Literary Adventures, Old and New: Musso & Frank Grill

In this newsletter, we look at the Musso & Frank Grill, a legendary hangout for Hollywood stars and screenwriters when film was the new technology in town.

musso and frank grill, los angeles
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According to the humorist and columnist Frank Scully, who lived in the neighborhood, it was “once the knoll of every star’s ambition.” Whitley Heights was the place where stars lived before they “moved to that billiard table called Beverly Hills,” and as I sit by the glittering dark-blue-tiled pool of a Mediterranean-style guesthouse called the Ballroom, I squint a little, trying to imagine my way into the bashes on the patio cobblestones, especially during the pre-Code, Prohibition years. Hollywood stars and screenwriters bantering and drinking champagne. Silent stars who were as ill-equipped as the preening Lina Lamont to make halfway-eloquent speeches talking about the news.

Inside, a curved staircase built for making an entrance or a sweeping exit. Architecturally parallel to the steep, lush, ivy-lined Whitley Terrace Steps just outside the gate. I run up the steps, past the villa, the main house, where Barbara Stanwyck once lived. At another point, it seems, Norma Shearer, and her husband, the workaholic genius movie producer Irving Thalberg, lived there, too—his parents owned the house.

To the left of the Whitley Terrace Steps is the front door of a house purportedly owned by F. Scott Fitzgerald. During one of his stays in Hollywood, Fitzgerald wrote a short story, “Crazy Sunday,” about his crush on Shearer, for whom he’d worked on a script for Marie Antoinette. Thalberg featured as well in Fitzgerald’s unfinished Hollywood roman à clef, originally titled The Love of the Last Tycoon: A Western.

Fitzgerald had been spectacularly unsuccessful as a screenwriter. I wonder whether he first met the power couple here. I picture them standing on opposite sides of the street and making small talk about the weather, the garden, the latest celebrity gossip. Perhaps, though I have no concrete evidence that they socialized in this particular neighborhood during his time here, he, and they, strolled down Bonair Place to the Musso & Frank Grill, the iconic restaurant that celebrated its centennial in 2019. The palms might have been silhouetted against a pink January sky in a neighborhood not yet a time capsule, not yet lore. Instead, in their present: merely a beautiful upstart development in citrus groves.

William Faulkner would have taken a similar walk years later from his Watsonia Terrace house, the house where the actress Gloria Swanson once lived. It would have been along Milner, the peaceful, shady street lower on the hill at the bottom of the steps. The sounds, the people, may have been different 100 years ago, but the other, earlier world doesn’t feel distant.

In front of Musso’s, a doorman in a suit notices me hanging back, asks whether I have a reservation and encourages me to go in. It’s apparent, probably, from my trepidation that shiny public surfaces make me nervous.

Inside: all red leather booths and mahogany. Ornamental paintings, like murals of peacocks, on the plaster above an interior arched doorway. French service—the suited waiters gracefully holding the dishes they’re serving above their heads as they approach the table. The menu features jellied consommé, sauerbraten, Welsh rarebit, old-fashioned dishes that, in Fitzgerald’s day, would have felt the height of rich sophistication rather than delightfully vintage.

I sip a martini in one of the two-person red leather booths. The waiter leaves a carafe of the overflow gin in a silver bucket. Soft bread. Then oysters. Conversations I can’t quite make out even as a veteran eavesdropper. But nobody else is marking up their manuscripts—this much I can see.

Over the past century, novelists have been lured to Hollywood by the possibility of more money than novels can bring. It was said, in the 1920s, during Fitzgerald’s time, that novels were dying. While book publishing was run by old-moneyed New York, the money that exchanged hands in the film industry and in restaurants like Musso’s was often enough new money. These were, like the new technologies of today, industries built on the backs of immigrants whose dreams remained largely flattened or unpictured by the anxious, wealthy classes, even as immigrants manufactured the tools and the dreams.

Novelists have been, often enough, unsuited to the business. Fitzgerald, for instance, didn’t have a knack for voice—his screenplay dialogue was tangled up with copious visual detail and direction. Besotted with affluence, Fitzgerald was stalled, partly, by his care for writing as art. Faulkner came to the restaurant in turmoil, too, but it didn’t derive from a Fitzgeraldian preciousness about his words. For Faulkner, it was all about the money. He was supporting three, sometimes four families with his income from Hollywood—keep in mind, however, that his royalties in 1939 for The Wild Palms were $5,500, or $116,598.82 today, so, at least compared with contemporary literary royalties, decent. Of the novelists turned screenwriters during the years when film, rather than social media, was the nascent technology destroying the attention spans novels require, he had the strongest natural feel for the work.

Writers weren’t drawn to Musso’s in those early years because they hoped to catch a reflected glow from the celebrities to whom they gave lines. The Screen Writers’ Guild, dedicated to advancing their economic interests, was across the street. And next door to the restaurant, during the ’30s, was the Stanley Rose bookshop, where a ballsy proprietor held contemporary-literature seminars in a space that housed slot machines. According to one of Musso’s waiters, the screenwriters assuaged their angst over edits in the restaurant’s legendary back room, since closed, though the original bar was moved to the front room.

