I’m the Anniversarist. Every day, I squint at microfilm of newspaper stories about people from 25, 50, 75, 100 years ago, sometimes even longer, searching for commemorative features to write up. My beat is yesterday’s news, which some readers vastly prefer to today’s. Friends ask me, “What if, you know, some real news happens?”
My answer is always the same: “I’ll give it real nice play in 10 years.”
Today I’m standing under the canopy at the rear door of Musso & Frank Grill. It’s 10:59 a.m., and I’m waiting for the place to open, listening to the rain pound overhead. Don’t feel sheepish if you’ve never heard of Musso’s. For every Angeleno who downed their first martini here, or savored their last chop after an ominous checkup, plenty more have never ventured inside. Musso’s doesn’t mind. Two blocks from the recently opened Museum of Selfies, Musso & Frank Grill remains the still center of Hollywood’s clock—surrounded by revolutions, defiantly unbudged.
At the stroke of 11, a red-jacketed waiter swings open the door and spirits me inside. As his lapel pin announces, 2019 marks Musso & Frank Grill’s 100th year.
I step past the well-worn black-and-gold doormat announcing “Some Place to Eat,” navigate around two phone booths, and enter a wormhole straight into 1919, all oxblood leather upholstery and dark mahogany. The maître d’ ushers me to the Chaplin Booth, by the front window, which I’ve reserved for 11 sharp. After a few minutes, Glynnis bustles in the front door, a sopping umbrella at her side.
Glynnis knows everything there is to know about L.A. history—Musso’s, her current PR client, definitely included. As always, she looks about 27 or 28. Fifty at the most, somehow. Did she buy her snood down the street at a thrift shop, or with her mom, years ago at I. Magnin, with a coupon clipped from the Herald-Examiner? I can’t tell.
An impeccable waiter shaves our tablecloth with a butter knife. For research purposes, alongside a stack of Musso’s signature flannel cakes, I order the most dated thing on the menu that I stand a chance of keeping down: the marinated herring. Purely as a palate cleanser, one of Musso’s famed martinis, too. Likewise Glynnis, plus the beloved Thursday special, chicken potpie.
“So,” I say, “I’m behind. My editor needed a rewrite on the L.A. Phil centennial piece. What can you tell me about Musso’s?”
“Always the express with you,” she says, “never the local. For starters, it’s not Mew-so, like in ‘Metamucil.’ It’s Moo-so, like in ‘moose.’ Second, if you want to understand this place, you have to understand where it came from. Musso’s was founded, originally as Frank’s Cafe, by Joseph Musso and Frank Toulet on”—she pauses, I think for show—“September 27, 1919.
“It’s only natural that it was founded by more than one guy. This is a convivial place. Musso’s doesn’t just serve great meals. It feels like it was founded over a great meal. You can eat here stag if you want and not feel like your fly is open, but it’d be a shame.
“Notice anything about this room? It’s all booths—twosomes down the middle, foursomes along the wall. Larger parties in the corners. You can start a meal alone at the counter, but you might have a friend by dessert.”
Glynnis toys with a spit curl below one ear.
“Don’t talk to me about the ‘new room’ next door, either. The real Musso’s is in here, where everything is either built in or bolted to the floor. You could turn the place upside down and nothing would fall.”
She tilts her knife to examine her reflection, though I’d bet anything she’s got a vintage compact stashed in her roomy purse.
“Anyway, Hollywood adopted Musso’s early. This booth? Chaplin liked it because he could entertain guests and still keep an eye on his stallion out front. Once, at lunch, he challenged Douglas Fairbanks to a horse race down the boulevard. They mounted up and dodged Model Ts over to Vine and back.
“Later, after the stock market crashed—”
But the waiter returns, blushing nearly as crimson as his bolero jacket.
“I’m afraid,” he stammers, “I’m afraid our recipes are missing. They’re calling the police.”
THE BACK ROOM
Glynnis leads me through the dining room and up a claustrophobic twist of stairs to a modest office. Its wooden venetian blinds offer a striped view of the oblivious diners below.
Glynnis gasps. “The safe!”
An enormous black Chubb, dusty with age, stands wide open. I kneel over it, but two police deputies arrive and shoo us downstairs, through the bustling kitchen, into a drafty storage area to pace and wait.
Dead insects crepitate softly underfoot. All around us, stacks of bygone office supplies molder: pen-and-pencil sets, carbon paper, blotting pads. Yards of pipes tangle along the wainscoting where a bar used to be.
Glynnis breathes in slowly. “It’s the Back Room. Not much to look at now, but imagine it in the ’30s. You like writers? Everybody came out here to work for the studios. The trivia hounds always blitz through it: ‘Chandler, Fante, McWilliams, Nat West…’ Sounds like a brokerage house, doesn’t it?
“Lists don’t do the place justice. William Faulkner had breakfast with the papers here practically every morning. They say Raymond Chandler wrote half of The Big Sleep in here. Me, I’m skeptical about that. Chandler had trouble concentrating in rooms with too many bottles. But Marlowe has a meal here in The Big Sleep, and Nathanael West shoehorns the place into a scene in The Day of the Locust—though it’s not the kind of write-up you’d frame behind the register. You know what those two L.A. novels have in common, Mr. Anniversarist? And Fante’s Ask the Dust? And Carey McWilliams’s Factories in the Field? They came out in the same year.”
