Another element that needed to factor into my story in a significant way was the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, which Nixon (without any clue to its larger implications) signed into law on New Year’s Day, 1970.
This amazing bill, which slyly required that now-famous "environmental impact statement" for virtually any developmental activity, was one of the great legislative coups of history and the law that ultimately saved Alaska from all-out plunder. Written in great secrecy by Washington Senator Henry M. Jackson and ushered through Congress and the Nixon White House in the final months of 1969 with no fanfare or debate, the teeth embedded in the boiler-plate language went unnoticed, even by the Sierra Club, which considered the bill a sell-out to the developers. It was not fully recognized as the brilliant conservation tool it would be until more than a decade later.
When Senator Jackson ran for President two years after the bill, in 1971, I wrote a lengthy and mostly negative profile of him for the Los Angeles Times magazine called “Dick’s Kind of Democrat” (the authorship of which I gave to Julie in the novel). This was the first extensive profile ever done on him and his press secretary later told me its thesis (that a choice between Nixon and Jackson in ’72 would be no choice at all) deeply stung him and stayed with him until he died in 1983. Had I known then how effective his NEPA would prove to be I would certainly have been kinder to him in that piece, and it struck me that this whole track of the book might serve as a posthumous apology to the man.
President Nixon Signs
NEPA into Law,
January 1, 1970
Still another veneer I wanted to lay over this story (and have emerge as a major character) was the city of Seattle—not just the hidden villainous Seattle frontier past that is so critical to the plotline but the way the city looked and felt in the year 1969.
This was a time when Seattle was still somewhat provincial and just on the cusp of becoming the Pacific Rim megapolis, high-tech Mecca and Manhattan of skyscrapers it is today. Largely this meant populating it with kitschy restaurants (The Twin Teepees, Clark’s Clock, the Doghouse) and classic theaters (the Coliseum, the Harvard Exit, the Green Lake Aquatheater) that have disappeared, and landscapes (Old Highway 99, the waterfront, the U District) that have since changed beyond recognition.
As part of this tribute to the Vanished Seattle, I also couldn’t resist enlisting the Seattle Post-Intelligencer into the story. This venerable newspaper, the state’s oldest (which had been publishing since the Civil War) was an institution I well knew, having worked there off and on for more than thirty years until it closed in 2009. It won Pulitzer Prizes, produced great novelists from its staff (Frank Herbert and Tom Robbins were both working there in 1969) and served as the backdrop or setting or element of innumerable movies (Black Widow, This Boy’s Life) but, as far as I knew the P-I had never lent itself to a quasi-factual historical mystery in which Seattle and its past play such a crucial role.
Another decision I came to before sitting down to write was to allow the story to be a Ragtime-like panorama of real-life characters (mostly background characters) from the world of journalism (old P-I friends Florence Frye and Royal Brougham), politics (Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan), the Counterculture (Jerry Garcia, William Kunstler) and Hollywood (Vilmos Zsigmond, Paul Newman).
From the most part, I would limit myself to characters I had actually met in person. For instance, my employment of director John Frankenheimer came from a long (two- hour) lunch-interview I had with him in 1991. On the other hand, I grabbed Robert Evans—who is almost a major character in the novel—from a single awkward moment in 1980, when, as a critic entering a Seattle test screening of his film Popeye, he ambushed me in front of the theater and would not let me pass until, standing about an inch from my face, he schmoozed me within an inch of my life. I can still smell his cologne.
As the story developed, the most prominent of these real-life characters would be that great actor, magnetic movie star and all-around excellent human being, Gregory Peck. I fully realize there’s something outrageous about an author casting a Hollywood icon for his fictional story (and paying nothing to his estate) but, in my defense, I can only say that I had met Mr. Peck several times over the years, and shared a touching moment with him in 1977 that became part of his legend. (You can read about it in his definitive biography, Gregory Peck: A Charmed Life.) Knowing his love of American political history and his commitment to liberal causes, I can only think he would not have been too aghast at being shanghaied into this particular historical epic.
Before I actually sat down to write, I made three more strategic decisions.
The first was that I would write it in the first-person present tense. (“As we enter the building, he says to me. . .”) I’d used this before with some success in interviews with celebrities and I hoped it might convey, better than the usual omniscient third-person past tense, the immediacy of the ’60s, what Norman Mailer called its “Nowness,” the sense of change happening all around and history unfolding in the moment. I also wanted to use first-person simply because I had used third-person in my earlier Wally Boyd story and wanted to do something different, and because I thought
it would be the more effective, and more engaging, to view the story—and the new and younger world he wants to be part of—entirely through his eager and somewhat pathetic consciousness.
