SUSAN BERNARD, THE DAUGHTER OF BRUNO (BERNIE) BERNARD — THE late Hollywood photographer who popularized Marilyn, blondes and the “elongated leg shot” — is well over 5 feet 3 inches in certain shoes. She has a heap of tendrilous red hair, blood-red nails and toes, an enormous ruby on her left hand (a gift to her mother from a count), a carved red Bakelite bracelet, a snug red sweater with deep white-starched false French cuffs, and two red swaths of lipstick draped across her lips. Her nose is an acute triangle. When she says okay, it is usually followed by okay, okay, okay, oh-kay. When she says hello, it is as he-loow, and is followed by an unselfconscious, high-register laugh. She is the president of what she calls a “multimedia miniempire,” a business that licenses and publishes her father's work. This company is housed in a 5,000-square-foot, 1920s Mediterranean-style Hancock Park mansion that smells faintly of orange peels. She lives there, too, among hundreds of her father's prints, including pictures of herself as a little girl with Ginger Rogers, and framed awards given to her late ex-husband, the playwright and actor Jason Miller. She rather hopes her neighbors don't know what's going on inside the house. “I will always be the girl next door,” she says, smiling demurely and then going suddenly still, “. . . even if I am Bernard of Hollywood.”
The original Bernard of Hollywood had a signature signature — “he was a brand before there were brands,” his daughter says — a neat aerodynamic script that belongs on the grill of a 1956 Ford Crown Victoria. Susan Bernard has been practicing this signature in the garden (on stationery engraved with a cameo of her father holding a camera and staring intently at a subject, who is out of view) so that she can sign “Love, Susan Bernard of Hollywood” in copies of Bernard of Hollywood: The Ultimate Pin-up Book, a collection of her father's photographs that the publisher Taschen is just bringing out. The Ultimate Pin-up contains more than 500 pictures — Janet Leigh in gold lamé, Ann Melton as the “Coca-Coquette,” Maila Nurmi (a.k.a. Vampira) with a black parasol at the beach — most of them previously unpublished, from the 20,000 to 30,000 negatives in Bernie Bernard's precious “gold file.” There is even one of a teenage Susan emerging ingenuously from a swimming pool; the back side is inscribed by her father to “the most capricious and dearest — in terms of sentiment and money — model I have ever worked with . . . for her 18th birthday . . . your harassed Dad.”
When she was 17, Susan Bernard was photographed in the Playboy Mansion and became the magazine's first Jewish centerfold — Miss December 1966 — an experience she describes as “Hell on wheels. God, it was like, wow. Wow.” The shoot took place when she was on a break in the filming of her first feature film, Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, a Russ Meyer film in the high-camp dominatrix tradition. Years later, she encountered teenagers with the image of Linda, her innocent bikinied character, tattooed on their arms. Recently, when she was in New York and Faster Pussycat was playing at the Anjelica, she walked into a restaurant in the Village and someone put the theme song on. No longer 17 — though spiritually, she says, she is in her early 20s — Bernard will be back at the Mansion this October, for a book party that she is sure will be rather tame: “An after-noon re-cep-tion in the grot-to, all clothèd and serene.”
Susan B. of H. has made a myth of her father, much the way he made a myth of, say, Jayne Mansfield in a leopard two-piece, or Marilyn on the subway grate. (He always shot with a Hässelblat, from below.) “My father wasn't the only photographer in Hollywood,” she says. “But I made everyone believe he was.” She has turned his photographs into calendars, refrigerator magnets — blonde! brunette! redhead! — and Avirex bomber jackets airbrushed with a naked-except-for-Indian-headdress Lili St. Cyr. She is designing a line of “intimate apparel” — lingerie, negligee, fishnets — also called “Bernard of Hollywood.”
“I don't leave that name out of anything!” she says. “I sleep with it! I have it tattooed on my breast! It's in my cavity! I don't know!” Bernard of Hollywood will never be confused with Frederick, because, well, “We have taste. We're going to be a sophisticated pinup line.”
