Sharing Steve :: New Stuff
Saturday, August 06, 2005
Fly the Friendly Steve -- American Airlines mag
Another L.A. Story
by Mark Seal
Steve Martin is a wealthy businessman in Shopgirl and a bumbling detective in The Pink Panther. He's somewhere in between as he leads us on a trip through the heart and soul of Beverly Hills.
"I really didn't see Beverly Hills, at least in my consciousness, until I was 21," Steve Martin says, recalling his first glimpse of the place that has become his hometown. We're doing our best to squeeze into a 45-minute telephone interview a mythical place whose name alone is a metaphor for fortune and fame.
Martin grew up in nearby Orange County, where he commuted to jobs selling trinkets and guidebooks at Disneyland and Knott's Berry Farm. At 21, he was a comedy writer, freshly hired for The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. Dick and Tommy Smothers invited him to dinner, and after he cleaned his plate at the storied Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel, the brothers did a very Beverly Hills thing, which still thrills him.
"It was the first time I ever saw anyone treat," he says. "They treated the writers to dinner. I was 21 years old, and nobody treated anybody. I thought, 'What a cool thing to do!' I think they influenced me. Today, I try to pick up the tab as much as possible."
Now, the actor/comedian/director/best-selling novelist/playwright can afford to pick up as many tabs as he wants. But I'm willing to pay my own way as long as Martin shows me where to go. Investigating his hometown proves to be a task worthy of Inspector Clouseau, the French detective that Peter Sellers made famous and which Martin revives this February in The Pink Panther. Beverly Hills is a place whose boundaries are vague and whose citizens are elusive. But its charms, Martin insists, are on display for anyone who visits.
"The strangest thing is, it was kind of a small town [when I first became aware of it], and the point I'm going to make is, it actually still is, in its own sweet way," he says.
"Try to make me interesting," Martin says, when I finish peppering him with questions, demanding names, places, details. He provides a pretty good description of what he calls "Beverly Hills and its environs," which might do for a normal city. But this is Beverly Hills. That requires something more, something extra. So I do the only sensible thing: escape my desk in the flatlands of Texas, slip on my best strategically torn jeans, white shirt, and blue blazer, and fly off to the West Coast. There, I rent a vintage convertible, slide on a pair of sunglasses, and insert Steve Martin's Guide to Beverly Hills into the cassette player.
"It was a place I would pass through," Martin is saying above the roar of the 405 Freeway. "There were a lot of shops that I couldn't afford to go into. I left when I was about 25 and moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico; and then I lived in Aspen, Colorado; and then I came back home, came back to L.A. But you have to understand that L.A. was very smoggy then, and so it was a place to leave. They cleaned it up! So when I came back, I was very surprised. They actually did something about it, and now it seems like it is very sunny and has bright, breathable days. It made it more like home."
From the 405, I take the Santa Monica Boulevard exit and drive east. Turning right on Rodeo Drive -- always pronounced Ro-day-o -- I enter a different world. The Los Angeles of strip centers, billboards, and disarray becomes orderly, clean, civilized. The sky is as blue as the topaz in the endless jewelry-shop windows, and the sun turns the white concrete brilliant, as if the whole scene were lit like a movie set, making the world's most famous street come alive. There are flowers and sculptures, and the median is festooned with Herb Ritts's and Mario Testino's "Rodeo Drive Walk of Style" photographs. The three-block-long string of shops that Martin once couldn't afford to shop at are lined up like starlets: Gucci, YSL, Ralph Lauren, and the new Rem Koolhaas-designed Prada store, an indescribably futuristic structure in which mannequins are submerged in see-through, Plexiglas-covered manholes in the floor. Everything seems familiar, because it is -- from movies and television. It's practically a costar in Pretty Woman.
"That's what Beverly Hills is: a place where big companies have their flagships," Martin is saying from the speakers of my car. "There's a lot of money poured into Beverly Hills."
Every other car is a Mercedes, a BMW, or a Ferrari, and the citizenry seems divided into two groups: locals and tourists, the locals discernible by their always-open cell phones, the tourists by their openmouthed stares. There is a mind-set at work here: of being in the epicenter of something -- of being "close," as Chili Palmer, the mobster-turned-movie producer in Elmore Leonard's novel Get Shorty, said. "You're close." Close to the heat, the fire, the magic of the movies...
