Monday, April 29, 2019

“The Garden on Sunset” by Martin Turnbull

I have a weakness for novels about Hollywood, especially old, pre-1950 Hollywood. One of the first ones I read was The Man Who Died Twice by Samuel Peeples, published in 1976. It was a fictional account of the true-crime murder of director William Desmond Taylor in 1922, and I was fascinated. The murder was never officially solved, and it had a host of possible suspects, including silent-era movie stars.

I know where my interest comes from. Some of my earliest memories are of going to the movie theater with my mother to watch movies. She loved movies; they were the great communications media of her childhood, teen, and early adult years. 

Imagine my reaction when I discover there’s an entire series of novels about old Hollywood.

Marcus Adler, disowned by his middle-class Pennsylvania family, arrives in Hollywood in 1927 to make his name as a writer. He knows one address on Sunset Boulevard, the home of the movie star Alla Nazimova, because she visited him when he was 11 and had diphtheria. He discovers that her home has been converted into a hotel, The Garden of Allah. He’s able to secure a tiny room, and this is where he will live for the next nine years.

Marcus makes two friends at the hotel – Gwendolyn Brick, a Southern girl determined tobecome an actress, and Kathryn Massey, who’s just as determined to break into the male-dominated journalism business. The experiences of Marcus, Gwendolyn, and Kathryn become the story of The Garden on Sunset by Martin Turnbull.

Martin Turnbull
Famous Hollywood names of the silent and early-talkie eras appear as minor and not-so-minor characters: Tallulah Bankhead, Greta Garbo, Ramon Navarro, George Cukor, Errol Flynn, Marion Davies, and many more. Turnbull pulls no punches; the stars (and the fictional major characters) are presented as real people, with all the generosity, kindness, nastiness, tawdriness, and even criminial behavior long associated with the movie industry. But it’s the three fictional characters who remain the focus, and the novel excels at telling the story of how three people doggedly persist to find success.

The Garden on Sunset is the first of nine novels in the Hollywood Garden of Allah series. A native Australian, Turnbull moved to Los Angeles in the 1990s. In addition to writing his Hollywood novels, he is a blogger, webmaster, and tour guide. (And I thought I had an addiction to stories about Hollywood.)

The Garden on Sunset doesn’t finally reach some grand climax; it doesn’t build toward a final and ultimately resolved crisis. Instead, it tells a story of Hollywood, an ongoing story of Hollywood that continues today.

Top photograph: The Garden of Allah Hotel on Sunset Boulevard in the 1920s.

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