Hollywood in the 30s and 60s
Lately, it seems, I’ve been reading books in pairs: two about Bach and two about Mars, each pair consisting of near opposites that inform and illuminate the other.
I’ve done it again, this time with a pair of books about Hollywood—not the movies but the actual place, along with the community of odd, eccentric, talented people who live there. The books delve into two of the more colorful and fascinating periods in Hollywood history: the 30s and the 60s.
Many people don’t know it, but during the 1930s, Hollywood became the destination of choice for German, Austrian, and Eastern European creative artists, many of them Jewish, who fled to escape the Nazis. These included composers Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky, novelist Thomas Mann, playwright Bertold Brecht, actors Hedy Lamarr and Peter Lorre, and directors Fritz Lang and Billy Wilder.
Of this group, the den mother was the Austrian actress and screenwriter Salka Viertel, who hosted regular gatherings at her Santa Monica home. Viertel also was Marlene Dietrich’s screenwriter and best friend. You can read her remarkable story, as I did recently, in her memoir The Kindness of Strangers.
I paired Viertel’s book with Everybody Thought We Were Crazy: Dennis Hopper, Brooke Hayward, and 1960s Los Angeles, by Mark Rozzo. The Hollywood home of actors Hopper and Hayward, much like Viertel’s thirty years before, became headquarters for creative types, in this case including painters Andy Warhol and David Hockney, sculptor Claes Oldenburg, musicians Ike and Tina Turner, and virtually everyone in the movie business.
The surprising thing about those gatherings, and the book, is that they were more about L.A.’s exploding Pop Art scene than about movies. Hopper, besides appearing in Rebel Without a Cause and Easy Rider, was a fine, highly stylized photographer, and he seemed to know everyone in the art world. The walls of their home on North Crescent Drive were crowded with the work of friends, much of which can be found today in museums.
I grew up in L.A., and though I no longer live there, the place exerts a powerful pull on my imagination. I loved revisiting it in the pages of these books.