In the age of Marvel superhero movies, computer-generated dragons, and implausible car chase sequences, it is fantastic to know that a candid interest survives about the early days of film-making…
The Golden Age of Hollywood is truly named. The greatest films from that era have survived, and thrived, in our modern age.
I recently spoke with author Martin Turnbull, creator of the fantastic The Garden of Allah novels, about his thoughts on Hollywood, past and present.
The Garden of Allah novels are rich in the history and lore of old Hollywood. What made you interested in this particular niche of history to begin with?
I had written three novels before, each of them better than the previous effort, but none of them good enough or unique enough to publish. So I was looking around for a new idea when I came across an article online about the Garden of Allah Hotel, its history and list of residents. I’ve been watching old movies and reading biographies and autobiographies and memoirs of Hollywood stars, moguls, important players and regular folks since I was a teenager but I’d never come across this hotel before. As I read through the names of people who stayed there – Bogie and Bacall, Harpo Marx, Errol Flynn, David Niven, Ginger Rogers, Rachmaninoff, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Robert Benchley and Dorothy Parker and half the Algonquin Round Table to mention but a few – I marveled at how I’d never heard of this place.
I went looking for more information and found only one book – a non-fiction memoir of sorts by gossip columnist, Sheilah Graham. By about page 10 I knew I what I wanted to do. The Garden of Allah opened in 1927 a couple of months before “The Jazz Singer” ushered in the talkies, and closed in 1959, the year that “Ben Hur” made pretty much the last hurrah of the golden era of Hollywood. So, I realized, the Garden of Allah was open from 1927 to 1959, the exact same years of the golden era. I saw that I could tell the story of the history of Hollywood – from the invention of sound, then Technicolor, to the propaganda years of WWII, to the post war anti-communist Red Scare, and into the fifties with the decline of radio and the rise of television. And I could tell it through the eyes of the people who lived at the Garden of Allah because not only did they witness the unfolding evolution of Hollywood, but they actively participated in it. These were the people who acted in the movies, who wrote them, directed them, scored them, and costumed them. The idea to write a nine-book series came to me in one great WHOOSH! and I couldn’t wait to start.
How has writing the Garden of Allah novels changed your view of this golden age that we perceive as the greatest era of film production?
The thing that comes to mind is how small the movie industry was, and how small Los Angeles was. These days, we think of L.A. is being this huge megalopolis sprawling for hundreds of miles in every direction, home to millions of people, crowding the freeways and parking lots and airports and supermarkets. It’s been that way for a number of decades now so it’s easy to assume that it’s always been that case. However, in the years of Hollywood’s studio system heyday, it really wasn’t like that. L.A. was a much smaller, much less densely populated place. You had a bustling downtown, but outside of that, not so much. Wilshire Boulevard and Beverly Hills were almost semi-rural. Consequently, everybody who worked in the movie industry was far more likely to know each other than they might today. In those days, L.A. was barely big enough to be called a city; it was really just a town — and the movie industry was a village. People regularly moved from studio to studio so they got to know everyone.
I’ve seen online comments about my books questioning how realistic it would have been for various characters to know other (famous) characters, but it really was like that. You didn’t need six degrees of separation—usually two or three at most degrees was usually enough. Especially at a place like the Garden of Allah. The residents there were so varied and so social (in other words, they drank a lot!) that if you lived there for any length of time, sooner or later you’d either know everybody or know someone who knows everybody. It’s hard to imagine in the L.A. of today, but back then, it really was like that.
L. B. Mayer is sometimes perceived as a womanizing, omnipresent tyrant that held dominion over everyone at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer—hungry for money, and power. In “The Trouble with Scarlett,” Mayer didn’t seem like the “Lion” history remembers. Is this closer in your opinion to the real man or were most of the legends true?
I think it’s human nature to want to paint people in broad strokes, especially the prominent ones whose lives unfold in the public arena. But people are more complicated than that: heroes aren’t always good, villains aren’t always bad, clowns aren’t always happy, damsels are always virgins. I never really accepted the perceived view that Louis B. Mayer – and, for that matter, his contemporaries: Harry Cohn from Columbia, Jack Warner from Warner Bros., Daryl F. Zanuck from Twentieth Century-Fox – were all tyrannical, greedy, power-hungry tyrants 100% of the time.
