My Hollywood

Published in Vanity Fair

bing crosby dinah shore spacer 
Dinah Shore and Bing Crosby in Los Angeles, 1942.  

When I was a child growing up in Los Angeles, I was completely confused about Hollywood. I would watch television quiz shows. Contestants would win a free trip to Hollywood. I would think, Why do they want to go there?

Hollywood, located in the east of L.A., was scary. Drunks and bums (a popular word then) hung out on Hollywood Boulevard, its dangerous and dirty main drag. One of the few times I went, my dad took me to the premiere of Prince Valiant at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, an over-the-top relic from Hollywood past. In memory I sat next to Prince Valiant himself, Robert Wagner. This could not have been possible. My parents were screenwriters, and stars are not seated next to screenwriters or screenwriters’ children, but I mentioned it to Robert Wagner when I met him a few years ago, and he said he remembered, too, so all I have to say about that is Robert Wagner is a very polite man.

I grew up on the 700 block of Linden Drive in the flats of Beverly Hills, the privileged enclave in the center of the city. There were no stars on Linden unless you count Bugsy Siegel, and he didn’t live there. The Las Vegas mobster was visiting his girlfriend when he was shot dead in her house at 810 Linden. Every single time we drove by that house I thought about Bugsy. The house had a turret in the front rising up two stories—I was sure that it had a winding staircase and that Bugsy had been shot at the top and tumbled to the bottom. (In fact, he had been sitting in the living room and was shot through the window.) North of Sunset, the houses and lots were bigger. This was where the stars lived.

When I walked to my friend Ronnie’s in Benedict Canyon, I would take Roxbury, the next block over, cross Sunset, and pass in quick succession Jimmy Stewart’s house, Jack Benny’s, and Lucille Ball’s. These houses were not behind gates or tall hedges; nevertheless I never had a star sighting except once when I went trick-or-treating at Lucille Ball’s. The maid answered the door. I want to say she was in a maid’s outfit, like a black uniform with a lace apron, although that is unlikely, but this I remember clearly: the bowl of candy was on a little table, and next to the table in a straight-backed chair sat Lucille Ball. We didn’t say anything to her. She didn’t say anything to us. She was there for viewing purposes, and we just stared and stuck our hands in the candy bowl and left.

My parents worked at Fox, which then occupied all of what is now known as Century City (also nowhere near actual Hollywood). On the set of There’s No Business Like Show Business, a movie they wrote, I met Marilyn Monroe. I must have been about eight. We were entering the soundstage as she was leaving. I think she was wearing a robe, tightly sashed, but for sure her hair was in curlers wrapped with a kerchief tied in a knot on top of her head. I was with two of my sisters, and my father said, “This is Nora, Delia, and Hallie.” She said, “Hello, Nora, Delia, and Hallie,” and patted each of us on the head. She laughed. She seemed like a really nice person.

My most significant encounter with a star: At 16, driving on Sunset Boulevard, I stopped at one of the lights near the Beverly Hills Hotel. I looked at the car next to mine and there was Bing Crosby. He pointed at me, and I thought, Wow, Bing Crosby is pointing at me, but he was pointing because my foot had slipped off the brake and my car was rolling into the car in front. I hit it, and being so relaxed and with my mouth hanging open at the sight of Bing, I slammed into the steering wheel and chipped my front teeth. I started crying. Bing drove on.

Recently a screenwriter friend told me that the way agents and studio executives know a writer is old—the worst thing you can be called in Hollywood—is that she or he puts two spaces after a period at the end of a sentence. (Old, btw, would be over 45.) In my opinion, the way you know someone in show business is old is if they live in the far west of L.A.—Brentwood or Santa Monica—or if they are thinking of buying a condo in the Venice Beach area. For the under 45s, the far east is now in: Los Feliz, Eagle Rock, Silver Lake. When in L.A., I spend all my time commuting between the extremes and visit residential Beverly Hills only to bypass the lights and hideous traffic on Sunset or Santa Monica Boulevard. I know all the shortcuts. I rarely go to Hollywood. It’s still better as fantasy.


published in Vanity Fair