While an undergraduate at UCLA I was a member and lived in the Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity house in the hills of Westwood Village adjacent to the sprawling campus.
Living in a fraternity was the only way to have any sort of campus social life as there were no dormitories or campus housing on site. At the time, it was described as a commuter school and a student would need a car as well as a place to live. Westwood, being a prestigious, high rent neighborhood, was out of financial reach for most students!
And fraternities and sororities had many events for participating and socializing. Building floats sponsoring local charities was always a big deal.
Directly across the street from my fraternity was a beautiful multiple residence by the famous architect, John Lautner. It was designed as multiple levels of circular terra-cotta colored apartments crawling up the side of the steep hill like partially overlapping pie tins — each one with a small private garden!
Actress Patricia Neal lived in one of the apartments. She had starred in the 1949 movie, The Fountainhead with Gary Cooper, and the two of them began a long affair that was not too secret!
Cooper was a married Catholic and a father and their relationship was still continuing. It amused us watching from across the street to see his car arriving in the evening and departing in the morning.
We were adding useful information to our academic lives.
Neal moved out and an alumnus of our fraternity moved in and started throwing elaborate parties that further educated some of the members on the more sophisticated details of drinking. Up until then, Fraternity Row, and our house in particular, smelled like a working brewery on weekends.
One of these weekends we received an invitation to come across the street for another one of the generous parties.
A new neighbor was also invited, Edward G. Robinson Jr., the young son of the legendary Warner Brothers movie star.
He had moved into the adjacent unit and was happy to meet some young people as he was the same age as many of the members and just a bit older than me! His life, however was as different from any of ours as could be imagined.
He even had a mistress with him, Mary James, who I was told had been a friend of his mother. She was glamorously attractive but obviously older than him! More than a little.
I was the fraternity pianist having trained for a classical music career and I was encouraged to hit the piano keys so that The Boys could send out the raucous choruses of our drinking songs to the quiet Westwood Hills and the rest of Fraternity Row!
(My teacher, the pianist Noah Steinberg would have died!)
“Eddie G,” as I got to know him, particularly enjoyed the singalongs even if he didn’t know the songs. He invited me to come by anytime I didn’t have classes or studies and Mary James was very encouraging! She felt that he needed friends closer to his age.
I wasn’t aware of it at the time but Eddie had a reputation around town that was not terrific — especially for a 20-year-old. He’d been accused of robbery by two taxi drivers and the case had gone to court.
It was eventually declared a mistrial and Eddie was absolved but there were some bad feelings after and he’d had some bad publicity.
I didn’t know enough about any of this to have an opinion.
I’d also heard that he’d already been married and divorced and had a baby daughter! His wife had stood by him during the legal problems but nevertheless they had divorced.
Mary James gave me a call to invite me to come over for dinner and I had mentioned that Jane Breckenridge, my friend from Fresno High School, was now living in LA. Mary told me to bring her, too.
She was excited by the prospect of meeting a Hollywood personality even if he had only had a few tiny parts in B movies that quickly disappeared from theaters — but there was the name!
Eddie baked a ham in Coca Cola, something I’d never heard of (it was delicious!) After dinner, Eddie asked if I would play something on his piano and so I played some Gershwin and Richard Rodgers which pleased him and Mary. Then it was time to take Jane home to her apartment in Hollywood.
Mary thanked me profusely and almost … desperately.
How much did he need friends his age? I’d soon find out.
A few days later, Mary came looking for me at the fraternity saying that they had a fight and she was leaving. She wondered if I could come over and see that he was okay. She said that music would calm him down.
I went over and discovered that he was tipsy having had something to drink. But his mood lightened and we spent a pleasant afternoon talking with him telling me about his plans for his own movie career; and how the crew on his last shoot had called him “one take Robinson” because they never had to reshoot any of his scenes. He’d even done a television show with his father!
The movie business was in transition with television posing a threat by being a less expensive investment than movies and having a much larger potential audience. A lot of major careers were adjusting to the new reality, but some weren’t as good at it as others! Lucille Ball had transformed her career as supporting movie actress to becoming the Queen of Television but just as tastes had changed with the coming of sound so were they changing with the advent and establishment of television!
