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ERB'S HOTEL CALIFORNIA:
THE GIRL FROM HOLLYWOOD
Part 1 by
Woodrow Edgar Nichols, Jr.
“There she stood in the doorway; I heard the mission bell
And I was thinking to myself,
‘This could be Heaven or this could be Hell’
Then she lit up a candle and she showed me the way
There were voices down the corridor, I thought I heard them say...
“Welcome to the Hotel California
Such a lovely place
Such a lovely face
Plenty of room at the Hotel California
Any time of year
You can find it here.”
– The Eagles, “Hotel California”
I remember getting a certain feeling the first time I heard “Hotel California” by the Eagles back in the spring and summer of 1977, a feeling that represented everything I imagined about the magical State into which I had been born thirty years earlier. I was living in Berkeley at the time, just a few blocks from the UC campus near the intersection of Dwight and College, and just across the Bay from the Presidio of California, where I took my first breath on May 2, 1947, the second year of the Baby Boom.
Yes, that song also captured all of the original mystique and allure of Garcia Ordonez Rodriquez de Mont's Spanish myth about the magical island of California – which he inhabited with beautiful black free-love Amazon women led by their Queen, Califea, and mythological beasts like the Griffin. It also represented the tragic End of the Myth, the Temptation Trap of the Lost Paradise.
The same goes for ERB’s classic combination of the Western, the gangster story, the murder mystery, the family scandal, and, of course, the Hollywood expose, otherwise known as The Girl from Hollywood.
ERB wrote this novel during a very productive period in the early life of Rancho Tarzana, the name he gave to the huge spread he purchased from the estate of the late General Harrison Gray Otis, prior owner-editor of the Los Angeles Times. One of the intentions he had when he wrote this novel at the end of 1921 (he started writing on November 16) was to use it as a means to describe for posterity the grounds and lifestyle he was living at the Rancho, for the only real difference between Rancho Tarzana and the Rancho del Ganado of the novel, was that ERB moved the location of Ganado a good 70 miles north of Tarzana.
ERB makes no bones about the fact that he is writing a roman a clef. Even Eva Pennington, the daughter of the old Colonel, Custer Pennington, and brother of young Custer, acts and talks just like ERB's real life daughter, Joan (pronounced “Jo-An”). The book was in many ways written as a warning to his daughter about the temptations and perils of Hollywood, their nearby neighbor to the south.
Rancho Tarzana originally extended from the southwestern end of the San Fernando Valley, all the way across the Santa Monica Mountains to the Malibu. (See Bill Hillman’s excellent docu/novel about this period in ERBzine #1041-1045. ) In fact, ERB was an early mayor of Malibu. One day I would love to go horseback riding on the main mountain trails described in this book, since ERB described them accurately for history, and I would especially like to see the actual location of what is called “Jackknife Canyon” in the book, where some of the more sordid scenes occur.
Hillman describes going to Jackknife Canyon with the imaginary ERB in 1921, leading me to believe that the names of the trails and canyons were not changed in the novel, even though the names of the Pennington family (a very close resemblance to ERB’s own family) and the name of the ranch were changed. If you know whether the names of the trails and canyons are the same in the book as they are in the real world, please feel free to email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By the way, ERB's choice for the name of his fictional Tarzana, “Ganado,” is a Spanish word meaning cattle or livestock, which are raised in plenty at the Rancho. The book was not only written during the early years of the Volsted Act of 1919, otherwise known as Prohibition. It was also written during a time when ERB was experiencing a heightened eroticism, which can be detected in all three books written during this Blue Period, what I call ERB's Erotic Trilogy: The Chessmen of Mars, The Girl from Hollywood, and Tarzan and the Golden Lion. I am using the online version of The Girl from Hollywood found at gutenberg.net.au for my source text. (also found in ERBzine) I have read that this text has been heavily edited and censored from its original text in the June/December 1922 editions of Munsey’s Magazine, a main source of pulp fiction during this period. (See the ERB C.H.A.S.E.R article written by R.E. Prindle at ERBzine #0769.)
