“Whatever Happened to Hollywood?” – In conversation with Richard Niles, step-son of Jesse Lasky Jr

If the name Jesse Lasky sounds familiar, it probably means that you’re a fan of golden-era Hollywood. He was the “Lasky” in the early motion picture company, Famous Players-Lasky who, along with Samuel Goldwyn and Cecil B. DeMille, produced The Squaw Man (1914), which was the first feature-length film shot in California, partly in what became Hollywood.

And so when Richard Niles approached me to say that that he was updating and republishing the memoirs of his step-dad, Jesse Lasky Junior – the original edition of Whatever Happened to Hollywood? came out in 1973 – and would I like to read an advance copy, I said “Yes, please!”

I enjoyed it so much that we decided to jump onto Zoom, which Richard recorded.

You can listen to it on my website

or you can watch the video on YouTube

or you can read the transcript below:


Martin Turnbull: Hi everybody. My name is Martin Turnbull, and today I’m talking to Richard Niles about the rerelease of his stepfather’s memoir, Whatever Happened to Hollywood? Hi, Richard.

Richard Niles: How are you doing? Great to be here.

Martin: Before we start, perhaps we should both introduce ourselves. I am the author of a series of novels set at the real-life Garden of Allah Hotel that operated from 1927 to 1959; and those are the golden years of Hollywood, at least in my view. It opened just before the release of The Jazz Singer, which introduced the talkies into Hollywood, and it closed in 1959, which was the dawning of the fading years of Hollywood’s studio era. So I’ve written a series of nine books set in and around the Garden of Allah Hotel, telling the evolution of the golden years of Hollywood. I have written and researched a lot about this era, and so I was very pleased to get an advance copy of this memoir that’ll be coming out soon. So, Richard, tell us a bit about you, and this book.

Richard: I’ve been a composer, arranger, and record producer, pretty much all of my life. I’m very lucky to have had two fathers to influence me greatly. My actual father was Tony Romano, who was a great musician, singer, guitar player, who spent the war years playing with Bob Hope in the very first USA troupe that toured during World War II. But before that, he had been a child star on Broadway, as well as an arranger for people like Cole Porter, so I had a great musical influence from him. And then somewhere around 1962, my mother got remarried, to Jesse Lasky Jr, who was an incredible playwright, poet, and screenwriter who wrote about 40 films, eight of them for Cecil B. DeMille.

His father, Jesse Lasky Sr, produced the very first full-length motion picture in Hollywood; and his director was a first-time director who he had chosen because he really liked the guy, who was DeMille. Jesse Lasky Sr’s other partner was Sam Goldfish, who would later change his name to Goldwyn and become one of the great moguls himself. And so I was brought up with this fantastic background. From Jesse Jr I got an incredible education in writing, in literature, in film, so I was very lucky to have both of those influences; and of course, that influenced affected my song writing. I’m also an author. I’ve written eight books on music, and I couldn’t be happier with the good fortune that gave me those people. That brings us to this book, which I’m so glad that you’ve had a chance to read.

Martin: A wonderful read it is, too.

Richard: The way that it came about was that myself and my mother, and all of his friends were entranced by hearing him tell these amazing stories, growing up at the very beginning of Hollywood, all the way through its golden age, and its decline in the late ’50s. We kept saying to him, “These stories are so great, you should write them down.” And, of course, finally, we nagged him enough that he sat down and started doing it.

Martin: Thank goodness, you did too, because they are quite some stories. You’re republishing it. Can you give us an idea of what circumstances led to that?

Richard: For many years, I’ve been very unhappy that such a great book had gone out of print, and also the publishers who had published the original edition, Funk and Wagnall, went out of business. So I thought, “Let’s republish because it really deserves it.” And then I decided that one of the great things that would bring it to life would be this amazing archive of photos that we have, both the personal, private family photos, and also a good friend of the family, Marc Wanamaker, of the Bison Archives. I don’t know if you know him, but you ought to.

Martin: I don’t think we’ve actually met, but I certainly know of him because he’s quite the guy.

Richard: You guys would get on like a house on fire. Especially since you have such brilliant, wonderful photos on your website. That’s the thing that introduced me to you. I came across your site and I thought, “Wow, this is fantastic! What fun for a film buff to see these photos.” And it’s not just about films, but it’s about L.A., and Hollywood, and the physical layout of the city, and how people lived and worked there. What I think is also fascinating is how you put the people we know of as the stars, and the directors, and the actors into the context of where they lived, and how they got around, the streetcars they took, and the buses, and the taxis. And for me it was just a joy, and so that’s why I originally got in touch with you.