I wasn’t aware of it, but Robinson Senior’s gangster tough guys were going out of fashion! He’d become a superstar with his early ’30s portrayal of an Al Capone-style hood but that was when gangsters and Prohibition were big news! He was also going through a contentious divorce that would eventually force him to sell much of his amazing collection of 19th century Impressionist paintings, a collection called by many “the best privately owned collection of 19th century Impressionism in the world!”
But that was all in the future.
I became quickly aware that Eddie was in actuality a mean drunk! Never with me but frequently with Mary. And each time as she’d flee to safety she’d have me come over to see that nothing irreparable would happen.
The cops were waiting!
One evening Eddie invited me to come with him to Malibu to see the actor Neville Brand,who had just gotten divorced. We drove in my MG because Eddie wasn’t driving much.
Brand played tough guys and gangsters in films but different from Eddie’s dad’s gangsters who were more of the boss gangster than the thug! Brand played the thug!
I was nervous about meeting him as I thought of his onscreen persona, but he was very nice, gentle and friendly. We watched the sun go down sitting on his deck as the evening’s high tide washed under us. His house was built on raised piling and the sound was relaxing. This was the Malibu of the 1950s before the showplace houses became omnipresent. Brand’s house was a compact cottage that seemed surprised to find itself literally on top of the Pacific waves!
Brand had had supporting roles in a lot of films but had a fat part coming up and a lot of offers for television! He was perfect for Westerns and knew it and was feeling good about it! He finally got around to talking about Eddie and how he was wasting his chances by abusing alcohol and getting into scrapes. Eddie had looks and talent and certainly connections but he gave the impression of being extremely unreliable!
“The Biz doesn’t give unlimited chances for success!” He was saying there was too much money invested and a large talent pool from which to choose, becoming more insistent with his advice even to the point of telling us that he himself had problems with alcohol and had to be very careful!
As we drove back to Westwood Eddie was unusually quiet. As we drove up to his building he looked up and quietly said, “Neville said I have talent?”
I’d noticed that Eddie became different with the very first sip of even a beer! He’d persuaded himself, however, that he could handle it and so many times I’d stay at his apartment until he’d pass out. Sometimes I’d even bring schoolwork over and work on it there. It didn’t take much for him to sleep it off so it didn’t disturb my studying. It was actually better than the study rooms at the fraternity!
There had been so many instances of bad behavior and I was essentially clueless. One night, Eddie called me to say that there were some friends visiting and he was inviting everyone to come to dinner at the Beverly Hilton. He wanted me to come with a date so I invited a pretty French student named Arlette I’d just met. We arrived and Eddie had invited about eight people — people I’d never seen before but a type that was typical of wannabe hangers on! Dinner was rather sumptuous even though the conversation wasn’t and when the final bill came, Eddie signed it evidently having an account with the hotel.
After a bit the waiter returned with another man — not a server. He informed Eddie that he was sorry but could not accept the charge as Senior Robinson had canceled the account! Eddie was angrier than I’d ever seen him and leaning slightly on the large round table took the edges with both hands and pulled … overturning everything as Arlette, I and the “guests” fled! Thank heaven this didn’t appear in the paper (his father may have made arrangements because the subject went away).
The news was out that Edward G. Robinson was returning to Broadway to the world of the theater where his career had started. He was going to star in a Paddy Chayefsky play, Middle of the Night.
Eddie was feeling down about everything that had happened and decided to take me to visit his mother at home. Senior wasn’t living there as he was rehearsing in New York, but I met Mrs. Robinson. She was very friendly and welcoming. The woman who’d worked for the Robinsons for a very long time and who’d been a kind of nanny to Eddie still worked there and she offered us tea and cookies.
She had herself been a film actress before their marriage and I’d heard a rumor from somewhere — a Hollywood rumor — that she had a problem with alcohol although this wasn’t public knowledge (and I don’t know if it’s even true). From watching Eddie I thought he had an allergy dealing with an inability to physically process alcohol. I’m not much of a drinker and at UCLA it was even less but I don’t drink a bottle of beer and become ravingly drunk and then pass out!
I felt that Eddie’s problems were being judged as moral ones whereas I felt they were at the start physical! What happened when he was drunk was something else but that was an Eddie I didn’t recognize!
By the way, I called him “Eddie” but many who knew him longer called him “Manny,” his father’s birth name being Emanuel! I didn’t think he looked like a “Manny”!
