The Myth Makers

Jean Stein was still in high school when she began interviewing members of the rarified Hollywood society in which she, as the daughter of MCA founder Jules Stein, was raised. Now, following her seminal works of oral history on Edie Sedgwick and her late friend Robert Kennedy, the author returns to her roots with this month’s West of Eden: An American Place (Random House). In a masterfully conducted symphony of voices, Stein tells the story of a coterie of families—including her own—in Malibu and Beverly Hills, each profile centered on someone who “came with a burst of energy from nowhere” to invent a life of riches and fame. Stein’s polyvalent oral narrative documents the indelible beauty and giddy decadence of Hollywood’s 20th-century golden age, complete with a parade of glamorous personalities and intrigues worthy of Henry James. And yet, as the sources’ testimony accretes, a picture emerges of the dark inheritance of such dreams and passions as these: legacies of murder, madness, and suicide. As psychiatrist Beatriz Foster recalled after an actress’s daughter leapt to her death, “Those California winds, they’ll blow you away.”