March 4, 2018

Caravan Books closed


Leonard Bernstein in the now-empty Caravan Book Store. A follow-up to last month's picture.

February 25, 2018

Caravan Book Store closing


Gary photographs owner Leonard Bernstein before the final closure of downtown's Caravan Book Store.

August 17, 2017

Pop Sixties


Take My Picture Gary Leonard runs each week at LA Observed. Click on the image to see it bigger.

June 18, 2017

His British invasion - and ours

myBI.jpgAmong Boomers, there are basically two kinds of '60s American pop fans: those who were conquered by the British Invasion, and those who weren't. You either tumbled completely for the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and the other UK bands who quickly followed in their wake, or you didn't. For American musicians, the choice was stark: adapt or die. The East Coast girl groups, pompadoured Italian-American crooners, folk balladeers, and surf and hot rod groups who had been dominating the charts after the initial flush of 1950s rock 'n' roll had been all but swept out to sea by the end of 1964 and were, as Billboard famously put it, "bubbling under."

The great irony, of course, is that most of the Brits initially just covered American artists and repackaged American songs, often with no particular distinction, as they'd been doing since the mid-1950s. British pop entrepreneurs like the flamboyant Larry Parnes had groomed their Elvis wannabes into pretty-boy simulations of Elvis, Carl Perkins, Eddie Cochran, christening the leather-clad working-class lads in their stables with sexually-charged stage names like Vince Eager (Roy Taylor), Marty Wilde (Reg Potterton), and Billy Fury (Ron Wycherly). Even the more successful and talented imitators like Cliff Richard (Harry Webb) and Adam Faith (Terence Nelhams-Wright) made little commercial impact in the US.

Musically, American hegemony at home seemed assured. Culturally and politically, not so much. Folk and protest songs fueled the civil rights and peace movements. The Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, racial tensions, and the 1963 assassinations of political leaders Medgar Evers and President John F. Kennedy, growing instability in Southeast Asia, and the rise of the "Radical Right" in the John Birch Society and the candidacy of Barry Goldwater--all were telling complacent but increasingly freaked-out Americans, as Bob Dylan later summed it up, "something is happening here, but you don't know what it is, do you, Mister Jones?"

By early 1964, rattled American teenagers and their anxious parents were desperate for distraction. And on February 9, pop music changed overnight when the Beatles made their major American TV debut on The Ed Sullivan show. Four months later, the Rolling Stones followed suit with their American TV debut on the West Coast on Hollywood Palace, where host Dean Martin quipped, "I've been rolled while I was stoned, myself. I don't know what they're singin' about, but here they are..." as the Stones broke into a manic cover of Buddy Holly's "Not Fade Away."

"The British are coming!!" trumpeted the teen mags, and soon the pop charts were filled with hits by the Dave Clark Five, Herman's Hermits, the Kinks, the Hollies, Manfred Mann, the Animals, the Zombies, and not long after, the Who, the Yardbirds, and countless others. Most relied at first mainly on covers of American rock 'n' roll, R&B, Motown, and East Coast doo-wop and girl group sounds, but their gritty apprenticeships in working-men's clubs, railway hotels, pubs, and European strip clubs and red-light districts brought a fresh, ferocious, and raw energy to that familiar material. And soon, the songwriting teams of Lennon-McCartney, Jagger-Richards, and musicians like the Kinks' Ray Davies and the Who's Pete Townsend were rewriting the musical playbook with their own original hits.