Martin: For people who are listening to this and who might not know, I post a vintage photograph of L.A. every day. I do a bit of research and some digging and try to explain as efficiently as I can the context of the photograph. I think it helps to have context about, for instance, what traffic was like along Hollywood Boulevard at that time, how the Egyptian Theatre looked, and what was it like to catch a streetcar out of downtown. It brings to life these legendary stories so that we can better understand what life was really like, versus the life that was depicted on-screen during this era, because it was a very stylized, idealized version. And that’s interesting in its own respect, but meanwhile there’s also reality.

Richard: Yes, and a lot of people have said to me throughout the years, “Why analyse anything? Why not just enjoy it?” And to me, that’s just silly, because you enjoy it a lot more knowing the background of it. If you know where a certain scene in a film was actually filmed and how they technically put it together, and the fact that all of these famous Hollywood people happened to be extras in Ben-Hur, it brings that whole scene to life more than just watching the film as a sort of a dumb viewer and then going out and having a pizza.

Martin: I want to start with Cecil B. DeMille. They came out to film The Squaw Man, which was really the start of Hollywood filmmaking. This is Jesse Lasky Sr, who established Famous Players-Lasky, which evolved into Paramount. The Lasky family were really there right from the very start. What struck me when reading this book is that Jesse Lasky Sr’s professional life seemed to reflect that old adage that you’re only as good as your last picture. He had to prove himself over and over again, and didn’t get any credit for being a forefather.

Cecil B. DeMille at a lunch table with his writers at the Paramount Studios commissary.
Jesse Lasky Jr. is next to DeMille.

Richard: Jesse Lasky Sr had started as a very successful vaudeville and Broadway producer. He had shows going all over the country. Unlike any of the other moguls, he was born in California, in San Francisco. His mother and his father had come over in the covered wagon, so he was a second-generation Californian, which means Jesse Jr was third generation Californian. You didn’t find very many of them in those days. He got together with his brothers-in-law, and Sam Goldfish told him about the flickers. He said, “You got to see this. You’re going to love this form of entertainment.” Jesse saw it and thought, “Yes, yes, this could be something, but it’s no good just having these little short snippets of film. We’ve got to make a real story, a real play.” And that’s why he called his company the Jesse Lasky Feature Play Company because for him, the play, the writing, the story was everything. He believed you hooked an audience with an incredibly compelling story.

Later on, the other companies realized, “Well, actually the audience loves stars.” So he decided to make his first film and they bought a very successful Broadway play, The Squaw Man. Originally, Lasky had wanted to hire William DeMille, who was a very successful Broadway director and writer. But William wasn’t available because he was so busy, and also he didn’t want to waste his time on this new-fangled nonsense, the flickers. But his mother was his agent and she said to Lasky, “He’s not available, but I’ve got another son, Cecil. He’s so talented! He’s a genius! Please meet with him.” So Jesse met with Cecil, who had never directed anything, but Lasky liked him. He saw in him that same enthusiasm and magical feeling about creation and putting on a show because Lasky had been a showman since the very beginning.

And so he said, “Okay, I’m going to give this kid a chance,” and sent him out to Hollywood with a very experienced cameraman, Oscar Apfel, so that he wouldn’t go too far wrong. And he hired Dustin Farnham, who was a star of the stage to be in it. The Squaw Man was a successful play already, so he thought, “I’m on to a good thing.” DeMille, Apfel, and Farnham took the train west. They were originally booked to film the entire thing in Flagstaff, Arizona, but when the train arrived there, they said, “Sorry, you can’t get off. Everybody is shooting everybody. There’s a cattle war going on here. You’ll have to stay on the train.” So DeMille said, “What’s the next stop?” They said, “It stops near Los Angeles, in a place called Hollywood.” So they got off at Hollywood and they rented a barn. And so he sent the famous telegram back to Lasky saying, “Flagstaff no good for our purposes, want authorization to hire a barn here in Hollywood.” And Lasky sent back the famous telegram saying, “Authorization approved, but make no long term commitments.” And that’s how Hollywood was born.

