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The U.K. in L.A.

Theyve come a long way, baby: Cary Grant and fellow British expats... (Courtesy LACMA)

The ocean appears suddenly. You turn another hairpin bend and the land falls away and there is a long high view down Santa Monica Canyon to the pale Pacific waters. A clear day is not often. Sky and air are hazed now, diffusing the sun and dredging the ocean of its rightful blue. The Pacific is a sad blue-grey, and nearly always looks cold.

Each time I drive down here it feels like the end of the world. The geographical end. Shabby and uncared for, buildings lie around like nomads’ tents in the desert. There is nowhere further to go, those pale waters stretch away to the blurred horizons and stretch away beyond it. There is no more land ever.

—Gavin Lambert

Those deliciously foreboding words were written by Lambert in The Slide Area, the episodic novel he penned in 1959, just a few years after arriving in Los Angeles to write screenplays for his erstwhile lover, film director Nicholas Ray. And while such sentiments would seem to suggest Lambert was about to make a quick exit, the British novelist (Inside Daisy Clover), critic (On Cukor), screenwriter (Sons and Lovers) and film historian (Norma Shearer) stayed on in L.A. until his death last year at the age of 80.

I first came upon The Slide Area in the early 1960s, when I was in high school. Years later, the deathless cliché “Never meet your heroes” proved wrong when the man most responsible for my decision to become a writer proved generous with his time and erudition as I wrote Open Secret: Gay Hollywood 1928–2000. I soon learned he was this way with everyone. When the film department of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art kicked off this spring’s retrospective tribute to Lambert with a screening of Another Sky, the only film Lambert both wrote and directed, the gathering drew such equally fabulous British expats as Barbara Steele, Jacqueline Bisset, Michael York and Julian Sands, all of whom, like Lambert, have made L.A. their second home.

As anyone even casually familiar with Los Angeles history knows, the town has long been a haven and inspiration for Englishmen (and women), from the writers Aldous Huxley and Christopher Isherwood to others of lesser fame but no less interest. The singer/songwriter/pop-music historian Ian Whitcomb, who first came here to produce a rock & roll album for the ineffable Mae West, even made a documentary about the U.K./L.A. phenomenon, L.A. My Hometown (1977), dealing “with everyone who wasn’t Christopher Isherwood or David Hockney” (like Playboy photographer Suze Randall) in a brisk and cheeky style.

Isherwood has since passed on, but Hockney is as omnipresent as ever, evidence the recent LACMA retrospective of his portraits — a reminder of how central the city has been to Hockney’s work, and how that work has come to embody the image of L.A. worldwide.

“People in New York said you’re mad for going there if you don’t know anybody and you can’t drive,” Hockney writes in his autobiography My Early Years, recounting how the city lured him away from coldest, wettest England to a world of bright sunshine, blazing color and beautiful naked men.

“They said, ‘At least get to San Francisco if you want to go West,’?” Hockney continues. “And I said, ‘No, no, it’s Los Angeles I want to go to. I had read John Rechy’s City of Night, which I thought was a marvelous picture of a certain kind of life in America. It was one of the first novels to cover that kind of sleazy, sexy hot nightlife in Pershing Square. I looked at the map and saw that Wilshire Boulevard, which begins by the sea in Santa Monica, goes all the way to Pershing Square; all you have to do is stay on that boulevard. But of course, it’s about eighteen miles, which I didn’t realize. I started cycling. I got to Pershing Square and it was deserted; about nine in the evening, just got dark, not a soul there.”

But Hockney returned at a more auspicious hour to visit the studios of Bob Mizer, whose Athletic Model Guild magazines (softcore gay erotica considered daring in the ’60s, but literally on par with today’s Abercrombie & Fitch catalog) had inspired such Hockney works as Domestic Scene, Beverly Hills. However, as art historian Cecile M. Whiting has noted, “It’s Beverly Hills, not downtown L.A. Hockney has the boys move up a class.” In other words, Hockney “rescued” the street hustlers who were Mizer’s principal subjects and turned them into “upright,” upper-middle-class gay citizens. Or at least a better class of hustler. It’s just that promise of class mobility that has always attracted the English to western shores, even as they find traces of home in their new land.

