Small is beautiful

Stoke Newington hosts an enjoyable alternative to the traditional literary festival.

As the sprawling Hay Festival rumbled to its close in far-away Wales, the second Stoke Newington Literary Festival offered London book lovers something a little less star-studded, and a lot closer to home. Though with a line-up including Steven Berkoff, Stewart Lee, Dan Cruickshank, Jon Ronson, Kate Summerscale, Orange Prize-winner Linda Grant, and with the critic Alex Clark acting as peripatetic literary host, it was hardly a mothers' meeting. (Not that such gender-specific rendezvous take place in Stoke Newington these days.)

Organiser and local resident Liz Vater has a background in PR, and her skills in this field proved invaluable when, last year, on little time and less money, she put together 2010's impressive debut.

N16 is exactly the kind of arty middle-class locale that can sustain a festival of this kind. It mirrors Hay (and many others) in its mix of literature, history, children's events, social issues via recent writing and comedy.

It also employs a wide variety of venues: from the rather impressive Town Hall, replete with the world's second-largest glitter ball (the world's largest is currently stationed in Germany), to The Jolly Butchers pub and the Mascara Bar in Stamford Hill.

This mixture, and the festival's focus on local history - Poe, Wollstonecraft and Defoe, the area's three most famous literary residents, all featured across the weekend, most notably when Stephen Berkoff unveiled a bust of Poe at the site of the author's old school - create a homespun community feel, which is by no means a bad thing. Rather it's relaxing and friendly, with no awe-fuelled distance between reader and audience, and there is a strong sense of place.

Being a smaller, less commercial affair (after covering costs, the festival donates profits to literacy projects in Hackney) there is also more time and space for new writers. Thus on Saturday, Alex Clark was to be found in the tiled subterranean room of the Three Crowns pub, The Drop, talking to debut novelists - Sarah Winman (When God Was a Rabbit), Naomi Wood (The Godless Boys) and Sam Leith (The Coincidence Engine); and on Sunday evening the same venue provided the setting for a rather more raucous affair hosted by novelist, Nikesh Shukla.

Declaring he wanted to make the event a bit more "Glastonbury main stage", the ever-boisterous Shukla insisted all the young authors be summoned to the stage by the crowd chanting their names. The packed room kindly obliged for authors Evie Wyld (her debut, After the Fire a Still Small Voice won the Betty Trask award), Gavin James Bower, Shukla himself, Lee Rourke and Niven Govinden, author of two novels, but increasingly a prolific short story writer - he read his story, "Nightwalk", which was broadcast over the weekend on Radio 3, and is currently on the shortlist for the Bristol Short Story Prize for the tale, "Marseille Tip".

The sense of good entertainment via good writing was further emphasised by poet Tim Wells's concept of featuring short sets of poetry at the start of events; both to warm up the crowd and remind attendees that verse can by funny, gripping, seriously entertaining and, most crucially, accessible. Poets thrust into this brief spotlight included: Ashna Sarkar, Heather Phillipson, Jack Underwood, and Simon Barraclough.

Wells also took part in the last event of the festival: "Ska & Reggae in Stoke Newington". And so it was that under the unerring glare of the world's second-largest glitter ball, the panel - which featured the legendary owner of The Four Aces Club in Dalston, Newton Dunbar, and guitarist from The Slits, Viv Albertine - discussed why music from one small island had such a huge impact on London culture in the seventies and beyond. Albertine recalling that John Lydon and his thuggish north London mates would go along to another local reggae club, Phebes, and dance the night away.

From Gothic horror stories to true Victorian crime, reggae to Dr Seuss, the best new poetry to the new hopefuls of English fiction, this festival is more low-key but in many ways more enjoyable version of its blockbusting cousins. Long may it continue.

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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