Geographically, Hollywood is everywhere in Los Angeles. There’s the neighborhood, smack in the middle of LA; the boulevard, which runs East and West and isn’t a bad way to cut across town if you’re trying to avoid freeways; and the sign, perched on a hill, watching over everything like a sun-dulled lifeguard.
The Hollywood dream seems equally unavoidable. Spend an afternoon running errands, and you’ll trip over it a few times, in places you didn’t quite expect: billboards advertising Actors, Models & Talent for Christ (so many questions), notices about Scientology headshots tacked up at Pinkberry, and overheard screenplay conversations at cafes where every table is filled on the middle of a Tuesday afternoon (does no one here work?).
But aside from a blanket emblazoned with a thugged out Marilyn Monroe here, or a storage unit illustrated with a Charlie Chaplin mural there, Hollywood’s classic roots aren’t easily accessible. It’s not because they’re hidden, too sacred for mere touristing mortals, but because many of these old Hollywood landmarks aren’t here anymore, and the few that are left are in constant danger of going and going until they’re gone.
Hollywood became synonymous with movies in the early 1900s, when plenty of land, cheap labor and excess sunlight lured motion picture studios westward from New York. In the 1920s, the movie star was born and the decades that followed were the golden era. These were the years that gave meaning to the word “Hollywood”—the mere whisper of it conjures of the image eternal champagne fountain overflowing with stardom, riches, and beautiful people bed-hopping. Everyone went to the movies, and everyone, it seemed, also wanted to be in them.
I’ve been fascinated by this old Hollywood history for as long as I can remember. Before I even had my own money, I would check Madonna CDs out from the library. When I started drawing on “beauty marks,” my mom told me about Marilyn Monroe, and I was quickly obsessed for Marilyn was the prettiest, the giggliest, and had the best dresses I’d ever seen. For Christmas in fifth grade, Santa brought me a larger-than-life-size cardboard cutout of Marilyn in her pink evening gown from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. I even took her to school for a report on “my idol.”
As a teenager, I became even more fascinated with old Hollywood. To peek beyond that golden sparkle was to unearth a dark side rife with sex, drugs and grisly deaths. Hollywood, it seemed to me, must be a place where every corner dripped with blood and diamonds, a skeleton hung in every closet, and the whole place scented with the heady perfume of the past.
When I finally came to visit, I was disappointed. Hollywood was kind of shitty, more grit than glitz, and if I wanted to find any glamour, I was going to have to dig. I finally found my beloved Marilyn’s star on Hollywood Boulevard’s Walk of Fame—it was in front of a McDonald’s, partially obscured by a melting McFlurry.
“The true answer to that is ‘nowhere.’ Nothing feels like it used to be,” says Karina Longworth when I ask where, in 2017, you can go to get a taste of old Hollywood. “I think that Hollywood as an industry pays a lot of lip service to respecting the past, and then they don't back it up.” If anyone would know, it seems like it would probably be Longworth, a film historian who is the creator and host of You Must Remember This, a podcast about “the secret and/or forgotten history of Hollywood’s first century.”
“Old Hollywood is just something I’ve always been interested in,” Longworth says, “It was my way of understanding the world. I grew up in Studio City in the ‘80s and ‘90s and I definitely felt like the past was more alive then. On the local news, they'd tell you what Elizabeth Taylor did that day, and one of my very first memories is of my mom telling me that Rock Hudson had died.”
What began as a passion project is now a full-time job, with the podcast getting hundreds of thousands of downloads and counting it-girls like Chloë Sevigny, Gillian Jacobs and Tavi Gevinson as fans. Longworth spends weeks researching each episode, and synthesizes her findings into hour-long narratives that can be shocking or sad, but never fail to captivate. Listening to You Must Remember This feels like stepping onto a time-traveling star tours van where you sip a tasty cocktail of fact and gossip, served with a winking acknowledgement that, in Hollywood, there isn’t much difference between the two. “I don't know absolutely what is true and what is false in anything,” Longworth says, “One thing that's very different about studying the history of Hollywood is that Hollywood has never had the incentive to tell anybody the truth about anything.”
It’s doubtless that Longworth’s podcast has found new fans for old Hollywood, but she draws a blank when it comes to suggestions for where those fans can get a taste of it IRL. “I’m sorry,” she says, and thinks for a minute. “I mean, one thing that I find to be really fun is my boyfriend and I will watch a John Cassavetes movie set in LA, or old episodes of Columbo or the Rockford Files, and they'll be shooting on location on the Sunset Strip or in various restaurants. We try to figure out, do those restaurants still exist? Can we go to them? And sometimes they do, but usually they don't.”
