Spent the evening reading Jean Stein’s West of Eden. Oral history of five very fucked-up Los Angeles dynasties.
Shortly after its publication, Stein killed herself by jumping from the 15th floor of 10 Gracie Square, which is considered a very tony address despite the fact that its view is an overlook of mega-hideous FDR Drive.
Stein had a really interesting life. One of the families she—well: you can’t really use the phrase “writes about” in the context of an oral history, can you?—archives was her own.
Her father was Jules Stein who founded MCA, one of the first big talent agencies in LA, which later became Universal Studios. While still a student at the Sorbonne, Stein had an affair with William Faulkner and parlayed that liaison into an editorial gig at the Paris Review.
She was Elia Kazan’s assistant on the original Broadway production of Cat On a Hot Tin Roof.
She hosted the party where Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer got into a fistfight.
She partnered with George Plimpton and began producing oral histories. First American Journey: The Times of Robert Kennedy; then Edie: An American Biography.
Edie was a really important book for me. I had been ever-so-slightly on the fringes of the Factory crowd and the Max’s Kansas City crowd back when I was modeling, so Edie connected a lot of dots.
Bizarre that Stein chose to kill herself in this particular fashion. A significant portion of West of Eden is devoted to the suicide of Mary Jennifer Selznick, the daughter of David “Gone With the Wind” Selznick and the actress Jennifer Jones.
Mary Jennifer “fell” from the top of a Dallas high-rise. Stein included long excerpts from Mary Jennifer’s minders: Mary Jennifer was obsessed with ledges and high buildings; she loved walking around on them. “The winds are very strong up there!” Mary Jennifer’s psychiatrist warned, but Mary Jennifer wouldn’t listen, and the next thing you know, the psychiatrist was getting calls from the Dallas morgue.
“Do you need me to identify the body?” the stunned psychiatrist asked.
The movie star mother was vacationing in some exotic locale with the nasty industrialist billionaire third husband when the daughter jumped.
The morgue guy snorted. “Lady, she fell 15 stories. We had to scrape her off the sidewalk. There’s not a lot to identify.”
If I had known that Jean Stein had planned to kill herself on April 30, 2017, I would have raced down to the Poughkeepsie train station, hopped on the MetroNorth, and showed up outside her apartment with a foghorn: Don’t do it, Jean! I am here to amuse and divert you in the twilight of your life, and as an extra bonus offer, I will change your Attends!
It’s kind of interesting that the last two books I’ve read have delved so deeply into suicide. (Well. I didn’t actually read the Robin Williams bio; I listened to it on audiotape. Can I still claim to have read it?)
I kind of had the same thought about Robin Williams, again because of fringe encounters during my oh-so-faraway youth.
Like how on August 13, 2014, I should have booked a flight to San Francisco, rented a car at SFO, driven to Tiburon and broken in the same bullhorn I would later use on Jean Stein: Robin! It’s all brain chemistry! Think of your progressive neurological disease as a kind of drug! It doesn’t really impinge on who you are!
Although I suppose disorders that actually change the cells in your brain do impinge on who you are.
I’ve known a number of people over the years who’ve committed suicide, though none of them very well.
The people I’ve known well have been those suicides’ significant others. The ones the suicides left behind.
Thus Don L___, A__ H_______’s snotty, sardonic bf back in the day. He hanged himself, which given his obsession with his penis, I always found wildly significant. (Finally, Don: You are well hung.)
Then there was Ed’s Portuguese bf. (I actually spent two hours trying to think of his first name a couple of nights ago and couldn’t. This made me worry about Alzheimer’s.) He did something horrible that involved money, thereby driving Ed into the arms of The Algerian Porn Star, whereupon he, too, hanged himself. He’d never taken Ed’s name off his life insurance policy, and it was one of those life insurance policies that paid out no matter what the cause of death. Ed was able to buy a cute little house in Encino. So, you know. Happy Ending.
Then there was Justin. Another hanging.
Then there was Jayson R. Whose death just absolutely floored me. If someone as handsome and brilliant and with such huge mega-earning potential as Jayson R can kill himself, there is absolutely no hope for the rest of us. We should all join hands and march off a cliff. Right now.
Jayson R hurled himself out of the third floor window of a no-star hotel in Long Island City. I can no longer remember the name of the hotel, and that also worries me—it’s gotta be Alzheimer’s!—‘cause two weeks after his death, I actually made a pilgrimage to that hotel, stood outside with a tiny bundle of sage that I surreptiously burned while chanting the Avalokiteshvara mantra: Om mani padme hum. Om mani padme hum.
Medical theories that use words like “depression” don’t convince me at all.
I mean—yeah, yeah, yeah: Brain chemistry.
But the brain is an infinitely supple organ that responds to an almost infinite number of feedback loops. Medication is just one.
I prefer to think of it as a spiritual disconnect.
Though, of course, everybody is free to think of it in whatever way works most effectively for them. Whatever gets you through one more night.
Anyway, West of Eden is not a particularly good book. (Although it’s bound to be fascinating for anyone who knows anything about the sordid history of Los Angeles.) For one thing, there seems to be no connective tissue at all between any of the stories Stein recounts: John Doheny; Jack Warner; an obscure Malibu schitzophrenic named Jane Garland; Jennifer Jones; and Jules Stein.
The Doheny story is the most interesting. It inspired Raymond Chandler and Upton Sinclair among others. More recently, John Doheny provided the inspiration for the Daniel Plainview character in There Will Be Blood.
The Jack Warner/Jennifer Jones sagas are just two more entries in the annals of Celebrities! They’re just like us! They get old and fat, and nobody remembers them!
I don’t know what the hell the Jane Garland piece was doing there.
The Stein section was… intriguing.
One kind of gets the distinct sense that Jean Stein wanted to write her own autobiography but was scared of doing so.
Oral histories are probably better listened to than read. Sort of like dialogue in a play: There’s a kind of monotony to it after a few pages. You find yourself skimming and fast-forwarding to the good parts.
I don’t remember that being an issue with Edie, but then I knew or knew of many of the principals in Edie, so reading that book was more like hearing particularly salacious, delicious gossip.
This entry was originally posted at http://mallorys-camera.dreamwidth.org. You may leave comments on either Dreamwidth or LiveJournal if you like.