where it was appropriate to transfer to north-south routes, I was able to explain how to reach all the major sightseeing spots within the area, although admittedly sometimes with the need to walk a few additional blocks.
Wilshire Boulevard has the longest history, following as it does the first automobile route to the sea (some vendors en route waited at corners with makeshift containers of gasoline), but Sunset Boulevard, of course, is the most legendary and, as with the others, I drove its entire length taking meticulous notes all the way.
The first few miles from downtown are not very interesting with, perhaps, Echo Park lake offering the most colorful history. Here tawny-haired Aimee Semple McPherson, America’s first radio evangelist, built her huge Angelus Temple which is not only still in business but offers audiotapes of her blistering sermons. These were colorfully presented with Ms. Amy sometimes chasing “the devil” across stage with a pitchfork or arresting him from the seat of a highway patrol motorcycle.
In the mile or two after that nothing much happens tourist-wise until Western Avenue, and here begins the legendary Hollywood of the early movies still venerated by today’s visitors. For it was at 141 N. Western that in 1917 William Fox, who had risen from being a lowly cutter in Manhattan’s Garment District to the owner of a string of nickelodeons, bought land to build his own movie studio. He brought with him Theodosia Goodman, a tailor’s daughter from Chillicothe, Ohio, whom imaginative publicity soon transformed into the exotic Theda Bara, ever after known as the Silver Screen’s original vamp. (You can still buy a DVD of her 1915 A Fool There Was). After adding cowboy star Tom Mix and, a decade later, John Wayne to his roster, Fox cemented a name into show business history for the century that followed.
Sunset Boulevard quickly became the hotbed of Hollywood movies especially when Columbia Pictures arrived, beginning production with B-movies (The Three Stooges) and progressing to such classics as It Happened One Night and On the Waterfront. Around Sunset and Gower, popularly known as Gower Gulch, would-be cowboys hung out—in what is today, a faux Western corner mall—hoping to find roles in such Westerns as Across the Sierras and Beneath Western Skies. The Nestor Company, operating out of a $30-a-month leased tavern was churning out three one-reelers each week, more than a thousand of them before being absorbed by Universal.
The pink building with penthouse at 6525 Sunset, was once the Hollywood Athletic Club, where John Wayne and John Barrymore got drunk together and Clark Gable did laps in the Olympic-sized pool. Nearby is Hollywood High School, from where the teenage Lana Turner skipped out and was discovered one afternoon at the Top Hat Malt Shop (and, contrary to the legend, not at Schwab’s, the drugstore at the corner of Crescent Heights).
Schwab’s is long gone and so is the famous Garden of Allah. Built by silent star AllaNazimova (Camille, Salome), the stucco and red-tile bungalow colony was described by New Yorker editor Harold Ross as “a pesthole of pettifogging vaudeville actors and fallen women” but among its glittering residents were Errol Flynn and Charles Laughton. Robert Benchley fell into the pool one day and riposted—a wisecrack for the ages—“Will somebody get me out of these wet clothes and into a dry martini?” Columnist Sheilah Graham wrote the Garden’s belated biography in 1970 but another writer, Joni Mitchell, watched its demolition from an apartment house across the way and wrote a song: ‘They Paved Paradise and Put Up a Parking Lot’.
Still standing is the castle-like Chateau Marmont. Igor Stravinsky was a resident in 1940 while his music was being adapted for Walt Disney’s Fantasia. Billy Wilder, Howard Hughes, Greta Garbo, Bianca Jagger and Robert De Niro have all stayed there, as well as the unfortunate John Belushi, who died of a drug overdose in one of its bungalows.
In Hollywood’s Golden Years, the elephant in the room was Paramount Pictures, not on Sunset but on Santa Monica a few blocks away. Sunset Boulevard, that iconic story of early Hollywood, was Paramount’s most famous movie.
I was in London in 1993 at the time when Andrew Lloyd Webber was laying plans to turn the illustrious movie Sunset Boulevard into a stage show. They hired me to write about this subject which I had already researched to an inch of its life. I knew not only what was there now, but what had been there in the past.
Just as Paramount Pictures stood not on Sunset Boulevard itself so, with appropriate irony, the rambling mansion of the eponymous movie, the home to Norma Desmond in Billy Wilder’s classic movie, actually stood at the corner of Crenshaw Street on Wilshire Boulevard. It was demolished in the late 1950’s and replaced with a sleek insurance company building. Built at a cost of $250,000 in 1924 for William O. Jenkins, U.S. consul to Mexico, its 14 rooms featured costly interior paneling, imported tiles and a black walnut staircase at whose foot was a 10-foot-square walk-in vault. Exterior walls of steel and concrete, lined with brick, were 13 inches thick. Jenkins, who lived in the house for only a year, was a sugar baron reputed to be the richest man in Mexico.
Producer Charles Brackett and director Billy Wilder found the house after a long, unsuccessful search along Sunset Boulevard itself. The mansion was by now in the possession of one of billionaire J. Paul Getty’s former wives, who insisted that the pool to be installed in the grounds for the movie should be removed afterwards if she didn’t like it. As it happened, the pool remained (without plumbing, and empty) to be used again for a scene in Rebel Without A Cause. In addition to the pool, the mansion was equipped with stained glass windows, palm trees, overstuffed furniture, dusty velvet drapes, and a pipe organ. A $25,000 Isotta Fraschini was parked in the driveway after first being equipped with leopard skin upholstery and a gold-plated telephone.
