Poignant memoir of a not-so-typical New York Jewish family’s experiences in the midcentury Hollywood demimonde.
Glamour contributing editor Weller (Saint of Circumstance, 1997, etc.) utilizes solid, often elegant but occasionally overwrought prose to tell her unusual childhood story, which improbably combines Hollywood insider glitter with the slow-motion devastation of illness, infidelity, abandonment, and humiliation. She constructs an admirable historical backdrop in depicting the trajectories of her mother, ambitious entertainment reporter Helen Hover, and Helen’s brother Herman, who flourished as a Manhattan nightclub promoter during Prohibition, then moved to California in 1936 with the family, including Helen and her enigmatic husband Danny Weller, a prideful, sickly man, determined to become a pioneering neurosurgeon at a time when they were considered the cowboys of medicine. This was the heyday of high-class Sunset Strip nightclubs like the Trocadero, Mocambo, and Ciro’s; after WWII, Herman purchased Ciro’s from competitor Billy Wilkerson and for the next decade worked ceaselessly to maintain it as Hollywood’s top spot. “It was the chemistry between the glitterati and the proletariat that made a good club work,” he realized, and he pampered Hollywood’s A-list (from Sinatra and Monroe to Bogart and Lana Turner) and recruited the era’s top talent, boosting the careers of Martin & Lewis and Sammy Davis Jr., among others. The author seductively renders Ciro's glory years, resonant with the transience of glamour and fame. By 1958, the IRS was pursuing Herman, but the last straw was discovering that he’d been cuckolded by his embittered brother-in-law. He violently assaulted Dr. Weller in front of Weller’s daughters, and the final section here follows Herman’s fall and the Weller family's disintegration: Helen has a breakdown; Danny cruelly cuts off Sheila, who depicts herself as “Daddy-dumped, selfish-healthy-big-sister-of-polio-victim, phony-school-spirited, taunted-by-the-boy-across-the-street-who-started-out-with-a-crush-on-me, tantrum-throwing self.” This section is unfocused and maudlin, but the narrative mostly maintains an energy and comprehension that sheds fresh light on the fragile beauty of postwar Hollywood and the fabulous Sunset Strip.
Equal parts emotional tissue-party and shrewd cultural history.