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City of Angles

I was neat, clean-shaven, and sober—everything a travel writer ought to be—when I stepped into downtown L.A.'s Union Station.

I'd been hired to retrieve a lost city: my client, an East Coast editor who wished to remain anonymous, wondered if the L.A. of L.A. Confidential, the new film of James Ellroy's gritty noir novel, still exists. The place where travelers once arrived via the Sunset Limited, flagging taxis to chophouses and martini lounges before venturing to Ciro's or the Mocambo for that dangerous mix of gangsters and alcohol-fueled movie stars.

I walked out into a rare morning, cool and still as an adobe wall in moonlight. A leggy number in orange hot pants passed by, hanging on the arm of a Brooks Brothers fossil looking for a cab. She threw a smile my way; the fossil noticed it, and his face crumbled like a bride's piecrust. This was my city—glamorous yet seedy, refined but vaguely threatening.

You can grow a beard waiting for a cab in L.A., so I walked the two blocks north to bag some lunch. In recent years L.A. has been overrun by retro diners as false as an usherette's eyelashes. Philippe the Original, opened in 1908, is the real McCoy. It's a calm cave with sawdust floors, communal tables, and a chrome counter where women in tan uniforms assemble the "World Famous French Dip." Coffee is still nine cents, and the bleached-blond "girl" at the newsstand looks like she's been manning her station since the price was raised from a nickel. Philippe's patrons haven't changed much either: pale, bony postal workers; railmen large as lumberjacks; assistant D.A.'s talking murder over macaroni salad.

Motoring down Sunset, I wondered if I'd find a worthy hotel. The air had grown drowsy with heat, and my brain ticked like a clock, the minutes on tiptoe.

There was only one place to go.

The Chateau Marmont looked like something out of the hills of France, if they still allow hills over there. A path of large pavers beneath a series of columns straight out of the 15th century led to two huge oak doors set in a sculpted façade that rose seven stories above the Sunset Strip. "If you must get in trouble, do it at the Chateau Marmont," Harry Cohn, the first boss of Columbia Studios, once told William Holden, and certainly the property seemed as if it had been designed by a man wanting to shield his guests. You see a lot of that in my line of business, but this fellow had pulled it off. On the lawn were tables where couples sat drinking in casually expensive outfits that said everything was jakeloo to anyone nosy enough to care.

General manager Amanda Class, a tall brunette with an English accent and a smile tapped from a maple sapling, led me to my room—one of the three penthouses. These were the same quarters that Howard Hughes had holed up in during the fifties, picking over poolside demi-virgins through his binoculars like they were fresh produce, having the unlucky ones carted upstairs. A checkerboard hall led to a room that seemed to have been untouched since the day Hughes checked out: gauzy white jungle-print curtains; plush, modern furniture; a dark-blue carpet that could only be called cubist. In the kitchen, there was a pristine Wedgwood stove for fixing Salisbury-steak-and-martini dinners, and outside, on the wraparound balcony, perhaps the best hotel view in all L.A.

I took a swim and a nap, sleeping like seven Swedes.

When I awoke in darkness, I walked to the balcony and looked out over the big angry city. Raymond Chandler's alter ego, Philip Marlowe, resided just a few blocks west of the Marmont, up Laurel Canyon, and often meditated on the same skyline I watched tonight. "A city no worse than others," he mused over this view in The Long Goodbye, "a city rich and vigorous and full of pride, a city lost and beaten and full of emptiness."

My stomach was full of emptiness, so I ran three fingers through my hair and drove to Marlowe's favorite watering hole, the Musso & Frank Grill. Inside, everything was shiny, with the barkeep giving himself a last look in the mirror to make sure his tie was straight. Musso's is the oldest restaurant in Hollywood, the fourth ace in the hand that once included the Brown Derby, Chasen's, and Scalia, only quieter, more anonymous—perfect for a travel writer minding his own business.

What passes as the hip crowd these days visits Musso's for Ketel One martinis, but I asked for a gimlet, Marlowe's drink. Sipping it, I admired the high ceilings, the ancient murals, the burnished wood-and-leather booths deep enough to lose your thoughts in. A waiter in a red monkey suit took my order—lobster cocktail, osso buco—and I sat back, momentarily listening to that other part of me, the part that tires of tracking down $500 rooms on stilts in Micronesia. In another life I might have been a food writer, maybe even gotten rich—food-writer rich, with plank-roasted Chilean sea bass every Sunday, two sport-utility vehicles in the garage, a wife with a cast-iron perm, and me with a stomach like a sack of portland cement.

On a windy corner of Santa Monica Boulevard sits the Formosa Café, a turn-of-the-century railcar converted into a comfort station for deadbeat screenwriters who wash down their Chinese with rum-and-Cokes. It's where Lana Turner tosses a drink at a cop's face in L.A. Confidential, and after leaving Musso's I had similar notions concerning my own mug.

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