West of Eden : an American place

In West of Eden: an American place, Jean Stein examines five unique stories that have shaped the landscape of Los Angeles history. In her long awaited follow up to Edie, An American Girl, Stein again uses oral history to flesh out the stories of the Dohenys, the Warner family (of Warner Bros. fame), real estate heiress Jane Garland, actress Jennifer Jones, and, finally, Stein’s own illustrious clan.

While some of the narratives, like the story of the Doheny family, are well embedded in the mind of anyone who knows LA history, Stein is able to give these tales more nuance and dimension by relaying multiple perspectives inherent to each story. Stein’s interview subjects reach far and wide with democratic representation: high society matrons, debutantes and business moguls share their stories alongside caretakers, housekeepers, nurses and secretaries. In some instances this creates a quasi Rashomon-like narrative in select stories, while it provides clarity and transparency within others. For good measure, famous voices like Gore Vidal, Joan Didion, Stephen Sondheim, Lauren Bacall, Warren Beatty and Jane Fonda are peppered throughout.

The journey of actress Jennifer Jones takes up a significant portion of the book and is among the more fascinating stories. Stein is able to chart Jones’ evolution, with astounding detail, from a small town “Oakie” and aspiring actress named Phylis Isley into an Oscar winning star who married both legendary Gone with the Wind producer David O. Selznick, and philanthropist Norton Simon. The story of Jones is compelling not only for her ascent into fame and upward mobility, but for its less-than-flattering portrait of the actress herself. Oral narratives eschew a florid ‘Hollywood’ tale to reveal the complicated relationships Jones had with her friends, children and three husbands, as well as her determination to live up to a glamorous ‘star’ image that had been meticulously crafted for (and by) her.

The biggest surprise of the book, however, is probably the story of Jane Garland, an erratic, mentally ill heiress who caused grief for nearly anyone who crossed her path. Garland was the ignored daughter of a former beauty queen/failed actress and an LA real estate mogul. She spent much of her life surrounded by nurses and caretakers before fading into obscurity. Stein is not only able to relay Garland’s lost personal history, but she is able to show the humanity within this sadly troubled figure. By sharing the stories of the caretakers and nurses who spent their days and nights with Garland, Stein succinctly demonstrates the value of oral history in reviving the long-forgotten stories that are too often shut out of more traditional primary resources.

The book, at times, feels disjointed because there is no linear connection between the subjects being discussed, but the stories are so interesting that it really doesn’t matter. Stein creates a book that is hard for history lovers to put down.