“I eased into the Chevy and very carefully joined the rush hour traffic heading west. The sun was in my eyes the whole trip, and by the time I reached Rodeo Drive I was in a bad way. I valet parked, nodded to the doorman and brushed past the ferns into the Luau’s air-conditioned interior. It was early and the place was virtually empty, so I chose a table over by the tropical pool at the back of the room. It was secluded, but I could still see everyone who came in and, if they were looking, they could see me. The gentle sound of the mini waterfall behind me helped soothe my nerves, but something told me they wouldn’t stay that way long…I ordered food and a Zombie cocktail. In my state the Zombie seemed appropriate. The waitress who served me seemed worried by my appearance, so, after she left I shifted my chair back so my face was more in shadow. Maybe people would think I was one of the wooden Tiki statues dotted around the place…..Half an hour later Vicki arrived. She glanced round the room, picked me out and hurried over. “Why the hell do we always have to meet here?” she said as she reached the table, “It’s always full of Hollywood phonies and hookers who think they’re Ava Gardner.”
The Luau was probably one of the most upmarket Tiki bars in Los Angeles during the 1950s and its atmospheric Polynesian decor and well crafted Rum cocktails made it a firm favorite with the Hollywood elite of the time. Opened by former actor and playboy Steve Crane in 1953, The Luau had become so famous by 1958 that Crane struck a deal with the Sheraton Hotel group to open a chain of Polynesian bars to replicate the Luau in cities across America.
Sadly, the golden age of Tiki Bars ended during the 1970s but over the last twenty years they have started to make something of a comeback thanks to the Tiki revival movement that began on the cusp of the new millennium, and to recent books like “Tiki Pop” by Sven Kirsten that show just how prevalent the Polynesian Pop phenomenon was in Mid-Century America .
“The Jive Hive was the real McCoy, Beatnik central. Watching the fuzzy-faced, scruffy kids in that grimy, bare-bricked basement, I thought of that Kerouac “On The Road” crap that Playboy kept publicizing. I’d tried reading it a couple of times but couldn’t get past the first chapter. Those endless, rambling descriptions were too much for me. Murderers serving time at Alcatraz had shorter sentences. The America that Kerouac conjured up, with its junkies and goof-offs, wasn’t a place where I wanted to spend time. Much like the Jive Hive in fact. I tried to control my prejudices but it was difficult. The beatnik kids kind of got under my skin. I guess I couldn’t understand why they had to dress like bums and gather like trolls in the dark. But I was there for a reason, so I kept my thoughts to myself and just watched the passing faces. As I scanned the room, something caught my eye. Over in a corner booth, nature boy a bunch of kids were staring in silent awe at a guy who looked like the king of the hobos. He had long hair down to his shoulders, a bearded, weather-beaten face and was dressed in tattered denim. A colorful Navajo Indian blanket draped over his shoulders completed the whole bizarre picture. Sitting there, sipping a glass of water, he gently nodded his head to the beat of the bongos. He seemed like one very serene guy. Gerry caught my gaze and leaned over to me. “That’s Eden Ahbez. He was beat when these kids were in diapers. Rumor has it he lives on nuts and berries, and sleeps up in the canyons. He’s supposedly a real cool cat. But get this, the best bit of it is, he’s the guy who wrote ‘Nature Boy’.”
“Nat King Cole’s ‘Nature Boy’ ?”
“The very same.”
“It had been a clear summer night, about a year before, and I was heading back from Vegas with a chorus girl I’d met that weekend. We were doing 70 mph on an empty stretch of road just outside of Barstow, when suddenly the darkness was blasted away by a brilliant flash of light. For a few seconds of eternity, everything was stark white with harsh black shadows. And then there was a clap of distant thunder. Carol had been almost asleep when the midnight sun struck. She grabbed my arm and screamed and then it was night again. I thought the Russians had finally done it. No four-minute warning, just BOOM! But the world hadn’t ended, it was one of our own A-bombs being detonated somewhere out in the desert. They said later, on the radio, that it was the biggest ever tested, about twenty times bigger than the Fat Boy they dropped on Hiroshima. I tried calming Carol down but she was almost hysterical. “Don’t worry, nuclear war will never happen.” I kept saying, but my heart was pounding and part of me knew I was lying. It could happen anytime. And when that time came, it would be sayonara everything. Goodbye cruel world.”
From 1951 until 1962 over one hundred Atomic weapons were detonated above ground at the US Military’s test site in the Nevada desert just outside Las Vegas. 148The mushroom clouds from the bombs could be seen at a distance of almost one hundred miles away and “bomb-watching” became something of a tourist attraction in Vegas itself. The radio-active fall-out from the tests drifted away from the city and were borne by the prevailing winds over southern Utah, where, tragically, increases in many types of cancer were reported from the mid-1950s through the 1980s.
We’d first met in 1950. I was bumming around from one dead-end job to another, still using the war as an excuse for screwing up. She was a rich man’s daughter who had the good sense to know she’d been spoiled rotten. bobby-socksWe were both in Canter’s Deli at three in the morning one aimless Friday night. She was dressed in rolled-up jeans and bobby sox with a bunch of giggling girlfriends. I was on my lonesome, hunched over a cold coffee and a slice of apple pie covered in the gloop that was once a scoop of ice cream. She reached over to my booth and asked to borrow the sugar. I said something smart and she said something smarter. She joined me at my table. Her eyes were blue-green, her sun-kissed blonde hair was in a ponytail. An hour later I was in love.”
Canter’s -2Deli is a Hollywood landmark and has been serving traditional Jewish food and American diner fare 24 hours a day since it opened in Boyle Heights in 1931. In 1948 it followed a Jewish migration to West Hollywood and relocated to Fairfax Ave. In 1953 it moved again, up a block into larger premises, and looks pretty much the same today as it did back then. I visited the place many times during my first few trips to LA in the 1990s and often sat in a booth with friends after a night of clubbing or bar-hopping, and it was easy to imagine a scene in the old Canter’s where a couple could meet for the first time in the balmy small hours of a weekend morning…
She relaxed half a notch. Even nervous, she was one of the most gorgeous women I’d ever laid eyes on. She had glossy red hair pulled into a pony-tail but it wasn’t the kind of red you see on white-skinned Irish girls. This was a tawny color that accented the pale honey tan of her skin. Her face was angular with full lips and almond-shaped eyes. She wore high heels, skin-tight Capri pants on long, long legs and a white blouse tied up at her slender waist. The skin of her belly was firm and tanned. She looked like the French actress Agnes Laurent. She looked like a sleek, golden animal. I wanted her.”
During the time I was starting to conjure up the character of the book’s femme fatale, Justine, I went to the PCC swap meet in Pasadena and picked up a dozen or so vintage Playboy Magazines from the late 1950s.
As luck would have it, one of them was dated July 1958 – the very month and year that “Ritual” takes place – and there was a pictorial on a beautiful French actress called Agnes Laurent.
Ms. Laurent was one of a handful of French starlets who were briefly touted in magazines like Playboy as the “next Brigitte Bardot” – she may not have been that, but her photos would certainly have made an impression on a lot of American males at the time.