Okay, since they’re livin’ it up at the Hotel California – yes, that means plenty of booze, drugs, and sex – let us get on with this very clever story. In this section, we will review and analyze the first chapter of the book:
The two horses picked their way carefully downward over the loose shale of the steep hillside. The big bay stallion in the lead sidled mincingly, tossing his head nervously, and flecking the flannel shirt of his rider with foam. Behind the man on the stallion a girl rode a clean-limbed bay of lighter color, whose method of descent, while less showy, was safer, for he came more slowly, and in the very bad places he braced his four feet forward and slid down, sometimes almost sitting upon the ground.All right, let’s try to keep the names straight as ERB introduces us to his characters in what at first appears to be a haphazard manner. So far, the first entities to be named in the novel are the man’s horse and the girl’s horse, the Apache and Senator respectively. Many of the characters living on the ranch and in the semi-fictional Hollywood have real life counterparts which reveal many of ERB's own family secrets and suggesting many more mysteries.
At the base of the hill there was a narrow level strip; then an eight-foot wash, with steep banks, barred the way to the opposite side of the canyon, which rose gently to the hills beyond. At the foot of the descent the man reined in and waited until the girl was safely down; then he wheeled his mount and trotted toward the wash. Twenty feet from it he gave the animal its head and a word. The horse broke into a gallop, took off at the edge of the wash, and cleared it so effortlessly as almost to give the impression of flying.
Behind the man came the girl, but her horse came at the wash with a rush – not the slow, steady gallop of the stallion – and at the very brink he stopped to gather himself. The dry bank caved beneath his front feet, and into the wash he went, head first.
The man turned and spurred back. The girl looked up from her saddle, making a wry face.
“No damage?” he asked, an expression of concern upon his face.
“No damage,” the girl replied, “Senator is clumsy enough at jumping, but no matter what happens he always lights on his feet.”
“Ride down a bit,” said the man. “There’s an easy way out just below.”
She moved off in the direction he indicated, her horse picking his way among the loose boulders in the wash bottom.
“Mother says he’s part cat,” she remarked. “I wish he could jump like the Apache!”The man stroked the glossy neck of his own mount.Aha! One detects that drinking had become a problem in ERB's family at the Rancho. In fact, by the end of the decade ERB's wife, Emma, would become a notorious lush, and alcoholism was blamed for being a factor leading to ERB’s fatal heart attack in 1950. Note that we are finally given the names of the man and the girl, Custer and Grace. Once you know how the story goes, it is easy to go back and see the delicious irony in this scene.
“He never will,” he said. “He’s afraid. The Apache is absolutely fearless; he’d go anywhere I’d ride him. He’s been mired with me twice, but he never refuses a wet spot; and that’s a test, I say, of a horse’s courage.”
They had reached a place where the bank was broken down, and the girl’s horse scrambled from the wash.
“Maybe he’s like his rider,” suggested the girl, looking at the Apache; “brave, but reckless.”
“It was worse than reckless,” said the man. “It was asinine. I shouldn’t have led you over the jump when I know how badly Senator jumps.”
“And you wouldn’t have, Custer,” – she hesitated – “if – ”
“If I hadn’t been drinking,” he finished for her. “I know what you were going to say, Grace; but I think you’re wrong. I never drink enough to show it. No one ever saw me that way – not so that it was noticeable.”
ERB was a real student of human nature. He knew that others not afflicted with a problem often feel superior and judgmental toward an unfortunate who is. The fact is that Grace is judging Custer and Custer is obviously in denial for his drinking problem, for drinking becomes a problem when it interferes with your personal relationships and/or work. Anyway, this opening scene gives the reader no clue as to what Grace’s terrible fate will be. All that can be said this early is that by the time her time in the story comes to end, she’s in no position to judge anyone.
ERB's father, the Old Major, who fought in the Union Army from First Bull Run to the bitter end of the Civil War, is obviously an inspiration for Colonel Custer Pennington, even though they fought on opposite sides, that is, if the Colonel was old enough to have fought in the War Between the States, as it is called in the South. ERB himself is of course the main source for the character of the Colonel, although ERB himself never achieved a higher rank than private during his brief stint in the 7th Cavalry near the turn of the Century, spending most of his time chasing the Apache Kid. And though ERB admired the South – both Pennington and John Carter are from the South – he also admired Union officers, notably General George Armstrong Custer and his glorious Last Stand the year after ERB was born. Anyway, Grace sees through Custer’s denial and slams him for it:“It is always noticeable to me and to your mother,” she corrected him gently. “We always know it, Custer. It shows in little things like what you did just now. Oh, it isn’t anything. I know, dear; but we who love you wish you didn’t do it quite so often.”We learn the name of the ranch: Rancho del Ganado, or in English, Cattle Ranch. We expand our name list by three more, two ranch hands named Martin and Slick Allen, and Baldy, the horse Slick is riding. Did I mention that ERB was a superb horseman. He can’t help give helpful directions even to old hands like Slick Allen. And note the sadness in the idea that the automobile is making the days of the good horseman extinct.
