Nora Johnson was a young child when her parents' marriage collapsed. Her father, Nunnally Johnson, the writer, producer, or director of many acclaimed movies, such as The Grapes of Wrath and The Dirty Dozen, remained in California, where he would continue to be a major Hollywood presence for more than three decades. Nora's mother, Marion, a beautiful but unsettled woman, took her to New York to start a new life -- one surrounded by her mother's lovers and eccentric literary friends instead of movie stars and studio heads. Coast to Coast is Nora's account of a childhood spent shuttling between Manhattan and Hollywood. What emerges is a marvelous portrait of American life in the 1940's and 1950's -- from the movie lots of California to the cocktail parties of the Upper East Side -- and also a touching story of a shrewd, observant girl who would grow up far too fast. Nora shares the colorful details of a childhood spent in privilege, but also captures the painful loneliness of changing schools, four-day train trips from one coast to the other, and never being quite sure of where she belonged. She also brings to life her droll, charming, talented father -- a Thurberesque character in Hollywood -- and her beautiful and erratic mother, a woman who fled the Los Angeles movie colony life but was unable to forget the husband who took her there. Coast to Coast is a wonderfully written portrait of a fascinating era and a child who came of age in it, who had everything she wanted -- except a place to call home.
I was born in the old Hollywood Hospital a few years after the talkies came in. You might even say because the talkies came in, since the reason we were there was so my father, Nunnally Johnson -- along with hundreds of other writers -- could make money writing dialogue for the movies. It was the depths of the Great Depression, the bottom of the birthrate curve, the year Franklin D. Roosevelt took office, the end of Prohibition, the year we went off the gold standard, the day after Hitler came to power...but Los Angeles was a boomtown.
The local news was: Cavalcade won the Oscar for Best Picture of 1933, and Nathanael West sold Miss Lonelyhearts to Zanuck for his new Twentieth Century Pictures. Movies based on my father's first two scripts for Paramount -- Mama Loves Papa and A Bedtime Story -- were released, as were King Kong and Dinner at Eight. It was the year the Screen Writers Guild was founded, the year of drought and the Dust Bowl and the earthquake that cost $40 million and killed 120 -- in the middle of which my parents picked me up and ran out to the patio of our $175-a-month ranch house in Beverly Hills, the nanny being fast asleep. As they waited for the ground to crack open beneath their feet, I smiled for the first time in my very short life.
My father's first salary, $300 a week, doubled in a year, and went to $2,000 five years and twenty scripts later. Much happened during that time. We moved from Bedford Drive to Maple to Beverly to Camden. Hedy Lamarr's picture Ecstasy was seized by the U.S. Customs for indecency. The Farmers Market opened on Fairfax. Nunnally produced Dimples, starring Shirley Temple. Bertolt Brecht, Arnold Schoenberg, and other future Hollywood artists fled the darkening political scene in Europe. My father turned down a certain Civil War novel because he thought nobody would go and see a picture about two people named Scarlett and Rhett. Three young actresses, Linda Darnell, Mary Healy, and Dorris Bowdon, arrived from the South in search of stardom.
Among Nunnally's scripts during this period were The House of Rothschild, Bulldog Drummond Strikes Back, The Prisoner of Shark Island, The Road to Glory, and Jesse James. While his star rose, my mother went to auctions, decorated houses, played polo, and took speech lessons to get the Flushing (Queens) out of her voice. While he talked, laughed, and drank at the Brown Derby and Chasen's with the likes of George Jessel, Ben Hecht, William Faulkner, Herman Mankiewicz, PhilipWylie, Gene Fowler, Harry Ruby, Oscar Hammerstein, Dorothy Parker, Ogden Nash, Jack Benny, George Burns, Groucho Marx, Robert Benchley, Don Stewart, and Dash Hammett, she lunched and played badminton, had facials and massages, and, at one party, held the inebriated Scott Fitzgerald's head in her lap.When beautiful actresses clamored for parts in Nunnally's pictures and solicited further attentions, she wept at home, indulged in some revenge flirting with John O'Hara, or went on extended cruises, one of which led to great disappointment because, though other countries had welcomed her, she was refused a visa to Russia.
In 1938 the rains came, ending the drought. Dorris Bowdon came to Nunnally's office, determined to get a part in Jesse James. My mother, the nanny, the Swedish chauffeur, and I packed up the big black Cadillac and drove to New York, leaving California forever. The next year The Grapes of Wrath opened with Dorris Bowdon playing Rosasharn, and in February of 1940 Nunnally and Dorris's marriage was announced on the radio by Walter Winchell. My mother cried, the nanny cried, I cried. In 1941 the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and my mother's new lover, Commander Jo Golinkin, was called to active duty in the Pacific.
After their divorce my parents sent me back and forth twice a year. I was supported by the gold on one coast and schooled on the other, as the British children in India were shipped home to be educated. I and others like me knew the Super Chief menus, the porters on the Twentieth Century, and the Albuquerque train station the way other children know the way to school and the crossing guard. We learned how to have two homes, to drop names of stars and producers and restaurants, to be two people at once. We got used to being taken to "21" and Romanoff's and hearing about the war and the society and how rotten everything was and how poor people were and how we should clean our plates because of the starving Armenians/Chinese/whatever group was currently worse off. We grew up amid contradictions...we knew everything and nothing.