Obviously, you don’t get to be the highest paid executive in America as Mayer was without some degree of manipulative maneuvering, but I doubt he was quite as bad as the default perceptions of him. I read in “City of Nets” how he was quite morally upright until his wife had a hysterectomy and was told by her doctor that she could never have sex again. According to the author, that sent Mayer off the deep end and he did start behaving like the clichéd movie mogul. That got me thinking about how we all evolve through various times in our lives, and how we are different things to different people, and I wanted to paint a version of Louis B. Mayer that would reflect all that.
The Garden of Allah novels are very candid about the homosexual and heterosexual relationships deemed “sinful” at a time when the Hays office and Catholic Legion of Decency was breathing down everyone’s necks—something that not many historical novelists touch on when exploring this era. What made you want to go with this angle?
I’m interested in exploring the machinations and maneuvering that went on behind Hollywood’s golden era, and what it took to bring to the screen those images that reflected idealistic America back to itself. I find it particularly interesting the dichotomy between the life that Hollywoodites were living versus the version of life they were creating for the screen.
In 1934, when the Hays Office was empowered to enforce the Production Code, the people who made the movies had to stick to a very strict set of highly moral codes in order to get their movies made. But in real life, their own lives were filled with excessive drinking and drug taking, adultery, unlawful sexual practices, wild affairs, divorces, gambling, and god knows what else.
The homosexual angle was a case in point. Hundreds and hundreds of gay men and women contributed enormously to golden era Hollywood—as directors, writers, costumers, makeup and hair designers, and in many other capacities. However their lifestyles were not allowed to be even hinted at, let alone portrayed with any honesty. I felt it was an aspect of the history of Hollywood’s golden era that was worth exploring.
Speaking of candor, you’ve chosen to utilize some of the biggest names of the time as major players in “The Garden on Sunset,” and then in “The Trouble with Scarlett.” This is one of the most appealing things to me as a reader, but many novelists are afraid of mentioning stars in their books, let alone using them as working characters. Why did you not go the “safe” route and change their names to suit the story?
To my way of thinking, the whole point of telling the story of the history of Hollywood through the eyes of the residents of the Garden of Allah was the very fact that so many famous people lived there. This is a place where Harpo Marx and Sergei Rachmaninoff were neighbors, where F. Scott Fitzgerald played charades with Dorothy Parker, and where Bogie courted Bacall. I immediately recognized that it was an immensely rich field for storytelling and figured: why bother telling it if I’m going to change the names? We’ve all read books and seen movies with names like Mammoth Pictures, which we know is MGM, and characters like Lowell Mohr, which we know is really Louis B. Mayer. I figured, why not just tell it like it was? So that’s what I’ve set out to do. Tell a fictionalized history of Hollywood sticking to the facts and real life people as much as I can.
Who is the one person you would like to have lunch with at the MGM Commissary, circa 1939?
Well, if you’re going to restrict me to 1939, can I say “The entire cast of The Women”…? Hmmm . . . probably not. In that case I’ll say Rosalind Russell. No, wait, Greer Garson. No, wait, Myrna Loy. Umm . . . I’ll get back to you on that one.
Is there hope for Hollywood heavyweights Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Judy Garland, or choreographer Hermes Pan becoming supporting characters in any of your future novels? (Those are only a few of my many favorites!)
Ginger Rogers (a Garden of Allah resident—she stayed there when she arrived in Hollywood with her mother) has made a couple of cameos, and Judy has too. I hadn’t considered Hermes Pan but now you’ve got me thinking…! The temptation with this sort of material is to shoehorn all my own personal favorites into the narrative. As I talked about earlier, Hollywood was really just a small company town where everybody knew and/or worked with everybody else sooner or later. So weaving anybody I wanted to into the plot wouldn’t stretch credibility too far, but it needs to come from an organic place. If I’m going to write, say Hermes Pan into the story, it has to be because Hermes would have been around at that time and at that place, and could’ve been involved with whatever plotline I’m writing about. I’m trying to write a history of Hollywood that didn’t actually happen, but could have and to do that, I can’t just insert whichever celebrity I want . . . tempting though as that may be.