“It’s funny,” he said, “but I never cared for it until it became a risky thing to get it. Oh, well, what’s the use. I’ll quit it if you say so. It hasn’t any hold on me.”
Involuntarily he squared his shoulders – an unconscious tribute to the strength of his weakness.
Together, their stirrups touching, they rode slowly down the canyon trail toward the ranch. Often they rode thus, in the restful silence that is a birthright of comradeship. Neither spoke until after they reined in their sweating horses beneath the cool shade of the spreading sycamore that guards the junction of El Camino Largo and the main trail that winds up Sycamore Canyon.”
A certain kind of relationship is suggested between Custer and Grace. Are they lovers? Good friends? Or somewhere between the two? Again the names of a trail, El Camino Largo, and another canyon, Sycamore Canyon, are mentioned, as is the fact that Custer’s mother also disapproves of his drinking. Custer himself still has to learn the power that alcohol can have over a person.
The girl pointed up into the cloudless sky, where several great birds circled majestically, rising and falling upon motionless wings.
“The vultures are back,” she said. “I am always glad to see them come again.”
“Yes,” said the man. “They are bully scavengers, and we don’t have to pay ‘em wages.”
The girl smiled up at him.
“I’m afraid my thoughts were more poetic than practical,” she said. “I was only thinking that the sky looked less lonely now that they have come. Why suggest their diet?”
“I know what you mean,” he said. “I like them too. Maligned as they are, they are really wonderful birds, and sort of mysterious. Did you ever stop to think that you never see a a very young one or a dead one? Where do they die? Where do they grow to maturity? I wonder what they’ve found up there? Let's ride up. Martin said he saw a new calf up beyond Jackknife Canyon yesterday. That would be just about under where they’re circling now.
They guided their horses around a large, flat slab of rock that some camper had contrived into a table beneath the sycamore, and started across the trail toward the opposite side of the canyon.
They were in the middle of the trail when the man drew in and listened.
“Someone is coming,” he said. “Let’s wait and see who it is. I haven’t sent any one back into the hills today.”
“I have an idea,” remarked the girl, “that there is more going on up there” – she nodded toward the mountains stretching to the south of them – “than you know about.”
“How is that?” he asked.
“So often recently we have heard horsemen passing the ranch late at night. If they weren’t going to stop at your place, those who rode up the trail must have been headed into the high hills; but I’m sure that those whom we heard coming
down weren’t coming from the Rancho del Ganado.”
“No,” he said, “not late at night – or not often, at any rate.”
The footsteps of a cantering horse drew rapidly closer, and presently the animal and its rider came into view around a turn in the trail.
“It's only Allen,” said the girl.
The newcomer reined in at sight of the man and the girl. He was evidently surprised, and the girl thought that he seemed ill at ease.
“Just given’ Baldy a workout,” he explained. “He ain’t been out for three or four days, an’ you told me to work ‘em out if I had time.” Custer Pennington nodded.
“See any stock back there?”
“No. How’s the Apache today – forgin’ as bad as usual?” Pennington shook his head negatively.
“That fellow shod him yesterday just the way I want him shod. I wish you’d take a good look at his shoes, Slick, so you can see that he’s always shod the same way.” His eyes had been travelling over Slick’s mount, whose heaving sides were covered with lather. “Baldy’s pretty soft, Slick; I wouldn’t work him too hard all at once. Get him up to it gradually.”
He turned and rode off with the girl at his side. Slick Allen looked after them for a moment and then moved his horse off at a slow walk toward the ranch. He was a lean, sinewy man, of medium height. He might have been a cavalryman once. He sat his horse, even at a walk, like one who has sweated and bled under a drill sergeant in the days of his youth.
Of course Allen’s meeting with the couple happens under semi-suspicious conditions. First, his horse is in a lather and Slick should know better than to ride a horse hard after not being ridden for three or four days. Why was Slick riding Baldy so hard? The observant reader can begin to detect how ERB is laying out the mystery, layer by layer.
Second, Grace detects a look of unease on Slick’s face when she first spies him. And a third clue, as we will soon discover, is that Slick lies about not having seen any stock back on the trail. Custer may already suspect this because Martin had told him the day before about a new calf up beyond Jackknife Canyon. One who has been reading ERB for a long time will also recognize his infatuation with things that normally repulse the average person, like the appreciation of vultures and their place in nature.
