History envelops me as I enter the courtyard of the Egyptian Theater in the fading light. I see glamorous ghosts, imagine the star-studded premieres of Hollywood’s Golden Age. After shows, theater-goers used to flock to the Pig ‘N’ Whistle, an elegant Art Deco restaurant next door with carved wood and plush booths where Cecil B. DeMille played the pipe organ and stars unwound while industry musicians gathered after a hard day’s work in the Dream Factory, finally able to play the music they wanted.
But now it’s April 12, 2007, opening night of the 8th Annual Los Angeles Film Noir Festival and I’m heading into the theater for a cocktail party and book signing for Los Angeles Noir, the short story anthology I edited. Eight of the authors are present to sign books, the crowd of 300 is exuberant, the books are flying off the tables, people lined up to buy, lubricated by free drinks and a common love of all things noir.
Eddie Muller, the “Czar of Noir” who curates the festival each year for American Cinematheque, says noir fans drink bourbon, not vodka, and he’s right, by the end of the night there are only two bottles of Eagle bourbon left. I drink my first hard liquor in about a year, the ice cubes tinkling merrily in a plastic cup. Inside this cavernous place, bourbon feels old-fashioned and right, an elixir to conjure up a long-ago time and place.
I chat with Theodora, a strikingly beautiful woman who graduated from Hollywood High in 1949, met Greta Garbo shopping at Jurgenson’s Market and dated movie stars. “The ones I know all died young,” she says wistfully.
James Ellroy’s off to the side, holding court, so after signing copies of LA Noir that patrons bring me, I direct them to the tall skinny guy with the gleaming bald pate and Ellroy draws demon dogs and writes outrageous things on the page that holds his epigraph, “L.A. is epidemically everywhere and discernable only in glimpses.”
After the first movie starts at 8 pm, (Dark Victory, 1949) Ellroy is hungry so with Eddie Muller and LA Noir contributors Patt Morrison and Jim Pascoe and a very nice Film Noir Foundation guy whose name I’ve forgotten, we head across Hollywood Boulevard to Musso & Franks for dinner. It’s a blustery April night and my heels clip-clop across the imbedded sidewalk stars.
At Musso’s, Ray Bradbury is esconced with a large party in the corner. We slide into a booth near the back and order from the red-jacketed, efficient-as-hell waiters. The talk is of 1950s and 60s screen vixens, early Playboy pictorials and Farley Granger’s memoirs. And how Ellroy and I just don’t get Charles Bukowski. And many other things, ribald and not so.
Martinis drained, platters emptied, we’re back on Hollywood Boulevard, and I feel like I’m moving through a City of Ghosts, where long gone voices and faces clamor for recognition, beseech us not to forget them. I’m on a bridge, dangling somewhere between the past and the future, but it’s a fictional place, built by generations who toiled in Hollywood, by authors like Ellroy and Bradbury, freshly re-imagined by the authors like Michael Connelly and Janet Fitch in the anthology I’ve just edited, where the spirits of Double Indemnity and Sunset Boulevard stalk the pages but reflect through a contemporary lens.
Time mingles promiscuously in my head and at this moment I love my city, the glorious, tawdry bawdy strutting strumpet pride of her, secure in her gifts, taunting and flaunting and thumbing her nose at the ersatz abomination two blocks west at Hollywood and Highland.
On this windy night, I hold the real Hollywood in my hand, in my lungs and in my heart. It smells faintly of pipe smoke, car exhaust, cold canyon air, 80-year-old picture palaces, hair oil and face powder, the fug of cracked leather booths, and it’s intoxicating, and enough to last me until the next portal opens and I fall dizzily down the rabbit hole once more.