The Late Great Days of Chasen’s
In youth I wassailed neighb’ring pubs,
but now reflect on friends gone by.
--From “In Repose” by Will Fowler
I went to visit a waning landmark the other day, in the company of a living landmark. It’s an elegant way to witness history.
The landmark I visited was Chasen’s restaurant in West Hollywood. The landmark that took me there was 72-year-old Will Fowler. Chasen’s, of course, is one of the last of the great old L.A. celebrity restaurants. Fowler is one of the last of the great old L.A. reporters. In Japan, both would be declared national treasures.
To explain the historical importance of Chasen’s, which will close Saturday after 58 years (operating cost--not business--is the culprit), one could merely fill this entire space with the names of people who have held it dear. A brief sample: Clark Gable, Barbara Stanwyck, William Powell, Greer Garson, Alan Ladd, Jerry Colonna, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Laurence Harvey, Frank Sinatra, Muhammad Ali, David Niven, Jimmy Stewart, Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Ethel Barrymore, Walter Cronkite, Leo Carillo, Howard Hughes, and Presidents John F. Kennedy, Jimmy Carter, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan.
To explain the historical importance of Fowler, one could write a book--but then, Fowler already has. To read his autobiographical “The Second Handshake” and “Reporters: Memoirs of a Young Newspaperman” is to wonder about a voraciously lived life that has touched almost as many diverse and remarkable figures as Chasen’s has.
Consider these rather varied Fowler resume items: while in his late teens, lived with and cared for a declining John Barrymore for six months; at 13, smoked cigars with W.C. Fields; studied orchestration with Ferde (“Grand Canyon Suite”) Grofe; wrote a hit song for Doris Day (“He’s So Married”); acted in B-movies in the ‘40s; while working for the old L.A. Examiner, was the first reporter on the scene of the so-called Black Dahlia murder Jan. 15, 1947; news director for George Putnam at KTTV in 1960; comedy writer for Red Skelton; Jack Dempsey’s godson; was “one of the best of the great barroom fighters,” as another of the last of the great old L.A. reporters, this paper’s own Jack Smith, said of his long-ago colleague in “Reporters.”
In the late 1930s, young Fowler drank plenty of martinis at Chasen’s, which was, more or less, a cozy diner presided over by the beloved ex-Vaudevillian founder, Dave Chasen, and his gorgeous wife, Maude.
Into this homey atmosphere, rich with the aromas of new-lit cigars and burbling chili, regularly retreated members of a kind of round table of somewhat battered wayward knights--principally Barrymore, Fields, artist John Decker, writers James Thurber, Ben Hecht, Robert Benchley, boxing great Dempsey, legendary sportswriter Grantland Rice, directors John Ford and Leo McCarey, pie-faced actor Jack Oakie, actor Thomas Mitchell--and the man who usually brought them together, Gene Fowler.
Gene Fowler, of course, was the fabulous Hearst newspaperman and Hollywood screenwriter who became one of the most revered authors of his time. He was also Will’s pop, and, as Will still reverently proclaims, “my friend.”
These larger-than-life figures, whose achievements and characters are barely comprehensible to today’s younger generation, enjoyed their privacy, and their alcohol--two items liberally provided by the kindred host of their round table, Dave Chasen. Will was the group’s sturdy “designated driver"--as he was mine one recent evening when we went to Chasen’s to bid farewell to this onetime sanctuary and any of its lingering ghosts.
“It’s like looking at a Roman ruins with extra stuff put on, like the Sphinx with a new neck,” said Fowler, surveying through trifocals the glittering palace the modern Chasen’s has become. “You want to see it as it was; you want to go back. You’re reaching out, but your arms aren’t quite long enough.”
Fowler couldn’t even find the entrance anymore; we sort of lurched in through the kitchen, like a couple of big shots accustomed to the back way. We were nonetheless smartly greeted not by, sadly, Dave Chasen, who passed away 25 years ago, but by a dapper young gentleman named Scott McKay--who turned out to be Chasen’s grandson.
“Some of the employees swear that late at night, they still smell Grampy’s pipe smoke,” said McKay, who told us he holds out hope that a smaller, more intimate Chasen’s might return to the development that will soon occupy the Beverly Boulevard site. “I believe he’s watching over this place and would understand what’s happening now.”
McKay poured Fowler a glass of brut, then escorted us straight to the heart of the restaurant, Dave’s very office, where his dearest friends were often invited to dine. Many of those very friends were still on hand--smiling deathlessly from black-and-white photographs that left barely an empty space on the old pine-paneled walls. Chasen himself grinned from one, proudly frying burgers in the original kitchen.
“Here’s Uncle Claude! My God!” Fowler suddenly exclaimed, spying a grainy old photo of a shirtless Fields, posing as a boxer. Fowler, who by his own admission has come to rather resemble Fields, is living dis-proof of the great comic’s fabled hatred of young people; W.C. so admired the teen-ager’s alacrity with gin and cigars that he anointed him honorary nephew, even granting use of his hated middle name.