I recall reading an account in one of his biographies when he was returning to Pearl Harbor as a war correspondent on the U.S. S. Shaw, a destroyer which had experienced a famous explosion during the Japanese Raid on December 7, 1941, and the skipper observed him staring off into space for hours, and when the skipper asked ERB what he was doing, he explained to the skipper that ever since reading a story when he was young about a flood full of dead floating bodies he had always had a morbid desire to see dead bodies floating in the water. Remember, this was at the height of WWII and there were many bodies at the time randomly floating in the Pacific Ocean.
And lastly, Grace tells Custer about the noises of horsemen she and someone else (her mother?) heard passing their abode late at night. Is Grace’s abode also on the ranch? She recalls hearing the noises, her memory enhanced right after Custer hears Slick approaching. Hmm. What could be going on late at night on the Pennington ranch? And does Slick have anything to do with it?“How do you like him?” the girl asked of Pennington.So much for remaining objective about Slick Allen, he of the shark eyes. One can sense ERB's contempt for the man in that Slick is a horsemen who doesn’t like horses. ERB loved horses. But what does Custer mean about not choosing Slick for a playmate?
“He's a good horseman, and good horsemen are getting rare these days,” replied Pennington; “but I don’t know that I’d choose him for a playmate. Don’t you like him?”
“I’m afraid that I don’t. His eyes give me the creeps – they’re like a fish's.”
“To tell the truth, Grace, I don’t like him,” said Custer. “He’s one of those rare birds – a good horseman who doesn’t love horses. I imagine he won’t last long on the Rancho del Ganado; but we’ve got to give him a fair shake – he’s only been with us a few weeks.”
Remember, this was decades before Playboy magazine and the natural association since then between a sexy girl next door and the Playmate of the Month. In 1921 it just meant a person you could go out with a have a good time doing the things young people do. There is no hint of homosexuality I can detect in the history of ERB, but he did have a strong artistic appreciation for both the female and male physique, which can be especially observed his Tarzan, John Carter, Pellucidar and Caspak novels.They were picking their way toward the summit of a steep hogback. The man, who led, was seeking carefully for the safest footing, shamed out of his recent recklessness by the thought of how close the girl had come to a serious accident through his thoughtlessness. They rode along the hogback until they could look down into a tiny basin where a small bunch of cattle were grazing, and then, turning and dipping over the edge, they dropped slowly toward the animals.I don’t know about you, but I felt like I was on horseback moving over some rugged terrain at a leisurely rate reading that passage. Remember, Slick had said there were no stock up the trail. If Custer had suspected Slick had lied to him, it was now well confirmed.Near the bottom of the slope they came upon a white-faced bull standing beneath the spreading shade of a live oak. He turned his wooly face toward them, his red-rimmed eyes observing them dispassionately for a moment. Then he turned away again and resumed his cud, disdaining further notice of them.Well, that answers the question about their relationship. They are lovers. We can imagine that they are intimate because of the suggestion that he’s ready to give her a baby. This has all the makings of an early sex scene in pulp fiction, where a relationship can be suggested, but because of the censors, can not be stated outright without offending the prudish reading public. So, is there a suggestion that Grace is a loose girl? Not yet.
“That’s the King of Ganado, isn’t it,” asked the girl.
“Looks like him, doesn’t he? But he isn’t. He’s the King’s likeliest son, and unless I’m mistaken he’s going to give the old fellow a mighty tough time of it this fall, if the old boy wants to hang on to the grand championship. We’ve never shown him yet. It’s an idea of father’s. He’s always wanted to spring a new champion at a great show and surprise the world. He’s kept this fellow hidden away ever since he gave the first indication that he was going to be a fine bull. At least a hundred breeders have visited the herd in the past year, and not one of them has seen him. Father says he’s the greatest bull that ever lived, and that his first show is going to be the International.”
“I just know he’ll win,” exclaimed the girl. “Why look at him! Isn’t he a beauty?”
“Got a back like a billiard table,” commented Custer proudly.
They rode down among the heifers. There were a dozen beauties – threeyear-olds. Hidden to one side, behind a small bush, the man’s quick eyes discerned a little bundle of red and white.
“There it is, Grace,” he called, and the two rode toward it.
One of the heifers looked fearfully toward them, then at the bush, and finally walked toward it, lowing plaintively.
“We’re not going to hurt it, little girl,” the man assured her.
As they came closer, there arose a thing of long, wobbly legs, big joints, and great, dark eyes, its spotless coat of red and white shining with health and life.
“The cunning thing!” cried the girl. “How I’d like to squeeze it! I just love ‘em, Custer!”