The second decision was about the book’s structure. The story follows the pre-production of a movie that is never made, in the course of which Wally writes three drafts of its script, each with a radically different version of the Harding tragedy and what happened aboard the Henderson. Hence the drama’s three acts fall very naturally into three parts, each corresponding to a draft of the script and each taking up two of those last six months of the decade. So it would be: Book I – The First Draft – July & August, 1969; Book II - The Second Draft – September & October, 1969; and Book III - The Third Draft – November & December, 1969.
The third decision was to the title. I chose Empire of Eden because Harding used the word “Empire” five times in his Alaska speech (it was, in fact, one of his favorite words) and he also frequently spoke of Arctic Alaska as a kind of “Eden.” I figured that if he really had been proposing turning the North Slope into one vast national park, he well might have called it his “Empire of Eden National Park.” At the same time, the term also stood for Olompali and the better world the more idealistic members of the ’60s Generation wanted to create: I had seen it used in that capacity and as a synonym for Woodstock. So the title had a double meaning that, as I plotted it, would become vital to the mystery story.
Normally, I try to plan out anything I’m going to write to the nth degree well in advance of sitting down at the computer. But this time I decided to embark on a first draft with only the intentions I’ve outlined above as pre-thought and just see where the writing took me each day.
For inspiration, I listened to the music of the year 1969, not just letting it play in the background as I wrote but in the car, as I did yardwork and cleaned the Guinea Pigs’ habitat and worked out. Nothing evokes that particular era more perfectly than its music. The album covers alone are like a gallery of its emerging sensibility. The Rolling Stones, the Doors, the Beach Boys, the Who, the Grateful Dead, the Jefferson Airplane, the last gasp of the Beatles. Was the popular music of any other moment of human history anywhere near this sublime or profound or ambitious? I don’t think so. As I descended into the writing, the tracks looped through my life, pulling up the lost feelings of my youth.
And of all that flowering of great music, none was quite as enduringly resonant or powerful to me as the music of the Byrds. Then and now, their albums were my own personal soundtrack of that decade. In later years, knowing my enthusiasm, mutual friends would several times offer to introduce me to the group’s leader, Roger McGuinn. But each time I backed out at the last minute. Why? Because, in the end, I simply did not want my near-religious relationship to that music to be tainted by the earthly reality of its creators. The Byrds were that important to me.
In July, 1969, the Byrds and the Doors were the headliners of the three-day Seattle Pop Festival in Gold Creek Park, which until Woodstock a month later would be the largest outdoor rock concert of the ’60s. I somehow missed that historic event, but Wally Boyd would not.
As this first draft began to progress, day by day, the settings I chose for the Seattle and Hollywood portions of the story were, for the most part, locations I knew from my personal experience.
The Wheeler Street house that belonged to the murder victim George Arthur was my own Queen Anne Hill home for more than fifteen years. Julie’s vintage Green Lake house was one of the places I lived as a college student in the ’60s, as was the Boat Street apartment in
Green Lake House
the U District where Wally writes the first draft of the screenplay. (I was living on Boat Street in the summer of ’69 when the bombing of the UW administration building shook me from sleep one Sunday morning.) As remote from ordinary existence as it is, I knew the Highlands fairly well. I lived on its northern border, I had visited there in the ’50s and a good friend had recently bought one of its choicest pieces of real estate: the William Boeing Mansion. So, when the kidnapping of the oil mogul subplot possessed me, I had a good map of that exclusive enclave in my head.
Likewise, the executive suite of Paramount Pictures, the Beverly Hills Hotel, Musso & Frank’s Grill, Venice Beach, Santa Barbara, Newport Beach, Tehachapi and the other California Locations was all terrain I knew well. Other
locations that would probably be integral to the story but I hadn’t yet experienced in life (like the Harding sites in Marion, Ohio) I figured I could just pencil in for now and visit once I had the security of a first draft beneath me and knew for sure exactly what those locations would be.
In the course of this first pass, an incredible thing happened: Herbert Hoover hijacked the story.
Harding’ Commerce Secretary, best friend in the cabinet and ultimately his successor in the White House, Hoover had been a curious but central figure in the drama of July & August 1923: on board the Henderson, at Harding’s side in Seattle, in the San Francisco hotel suite, taking charge and guiding the events after Harding’s death. He seemed a decisive, perhaps even heroic, presence but there were also many incongruities in his actions and in his character that kept nagging at me. The claim in his 1952 memoir, for instance, that he wrote Harding’s final speech, which I could deduce from other sources was probably not true at all.
