Anyone who’s ever read a Raymond Chandler or Ross Macdonald novel will already have worked out that California is basically a padded cell with sunlight. Here to prove that those works of fiction are based on fact is Jean Stein’s West of Eden, an oral history of life at the top in 20th-century Los Angeles. On the dust jacket is one of Ed Ruscha’s paintings of the HOLLYWOOD sign atop Mount Lee. In this one we see it from behind, the letters silhouetted against a sunrise that looks less like the promise of a new day than a premonition of nuclear dusk. The people Stein and her interviewees discuss in the book turn out to have lived lives no less inverted and often more infernal.
We kick off with the Doheny family, whose patriarch, Edward L Doheny, was the first man to drill successfully for oil in LA, in those far-off days before the movies were the city’s economic linchpin. Stories of bribery and corruption still cling to the Doheny name, and we’ll likely never