If we are to believe his accounts, Blaise Cendrars took the Trans-Siberian Railway at the age of 16 in 1904, had adventures in China, and hunted elephants in Africa. The reality is a little more prosaic. Cendrars, born Frédéric-Louis Sauser in Switzerland in 1887, was sent to work for a jeweler in Saint Petersburg at 17 because of his poor grades at school. And contrary to the claims of Prose on the Trans-Siberian Railway and of Little Jehanne of France (1913), his most famous poem, he never crossed the Russian steppe. However, he was a prolific traveler.
He visited New York for the first time in 1911, and discovered the city’s modernity and breakneck pace. It was there that he wrote his first poem, Easter, which became Easter in New York in 1919, a freewheeling wander through the streets that paved the way to modern poetry. The author of such great novels as Sutter’s Gold (1925) and Moravagine (1926) discovered journalism in the 1930s thanks to his friend Pierre Lazareff, head of Paris-Soir, who sent him to America aboard the S.S. Normandie. It was to Lazareff that Cendrars dedicated Hollywood, Mecca of the Movies (1936), an indefinable book tinged with humor and a precursor to the literary journalism and non-fiction genres that are now so popular in France and the United States.
When Cendrars arrived in Hollywood, talking movies had only been around for nine years and the names of silent film stars such as Clara Bow and William S. Hart were still on everyone’s lips. But in just 25 years, this “far-flung suburb of Los Angeles” became the capital of cinema. The first impression of Hollywood, Mecca of the Movies is one of youthfulness, excitement, and perpetual movement. In this buzzing hub that reminded him of the Parisian neighborhood of Montparnasse, Cendrars wandered the streets (a quite absurd habit in a city ruled by the automobile), observed young people, collected anecdotes about France’s prestige in the United States, and developed a passion for statistics.
After this initial enthusiasm, he discovered a country in the grips of the Great Depression and a city bristling with walls, a barricaded “forbidden city” that rejected foreigners, the poor, and vagrants who often came from neighboring states. Upon arriving at the major studios, the writer and journalist was met with closed doors and Cerberus-like guards that discouraged any aspiring actors or screenwriters from trying their luck in Tinseltown. This is perhaps why Cendrars failed to meet the leading directors and stars of the day. In one of the most amusing passages in the book, he describes his attempt to meet with Ernst Lubitsch, dismissed by Paramount in the middle of filming a movie with Greta Garbo and Charles Boyer.
The renowned director was too busy to meet the French writer, but agreed to a telephone interview at 4 a.m. to give his opinion on the “celebrity crisis” in Hollywood. The story seems too good to be true. “The truer the article, the more it should seem imaginary,” wrote Cendrars, muddying the waters ever further. As an adventurer and magnificent storyteller, the author of Planus (1948) wrote journalistic poetry, drawing on his sensations and letting his imagination run wild. “A reporter is far more than a mere hunter of images, he must be able to capture the visions of the mind,” he once said, although admitted he never took notes while traveling.
Hollywood, Mecca of the Movies by Blaise Cendrars, translated from French by Garrett White, University of California Press, 1995.