When I was 15 Nathaniel West’s The Day of the Locust had such an impact on me I imagined that were I to venture a trip to Los Angeles, Tod Hackett, Faye Greener and their entire entourage of misfit friends would greet me at the train station. My childhood in Northern New Mexico was one from which I was desperate to escape, where Cowboys and Indians were real, not the stuff of Hollywood movies we would watch at a drive-in theatre with the help of a speaker attached to a rolled down car window. While I knew that the American Southwest fostered a kind of mythic appeal for the endless stream of Easterners arriving to set down roots under its majestic skies, I had grown up under that star-strewn ether and longed for something else, something far less real than the rodeos I attended on weekends, and West’s words had convinced me I would find that reality in the City of Angels.
I would not actually see Los Angeles until several years later during college when, craving adventure one night, I drove non stop from Santa Fe with a friend to hunt down a famous hamburger joint and decide for myself whether its reputation was warranted. It was, or so it seemed to me at a time in my life when driving nearly 900 miles in a rickety car to savor a burger could lead to only one possible conclusion – that it was without question the best hamburger I had ever had. True to West’s promise, the panorama of Southern California opposed my familiar New Mexico landscape in every respect. Emerging from the Yucca Valley at sunrise to a vast entanglement of freeways and subdivisions of lazy bungalows punctuated with exotic palm trees was like a shot of tequila on an empty stomach, diminishing my affection for the piñon trees and feed store signs of my youth and giving rise to an immediate hunger to live in a place so supremely self-assured that it need only announce its presence with a hideous sign composed of white letters that spelled out HOLLYWOOD, in case one was lost.
We barely had time to wolf down our burgers and order a few more for the road when 900 miles in the opposite direction beckoned and I was forced to indefinitely delay the possibility of another, hopefully more intimate, experience of Los Angeles. Despite temporarily opting for San Francisco after graduating, my obsession with LA contained such significant energy that my professional move to New York two years later only increased my giddy desire to fly West whenever I could find an excuse to go, all for the purpose of testing the possibility of living there one day. During the early days of my New York life I visited LA fairly regularly, always with a combination of fascination and dread, because I couldn’t reconcile my curiosity with the attraction I felt toward New York. Whether it was my destiny or fate it mattered not, I always knew I was meant to become a New Yorker. So I was more than a little bit afraid that if I spent too much time in LA I would get pulled away from the East Coast by forces I didn’t understand, the same forces that had drawn Tod Hackett and Faye Greener to West’s Los Angeles of the Great Depression.
I loved everything about the island of Manhattan, a mostly colorless extroverted Grand Canyon, save for an occasional park brush-stroked with green, rising up into the atmosphere instead of carving its way down into the Earth. I loved walking among people from every corner of the world who worked in every conceivable profession. They pushed, shuffled, ran and slid through traffic. They piled into cabs and buses, gathered up skirts and overcoats, donned sunglasses, hats and gloves, unfurled umbrellas and pulled on galoshes against the rain and sleet and snow.
I was loosely aware of what a New Yorker looked like – my father had been one – which had far less to do with physical attributes than with psychological attitude. I rarely noticed whether the person sitting across from me on the 6 line was more or less attractive than the person sitting next to them. It hardly mattered – everyone was going somewhere to do something interesting, or so it seemed to me, and it was this purpose-driven city, with its dancers and lawyers and doctors and musicians and professors and students and chefs that made it possible for me to begin to forget the loneliness of my childhood in the desert. Whether female or male, young or old, beautiful or ugly, one could be viable and alive and an integral part of the life force of New York City.
