It’s too bad we can’t physically time travel—but maybe with virtual reality (VR) tech, one day we can dial it back in history, and you’ll (sort of) be there. We imagined what it would be like to travel in between the prohibition periods, when alcohol was legal anew, and cannabis not yet outlawed. Won’t you join us?
We’re headed to a party at Pickfair, the famous Hollywood home of Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks Jr.—before he moved out to be with his mistress. It’s high summer, 1935, and Pickfair is the place to be. Everybody who’s anybody wants an invite to what Life Magazine called “The White House of the West Coast.”
This Beverly Hills estate is famous for A-list parties where you might meet royalty, President Franklin Roosevelt and First Lady Eleanor or the high court of Hollywood. Charlie Chaplin lives next door but didn’t make it out the day we time-travelled.
Truly, Pickfair is a walled and gated world unto itself. Elsewhere, the Great Depression continues to sap national morale. In the Old South and Chicago, the Ku Klux Klan parades through the streets. Alcohol prohibition ended in ’33, not that it ever stopped the booze from flowing. Cannabis, though, still legal nationally until 1937, was banned in California in 1913, in a move to stop an opioid crisis and the importing of hashish, reportedly from India. Happily, banning the stuff put cannabis on most people’s radar for the first time. Folks learned about it from African-American jazz music, and supply lines have sprung up through Mexico and the Caribbean.
The party is swinging on the large lawn leading down to the hundred-foot-long, kidney-shaped pool. The band just came off a toking break. What a line-up: singers Cab Calloway, of “Reefer Man” fame, dancing around in his white zoot suit, and Ella Fitzgerald, who’s singing “When I Get Low, I Get High,” backed by the four-man acoustic band The Cats and the Fiddle, famous for their song “Killin’ Jive.”
Next, Fats Waller launches into his instrumental hit “Viper’s Drag,” a stoner’s drag to you and me. Reefer, according to the Collins English Dictionary, comes from the days of sailing ships and first referred to sailors who reefed (rolled for storage) the sails. A rolled joint looks like a reefed sail.
Some guest are dancing, some talking in clusters all around the large lawn and the buffet tables set up close to the house. I spot the British playwright George Bernard Shaw chatting with Greta Garbo. He’s in town to discuss a movie version of his play Pygmalion, and she’s currently at work on the film adaptation of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. They’ve just sampled some of the joints being passed around.
Perhaps this is a rare chance for these two to partake of the kind herb. Shaw is famous for his freethinking views on social matters, but cannabis is hard to come by in Britain. Garbo, rightfully famous as a recluse, probably has even fewer opportunities. Shaw seems to be even more talkative than usual, and Garbo, legendarily reclusive, is the perfect quiet listener, glad, we’re sure, to be sequestered with just one person rather than amid the crowds of revelers dotting the big lawn.
Looking past them, we spot the wait staff expertly rolling joints from a bowl of perfectly groomed flowers. Walking through the party to get a closer look, we see the classic greeny-gold hue of what would come to be called Acapulco Gold in the 1960s. This landrace sativa strain hails from the Guerrero Mountains on the Mexican coast and is justly prized for its potency, fruity-piney flavors and beauty. Right now, you can’t smoke with VR, but we’re hoping that changes so we can fully enjoy virtual time travel.
Suddenly, a shriek lets out, and everyone turns to look at the far end of the pool to see Jean Harlow, America’s sex symbol since the 1931 film Platinum Blonde, careening down the slide and splashing into the water.
On a floating dock, now bobbing about in the waves from that splash, there’s Mary Pickford herself handing cocktails to guests in the pool. One of them is the voluminous Mae West, notorious for breaking social conventions since her film debut in ’33. She’s chest-deep in water with a joint in one hand and a drink in the other at the moment, enjoying life.
Bette Davis lounges in a chair on the strip of sandy beach lining one side of the pool, fresh from her Oscar win for the film Dangerous. Rarely invited to parties like this, she is known for loud, violent mood swings, and always seen smoking something. Hopefully her smoke is herb—and mellowing her out.
Before leaving, there’s one more star we want to see: the gorgeous Australian Errol Flynn, talking to two Mexican movie star friends, Lupe Velez and Dolores Del Rio, both making their own sort of splash in Hollywood. Flynn is currently shooting a favorite among his swashbuckling movies, Captain Blood—the one that really got his career going. Lupe made her U.S. debut opposite Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. in the 1927 release The Gaucho after wowing audiences in Mexico with a string of stage and screen productions.
In 1940s Hollywood, she would star in a series of Mexican Spitfire movies. Dolores Del Rio’s first films were silent, but she successfully made the transition to talkies with hits like the 1933 musical Flying Down to Rio with Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire. All three are animatedly talking and passing a joint among them. In his 1959 autobiography My Wicked, Wicked Ways, Flynn tells of being introduced by Del Rio to the great Mexican muralist Diego Rivera at the artist’s home in Mexico City. Flynn reports that Rivera offered him cannabis, saying something like, “If you smoke this, you will hear my paintings singing.” Apparently, Flynn did, and the paintings did.
We enjoyed our first VR time travel, but it’s time to get back to the present. Though the true stories of the poolside who’s-who and who smoked cannabis are often lost to history, we can only imagine how fun it really must have been to party in Old Hollywood in 1935, during its heyday.
With help from these sources: Vanity Fair.com, VeryImportantPotheads.com, TokinWoman.blogspot.com, MyLoveofOldHollywood.blogspot.com, canorml.org, msaltzman.com, seattlehashtg.com, lexico.com, imdb.com, IconicHomes.org.