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Dreama Black's Noir L.A.

One of the things that inspired me to start the Dreama Black series was my passion for Los Angeles history and lore. Making my protagonist an L.A. tour guide has enabled me to feature the city I love in a special way — almost as if it was another (highly idiosyncratic) character — and one of the perks of the books will be the inclusion of the actual themed tour Dreama is designing for her clients. So here, without further ado, is a sneak peek at the noir tour that is at the center of DREAM A LITTLE DEATH. This tour requires a car, five to six hours (with two optional side trips), and a tolerance for bourbon and blood.

  1. Mildred Pierce House, 1147 N. Jackson Street, Glendale, CA You can’t go wrong starting with Mildred Pierce, written in 1941 by the poet laureate of hard-boiled fiction, James M. Cain. This house is one of the filming locations for the 1945 film starring the inimitable Joan Crawford, who won an Academy Award for the role. Rumor has it she faked an illness to get out of the ceremony, certain she’d lose to Ingrid Bergman in The Bells of St. Mary’s. After she won, she slipped into a negligée with padded shoulders, painted on her eyebrows, and invited members of the press to chat with her as she accepted her Oscar in bed. Screen the movie first, and then marvel at the fact that very little has changed on Jackson Street in the intervening years. Besides, of course, the real estate values.

  2. Glendale Train Station, 400 W. Cerritos Avenue, Glendale, CA

For years, it was taken as gospel that the filming location where the ball-busting Phyllis Dietrichson and the pussy-whipped Walter Neff conspire to commit murder in the film version of Cain’s Double Indemnity (with a screenplay by Raymond Chandler and director Billy Wilder) was this magnificent Spanish Revival structure with sculpted terra cotta, a faux second story, and elaborately carved wooden doors. Too bad the Glendale station wasn’t actually where the scene was shot in 1944. That honor goes to the far less ornate Mission-style depot in Burbank. You can’t go there, however, because it was knocked down almost two decades ago—because it was old, and because that’s the way we do it in L.A.

  1. Union Station, 800 N. Alameda Street, Los Angeles, CA As well as being the largest railroad passenger terminal in the western U.S., Union Station is one of L.A.’s most famous architectural sites. Designed by John and Donald B. Parkinson, the 1939 structure brilliantly cross-pollinates the Art Deco, Mission Revival and Streamline Moderne idioms. I especially like the trompe l’oeil–esque ceiling in the waiting room, which looks like wood, but is made of steel. Union Station has been used as a location in countless noirs, among them Criss Cross, Cry Danger, The Bigamist, and Union Station, which, ironically, was based on a story set in New York City, but filmed entirely in L.A.

  2. Far East Building, 347 E. 1st Street, Little Tokyo, CA This building in Little Tokyo was home to the prototypical Depression-era Chinese joint (known alternately as the Far East Café and the Chop Suey Café) immortalized in Raymond Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely as the meeting place between the hulking client, Moose Malloy, and the reluctant detective, Philip Marlowe, the latter of whose lunch was interrupted when “a dark shadow fell over my chop suey.” Currently a hipster bar, the private booths with red curtains add period flavor.

  3. The Varnish, 118 E. 6th Street, Los Angeles, CA First, order a French dip at Cole’s, which is a wonderful sandwich, if not as superlative as the French dip at Philippe’s. However, Philippe’s does not have an old storage room in the back, marked solely by the etching of a cocktail on the door, which leads onto the veritable epicenter of the craft cocktail universe. Welcome to the Varnish. For as long as it takes you to finish your gin gimlet or old-fashioned, you can pretend you are in a Prohibition-era speakeasy. Oh, and they chip ice from a single block. With an ice pick.

  4. Eastern Columbia Building, 849 S. Broadway, Los Angeles, CA Yes, Johnny Depp once owned six units in this thirteen-story turquoise, blue, and gold Art Deco icon. If you can get up to the rooftop pool, god bless. Otherwise, marvel at the details from the street—the sunbursts, the chevrons, the zigzags, the flying buttresses surmounting the spectacular four-sided clock tower. Originally built in 1930 after only nine months of construction, the steel-reinforced concrete structure had fallen into complete disrepair when it was snapped up by the Kor Group and transformed into luxury condos. Be sure to check out the movie palaces surrounding it down Broadway, in particular the Beaux-Arts Orpheum and the Spanish Gothic United Artists.

  1. MacArthur Park, 2230 W. 6th Street, Los Angeles, CA Originally called Westlake Park, it was established in the 1880s with the idea of beautifying the rough and tumble new city. Featured in the Donna Summer song, as well as many film noirs, including Too Late for Tears, Down Three Dark Streets, and The Bigamist. You probably don’t want to linger. After taking pictures and posting them, head straight over to Langer’s Deli for a #19, which is pastrami, coleslaw, and Swiss on rye.

