There’s always a girl in the picture. What’s the matter, don’t you go to the movies?
—John L. Sullivan
Thank god we’re back in Hollywood, where people treat each other right.
In the summer of 2004 the remnants of some ashes were discovered in an antique store in New York. The ashes were around 30 years old. We know this only because we now know who the ashes used to be.
Los Angeles, California. A man walks into a diner. He’s tall, his hair is long, and he has a mustache. He looks almost exactly like David Crosby. He goes and sits down in his booth, same as always. He frequents the place so often he doesn’t even need to order his coffee. The booth is his property, more or less. His de facto office. Like every chump in every booth in every diner in Los Angeles, this guy is a writer. The difference is this guy does work in Hollywood. His scripts are on TV. Not only that, they’re hugely popular. The guy on the register and the waitresses and the busboy have all laughed at his jokes and quoted them back at each other. But none of them know his name or even recognize his face. He’s just the big guy who looks like David Crosby who sits in his booth and smokes and drinks coffee and writes all day. He looks like he sleeps in his car, and his car looks like the kind that gets slept in. He doesn’t dress like a guy who could rent out an entire baseball stadium for his birthday. It comes as a surprise to them then, when California passes a public smoking ban, and the man simply buys the diner booth and has it installed in his own home.
The diner is a mainstay of U.S. pop culture. One diner alone—the Quality Café in Los Angeles—has served as the backdrop to numerous films and television series including Catch Me if You Can, Training Day, Mad Men, Se7en, Million Dollar Baby, and Gone in 60 Seconds. Some of the best known scenes in cinema take place in diners. Mr. Pink won’t tip in a diner. Honey Bunny will execute every motherfucking one of you in a diner. Walter can get you a toe (with nail polish) in a diner. The old lady has what Meg Ryan’s having in a diner. De Niro and Pacino finally faced off in a diner. Marty meets his father in a diner. Diner takes place in a diner.
One of the best movie scenes set in a diner is from the 1941 film Sullivan’s Travels, in which Joel McRea’s Sullivan (and the audience) first meets ‘The Girl’.
Sullivan’s Travels was released in December 1941, and was written and directed by Preston Sturges. Neither the film nor Sturges are particularly well remembered now, but for a small army of dedicated fans. The film is less well known than Citizen Kane, which was released eleven months earlier but it is, in some respects, almost as influential.
Whilst nowadays the title of ‘writer/director’ is commonplace, it was once unheard of. It’s not only surprising that Welles wrote and directed Citizen Kane at the age of 26, but that he was allowed to take on both roles—and star. In this regard he owes some small debt to Sturges, who fought hard to direct his own scripts, and script his own films. In 1940 he sold his script for The Great McGinty to Paramount for $10 and the right to direct it. When the film was released he became the first person ever to be credited as writer and director of a Hollywood film.
What’s interesting about Sturges is how modern and ahead of his time he was as a writer. Sullivan’s Travels is a satire of Hollywood itself, and is full of meta-jokes—a comedic style that wouldn’t become really popular in film until the turn of the 21st century. He continues to influence writers today. The Coen Brothers 2000 film, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, takes it’s title from Sullivan’s Travels, and is intended to be the film Sullivan would make on his return to Hollywood. The same title was also used several years earlier, for an episode of a popular cartoon comedy.
As a general rule, if an episode of The Simpsons features hobos, baseball, or anything old-timey America, it was written by John Swartzwelder. Between 1989-2003 Swartzwelder wrote 59 episodes of The Simpsons—far and away the most episodes of any single writer (John Vitti is in second place, with 25). He was a consultant on numerous other episodes and, along with George Meyer, is credited as shaping the tone and identity of the show.
Another thing about John Swartzwelder is that he’s a recluse. The J.D. Salinger of zany cartoon antics. The California smoking ban that led to him purchasing part of a diner also made it impossible for him to work in The Simpsons writing room. He was given special dispensation to write from home, and he’s barely been seen since. Only a handful of photographs of him seem to exist, and none were taken later than 1993.1 Eventually he was writing scripts from his home, driving up to the studio, passing them through the window, and driving off again.
Swartzwelder has never given an interview, nor participated in a DVD commentary. 2 He is very much a fan favourite, responsible for the Hank Scorpio, Frank Grimes, Blinky the fish, Don Mattingly’s sideburns, and the greatest political debate ever televised. 3
There are a lot of stories and rumors about Swartzwelder. Stories like the one about him hiring out a baseball stadium for his birthday. 4 All that’s really known him comes from Al Jean and Mike Reiss, who have revealed that Swartzwelder is “a huge fan of Preston Sturges movies.”
If it weren’t for John Swartzwelder, it’s unlikely I would ever have discovered the work of Preston Sturges. The first two films of his I ever saw were Christmas in July and The Great McGinty, neither of which are that great, but few films hold up well after 70 years. But very few films hold up as well as Sullivan’s Travels.
And the first time Joel McRea’s Sullivan meets ‘The Girl’ is the first time I ever saw the actress portraying her—and it was in fact her first major leading role. It was the role that launched the short and tragic career of Veronica Lake.5
Hollywood, particularly early Hollywood, is full of tragic actresses dying tragically young after varying degrees of success. Carole Lombard was the highest paid star in Hollywood, until she died in a plane crash aged 33. Marilyn Monroe was arguably the most famous woman in the world at the time of her death, at just 36.