It is said that religious converts are the most pious, and I feel that way about Los Angeles. Having only lived here for four years, I’m a passionate defender of this city, especially anyone who tries to level it with overused criticisms like “plastic people” or “there’s no history here.”
Oh, please. In an era of ethos marketing and Instagram influencers, I’ll take brazenly plastic over calculated corporate authenticity any day. And as for the history, read between the lines: what is gone reveals more than what’s still here.
Take the Brown Derby, for example: It was an industry-staple restaurant shaped like a hat where the cobb salad was invented (where would we be without the cobb salad!? At lunch, ordering disappointing chicken caesars, that’s where). But you can’t cobb at the Brown Derby anymore. You can’t even see it: It’s gone, and there’s a strip mall in its place.
Who would tear down a restaurant shaped like a hat!? Hollywood, that’s who. In a constant race to be fresh, find the new and next, stopping to savor the past seems dangerous. After all, you might get left behind.
Fortunately, for those of us outside of the race (or those in it, but with a few hours to kill between auditions), there are a few haunts where the ghosts of old Hollywood roam. Sometimes quite literally, if you believe in those sorts of things.
The gorgeous Hollywood Roosevelt, with a dark and cavernous Spanish colonial lobby, opened in 1927, financed by a group that included silent film stars Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford with an original investment of $2.5 million. Two years after it opened, the hotel’s Blossom Room played host to the first Academy Awards, which required guests to buy their tickets for $5. Clark Gable and Carole Lombard once lived in the penthouse, the Marilyn Monroe can sometimes be seen in a mirror, Montgomery Clift still haunts room 928 on occasion. Apparently, if you listen closely, you can hear him practicing his lines. I once stayed at the Roosevelt for 12 consecutive days. I didn’t see any ghosts, but I did see lots of sweatpants-clad guys getting in and out of Maseratis and someone get a lap dance by the pool.
If the Roosevelt is blonde-in-a-box, the Chateau Marmont is all natural. It’s the real deal, and you’d be hard pressed to find a place in Hollywood with more history per square foot. Harry Cohn, head of Columbia Pictures, once told his stars "If you must get into trouble, do it at the Chateau Marmont." Many people heeded that advice: This was where James Dean jumped through a window to audition for Rebel Without a Cause, Elizabeth Taylor nursed Montgomery Clift back to health after a car wreck, a 16-year-old Natalie Wood had an affair with her 44-year-old director, Howard Hughes used binoculars to spy on women at the pool, and Jean Harlow would apparently leave notes at the front desk that said “Gone fishing,” indicating that she was in the market for a new beau. The hotel didn’t always tolerate trouble, though, and more recently made headlines for banning both Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan—Brit-Brit for apparently smearing food on her face and LiLo for a whopping unpaid bill of more than $40k. Pro-tip: Pay your bills, don’t play with your food, and steal the stationary.
The interior of the Sunset Tower feels as plush as an advertisement for a sheet set you could never afford. The art deco building was built in 1929,and The famed Tower Bar is located in what was once gangster Bugsy Siegel’s apartment. During the most recent renovation, the hotel decorator even took design cues from Siegel’s preference for wood paneling. The hotel received its first literary mention in Raymond Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely, and John Wayne lived in the penthouse for a while (he supposedly kept a cow on the balcony so that he could always have fresh milk). Errol Flynn, Frank Sinatra, Ava Gardner, and Truman Capote (in town to write an article for Vogue) were also guests. It’s still a spot for industry power-lunches, and an eavesdropper’s dream. The last time I was there, I got so absorbed in an overheard conversation about renting dogs for $8k per day that I had to switch tables, worried that if I didn’t, I‘d uncontrollably interrupt, “Excuse me, so sorry, but what the hell are you talking about?”
You can’t talk about old Hollywood without talking about Musso and Frank Grill, because Musso and Frank is old Hollywood. Established in 1919, it is the oldest restaurant in Hollywood, and not much has changed since it housed the first and only pay phone in the neighborhood. Legend has it that Douglas Fairbanks and Charlie Chaplin would race horses down Hollywood Boulevard and the loser would have to pick up the tab at Musso’s. Humphrey Bogart could be seen hanging at the bar with Dashiell Hammett, and Greta Garbo and Gary Cooper would come in for breakfast. In the 1930s, the Screen Writers Guild was across the street, and beleaguered writers would hide out in Musso’s back room to get away from meddling studio executives. F. Scott Fitzgerald would sit in a booth and proofread his novels, William Faulkner was so chummy with the bartenders that they let him mix his own mint juleps, and Aldous Huxley, John Steinbeck, T. S. Eliot and Dorothy Parker were also regulars. At Musso’s now, you can still get steaks, plain cheesecake and ice cold martinis served up by red-jacketed waiters who’ve been there for decades. In a dirty vodka haze, it’s easy to imagine yourself back in the 1940s. Then, when you leave, snap yourself back to the present and call an Uber: Those martinis are huge.
