THE GARDEN ON SUNSET
a novel by
Book One in the Hollywood’s Garden of Allah series
When the Hollywood Red Car lurched to a stop, Marcus Adler pulled open his eyes to find a wheezing old conductor staring right at him.
Marcus looked around. He was the only passenger left. “Where are we?”
The conductor jerked his head towards the door. “End of the line.”
“Don’t suppose you know where 8152 Sunset Boulevard is?”
“What do I look like? A street map?”
Marcus took that for a no, picked up his cardboard suitcase, and climbed down to the street. A line of rickety stores huddled on the south side of Sunset Boulevard up to where the asphalt ended; a sign near the curb read Los Angeles City Limit. Past the sign, west of Crescent Heights Boulevard, Sunset disintegrated into a wandering dirt road. A knot of horses stood in the shade of a tree with thin, dusty leaves Marcus had never seen back in Pennsylvania. One of the horses raised its head to study him for a moment, then returned to grazing.
“Hey!” The conductor hung from the streetcar’s doorway. “8152 Sunset? Try thataway.” He pointed towards the horses.
Eighty-one fifty-two Sunset Boulevard, Hollywood, California. It was an address Marcus had repeated over and over to himself since that time when he was eleven years old, swollen grotesquely with diphtheria in the hospital. His parents had written Madame Alla Nazimova a letter at his request, never thinking that a motion picture star so unspeakably exotic, so stupefyingly glamorous would respond. But she did. And she came to call on him, a diaphanous vision in lavender tulle. How kind she was, and so humble. Surely she would remember him. How many bedside visits had she made to children inflated with diphtheria in the middle of Pennsylvania? How many did she look in the eye and say, “If you ever come to Hollywood, I want you to come visit me. My house is very large, and I have plenty of room for you. I live at 8152 Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, California.”
And now he was almost there.
Marcus crossed the deserted intersection and headed towards a nest of two-story bungalows that loomed behind a tall white wall. They were freshly painted; the sheen caught the light of the setting sun as it descended into the dirt track.
As he made his way along the wall, an unbroken trumpet note sliced the still air. What will Nazimova say when she answers the door? he wondered.
The trumpet player ran out of steam and a thunderclap of applause erupted. Maybe this wasn’t a good time. He peeked around the corner and looked up at a twelve-foot-high sign.
GARDEN OF ALLAH HOTEL
8152 Sunset Boulevard
Marcus set his suitcase down in the dust and stared at the gold letters of Allah. He didn’t expect Sunset Boulevard to be a dirt track and he certainly didn’t expect to find a hotel sign out front of Alla Nazimova’s movie star mansion.
He peered at the hotel past the sign. It was painted the same cream as the garden wall, with tall, arched windows with dark brown shutters. It looked like the California missions he’d studied in high school.
He pulled out a handkerchief and swiped his broad forehead, round cheeks and the back of his neck. It was hard to believe this was January. Back home, they’d be shoveling the driveway, but here there wasn’t even a cool breeze. He picked up his suitcase and made his way past a long bed of pale roses and into the white hotel.
The murky foyer had paneled walls and octagonal avocado-green tiles the size of dinner plates. The reception desk would have been hard to spot without the lamp casting a pool of amber light on it. Its stained-glass shade was a kitschy pyramid with a sphinx and a clump of palm trees. There was no one in sight.
Marcus rang the bell. Laughter and clinking glasses wafted through the double doors that opened onto a wide brick path to a swimming pool curved like a grand piano at the far end. A crowd too large to count was scattered around it in knots of fours and fives; a hundred, two hundred people, maybe. Shiny tuxedos, sparkling diamonds, ropes of pearls, patent leather shoes.
Marcus gaped at a clutch of women dancing the Black Bottom. Their short hair, high hemlines and cigarettes were a far cry from the Pennsylvania Dutch girls he’d grown up with. A girl Marcus had known in McKeesport had turned up at a St. Stephen’s tea dance social with her hair bobbed like Louise Brooks and her stockings rolled down below her knees; she hadn’t lasted ten minutes, and Marcus had never seen her again. Maybe she’d been run out of town too.
Six days, three trains, a bus and two streetcars later, the sting of his father’s last words still jabbed at Marcus’s heart. “You get out of my town and get as far as you can go, and don’t you ever come back.” On the night train to Chicago, he’d stared into the darkness and wondered where to go. Eighty-one fifty-two Sunset Boulevard was the only address outside of McKeesport he knew, so when his train pulled into Chicago, he took the next one heading west.