While I was at the Robinson’s home and visiting with Mrs. Robinson, I was overwhelmed by the art on the walls and the Cézanne Black Clock on the Steinway grand piano! Over the fireplace was a large Renoir and on another wall a Seurat! There were Impressionist treasures everywhere!
Eddie took me on a tour through the house. We got to the dining room which was papered in early 19th Century Chinese wallpaper, the first time I’d actually seen it in a home. On one wall was a Corot “version” of The Mona Lisa (yes, like the one in the Louvre).
On another wall, a Moise Kisling; in a windowed alcove, Degas’ Ballerina statuette.
But as I turned, the pièce de résistance for me was the oil painting of La Goulue Dancing at the Moulin Rouge! This seemed like it must have been the original image from which Lautrec had designed the famous poster.
Imagine! All of this in one dining room. I have never since seen a more perfect room, nor do I ever expect to.
I can’t think of a major Impressionist master who wasn’t represented in the collection! Robinson never went with a dealer’s hype about a work but always said that he let the painting tell him what he needed to know!
He had perfect taste.
As we went back to the living room, Eddie asked me to play the piano for his mother. It seemed appropriate to play Debussy with all the French paintings, so I played “La Plus que Lente,” the “More than Slow” waltz that I’d played in a piano competition in San Francisco’s Steinway Hall.
After, Mrs. Robinson showed me inside the piano and engraved into the metal harp were the signatures of the famous pianists who’d played it. Rubinstein, Horowitz, Schnabel, everyone except their friend George Gershwin.
She told me that he had played it but said that he would sign it the next time. He died before he could.
Eddie kept saying that he wished he were in Manhattan to attend his dad’s play on opening night. He felt that it would help clear up their problems and help their relationship!
One evening, Jane Breckenridge and I were at his place for dinner and he was talking about his father. I think he realized all that was happening in his father’s personal life whether it was questions about his father’s future career or the ongoing divorce talk and the realization that the art collection would have to be auctioned off for financial reasons. All of that and somehow Eddie thought that his surprise appearance in New York would show his father that he was turning over a new leaf in his life and that he was becoming a son of whom his father could be proud!
He kept saying he was going to go!
I was warning him about getting even a little drunk and acting badly. That would be worse! If he could just refrain from taking even a little drink …
He was saying, “If you were there you could keep me from doing anything stupid …” And I kept telling him that he could do it himself! Just for even a few hours!
He then said, “Why don’t you come to New York with me?”
“You could come with me on the night flight and wait until I’m with my dad at the theater and then you can fly back!”
I said it was winter in Manhattan and I was in jeans and a tee shirt!
He said,”We’ll go to Brooks Brothers and pick up some winter stuff!”
But, but, but, but …
And then he said, “If you’re my friend you’ll come.” And Jane gave me A Look!
So we three packed into my MG and started for the airport. I kept taking the wrong turns trying hard to miss the flight but Eddie knew the way and kept directing me until we got there. We stopped for coffee in the lounge after buying tickets.
Traveling was so much easier then and there was almost nobody in the airport. I gave Jane the car keys and told her not to tell anyone, certainly not my parents!
Finally the flight was announced and we started toward the tarmac. Eddie said he’d forgotten something and that I should get on the plane and he’d be there in a minute! I said goodbye to Jane and again told her to not talk about this with anyone and boarded the plane. I did get a few looks from passengers prepared for a New York winter but I was on automatic pilot and tried to make my mind a blank.
Finally I heard the loudspeaker announcing that Passenger Robinson was needed to board the plane at which point I saw Eddie running up shouting, “I’m coming … I’m coming!” until a security agent grabbed his arm knocking him off balance and hitting the pavement with a bottle of whiskey falling from his coat! Jane was immediately in tears. I had gotten up and moved toward the plane’s exit door and Eddie was heard saying, “I’m going to New York for the opening of my father’s Play!” And the officer said, “You’re not going anywhere — you’re going to jail!”
I realized I’d better quickly get off the plane which was beginning to make taking-off preparations or I’d be alone in Manhattan in the cold wearing lightweight clothing with nothing to sustain me but a return ticket!
As I met Eddie while they were dragging him away, he handed me a 50-dollar bill with the request to bail him out in the morning.
So Jane and I drove off leaving Eddie with the authorities! She was quite upset but I was surprised that I was kind of getting used to this sort of chaos!