Throughout Lasky Sr’s life, he was a dreamer, he was a mystic, he was an enthusiastic promoter of everything. He believed in the show, in the story, in entrancing the audience with these exciting stories. And, of course, that quality endeared him to all the people who wanted to get things done, because he was so inspiring. But at the same time, he was not a good businessman at all. He trusted everyone. There’s something in the book where I believe it was Adolf Zucker, who said, “Jesse is a very, very nice man, but he’s just too nice.” And that’s really where his downfall was. And finally, when the stock market crashed, he had put all his money into Paramount stock. Now the other film moguls did not, they diversified their portfolio. They had money in various different sure-fire kinds of things, and they didn’t lose too much. But Lasky, who believed in his company and believed in filmmaking, lost everything. He had been one of the richest men in the world and was brought down to literally being thrown out of his house.

Martin: It seemed that after that he kind of scrambled to regain any sort of stature and never really quite got there.

Richard: Correct. Everyone turned their back: DeMille, Goldwyn, all of them. These were people whose careers Lasky had started. He brought Goldwyn into the business, Goldwyn was a glove salesman. Lasky’s brilliance created the industry as it became. DeMille would not have had a chance in hell, he would have been scrambling for the rest of his life if Lasky had not given him the opportunity to direct The Squaw Man.

That film was successful and they started right away, making more and more films. Of course, no one is saying that DeMille wasn’t talented. He was phenomenally talented, but when it came down to it, when Lasky needed help, the only person who gave it to him, and the only person who believed in him was Jack Warner. And so yes, he struggled for the rest of his life. But how many film producers can say that they produced 1,000 films, because that’s what Jesse Lasky Sr produced.

Martin: Your stepfather, who was Jesse Lasky Jr, witnessed and absorbed all of those lessons. So it’s kind of ironic that he should end up working for DeMille, who I’ve researched DeMille a little bit because he’s a character in my novel about Irving Thalberg, The Heart of the Lion.

"The Heart of the Lion: a novel by of Irving Thalberg's Hollywood" by Martin Turnbull

The insight that I got from this book of yours is that, at least when it came to DeMille’s writers—and I assume everybody else who worked for him, but we’re seeing it from the respect of a writer because Jesse Lasky Jr. was a one—DeMille was ruthless. He ruled by fear and intimidation, and almost scaring the story out of his writers. And it seemed that DeMille’s rationalization was ‘the end justifies the means.’ This is how it gets to the best, fullest, most cinematic story. So he put his writers through absolute hell, and I was wondering what Jesse Jr. spoke about that to you. Was that an overall positive experience, or was it because he was working with the A-list director of Hollywood that he put up with behavior that wouldn’t be put up with these days?

Richard: Jesse Jr. had grown up in two incredible mansions with five or six Rolls Royces, twelve servants, a beach house in Santa Monica, and another mansion at Salt Air. Then he went to the University of Dijon. Within about a year, he was called back because his father was completely bankrupt, and they couldn’t afford to keep him there. Suddenly he had to hit the streets, to try to get some kind of a job, as was his father.

A lot of people say, “I grew up in poverty, so I’m very careful about my money.” Jesse Jr grew up in incredible wealth and then lost it all; and the contrast was something that he did not want to suffer again. And so he began as a lowly reader for Sol Wurtzel, which was a very low paying job, but it was a job. And then eventually, he got together with a novelist who wrote potboiler novels. Just quickie things that sold and got him in advance and then he’d write another one.

And so when he finally got the chance to work for DeMille, suddenly he was being paid well. I mean, for a writer, of course. Writers didn’t get anywhere near the kind of money that everyone else on the film was making, but writers made good money. And not only that, he realized that DeMille’s judgment for DeMille’s films was absolutely gold. Also DeMille was tremendously sophisticated and erudite. There was nobody in the world you could ever have a conversation with who was more fascinating, who was more interesting, and constantly making you realize new things about life, and what had gone before, and look at today in a different way. And so, it wasn’t that he had the same tastes as DeMille, but he understood that a job is a job.

I’ve worked a lot of my life as a musical arranger. If somebody calls me up and says, “I want this song to sound like X,” well, that’s my job. I know how to make it sound like X, and I will do that, and so that’s what Jesse thought. He said, “The boss is the boss. Try to figure out what he wants, and then try to give that to him.” And many times, to get from that A to the Z of being able to satisfy DeMille was torture.

