W. C. Fields, Anthony Quinn, Errol Flynn, John Barrymore, Vincent Price, John Decker. The last-mentioned of that group – a German-born painter – is the one you’re least likely to recognise, but he’s not just the only non-actor, he is probably the most interesting of all. Together that sextet, along with a floating cast of other Hollywood identities, formed the Bundy Drive Boys, a pre-Rat Pack group of hellraisers named for the street where Decker’s house stood.
The front door of that house was emblazoned with a fanciful armorial bearing the motto “Useless. Insignificant. Poetic”. But despite the self-mockery, at a time when faux-baronial dominated Hollywood’s domestic architecture, Decker had bluer blood than most, born the son of a count in Berlin in 1895.
Leopold von der Decken, to use his original name, was abandoned as a young teenager in London by his English opera singer mother (leaving him with life-long mother issues). His salvation was painting, though he wasn’t so much schooled as apprenticed in art, and turned his brushes to forgeries of old masters alongside his legitimate, original fare.
Through a mix-up Decker was interned as a German spy on the Isle of Man for the second half of the First World War, and a few years later made his way to the US (with forged papers) where he encountered John Barrymore, already a major star of both Broadway and silent films. In defiance of Prohibition, the two encouraged each other and others in their growing circle of Hollywood chums to Olympian feats of drinking, womanising and general troublemaking. Meanwhile Decker was making a name for himself with his art, his famous friends both customers and not infrequently subjects of his work, while it seems he occasionally reverted to his counterfeiting ways.
In 1942 Decker was a pallbearer at Barrymore’s funeral, and on this day in 1947 he too succumbed to his relentless boozing. The (naturally) drunken wake at his Bundy Drive house represented the end of an era. Sunset Boulevard was just around the corner, literally and figuratively; Billy Wilder’s 1950 masterpiece Sunset Boulevard would remember Old Hollywood not as bawdy, raffish and uproarious, as Decker’s crew might have preferred, but as gothic, decadent and grotesque. And now Bundy Drive is far more notorious as the place where O.J. Simpson may – or of course may not – have slain his ex-wife and her companion.
But a trio of books have reignited interest in this largely forgotten figure and his thirsty friends. Stephen C. Jordan’s 2005 biography Bohemian Rogue celebrated Decker in his own right, while Feral House’s 2007 publication Hollywood’s Hellfire Club drew comparisons between the Bundy Drive Boys and the great 18th century libertarians. And finally Jordan returned to these past masters of high living in 2008 in the book Hollywood’s Original Rat Pack.