Strange afternoon, strangely wonderful. For all the things about L.A. that I mock, tease about, sigh deeply over, there are always moments like these, usually in modest surroundings with everyday Joes, that make me wonder if I've finally been reeled in by a city that frequently over-promises.
I have long debates with friends over our region's high cost of living, the postage-stamp yards, the monotony of the too-glorious weather. At a dinner party, one buddy insisted that headhunters no longer recruit here because those they hire for out-of-state jobs invariably return to California within a few years.
That's compelling evidence, and I'm sold on the idea of staying, till I see a crummy three-bedroom ranch on the market for $999,999, dust on the window sills, maybe a body in the pool. Anywhere else, a million bucks buys the governor's manse. Here it buys you a stucco shack with an AstroTurf backyard.
Then there are these strange, unexpected afternoons that can happen pretty much nowhere else.
Angie Dickinson, of all people, suggested I meet her at Bob's Big Boy, of all places, for lunch. Had she suggested a fancy little bistro on Rodeo Drive, forget about it. But Angie Dickinson at Bob's Big Boy? That's like shooting craps with a duchess.
"You can bring your wife," she insists.
Oh, that wife. Turns out the wife is working, so it'll just be Angie and me. For those of you born yesterday, Dickinson was the sexiest star on television.
She married probably the most prolific songwriter of the 20th century, Burt Bacharach. I'm a sucker for a lot of things, but especially torch songs. "Alfie" remains one of the best ballads of all time. Sultry "The Look of Love" will be performed forever, by people not yet even born.
So what's it all about, Angie?
At 81, Dickinson remains radiant, a butterscotch blond of the first rank and a funny and lively lunch mate.
At Bob's Big Boy, she orders a shake and a cheeseburger.
"Which songs did Bacharach write for you?" I ask.
"Oh, none of them," she says.
I doubt that. In her heyday, she collected a who's who of romantic relationships with actors, directors, songwriters and singers, including Frank Sinatra. She hung around with the Rat Pack and had a part in the original "Ocean's Eleven."
Started out as the quintessential girl next door. Born in North Dakota. Grew up in Burbank. Attended Bellarmine-Jefferson High School and Glendale College. Got a secretarial job at an aerospace firm, then entered a few pageants, did well. Married (and divorced) football player Gene Dickinson, hence a name that still jingles like wind chimes.
She made a slew of movies, the best of which were probably "Rio Bravo" and "Dressed to Kill." In her 40s, she made it big on TV as Pepper in "Police Woman," the first female to lead a law-and-order show. Dated Johnny Carson. Dated pretty much whomever she pleased.
Lit up the screen like stadium lights, Dickinson did. Ever see "Rio Bravo," the Howard Hawks classic in which she plays Feathers, a poker-playing flirt? Angie Dickinson could stay in a man's head like a bad concussion.
Yet, on a hot Friday afternoon, she drives from Beverly Hills to Burbank for lunch with a guy who couldn't get a date to his own wedding. She likes words, newspapers, troubled men. Obviously.
So what did a guy like Sinatra have that I don't?
She talks about his "mystique" and Sinatra's goofy pranks.
She also talks about how Bacharach's dad, a New York newspaperman, introduced the two of them.
"I have Monday and Wednesday free," she told the young songwriter when he called.
"How about Monday and Wednesday then?" he said.
They seemed made for each other, then they weren't. It was a Hollywood marriage but lasted 15 years, about 14 years longer than many.
In the magazines of the time, you would see them in full, bronzy radiance — the siren and the songwriter — and wonder, "What do they eat, Krugerrands?"
Turns out, cheeseburgers and creamy shakes.
She wants to talk about me. I want to talk about making movies with John Wayne. Compared with her, I have no stories at all. If she is Champagne, I am Cherry Coke.
Still, we plan on meeting again sometime, perhaps at another classic old SoCal eatery, to finish her insider Hollywood stories.
Someplace local. Someplace classic. Someplace with that special glow.