[This is part of a longer essay, "Signs and Wonders," here.]
IF YOU'VE EVER TRIED to get up close and personal with the Hollywood sign, as I did the other day, then you’ve participated in a slightly embarrassing rite-of-passage for tourists and natives alike. Drive up Beachwood Canyon and, once past the charming little village that marks the development known as Hollywoodland (which is what the sign originally promoted, back in 1923), you follow the green signs marked “Hollywood Sign Scenic View.” But as you home in on the giant, white-block letters on the scrubby hillside, you’re suddenly confronted by nasty traffic signs warning you that there’s no direct access to the sign itself. You can’t get close. It’s a bit like Gertrude Stein’s quip about Oakland: no there there.
The sign, as historian and film critic Leo Braudy writes in his deliciously quirky and intelligent book, The Hollywood Sign: Fantasy and Reality of an American Icon, is a “strange sort of icon” that can only be viewed from afar, “a complex mixture of intimacy and self-enhancement … like glimpsing a movie star in a supermarket.” In his irresistible take on the famous sign, Braudy spins a larger metaphor for the culture and history of California itself, much as Kevin Starr does, in Golden Gate: The Life and Times of America’s Greatest Bridge, for the state’s other iconic landmark. Both are master storytellers, mining the darker stuff beneath their subjects’ glossy exteriors. In Starr’s case, we learn how the Bank of America made the Art Deco bridge possible during the nadir of the Great Depression, a public work that cost 11 lives and countless lead poisoning cases from its red-orange primer; in Braudy’s, a film noir world of seedy hucksterism evolves from the provincialism of downtown Los Angeles and its rooming-house signs: “No Jews, actors, or dogs allowed.”
“Thanks to the railroads,” Braudy writes, “the first major building in most towns was not a church or a town hall but a hotel for land buyers.” Southern California was becoming a mecca for speculators, especially after the1902 discovery of oil in Los Angeles. And with a push from the Los Angeles Times’ Harrison Gray Otis and Harry Chandler, the development of Hollywoodland and other exclusive real estate developments wasn’t far behind. Part of Braudy’s brilliance is his suppleness in intertwining markers of culture – movies, cars, restrictive covenants – throughout the narrative. The Times’ real estate boosterism, he tells us, was based on the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s claim that L.A. was the “white spot” of American wealth. “[T]he racial implications of the metaphor were scarcely submerged,” Braudy writes. The Times promotional campaign “Straight Ahead for Southern California,” set the stage for what Braudy terms “a kind of anglo apartheid.” To back up the point, he quotes from the 1920 lease on the land where his own home was built, which prohibited the sale or lease of properties to anyone “other than of the Caucasian Race.”
Read in tandem, Starr’s book and Leo Braudy’s book on the Hollywood sign offer a concise but compel...