Libido Lane

Psychoanalysis was boffo business in Los Angeles in the early 1960s.

Posted Oct 26, 2015

For whatever reasons, actors have been famously attracted to therapy ever since there was such a thing, but probably not more so than a half-century or so ago in the United States.  Celebrities back east may have gravitated to psychoanalysis as a way to deal with their demons but Hollywood folks considered it a virtual necessity.  Psychoanalysis and Tinseltown were a perfect match, the method helping actors deal with the intense pressures that came with being a performer and public figure. 

In 1960, for example, Elaine Stritch left Manhattan for Hollywood to make a television pilot for My Sister Eileen, a big move but something for which she felt she prepared.  “I’m no nut, but I’m glad I went thru [sic] four years of analysis,” she explained, believing that time on the couch “helps you get ready for TV in Hollywood.”  Earl Holliman, a Hollywood television and movie workhorse, was hitting the couch five days a week despite being a tall, handsome, rich, and otherwise healthy bachelor in his early 30s.  “I’m unhappy and honestly trying to find peace,” Holliman said in 1962, everything he had apparently not providing it.  Like psychoanalysis in general, Hollywood’s dependency on the method seemed to be a distinctly American phenomenon.  “We don’t have the wholesale rush to head shrinkers that you do,” Peter Sellers told Hedda Hopper on his first visit to Hollywood that same year, believing that “the analyst’s couch isn’t the answer for us.”  Sellers thought it was Britain’s experience in two world wars that made psychoanalysis unnecessary for its actors (and citizens in general), the beating the country took putting career worries and personal issues in perspective.

Natalie Wood was going through quite a personality makeover in the mid-sixties, with psychoanalysis the reason for what an industry insider called “the whole Pygmalion bit.”  “Have you heard about Natalie Wood?,” the reliable but unnamed source whispered to Peter Bart of the New York Times at a Hollywood cocktail party, with rumors flying through the town that the film star was now collecting art and taking courses in English literature at UCLA.  Upon investigation, Bart found the rumors to be true, with Wood the new proud owner of a Bonnard and a Courbet as well as a reading list of works by Burns, Blake, Shaw, and Eliot.  Her recent plunge into the literary world and rather sudden interest in art grew out of her time on the couch, during which she realized she “lacked the ability to enjoy myself, to enjoy being alone.”  As a child actor, Wood was constantly surrounded by people, this depriving her of the chance to develop her true identity.  (Wood started making movies at age five and, by the time she was twenty-seven in 1966, had appeared in forty films.)  Now pulling in $1 million a year, Wood was making up for lost time, going on a cultural binge which, as she put it, “brought out my latent interests.”  Now that Wood had apparently found herself, would she continue with psychoanalysis, Bart had to ask?  “Oh, I don’t know,” she replied, adding the very true words, “it’s very hard to start and it’s very hard to stop.”

Given that Hollywood was what Joe Hyams called “the most psychiatrically oriented community in the nation,” it was not surprising that industry people wanted to make movies that they knew something about.  While John Huston was making Freud in Vienna in 1961, Warner Brothers was shooting The Chapman Report, a film obviously inspired by Alfred Kinsey’s research, with another psychiatrist-as-hero flick, The Couch, also in the works.  It could be said that art was simply imitating life.  A three-block stretch of Beverly Hills was so populated with psychiatrists it was known as “Libido Lane,” the west coast equivalent to the shrinkvilles of Central Park West and Greenwich Village.  There was one psychiatrist for every one hundred sixty-nine residents of Beverly Hills- more than eighty times the national average-, most of them specializing in what were referred to in the trade as “film star problems.”  Although just some of the one hundred eighty-two psychiatrists in Beverly Hills (with over a third of them on Libido Lane) were full-fledged psychoanalysts, Freud’s presence could not be missed, his ideas as popular in Tinseltown as the Brown Derby.

Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

In fact, psychiatry was so popular in Beverly Hills in the early 1960s that analysts there were not taking on any new patients except in cases of real emergencies (like an actor not getting a role he or she coveted).  Indeed, many of the celebrities making a trip to Libido Lane (a very long list including the likes of Jerry Lewis, Ava Gardner, and Jonathan Winters) had personality and identity issues, their public persona not aligned with their personal one.  “They are almost always people who never found themselves in adolescence,” said Herbert J. Kupper, a top analyst on Roxbury Drive in the heart of Libido Lane, speaking of his rich and famous clientele.  Kupper felt that many actors went into the profession to find themselves through different roles but hit the wall when part after part did not lead to an epiphany.  “The great actors are ones who learn to put up with the realization that between roles they are very ordinary, often dull people,” Kupper thought, meaning the scads of less than great actors were in for a rude surprise when they discovered they were not the dashing figure they were on the big screen.  Sudden fame and wealth was a perfect recipe to knock one for a loop, with nothing really to prepare oneself to become an overnight success.

