L.A. literary salon remembers noir at Musso & Frank
Musso & Frank, the famous steakhouse that served up cocktails to William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald and other writers at loose ends in Hollywood, hosted its second literary salon Monday night. The guest speaker was John Buntin, author of "L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America's Most Seductive City"; he was there to illuminate the true-life models for the fiction of iconic detective novelist Raymond Chandler.
That was the end of the evening. First, there was dinner -- a three-course one, with a limited menu that, yes, included steak -- and before that, cocktails.
Musso's bartenders and waitstaff came in to work on their day off -- the restaurant is usually closed Mondays, and was open only to salon attendees. Ruben Rueda, above, has been at the restaurant for 45 years -- since Feb. 4, 1967, to be exact. Like the martinis, the gibson above came with an overflow carafe. I'd like to think that's how Chandler used to take his drinks -- with more drinks on the side.
The salon is co-presented by Musso & Frank, which displayed photographs and memorabilia of its history dating back to when it first opened on Hollywood Boulevard in 1919. Tables were adorned with copies of a menu from 1939, which included canape of caviar for 90 cents, a special plate of filet mignon with mushroom sauce and vegetables for $1, and lobster a la Newberg for $1.15. The Saturday daily special was calf's head, vinaigrette with new potatoes.
Under the auspices of the LAVA Salon, the event organizers are husband-and-wife team Richard Schave and Kim Cooper. They're the masterminds behind the Esotouric bus tours, which focus on L.A. history, often with a literary bent: Passengers can tour James M. Cain's L.A., or Charles Bukowski's, or Raymond Chandler's.
This literary salon, the second, was focused on Chandler, but in an oblique way. The first post-dinner speaker was Howard Prouty, acquisitions archivist at the Motion Picture Academy's Margaret Herrick Library, who spoke about bookseller Jake Zeitlin, who was a major cultural force in early 20th Los Angeles.
Buntin's book "L.A. Noir" focuses on the 1950s, on the pull between Police Chief William H. Parker and mobsters Bugsy Siegel and Mickey Cohen. Buntin, seated at right (with Schave, standing) read from the early pages of his book, which swiftly summed up a long history of corruption and (usually ineffective) reform efforts in the city. He alternated turns at the mic with Schave, who pointed out connections he saw to Chandler's work.
During the post-food, pre-discussion introduction, Musso & Frank proprietor Mark Echeverria took the microphone to point out some details. The bar in the room where the 100 attendees sat was the original bar in the back room, which played host to those literary luminaries of the 1920s and 1930s. The back room was smaller, though, so the bar was bifurcated and extended -- look close and you can find the seams.
Echeverria, a great-grandson of one of the restaurant's founders, was interrupted by a gray-haired man in a nearby booth, who called out, "I knew your great grandfather!" He was given the mic so he could tell his story.
It was that kind of event, one where many of the people in the room have their own connections to L.A.'s history and might just share them. When Buntin mentioned well-known figures -- entrepreneurial criminal Tony Cordero, or the corrupt reformist Police Chief Buron Fitts -- there were murmurs of recognition.
Yet it was not too insider a conversation -- in fact, someone who didn't know any L.A. history would have found it to be a robust and welcoming introduction. It is, also, a thorough one: The presentations ended at 10:30 p.m., 4-1/2 hours after the scheduled arrival. Attendees were welcome to get books signed, chat with Buntin, or stick around for a last cocktail until 11 p.m.
Tickets for the LAVA literary salon at Musso & Frank are $100, which include the literary presentations, a chance to explore Musso & Frank's history, and a three-course meal (for cocktails, you're on your own). Planned as a quarterly event, the next salon will be centered on the writers F. Scott Fitzgerald and Dorothy Parker. It's scheduled for July 23 -- which is, coincidentally, Raymond Chandler's birthday.
-- Carolyn Kellogg
Photo credit: Carolyn Kellogg