"I view Beverly Hills, really, as about eight streets long and three streets wide," Martin says. "I'm talking about the little sort of shopping areas. It's Rodeo Drive. Wilshire. And then from Canon to Bedford or Rexford or something like that. I still don't know the names of the streets. Beverly Hills is very close to everything. You can get from Beverly Hills to downtown L.A. in, like, 25 minutes. It's really well located, and it's very pretty. It just has the feeling of an old-fashioned town, even though that's a contradiction almost -- an old-fashioned town, except everything is a million dollars."
But money isn't the only reason it's a different kind of old-fashioned town. From my convertible, I can hear snippets of only-in-Beverly Hills conversations.
"What's her sign? You've got to know her sign!"
"I saw her post-op, and she already looks amazing!"
"Do you have a minute for the environment?"
That last one comes from a hawker with a clipboard. He's practically leaning into the convertible, but I escape with a swift right turn. Not that I'm uninterested in the environment, but the only litter I see in Beverly Hills are the occasional Styrofoam packing peanuts strewn across the gleaming sidewalks.
"In the book Shopgirl, she [the main character, a salesgirl named Mirabelle] works in Beverly Hills at Neiman's -- But she really lives in Silverlake, which is a much more modest student/artist community," Martin says. "I talk about the drive from Beverly Hills to Silverlake, which is like a Monopoly board, where you would go from very expensive to very inexpensive. It literally takes place over one street, Beverly."
Beverly Boulevard practically spans the length of L.A. But I'm not ready to go there, not yet anyway. From Rodeo, I turn right on Wilshire and pass the monolithic honor guard of megaretailing, all obediently lined along the street: first NikeTown, then Barneys New York, then Saks and, finally, Neiman Marcus Beverly Hills, the setting for much of Martin's first novel, Shopgirl, the story of a lovelorn young woman who works at the glove counter of Neiman Marcus. (The soon-to-be-released Shopgirl movie is set in Saks Beverly Hills, not Neiman's. "It wasn't that big a difference," Martin says.
But as I cruise the streets, Martin is imploring me to look deeper. Beverly Hills is more than glitz; its heart isn't a cash register. The place has a soul.
"The landmarks are now big clothing stores. I don't think of them affectionately or I just don't really notice them anymore. It's like stores changing all the time. Now it's Prada, Armani, and everything. Especially on one or two streets; those aren't my landmarks. The landmarks to me are the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, which has a beautiful, beautiful facade, and, of course, the Beverly Hills Hotel. That's from a period I call 'Hollywood heyday.' "
Since Beverly Hills has the dimensions of a small town, you can see everything in a half hour. I begin the tour, as Martin instructs, with the Beverly Hills Hotel, a pink-and-green edifice whose every inch is the essence of Southern California, and then move on to the Peninsula, in the heart of Beverly Hills. ("Very, very nice. It's a good place for tea or lunches. It's very good food, really nice.") It's next door to the I.M. Pei-designed Creative Artists Agency building. Then, on the other side of the city limits, bleeding into West Hollywood, is the Four Seasons Beverly Hills, whose lobby and bar are always a melange of A-list actors, rap stars, and wannabes. Whether it's actually in Beverly Hills or West Hollywood is something that locals like Martin don't even know; it's of no matter. It's the Four Seasons Beverly Hills. Fiction is always much more important than facts in
But enough sightseeing. It's time for the local midday ritual. At one p.m. sharp, the conga line of imported cars queue up at valet parking stands at Spago and Crustacean and a dozen other restaurants, the strivers leaping out and heading for lunch. Martin was hesitant to name specific restaurants -- "Because then people go there to hunt me down," he says -- but, with just a little pressure, he names quite a few.
"There's the Farm of Beverly Hills, very nice, good, wholesome food, California food. There used to be a really nice Chinese restaurant called the Mandarin. It just recently closed, but it had been open for years. I was sorry to see it go. One reason we used to go there was because it was always empty. That's why it closed. There's the Urth Caffe on Melrose. It's a Zen-health, happening spot. I've only been there for, like, brunch, Sunday tea."