There’s one story that Jesse tells in the book about DeMille looking at a scene that he’d written for The Ten Commandments. And DeMille is so insulting, and so absolutely heartless and cruel, that he spits on the script, at which point, Jesse said, “Right. That’s it. I’m leaving.” And he went into his office and packed his things. He’s putting away all of his books and then DeMille walks in on him and says, “If you look at your Bible, Jesse, you will see that it says, ‘And God took the dust of the earth and mixed it with spittle and made man.’ And that convinces Jesse to continue to work on the script. And, of course, later on, he said, “Mr. DeMille, I can’t find in the Bible where it says that.” And DeMille replies, “If you keep looking, keep looking Jesse, look hard.” Of course, it wasn’t there, he made it up.

Martin: Right, right.

Richard: It’s a combination of the fact that he trusted DeMille to make a DeMille picture. He also loved having a steady job, on salary, not just working job to job, but you’re on salary for a long period of time.

Martin: There’s a lot to be said for that, and I wondered how I would react under the same circumstances, which is difficult, because I’m looking at it from a 21st-Century perspective, and this was the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s, But at the very least, I would imagine that Jesse Jr. knew of DeMille’s track record and that he hit far more times than he missed. If this is DeMille’s process to get to a fantastic movie, then that’s part and parcel of the process. I doubt the cameraman, or the extras, or the actors had it any easier. It was just a case of “This is the way we make a great movie.” And he did make great movies, so there’s something to that.

Richard: That’s it, of course. I don’t think he ever missed in terms of hitting and missing, but I also think that Jesse had a respect for him. Even though he knew that he was a tyrant, even though that he knew he was a misogynist, even though that he knew that he was cruel and heartless to people, even though all of those things, he still had a reason for doing what he did, and that’s why he lasted so long. He was part of the studio system. That was the studio system.

Martin: When Jesse Jr. spoke to you about DeMille, was it with fondness or with, “Look at what I had to put up with!”

Richard: It was definitely a mix. There was some affection there, but there was also just incredible amazement that he had put up with all that. But remember also it was made easier by the fact that Jesse always wrote for DeMille as part of a team. In the book, Jesse says, “A lot of people have asked me through the years, ‘How can you write as part of a team?’ Well, you have to remember that these kinds of epics that DeMille made were without question, not personal stories from Jesse himself. Nor were they ever assumed to be. They were meant to be: “Here is the drama we are presenting. This is the way I want to present that drama. How can we best do it?” One man would be chosen purely for his historical acumen; for the accuracy of every single element of it had to be justified, especially when making a biblical film.

Martin: Especially that The Ten Commandments. That was a big movie.

Richard: A lot of them were big movies. Samson and Delilah was nothing to sniff at either. The other thing was that you’d have a guy who was purely construction. My mother was always very good at construction, this should go here, this should go here, here’s the way the story should go. Jesse was absolutely a genius with words, and if you get the chance to read any of his poetry, it’s absolutely mind-blowing, and his verse plays. He did a wonderful verse play called A Ghost Town. He wrote a wonderful long-form verse poem called, A Penny for the Guy. And you can see it even in the three books of poetry that he published when he was sixteen and seventeen. It’s just amazing. You could call it a genius for words. And so, Jesse was always chosen for his language and for coming up with lines that had had magic to them.

There are just so many examples of it, but the one line that he wrote for Gary Cooper, which was just so apt, where Gary Cooper says to the bad guy, “You know, a feller shouldn’t jump to conclusions. It’s likely to be a feller’s last jump.” Those kinds of things are great in a movie and that’s what Jesse was often called to come up with.

Martin: And what I think people don’t realize—but Jesse Jr would have because he grew up in that time and place—is that most movies were written by more than just the people who got the credit on the screen.

Richard: Absolutely, yes.

Martin: So he would have known that he was a cog in the writing wheel and that wheel was a cog in a larger machine, and he knew his place. From reading Whatever Happened to Hollywood?, it seemed to me that for all DeMille’s faults, and browbeating, and insulting, and belittling—there was a lot of belittling!—when Jesse Jr finally gets the scene right, DeMille recognizes it and says, ‘That’s the scene I was looking for.” Maybe DeMille didn’t quite know exactly what that scene would be like until he read it, but when he did, it’s like, “Bingo! We’ve nailed it.”

