Cold War returns

The similarities between Afghanistan and Indiana, USA plus other tales from the arts world

So much for détente. The Cold War (Arts, circa.2007) is back on, complete with all those wonderfully droll references to sub-zero temperatures. Just when the Royal Academy appeared to have gained permission for the From Russia exhibition, British ambassador Tony Brenton was summoned to explain to the foreign ministry why British Council offices in St Petersburg and Yekaterinburg had opened despite a demand to cease their activities from January 1st.

Of course, the rather sour irony of all this is that, back in the land of Shakespeare & Fry, the Arts Council continues its cull. Following on from Equity’s gnashing of teeth last week, the Tangrum Theatre led London in silent protest, whilst the National’s artistic director Nicholas Hytner (despite being head of one of the 75% of organisations to receive increased funding) branded the ACE’s spending review a ‘strategic catastrophe’ and referred to its regional bodies as those ‘unacceptable fiefdoms’.

Middle Eastern Politik

Due to return to the Royal Festival Hall in a weeks, the Israeli pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim became the first person in the world to possess both Israeli and Palestinian passports after being granted Palestinian citizenship for his efforts promoting cultural exchange between Israel and the Arab world. Presented the passport after a Beethoven recital in Ramallah the pioneer of peace and understanding said: ‘I hope that my new status will be an example of Israeli-Palestinian coexistence’.

Such tolerance and understanding does not appear, however, to be notable attributes of the Afghan state-run Film Council. Wary of the reaction to the rape scene in the film adaptation of Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, they banned both its import and exhibition. The incredulity felt by many Afghans at what has been perceived as an inflammatory and anti-Islamic act prompted Paramount Pictures to fly the film’s three child actors to a secret location in the United Arab Emirates, scared for their safety. The only other place where the story was also nearly banned due to a clamorous reaction to the rape scene? Indiana, USA.

Let It Be Known, There's Money in Poetry

£15,000 worth to be precise. Sean O'Brien scooped an unprecedented poetry double (and the increased cash prize), after adding the TS Elliot prize for poetry to the Forward gong he collected last year. To say that poetry is the new investment banking might be a bit hasty however; I don't see Tony Blair (proud employee of JP Morgan) penning his own 'Ode to Haditha' on the side just yet.

In music, Radiohead continued to disrupt the industry's economic stability, playing a EMI combusted all on its own and Jarvis Cocker slipped effortlessly on to Radio 4, offering a refreshingly passionate assessment of fanzines.

Elsewhere, in Italy, nude models took heart from the Hollywood pickets and went on strike for better pay and conditions (it's 'a tough, cold job' noted Antonella Migliorini,42) and everybody (apart from our own Ryan Gilbey) gushed, fawned and bowed at the feet of the Coen brothers' No Country for Old Men. One suspects, in many cases before the film was even watched.

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Beautiful and the damned: a spellbinding oral history of Hollywood

West of Eden: An American Place by Jean Stein follows a specific tribe of people: the beautiful.

One day in LA, the showbiz tycoon David Geffen drove by the house that had belonged to Jack Warner, the co-founder of Warner Brothers. The gates were open, so he went in. “It was so grand and so Hollywood . . . It was an homage to an idea about the way people lived in Hollywood. I got caught up in the whole gestalt and I bought it.” Geffen then marvels that he paid $47m for the homage, while Jack had sold his whole studio for just $38m in 1956. You have to have a sense of irony.

From around 1920 there was a tribe in southern California, sometimes known as “the beautiful people”. In many cases, they were technical beauties (they appeared in dreamlets known as movies or had their photographs in magazines made of heavy, perfumed pages). Yet the true beauty talked about was a spiritual aspiration – a quest for romantic nobility, fragile elegance, or serene madness – that might offset the inner derangement, selfishness and comic vulgarity that so threatened their longing for godless class, or inscrutability. They lived within the frantic church known as Hollywood, a fierce cult or early form of terrorism (it hired intimidators, all of them called Oscar) that cherished the hopeless grail of beauty and sacrificed many lives in its pursuit.