There wasn’t a Pickford curl in sight at this party. It was all crisp bangs, bright rouge and red lipstick, ivory cigarette holders and cream bowties on outrageous three-inch heels. Oriental butlers circulated with silver cocktail trays and virtually every girl had a martini in her hand. So much for seven years of Prohibition. There was a lively, frantic quality to this crowd Marcus had never witnessed before. Everyone seemed to be having such a riot that he had to wonder: what was so bad about booze if this was the result?
A troupe of musicians decked out like Spanish matadors made their way to the pool and lined up at the far end. They brought their Continental spin on “Ain’t She Sweet” to a close and started counting backwards from ten. When they shouted, “ONE!” the trumpeter blew a long note and paper lanterns in orange, blue, green and red strung throughout the maple trees lit up, transforming the garden into a fairytale wonderland with their gentle glow. The crowd sighed and clapped. It looks like the set of Camille, thought Marcus, where Nazimova wore that shimmering cloak with the white camellias. How luminous she’d been, falling in love with Valentino.
The matadors merged into the crowd playing “Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue” and the chatter swelled again.
“You look a little lost.”
The voice belonged to a tall man with a long, narrow face. It took Marcus a moment to realize he was staring into the eyes of Francis X. Bushman. Marcus had seen Ben-Hur twelve times when it came to McKeesport; he’d thought Bushman was stupendously hateful as Massala, the villain. Tonight he wore a tuxedo that looked twice as expensive as Marcus’s entire wardrobe. His first movie star!
“I . . . ah . . .” The words dried up on Marcus’s tongue like August dirt.
Bushman peered down at Marcus’s cardboard suitcase and his eyes lit up. “Good gravy! You’re here to check in!” Bushman lifted his hand to his mouth. “Hey! Brophy!” The actor’s voice carried easily over the commotion.
A wide-faced man with a Cheshire cat smile turned around and raised his eyebrows. Bushman grabbed Marcus’s suitcase out of his hand and lifted it high. “You have a guest!”
Brophy cut through the crowd with the eagerness of a groundhog in February. “Is that right, son? You want to check in? To the hotel?”
Marcus scanned the crowd. He couldn’t see Alla Nazimova anywhere. “This is 8152 Sunset Boulevard, isn’t it?”
Marcus felt stupid asking if Madame Nazimova still lived there. This is a hotel, you big nincompoop, he told himself. Clearly she isn’t here any more. “I guess I do need a room,” he conceded.
Brophy stepped up onto the diving board and let out a whistle that slashed through the crowd and stopped the band.
“Everybody!” Brophy announced. “I have an exciting announcement to make. I would like to introduce you all to a most important person.” He pulled Marcus up alongside him on the diving board and out of the side of his mouth murmured, “What’s your name, kid?”
“Ladies and gentlemen, I would like to present the Garden of Allah Hotel’s very first guest, Mister Marcus Adler, Esquire!” The crowd, easy to impress on bathtub gin, let out a collective “Oooohh!” and burst into a thunderclap of applause. “Mister Adler hails from the great city of . . .” He nudged Marcus.
“. . . Of McKeesport, Pennsylvania!” Brophy spun around in surprise. “McKeesport? Ain’t that where the first nickelodeon opened up?”
Marcus nodded. It was McKeesport’s sole claim to fame. Thin, to be sure, but eagerly brought up in conversation with every visiting relative and Fuller Brush man passing through town.
“Seems to me,” Brophy beamed, “that our Mr. Adler here is bringing the coals back to Newcastle, which I think qualifies him to an extra-special rate. What do you say, friends?”
A loud cheer erupted. It dropped off quickly, though; the crowd was keen to get back to its gin. Brophy swept Marcus off the diving board, grabbed up his suitcase and led him back into the gloomy foyer. He opened the first page of the hotel register, swung it around towards Marcus and handed him a fountain pen.
“You on the level about being from McKeesport?”
“Well, if that don’t beat all. You planning on staying long with us, Mr. Adler?”
Marcus looked up from the blank page and summoned up a fistful of courage. “Does Alla Nazimova still live here?”
The book is available in all formats – both ebook and paperback:
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And if you do buy a copy, could I ask you to write an online review? Apparently the more reviews a book gets, the higher its profile and placement in search engine listings, and in “Customers also bought this book” scrolls. It all helps, and I’d be very grateful.
The Garden of Allah novels: Book Two
It’s 1936 – Gone with the Wind is released by first-time author Margaret Mitchell and becomes an international sensation. Everyone in Hollywood knows that Civil War pictures don’t make a dime but renegade movie producer David O. Selznick snaps up the movie rights and suddenly the whole country is obsessed with answering just one question: Who will win the role of Scarlett O’Hara?