- - Sunday, May 22, 2016


By Jean Stein

Random House, $30, 352 pages, illustrated

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The publishers of this perplexing study of that ever-fascinating protean American city inform us that it is “told through the stories of five larger-than-life families who represent different aspects of Los Angeles and the American dream.” American nightmare is more like it, as put together by author Jean Stein in her characteristic form of oral history told in many voices. You could probably pick five families at random in this or many another large city from coast to coast and find surprisingly similar levels of dysfunction as those exhaustively illuminated here. But then, their stories might not resonate quite so spectacularly as those of these rich and famous folk, especially when what used to be known as Hollywood figures prominently. Herein lies much of the fascination which seems to feed an endless appetite for such stuff.

What is most interesting about “West of Eden” is not its substance, if such a word can even be used about its repeated dive bombings into the awfulness of these people and the disastrous lives they led and caused others to endure. It’s not as if there’s much new here. These stories are not only scattered through myriad diary and letter collections and memoirs, but in the case of the Doheny family, have been immortalized on screen. Rather it is the methodology, which involves sundry folk, many with recognizable names, dropping stink bombs about people long dead and gone and thus unable to defend themselves. You could write a study incorporating this chorus, putting it into some sort of context as Brooke Hayward did so memorably in her distinguished memoir of familial dysfunction “Haywire,” but then you’d have to take ownership of it.

Even when Ms. Stein is discussing her own family, she sticks to her method, although she does get in some good shots in her own voice. Even when these are distasteful, one has to respect her right to tell her own story — and even her family’s — in all their gory details. She owns them and her unique perspective is of some value. So why hide behind others and let, say, Gore Vidal eviscerate her mother and his, who were apparently best pals? His main maternal regret seems to have been failed matricide: “She was one of the most horrible people that ever lived. All I wanted to do was murder her and I never got around to it.” As so often in this book, guilt by association is a given here. Orson Welles is quoted as saying about the Stein house: “This place reminds me of Berchtesgaden,” another place of great beauty where, in the words of an otherwise forgotten poet, “every prospect pleases and only man is vile.” Sharon Tate was murdered nearby. Rattlesnakes creep into gardens and mansions, which is supposed to have deep symbolic meaning, as if they don’t go into the yards and houses of the poor in Los Angeles as well.

It will come as no news to anyone that money and fame and success do not necessarily bring happiness; indeed that they often engender the reverse. But the way the people in this book lick their chops gleefully over the horrible and truly pathetic fates that befall so many here is sickening. Guilt is eagerly apportioned, often justifiably, but the reader longs for at least an equal measure of compassion, if not more. Having money, apart from the uses it is put to and its effect on those who possess it in abundance, seems to be in itself a moral failing in this book’s universe. All of which is key as to why I found this book one of the most disturbing and depressing I have ever encountered.

People have always loved gossip and I am no exception, but the relentless dishing of dirt here is no fun at all, devoid even of the debased pleasure of Schadenfreude. Some lives are too awful to contemplate, let alone live, just as some people are too ghastly to read about let alone actually experience first-hand. These stories leave an even more bitter taste in the mouth for being refracted through a tedious, predictable left-wing prism, most crudely in the case of the Warner brothers of movie studio fame. If even someone like Lillian Hellmann could produce a nuanced portrait of someone like Samuel Goldwyn, a leftist bias is surely no bar to perceptive insight.

When novelist Joyce Carol Oates popularized the term pathography for the kind of biography that focuses on the pathology or pathologies of its subject, she did not mean it entirely flatteringly. There is, however, something to be said for a work that delves deep in order to explain the reasons behind a person’s character and actions, to look beneath the surface ravages and ravaging. But this is not what we have in this repetitive vitriolic exercise. Instead of a pointillist canvas adding up to more than the sum of its many parts, what we have here is simply painting by numbers with many brushes dipped in venom.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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