Jean Stein is one of them; she admits as much in West of Eden, which seems to me the best book ever done on the terrifying social dysfunction of the beautiful people. Ms Stein is now 81. She is the daughter of Dr Jules Stein (1896-1981), the son of Lithuanian Jews, who became a celebrity ophthalmologist yet so loved music and show business that he founded the MCA agency – Music Corporation of America.

The marriage of medicine and ten-percenting is important to this book, and Jean Stein – who is clear-eyed, and knows where the bodies are buried – has the innate touch and scalpel smile of an expert autopsist. She does not quite write, but she composes absorbing, novelistic oral histories. In 1982 she did one on Edie Sedgwick, the Sixties model, junkie, sexpot and icon, a ghost long before her death. Now Stein delivers a calm Götterdämmerung that can be read as the fearsome annals of a haunted Hollywood, as well as an adroit response to John Steinbeck’s East of Eden (1952), earlier proof of California’s soft spot for fallen angels.

West of Eden is selective and yet, by the end of its 334 pages, you feel that the light and the shadow have fallen on nearly every­one. There are just five subjects. First: Edward L Doheny, the oil tycoon who established the architecture of Los Angeles, and helped inspire There Will Be Blood. Then there are the Warners, but chiefly Jack, the youngest of four who outlived and betrayed his brothers, and who abandoned a nice Jewish wife for an adventuress and ended up being painted by Salvador Dalí and dreaded as “a character”. There is also Jane Garland, a schizophrenic child of great wealth who drifted around with various unofficial nurses and uncertain friends. Next is the teeming casebook called Jennifer Jones; and then the Steins themselves, which means Jules and Jean, and her two daughters by William vanden Heuvel, one of whom now publishes the weekly magazine the Nation.

In shaping these five windows, Stein has interviewed numerous tribe members, many of whom have memories, wounds and nightmares for which they are in therapy (or script development – the two forms are very alike). Her tone and manner are matter-of-fact, but she knows how wary those close to Eden are about trusting stories. Life is a competing set of fantasies, and given that lies have always been allowed in LA, falsehood itself, as a moral handicap, has come to mean little. Though all “true”, this book reads like a dream.

A short review cannot cover all five windows in detail, so let me fix on the one I know best: the glass or screen in which Jennifer Jones existed like a butterfly. Born in 1919 (Gore Vidal once told me she was three years older; gossip devours fact), she was the daughter of an Oklahoma showman who thought she would act – on screen, of course, but also always and everywhere. She married a young actor, Robert Walker, and they had two sons. Then in 1941 she was seen by the mogul David Selznick: he was moved by her and she was drawn upwards by her chance of stardom. Each abandoned a spouse and two sons. They became archetypes of misjudgement, though her mediocre acting never matched the skill or glow of other Selznick employees (such as Ingrid Bergman). They had a daughter, Mary Jennifer, who lived in rivalry with her mother and loathed her, and finally killed herself.

Jennifer, as Lauren Bacall reports, could be a little nutty. She and Selznick gave lavish Sunday parties: “Jennifer was busy doing her make-up and combing her hair and changing her outfit. She was kind of playing her part. She was always trying to be noticed, to have people really care about her and be there for her.”

This is not pretty stuff; maybe that is why these people were so desperate to be beautiful. Indulgence and neglect formed a damaging mixture that left bodies lining the roadside west of Eden. Lawyers and doctors catered to the stricken beauties. Shrinks played an especially devious role, though “shrink” was the wrong word; those hired to soothe mania in fact inflated their clients’ egos and dramatised their self-pity, the movie in which we all take part.

Hard to credit, often hard to stomach, this is a spellbinding record of that ancien régime. Whatever happened to the tribe? The members may be thinner on the ground now in southern California, but their ignoble nobility is everywhere.

David Thomson’s books include “Showman: the Life of David O Selznick” (André Deutsch) and “How to Watch a Movie” (Profile Books)

West of Eden: An American Place by Jean Stein is published by Jonathan Cape (334pp, £20)

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war