Its title most likely inspired by John Steinbeck’s classic East of Eden, the story of a family gone awry, West of Eden: An American Place is a new book by Jean Stein. This non-fiction title is a collection of oral histories of families who came to Los Angeles to exploit their own American dreams. In five chapters the stories of their lives are told by people who knew them. Conversations and narratives have been transcribed and the speakers are listed. Less a history than a book filled with personal observations by the known (many celebrities, authors and artists are quoted) and the little-known (relatives who never made the news), unhappy lives, shared in a straightforward and often gossipy manner, make this book both intriguing and unsettling and the work will have great appeal to those readers who like celebrity biographies and local history.
The last chapter is a small story of the author’s own family. Jean Stein is the daughter of Jules Stein, the man who created the Music Corporation of America and became a major Hollywood player, and his wife Edie who was a premier hostess. They lived at the top of Beverly Hills and the author knew many of the people mentioned in the book. Her story is about trying to escape a life that was both blessed and constricting.
The book begins with the Doheney family whose oil discoveries in Mexico and California, fabulous wealth and monumental home Greystone never gave them happiness, but did result in business and personal scandals. The Warner brothers were a big brawling Polish immigrant family who famously entered the early movie industry. Here the story centers on Jack Warner, who’s controlling ways resulted in family conflict. Jennifer Jones, the Oscar-winning actress, was an Oklahoman named Phylis Isley, when the producer David O’Selznick made her a star. Troubled and self-centered, she seemingly passed her turmoil to her children. Jane Garland, whose family had a minor show biz connection, was a mentally disturbed young woman who was squired around town by budding artists who were hired to keep her company.
West of Eden is a curious and fascinating book that will draw in readers.