Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Hollywood Stairs

Our latest weekend excursion was into the heart of old Hollywood.  For readers of Charles Fleming's Secret Stairs, we were following walk #37 ("an exotic stairwalk" around the back side of the Hollywood Bowl) and walk #35 ("a most spiritual walk" above Franklin Avenue, west of Beachwood).  Oddly, there weren't a lot of stairs on these two walks... but there were plenty of fascinating sights.

The first walk revolved around an architectural feature with a storied history.  Practically every twist and turn in the path offers a different perspective on the High Tower above the secluded neighborhood of Alta Loma.  The tower, which houses a private elevator for people who live on the hill, was made famous by Robert Altman's film The Long Goodbye, which is based on a novel by Raymond Chandler.  According to one website, Chandler also used the tower as inspiration for Marlowe's apartment in his novel The High Window... but I recently read The High Window and didn't see any indication of that.

High Tower from afar
High Tower Drive

High Tower from above (Marlowe's apartment building to the right)
High Tower close
Marlowe's private elevator
The walkway at the top is accessible to the public but it feels very private -- largely because this is one of very few neighborhoods in Los Angeles that's not accessible by car.  You might think that the neighbors would be put off by a couple of nosy tourists wandering through their enclave, but that wasn't our experience.  In fact, I've been consistently surprised by how friendly people have been in nearly every neighborhood we've visited on the Secret Stairs tours.  On multiple occasions, people have seen the book in our hands and started telling us proudly about their neighborhood.  In a city where so many people don't even talk to the people who live right next door to them, that's refreshing. 

Just off the beaten path was another hidden treasure -- a Frank Lloyd Wright house that was built around the same time as the Ennis House, using a similar design.  As soon as I saw it, I immediately wondered why I hadn't heard  of it.  The answer is simple enough: The Samuel Freeman House hasn't been prominently featured as a filming location.   As a result, it apparently doesn't get as much love as the Ennis House, which recently underwent an major restoration.  Like Ennis, the Freeman House suffered structural damage in the 1994 Northridge earthquake, and remains closed to the public.  (Ditto nearby Hollyhock House.  Frank Lloyd Wright's Egyptian-themed treasures have all taken a beating at the hands of Mother Nature.)

Our second walk offered some equally exotic locations.  The first was the Vedanta Society temple, an active monastery with deep connections to L.A.'s literary scene.  This is the primary setting of Christopher Isherwood's book My Guru and His Disciple.

Isherwood was turned on to the place by a close friend of his in 1939, when the temple was still relatively new.  At first, the British expat says he regarded Vedanta with suspicion, and Hindus in general as "stridently emotional mysterymongers whose mumbo jumbo was ridiculous."   He resolved, however, to keep an open mind and decided to give Swami Ramakrishna "six months of honest effort" before he would publicly declare Vedanta a sham.  By the end of the period, he had become a formal devotee of Ramakrishna. He concluded: "To live this synthesis of East and West is the most valuable kind of pioneer work I can imagine - never mind who approves or disapproves."

Here's what he had to say about the temple itself: "The atmosphere is extraordinarily calming, and yet alive, not sleepy.  Someone said to me that it's like being in a wood.  This is a very good description.  Just as, in a wood, you feel the trees alive all around you, so in the shrine the air seems curiously alsert.  Sometimes it is as if the whole shrine room becomes your brain and is filled with thought." 

A Hindu temple in Hollywood
Of course, old Hollywood is a known hotbed for esoteric religions.  Right down the street from the Vedanta temple is Krotona, former home of the Southern California Theosophical Society, as well as the infamous "church" of Scientology.  Quasi-religious groups like these seemed to spring up overnight during the Hollywood studio era, when America's first movie stars were congregating here.

Former Krotona residence - now an apartment building
Our tour guide pointed out two former homes of Charlie Chaplin, as well as the former residences of Hopalong Cassidy and Barbara Stanwyck.  The Stanwyck estate, now known as Hollymont Castle, was especially intriguing.  I have always associated Barbara Stanwyck with actresses like Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, whose iconic status as screen sirens in the 1930s and 1940s somehow morphed into b-movie status as hellish harpies in the 1950s and 1960s.  I think of it as Norma Desmond syndrome.  Appropriately enough, Stanwyck's former home is reputedly haunted... and looks it.

Hollymont Castle

Here's what the book Hollywood Death and Scandal Sites has to say about it and its Pepto-Bismol colored neighbor: "The two houses at 6215 and 6221 have reportedly been haunted for years, with countless examples of furniture chasing people around rooms nad books flyign off shelves.  When a local bishop came to perform an exorcism his ceremonial hat vanished and a scepter filled with holy water exploded.  His hat was later found locked in a third floor attic.  The hauntings may be related to the secret tunnel hidden behind a bookshelf recently discovered in one of the two houses that connects several of the hillside homes.  Deep in a tunnel a makeshift grave was found, saying simply, 'Regina, 1922.'  It just may be that 'Regina,' whoever she is, is still in residence."  (More details here.)

Here's another house down the street -- unmentioned in Secret Stairs -- that's practically begging for its own ghost story.  I'd love to know how a simple old house like this, which looks like it might date back as far as Hollywood's orange grove days, has managed to survive all these years in a neighborhood where historical value runs a distant second to land value.... It makes me think that someone, or something, is looking out for it. 


  1. I just love the variety and architecture of this town. After all these years, still glad I call this home. Wonderful, Joe.