In the end, Susan of Hollywood thinks she had a typical 1960s Southern California childhood — bathing-suit shopping excursions with her father, bags and bags of colored bikinis, stacks of seminudie pictures around the house. “It wasn't till I was older that I realized that it was art. Like all little girls, I thought, There's a naked lady!” Her mother, an actress and model who met her husband in the studio, was a glamourpuss, yes, but not a blonde. This deficiency may have caused her to cultivate other parts of her personality. “Wives in the Hamptons get jealous,” Susan says. “Women in Hollywood . . .,” she pauses, “intellectualize it all.”
Spirits in the Material World: Hungry Hearts
THE NONPROFIT, 27-ACRE WRIGHT Way Organic Resource Center in Malibu is located so high above the coast that all sound is sucked into a hypnotic vortex of wind and dust storms. The ranch is accessible only through Los Flores Canyon, one of the most dangerous roads in Southern California. You climb the mountains past 200-foot drops until your ears pop and your cell phone dies. You reach a little dirt road with a single wooden sign saying “Wright” that leads to a culvertlike mountain pass of wrinkled rock faces perfect for an ambush. A lily-padded koi pond feeds into a man-made waterfall that empties into a natural amphitheater. What better place to celebrate the autumnal equinox?
Eric Lloyd Wright, who runs the ranch, is the spitting image of his tempestuous architect grandfather (who would have been 135 this year), his face a sagelike puzzle of ovals that could signal either peace or slight discomfort at so many invading strangers — at least 150 — who gathered here last month for what is becoming a fall tradition. As he has done at every equinox and solstice ceremony for the past four years, Wright made an opening speech: “I am proud to share all of this with you: this lovely day, this beautiful land . . . We come here to pay homage to nature and its spirits. I notice that every time so many people come up here we are preserving this place, making it even more sacred.”
A procession then began up the hill toward the Medicine Wheel, a meditation circle located on a parcel of naked terrain from which the sea and sky seem to switch places. The sun dropped below the rocks and the Pacific resembled a meadow of cotton slowly starting to smolder and burn, its dying light splashing radioactive pinks, blues and violets over the mountain peaks. “These are extreme times we live in, times of war,” the shaman, a tiny brown-haired woman with just a touch of lipstick, announced. “This is also a time of re-balance with the elements. A time to re-synchronize, realign, renew, re-connect.” Someone played saxophone runs while people knelt in the dirt.
“Touch the Earth, touch her, run your hands over her body . . .” (I couldn't help gazing down the backsides of hippie ladies and counting their thong straps.) Against the blood-orange air, silhouettes crouched on the rock formations above Medicine Hill, lifting their arms like weathervanes. In response, we raised our arms to the sky, looking like people unable to get off the ground. “Thank the Creator!” (But I don't believe in a Creator . . .) “Eat the crackers we're passing out and give a piece to one of your friends.” (Jonestown? Heaven's Gate?) “Spirits of our ancestors have things to say to us.” (Someone farts.) “Well, sometimes the spirits have a sense of humor, too.”
The ceremonial vibe came apart a bit once the potluck meal was unwrapped on long wooden tables. People stole away from the ceremony, toward the rice dishes, salads, and bowls of hummus and tabbouleh. A sign read, “No eating till the ceremony ends!” But the children were getting irritated (“I don't wanna wait 20 more hours!”). People started oozing their way into line (“I was here before; I just went to turn off my dome light”). A soccer mom picked a little bit of food from each bowl, tasted it, than took more. A landmass in a cowboy hat piled his plate high and then went back for seconds. And thirds.
The shrill, Woodstock-style stage announcements started: “We have many more people in line — some who actually brought food — so let's spread it out and save a little for everyone.” No one listened. In more desperate frontier circumstances, I could imagine a massacre with meat cleavers — a mutiny over the bounty.
In the Midwest, the tables would be pregnant with sustenance — whole roast pigs, mounds of potato salad and beans, a used-car lot's worth of pies — each person bringing three times their weight in food, as if there were a contest to see who could build the best back fat. Here, there was slight anxiety in the small portions: Angelenos are so particular about what they eat that they feel people either won't understand or won't appreciate their tastes. If they do make something, it will not be in abundance, nor will it be something they necessarily specialize in. Maybe this is why, as I headed back in the dark, the Wright driveway began to resemble a long alimentary canal. I passed back from a world of peaceful spirits to one of nervous, selfish ghosts. I know this because, once off the mountain, my cell phone popped back on and I was inclined to hit a Quizno's.