The Farm sounds good. Parking in a $12-an-hour Beverly Boulevard subterranean parking structure, I walk onto the patio, which looks like a dozen other patios at lunchtime in Beverly Hills. But inside you'd think you were in Iowa: farm implements and pitchforks and giant farm animals. "Fresh Off the Farm," the T-shirts proclaim, as young Beverly Hills sits down to lunch. There's a 15-minute wait, which the attendant says she can assuage by giving me a goat cheese salad to go. "You can eat in the park," she says. I figure Martin didn't mean for me to eat in the park, so I wait for the table, studying the menu and advertisements urging me to send the Farm's famous brownies as gifts: "If it's good enough for celebs to mail, it's good enough for you." After lunch, I'm back in the convertible, and Martin is sending me on an architectural tour, beginning with, of all places, the police station.
"Beverly Hills is very well run. Unfortunately, they are doing away with the street parking, turning it into all valet parking, but they've left some. There is a good police force, and they've got guys on bicycles, police on bicycles, so it has a very small-town feel -- [The police station is] beautiful, they did a great job with some kind of Moroccan/Moorish look."
Past Beverly Hills' main gas station -- a fantastic Union 76 with an enormous swooping orange awning -- I turn in front of a jet-black Bentley and into the complex that includes the Beverly Hills City Hall, with the famous courthouse where the celebrity DWI and shoplifters are rustled; past the Beverly Hills Fire Department, where fire engines are gleaming like new Porsches behind glass; and toward the police station. It's a world unto itself, sort of a Disneyland of municipal government and law enforcement -- everything in blinding white.
From there, it's on to the Flats, residential streets lousy with stars and lined with incredible trees, each street different from the next. It gets my vote as the most beautiful street in America.
"The Flats are north of Santa Monica, south of Sunset," Martin says. "I lived in the Flats of Beverly Hills for about 15 years. They have beautiful, beautiful trees. I used to live on Bedford, the one with palm trees. Then there's Elm and all of that. All the streets have matching trees. Like Bedford is completely palm trees, another street would be completely elm trees, and another street would be something else -- Most of the houses have been modified, which is an unfortunate thing to happen to Beverly Hills. First, it started with what we call "authentic" Spanish homes from the '20s and '30s, and some of them were torn down to build uncontrollable houses that were too big and too high. It used to be a little community and now it's a little more of a show palace for a certain kind of taste. But it's still beautiful."
You can see them for the cost of a gallon of gas. But, Martin says, there's much more, architecturally, to see in Beverly Hills. There is the ridiculous, like the Rite Aid drug store he described in his second novel, The Pleasure of My Company, as "splendidly antiseptic. I bet the floors are hosed down every night with isopropyl alcohol." There's also the sublime, including the new Richard Meier-designed Museum of Television and Radio and the venerable Anderton Court Center, a fantastic space-age Frank Lloyd Wright-designed tiny shopping center in the middle of Rodeo Drive.
"I'm sure that developers are dying to tear it down, but that would be criminal. It was built there a long, long time ago. So it's one of the survivors."
After a long day in the car, I'm ready to run, hike, bike, or yoga. Martin has lots of suggestions. But mostly he rides, biking from Beverly Hills into the woody surroundings above and beyond the city limits.
"I would go up into Bel Air on my bike, from the Flats, or I would go south, south of Beverly Hills, past Rodeo and down past Wilshire and into the parks in Century City. All over. For hiking, there's Runyon Canyon, which is a really nice, big, steep walk, a lot of people there."
It sounds better discussed about than actually done, so I keep cruising and see another only-in-Beverly Hills phenom: office after office of plastic surgery clinics.
When night descends, I'm thinking about L.A. Story, the 1991 movie that Martin wrote and starred in as Harris K. Telemacher. He attempts to land a reservation at an upscale L.A. French restaurant called L'Idiot (pronounced Leedy-O), only to be interrogated about his finances by the Fourth Reich Bank of Hamburg. "He can't have the duck!..." the chef snorts. "He can have the chicken."