In Hollywood, death is perhaps the greatest publicity stunt, the way many celebrities secure a spot in pop culture that far exceeds their movie roles, and an afternoon strolling the headstones is the most efficient way to get close to some of your favorite stars. Hollywood Forever was built in 1899 and backs up to the Paramount Pictures lot. Amongst the famous names buried here are Johnny Ramone, Cecil B. Demille, Jayne Mansfield, Rudolph Valentino and Mel Blanc, the man who voiced the Looney Tunes. His tombstone is inscribed “That’s All Folks.” On sultry nights in the summer, movie screenings of films such as Dazed and Confused, Sixteen Candles and The Birds sell out and draw a packed crowd of picnickers snacking on Trader Joe’s hummus and bottles of rosé (don’t worry, no one sits on the graves).
Westwood Village Memorial Park is out of the way and tucked in a residential neighborhood behind some high-rise apartments. I visited for the first time as an out-of-towner, and was convinced I had gotten dropped off in the wrong spot. But no,this little nondescript plot of land is where Marilyn Monroe is buried and where Joe Dimaggio sent flowers once a week for 20 years after her death. Her grave has been kissed by fans so many times that it’s now permanently smeared with lipstick. When Heather O’Rourke, the child actress most well-known for uttering the bone-chilling line “They’re here!” in the Poltergeist movies, died at age 13, she was buried here, not far from her Poltergeist co-star Dominique Dunne, who was murdered at age 22. Half of Truman Capote’s ashes are here, placed by his friend Joanne Carson (wife of Johnny), Merv Griffin’s headstone says “I will not be right back after this message” and Rodney Dangerfield’s says “There goes the neighborhood.” Bettie Page, John Cassavetes, Ray Bradbury, Natalie Wood are also buried here, making this the place to get the most bang for your macabre buck.
Strolling the Walk of Fame, which runs along Hollywood Blvd and Vine St, offers plenty of photo ops, especially if you like your shoes, and the erratic placement of the stars is kind of amusing. Clara Bow, Hollywood’s first it girl, is smack in the middle of a parking lot exit, and probably gets driven over dozens of times a day.
When you’re not looking down, look up to see The Sign. The sign, originally reading “Hollywoodland,” was added in 1923 to promote a real estate development, and has been a fixture of history and hijinx ever since. In 1932, actress Peg Entwistle jumped to her death from the H, having decided, at age 24, that her career was going nowhere, and just this past New Year’s Eve, vandals changed it to read “Hollyweed,” a bit of dorm-room humor that is nevertheless admirable for the probable complexities of execution. Needless to say, you can no longer hike right up to the sign, but you can get a prime view from the top floor of the Hollyweed—er, wood—and Highland Center.
There’s always the Wax Museum, but it’s smack in the middle of touristy hell. Weirder and more wonderful is the Hollywood Museum, which is located just off Hollywood Blvd. in the Max Factor building. Often called ‘the father of makeup,’ Russian chemist Max Factor is credited with creating the looks of starlets like Ava Gardner, Jean Harlow and Marlene Dietrich, and famous for saying “You are not born glamorous, glamour is created.”
The bottom floor of the museum is dedicated to his makeup rooms, which are segregated by hair color (blondes get blue, redheads get green) and supposedly haunted by the ghost of Judy Garland, who wanders from room to room. The ghost of Bette Davis, however, prefers the third floor, where she’s been seen having a smoke. In addition to makeup memorabilia, like Factor’s “Beauty Calibration Machine” (the name of which suggests that beauty is as calculable as a bank balance. In Hollywood, it probably is), the museum also showcases props and costumes from films like Planet of the Apes, Jurassic Park and Silence of the Lambs, and is home to the largest Marilyn Monroe collection in the world. Marilyn is that rare Hollywood bird—old, but still in demand.
In all of these places, I’ve gotten a taste of old Hollywood, but it’s always a little disappointing, like showing up to a party to find out your crush just left. Maybe it’s better than way. After all, nothing kills mystery and allure like sticking around.
Take Marilyn, for example: If she hadn’t died at 36, her ghost wouldn’t haunt the Roosevelt, and her honeymoon dress wouldn’t be at the Hollywood Museum. We probably wouldn’t even remember her for Gentlemen Prefer Blondes or The Misfits, but the roles she took at the end of her career, like a turn as a grandmother on Two and a Half Men, or dropping f-bombs in an Adam Sandler flick. No, no, no one wants that. Maybe it’s good to let old Hollywood die young.