Veronica Lake did not die young, nor did she live a long life. It certainly wasn’t a happy one. She lived long enough to be forgotten, and in Hollywood being forgotten is like death, except they don’t send you flowers.
During the 1940s Veronica Lake starred in nineteen movies. From 1950 until her death, she appeared in only three.
In the early 1990s Tom Cruise tried to remake an obscure 1942 comedy, I Married a Witch. He intended to star with his then-wife, Nicole Kidman, as the witch.6 The original role was played by Veronica Lake, in her third starring role.
The major plot hole in I Married a Witch is the idea that a man would be able to resist the advances of Veronica Lake. At 4’11,7 with the sort of bone structure that only exists in movies, and a voice impossible to describe or forget, there was a reason she was a movie star. She lacked the raw talent of Bergman or Stanwyck or Hepburn, and knew it —”You could put all the talent I had into your left eye, and still not suffer from impaired vision”8—but what she did have was a unique presence that is strangely compelling and almost bewitching.9
And it’s hard to think of a 20-year-old starlet today who would, in her first major role, dress up as a filthy hobo, clamber all over trains, and lie in a room filled with extremely sketchy looking extras. Whilst also being six months pregnant.
It’s also hard to imagine a 20-year-old Hollywood starlet falling so far out of the limelight that they end up bartending anonymously in New York and refusing charity from well meaning fans—claiming that “paying $190 rent is hardly being broke.”And maybe it’s not, but it is sad. It gets sadder.
When Sullivan arrives at the diner, after accidentally returning to Hollywood, he orders a coffee. The Girl offers to buy him ham and eggs. They start to talk, and she reveals she’s an aspiring actress who has given up on Hollywood. Veronica Lake’s first starring role is as a failed actress. Sullivan is a major film director, who knows he can give her a chance but he doesn’t want to blow his cover. The Girl’s disdain for Hollywood and casting directors is venomous and, in hindsight, a little ironic.
Lake’s final role was as Dr. Elaine Frederick, in the 1970 film Flesh Feast—rated 2.1 by the IMBD. The film was shot in 1967, and by that time her incredible beauty had faded not only through age, but alcoholism. Her voice is really the only hint of the Hollywood star she once was, long ago.
Lake part-financed Flesh Feast, which by the looks of things couldn’t have cost her all that much. The film is about a mad scientist who is developing maggots that eat human flesh. She is also cloning Adolf Hitler, so she can throw the flesh-eating maggots at him.
Whilst never a great actress, she probably deserved a finer swansong than Flesh Feast.
In the early 1970s Veronica Lake published her autobiography and earned enough money from it to emigrate to Ipswich, England—a cry for help, if ever there was one. Whilst there, she met Robert Carleton-Munro, a former Captain in the Royal Navy. They married in June 1972, and divorced less than a year later.
Suffering from illness and alcoholism, Lake returned to the United States for treatment. Whilst in hospital, she was completely alone and received no visitors, nor phone calls. A few nurses recognized her, and word spread throughout the staff. She enjoyed their attention, cheerfully signed autographs, and spoke of her future plans. They would never come to pass.
The Walk of Fame stretches 18 blocks from Hollywood Boulevard to Vine Street. On this sidewalk there are 2,500 terrazzo stars embedded in the ground, permanent and public monuments to the men and women of the entertainment industry. Even if their names fade from memory, the brass lettering still glitters in the California sunshine.
One of these stars, located just outside the Egyptian Theatre, is the closest thing Veronica Lake has to a headstone or memorial. The star was laid on February 8, 1960.
Preston Sturges’ star was laid on Vine Street, on the same date. Sadly he’d died five months earlier, after suffering a heart attack in the lobby of the Algonquin Hotel where he had been staying whilst working on his autobiography. The intended title of the book was The Events Leading to my Death.
Forty years later, on January 14, 2000, a star was laid in honor of The Simpsons. John Swartzwelder is alive, and presumably well. Since leaving The Simpsons he has been writing a series of absurdist detective novels.
Veronica Lake died on July 7, 1973. For three years her ashes remained unclaimed, and were partially scattered in 1976. The remnants would not be discovered for almost thirty years.
- He is however seen often in The Simpsons. Whenever a character resembling David Crosby appears, it’s Swartzwelder (except for David Crosby’s cameo). ↩
- Although during the recording of the commentary for The Cartridge Family, the other writers decided to phone him up. He spoke, briefly. When they revealed they were recording a DVD commentary he said “Too bad this isn’t really John Swartzwelder” and hung up. ↩
- Lord Palmerston! ↩
- The all-time best Swartzwelder anecdote is that he spent June 17, 1994 wandering around the streets of LA, wielding a baseball bat, and looking for O.J. Simpson, who had failed to turn himself in by the 11 am deadline agreed by the LAPD and Simpson’s lawyers. ↩
- Link to scene. ↩
- The film never got off the ground, and Cruise and Kidman eventually divorced. Kidman would play a witch in the 2005 film adaptation of Bewitched. The original TV series was heavily influenced by I Married a Witch. ↩
- This, along with their screen chemistry, is one of the main reasons she was often paired with the diminutive Alan Ladd. ↩
- Although you would, if you were also sporting Lake’s trademark peek-a-boo hairstyle. ↩
- Pun not intended. ↩