A Kind Shtick: The Business of Dealing Pot
DUDE, IT'S 4:20. AND JOEY THE PUFF'S two couriers are rallied and armed, each with a misdemeanor's worth of marijuana. Meanwhile, the Puff — obviously, the ä name has been changed to protect the man who risks freedom to get you stoned — is fielding one of the approximately 35 calls he receives from the jonesing set, every Monday through Saturday. Typically, 15 of these referred clients are walk-in customers; the rest are deliveries, a value-added service that commands an additional $5 over the base price of $60 for an eighth of stinky buds. Like any savvy businessperson, the Puff excels at multitasking; his shoulder cradles a cordless phone while his hands move deftly from pager to paper. No time for gesticulating. According to a mathematical equation that somehow configures the city's population with the number of Six Degrees of Separation encounters I share with those who use the Puff's service, he is no doubt one of the more popular persons in Los Angeles, if not, dare I say it, this fine country.
“The reality is that dealers are you,” says the Puff. “Your next-door neighbor.”
A business plan: Twenty years ago, at a local high school, a huge circle of students was taking pot. In one of their heads, a light bulb illuminated. Shouldn't one of us at least try to make money? Eureka! Turns out that very light bulb belongs to the Puff's (at the time) 15-year-old entrepreneurial classmate.
“I saw him, within a period of six months, make enough money to buy himself a brand-new motorcycle,” the Puff says. “That was all the motivation I needed, right there.” Call it greed, call it identifying a business opportunity with few, albeit critical, barriers to entry, or even a way of seeking silent revenge against the corrupt dealer they were using at the time. But know that the decision to deal pot was, first and foremost, a “capitalistic idea that seemed to make sense.” Thus, a competitor was born.
(Somewhere along the way, the Puff grows noticeably agitated by my questions regarding his financial status, in particular his tax situation, so he asks me, politely, to turn off my recorder. He wants to know if I'm a cop. Nervous? Kinda, sorta.)
Professionals constitute a substantial portion of the Puff's clientele. In fact, he caters to a “shitload of attorneys.” Surprised? Check this — the aforementioned attorneys include a handful currently working in the D.A.'s Office, the legal outfit that decides whether or not to prosecute cases of the variety in which the Puff might find himself if he is not careful. Remember, even though this is Los Angeles, pot is still illegal. Widespread, yet illegal. Consider the esteemed Beverly Hills ophthalmologist who recently hinted at the storage possibilities of my empty prescription container. In any case, the Puff's camaraderie with influential friends raises an interesting question: Has Joey the Puff benefited, in the sense of evading the long arm of the law, from what are likely parking-lot chums who have matured into authoritative careers?
“These are clients . . . I don't want to compromise them . . . And they wouldn't compromise me . . . I don't ask for favors.” Besides, the Puff says, “The policemen that I know say that the last thing they actually want to do is arrest anyone for fucking weed.”
The Law of the Forbidden, a Puffian dogma, states, “When you forbid somebody something, their normal inclination is to go: I can't do what? What do you mean I can't do this?” Questioning is healthy; it's natural. The Puff will tell you to question your every motive, your every thought, each cause and effect. He is unlike any drug dealer I have met. He is gregarious, honest, clean, and automatic when it comes to delivering the goods. If he notices that a client is smoking more than usual, he will assuredly confront the person, aiming, through articulate discourse, to unravel the layers of human consciousness that are riddling the person with erratic behavior.
“It's more important to me, especially if I feel someone is smoking too much, that they at least look at the fact that they are smoking too much.” This may sound like a Ben & Jerry'stype approach to business: sacrificing the short-term hits for long-term customer satisfaction, brand awareness and overall integrity, primarily through social-betterment initiatives, but the essence of supply and demand is not lost.
Apt not to indulge in his company's products — contrary to, say, Ben and Jerry — except during the occasional movie, the Puff summarizes our conversation by saying, “Smoking weed is not right or wrong. It just is smoking weed. Only we as human beings give moral meaning.” I encourage you to put that in your pipe and smoke it!
–Michael Andreas Hoinski