I dropped her off at home and went to bed in the fraternity house.
Around five the next morning I was awakened by Eddie who’d bailed himself out and told me to get dressed and come across the street and we’d go down to Westwood Village for breakfast at the Village Delicatessen. I did it and we got there and bought the morning LA TIMES. There we were horrified to see a big black headline: “Robinson Flies High, Gets Grounded!” It described the whole thing, Senior‘s opening night on Broadway, the past problems with the cab drivers’ purported robberies — everything but the dinner at the Beverly Hilton!
I don’t have much memory of what happened after but Mary James asked me what I wanted to do after graduation which was coming up soon. I told her I’d always dreamed of working in movies. She made an appointment for me to meet her friend, Moss Mabry, who was a very prominent costume designer and who had decided on James Dean’s red windbreaker for Rebel Without A Cause and had just completed designs for Giant for which he would receive an Academy nomination. I met with him and showed him some of my UCLA artwork and he told me to do a portfolio of costume renderings. He asked what I liked and I said History so he said to do historic costume renderings!
I did, he liked them, and sent me to meet the head of Western Costume — the company that did all the costuming for movies. Doing the portfolio and preparing for graduation I didn’t have time to see much of Eddie.
I ended up doing some freelance designing with Western Costume for a historic Western, graduated from UCLA and was immediately drafted and sent to Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama. I read that Eddie had had a car crash while driving drunk and his passenger had been severely injured losing an eye.
Eddie was sent to the Wayside Honor Rancho, in essence a detention center for non-dangerous honor prisoners, and I didn’t see him until coming on a visit to California from Manhattan where I was living. My mother and I were at Frascati Restaurant on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills waiting to meet some friends and I noticed in the adjoining bar/lounge area the piano player talking with a man who was requesting some particular songs. To my surprise and actual horror I realized it was Eddie drunk and I wanted to hide! Even worse, I had a sort of shaky panic attack thinking I’d be a goner if he recognized me! Finally, our friends arrived and we made a quick retreat from the area.
One interesting thing about Eddie is that he has an important cameo in the movie Some Like it Hot.
He is the young gangster, Johnny Paradise aka Little Napoleon* who comes out of a cake and shoots everyone!
*For the younger readers, Little Caesar was his father’s big notable gangster character. Flipping a coin was his shtick!
(Interesting note: In checking up on Moss Mabry I just read that he did the costumes for The Way We Were. Barbra still doesn’t know that we have another friend in common.)
As for Eddie, he died in 1974. He was only 41!
After he came out of the detention center he “wrote” an autobiographical book with William Dufty called My Father — My Son. He mentions Jane and me in it but he doesn’t go into detail.
Years later, in the ’70s, I spent an afternoon with Gloria Swanson and her husband who’d written the book, Sugar Blues. I must confess that I was so dazzled by Swanson that I hadn’t realized that her husband was that same William Dufty who’d worked with Eddie! What a missed opportunity! But I did have a wonderful visit with Gloria Swanson!
She was only 50 when she made Sunset Boulevard! But that’s another story for another time!
In 1959, a book of stories by the English writer Gavin Lambert was published and became talked about — at least in West Los Angeles and Beverly Hills because it dealt with Hollywood.
People were saying that they thought some of the stories were based on real people with real stories changed somewhat. It was called The Slide Area with the caution that people living in a slide area should be careful not to live too close to the edge.
Friends of mine started asking me if I’d read it. I hadn’t. Finally, so many people kept asking me that I got a copy and read it. One story in particular grabbed my attention. It was called Sometimes I’m Blue and it was about the troubled son of a prominent Beverly Hills lawyer who is the collector/owner of a fabulous art collection. A young man who is not a part of Hollywood society becomes a friend of the troubled son. They have a complicated friendship and Lambert, being gay, gives it a very unconsciously subtle homoerotic flavor.
I haven’t read it recently but so many details are — um — familiar to me that I was stunned. It occurs to me just now that it made me feel a bit like the main character in the film I produced with Paul Bartel, The Secret Cinema, the story of a young woman who is unknowingly the star and subject of an actuality movie of her life, a theme similarly investigated decades after our 1966 film in the much bigger budgeted The Truman Show!
Is this possibly what is meant by “Live by the sword, die by the sword”?