I'm sitting in Spago Beverly Hills, which, while pricey, is a great, easygoing place (no financial statements required), perfect to watch the crowd that passes by the bar. A suited local storms in like he's in a parade, greeting three middle-aged, easy-to-spot out-of-towners with the line, "Welcome to Beverly Hills!" But Martin says the movie restaurant L'Idiot is merely "exaggeration," another case of fiction being more important than fact.
"The Grill is a very important restaurant for showbiz. It's just that they have great, great food, and it caters more toward the business end of show business than the celebrity end, but it's really a nice, nice restaurant and they keep the quality of the food really high. It's kind of on the alley. You don't really go into the alley, though."
I pull up to the Grill's valet parking stand on the alleyway behind Wilshire Boulevard and step into another stage set: a New York steak house, transplanted. It's packed and noisy, with precisely one empty stool at the bar, which holds a woman's purse. She removes it with a flourish and says, "Sit right down!" without taking her eyes off the basketball game on the television overhead. By 7:30, agents, studio heads, lawyers, and their clients are streaming through the door, taking every available table and leaving a long waiting list.
Back in the convertible, I toss a five to the valet guys (the fee is $4.50 everywhere) and pop in the cassette to see where Martin is sending me next, which I hope is to dinner. But he's still talking about shopping.
"It's a walking town, too," he says. "You can walk around Beverly Hills. It is very nice after dinner to just take a walk and window-shop. You can go down Rodeo, up Beverly, and just look in the windows. It's very quiet in the evenings."
Rodeo Drive is so quiet at 7:45 that almost every parking spot is empty, quite the opposite of only a few hours before. Back then, every spot was perpetually taken, and I was blasted with a dirge of honking if I dared to even pause a millisecond for a spot to clear. Strolling up Rodeo, I immediately realize Martin is right: It's better at night. The air has turned chilly, like a New England summer, and I have the famous street all to myself. I walk beneath endless designer logos, window-shopping the bedecked windows. Then I climb the street called Via Rodeo, the hilly cobblestone shopping village of high-end boutiques, salons, and bistros, which, a tour guide proclaimed in Pretty Woman, "is the first new street built in Beverly Hills in 75 years!" There's a re-creation of the Spanish Steps, a fountain perfect for tossing coins into, two hours of free valet parking, and tables full of outdoor diners, which, on the evening of my visit, included one Via Rodeo tenant, Elizabeth Taylor's longtime hairdresser, Jose Eber.
It's nine by the time I get back to the car, and Martin's dispatching me away from Beverly Hills Proper and into Beverly Hills Adjacent.
"There are Beverly Hills-type restaurants like the Ivy. It's really nice, but that's what they call Beverly Hills adjacent to West Hollywood. There's Chaya, which is a really nice restaurant adjacent to Beverly Hills."
The Ivy is straight out of the movies. The see-and-be-seen are sitting at flowered tablecloths on a patio beyond a white picket fence. Yes, it's Beverly Hills Adjacent, but in a town where fiction always triumphs over facts, the Ivy is, as Martin promised, 100 percent Beverly Hills. I'm shoehorned into a tiny, pillow-festooned table that adjoins a table of six wildcat Beverly Hills women, their voices as loud and emphatic as machine guns. They are women straight out of a Steve Martin novel, where people have names like Loki and Del Rey. They riddle the topics of the day: men, music, sex, Botox, pilates, and how their feng shui guy just can't seem to get things right. I hang on to their every syllable, as if I'm part of their convivial group, even offering to pony up a five-spot when, divvying up their bill six ways, one of them falls $5 short. They stare at me like I'm an alien, an adjacent instead of Beverly Hills proper, and I want to proclaim, "Steve Martin sent me!" But they're gone in a percussion of high heels on concrete, one accidentally slapping me in the face with her scarlet snakeskin purse as she rushes off.
Since Martin isn't around to pick up the tab, I pay my bill and bid good night to the valet parkers.
Back in the car, Steve provides a perfect coda to the night.
"That's another thing about Beverly Hills. People are really, really nice. At least to me."
(MARK SEAL is an American Way contributing editor whose work has also appeared in Vanity Fair, Esquire, Playboy, and Time.)