  2. Black Dahlia Death Site, 3825 S. Norton Avenue, Leimert Park, CA Elizabeth Short was a beautiful, twenty-two-year-old girl from Boston, last seen on the night of January 9, 1947, walking south on Olive Street, after having been dropped at the Biltmore Hotel by a married traveling salesman. Six days later, her naked, mutilated body was found on this site—now an ordinary-looking house, then a trash-strewn empty lot. In short order, Beth Short became the Black Dahlia and ascended to the status of myth. People have confessed, books have been written, theories have been proposed, police files have been reopened, but this iconic, real-life L.A. murder remains unsolved.

  1. Sowden House, 5121 Franklin Avenue, Los Angeles, CA One of the most intriguing suspects in the Black Dahlia case is Dr. George Hodel, the man who owned this extraordinary 1926 residence in Los Feliz from 1945–1951. Built by Lloyd Wright (eldest son of Frank Lloyd Wright) to resemble a Mayan Revival–style fortress, the sharp ridges of the house’s façade are often likened to the gaping jaws of a vicious shark. Enter Dr. Hodel, whose day job was running a VD clinic catering to the rich and famous, and whose evening activities allegedly included beating his sons in the basement, throwing orgies in his gold bedroom, and raping his daughter Tamar. After his death, his son, a retired L.A.P.D. detective named Steve Hodel, came across a photo in his father’s effects that he claimed was of Elizabeth Short. Steve Hodel embarked upon an investigation, soon becoming convinced that his father had not only killed Short, but had also been responsible for several other brutal murders that took place in the 1940s, at least some of them in the basement of the Sowden House. Read Steve Hodel’s Black Dahlia Avenger for a provocative addition to the Black Dahlia franchise.

  2. Philip Marlowe Office, 6385 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood, CA Unlike that other iconic detective, Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe didn’t have a secretary. Marlowe worked alone, in a decidedly unglamorous two rooms on the sixth floor of the fictional Cahuenga Building—the former Security Trust and Savings Bank Building on Hollywood and Cahuenga. A six-story structure built in 1921 by the Parkinsons, who also designed Union Station (see above), City Hall and the exquisite Bullock’s Wilshire, this was once the tallest building on Hollywood. Yes, it’s seen better days and is in need of some TLC, but be careful about what you wish for. Word is there are plans to turn the building into a boutique hotel.

  3. Musso and Frank, 6667 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood, CA Legendary Hollywood watering hole, first opened in 1919, with worn leather booths and a stunning mahogany bar, where old school bartenders mix the driest martinis in town. With the Screenwriters’ Guild just across the street, literary greats like Fitzgerald, Faulkner, and Chandler—in town just long enough to eke some extra dollars out of the movie studios—dropped in regularly for liquid refreshment. Chandler, in fact, is rumored to have written several chapters of The Big Sleep while downing bottles of Kentucky bourbon in the Back Room. The menu still features classic dishes such as Welsh rarebit, lobster thermidor, and mushrooms on toast. You can never go wrong, however, with the sand dabs.

  4. Alto Nido Apartments, 1851 Ivar Avenue, Los Angeles, CA This modest Spanish Revival building, with its red tile roof and iron balconies, was home to the unemployed screenwriter Joe Gillis (played by William Holden) before he sold his soul and moved in with the aging silent film actress Norma Desmond (an unforgettable Gloria Swanson) in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard. Once in a while there’s actually a vacancy, but who’s kidding whom? These days, no struggling screenwriter could afford to live in this 1929 charmer, a mere block northwest of the legendary intersection, Hollywood and Vine. Sidebar: In 1948, Lila Leeds, who played a bit part in Lady in the Lake, adapted from the Chandler novel of the same name, survived an overdose of sleeping pills at the Alto Nido only to be arrested with Robert Mitchum for marijuana possession a few months later.

  5. Crossroads of the World, 6671 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, CA Located at the corner of Sunset and Las Palmas in Hollywood, Crossroads of the World is often described as America’s first outdoor shopping mall. Designed in 1936 by Robert V. Derrah in the Streamline Moderne style, with idiosyncratic cruise ship, lighthouse, and minaret details, it served as the headquarters of the tabloid Hush-Hush in the magisterial noir throwback L.A. Confidential, based on the book of the same title by James Ellroy.

  6. High Tower Court, 2181 Broadview Terrace, Hollywood, CA At the end of a steep hill not far from the Hollywood Bowl is a small complex of homes and apartment buildings designed by architect Carl Lay between 1935 and 1956, whose original walk street layout was meant to evoke Positano, Italy. None of the residences is accessible by car. Instead, there are garages at the base of the hill. After parking your car, you can puzzle your way through the labyrinth of stairs, walkways, and bridges hidden behind shady trees and climbing vines, or you can talk your way into the five-story private elevator concealed inside a campanile that Kay built when his wife got sick of taking the stairs. High Tower Court is where Elliott Gould’s laid-back Philip Marlowe lives in Robert Altman’s fantastic 1973 The Long Goodbye, which deftly pushes against the noir genre, while embracing its subterranean romanticism.

