Not many people can boast that they have climbed on the Hollywood Sign. Off-limits to the general public, the nine white corrugated-steel letters stand a lofty 45ft high on Mt Lee, which overlooks the city of Los Angeles. Like the Eiffel Tower in Paris, or Big Ben in London, the Sign tells you where you are—except that, with American directness, it literally spells it out.
This year the landmark is celebrating its 100th birthday, which is why I have special permission to visit it. I’ve already admired it from afar, reclining by the rooftop swimming pool of the swish Thompson Hollywood hotel. Now I’m at the security fence above the Sign, where I am admitted by the genial chairman of the Hollywood Sign Trust, Jeff Zarrinam.
Thanks to his presence, I won’t be accosted by an LAPD helicopter and slapped with a fine of $10,000. Holding on to a rope for safety, we descend the steep and slippery slope until we reach the mighty H. From here, it’s easy to stroll from letter to letter, admiring the sheer size and dazzling whiteness of the steel, which has recently received a birthday paint-job.
“Can I climb on it?” I ask. After a pause, Jeff agrees. I clamber up the back of the second L. My head pops out and I gaze down on the LA sprawl.
Los Angeles, of which Hollywood is a district, has always been the city of the new. In the early 20th century, it became home to the new medium of cinema. Bright young things have come here ever since, to try out new personas on the screen, and adopt new faces, thanks to the skill of the make-up artist and the surgeon. Sometimes their dreams became nightmares. Spare a thought for the British stage actress, Peg Entwhistle, who was so depressed by her failure to break into movies that, in 1932, she scaled the H of the Hollywood Sign and jumped.
In 2023, Walt Disney Company and Warner Bros are also marking their centenaries. Now, for the first time, LA is starting to be old. In LA, you might say, old is the new new.
The recent blockbuster Barbie, starring Margot Robbie, is the most successful film in the history of Warner Bros. Yet in its time the movie studio has given us such classics as Public Enemy, Casablanca and Dirty Harry. These are all celebrated this year in a special 100th birthday exhibit, as part of the public studio tour.
When Casablanca was made in 1942, its leading man Humphrey Bogart lived in West Hollywood with his wife Mayo Methot. They had a tempestuous relationship—so much so that the pair, both of whom were heavy drinkers, were known as “the battling Bogarts”. Dorothy Parker quipped that their neighbours were “lulled to sleep by the sounds of breaking china”.
There’s no evidence of such strife when I explore the leafy backstreets where they lived, driven by the fashion designer Mia Latter in her 1980s Mercedes, along with her chihuahua, Ginger. A Brit by birth, my friend Mia was always destined to be a Hollywood icon. Now she makes clothes for other icons, such as It girl Angelyne and rock star Troy Van Leeuwen.
In our quest for old Hollywood, we are following the advice of the acclaimed film-maker Whit Stillman, who knows a thing or two about Tinseltown. “One of the good things about LA is it’s so spread out,” he counselled me. “It doesn’t have the same premium on land as other cities. There’s land to build on, so things are left as they were. Certain neighbourhoods really are the Hollywood from the prewar era.”
The Bogarts’ home has been replaced by a high-rise. So instead, Mia and I seek out the address on North Hayworth Avenue where the Great Gatsby author F. Scott Fitzgerald drank himself to death in 1940. Whatever scenes it once witnessed, the soft-grey villa seems peaceful when we draw up in Mia’s convertible—more West Hampstead than West Hollywood.
From here, we head to the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. This turns out to be one of the world’s most beautiful graveyards. Its lush lawns are dotted with tombs. Its paths are lined with swaying, giraffe-necked palms. Deep within the mausoleum at its heart, we track down the vault of Rudolph Valentino, one of the first Hollywood heartthrobs. The fresh tributes include a passionate letter in French, declaring love for the actor. “Impressive pulling power that he can reach out from beyond the grave,” observes Mia admiringly. “That’s one dishy corpse.”
We take in the graves of Burt Reynolds and Douglas Fairbanks Sr, too. There’s also a touching monument to Toto, the cairn terrier who accompanies Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz.
Such are the oases in a city that, though dedicated to beauty, is often strikingly un-beautiful. In some streets, you could be in the suburbs of Naples or Beirut. “You can think it’s sketchy, if you don’t go to the right places,” admits Eric, my guide on a bike tour one morning. He takes me to the prettier places, like the picturesque Farmers Market (est. 1934) in the La Brea district. Here I scoff a chocolate-covered honeycomb at Littlejohn’s English Toffee House. Not so different from a Crunchie, it’s a rare taste of familiarity for an Englishman in LA.
When you’re so far from home, few things make sense. A trip to the Dodgers Stadium is worthwhile, but the rules of baseball are a bit baffling. I’m surprised to see an advert promoting the pseudo-religion of Scientology. Doesn’t everyone know it’s for crazies? It’s easy to feel all at sea among the castellated mansions of Hollywood, with their roses and razor-wire.
One evening, I set out from my second LA hotel, the stylish Delphi, and escort Mia to a glamorous reception for the film-maker John Waters at the Academy Museum. The place is hosting an exhibition devoted to his work. This is entitled The Pope of Trash in tribute to Waters’s penchant for the perverse and downright disgusting, which can be sampled in movies such as Pink Flamingos (1972) and Hairspray (1988).
Mia is resplendent in a burgundy trouser suit of her own making, embroidered with cactus-and-horseshoe motif. I am wearing dusty trainers. Among the crowd are two drag queens: famous, Mia tells me, from TV. There’s also a country singer named Orville Peck, his face concealed behind a fringed mask. At last, I see someone I recognise. It’s the actress Jodie Foster. She looks terrific, if surprisingly small.
“What an amazing night!” declares Waters, 77, into the microphone. “This is the victory of *joyous bad taste*!” After a pause, he adds gleefully, “And I didn’t even have to *die*!”
Another highlight of my visit is the messy hotdog I grab later that night from Pink’s, a fast-food joint founded in 1939. The most venerable eatery in Hollywood, though, is the plush Musso & Frank Grill, which dates back to 1919. Raymond Chandler wrote The Big Sleep in one of its red booths. At the bar, the actor Steve McQueen brawled with the writer Charles Bukowski.
The proprietor, Mark Echeverria, tells me cheerfully he would never replace the fading wallpaper that lines the higher part of the walls in the older of the two dining rooms. “It’s got Humphrey Bogart’s cigar smoke up there!”
Outside on Hollywood Boulevard, the street is paved with stars. The Hollywood Walk of Fame, begun in 1960, now pays tribute to some 2,700 celebrities with its star-shaped plaques. I spot the 1980s brat packer Rob Lowe beside John Barrymore, who was a big name in the 1920s.
In theory, anyone can have a star, as long as you’re willing to fork out $75,000. On the whole, of course, it’s thought to be the job of your fans to foot the bill, rather than yours. Yet there is one man, as it happens, who is known to have bought his own star: a certain Donald Trump.