The nagging feeling led me to more systematic research into the man and this eventually led me to William Leuchtenburg’s mini-biography of Hoover in the same American Presidents series as John Dean’s book on Harding. Like that book, this one was a revelation, but in the other direction for its subject. Its subtle argument is that the Hoover that has come down to us from his memoirs and the three volumes of sanctioned biography is something of a fraud concocted by a Republican Party that needed to whitewash his lingering image as the soulless harbinger of the Great Depression. The character Leuchtenburg reveals is even darker than what had to be covered up: a ruthless exploiter of the Third World in his youth; a backstabbing manipulator who attained great wealth by quasi-criminal means and slyly parlayed it into political power without ever running for public office; an endlessly malevolent schemer whose belief that he deserved to run the world often makes him seem like a James Bond villain, or at the very least, Aaron Burr.
Or maybe Frank Underwood, of House of Cards. Because as I entered a binge of reading everything I could about Hoover’s career and sociopathic character, and saw how he had callously profited by the deaths of so many innocents in South Africa and Australia and China, I could not get it out of my head how such a monster might have wanted to eliminate Harding in 1923 and how easily he could have done it. Thus I created the palace-murder scenario that the oilman Augustus Kirk spins Scheherazade-like to his kidnappers and becomes the engine of the last half of the book and may or may not be true.
Secretary Hoover Addresses Citizens of Wrangel, Alaska, (with President Harding at left), July 11, 1923
This Hoover detour that had come upon me midway through the draft changed much of what had come before it. So I would have to go back and start over again. And I was aching to do it, galvanized by this unexpected and history-rocking new premise of one U.S. President having murdered another.
But the week I began I developed a strange and persistent cough that gradually became almost debilitating. I went to my doctor and he said a flap of my mitral valve had become detached from my heart. It needed a repair. The surgery would require several months of tests and preparations and then more months of recovery and rehabilitation. It would eat up my life for nearly half a year. Only a writer can
know how agonizing such a coitus interruptus can be when the juices are flowing as strongly as they were for me after Herbert Hoover came sneaking into the picture.
In this case, it proved so agonizing that I decided to not let it be an interruption, to go ahead and write the book while all of this medical business was taking place. Religiously over the next six months, I worked for several hours every day, even on the morning of the surgery and the day after I awoke from it. I also tried to take as few painkilling drugs as possible (and none at all after the first few weeks) to keep my head clear for the task.
I finished the first draft the same week I graduated from my physical therapy program.
In the end, the operation could not have gone any better, and left me with no ongoing medications or diet restrictions. Frankly, I think it was the writing that got me through so well. So if you’re ever facing a major surgery, I highly recommend a creatively involving side-focus that won’t allow you time to feel sorry for yourself or worry about all the things that can go wrong.
After letting the first draft and the whole subject of Harding & Hoover marinate for a few months, the next step would be to take that extensive location-scouting trip I knew from the beginning I would need to do before I could write a credible final draft of the book.
I started in Washington D.C., principally because I had to go there anyway for
my father-in-law’s funeral in Arlington National Cemetery. I had been to our nation’s capital three times before, as a child with my parents, on a book tour (in which I stayed at the Capital Hilton, hence its use as the base of my fictional film company) and on a press junket for the movie Missing (in Georgetown). But I had set scenes in the White House, the Willard Hotel and along the National Mall, none of which I’d experienced up close, and I had no real feel for the city. I tagged five days on the funeral to take it all in.
A White House tour has become a very difficult ticket to acquire in the new age of Homeland Security. I had to apply to my congressman almost six months before the trip and even then permission did not come through until two weeks before my departure date. But that stressful uncertainty was made up for by a tour that was much more extensive and superior in every way to what I expected. The Secret Service stationed in each room were enormously patient, polite and helpful; and I was able to take as many pictures and stay in each room basically as long as I wanted in order to work out the geography and staging of the scenes I’d set there.
This was a geography, by the way, that I’d somehow gotten completely wrong from my reading and studying of pictures and video of the White House. The lesson to writers: If you really want to know what a place is like, you have to go there and see it for yourself.
From Washington D.C., I journeyed to Marion, Ohio, hometown of Warren G. Harding and the setting of two important scenes in my book.
Marion is a fifty-mile drive north of Columbus, along U.S. 23, and I stayed in one of the cluster of modern hotels just off the divided highway, five miles from Marion. (Marion itself has no hotels—its once-celebrated, ‘20s-era Hotel Harding has been sumptuously restored but is now rented office space.) I spent several days just getting to know the town, seeing its museum, touring the Harding home and being awed by its surprisingly magnificent Harding Memorial.