Richard: Yes. And I think modern scriptwriters, modern filmmakers, modern directors will be very shocked to see that in those days, all the films that you saw, from the ’30s, to ’40s, even into the ’50s, every single shot, every camera angle, every costume, every movement of the actors was scripted. There was nothing left to chance. Once in a while, someone would come up with something on the set; and once in a while, DeMille would say, “No, we need to change that. Let’s think of something else.” Which is why Jesse, more than the other writers, had to be on the set during a lot of the filming, just in case they needed a different line.

Today’s directors want to improvise scenes. They want to let the actors come up with ideas themselves. They want to just film in a much more what they call organic method. You couldn’t do that with the enormous semi-articulated lorry that was a motion picture company. A production like The Ten Commandments, every single shot had been storyboarded. It’s a completely different world and I’m glad that this book can introduce that world to the modern reader and the modern filmmaker. Perhaps they may find that there are some elements of that world that are worth saving.

Cecil B. DeMille and his writers looking at storyboards. Jesse Lasky Jr. is behind DeMille.

Martin: I think it shows in the finished product. The reason why I enjoy movies from the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s is that they were more carefully crafted. The lighting—and that includes the shading, and the cinematography, the costumes, the direction, were all very carefully designed for a specific purpose and toward a specific goal. There is a scene I love in Now, Voyager in which Bette Davis, who’s been playing a frump is turned into a glamorpuss. She lifts that wide-brim hat and you see for the first time that she’s been made over. And just the lift of a hat was probably very carefully choreographed with the lighting, and the costuming with the hat, and the makeup, etc. All for just a gorgeously captured moment that we’re talking about 75 years later.

Richard: That’s right, yes.

Martin: You don’t find that in the movies of the ’60s and ’70s. That higher operating skill level was lost. Some of these people retired, and died out, but also the studio system had died out. What replaced them may have been a looser, freer way of doing it, but the end product for me is a much less masterfully crafted motion picture.

Richard: You’re absolutely right. And in fact, Bette Davis famously said—and I think this is a tremendously helpful quote to explain what we’re talking about—she said, “Actors, have to be larger than life, scripts have to be larger than life, movies must be larger than life.” Now it’s a difference of intent. If you want to make a movie, which they used to call kitchen sink movies, about a guy who’s sitting in the corner, picking his nose, in a dirty t-shirt, and walks over and grabs a beer and says, “Hey, Doris, get in here.” That’s fine if that’s the kind of movie you want, but DeMille and those filmmakers of those times did not find that entertaining. They wanted as many bums on seats as possible. They were providing uplifting, magical, larger-than-life moments. Not life, but larger-than-life.

Later, I think in the ’50s and ’60s, the film should reflect the spirit of the times, and that’s fair enough. There’s nothing wrong with that. But nevertheless, look at what’s happened. Look at the most successful films have today, and for the last 10 years or more, what are they, the blockbuster Star Wars, and the Marvel films, all the superhero stuff, it’s larger than life. And don’t tell me that those films are improvised on the set. No, they’re complicated, very sophisticated, very expensive productions. And once again, it doesn’t cost as much to make a film that is a slice of life. Breathless is a great movie, but it didn’t cost what Samson and Delilah cost, or indeed, what Spider Man cost. They don’t cost that much because there doesn’t have to be that much preparation. They don’t have to spend that much money on the cinematography, on the processes, all of the things. In my opinion, it’s gone right back to DeMille, in terms of all these blockbuster films that are so successful today.

Martin: My thought about is how slice-of-life movies are fine, but we can have a slice of life just living our life. The big spectacle movies are an aspect of life we’ll never experience and big movies belong on big screens, with all the mastery of the cinematic arts you can throw at it—and that’s fine by me.

Richard: Exactly, and of course, how wonderful to have the spectacle. We love spectacle. Why? Because it takes us away from thinking about paying our bills, about the fact that we’ve got to have dinner tonight, and we haven’t even thought about it, and we’re sitting alone in our room, and oh, I guess I can have beans on toast. You don’t want to see a movie about beans on toast. At least I don’t.

Martin: We’re living it. One of the things that I found most interesting is one movie star in particular gets a lot of space in the book: Jean Harlow. She was a very real person, very down to earth, who saw herself was one of the crew. But she was also very sexually free, and not particularly inclined to toe the line in terms of back then—we’re talking ’20s and ’30s. It struck me how lucky Jesse Jr. was to have an experience like that with somebody like that, especially when he was young, and she was older, as I recall.

