By Catherine Wagley
By Catherine Wagley
By Wendy Gilmartin
By Jennifer Swann
By Claire de Dobay Rifelj
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Catherine Wagley
By Zachary Pincus-Roth
This excerpt was originally published in L.A. Weekly on February 21, 1997, and reposted here on July 3, 2008.
House hunting brought us into direct contact with the splendors and miseries of Hollywood architecture . . . Up Laurel Canyon, nearly buried in undergrowth, we found a Japanese bungalow, which appeared to have been fortified. The doors and shutters were several inches thick and studded with huge marine bolts. The furniture was made of heavy beams of wood, screwed together with enormous screws. The table could hardly have been lifted by four men. The bed looked like an instrument of torture: lying on it, you were enclosed as if within an open coffin. The house agent had to admit that the gentleman who designed it had been "peculiar." He had kept his stockade shutters closed all day.
It is not only the houses of Hollywood that have this theatrical, temporary air; the entire landscape is provisional . . . This was one of Gerald [Heard]'s favorite themes. Walking with us along the firebreak road, he loved to point out how recently this country had been desert, and how quickly it would lapse back into desert again, if the Japanese gardeners were to stop drenching it every evening with water. The houses are built, the pipes are connected up, the hoses start to spray -- and, within six months, the devil grass is growing, the porch is heavy under vines, the big garish flowers burst from their buds, the eucalyptus sapling begins to shoot up into a great shade-giving tree. "These hills won't last long, either," said Gerald gleefully, picking up a handful of what looked like rock and crumbling it in his fingers, "decomposed granite. In five hundred years, most of it'll have washed down into Culver City." At different points along the ridge, there were building sites, flattened out by the bulldozer. We watched a steam shovel cut slices from the soft hillside, like cake, unearthing several rattlesnakes, which the men killed and threw into a bucket. Every winter, the rains would wash a few dollars' worth of your property down into the valley. But the course of nature wasn't quick enough for Gerald. He enjoyed kicking big chunks out of the shoulder of the road, giggling wildly. It disconcerted me, to see him in this mood. He seemed quite fiendish. But it was funny, too, and I laughed and forgot it.
Sometime during July, Berthold Viertel returned from New York to his home in Santa Monica Canyon, full of schemes. He had a movie story which he wanted us to write together . . . So now, every morning, Vernon drove me down to 165 Mabery Road -- that address which had become so familiar to me, years before, in London, when we were working together on Little Friend. Every morning was like every other morning. The barking of the two frisky Irish setters and the old Alsatian at the gate. The German cook opening the front door, admitting me to the big, pleasant living room, with the piano and the books and the blue Picasso boy over the fireplace. "Herr Doktor Viertel kommt gleich." And here he was, in his dressing gown and slippers, snorting through his nose, drawing grim-lipped on his first cigarette, shaking my hand: "Servus." At this hour of the morning, he was always preoccupied, moody, stern, like a general before a battle. We would sit down on the porch to our coffee, and Berthold would scowl his way across the newspaper headlines. Our first talk was always about Europe. I forget what his particular predictions were, at that time. They were always startling and occasionally accurate. Anyhow, the future was double dyed in gloom. We shook our heads over it, almost suicidally. But, beyond the porch, the sunshine poured down through the leaves of the fig tree, the little garden was full of roses, the new morning, brilliant with possibility, opened over a sky-blue, milk-edged ocean, without hope and without despair. Our mood brightened, a little. We rose. We started to pace the lawn. Berthold plucked figs and gave me some. He lit another cigarette. He snorted. Slowly, subtly, inimitably, he began to develop an idea.
At twelve o'clock, we put on our swimming suits and went down to the beach. As we walked past the gardens of the little houses, Berthold was fond of saying: "One does not wander without punishment under palms." This was how he expressed his feeling of guilt at being here, in this improbably remote paradise, while in England the people he loved were threatened by the oncoming war. Together, we strolled along the beach. Berthold, his hands folded behind his back, wore his bathrobe as though it were a toga, with a sort of Roman majesty. Two aliens from doomed Europe, we carried our twisted, pain-ridden psyches amongst the statuesque, unselfconscious bodies of California, basking in the frank sunshine.
November 5, 1939
[Greta] Garbo had been lured to the picnic under false pretences. They had told her it would be a very quiet affair -- just the [Aldous] Huxleys and Krishnamurti. Garbo was anxious to meet Krishnamurti. She was naturally drawn to prophets -- genuine and otherwise. Salka [Viertel] said that she was very unhappy, restless and frightened. She wanted to be told the secret of eternal youth, the meaning of life -- but quickly, in one lesson, before her butterfly attention wandered away again . . .
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