Harding Memorial By Night
Harding Tombs By Day
One of my principal objectives here was to see if the renegade midnight exhumation scene I had set at the Memorial was plausible. As I walked through the steps of that scene late one night on site, I found that it was—though, as with the White House, the reality of the spot was much different than what I had imagined from my armchair research, and many adjustments would have to be made.
The problem Marion posed to me was that it had changed considerably not just from Harding’s time but from the 1969 of my novel. Since then, the town’s conception of its formerly disgraced native son has been influenced by the comeback in history he’s been slowly but surely enjoying since the Murray book, and his once-tarnished image is now being heavily promoted. In fact, Marion is currently in the process of adding onto the Harding home a larger Warren G. Harding Presidential Library and Visitor’s Center, with a target date of 2020. The home and memorial sites were taken over in 1978 by the State of Ohio and are sparklingly well-maintained. But in 1969, under the management of the nearly defunct Harding Memorial Fund, they were as shabby and rundown as Harding’s reputation. So I have to imagine how neglected they would have looked to my visiting protagonist.
The Harding Home
After two full days in Marion, I decided to drive the twenty or so miles east along Route 309 that the docent at the Marion Heritage Center called “The Harding Trial.” Specifically, it takes you to the towns of Caledonia, where Harding spent his boyhood; Iberia, where he attended a small college; and Blooming Grove, where he was born.
In Caledonia (pop. 500), where the Harding boyhood home reportedly still stood, I pulled into the main crossroads and asked a passing woman for directions to it. She didn’t know: she was not from Caledonia, only worked there. But she helpfully went in a store to ask an older woman who had lived in Caledonia all her life. This woman had never heard of any connection of Harding and Caledonia, or anything about a Harding
boyhood home. I figured I must have the wrong town until, leaving it and only a block away from where I had this conversation, I came upon the immaculately kept-up site, with a huge American flag flying above and an historical marker on the lawn that was impossible to miss.
Was I in the Twilight Zone? In a way, yes. I found out later that Caledonia was also the boyhood home of Sherwood Anderson and thus at least partially a model for his 1919 short story cycle, Winesburg, Ohio: the prototype of all the spooky and dysfunctional small towns that would follow it in American Literature.
Further down the road, nothing of Harding or anything else remains in Iberia (the college was torn down decades ago) and after veering off on two smaller local roads all you will find at Blooming Grove is a marker where the birth house once stood. This destination was decidedly creepy, not a town at all but five crumbling houses that each looked like it might be a meth lab. Two of the houses proudly flew Confederate flags. Attack dogs growled from the front porches. My lonely drive into the Ohio heartland seemed a journey into a Heart of Darkness. The Shadow of Blooming Grove indeed.
Another vital location was, of course, Alaska. When I first started to develop the novel’s premise, I retraced the voyage of the Henderson as closely as possible on a cruise ship through the Inland Passage from Seattle and back. And as a boy in 1961 I had also visited the then-brand-new state with my father and actually flew with him over the expanse of Hardingland—the Naval Petroleum Reserve No. 4 (renamed in 1976 the National Petroleum Reserve—Alaska).
But I felt that, before writing a final draft I needed to see the North Slope again from an adult point of view. So I flew via Alaska Airlines from Seattle to Fairbanks (where the only remnant of Harding’s 1923 visit is the antique train car he rode in to inaugurate the Alaskan Railway), Prudhoe Bay and Barrow. The effect of that scenery was exhilarating beyond words and it was also moving to see how light (thanks to NEPA) the imprint of forty-six years of Prudhoe Bay and TAPS has been on this largest unit in our public land domain. Still, with Prudhoe Bay finally all but pumped out, the new Trump Administration is is said to be chomping at the bit to push development both to its east (the National Wildlife Reserve) and west (Hardingland). On the other side, the conservationists are just as determined to hold them back.
In Barrow, I discovered there was a growing demand among conservationists to turn Harding’s California-sized National Petroleum Reserve into a “National Pleistocene Reserve,” joining up with the Gates of the Arctic National Park (created in 1980) and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge into “a vast Arctic Wilderness Park.” Since this would be pretty much the “Empire of Eden” National Park of my fictional story, learning this made me feel rather prescient. Maybe the book could, in some tiny way, help that movement.