Richard: She was probably about five or six years older. Jesse got the opportunity to meet her because he had gone on a holiday with his father, and of course, his father was still Jesse Lasky, the man had produced so many successful films. They were in Agua Caliente in Mexico and they were playing golf, and ran into the next people. Instead of pushing them out of the way, his father saw that it was Jean Harlow and said, “Hi, Jean. How are you doing? Meet my son.” Jean was a very fine golfer. There are some pictures in the book of her playing golf. And she said to Jesse Jr, “You’re a pretty good player. Why don’t you call me next Sunday and we’ll play?” And when Jesse got back to L.A. he was working as a lowly reader and thought, “She must have just been being nice to me because of dad. She didn’t really expect me to call.”

Jean Harlow playing golf the day she met Jesse Lasky Jr.

So he was sitting in the little office he shared with six other guys and his phone rings, and it’s Jean saying, “You’re gonna stand up an old lady, are you?” And he said, “I didn’t think you were serious.” “Well, I was serious so get down here.” After that, they started meeting quite often. At the time, she was between boyfriends, wanting to go out and have fun; that’s what she enjoyed doing. She loved going to clubs, and she loved going out to dinner, and dancing.

And remember, Jesse had been brought up for the high life. He knew it very well, and he was a great dancer. He loved music, he knew so much, he could talk about poetry, and writing, and film. He was a great companion for her, but in terms of maturity, he was very, very inexperienced, and inexperienced with girls, much less Jean Harlow, the sex goddess of the film world. Their relationship was never sexual because he never pushed it. The one night when she pushed it by inviting him to her bedroom, he didn’t take the hint. He just offered to read her poetry, so she says she has a headache and wants to go to bed. He doesn’t say, “Okay, I’ll get in with you.” He does the polite gentlemanly thing. That’s another thing that I have to say about Jesse is that he was a gentlemen. He was honestly really like that. He used to say to me, “Let the other person have their space, listen to them. Don’t just talk, listen. If you have an argument with somebody, don’t box them into a corner, because then they’ll lunge out at you like a lion or a tiger.”

Martin: Right!

Richard: He understood the whole thing of having absolutely beautiful manners. And so, as a result, eventually Jean Harlow herself wanted, as we say in England, a little rumpy-pumpy, whereas he was just not set up to do all that. And she sends him home, and then he never sees her again, because William Powell comes back into her life. It’s also a very interesting thing that people will see in the book that when his boss, Sol Wurtzel, finds out that he is dating Jean Harlow. Sol is insisting that Jesse Jr view stock footage with him during the evening. Jean says, “I don’t mind waiting for you. I’ll wait for you in your office because I’ve got to go over some scripts.” She was very serious about her craft. A lot of people don’t know that, but she really cared about doing the best job she could. She was line perfect on everything, she never didn’t know her lines. She knew everybody else’s lines and the other actors’. The crews loved her because she was so relaxed and professional. And she never kept anybody waiting the way some other stars have, like Marilyn Monroe.

And so she was studying her script up in Jesse’s cramped little office and it’s one or two in the morning. Wurtzel looks up at the window and he says, “Did you leave that light on in there? Didn’t I tell you about turning the lights off?” And Jesse says, “Actually, Mr. Wurtzel, I have a young lady waiting for me. I had a date, but she said it would be okay if she waited in my office.” Sol says, “Ah, Junior is getting a little tonight!” Meanwhile, it was an empty studio and Jean Harlow heard this, and so she came down the stairs very slowly, wearing the ultimate white satin gown cut to the navel and beyond. Wurtzel howled, “But Jesse! It looks like—it can’t be!” “Mr. Wurtzel, I’d like to introduce Miss Jean Harlow.” And that changed everything. Jesse was immediately taken from $25 a week salary to $250. In those days, that was an unbelievable amount of money. And as soon as it was known that Jesse had broken up with Jean Harlow, bang, back to $25 a week, back to his tiny little office.

Martin: That’s Hollywood for you.

Richard: It is really.

Martin: After Jesse Jr’s Hollywood scriptwriting career came to an end, he relocated to England.

Richard: They got a phone call from a German producer who said that he wanted to make two films in London and that he was raising finance for them. One film was on the life of the Buddha, and the other was the life of Lord Nelson. Of course, that was right down Jesse’s alley, and so they came to London with me, and worked on that in a flat in Mayfair. And when they had finished the first draft of the film, they called up the producer at the Mayfair Hotel and he told them that he wanted to talk about the next draft of the script. When they called back to find out when the next meeting would be, they were told, “Mr. So-and-So isn’t here. He’s moved out of the hotel.” “Did he say where he was going?” “No, he just left for the airport this morning.” Turns out he had raised $7 million and had taken that money in cash in a couple of suitcases and gone to South America. And he lived there for about eight years, past the statute of limitations. Interpol was trying to get him the whole time, but they couldn’t get an extradition. Years later, he showed up but now that money had been invested, and it was more like $100 million.