“There was a program I saw recently on Hockney’s newest work,” says Barbara Steele, the raven-haired British beauty who first gained fame in Italy in Mario Bava’s Black Sunday (playing the most imposing vampire since Christopher Lee) and Fellini’s (as a delectable philosophy student) before coming to L.A. under contract to 20th Century Fox. “His latest paintings have the English light. They’re very muted, and don’t have those wild Matisse colors his L.A. paintings had. He’s really gone back now. To look at him, he’s an English country gentleman in tweeds with a waistcoat and an English hat. It’s just fantastic how people go back to their roots. And you know, Wash comes from the same area of England as Hockney.”

 

One of the more recent émigrés, Wash Westmoreland has quite a way to go before turning into a Town & Country squire. Quinceañera, the Sundance-awarded, critically acclaimed cinematic slice of Echo Park Latino life he co-created with his American work-and-life partner, Richard Glatzer, has its roots in the British lower-class “kitchen sink” realism of the 1960s. But that doesn’t mean Westmoreland is pining for home.

“I never thought of myself as staying here,” Westmoreland says. “My report back to my friends in England was that L.A. is a city without a soul. You know the feeling that you get in a great city like London or New York? Do you get that in L.A.? But when Rich and I moved to Echo Park, I finally felt this was a place with a soul where I could live. It’s interesting that so many people think of coming to L.A. as coming to Hollywood, whereas for me the real interest lies everywhere else in the city. I guess I’m an outsider by two degrees — by being white and by being English. So when Latino people say to me that Quinceañera is true, that’s the greatest compliment I could ever have.”

British pop star Morrissey encountered a similar phenomenon during his own nine-year L.A. residency, when “tribute” bands began springing up in the Latino community (as documented by William E. Jones in his 2004 film Is It Really So Strange?), having discovered in the lower-class British dandy a kindred spirit. Morrissey’s ultraemotional singing style, coupled with his look — particularly his pompadour hairdo — is very much in keeping with Mexican pop singing. But Mexican pop stars don’t have the special edge of melancholy regret and worldly-wise ennui that drives his L.A. Latino fan base wild. As Jones’ film notes, tough-as-nails cholos have been known to break down sobbing at “Moz” concerts.

“At first, being here was strange and isolating and completely spacy as far as I was concerned,” recalls actress Jacqueline Bisset of her mid-’60s introduction to L.A., when she was chosen to be part of Fox’s new-talent program. “I was very much on my own. There wasn’t a soul I could call. I was living in the Beverly Hillcrest Hotel on Pico, which is now something else. There was nothing around there. I arrived at midnight. The person who had been warning me about the perils of Los Angeles promptly tried to seduce me.”

A look of dark disgust briefly flashes across Bisset’s comely features. She has no interest in identifying this soi-disant masher, but she has a lot to say about the L.A. she first encountered in that hotel.

“My room was orange. Everything was orange. I’d never seen a king-size bed. The cover on it was orange. The drapes were thick and closed. And I had a little fridge in my bathroom. That was the coolest thing. I couldn’t find a market anywhere. I didn’t know where to go. I was on the moon. When I turned the radio on, I heard people talking about thefts and murder for very small sums of money. So I thought, ‘I think I’d better stay in the room.’?”

Still, there was an upside.

“I thoroughly enjoyed the new-talent program at Fox,” says Bisset. “I would see people like Henry Fonda and Raquel Welch wandering around the dining room. I must say Henry Fonda was a smashing-looking man. He gave it class. It was the end of the studio system. I said ‘no’ to a contract, but I had a 10-picture deal. I didn’t want to be owned by anybody. If anybody tried anything dodgy, I’d just go home to England and be fine. ‘You’re not touching my eyebrows, you’re not touching my hair color,’ etc. It was all very defensive, but people accepted it.”

Of the city’s British expat community, Bisset says she’s not quite connected to it: “I think if I’d had an English boyfriend, I would have been part of a circle here. But for many years, when Michael Sarrazin and I were a couple, I lived a very closed kind of life. I remember articles questioning why I wanted to ‘live in sin’ when there was cash to be had. I remember girls asking me, ‘Why don’t you get married and get something out of it?’ That was a very strong attitude here — getting some money off the marriage contract. It shocked me a lot.”

