July 2003

Among the Mansions of Eden: Tales of Love, Lust and Land in Beverly Hills
(William Morrow, 352 pages, $24.99)
By David Weddle

Subdivided into parcels, a bit like Beverly Hills itself, David Weddle's study of a place, a concept, an idea, a dream; languidly unfolds, enveloping the reader in a gauzy, gaudy, seductive, sweet-scented cascade of words, images, designer clothes, brand-name products, household names and weaving, twisting geography. The hills, the flats, the canyons, the drives; all intersecting, crisscrossing, coexisting, functioning (somehow), in an area of West Los Angeles, famous, fabulous, and wealthy beyond (you would think), anyone's wildest dreams. Beginning with the question "How did it happen?" — Weddle's tour takes us on a dizzying trip through local history, and charts the course of a city's destiny — a city that was literally created to be what it ended up being — a playground for the world's demigods, a haven for the super rich — a state, a principality, an island, a country all its own. We are introduced to a bizarre gallery of fantastic characters; the city's inventors, and the contemporary realtors who stalk its perimeters with ruthless ambition; the vendors, hawkers and sellers; the con men, cheats, and personal security gonzos; the stars and directors, entrepreneurs and magnates who fill its cultivated streets and shop at its customized boutiques. About the only things missing are the halt, the lame, the sick and the poor, as they are basically prohibited from crossing the city line. In the earliest days of its existence, some of the well-heeled residents suggested a wall be built around its circumference — although whether that was intended to keep folks in or keep them out remains unclear.

Weddle, whose previous book If They Move ... Kill 'Em was on the iconoclastic director Sam Peckinpah, is a terrific writer and keeps the reader solidly entertained as he casts an acerbic eye across the lush lawns, cocking a quizzical brow at the quirky, pretentious, idiosyncratic behavior on display. He has an evident love for the land, the terrain, the area, and how it was hewn from parched bean fields and a low mountain range by long-departed visionaries; dreamers from the east who saw a fantastic opportunity. The very name itself — "Beverly Hills" — was coined by Lillian Green, wife of Burton Green who was in charge of building Southern California's "first planned community" on behalf of Rodeo Land and Water in 1906. Lillian replaced "Beverly Farms" with "Hills," subtly suggesting a rolling landscape of verdant bloom — the ideal environment for displaced millionaires, either for extended vacations or full-time lifestyle redeployment. Weddle concludes that the true inheritors of this Garden of Eden are the realtors, and he bookends his fascinating tale with their excesses. As peddlers of both the dream and the land itself, they trawl every square inch, pricing, gauging, and assessing value. Essentially they think of a number and quadruple it, before unloading their hand-tailored palatial jumble sales on the next seeker who can come up with the required bankroll. Across a century of development, history is made and demolished, personal palaces razed and destroyed, empires won and lost. The cultural polyglot is described by Weddle in crisp, non-judgmental detail. His tone and attitude changes from section to section, as if he realizes the city can't be delineated entirely as satire. He is sympathetic to the first-generation movie stars; Pickford, Fairbanks, Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd, who artfully constructed their works of artifice both on and off the screen — he describes how Buster Keaton's legacy was saved after James Mason had purchased the comedian's house, and discovered prints of his greatest movies (long thought lost) in a forgotten vault. The influx of the vaudevillians and the creation of the Friar's Club, the mass immigration of Persian exiles, the state of the community and its impact on the regions around it are dutifully essayed, along with the cartoon antics of Hugh Hefner and his wannabes; Norm Zadeh, (hedge fund wizard turned "Perfect 10" girlie magazine owner), Bernie Cornfeld, who went broke aping Hef's proclivities, Bijan Pakzad and the Rodeo Drive shopping wars, Mike Romanoff's dazzling exploitation of the restaurant business, Mark Hughes' Herbalife emporium, Gavin De Becker's rise to power as the man who would protect the assets of the wealthy in the post-Manson climate, and the assorted potpourri of catastrophically enclined human detritus who have crashed the party seeking to carve a chunk of the good life for themselves. Weddle's elegantly assembled wordage flows like a dramatic narrative; it's the nonfiction equivalent of The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West.

In the end, the author leaves us as he finds us, with characters presiding over yet another humongous land sale high atop the canyons where the red-tailed raptors circle lazily in the sky. Looking down on the fabled "billionaire's horseshoe," the brokers can't wait to perpetrate another architectural atrocity on "the last mountaintop." Earlier on in the book, grubby speculators ponder how much longer producer Robert Evans may have left to live before they can get their hands on his much-coveted house, "Woodland." The buzzards are settling on the carrion of bad taste and Weddle sums it up thusly: "They were here first and will endure as long as there's a shred of blue sky to weave into the dream. They build no monuments of their own; there are no 'Maps to the Beverly Hills Realtor's Homes.' This — the entire city sprawled out below them — is their bid for immortality. A smoke-and-mirrors trick that has an everlasting hold on the American imagination."

Review written by Nick Redman


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