Will Duck for Apples

I remember sitting in a trattoria in Rome, just outside of the Catacombs, the day before I was to have an audience with Pope John Paul II among a group of American journalists. While we probably wouldn’t be given a moment alone, I was trying to come up with a good question just in case—other than who makes his really terrific outfits, which has always been a topic of personal interest. Pondering the other great mysteries he and I might discuss, I looked down to discover a Lucite floor, like that of a glass-bottomed boat, revealing the ruins of an ancient villa. The proprietor told me that construction of newer buildings always uncovers a layer cake of archeological sites—and he decided to showcase his find.

In my town, nobody gives a fig about history. I suppose that’s because Hollywood is like sex—every generation wants to believe they invented it for themselves. Even I have to confess that what interests me most here is where the bizarre, scandalous, glamorous past intersects with my own daily life. For example, I live in a 1929 bungalow house among six others sharing a central courtyard. I’ve been told that the life-long mistress of the original owner lived here rent-free until just a few years back. No longer able to care for herself, she was forcibly moved into an old folks home, but not before stripping the house of every last crystal doorknob and brass light switch. You damn well can take it with you was this old dame’s final battle cry.

Virtually every other tenant of the fondly nicknamed Technicolor Village would be hard-pressed to relay any of its storied past beyond the installation of the new storage unit over the parking lot. Just as the other grocery shoppers at Bristol Farms are likely unaware that the store used to be the famed Chasen’s, where Ronald Reagan proposed to Nancy Davis in a booth located along what is now an overpriced selection of cheese. They still sell the restaurant’s famous chili—which Liz Taylor had shipped in buckets to the set of Cleopatra—a trivia fact lost on most every harried film exec stopping in for a fix.

Admittedly, it’s not always easy being a tourist in your own town. I've never been inside the Comedy Store, for example, even though I know it was once a world famous movie star hang-out called Ciro’s. I’ve not visited the Hollywood Park Memorial Cemetery, final resting place of so many early screen legends—despite its location near Paramount, where I leave plenty of inconclusive meetings feeling decidedly funereal. I do have a Crazy Actress Friend who claims the ghost of Rudolph Valentino chased her after a summertime outdoor movie screening at the mausoleum, a “Personal Note” she lists this on the back of her headshot.

I've dined at Hollywood's oldest restaurant Musso & Frank’s, knowing it was a very cool place to eat but wholly unaware about who drank here. Since the Writer's Guild was formerly located nearby, this became the favored watering hole of the literary giants lured out by studio money, like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. Reluctant transplant Dorothy Parker was a regular, famously calling Los Angeles “seventy-two suburbs in search of a city;” while William Faulkner liked to get up and mix his own mint juleps. Most all of them felt out of their element in Hollywood, and ended up drinking their lives away only steps from my house.

I never did manage to wrest the meaning of life out of the Pope that day in Rome, though I did get the name of his tailor. I have since read a lot of Dorothy Parker, who may have been a better person to ask, come to think of it, particularly in light of my similar predicament as an embittered girl wit stuck in a town that may never be sure what to do with me. “It serves me right for putting all my eggs in one bastard,” she once quipped. And then there’s my personal favorite, “Ducking for apples—change one letter and it’s the story of my life.” You just can’t get this kind of material in Vatican City.

By Dorothy Parker

Four be the things I am wiser to know:
Idleness, sorrow, a friend, and a foe.
Four be the things I’d been better without:
Love, curiosity, freckles, and doubt.
Three be the things I shall never attain:
Envy, content, and sufficient champagne.
Three be the things I shall have till I die:
Laughter and hope and a sock in the eye

Originally posted September 25, 2005 Hollywood, CA