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'West of Eden' Reads Like a Documentary

Brigitte Lacombe

Jean Stein’s new book West of Eden: An American Place is told in the oral form tradition she used in her 1982 bestselling oral biography, Edie: An American Biography.

West of Eden illuminates five aspiring individuals whose dreams were big and their American place is Southern California, back in the day. Stein’s subjects are Caucasian and inhabit a certain economic and cultural class.

The Doheny oil family is one of the stronger chapters. When they become embroiled in the Teapot Dome bribery scandal of the 1920s, an unsolved murder-suicide occurs. It’s a haunting legacy whose influence on Raymond Chandler blurs the line between truth and crime fiction.

We read about the Warner Brothers’s rise in the film industry. During the Red Scare and after, the tragic consequences of greed, power, and politics on one of Hollywood’s golden families is hard to reconcile, as is the life of schizophrenic heiress Jane Garland. When not hospitalized, Garland lives in a Malibu beachfront house along the pacific coast highway with her cash-strapped mother, a failed actress. Jane’s doctor recommends an unorthodox treatment: hire men and women Jane’s age to live in the beach house so Jane has normal experiences. Her guests include, in 1957, the abstract painter Ed Moses.

The lack of a collaborating editor weakened West of Eden a bit, and the glossary of interviewees could have been isolated by chapter. Still, the strength is in the form; imagine reading a documentary. The voices and narratives are intimately compelling and brutally revealing.