Later, the legend snowballed, gathering around itself, rituals repeated over generations—a waiter tells me that the crime novelist Michael Connelly, for instance, eats in the booth where Raymond Chandler wrote. And I unspool my own series of desperate notes on a shaky manuscript and chat with the waiter about how Faulkner was allowed to jump behind the bar and muddle his own mint juleps. I order that next.

Making mint juleps is, as the genial waiter warns me, not the forte of the bartender working tonight, but there is still, in the taste and his loose observation, the pleasingly cavalier evocation of Faulkner’s ghost, on his listless search for a home away from home. Faulkner would come to the restaurant to eat with his lover, Meta Carpenter, the script girl working for his friend the producer Howard Hawks. In her memoir, Carpenter remarked of their date spot, “Bill preferred Musso & Frank’s for its comparatively reasonable prices, its honest ambience, and the friendly unaffected waiters, most of them foreign-born.”

The Screen Writers’ Guild would move away and split in two, but even decades later, the restaurant has remained a Hollywood hangout. Rock-music journalist Joel Selvin, who’s done “a lot of time at Musso’s” since 1960, recalled passing blow to Buck Henry, who cowrote the screenplay for The Graduate. Another time, Selvin emailed, he stood in a crowd of about 20 waiting for tables at noontime when Jack Nicholson and his producer walked in. Nicholson took the head waiter aside. Selvin explained, “As it happens, he is standing over my shoulder, and I hear him say in his inimitable drawl, ‘All these assholes are just here for something to eat—I need some fucking lunch.’ ” No further explanation was necessary. Nicholson was seated within two minutes.

In the 1994 movie Ed Wood, the eponymous filmmaker and pulp novelist Ed Wood spots Orson Welles while he’s sitting in a booth at Musso’s. After they commiserate over the commerciality of the business, Welles tells the earnest Wood, “Visions are worth fighting for”—a seminal moment in the movie that never happened in real life.

Larry Karaszewski, who cowrote the script, explained that every time he and his screenwriting partner Scott Alexander lunched while working on Ed Wood, they’d drive past the locations where they’d eventually set scenes and say, “Hey, there’s Boardner’s. There’s Musso! There’s that little theater on Cahuenga!” As he and Alexander tried to come up with “a smart and satisfying” ending to the film, they were hit by a lightning bolt: “What if the worst director of all time met the greatest director of all time?”

Karaszewski noted that the pair were trying to answer the question “Where in Hollywood do up-and-comers and legends all mingle side by side?” The answer was immediate: Musso’s. He and Alexander love it—“the steaks, the crab Louie, the perfect martinis with a little extra on the side.”

After twilight, the restaurant floods with diners, many of them elegant, most in high spirits. A soigné brightness, the same ambience that marked my walk downhill, pervades the large tables. Probably, I decide, this place was more of a neighborhood joint run by immigrants when the back room was open to writers like Fitzgerald, who were scribbling honest scenes of alcohol and drug use that would be deleted and sanitized. But you can see, even now, in a climate more dignified than I’d expected, why screenwriters, celebrities, and musicians have chilled at these tables for decades. In an industry where so much depends on controlling images that appear in motion yet are fixed in that sequence, tics and tells playing for all eternity, you might place a premium on freeing yourself from the relentless vigilance involved in being seen—and interpreted. Here, you hobnob with ghosts as much as you do with fleshly strangers who have, tacitly, promised not to bug you or take your photograph.

I grumpily annotate my manuscript for a few more minutes. In their respective eras, Fitzgerald and Faulkner would have headed home from Musso’s, sauced, having drowned their respective sorrows about script edits. I try to picture the screenwriters and their muses, over the years trekking up the hill, the neighbor children having splashed in and out of one another’s backyard swimming pools and gone to bed.

Outside, the dark busy street follows a noir grammar of tattoo parlors, souvenir shops, bars, and the bright gashes of headlights. It would be a taxing half-mile climb, even if your blood were blitzed by cocktails and rarebit. The screenwriters probably drove home in secondhand cars, while the celebrities were driven. In The Last Tycoon, Fitzgerald wrote, of the character based on Thalberg who burned with the sense that he had made the stars and, in Fitzgerald’s telling, looked down on the screenwriters, “His apprehension of splendor was fading so that presently the luxury of eternal mourning would depart.” Trapped by my own era, I request a rideshare.•

Join us on April 20 at 5 p.m., when Claudia Rankine will appear in conversation with CBC host John Freeman to discuss her searing landmark book Citizen: An American Lyric. Please visit the Alta Clubhouse to discuss the book with your fellow California Book Club members. Register for the Zoom conversation here.

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Anita Felicelli, Alta Journal’s California Book Club editor, is the author of the novel Chimerica and Love Songs for a Lost Continent, a short story collection.
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