Cocktail Napkin: Musso — Liska Jacobs

“ Just you wait, all of you ghosts of this room, just you wait…”
John Fante, Ask the Dust

Musso, Musso, Musso—that’s really the only way to say it. Not Musso and Frank Grill. You’ve got to roll it around in your mouth, like gulping, like breathing in the gin a little before you drink it down. Moooo-sooooo.

But I’ve started off all wrong.

Los Angeles is a city that would rather raze a building than put a plaque commemorating some not long ago history. A hotel where so-and-so lived, a bar where so-and-so drank—parking lots now. So when you live in this place, when you come from this place—not just your roots but the root of your roots, and they’ve grown out of sand and cement, came up beneath the scarce shade of palm trees—when you are that Los Angeles rarity of having been born and raised, born and raised, born and raised again, product of so many fantasies, of unrealized dreams, of so many tiny passing successes, you are haunted. Not just by what was, but what still is. Next to that paved over hotel or bar is some place that exists frozen in time, and it’s these places that do the haunting. Because they contain two histories: the one from the books and film, and my own.

Musso is one of those places. Marketed as Hollywood’s oldest restaurant, touted for its history, in all the guide books. F. Scott Fitzgerald supposedly corrected scripts in one of the booths, Dorothy Parker was known to up-chuck in the bathroom, William Faulkner was allowed to mix his own drinks behind the bar. There is still a booth reserved for Charlie Chaplin, once a regular customer. Musso is a Hollywood institution, but it is also my martini time capsule. The paternal history of my person.

It is the Musso of my dad’s long ago industry days. When he worked at Warner Bros. in Burbank cutting sound—and then at lunch time, a bevy of postproduction workers racing past Forrest Lawn Cemetery with its wide expanse of fertile green lawns, up and over the Cahuenga Pass. Make sure to order the welsh rarebit. Sit at the counter.Vodka, vodka, vodka. With very little olive juice and vermouth. There better be ice chips or he’ll send it back.

This was when money was flush, when we all lived under the same roof—years before the divorce, before descriptions like alcoholic, a decade or more before he would be diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. This is the Musso of my father’s long ago days, that brief shining moment in a life not so well lived. A memory now, probably remembered all wrong. But it haunts that restaurant, lives there still.

I never met my dad’s father, although I suspect he is in everything I know about my dad. He worked in post-production too, a heavy drinker as well. Only my dad’s father was a volatile drunk. So much so that he was cut out of our life completely, demolished like an old Hollywood building. Yet there is some presence left, a history you can’t shake. Get around my dad’s distinct brand of disconsolate alcoholism and you can just make out my grandfather.

They must have handed Musso down to one another. Both born and raised in Brentwood wealth, they would have liked Musso’s red-jacket, black-bowtied waiters, the worn leather booths, the mahogany wood paneling. And they would have appreciated drinking where Dashiell Hammett and Ernest Hemingway once drank, congratulating themselves on being like-minded, albeit failed, artists. The perfect place for father to show son how to order a martini. I’ve seen my dad instruct my brother in the art, nose slightly tucked down, chin thrust out, waving a hand casually. Extra ice, shaken.

You enter Musso through the faintly nondescript foyer, and are immediately overwhelmed by its crumbling greatness. It’s like stepping back in time. I can feel my father’s history here, and his father’s too. I try to imagine what their Los Angeles must have looked like—this always changing, shifting landscape. Musso is the kind of place that lets you reach back and touch briefly with the past. It’s in the well-dressed, older maître d, the waiting ancient host, their tone slightly aloof. Don’t judge me old man, I have come here out of family tradition. I don’t care if Raymond Chandler might have written The Big Sleep in one of the booths. I have my own history here.

I am a gin drinker. Different from my dad. He can keep the vodka. Gin makes women ugly, look at Britain. Haughty oldest daughter disagrees with father, orders gin anyway. Dry and with a twist. It comes presented as it always has: in a small martini glass, with a back packed in ice. It’s like drinking two at once, always the same cold temperature. I skip the welsh rarebit, but I do sit at the counter. I never order a steak. Just a gin martini and a wedge salad, served with a steak knife, blue cheese dressing on the side in a sauce server. A second gin martini for desert. Hendricks, if you’re interested.

I always frown at the first sip. I frown until the sting gets behind the eyes, smooths out the traffic, the cost to park, the endless waiting that comes with my own career. When will the contract come? When will the announcement be? When will my agent call? I think of what my dad must have worried over at those long ago industry lunches—new baby twins at home, a wife just beginning to despise him. When will life start? He drinks to pass the time, a family trait.

My grandfather drank gin too, or so my father warns me. It’s what sent him to the hospital to have half his intestines removed. Later he would drink anything. Vodka, wine, cognac was a particular favorite. Cognac is something they could agree on—dad and granddad. Always make it a double.

Hush ghosts. Let this daughter of yours, of Los Angeles too, drink in peace. But that’s the rub, that’s my haunted Los Angeles. You can keep your Hollywood tinsel town, all laid out before you pretty and new. The stuff Idaho dreams are made of. Come in on the 10 exit the 405, cross it one thousand times and you still won’t catch a whisper of the cemetery that lies restless beneath my feet.

Liska Jacobs holds an MFA through the University of California Riverside Palm Desert. Her work has appeared in The Rumpus, Los Angeles Review of Books Quarterly Journal, The Millions, Hairpin, The Nervous Breakdown and others. She is currently working on her debut novel, Catalina.