GUEST COLUMN: Lunch with Ray Bradbury
When I was a teenager growing up in Hollywood in the late 1950s, I’d have lunch once in a while at a well-known restaurant named the Musso and Frank Grill. It was on Hollywood Boulevard near Grauman’s Chinese Theater, two miles from my house. The Grill was founded in 1919 and is the oldest restaurant in Hollywood. It’s where Faulkner and Hemingway and Raymond Chandler met for lunch when they were writing films. The Screen Writers’ Guild is just around the corner on Argyle Street.
It’s where Chaplin, John Barrymore, Lon Chaney, Tom Mix, and Boris Karloff dined. Today, when Woody Allen, Sean Penn, Neil Simon, or Nicholas Gage come to town, this is where they come; they each have their own particular table.
And it was here I had lunch during an April 2009 Hollywood nostalgia visit. I hadn’t been back in 50 years. When I entered the dark interior, I felt transported back to the 50s, and I remembered a special lunch there 50 years ago. The Grill had a dark interior, aroma of sizzling steaks, and was known for authoritative waiters, superb food and as watering hole for the rich and famous of the film industry. I enjoyed it since, as a young kid, I was seriously into people watching.
The Grill at that time served one of my favorite dishes: liver and onions. This was before cholesterol was invented. On that early afternoon, I’d walked to the Grill and taken a seat at the long wooden bar that ran the length of the restaurant. I ordered my favorite dish, and in due time it arrived.
After I’d begun eating, a man came in, and, since all tables were full, he sat next to me. He wore an English tweed jacket and had a Santa twinkle in his eyes. He ordered a drink and a New York steak rare. After he’d started on his drink, he began talking to me as though he’d known me for years. He was gregarious, good humored and clearly liked to converse.
He told me he’d gotten back to Los Angeles last night on the red eye from London and came here to get a first-rate American steak. He didn’t know what people in the English Empire did for decent food.
“They definitely don’t know what to do with meat.”
I asked if he’d been to London on business or vacation.
“Business,” he said. “John Huston flew me over to tweak a screenplay I’m writing for a picture he’s shooting. An adaptation. Absolute nightmare. Gregory Peck and Richard Basehart are staring. Gregory’s a delight.”
“What book did you adapt?” I asked.
He began talking again about London’s hideous weather and worse food, but he absolutely loved meeting the people there and seeing the sights when time allowed. Between bites of steak, every now and then gesturing with his fork, he enthusiastically told me highlights. He’d been many times before.
When I got up to leave, he turned on the barstool, extended his hand. He had a firm grip.
“Nice chatting with you,” he said. “Hope I didn’t talk your ear off.”
“It was a genuine pleasure,” I told him as I turned for the door.
“By the way,” he said, “My name’s Ray Bradbury.” I’d just read “Fahrenheit 451,” which he’d written three years earlier.
I let this sink in, turned back, then made the sort of flippant remark I didn’t usually make, but it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, so I just had to.
“Call me Ishmael,” I said, quoting the line school kids know as the first sentence of Moby Dick-probably the most well-known first sentence of any American novel.
I smiled and continued, “Feel free to use the line,” I said. He gave me a genuine laugh.
“Thanks,” he said, “I just may.”
He paused a moment, then said leisurely, “Unless I come up with something better.”
At the end of my April 2009 lunch, I told the maître d’ my experience of meeting Ray Bradbury at the Grill in the late ’50s.
“Mr. Bradbury still comes by for lunch,” he said. “Not as often now and he’s in a wheel chair, but such a nice man, so vibrant. It’s a pleasure.”
“Does he still have a twinkle in his eye?” I asked.
The maître d’ carefully thought this over. “Just like Santa Claus,” he said.
Like an old friendly spider, Hollywood will continue to weave its web of memories and dreams, and some of us will continue to become lost in them. And as between which are the memories and which are the dreams, as the years pass the difference becomes less important. But some memories are so vivid they’re never forgotten.
My lunch with Ray Bradbury is one of those memories.
– Jonathan M. Purver is a writer who lives in South Lake Tahoe. This memoir is adapted from “Giraffe and Other Short Stories” (AuthorHouse, 2009). He is currently writing “Apple River,” a collection of short fiction.
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