Richard Schave and Kim Cooper of Esotouric fame (they give marvelous L.A.-film-noir-crime-based tours, the most popular of which is their fascinating Real Black Dahlia tour) have introduced a bi-monthly literary salon held at Musso and Frank’s—Hollywood’s oldest eatery (which I blogged about last year.) This month, the theme of their salon was That Side of Paradise: Dorothy Parker & F. Scott Fitzgerald in the Garden of Allah which focused on the Hollywood careers of Parker and Fitzgerald.
Richard and Kim had lined up a pair of speakers: Adrienne Crew, the president of the L.A. Chapter of the Dorothy Parker Society, and David Kipen from the Libros Schmibros bookstore in Boyle Heights to talk about Fitzgerald. And they asked me to be the meat in their literary sandwich (my words, not theirs) and set the scene for mid-30s Hollywood by talking about the place both Parker and Fitzgerald called home: the Garden of Allah hotel.
In 1936, when Fitzgerald scored a $1000-a-week contract to write screenplays at MGM, he checked in to the Garden of Allah. Being a chronic alcoholic who was desperate to dry out and get his life back on track (he was $40,000 in debt, his wife Zelda had been institutionalized since 1930, and daughter Scottie was in an expensive boarding school en route to Vassar), Scott’s choice of living quarters was probably not the wisest he could have made. There was a boozy party going on at the Garden of Allah pretty much every night of the week. They were usually held in the villa occupied by Robert Benchley whose all-too-frequent partner-in-hooch was the inimitable Dorothy Parker. She stayed off and on at the Garden of Allah over the years depending on finances and marital status.
Richard and Kim asked me if I could speak about the Garden of Allah, where and when it existed and how I’d come to use it as a setting for my novels set during the golden years of Hollywood. I told them I’d be delighted to be their literary sandwich filler . . . and then wondered how delighted I’d still be on the night when it was my turn to approach the microphone and have 100-plus people look up at me, expecting me to sound intelligent and articulate and cohesive and informative and entertaining. After all, I’d never done anything like that before, nor had I ever given a reading of my work.
But, as a fellow writer friend of mine said, “Giving readings is one of the few perks left to being a writer so enjoy it.” So I put my thoughts together, came up with a spiel about the Garden of Allah, practiced a two-page reading, and showed up at Musso and Frank’s with a stack of copies of The Garden on Sunset in case I’d sufficiently impressed anyone to buy a copy.
It was a lovely night in a charming 1920s era restaurant, perfect for a salon like this, and the audience was enthusiastic and receptive to everything we had to say. I can only hope that someone might ask me to speak at some other salon/event/conference/supermarket opening, and if that happens, I will bring to mind the lessons I learned that night:
1… Don’t Be Nervous
Fat chance. Not being nervous was never going to happen but there are a few things you can do to still the beating heart-clammy hands-cottonmouth syndrome. One common piece of advice is to imagine everybody is sitting in their underwear. Let me save you some time: Don’t even bother. Whoever came up with that probably had an underwear fetish. So instead, I reminded myself that every person in the room had come that evening to hear what I had to say. They were very interested in the time and place I’ve been reading about, researching and writing about for the past five years. These were my people and there was no need to be nervous. Did it work? Marginally. Perhaps even more than marginally, but I wasn’t there yet. What did help was to picture my two biggest supporters—my partner Bob and my editor Meghan Pinson—standing at the rear of the room holding huge red pom-poms (apparently they had to be red) and cheering “Go Martin! Go Martin!” Okay, now we were cooking!
2… S-p-e-a-k S-l-o-w-l-y
Between the beating heart and the cottonmouth, this is easier said than done. Way easier. But worth the effort, even if you have to write the word SLOW on your hands with a thick black marker. Which I didn’t. But which I wish I had.
3… Bring Reading Glasses That You Didn’t Buy In Egypt
Here’s where I really messed up. I had no expectations that I was going to reach the goal of being word perfect with my reading, but I was keen to botch as few words as possible. So I stood in front of my laptop and read the passage out loud once a day for the 10 days leading up to the salon. My mistake, though, was that I’d brought along a pair of cheap reading glasses that I bought in a market in Egypt last year thinking that they’d do the job just fine which they did . . . at home. Yeah . . . well . . . the problem with that was that I was doing the actual reading in a restaurant whose lighting is soft and low and flattering—as lighting in nice restaurants should be. I opened the book to commence the reading, put on my cheap Egyptian glasses and—oh crap. I could barely see the printing on the page. It was okay but you kinda sorta want to be more than “okay” when you’re reading your work to exactly the sort of people who will, with any luck, want to rush right out and buy your book.
4… Make Sure Booze Is Waiting For You Back At Your Table
This is crucial. Despite the success of the red pom-poms, and managing to speak slowly, and faking your way through slightly blurry words that you’ve written, re-written, read, and re-read literally a hundred times by now, making your way back to your table while thinking of all the things you wanted to say and planned to say but forgot to say is made easier knowing that there is a glass of chilled pinot grigio awaiting you.
5… Fake It Till You Make It
If everything else fails, just fake it till you make it. Pretend like you’re totally relaxed and in control like you’ve done this dozens of times before. In all likelihood, people will either not notice or not care or give you the benefit of the doubt. Which is apparently what happened because at the end of the night, I happened to look over to the booth where I’d set up my books and found a line had formed! I sold 20 copies of my book that night.
6… Do A Radio Interview Instead
As it happened, that same week, I was invited to appear on Jack Marino’s Warrior Filmmaker radio show. Jack is a huge Errol Flynn fan, and loves anything to do with Hollywood during the time when Flynn was at his peak, mid-1930s to early 1950s. Flynn was also a frequent resident of the Garden of Allah and so he asked me to come on his show to talk about it and my series of novels. Surprise, surprise! It’s a whole lot less stressful to talk about your work when you’ve got one easy-going, smiling guy looking at you from across the desk than it does to have 100 easy-going, smiling people sitting in a restaurant whose subdued lighting is about to throw you through a loop. The 50 minutes we spent talking about Hollywood and the Garden of Allah and Alla Nazimova were over before I could say “In like Flynn.”
You can listen to my interview with Jack here
or you can can download it as a podcast from his website or through iTunes.