 

Resembling nothing so much as a French farmhouse (“My cleaning lady said there’s nothing American in here except the light bulbs”), Bisset’s Laurel Canyon residence was previously owned by Vincent Price, an Englishman who made so successful a transition to America that few think of him as being English at all. But the absolute “transatlantic” champion is, of course, Cary Grant, a lower-class Englishman who, thanks to Hollywood, became the embodiment of class and sophistication for the entire world.

“Cary Grant!” Bisset exclaims. “Oh, he was so tanned — he was a knockout. The English look of him was great, but he had very much a royal quality. It was something of an upper-class accent with cockney cadences. He wouldn’t fit easily into England. If you put him into England, where would he fit? But then again, he could go anywhere he wanted.”

And that he did.

The mention of Grant’s name also brings a smile to the lips of actor Michael York, who first caught moviegoers’ eyes as a sprightly Oxford student in Joseph Losey’s Accident, achieved movie immortality as Christopher Isherwood’s quasi surrogate in Cabaret and more recently has popped up as Basil Exposition in the Austin Powers series.

“Cary was a friend of mine,” says York. “I forget when I met him. He used to love going to the races. I loved going with him. Not so much for ‘the sport of kings,’ but to be with Cary Grant. The week he died, we were at the track, and David Hockney was there, and he [Grant] was picking our brains for jokes.

“For a time, before I settled here, I was a resident of Monaco, and I got to know Princess Grace. At one of the first lunches I went to at the palace, there was Cary Grant. He came in, and as he went to say hello to my wife, Pat, he tripped and fell into her arms. Without missing a beat, he looked up and said, ‘There’s nowhere else I’d rather be.’?”

For her part, Pat York recalls a meeting with another Anglo-American, whose status as such is rarely acknowledged: Bob Hope. “I was seated next to him at dinner one night, and he told me this incredible story. He had gone back to visit his hometown, Elton. He saw a man walking down the road, and he said, ‘I’m Bob Hope, and I was born here and lived here, you know,’ and the man said, ‘I know,’ and walked on. So he went to the house and knocked on the door, and a woman answered. He said, ‘I’m Bob Hope, and I was born in this house,’ and she said, ‘Yes, I know,’ and slammed the door in his face.”

Michael York has felt that same chill. “After a time, your accent inevitably picks up overtones,” he says. “I remember being accosted by a London cabdriver and asked, ‘Why are you speaking American?’?”

Now 95 years young, director Ronald Neame got into the business by a circuitous route. “I came over in 1944,” he recalls. “I was sent over here by [British movie mogul] J. Arthur Rank — the man with the gong — who was a very important gentleman, because he owned somewhere around 880 theaters. He asked me to visit all the studios and assess what we need in England to bring us up to date with Hollywood when the war was over, which we knew was going to happen.

“There was no question of flying over back then,” Neame continues. “I came on the Queen Elizabeth. It had half ordinary passengers, 800 wounded American soldiers on their way home and 800 German POWs who were on their way to prison camps in America. The reason we had the 800 POWs was, the feeling was Hitler wouldn’t sink us if we had German prisoners onboard. We zigzagged across the Atlantic. Then I arrived in New York, this magical city. I cannot tell you how extraordinary it was to come out of war-torn Britain, with blackouts and shortages of everything. It was pure magic.”

But Neame was on his way to L.A., where he found any number of fellow countrymen (“We had a cricket team. There were a lot of people who played croquet. Ronald Coleman, I remember”), along with American equipment, much needed after the war. “We were a great little group of filmmakers, and we had a wonderful eight or 10 years,” he says of the postwar period, during which (with the help of that U.S. equipment) he produced such David Lean classics as Great Expectations and Brief Encounter and photographed Lean’s film of Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit as well as Powell and Pressburger’s One of Our Aircraft Is Missing. “We thought it would go on forever. But then [the industry] collapsed. So then United Artists adopted me. The Horse’s Mouth, Scrooge, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie — they were all British pictures, but the finance came from America.”

 

And so Neame found himself, purely out of professional necessity at first, buying a home in L.A., which he still lives in today.