She had slipped from her saddle, and dropping her reins on the ground, was approaching the calf.
“Look out for the cow!” cried the man, as he dismounted and moved forward to the girl’s side, with his arm through the Apache’s reins. “She hasn’t been up much, and she may be a little wild.”
The calf stood its ground for a moment, and then, with tail erect, cavorted madly for its mother, behind whom it took refuge.
“I just love ‘em! I just love ‘em!” repeated the girl.
“You say the same thing about the colts and the little pigs,” the man reminded her.
“I love ‘em all!” she cried, shaking her head, her eyes twinkling.
“You love them because they’re little and helpless, just like babies,” he said. “Oh, Grace, how you’d love a baby!”
The girl flushed prettily. Quite suddenly he seized her in his arms and crushed her to him, smothering her with a long kiss. Breathless, she wriggled partially away, but he still held her in his arms.
We also learn something about the competition between breeders in the cattle business and that the Pennington ranch raises horses and pigs. Perhaps we will learn where the competition called the International is held and at what time of the year. Grace is impressed that the calf hid in the bushes from the vultures until it could walk competently.“Why won’t you, Grace?” he begged. “They’ll never be anybody else for me or for you. Father and mother and Eva love you almost as much as I do, and on your side your mother and Guy have always seemed to take it as a matter of course that we’d marry. It isn’t the drinking, is it, dear?”We know now who the “we” were who heard noises the night before: Grace has a mother and a brother named Guy. She has also just shown that Custer is not the only one in denial. It is amazing how naive she is in her dreams of making it on the stage as an actress. How many times had ERB heard such rationalizations from countless young women later burned on the casting room couch? Or maybe he had heard them directly from his own daughter. Remember, this novel is part cautionary tale, told with absolute salacious relish.
“No, it’s not that, Custer. Of course I’ll marry you – someday; but not yet. Why, I haven’t lived, yet, Custer! I want to live. I want to do something outside of the humdrum life that I shall live as a wife and mother. I want to live a little, Custer, and then I’ll be ready to settle down. You all tell me that I am beautiful, and down, away in the depth of my soul, I feel that I have talent. If I have, I ought to use the gifts God has given me.”
She was speaking very seriously, and the man listened patiently and with respect, for he realized that she was revealing for the first time a secret yearning that she must have long held in her bosom.
“Just what do you want to do, dear?” he asked gently.
“I – oh, it seems silly when I try to put it in words, but in dreams it is very beautiful and very real.”
“The stage?” he asked.
“It is just like you to understand!” Her smile rewarded him. “Will you help me? I know mother will object.”
“You want me to help you take all the happiness out of my life?” he asked.
“It would only be for a little while, just a few years, and then I would come back to you – after I had made good.”
We also learn that Custer has a father, mother, and a sister named Eva, who appear to be great friends with Grace’s family. Thus, we have the Pennington family, the Colonel, Custer’s mother, as well as Custer living on the ranch and Grace, her mother, and brother Guy, also living somewhere on or near the ranch. We have learned the names of two ranch hands, Martin and Slick, and three horses, the Apache, Senator, and Baldy.
So much for Chapter One.
Read The Girl From Hollywood Text in ERBzine
See the ERBzine Bibliography Entry
BACK TO EDGAR RICE BURROUGHS' TARZANA RANCH 1921 - Docu/Novel
INTRODUCTORY AND CONTENTS PAGE
THE EDGAR RICE BURROUGHS ARTICLES
BY WOODROW EDGAR NICHOLS, JR.
THE TRIMESTERS OF CASPAK
by Woodrow Edgar Nichols, Jr.
INTRODUCTION and CONTENTS
|Pt. I: Ch. 1||Pt. II: Ch. 2||Pt. III: Ch. 3/4||Pt. IV: Ch. 5||Pt. V: Ch. 6/7||Pt. VI: Ch. 8/9/10||Pt. VII: Ch. 11/12|
|Pt. VIII: Ch. 13/14||Pt. IX: Ch. 15||Pt. X: Ch. 16||Pt. XI: Ch. 17/18||Pt. XII: Ch. 19/20||Pt. XIII: Ch. 21||Pt. XIV: Ch. 22/23|
|Pt. XV: Ch. 24/25||Pt. XVI: Ch. 26/27/28||Pt. XVII: Ch. 29/30/31||Pt. XVIII: Ch. 32/33||Pt. XIX: Ch. 34||Pt. XX: Ch. 35||Pt. XXI: Ch. 36/37|
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