She pauses reverently.
“Nineteen thirty-nine. It’s as if the backroom boys all got drunk in here one night and dared each other to write a classic before the decade was out. Fitzgerald was working on The Last Tycoon as fast as he could, but he ran out of time. Edmund Wilson dashed off a snotty little set of essays about California writing called The Boys in the Back Room, but it didn’t mention any of them except Fitzgerald, an old Princeton classmate who he thought had sold out, and McWilliams—who he described as a smart lawyer but didn’t even name.
“New York didn’t know what the hell was going on. It published them all, because how could it not? But New York’s idea of a writer’s hangout was the Rose Room at the Algonquin Hotel, where the two-show-a-year playwrights and hack journalists”—ouch—“could one-up each other over Manhattans. Meantime, their novels waited up late for them and somehow never got finished. You want a Rose Room? Stanley Rose’s bookshop, beyond that wall. Used to be a communicating door right over—”
Footsteps. The cops reappear. “We’d like to ask you a few questions downtown.” They’re looking at me.
It’s 10:30 p.m., almost closing, when I get back to Musso’s. Glynnis is at the bar.
“Things didn’t look good for a while there,” I tell her, “but they kicked me loose.”
We sit side by side at the counter.
I start. “So, what’ll Musso’s do without the recipes? Half of me was relieved when they couldn’t figure out how to marinate the herring, but what would the boys in the back room have said about all this?”
“The boys didn’t last long,” she says. “Fitzgerald had a heart attack reading the Princeton alumni magazine in 1940. West ran a stop sign in Calexico the next day. A year later, Pearl Harbor.
“Musso’s stayed full, but the stars went to war—or at least the USO. They never quite came back. They had their own restaurants by then, outside the city limits. Ciro’s, Romanoff’s. The vice squad couldn’t touch ’em there.”
As her story advances, her posture wilts, as if she’s aging along with the city.
“Pretty soon, L.A. exploded. People filled up the basin and overflowed into the Valley. When the suburbs become the town, build new suburbs. Only one thing saved Musso’s. Look around.”
I do. An old couple is making a toast. A pregnant woman opens presents with friends. A guy at the bar helps an unsteady companion stand up. They don’t appear to miss the herring.
“These are the customers that don’t turn up in anecdotes,” she says. “They kept the place breathing till Johnny Depp and Quentin Tarantino came along and made it cool again. If it weren’t for generations of regulars, we’d be chugging Red Bulls instead of sipping gimlets right now.”
“Except,” she sighs, “there’s the menu. A while back, they started to tabulate what people ordered. They hired a new chef who phased out all the baked barracuda, the calf’s brains, the abalone steak. Today it’s the herring, tomorrow it’s the lobster thermidor. Pretty soon turkey à la king gets you a blank look. It’s just…”
She slugs her drink, but all that’s left is ice.
“Sorry, Glynnis, but I hear they even grow grapes outside of France nowadays.” I’ve had time to think. “You’re not looking well. Can you get this? I’ll pay you back.”
She shrugs, flexes her fingers, and grimaces. “Must be this rain,” she says.
I reach into her handbag and gently pull out the recipe box. She makes a grab for it.
“Go ahead, take ’em,” I say. “They’re only copies. You know very well nobody stole anything today. You’d already taken the box of originals home last night, I’m guessing. Then you copied out the recipes onto these duplicate cards. No wonder your fingers are sore. You found blank index cards old enough to match in the Back Room. You were sneaking these copies in today at lunch so you could keep the originals. Our interview made a convenient cover.”
She laughs mirthlessly. “How could you possibly hope to prove such a ridiculous story?”
“Easy,” I say. “First, I got suspicious when I saw you’d parked down the block in the rain. The valet around back would’ve kept you dry all the way in with his umbrella, but you wanted to use the front door. That way nobody could place you anywhere near the office in back until today’s rush, when you meant to replace the cards.”
“What if I Lyfted, smart guy? I could’ve.”
“You? You think an app is an appetizer. Second, that safe is almost always open. I know because the dust on top of its door came off on my sleeve. You knew because you’ve been picking up work here. But when we saw the safe with the door hanging open, you improvised and made out like somebody had cracked it. Why would an innocent woman get flustered like that?”
“I could’ve been telecommuting,” she parries, “and never set foot in the office.”
“You could’ve? Why do you keep telling me what you could’ve done instead of what you did, the way you would if you were telling the truth?”
She breaks down. “And I’d’ve gotten away with it, too,” she sobs, “if you hadn’t ordered the marinated herring!”
She was just another local history buff, lost in ephemera, the victim of one bulldozer vigil too many. You see a lot of that in my line of work.
Still, there’s only one Musso & Frank. People here forget their cell phones and remember their napkins. Take my word for it. You walk in and time turns around. Would the Anniversarist lie to you? n
David Kipen’s latest book is Dear Los Angeles: The City in Diaries and Letters, 1542 to 2018. He wrote about L.A. and the year 1919 in Alta, Summer 2019.