"I was working at Googies the Sunday Dean was killed, and as you now know, I knew him fairly well, and I swear it was as if a meteor had crashed into Hollywood killing thousands. People on the street who had no connection to the industry were weeping."
He's referring to James Dean.
"Same with Monroe. I knew women who wore black for weeks in mourning. My then-wife, Janet, summed it up perfectly when she said, 'Hell, had she'd known it would cause this much of a stir, she would have killed herself years ago!' And remember, Janet and I knew her pretty well."
That's Marilyn Monroe.
Meet Steve Hayes, author, actor, painter and raconteur so exceptionally blessed with the art of storytelling — and life experiences — that he's already filled two books of memoirs, "Googies, Coffeeshop to the Stars," parts 1 and 2.
If you didn't know, Googies was a famous Hollywood haunt back in the glamorous 1940s and '50s, a hot spot where Hayes worked for years.
When he wasn't acting.
Or living with Errol Flynn.
Or squiring Ava Gardner around town when Sinatra was away.
Or when he wasn't in Cuba with Castro and Hemingway.
Hayes' life is almost comically rich with provocative, romantic escapades and adventures. But as interesting as his past is, it's his present, and no doubt his future, that, to me, make him most compelling.
I met Hayes last week at the Starbucks on Goldenwest Street near Yorktown Avenue. It was 7 a.m., and he'd just finished up at the gym. He works out there from about 4 to 6 a.m. six days a week.
And he's 81 years old.
I almost omitted that fact, because it really adds little to this story. See, when you meet Hayes, you'd probably guess he's about 60 or so. Then again, the firm grip, boundless conversational energy and electric twinkle in his eyes might have you shave off yet another five years. This isn't a story about age. It's about attitude.
He told me he's conditioned to only several hours of sleep each night, after being awakened so often as a little boy growing up in war-torn England.
"The bombing raids were murder for sleep," he chuckled in a polished, somewhat devilish laugh.
Back in the 1950s, Hayes' dashing, matinee-idol looks landed him plenty of small parts. But the writer in him won out, and to date, he's penned countless screenplays for TV and film, almost two dozen fiction books and his two-part, all-but-impossible-to-put-down memoir.
Hayes moved to Huntington Beach in the last decade with his wife of 25 years, Robbin. While he obviously finds life quieter and more laid back than those tumultuous eras in Tinseltown, he also knows that the curtain came down on that world a long time ago.
"Once the studio system went away, the business changed," he said. "It used to be, every day, you'd see the biggest stars every day at the studios. Then at the nightclubs in the evening. It was another world back then."
Because he was younger than many of his counterparts when he first came over from England, he's also outlived most of them — and so he remains a vital connection to the days of Ciro's, the Trocadero and all the other mythical places from Hollywood's most golden era. Couple that with his exceptional ability to recount rich details and dialogue, and you have simply one of the most interesting people anyone would ever want to meet.
Rather than dwell too much on the past, though, Hayes lays out his next month. More writing, some speaking engagements, a showing of some of his paintings — and, of course, lots of exercising.
I wondered if he gets asked what his secret for youth is, beyond his clearly insatiable, act-how-you-feel zest for life and getting things done.
"Don't inhibit yourself," he said. "Do what you're supposed to be doing — not what they tell you they think you are supposed to be doing."
By "they," he no doubt is referring to anyone who dares try to put you in a box and make you behave by some predetermined societal standard.
I keep pausing in writing this column to read more of Hayes' memoirs. The Sunset Strip comes to life on so many levels through his razor-sharp memories: the excitement, the pain, the struggle, the redemption — all of the elements of the pleasure dome recounted in such powerful first-person voice that you may feel like you've been transported there yourself. Back when a galaxy of stars ruled the world.
Hayes' books are available on Amazon.com — I cannot recommend them enough. But what I would most recommend, if ever possible (and if he ever slows down), is that you sit down for a cup of coffee with Hayes.
A most remarkable young man.
CHRIS EPTING is the author of 18 books, including the new "Hello, It's Me: Dispatches from a Pop Culture Junkie." You can write him at firstname.lastname@example.org.