“You know what? I took this picture,” said Fowler, barely believing his memory. “It was in this house on DeMille Drive. Uncle Claude had a punching bag. I had a hell of a time getting him to take his shirt off. Gee, that’s amazing. That knocks me out. I printed that thing myself, when I was a kid! About 1938. It’s been here all these years.”
He stared at the photo long and hard, almost as if waiting for Fields to unleash that permanently cocked left jab.
“Uncle Claude and I were sitting here with Ben Hecht one night,” Fowler continued, “and Ben told the story of a guy in Chicago being executed, who insisted that he be allowed to wear full tails and tie. When they were ready to put the noose around his neck, they asked him if he had any last words. He said, ‘Not at this time.’ And Uncle Claude went crazy. He thought that was absolutely marvelous.”
McKay graciously left us to commune with other spirits that might be present, there in what 91-year-old Maude Chasen still calls the restaurant’s “inner sanctum.” Fowler’s thoughts, however, kept coming back to his long-missed Uncle Claude, and another honorary uncle, Barrymore. Random observations spilled out, almost as if talking about the departed figures might conjure them up. I looked over my shoulder more than once. Both men, he recalled, would enthuse effusively about esoteric cuisines, but like many tragically dedicated alcoholics, rarely partook of solids. Fields, in particular, championed Chasen’s crepe suzette, yet usually left it untouched: “He just didn’t want it to interfere with the alcohol.”
“And Jack Barrymore,” Fowler added, “loved to read cookbooks, but he would never eat. I’m famished when I drink. That’s probably while I’m still alive. After I drink, I love to eat.” He hoisted his champagne glass. “Cheers!”
Chasen’s-as-refuge cannot be more poignantly--or amusingly--illustrated than with Fowler’s account of rescuing a Barrymore as ravaged by marriage as the bottle:
“Barrymore used to call his wives his bus accidents. When he was married to his fourth wife, Elaine, we drove to his house, off Benedict Canyon. We went in--Tommy Mitchell, John Decker, Pop and me--and Jack came down to answer the front door. He was wearing the bathrobe he wore in ‘Topaze,’ and Pop said, ‘We’ve come to rescue you.’ He didn’t even take off his bathrobe. We brought him here! And that’s how we got him away from his wife. It was just like getting him out of prison.”
The memories eventually surrounded Fowler, his words unable to keep pace with the images on the walls, and in his mind. Milestones were relegated to a scant sentence.
It was in Chasen’s, he announced, that Gene Fowler--author of the lovingly penned Barrymore biography, “Good Night, Sweet Prince"--insisted on filling out the actor’s death certificate himself. He somehow substituted gentle and touching prose for the chillingly detached patois of the physician.
It was also in Chasen’s, Fowler noted, that his father drafted the tribute to Fields published in the Hollywood Reporter on Dec. 27, 1946. A still fresh-looking copy of the ad hung in the office, in part proclaiming: To the most authentic humorist since Mark Twain, to the greatest heart that has beaten since the middle ages--W.C Fields, our friend.
And it was in Chasen’s office that Will and his mother dined with Dave shortly after the passing of Gene Fowler in 1960.
“It’s a strange thing,” Fowler offered, with the tone of a benediction, “to be hit with all these things attacking your memory at once. It gives you such a wonderful, warm, melancholy feeling.”
With that, we left the office and its paper-thin haunts, took in the celebrated Thurber sketches in the men’s room (delightfully ribald), then adjourned to a table famously reserved for the explosive, unpredictable theatrical agent of bygone times, Billy Grady. There, we did what you’re supposed to do at Chasen’s: drink, have some freewheeling, sincere and inconsequential conversation (ours covered the spectacular late 20th-Century spoiling of earthly paradise and the symphonies of Bruckner), and eat some of the justifiably famed chili. Other, more typical specimens of the clientele, dressed to the nines (I would rank our wardrobe somewhere around the fives), seemed to regard us with something akin to wariness and disdain, like dogs that sense a coyote isn’t quite canine.
We opted to slip out as the nattier crowd thickened, and in an exeunt that seemed somehow appropriate for a couple of guys who came in through the kitchen, we headed for the front door. There, seeming to bid us adieu, was the celebrated John Decker oil portrait of Fields-as-Queen Victoria. Resplendent in regal gown and jewels, Uncle Claude haughtily scowled over the perfumed heads of chi-chi folk crowding in for a last Chasen’s meal.
Fowler assessed the scene, and in a line worthy of Fields, or possibly the author he so admired, Charles Dickens, declared:
“A collection of strangers in a stolen hermit crab seashell.”
And as my designated driver proceeded to cruise L.A. streets through which he once escorted grander guests, I couldn’t help but think that Dave Chasen’s little diner had, for a final time, offered sanctuary to the last of those somewhat battered wayward knights of long ago.