None of which, during my innumerable visits, seemed to be true about The City of Angels, so I had no explanation for my intrigue with it except, perhaps, that I was an actor and had been told that all acting roads automatically led to Los Angeles. For a serious actor did not hesitate, did not wait, did not question the clarion call to move to the West Coast to join the sea of anonymous millions of aspirants hoping to become someone other than who they were when they got up in the morning and went to bed at night. I couldn’t imagine myself living within the endless horizontal expanse of bungalows and palm trees, absent any notable architecture punctuating the sky with any singularity, its inhabitants hidden away behind thousands of neatly trimmed hedges, going to and fro in millions of cars. In the city no one walked, no one ran, no one bumped into you. I was inexplicably at sea there, desperate to know how one survived within its relentless and seasonless sameness.
But “There is no there there,” declared Gertrude Stein’s blase description of her birthplace, Oakland, California, which seemed to apply every bit as much to Southern California, and I would turn her words over and over in my head whenever I considered the possibility of moving.
Of course those besotted with the land of endless sunshine and balmy Christmases felt the same way about New York. My Los Angeles friends and I would measure the perils of Earthquakes and Nor’easters, weigh the savagery of Watts against the dangers of the South Bronx, discuss the convenience of driving versus the ease of the subway, and ramble on about the blisses of the beach and the broads of Broadway, none of us ceding a single point to the other, each of us refusing to entertain the notion that there might be an appealing way to live 3,000 miles across the country on the opposite coast.
I had the uncomfortable feeling that there was something wrong with me for not wanting to pack up and move to such a mysterious place – Malibu! The Boardwalk!, Surfers! Movie Stars! Sunset Boulevard! – and I resolved to confront the issue head on by accepting an invitation to attend an After Oscar party, not the A or B list, mind you, but on the Strip nonetheless. Wearing my black jersey off the shoulder Norma Kamali dress, my Joan & David black suede platform heals with colored silk cutouts, and carrying my mother’s vintage black crocheted bag I would hobnob with the locals as though I belonged there, and figure out, well, if I really belonged there.
The night before I was to fly to LA I dreamed that when we landed at LAX I stepped out of the plane and was greeted by a row of white jacket-clad doctors with magnifying glasses on the right, and a row of nurses with clipboards and note pens on the left. They bantered back and forth about the extensive cosmetic work I would need – teeth whitening, liposuction, body sculpting and plastic surgery, laser hair removal, facial contouring – before I would be allowed to enter Los Angeles.
“But I have a party tomorrow night,” I protested.
“I’m sorry, but you should have known that we cannot allow a newcomer to be seen in such a disheveled state. It’s bad for our image, you know.”
“But I’m a New Yorker. I don’t live here, I’m just visiting…,” I sputtered.
“Visiting or not, when in Los Angeles, you represent Los Angeles and we have a code of physical glamour to which every woman must correspond.”
“But I can’t afford it…the clothes, the shoes, the make-up, the hair.”
“If you can’t afford Los Angeles, you shouldn’t come to Los Angeles. You could get a Sugar Daddy, you know. All the girls have them. It’s perfectly acceptable. Encouraged even.”
“But I could never sleep with a man for money.”
“Oh, don’t be so conventional.”
“But it’s disgusting.”
“Suit yourself, then. You can stay on the plane and it will take you back to….where did you say you were from? New York? Why would anyone want to live there? It’s so dirty and noisy and crowded. And everyone has yellow teeth and flat chests and big noses, and people get old and have wrinkles. This is Los Angeles, where the sun always shines and people are eternally young. It’s Hollywood! Didn’t you see the sign?”
“No. What sign? Where?”
Suddenly all the doctors and nurses broke into a song and dance routine, kicking it up to the tune of Johnny Mercer’s Hooray for Hollywood…
“Hooray for Hollywood, when asked Que parlez-vous, say H O L L Y W O O D… la la la la la..dum dum dee dah Hollywood….”
…then formed a single line and disappeared back into the jetway doing the Can Can. And I woke up.
