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Books

These stories explain L.A.'s dazzling rise

A classic postcard image from the Chateau Marmont.  Photo from “The Castle on Sunset” by Shawn Levy.
A classic postcard image from the Chateau Marmont. Photo from “The Castle on Sunset” by Shawn Levy.
(Doubleday)

Most longtime Angelenos learned early to read between the lines.

Los Angeles has been both elevated and suffocated by the strength of its legends — about the promise or calamity of this place. These stories are rooted, of course, in a deep history of civic boosterism — real estate narratives, spleen-venting newspaper columns and all manner of quick-money speculators. Those enticements, while inventions, have long legs and the sort of staying power that continues to shape conversation and sense of place, both inside, and out of, city limits.

As summer wanes and waves of travelers looking for that Los Angeles — of orange crate vistas and Hollywood art direction — make their last loop, the season calls for a history refresher course about Los Angeles, this city that bloomed out of the desert.

Gary Krist’s “The Mirage Factory: Illusion, Imagination and the Invention of Los Angeles” (now in paperback), tunnels to the roots of these invention narratives, identifying the individual threads, and shows how they began to work in tandem to create a fantastic tapestry. Krist’s elegant and expansive study charts the region’s growth in the first 30 years of the 20th century — from an agricultural town with a population of 100,000 on the edges of imagination, to a dazzling destination spot beyond par.

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Flying over the newly constructed City Hall, from “The Mirage Factory,” by Gary Krist
Flying over the newly constructed City Hall, from "The Mirage Factory," by Gary Krist
(USC Libraries/California Historical Society Collection)

The improbable city’s location, “centered on a narrow unreliable waterway known optimistically as the Los Angeles river,” would have to be coaxed into existence, he writes.

While Krist explores Los Angeles’ rapid and spectacular transformation, the book more specifically considers the manner in which that “mirage” was willed into being: There is a seductive power in hope of what might be and Los Angeles sold that to the world.

By juxtaposing the trajectories of three larger-than-life figures — engineer William Mulholland, who brought water to the desert; director D.W. Griffith, who spun dreams projected on screens; and evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, who sold spiritual exploration and salvation — Krist illuminates a compelling version of the city’s drawing-board years. Each figure played a key role in shaping an evocative notion of the region’s sense of potentiality. They are in many senses key to L.A.’s story of place but also the enduring elaborations the city continues to tell about itself.

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As Krist points out, while all three were outsized dreamers who raked in measurable success, they also “all had elements of the swindle about them.” They all fell — dramatically.

If you’re curious — or dubious — about the fortitude of these early conceits, Shawn Levy’s “The Castle on Sunset” details the multichambered history of the famed hideaway Chateau Marmont. The book picks up where “The Mirage Factory” leaves off, exploring the power of myth and place. Like Mulholland, McPherson and Griffith, Marmont founder Fred Horowitz nursed a dream: to build a French chateau on the side of a hill where Los Angeles ended and Beverly Hills’ bridle trails began, on fields that grew onions, poinsettias and avocados.

Much like Krist’s exploration of L.A. as an activation point, Levy’s narrative concurs: “The history of California is the history of people reaching for the impossible and, often, stretching far enough to grasp it.”

Horowitz, a downtown attorney, envisioned the chateau as a luxury apartment building at the edges of the city, rising out of a still-wild plot of land — with views of Mt. Baldy and Santa Catalina and the dusting of city lights demarking a growing city.

He got the seven-story structure built, perched seductively above a still-developing stretch of the city. It opened in early 1929. But he didn’t envision a stock market crash. Wracked by the Depression, he had to walk away — and in the ensuing decades the Chateau would take on different characteristics, often informed by the life of the changing serpentine thoroughfare, Sunset Boulevard, it surreptitiously overlooked.

The chateau, Levy writes, “began as a dream for high living [and] settled into a steady hum of quiet gentility....” It was welcoming and without ostentation.

“The Castle on Sunset” is stitched through with savory anecdotes that navigate us through an ever-shifting city, as the building’s own story arc mirrors Hollywood’s various transitions: from the studio-run golden era, to Laurel Canyon’s singer-songwriter scene, to the years of the comedy clubs and private bottle-service rooms. Over the decades, within its 63 rooms — an idiosyncratic arrangement of suites and bungalows — writers, painters, photographers, directors, actors and singers have been inspired or rejuvenated by their environs.

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The hotel also gained a reputation for being a “safe harbor.” During and after World War II, European exiles made themselves at home. In the ’50s and ’60s, when African American entertainers had limited offerings for lodging, the chateau’s then-owner, Erwin Brettauer, made it known that “we have no color barrier.” Duke Ellington was among the first to take up extended residence. Many others would follow: Quincy Jones, Pearl Bailey, Nina Simone, Odetta, Sarah Vaughan.

But for all of its muted glory, the Marmont hasn’t quite overcome its early-’80s, headline-grabbing tragedy: John Belushi’s death by overdose in one of the bungalows. The story catapulted the Marmont out of its quiet hideaway status and gave it, for a time, a ghoulish cachet that its staff worked for decades to plaster over.

In a city where the past is often rewritten by wrecking balls, the Marmont has remained a unique portal to the past. With more recent tweaks and upgrades, however, management is finding itself performing a curious sleight-of-hand — restyling common areas to the era of the ’20s, upgrading some rooms in the styles of the ’40s and ’50s. In this sense, it is purely playing into guests’ imaginations and expectations: “It’s not a real past,” a staffer tells Levy. “The past is really not interesting.” They’re not just selling rooms but atmosphere, a frame of mind — enabling a guest to glimpse a different self.

Here’s a by-the-way to all of that: Novelist Janet Fitch’s new book, “The Chimes of a Lost Cathedral” (her follow-up to “The Revolution of Marina M”), begins post-Russian Civil War with the young poet Marina Markova on her own, sifting through the devastation of the former St. Petersburg.

The author of the bestsellers “White Oleander” and “Paint It Black” — both set in her native Los Angeles — had set out to write a third novel set in 1920s L.A. The backstory, Fitch explains, is that she first conceived of Marina in a short story set in Los Angeles in the early ’20s. Marina was an immigrant from Russia who was now working as a chambermaid at the Alexandria Hotel — where coincidentally D.W. Griffith also first landed.

The story, “Room 721,” was published in the literary journal Black Clock, and Fitch had hoped to develop it into a novel, but Marina as a character eluded her. “I just didn’t know what she was going to be, if I could inhabit her,” she said recently.

Fitch flipped the question: Who was she? What had made her a person who would have come to Los Angeles? What would have enticed or provoked her? She’d have to reach back into Marina’s origin story. “I had to really live her.”

Serendipity would lead her to this leg of the journey, back to Russia and into two books she didn’t intend to write but rather announced themselves. Might she revisit Marina in L.A. now knowing more about her? “I wouldn’t rule it out.”

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George is a Los Angeles writer. She is the author of “After/Image: Los Angeles Outside the Frame” (Angel City Press) and won a 2018 Grammy for her liner notes for “Otis Redding Live at the Whisky A Go Go.”


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