Do you think stories set in and about Old Hollywood are becoming more popular because of the accessibility of Turner Classic Movies and their constant spotlight on great films?
Yes, I absolutely do! I grew up watching old movies – generally the midday movie during my school vacations. So I’d watch whatever they chose to show, but TCM has exponentially increased our exposure to the movies of Hollywood’s golden era. I thought I’d seen a lot but then along comes TCM and I realized I’d only just scratched the surface. I think it’s produced a whole new audience for these movies and a flow-on effect, like a greater interest in the time and place from which these movies sprung is an inevitable (and wonderful!) consequence.
Who has been your greatest influence as a writer?
Hmmm, I don’t know that I have a single author who has influenced my work. I read a fairly wide range of novels. A lot of historical fiction (from all eras) but anything whose plot intrigues me. Right now I’m reading “The Seamstress of Hollywood Boulevard” by Eric McGraw, which I am LOVING so I expect she’ll be my greatest influence . . . until I find myself reading my next OMG-I-LOVE-THIS book. If anything, I guess perhaps Armistead Maupin’s “Tales of the City” books have been influential. I didn’t start out trying to write a “TOTC” type series, but I was nearly done with my second book, “The Trouble with Scarlett,” when it occurred to me that that’s kinda sorta what I’d done. I realized that instead about a tightly knitted bunch of friends living in San Francisco in the 70s and 80s, I was writing about a tightly knitted bunch of friends living in Los Angeles in the 30s and 40s. So the parallels are there, albeit unconscious and unintentional.
You have quite a background! As a private tour guide for Warner Bros. in Burbank, California and a volunteer docent with the Los Angeles Conservancy, were there any stories about our legendary Hollywood idols that surprised even you?
From our modern, 21st century perspective, we (fans of old Hollywood) tend to look on that period as a golden age of glamour and star power. And it certainly was that in a wide range of ways. But what struck me the most about my time at Warner Bros. was realizing that for the people who worked there, both then and now—not just the stars, but the costumers, the writers, the directors, the lighting guys and even the girls in the typing pool—it was simply “where they went to work.” Sure, it was highly creative and all that goes with that process, but I saw that it was a daily thing. There was always another scene to memorize, another dress to make, another set to build, another P.R. campaign to concoct. So when I started writing the Garden of Allah novels, I thought about that a lot. I am writing about people who are living their daily lives during this time, just as we do now. I don’t know that they thought they were working doing a golden time. Perhaps they did, or some of them did, but I suspect it was more a case of what they did when they went to work, and that informs the books that I write. My goal is to write a story that, while it didn’t actually happen, I could have happened, and my time at Warner Bros. helped me to see what daily life was like back then.
Where do you see yourself after completion of the Garden of Allah story arc?
I have a ton of ideas of what to write after the ninth Garden of Allah book. I have a minor character in the series who I like a lot and I’m starting to think she deserves her own book. The other ideas I have are all set during Hollywood’s golden age. I see that period being so rich for storytelling that I could happily stay within the “Hollywood Historical Fiction” genre for the rest of my days.
This might be a loaded question for a writer who loves film, but what is one movie that has earned the coveted spot of “Martin’s Favorite”?
That is a TOTALLY loaded question! And impossible to answer if you’re looking for just one movie. I can give you a bunch though: “Gone with the Wind” – “Casablanca” – “Singin in the Rain” – “Now, Voyager” – “On The Town” – “The Adventures of Robin Hood” – “The Maltese Falcon” – “The Women” – “The Wizard of Oz” – “Citizen Kane” – “All About Eve” – stop me any time because we could be here all night . . .
I hear there is some exciting news in your court concerning present-day Hollywood…
Yes! I recently signed an option agreement with a film/TV producer who wants to use my novels as the basis for either a TV series, mini series or movie(s.) As soon as I conceived the idea, I saw it could make a great TV show. I’d been approached a couple of times but negotiations didn’t really go anywhere. Then this producer approached me, having read the first couple of books. Turns out he’s a big fan of golden era Hollywood and of L.A. history and it soon became apparent to me that he wanted to try and bring these novels to the screen for all the right reasons. We were very sympatico that way and we reached an agreement that we’re both quite happy with. So we’ll see!