At Hollywood's Musso & Frank Grill, legend has it, giants of
American literature — Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, William
Saroyan, Dorothy Parker, Nathanael West, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond
Chandler, James M. Cain, Charles Bukowski — used to drown their sorrows,
alongside the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Humphrey Bogart, Tom Mix, Sean
Penn and Al Pacino.
Did that really happen?
Richard Schave plans to find out.
challenge is that there's a lot of misinformation, because no one's
ever sat down and done the homework, and gotten the dates right, and
really looked at who was there and who wasn't there,” he says. “And so
this is really what we do. We endeavor to create canonical time lines,
canonical narratives, of what really happened.”
Together with wife
Kim Cooper, Schave, 43, is founder of tour company Esotouric (“Bus
adventures into the secret heart of Los Angeles”), as well as the Los
Angeles Visionaries Association, or LAVA, an organization that aims to
create cultural programming. Cooper takes the lead on events focused on
true crime or music history, but anything with an architectural or
literary focus, she says, becomes “very much Richard's baby.”
Musso & Frank had long been a stop on Esotouric tours, the
restaurant is such a historically rich location that it became clear it
needed more than a drive-by in a tour bus to have its story properly
told. Schave and Cooper settled on a series of literary salons at the
long-loved location: part immersive history lesson, part dinner party.
The inaugural salon, scheduled for Jan. 23, will feature a discussion of
John Fante, author of what's come to be considered the great overlooked
novel about Los Angeles, Ask the Dust.
Like many aspects of L.A.'s history, Ask the Dust
is not as well known as it should be, yet when unearthed it feels like a
startling gem. As the book gradually begins to appear on more college
reading lists, Schave does his part to dispel the myth that L.A. is a
city without history — a notion largely perpetuated by sneering New
Yorkers, he says, who view the city through an East Coast lens rather
than accepting Los Angeles on its own unique terms.
interest in — or rather, obsession with — L.A.'s backstory began in his
early teens. At 14, growing up in Rancho Park, he says, “I immediately
became interested in old Los Angeles, the lost downtown. I memorized the
Thomas Brothers map page 364, and I just became obsessed with asking
older friends to drive me downtown all the time. Everyone thought I was
crazy. I used to try to get into the burlesque houses on Main Street,
but they never let me because I was too young. I used to go to the
grindhouses on Broadway, back when there were grindhouses still on
Broadway, in the mid-'80s. I was just captivated by it. I remember
vividly when I was 16, as soon as I could drive, standing in front of
Torchy's bar, which is now a leather shop on Fifth Street in the
Alexandria Hotel, and being so captivated by this world.”
knowledge of Musso & Frank is encyclopedic. In his soft-spoken,
slightly nasal tone, Schave can hold forth at length about the action
Musso's has seen since its opening in 1919 — which walls were knocked
out, who ordered the flannel cakes, what happened to the wallpaper in
the old backroom and which literary legends had their first date there
(that would be Dashiell Hammett and Lillian Hellman).
its location near the Stanley Rose Bookshop and the Writers Guild, the
cocktail lounge at Musso & Frank became a West Coast version of the
Algonquin Round Table, where some of the most important people in
American letters spent their spare time and spare income on alcohol,
commiserating with each other about how much they hated working for the
motion picture studios. Writers would gather at Stanley Rose's bookshop
in the early part of the evening, but when 11 o'clock came around and
Rose kicked them all out, they'd head across the street to Musso's.
Rose himself, Schave says, was “a great guy, but he was not a great book dealer.”
Prohibition, Rose padded his fortunes as a bootlegger, selling whiskey
to studio development execs in false-bottom book crates, under the
pretense that they'd optioned a book, so they needed 300 copies of it.
Rose's partner, Larry Edmunds, Schave explains, used to sleep with the
secretaries in the studio's development departments — when a book was
optioned, he'd get wind of it and be well placed to fill the order.
this salon is just another milestone in Schave's quest to bring others
up to his level of awareness — that L.A. is awash in living history that
we can see, touch and taste. Schave also expresses a burning desire to
re-experience his own past: specifically, the moment when his passion
was first ignited. “Every morning I wake up and pray that I'll have this
pristine moment, that I'll remember exactly what Main Street and
Broadway were like in 1984, because I was touching it right there and
didn't even know what to do with it because I was so young.”
life today, it seems, is just a continuation of the quest he began at
age 14: “As soon as I could be, I was downtown, trying to process that
world that's now lost, that we're forever looking for on our tours.”
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