The English novelist Aldous Huxley, accompanied by his wife, Maria, arrived in America in 1937 to spend a few months lecturing on pacifism, a "lost cause" subject that had gripped Huxley's interest in the few years preceding World War II. The Huxleys found the United States endlessly fascinating. It was the outbreak of the war in Europe, however, that kept them from returning home. The short stay originally planned by the Huxleys became a permanent relocation.
Huxley spent the last 25 years of his life in and around Hollywood, writing, while there, a number of screenplays for films that have become classics, like "Pride and Prejudice" and "Jane Eyre." He also wrote two novels that were highly regarded in their day, "After Many a Summer Dies the Swan" and "Time Must Have a Stop." He also wrote a book that became influential in the 1950s and '60s, "The Doors of Perception," Huxley's account of his own experiences with hallucinogenic drugs. His circle of friends in Hollywood included a remarkable number of the interesting people then in residence: Charlie Chaplin, Igor Stravinsky, Christopher Isherwood, Greta Garbo, Bertolt Brecht, Anita Loos.
In "Huxley in Hollywood," David King Dunnaway has written an account of these American years. As his publisher notes, Dunnaway has written two distinct books: One is the story of Huxley's intellectual and personal life in California. In the second, running as a sort of counterpoint to his biographical narrative, Dunnaway has filled up many of his nearly 500 pages with brief sketches of the lives and careers of the many new friends Huxley made in Hollywood. In the long run, these background interruptions to the main story become tedious and add little to our knowledge of Huxley.
Although very nearly blind, the Huxley who began living in California in 1938 struck many as a truly awesome figure. At 6 feet 4, he was a walking and talking tower of knowledge on every conceivable subject. His awareness of things was aided by his reading and rereading, from cover to cover, the 11th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, for which he had luggage specially constructed for his endless travels in the 1920s and '30s. In America, Huxley turned more and more to mysticism, and it was perhaps to be expected that in time he would turn his attention to the newly discovered hallucinogenic drugs. He tried them all: mescaline, psiloxbin and, finally, LSD. This combination of mysticism and drug-taking led to his writing "The Doors of Perception," his little book that, in a sense, legitimized for some the taking of these mind-altering drugs.
Huxley made no bones about why he took these drugs when he said that "It's a very salutary thing to realize that the rather dull universe in which most of us spend most of our time is not the only universe there is." In short, Huxley eventually found the real world to be lacking in the phantasmagoric images he encountered in his drug trips. It is fair to ask that if Huxley had possessed normal vision, would he have preferred this inner world?
It seems that Huxley's ever-growing preoccupation with the state of mind produced by the drugs resulted in the steady deterioration of his novelistic talent. It became harder and harder for him to express himself meaningfully in fictional terms about all the vital issues--nuclear warfare, environmental pollution--that threatened the lives of his fellows. His last two novels, "Ape and Essence" and "Island," suffer badly from the fierce intrusion of the essayist into the realm of the storyteller, a strategy that he had been able to handle brilliantly in the 1932 "Brave New World."
There is little doubt that Huxley's reputation has faded: The current trading value of his stock on the literary exchange is not very high. Except for his novel of the future, "Brave New World," which has become a staple in the American high school curriculum, few of his nearly 60 books are read much any more. When he came to America in 1937, Huxley was perhaps the best known among the serious English novelists of his generation. His books were international best-sellers, but they were thought to be distinguished contributions to modern English literature. However, even before his death in 1963 (the same day as John F. Kennedy), Huxley's fame had been eroded sufficiently to make it clear that there were at least three of his contemporaries who had displaced him in the critical canon: His old friend D. H. Lawrence, James Joyce and Virginia Woolf.
Except in a single area, Dunnaway's account does not differ significantly from the long and excellent life of Huxley written in 1973 by his close friend the English novelist Sybille Bedford. Although Dunnaway has interviewed many of Huxley's friends, the Bedford Life presents us with a far more sympathetic, warmer Huxley. Indeed, the Huxley in Bedford's book emerges as a much more confused man than does the one in Dunnaway's pages.
There is not much that is new here about the famous people that Huxley knew in these years. Shockingly, none of them emerge very clearly in the reader's mind unless one has read about them elsewhere. Even Garbo and Brecht remain perfectly faceless and voiceless.
Dunnaway attempts to make much of Maria Huxley's lesbianism, almost the only area in which he offers fresh material. Drawing largely from her letters to her family in Belgium and France, as well as from the testimony of friends, Dunnaway reveals that Maria conducted a number of affairs with various members of the film community. While it has long been known that Maria functioned as the principal go-between in arranging her husband's many affairs, Dunnaway believes that Maria's sexual nature had much to do with her presumed indifference to his marital infidelities. My set of the advance proofs of "Huxley in Hollywood" contains many passages concerning Maria's lovers expunged by Dunnaway's publishers for, presumably, legal reasons. No such censoring was required, however, for the names of the women in Aldous' life. Dunnaway was not, apparently, able to obtain them. As for Maria's love life, these revelations are mildly interesting, but fail to tell us much about Huxley or what he thought about it.
"Huxley in Hollywood" is marred by factual errors: Bertolt Brecht was not at any time married to Salka Viertal; Howard Hawks' film "Sergeant York" is not "an anti-Nazi blockbuster" but is about an American pacifist in World War I; the Kurt Weill and Paul Green play "Johnny Johnson" is a work of 1936, not 1939 as Dunnaway would have you infer from his text.
In addition to the endless potted-history passages that clog the narrative, the book is weakened by the carelessness of the writing style. Even by planting the idea in David Selznick's mind, it would appear insane to describe Huxley's participation in the writing of the "Jane Eyre" script in these terms: "While not Bronte's sort of novelist, he spoke like an English don." One short example of stylistic banality will suffice:
"He and Maria were soon steering across the Atlantic toward the remains of their former lives: What had become of their villa at Sanary? Of Juliette and Maria's sisters? They sailed on a Cunard liner."