The movie came about, Brackett explained, “because Wilder, Marshman, (the third writer) and I were acutely conscious of the fact that we lived in a town which had been swept by social change (as) profound as that brought about in the old South by the Civil War. Overnight, the coming of sound brushed gods and goddesses into obscurity. We had an idea of a young man stumbling into a great house where one of these ex-goddesses survived. At first we saw her as a kind of horror woman... and embodiment of vanity and selfishness. But as we went along, our sympathies became deeply involved with the woman who had been given the brush by 30,000,000 fans”.
The spot that the Paramount company actually began, was at that world renowned corner, Sunset & Vine, where a plaque celebrates Jesse Lasky and Cecil B. DeMille’s The Squaw Man which in 1913 became Hollywood’s first feature-length movie. A time capsule buried in 1954 with relics from the day was found to have been infiltrated by water when it was dug up 50 years later, and has been replaced by another in a steel box containing DVDs of current TV shows and other showbiz ephemera; due for recovery in 2037.
Legendary director Cecil B. DeMille was corralled to play himself in Sunset Boulevard, taking direction from Wilder through 10 pages of script spread over four scenes. There were an average of seven takes for each scene. “I don’t suppose Paramount will pick up my option after this”, joked DeMille, after fluffing his lines. “Mr. DeMille was too courteous to make suggestions”, Wilder confessed, “and I was too afraid. I (felt) like a man about to explain satire to George Bernard Shaw”. Unlike DeMille, Erich Von Stroheim—who played Norma Desmond’s butler/ex-husband, was eager to help with the direction, offering unsuitable suggestions in an attempt further to enhance his character. Columnists Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper were both invited to play bit parts but only Hopper, who had been an actress herself, accepted.
When the producers sought a lead actress to play Norman Desmond, Swanson was not the first choice. Wilder was first rebuffed by an indignant Mae West, 55 who was angry to be thought of as a has-been. He was then turned down by Mary Pickford, 57, who wanted the part rewritten so that the movie would focus more on her.
Pola Negri, then 51, whose lovers had included Charlie Chaplin and Rudolph Valentino, was rejected on the basis of her incomprehensible Polish accent.
Swanson, recommended by director George Cukor, had left Hollywood after a near-flop, Music in the Air (1934), only returning for the disappointing Father Takes a Wife (1941), but had scored a hit on Broadway with A Goose for the Gander and was now hosting a television talk show. She had forgotten Wilder, even though he had co-written the script for Music in the Air, and was annoyed at being asked to come west for a screen test.
“What the hell do you have to test me for? You want to see if I’m alive, do you? Or do you doubt I can act?” Just turned 50, she had made 45 previous films, beginning as a 14-year-old extra in a movie starring Wallace Beery (whom she later married) and by 16 was playing in Mack Sennett comedies. By 1924 she was making $10,000 a week and was the second woman in Hollywood to make $1,000,000 (after Mary Pickford). She had never taken a screen test.
She had been a big star well before the fabulously successful Sadie Thompson (1928) and habitually threw lavish parties in her 22-room mansion opposite the Beverly Hills Hotel, hiring one footman per guest and sometimes giving away hundreds of gold compacts or cigarette cases as party favors. “The public wanted us to live like kings and queens... We were making more money than we ever dreamed existed and there was no reason to believe it would ever stop”, she reminisced.
George Cukor called her in New York to plead Wilder’s case. “Oh, he is so persuasive, charms the birds out of the trees, that dear man. He said this was the greatest part of my life and I’d be remembered for this part. So I took the test.” The results were so impressive that Wilder and Brackett rewrote the Norma Desmond role, ironically the way Pickford had requested.
All this, I hoped, would be interesting history to audiences at London’s Adelphi Theatre where the world premiere of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s production, with Patti LuPone in the lead role, was held on 12 July 1993. It racked up 1,529 performances toured internationally, and won three Tony Awards although the expenses were so huge it actually lost money.
In this a-historical, ever-changing city, many of the old landmarks had to be recreated before filming of Sunset Boulevard could begin. Replicas of the County Morgue as well as Schwab’s Drug Store were built on Paramount’s Stage 5 and location shooting began at the Bel Air golf course and on Hollywood streets. The movie began with a scene in the morgue, for which 30 extras had been hired to lie motionless on slabs, but when the film was sneak-previewed in a small mid-Western town the audience couldn’t stop laughing. Wilder slipped out, encountered a woman near the powder room and asked how she liked it so far. “I have never seen such a pile of crap in all my life”, she replied.
The rewrite took six months, mainly to fix the opening, which now featured police cars screaming down Sunset with sirens blaring and Holden’s off-screen voice saying that he’d died. This time the movie was previewed on the Paramount lot with an audience of industry insiders. Many enjoyed it, some were stunned but Louis B. Mayer, Hollywood’s ranking mogul, was outraged. “You bastard”, he shouted at Wilder. “You have disgraced the industry that made and fed you. You should be tarred and feathered and run out of Hollywood.” Barbara Stanwyck obviously didn’t agree. Kneeling at Gloria Swanson’s feet, she kissed the hem of her gown. The two women embraced, sobbing.
Manhattan Memories is 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.”