After Alaska, I needed to do a certain location-scouting trip in Seattle itself that I had not had time to do before. Aided by ninety-year-old photos in the P-I files snapped every few feet along the way, I retraced the route of the 1923 Harding motorcade: Starting at the Alaskan Way dock, then south on First Avenue through the city, up Capitol Hill to Volunteer Park, down its northern slope to Woodland Park and the Boy Scouts, east to the U District and the UW stadium for the last speech, doubling back to climb Queen Anne Hill for the stop at the Children’s Hospital, down its southern slope to the downtown area again and a reception at the New Washington Hotel (which he may or may not have made, history is unclear about this) to Union Station in Old Seattle and the rail journey to San Francisco.
Incredibly, all these stops on my Warren G. Harding architectural tour of Seattle are fully intact. It is an irony of history that, while virtually all the 1969 sites used in my story are now gone, the 1923 sites abide.
Another Seattle landmark of the Harding Era that figures in the novel that I needed to experience up close and personal was the Arctic Club, the death scene of the radical U.S. Congressman Marion Zioncheck in 1936. Formerly a social club for wealthy Seattleites who had made their fortunes in the Alaska Gold Rush, the building had recently been converted into a luxury hotel so I was able to stay the night in the very fifth-floor room from which Zioncheck plunged to his death. The Zioncheck story has its own cult following and people come from all over the world to see the Arctic Club. I spoke to a fellow taking pictures of the building’s famous walrus-head frieze who said he had come from Japan specifically to see the place.
July 27, 1923
Another death room that figured prominently in my story and still existed was the Presidential Suite of San Francisco’s Palace Hotel where Harding died. I soon learned that the hotel does not tend to play up this historical association, perhaps in fear the ghoulishness of it might discourage business for its most expensive room. The fact is not even mentioned on its website or video tour of the suite.
And when I went there, I found the space was in the process of being rather extensively remodeled. While the hotel publicist was sympathetic to my request to see the suite, and told me she would be happy to arrange a tour a few months down the road when the construction work
On the Spot
was done, she couldn’t allow me to enter for “safety and insurance reasons.” The closest I could get was a room two doors down the hall where my friend Herbert Hoover had stayed during the 1923 death watch.
But, that night, when I tested the door of the Harding Suite, I found the bolt had been taped open to allow free access to the carpenters and plasterers. So I was able, since this was a Friday and the workers would be gone for the weekend, to get the most of my three-night stay at the hotel. I lounged in its magnificent Garden Court (where Hoover had announced Harding’s death
to the press corps). I traced the steps of the removal of Harding’s body out the service entrance. I managed a peek at the various rooms Harding’s wife and his many doctors had occupied. And I spent hours in the Presidential Suite itself, feeling its air of doom, memorizing the layout of its rooms, gazing from its windows down on New Montgomery Street, watching the ghosts go through the various contradictory scenarios of what happened here that fateful week, and refining the scene I had already imagined and written in which my character Wally Boyd stays here in the summer of 1969.
While I was in the Bay Area, there was another location vital to my story with an energy I needed to feel. This was Olompali State Park, with its excavated ‘60s hippie commune that sparked the book and gave it both a title and a spiritual home.
To prepare for this last location trip, and while still staying at the Palace Hotel, I took a “Magic Bus Tour” of the city’s late-’60s sites: Haight-Ashbury, Gold Gate Park, the Avalon Ballroom and Fillmore Auditorium. The tour was very kitschy and touristy, yet done with a genuine love and respect for the era that took me by surprise and actually touched me, and also impressed upon me once again just how distant that time had receded into our cultural history.
Across the Golden Gate Bridge and thirty miles to the north in Marin County, there is nothing kitschy or touristy about Olompali. When I pulled into its parking lot on a gorgeous fall day in 2015, it was utterly deserted. Not a soul on the grounds or in the visitor center. Not even the ghost of the young woman in a white dress that was said to haunt the grounds. I inspected the hippie artifacts in the glass display cases and walked out to see the ruin of the old rancho house occupied by the commune until it burned down in 1969. I found the site of the swimming pool, now filled in, where the two toddlers had drowned that same year—a tragedy that Jerry Garcia once claimed, “ended the ’60s.”
Olompali State Park Visitor's Center
The setting—a bowl of arid, shrub-covered hillsides—was so dreamlike and the day so Elysian that it was easy to imagine how people here could believe so serenely in an endless summer, a permanent youth and idealism that would never die. For a time, I sat on an old millstone and breathed in that poignant energy and chanted the magical name.
Olompali, Olompali, Olompali.
Then I went back to Seattle to finish the journey of the novel.