While all suffered from “film star problems,” the particular reasons actors flocked to psychoanalysts of course varied.  At the suggestion of director Blake Edwards, Tony Curtis went to see Marcel Frym of the Hacker Psychiatric Clinic, a course of treatment that lasted three years.  Curtis was depressed, not sleeping at night, and fighting with his wife Janet Leigh, the diagnosis classic “sudden success syndrome.”  (The Bronx-born Bernard Schwartz had recently starred in Sweet Smell of Success, Some Like It Hot, and The Defiant Ones, the latter earning him an Academy Award nomination.)  Leigh, a successful actress in her own right (she had just finished Psycho), seemed to be bear the brunt of Curtis’s issues, believing that “marriage is particularly difficult for the wives of stars.”  Rhoda Borgnine, wife of Ernest (who had won an Academy Award in 1955 for his role in Marty), had a similar story to tell (“living with a star is like walking on eggs,” she confessed), making it understandable how analysts’ waiting rooms were filled with damsels in distress.  “The film star receives inordinate adulation at the studio all day and is subjected to flattery from beautiful and available younger women,” explained an anonymous analyst, this putting wives in a tough spot.  Male stars and, no doubt, some leading ladies would also frequently have romantic dalliances to prove to themselves they were the sexpots they were on screen, this too not a good way to keep a marriage together.

Like Curtis, Ben Gazzara had a three-year stint on the couch, his problem an inability to cope with the self-absorption that acting required.  “It disgusted me and still does sometimes,” he said, “but thanks to analysis I’ve adjusted now and have perspective about myself and my craft.”  Nanette Fabray had a full-on breakdown in the 1950s but, through psychoanalysis, recovered, something of which she was deeply appreciative.  “Thanks to psychoanalysis and my own efforts I have made the storm-tossed trip back to mental health,” she publicly announced, hoping others would do the same if in similar straights.  Gene Tierney also admitted to having hit rock bottom in the fifties, first entering a sanitarium in Hartford, Connecticut and then going twice to the Menninger Clinic before returning to acting (and marrying a Texas oilman).  Sid Caesar was equally open about his time on the couch, wisely seeing psychoanalysis as something which could not make one’s problems disappear but could enable one to maneuver around them.  Rod Steiger had a similar experience, thinking psychoanalysis “enable[d] me to substitute one set of problems for another but the second set was easier to cope with,” a sentiment many non-famous people shared after their own extensive sessions of talk therapy.

With all this analysis going on in Beverly Hills, a number of local couch manufacturing companies were doing quite the business, as were interior decorators who specialized in psychiatrists’ offices.  Waiting rooms were almost inevitably painted pastel green, wall-to-wall carpeted, and lit softly for a soothing effect.  Prints of Impressionistic paintings and classic music completed the scene, the room as art directed as a Hollywood production.  Shrinks’ offices often included a tan vinyl couch for the patient and a Danish contoured rocking chair for the analyst, each of these decidedly more modern than the furniture typically found in the inner sanctum of a New York psychoanalyst.  And while the psychoanalysis scene was beginning to lose some of its luster in the Big Apple, being in therapy still commanded a considerable amount of status among the Hollywood crowd.  “On the first visit of a star I have to find out why he or she is visiting me,” noted Kupper, uncertain if it was because “psychiatry is fashionable or because he really needs help.” 

Even more fashionable than Libido Lane (where sessions went for $25 to $35 an hour) was going to a private class led by Laura Huxley.  Huxley, wife of psychoanalysis devotee Aldous, offered physical and mental therapy for friends and friends of friends, the self-described “lay analyst” helping actors more effectively use their creative talent.  Other industry people took more of an academic route by attending extension classes in psychology and psychiatry at UCLA, this also seen as a way to better understand not just oneself but the human condition.  Whatever the setting, psychoanalysis was boffo business in Los Angeles in the early sixties, an opportunity to reconcile reality with illusion.