First, do not think of Musso & Frank as some historical monument, as if it were a kind of museum with menus.
Think of it as what it has been for most of its nine decades: a living part of the ecosystem of Hollywood in the 1920s, the 30s, the 40s, into the 50s.
This was when the bookstores in Hollywood were open almost as late as the bars … and there were almost as many of them.
And Musso’s was the neighborhood Starbucks of its age — with booze, without laptops.
The writers who first congregated there were often fugitives from New York and other places vaguely East. Men for whom Musso’s, with its comforting dark wood and dark walls, was a frontier Algonquin, a refuge from the relentless sunlight of Los Angeles and the relentless pressures of the Hollywood studios they worked for with a combination of shame and disdain that only the solace of big paychecks and deep martinis made tolerable.
Genius met here, ate here, got drunk here — F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Saroyan, Dashiel Hammett, Nathanael West, John O’Hara. Writers began with hair-of-the-dog lunches that turned into convivial dinners.
Sometimes they strolled or staggered out the back door and down a few yards to Stanley Rose’s book shop for some spirited singing, a look at the new editions, and then back to Musso’s for a nightcap or two.
William Faulkner got so exasperated one day that he went behind the bar himself to show the barkeep how to make a genuine Mississippi mint julep.
That was after Prohibition ended. Before, Greta Garbo was spotted by a gossip columnist gulping near-beer and attacking a plate of spaghetti.
This was an era when the stars weren’t embedded in the sidewalks outside Musso’s, but ensconced at the tables inside — rather like the studio system: the stars out front, the writers out of sight in the back. But the back room was the writers’ private club, guarded by a maître d’ every bit as bumptious as the clipboard guy outside today’s nightclubs.
In time, another generation of writers found its way there: Aldous Huxley and Christopher Isherwood; Lillian Hellman and Budd Schulberg; and giants fleeing Hitler’s Germany, Bertolt Brecht and Thomas Mann.
Musso’s lost the lease on the back room in 1954, just about the time television began making mincemeat of the studio system that had paid the writers’ bar tab.
Oh, writers still came, searching for the same fellow-feeling that earlier writers had found there. John Fante, the novelist and screenwriter who loved L.A., said that to walk into Musso’s was “ a glorious beginning to the new day, a rekindling of the will to survive, a renewal of one’s faith in mankind.”
Science fiction writer Harlan Ellison was sitting at the bar one day, working on some galleys, and he looked up to see poets: Richard Brautigan on his left and Rod McKuen on his right.
I had a couple of lunches with James Ellroy there, and I’d have sworn the ghosts wreathed the room like the cigarette smoke the writers once exhaled with their 80-proof breath.
Or maybe it was just the martini doing its magic.