As the Beat poet Lew Welch pithily put it, “More people know you than you know. Fame.” Welch was someone who knew whereof he spoke. He disappeared from his friend Gary Snyder’s house into a nearby mountain range in May 1971, leaving behind a cryptic farewell note that read, in part: “I had great visions but could never bring them together with reality. I used it all up. It’s gone.’’
Matthew Specktor explores the pulls—and perils—of chasing success in Always Crashing in the Same Car: On Art, Crisis, and Los Angeles, California (300 pages; Tin House), an eloquent account of dark nights of the soul that mirrors the writing of his early idol, F. Scott Fitzgerald. Specktor also explores the mythos, mistakes, and magic of underappreciated artists such as screenwriters Eleanor Perry (David and Lisa) and Carole Eastman (Five Easy Pieces) as well as the much more celebrated: Warren Zevon, Tuesday Weld, Thomas McGuane, Hal Ashby, and Michael Cimino.
“All my life I have been fascinated by those figures whose status—not their work, which frequently has as much claim to greatness as that of those better known, but their status—is faintly marginal: artists whose careers carry an aura of what might, also, have been.’’ Each of these outsiders seemed to specialize in self-sabotage in a culture that makes a blood sport out of perceived weakness.
Specktor’s father was one of the founding members of Creative Arts Agency, the behemoth talent broker once helmed by Michael Ovitz, and his mother was a screenwriter. He has previously dealt with the mixed legacy of his Hollywood upbringing in his bravura, multi-generational 2014 novel, American Dream Machine, which reads like The Last Tycoon might have if Fitzgerald had been born and bred in the studio system—like a spinoff by an older, wiser Cecelia Brady, the producer’s daughter who narrates the tale.
The new book’s starting point is the author’s existential crisis in the wake of a failed marriage, a stumbling career, and a lonely guy existence living in a studio apartment building across the street from the late gossip columnist Sheilah Graham’s apartment, where her live-in companion, Fitzgerald, happened to have died. The spirit of Pat Hobby, the hack screenwriter Fitz wrote about with bitter accuracy in his declining years, is still alive, if not particularly well.
Always get the last word.
Updates and special offers straight to your inbox.
Keep up with the latest from ZYZZYVA by subscribing to our newsletter.
Specktor gestures to the fatal attractions of “Hollywood’’—the state of mind, not the geographical reality. He researches Eleanor Perry’s life, searching through her papers at the Margaret Herrick Library where they are stored, as if they will reveal like some Sunset Boulevard moment of truth, only to find the predictable reality that she was betrayed by her husband, director Frank Perry, who dumped her in order to the chance to film Joan Didion’s novel Play It as It Lays.
He traces the decline of Eastman’s career after Five Easy Pieces, rejecting the stereotypes by which she was dismissed, to describe instead a person of “prickly, magnetic intelligence, which collides a frontierswoman’s orneriness with a diction at once hightoned…and loopy.”
The beautiful losers chronicled here lack the hard shell of self-protectiveness of Monroe Stahr, the studio chief (based on Irving Thalberg) whom Fitzgerald portrayed in The Last Tycoon—or for that matter, the armor of Didion, and her late husband and co-screenwriter, John Gregory Dunne. Swimming with sharks is not for the faint of heart.
He celebrates the hard-won survival of McGuane, from the early days when he was in vogue as a cocaine cowboy of the Key West (and Montana) literary mafia, to his current more elegiac, less ostentatiously hip, fiction. Like Frost’s “Oven Bird,’’ at this late date, “The question that he frames in all but words is what to make of a diminished thing.’’
Other figures also refuse to ride the merry go round of fame and fortune. Tuesday Weld, a child star turned memorable character actress in films like Michael Mann’s Thief, Play as It Lays (the Didion theme is a sub-motif here like Proust’s fictional Vinteuil Sonata, carrying emotional weight), Once Upon a Time in America, and Pretty Poison, rejects the trappings of success.
“It takes energy to be a fuckup,’’ Specktor writes. “I’ve learned this myself.”
A portrait of the late singer/songwriter Warren Zevon details a different kind of self-destruction. Zevon pined for the bright lights, but only reached broad commercial exposure with the quasi-novelty tune “Werewolves of London.’’ Perhaps the fact that he was “a drunk, a violent and abusive alcoholic,’’ as recounted by friends and foes alike—including his ex-wife Crystal Zevon in her (remarkably forgiving) memoir—stood in the way. But this is not just the grist for a Behind the Music episode—in a synchronistic quirk of fate, Specktor’s upstairs neighbor, who used to go out with Zevon, describes him in less magniloquent terms. “For her, he was just a crummy boyfriend,’’ he writes.
The other snapshots here are equally adept, combining melancholy with the saving graces of humor and hard-won perspective. Perhaps surprisingly, Specktor’s final tribute is to Renata Adler, the novelist and former New York Times film critic, who is as resolute an East Coast figure (based at her home in Connecticut) as the others are die-hard Angelenos. She, too, has fallen off the radar after the early success of her cult novel, Speedboat.
Specktor theorizes that her career suffered after Adler published a famous takedown of Pauline Kael’s work in The New York Review of Books. Maybe. But, like Weld, she seems like someone who is more comfortable away from the spotlight. (Never mind that her critique of Kael’s work as “without interruption, worthless,’’ as the author notes, is an example of the hyperbolic rhetoric she objects to.)
There’s a sweetness to this homage, though. Specktor and Adler are friends, and he includes a photograph taken, not of the author’s face, but of her elbow, at the restaurant where they are dining. It’s also, perhaps, a nod to a kind of literary life that is as far from movie studios and Malibu as it’s possible to get. It’s the life the author once wished for, an irretrievable past, like Gatsby’s green light, of gatherings at the Algonquin and inhabiting a polite society that has a lot more in common with Edith Wharton than Jerry Bruckheimer.
He brings home the commonality of the East-West dichotomy, as fictional a construct as any other, with an epigraph from Seymour Krim, the New York literary boho who took an overdose of barbiturates in his Greenwich Village apartment in 1989. “One life was never quite enough for what I had in mind,’’ Krim wrote, in the fittingly titled essay, “For My Brothers and Sisters in the Failure Business.’’ (He and Lew Welch may have had more to communicate to each other, and the world, than what’s first apparent.)
The accidents of geography and perceived literary respectability aside, I’m glad Matthew Specktor is still based in Los Angeles. There’s lots of living, and stories still to tell, from there.