It was a vivid dream, but nothing compared to the surreal scene at the After Oscar party a couple of nights later at a hotel towering high above Los Angeles on Sunset Boulevard. People ebbed and flowed in and out of the open front door, dresses swirling and lifting in the Southern California breeze, the men in black tie, the women holding little gold lame clutch purses and smiling big red and pink and beige smiles over perfect white teeth, their hair coiffed and spilling down across bony shoulders and clavicles rubbed with golden glitter cream. The Euro women wore short dresses and the men were gruff. The music in the distance pounded and throbbed, the elevator doors eased open to swells of luxurious creatures tumbling down, down, down, from the top, top, top floors of the hotel, the balconies blaring songs and laughter and excitement across the pool flickering in the night lights below.
The pool, floated with lit candles and lily pads and flower blossoms, beckoned and I slipped out onto the terrace, invisible and light and golden as champagne, rattan chaises cushioning the slinky bodies of silken people, potted palms greening upward, a black DJ in a white tux spinning tunes on a riser in front of something…what was it?…moving back and forth, back and forth between the huge speakers on the other side of the pool. I walked around the palms to find the source of the movement and stopped, face-to-face with a tiger in a gleaming golden cage pacing pacing pacing to the beat of the music. I couldn’t imagine how loud the sound must have been for that stunning creature, more beautiful than any of the slinky men and women having cocktails on the terrace. It paused to looked at me, then turned and began pacing once again within its prison.
I drained my champagne and walked back into the cocktail lounge, half expecting a smoky apparition of Nathaniel West to be standing at the bar chatting with Tod Hackett and Faye Greener. In The Day of the Locust Yale-educated Hackett had gone to Hollywood to work as a set and costume designer, but his serious aspiration was to be a painter, and Greener, the object of his sexual desire, was a no-talent extra who had fantasies of becoming a star. At the end of the book, Hackett gets caught up in a frenzied mob waiting outside a movie theatre for the stars to show up for the premiere. When the frenzy escalates into a full blown riot, Hackett is pulled away from the crowd and saved by a policeman. Hackett sits in the police car, the wail of the siren West’s last metaphor for depression-era Los Angeles. I glanced back toward the Tiger in its cage, set down my glass, walked out of the lobby and down the street to my rented car and drove back to my hotel. I knew I would never move to The City of the Angels.
A few days after I returned to New York I got on the 6 line and sat down opposite a young couple wearing jeans and parkas, and I was so taken with how tightly they were holding hands that it took me a while to look up to their faces. He was Asian and slim and somewhere in his mid 20s I imagined. I couldn’t tell her ethnicity or age because the left side of her face was disfigured by a growth of some kind. Her brow was bony, her jaw enormous, her lips and teeth distorted and her eye lid heavy and drooping. I wanted to continue to look at her, to take her in, to take them both in, but when she looked up and her eyes met mine I quickly turned away. I was embarrassed and ashamed of my voyeurism, but what I most felt was a kind of wonder and envy. They were married, he with his perfect face, she with her distorted one, and it mattered not to either of them. I wondered whether they had ever considered moving to Hollywood.
I remembered this couple, and the Tiger in the Gilded Cage and how I felt that night in Los Angeles long ago when I went by myself recently to see the movie Amour, about an elderly French couple who have been married for decades, their days of quick stepping down the boulevard long behind them. At breakfast one morning, Anne (played by Emmanuella Riva) goes into a stupor, unable to move, or to see, hear, or respond to her husband’s demands to know what is suddenly wrong with her. As George (played by Jean-Louis Trintignant) took her lined and crinkled face gently in his hands and tried to figure out what to do, I wondered if perhaps we can only know if we are truly loved under such sad circumstances, or when we have had the good fortune to find someone who, in old age, notices not our imperfect skin and teeth and bodies. During my walk home through the streets of New York City, I imagined a dinner between George and Anne and the young couple on the subway and imagined them becoming fast friends.
I write this, in honor of Emmanuella Riva, three days before the Oscars are to be awarded once again. An actress is not allowed to age gracefully in The City of the Eternally Young Angels, but she is in France. Here’s to Emmanuella and what I hope will be her Best Actress award for Amour. Here’s to escaping the gilded cage of youth. Here’s to allowing ourselves to grow old.