Martin: Oh, wow!

Richard: He became one of the most successful producers in New York, and his wife became an internationally famous novelist. I’m not mentioning the names just because it’s still possible that they might possibly want to sue us for that, but in any case, this is a true story. And it shows you the kind of fly-by-night thing because, as Jesse explains in the book, they need the writer in order to raise their finance. Without a script, they’ve got nothing. So now here’s the script, and it’s by Jesse Lasky Jr, who’s written The Ten Commandments, and Samson and Delilah.

Now my parents were stuck in London, so they said, “Well, okay, let’s see what’s going on here.” and got an agent. There was a lot of TV production going on. They wrote The Saint, The New Breed, The Avengers. They wrote for Gerry Anderson, including Space 1999. And they wrote The Protectors, The Persuaders, all these different shows. They were very, very active and cut out a career for themselves there.

Martin: He died in England, so I assume they lived there for the rest of their lives.

Richard: Oh, absolutely, yes, and they loved it. And remember that Jesse also had worked for a time in England for Alfred Hitchcock, and had also worked for a number of other British film companies during the ’30s. And he loved London and of course, it fits in with his whole upbringing and his handling of culture. And of course, he loved the museums, dinner, parties. He loved the clubs, he loved the elegance, so for him to move back to England was absolutely no pressure at all. He loved it.

Martin: It sounds like it suited him and he suited it. Remind people what the name of the book is.

Richard: Whatever Happened to Hollywood? It will be coming out July 19, 2021; and this is the cover by my son. And this photograph on the front was taken by Jesse’s good friend, Yul Brynner. And they were very close friends, and there are some nice stories about that in the book. This was a photo of Jesse later on in their flat on Green Street, in Mayfair.

Martin: It will be available in paperback and ebook. Will there be an audiobook version?

Richard: I’ve just finished recording the audiobook myself. And if you can put up with my funny accents, it’s a hoot. The only thing you don’t get with the audiobook is all the great photographs. But on the other hand, you can get both.

Martin: We were talking about the context of vintage photos. There are a lot of them in this book. And they give great context to what, and who, and where you’re reading about. I found that really helped to enhance the whole experience of the book.

Richard: That was always my intent. And I’ve colorized them so that I could bring them to life for the modern reader. And I did my best in my own way, and I hope everybody enjoys it. And I really look forward to hearing from people when they’ve had a chance to read it to hear their reactions.

Martin: Yep, that’d be great. So, thank you for your time. It’s been great chatting with you, and thank you so much for giving me the opportunity to read an advance copy of the book.

Richard: Thanks, Martin. I’m only a quarter of the way through The Heart of the Lion, but I’m really enjoying it. Of course, it’s all stuff that I know about, and you’re bringing it to life beautifully. So I’m looking forward to reading that and your other stuff.

Martin: Thanks, Richard, I appreciate that.

Richard: Thank you, Martin. Good night!


Visit Richard’s website at JesseLaskyJr.com



The Hollywood’s Garden of Allah novels

Book 1 – The Garden on Sunset
Book 2 – The Trouble with Scarlett
Book 3 – Citizen Hollywood
Book 4 – Searchlights and Shadows
Book 5 – Reds in the Beds
Book 6 – Twisted Boulevard
Book 7 – Tinseltown Confidential
Book 8 – City of Myths
Book 9 – Closing Credits

The Hollywood's Garden of Allah series by Martin Turnbull - all 9 titles banner

Chasing Salomé: a novel of 1920s Hollywood

The Heart of the Lion: a novel of Irving Thalberg’s Hollywood

All the Gin Joints: a novel of WWII Hollywood (out July 2021)


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About Martin Turnbull

The Hollywood's Garden of Allah novels blog is by Martin Turnbull, a Los Angeles based historical fiction author of a series of novels set at the Garden of Allah Hotel, which stood on Sunset Blvd from 1927 to 1959. Check him out at www.martinturnbull.com and Facebook: "gardenofallahnovels"
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