Is Musso & Frank the True Crossroads of Hollywood and Literature? Richard Schave Wants to Find Out
|Richard Schave with wife Kim Cooper at Musso & Frank|
At Hollywood's Musso & Frank Grill, legend has it, giants of American literature -- Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, William Saroyan, Dorothy Parker, Nathanael West, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, Charles Bukowski -- used to drown their sorrows, alongside the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Humphrey Bogart, Tom Mix, Sean Penn and Al Pacino.
Did that really happen?
Richard Schave plans to find out.
"The challenge is that there's a lot of misinformation, because no one's ever sat down and done the homework, and gotten the dates right, and really looked at who was there and who wasn't there," he says. "And so this is really what we do. We endeavor to create canonical time lines, canonical narratives, of what really happened."
Together with wife Kim Cooper, Schave, 43, is founder of tour company Esotouric ("Bus adventures into the secret heart of Los Angeles"), as well as the Los Angeles Visionaries Association, or LAVA, an organization that aims to create cultural programming. Cooper takes the lead on events focused on true crime or music history, but anything with an architectural or literary focus, she says, becomes "very much Richard's baby."
While Musso & Frank had long been a stop on Esotouric tours, the restaurant is such a historically rich location that it became clear it needed more than a drive-by in a tour bus to have its story properly told. Schave and Cooper settled on a series of literary salons at the long-loved location: part immersive history lesson, part dinner party. The inaugural salon, scheduled for Jan. 23, will feature a discussion of John Fante, author of what's come to be considered the great overlooked novel about Los Angeles, Ask the Dust.
Like many aspects of L.A.'s history, Ask the Dust is not as well known as it should be, yet when unearthed it feels like a startling gem. As the book gradually begins to appear on more college reading lists, Schave does his part to dispel the myth that L.A. is a city without history -- a notion largely perpetuated by sneering New Yorkers, he says, who view the city through an East Coast lens rather than accepting Los Angeles on its own unique terms.
Schave's interest in -- or rather, obsession with -- L.A.'s backstory began in his early teens. At 14, growing up in Rancho Park, he says, "I immediately became interested in old Los Angeles, the lost downtown. I memorized the Thomas Brothers map page 364, and I just became obsessed with asking older friends to drive me downtown all the time. Everyone thought I was crazy. I used to try to get into the burlesque houses on Main Street, but they never let me because I was too young. I used to go to the grindhouses on Broadway, back when there were grindhouses still on Broadway, in the mid-'80s. I was just captivated by it. I remember vividly when I was 16, as soon as I could drive, standing in front of Torchy's bar, which is now a leather shop on Fifth Street in the Alexandria Hotel, and being so captivated by this world."
Schave's knowledge of Musso & Frank is encyclopedic. In his soft-spoken, slightly nasal tone, Schave can hold forth at length about the action Musso's has seen since its opening in 1919 -- which walls were knocked out, who ordered the flannel cakes, what happened to the wallpaper in the old backroom and which literary legends had their first date there (that would be Dashiell Hammett and Lillian Hellman).
Because of its location near the Stanley Rose Bookshop and the Writers Guild, the cocktail lounge at Musso & Frank became a West Coast version of the Algonquin Round Table, where some of the most important people in American letters spent their spare time and spare income on alcohol, commiserating with each other about how much they hated working for the motion picture studios. Writers would gather at Stanley Rose's bookshop in the early part of the evening, but when 11 o'clock came around and Rose kicked them all out, they'd head across the street to Musso's.
Rose himself, Schave says, was "a great guy, but he was not a great book dealer."
During Prohibition, Rose padded his fortunes as a bootlegger, selling whiskey to studio development execs in false-bottom book crates, under the pretense that they'd optioned a book, so they needed 300 copies of it. Rose's partner, Larry Edmunds, Schave explains, used to sleep with the secretaries in the studio's development departments -- when a book was optioned, he'd get wind of it and be well placed to fill the order.
Creating this salon is just another milestone in Schave's quest to bring others up to his level of awareness -- that L.A. is awash in living history that we can see, touch and taste. Schave also expresses a burning desire to re-experience his own past: specifically, the moment when his passion was first ignited. "Every morning I wake up and pray that I'll have this pristine moment, that I'll remember exactly what Main Street and Broadway were like in 1984, because I was touching it right there and didn't even know what to do with it because I was so young."
Schave's life today, it seems, is just a continuation of the quest he began at age 14: "As soon as I could be, I was downtown, trying to process that world that's now lost, that we're forever looking for on our tours."Follow @LAWeeklyArts on Twitter.