“[Producer] Harry Saltzman came up to see me here about making a film, which was never made, and he said, ‘What a lovely little place you’ve got here. Exactly the kind of place I would like,’?” Neame says. “I told him I wanted to sell it. He said, ‘Well, look, I want to give you some advice: A few weeks ago, I went home and my wife was writing a letter. She has cancer. I said, “Who are you writing to?” And she said, “I’m writing to you.” “Why?” “Well, when I die, I want you to promise me that you won’t sell this house for one year, because after that year, you may find that you want to keep it.” That’s my advice to you. And I thought about it and realized, ‘Yes — why do I do everything in a rush?’ And after the year, I didn’t want to sell it. And eventually, I became an American citizen. I really fell for this place.’?”

“It was another world and a very awkward beginning for me,” says Barbara Steele, recalling her own early years as an Anglo-Angeleno. “Who was I? I was basically a student from London. I was hired to do a photo shoot with this dejected-looking black panther, in the blazing sun, with this hideous long stick with electrodes in case it went berserk. And I had to say, ‘The black panther has arrived!’ Here I was, arriving right after what was a 200-year flight in those days. On the planes, they even had beds with little curtains on the place. Then, after the shoot, they took me to some pub where there was Yorkshire pudding and roast beef. So I was suicidal right off the bat. And you want to know something truly amazing? I too stayed at the Beverly Crest in the years of orange shag!”

Steele was soon cast as Elvis Presley’s love interest in the Western Flaming Star. But after a fight with director Don Siegel, Steele walked off the production, and out of L.A. Hollywood’s loss was Europe’s gain, thanks to Fellini and a memorable side trip to Germany for Volker Schlöndorff’s film of Robert Musil’s Young Toerless. But then Steele met and married American screenwriter James Poe (They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?). So it was back to L.A., this time for good, where Steele went on to achieve cult fame in Roger Corman–produced quickies like Caged Heat and Piranha.

Steele is quick to note that the Anglophile dream of L.A. is not without its dark side. In particular, she’s thinking of Donald Cammell, the brilliant but doomed Brit director whose masterpiece, Performance, was followed by years of sporadic cinematic activity before his suicide in 1996. He was one of the very first men in Steele’s life (“I remember him picking me up at a bus stop when I was an art student”), with a bohemian spirit and intellectual intensity comparable to her own. But while Steele was able to fashion a life for herself here, Cammell found it impossible.

These days, Steele’s name can be found everywhere from the “thank you” list at the end of the indie film The Fluffer to the executive-producer credits of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. It’s no surprise, as Steele embodies what drives so many British souls to live here: an instinctive antipathy to the social status quo, a restless intellectual energy, and a desire to explore new things, new ways and new people. And for Steele, nobody embodied that ideal better than?.?.?.

“Cary Grant. He was the best-pressed suit you ever saw. I have several letters from him, and the signature is divine because it’s one of those iconic signatures like Picasso had or the Coca-Cola logo: ‘Cary!’ I met him a thousand years ago in London. There was an article about me in Life magazine because of a movie I was in for about 30 seconds. He wanted to put me in a film with him. He put a bid in on my contract. It was really strange because at the time, I had never seen a Cary Grant movie. My mother was thrilled. He was fabulous. He sent his car around — this cream-and-brown Rolls from the Savoy came to my parents’ house in London, with this ravishing-looking chauffeur. I’d get in and spend the day with Cary. He took me everywhere. I met everyone with him. Playing charades with Tennessee Williams. We just had this fantastic time.

 

“No, I didn’t have an affair with Cary Grant,” Steele says, answering a question I would never have dared to ask. “But he was the movie star. I remember having dinner with him at the Savoy and somebody trotting over to him and saying, ‘So sorry, Mr. Grant,’ and having an autograph book all ready, and he said, ‘I’m sorry too.’?”

Despite her fond memories of London, Steele says she’d never move back. “Europe gets further away every year,” she muses. “We [Brits] have this rapturous life here, which is like an insane drug, an incredible mistress. But it’s so much better here now than when I first came. It’s much more global. And it’s timeless. There’s not a deep sense of time. It just sort of glides along and you don’t have a sense of urgency. Maybe that’s why the most difficult journey you can make is from here to the airport.

“I don’t know what it is about this town,” she says, with a deep, rich chuckle. “We’re all trapped in its golden arms!”


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