  7. The Dietrichson Residence, 6301 Quebec Drive, Hollywood Hills, CA You know the story. Poor Walter Neff was just making a house call, to one of those California Spanish houses that everybody was nuts about ten or fifteen years earlier. Must’ve cost Mr. Dietrichson $30,000, if he was finished paying for it, that is. Anyway, the guy’s car insurance was about to lapse and Neff made his living getting people to renew. Inside, Neff catches one glimpse of the wife, Phyllis Dietrichson, in a towel, slippers with pom-poms, and that honey of an anklet, and boom, he’s a goner. Actually, it’s Mr. Dietrichson who’s the goner. That, in a nutshell, is Double Indemnity, everybody’s favorite film noir. Though the Dietrichson residence is supposed to be in Los Feliz, the shooting location was actually in Beachwood Canyon, and is virtually unchanged since 1944. Better hurry, though.

  8. Formosa Cafe, 7156 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood, CA Bugsy Siegel kept a safe under his favorite booth of this legendary cocktail lounge. Is there anything else to say? Oh, yeah. The safe was sealed after he was gunned down by rivals in 1947, but in 2000, it was drilled open. What was inside? “Rust, lots and lots of rust, not even a paper clip,” according to the grandson of the man who’d installed it. The Formosa has been featured in countless films, including the unforgettable “a hooker cut to look like Lana Turner is still just a hooker” scene in L.A. Confidential.

  9. Villa Primavera, 1300–1308 Harper Avenue, West Hollywood, CA The earliest surviving example of the eight courtyard complexes designed by the husband-and-wife team of Arthur and Nina Zwebell, Villa Primavera (1923) has been home to many stars including Katherine Hepburn and James Dean, as well as director Nicholas Ray. The latter liked the Spanish Revival ambience so much that he had a replica built on a Columbia Studios backlot to be used as the set for his 1950 noir, In a Lonely Place, starring Humphrey Bogart and Ray’s wife at the time, Gloria Grahame. Now it gets weird. Halfway through the shoot, Ray’s marriage blew up when the director caught Grahame in bed with his thirteen-year-old son from a previous marriage. After that, the director packed his bags and moved onto the set—a simulacrum of his own bachelor apartment—for the duration of shooting.

  10. Greystone Mansion, 905 Loma Vista, Beverly Hills, CA A fifty-five-room Tudor Revival mansion designed by architect Gordon Kaufmann and completed in 1928 as a gift from oil tycoon Edward Doheny to his son, Ned. Widely thought to have been ex–oil man Raymond Chandler’s model for the palatial Sternwood Manor, which Philip Marlowe visits in the opening pages of The Big Sleep: “I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.” If only money bought happiness. When he gets hired by Colonel Sternwood, Marlowe enters a maelstrom of jealousy, blackmail, and murder. The Dohenys would have known something about that. Four months after Ned, his wife, and their five children moved into Greystone, Ned died in a guest bedroom in a murder-suicide with his secretary, Hugh Plunket. The official story, that Hugh did the shooting, didn’t exactly jibe with the fact that Ned’s gun was the weapon. But what do I know?

  11. Sheats-Goldstein House, 10104 Angelo View Drive, Los Angeles, CA With its slippery glass walkways and no railings around the patios and outdoor hallways, this landmark John Lautner house is perhaps not the best place to tie one on. An example of American organic architecture, it was built in 1961 directly into the sandstone of the hillside and intended to mimic a cave, which might explain why it was chosen by the Coen Brothers to be the party house of pornographer Jackie Treehorn in their noir throwback The Big Lebowski. Recently donated to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the house is currently being restored.

If you’re game for more things noir, here are two side trips:

  1. Mount Hope Cemetery, 3751 Market Street, San Diego, CA Fifty years after their deaths, Raymond Chandler and his wife were finally reunited here. Cissy Chandler died at eighty-four, after thirty years of marriage. Her much-younger husband, who died five alcohol-soaked years later, had wanted to be buried next to the woman who’d inspired him to write. But he’d never completed the documents. So her ashes remained at a nearby mausoleum, while he was interred at Mount Hope. A few years ago, some Chandler fans began a campaign to have the oversight corrected. They convinced a judge, and Cissy’s ashes were transferred to her husband’s grave in 2011, on Valentine’s Day. When you visit, bring roses, and read aloud from Chandler’s letters. “Everything I’ve ever done,” he once wrote about Cissy, “was just a fire for her to warm her hands at.”

  2. Bracken Fern Manor, 815 Arrowhead Villa Road, Lake Arrowhead, CA Bracken Fern was originally part of a sprawling private resort which was comprised of three buildings housing a gambling club, a brothel, a speakeasy, luxury guest quarters, tennis courts, an Olympic-sized pool, a barbershop, a private gas station, a ski lift, horse stables, and that Depression-era all-essential: a supply of artesian well water, used in the making of moonshine. The property cost $1.3 million to construct in 1929, so one can only imagine how lavish it must have been. Nothing but the best for Bugsy Siegel. It’s haunted, too. Don’t take my word for it. Check out Violet’s room. Or better yet, Episode 12, Season 2, of the Travel Channel’s Ghost Adventures, in which paranormal investigator Zak Bagans and his team uncover the secret tunnels below Bracken Fern. You know. The ones where the demons are lurking.

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