Cirrhosis by the sea
Author Gregory Mank looks back on Tinsel Town’s less-than glamorous underbelly
Hollywood’s Hellfire Club By Gregory William Mank with Charles Heard and Bill Nelson. 374 pages, illustrated, softcover. $22.95. A Feral House book. Order from Amazon
Book review by Ray Young
“The original Hellfire Club was an aristocratic British group that met throughout the middle of the eighteenth century to drink, whore and raise hell,” writes Gregory Mank in his introduction to Hollywood’s Hellfire Club
. “The Bundy Drive Boys are the true latter-day versions of the Hellfire Club.”
A major thoroughfare in Los Angeles, Bundy Drive has been home to the stars for years. Recent residents have included Steven Spielberg, Vanna White and Nicole Brown Simpson. The ‘Boys’ in question were an inebriated lot headlined by Errol Flynn, John Barrymore and W.C. Fields. Written with Charles Heard and Bill Nelson, Mank’s book recounts their ribald adventures which run the gamut from counterfeit art and keelhauling off a yacht, to sex with underage girls and the pilfering of Mr. Barrymore’s corpse. Anything, it seems, to relieve their boredom with privilege.
“They came bounding into the Century like a herd of unicorns,” wrote Bundy Boy Ben Hecht in 1942. “They were a part of the last high old time when news was made by madcaps rather than madmen, and they were sustained through hunger, calumny and hangovers by the conviction that they were improving the world.”
Another charter member, journalist-screenwriter Gene Fowler, took a more poetic tack: “These men lived intensely, as do children and poets and jaguars.” Or hedonists, bohemians and sellouts. They bartered their souls to Hollywood and found themselves bound together by alcoholism, mischief and misdemeanors.
Today, Flynn, Fields and Barrymore may be the only ‘names’ in the bunch as far as the mainstream is concerned, but Mank gives equal time to the portrait painter and caricaturist John Decker, Shakespearean ham John Carradine, character actor Thomas Mitchell (Uncle Billy in It’s a Wonderful Life
), and the obscure poet Sadakichi Hartmann, who Barrymore described as “a living freak...sired by Mephistopheles out of Madame Butterfly.”
A prolific author specializing in studio-era horror films in books such as It’s Alive! The Classic Cinema Saga of Frankenstein
(A.S. Barnes, 1981) and Hollywood Cauldron: 13 Horror Films from the Genres’ Golden Age
(McFarland, 1994), Mank doesn’t delve too deeply into the varied and eccentric personalities of the Bundy Drive Boys, nor does he attempt to pinpoint the sundry psychological kinks that derailed them from the mundane. But he does come through with an account that’s swift, humorously compelling and respectful, if not a bit nostalgic.
“John Barrymore had mad, bright, distant eyes — the eyes one sees in portraits of saints and photographs of serial killers,” he writes. “One of the reasons audiences laughed so raucously at [him] in his pitiful final act was that his danger seemed safely drowned in deep seas of alcohol and long-lost women — or as Barrymore called them, ‘twittering vaginas.’ Yet even in the dregs, he at times would rally, resurrect his old demonic splendor and be ominous to behold.”
This was a time when movie stars truly were larger than life. Before the general public had any idea of what ‘The Media’ was, before the fluff reportage of Access Hollywood
— indeed, long before drug and alcohol rehabs became a trend among the rich and famous — Mank’s rogues gallery stumbled along the front lines of stardom in the infancy of talking pictures. Many of them were uneducated and lacked the pedigree their fans imagined they had. Some earned and usually squandered vast fortunes from the movies they appeared in; others, like Decker and Hartmann, hung around for handouts, free booze, publicity and lodging.
Predating Sinatra’s Rat Pack by twenty years, the Bundy Drive Boys transcended their brand of idle swagger and hollow arrogance. Aware that success can be easily trumped by failure (the influence of the Great Depression), they lived for the moment and peppered their lives with pranks and outrageous behavior. Mank’s streamlined history percolates with these wanton passions — his recreations of both the rumored and the actual disinterment of Mr. Barrymore’s corpse, Fields’s bizarre skirmishes with Charlie McCarthy, and Decker’s art forgeries are vividly rendered and jaw-droppingly funny. Rife with such pungent musings, Hollywood’s Hellfire Club
is as morbid (and morbidly amusing) as that amazing Drew Friedman artwork on the cover. By the end, you may be inspired to raise a glass to their memory.