Most of the groups lacked the staying power of the Beatles, Stones, and the Who, and within a couple of years--Buddy Holly notwithstanding--they did, indeed, fade away, making way for changing musical fashions like Dylan-inspired folk-rock, Stones-inspired garage-rock, the country rock of the Byrds and Buffalo Springfield, Summer-of-Love psychedelia, bubble-gum pop for the pre-teen set, jazz-blues fusion like Chicago and Blood, Sweat & Tears for the aesthetes, hard rock and heavy metal like Steppenwolf and Iron Butterfly for the head-bangers, and rootsy blues-rockers like Canned Heat and Creedence Clearwater Revival. But the river running through it all was American black music on labels like Motown, Stax, and Atlantic Records, with their infinitely talented roster of soul singers, blues shouters, and R&B combos.

myBI-crop.jpgI love it all, but for me, there'll always be an England. So I was particularly delighted when my old Rhino Records boss Harold Bronson recently published "My British Invasion," his personal paean to an era some of us never stopped loving. Bronson's book is part coming-of-age memoir--feel free to skim those bits--part Yank in the UK travelogue (which really resonated with me, since my first UK visit and pop pilgrimage in the mid-'70s followed his by only a couple of years, and hit many of the same places)--and part pop chronicle, spanning the 1964-66 heyday of the first-wave British Invasion bands to the early-'70s glam-rock era of David Bowie, T. Rex, Mott the Hoople, and lesser lights like the Sweet, Mud, and Slade. I particularly liked the section on the crucial role played by the offshore shipboard "pirate" radio stations, who seized the opportunity spawned by British Isles geography and the BBC's ban on playing recorded pop music (only lifted in 1967 with the introduction of BBC Radio One). While that restrictive BBC policy led to many great live-in-studio performances by all the top pop bands of the day, it denied exposure to the thousands of commercial pop recordings that UK fans craved, creating a lucrative market niche for pirates ike Radio Caroline and Radio London.

For neophytes, Bronson's book offers the added bonus of 10 pages of suggested playlists, many of the songs having already appeared in the various superb curated and annotated compilations lovingly produced over the years by Bronson and partner Richard Foos' Rhino Records label.

Bronson here is part rock fan and part rock journalist, a sub-genre with considerably more leeway than traditional journalism, and fewer constraints (putting it charitably) about promotional junkets, swag, and aggressive publicists massaging, generating and even spiking stories. But for all that, Bronson's critical judgment and distance, even from artists he admires, offer an intimate and insightful snapshot capturing a unique moment in American pop that for some us proved, sadly, all too fleeting.

January 18, 2017

The Lost Journalism of Ring Lardner: An Interview with Ron Rapoport

Ring Lardner Cover.jpgFans of Ring Lardner's writings are feeling "all swelled up," to quote Jack Keefe, the Busher himself, one of Lardner's greatest creations.

Just four years ago the Library of America published Ring Lardner: Stories & Other Writings, a 961-page anthology that includes the full texts of You Know Me Al and The Big Town, as well as "Alibi Ike" and "Haircut."

Now comes The Lost Journalism of Ring Lardner (University of Nebraska Press), edited by Los Angeles-based author-columnist Ron Rapoport, which collects a wide-ranging selection of columns, poems, parodies and dispatches from Lardner's prolific newspaper career. It's the first time that his daily journalism has been collected in book form, and it serves as a most welcome addition to the many previous collections (like the Library of America's) that have focused almost exclusively on his baseball tales and short stories.

As Rapoport points out in the introduction, Lardner was a tireless observer who covered, well, anything and everything: presidential politics, World War I, boxing, college football, the America's Cup, family life, and journalism itself. His journalism career began at the South Bend Times before he moved on to the Chicago Inter-Ocean, the Chicago Examiner, the Chicago Tribune, The Sporting News, the Boston American, back to the Trib, and eventually to the Bell Syndicate.

Lardner died in 1933 at age 48. All four of his sons were writers. Two of them (David and James) died quite young; screenwriter Ring Lardner, Jr. (Woman of the Year, M*A*S*H) and sportswriter John Lardner (It Beats Working, White Hopes and Other Tigers) were major literary figures. (The University of Nebraska Press also published The John Lardner Reader, edited by John Schulian, in 2010.)

LA Observed emailed questions about Lost Journalism, Lardner's use of the vernacular, and Lardner himself to Rapoport. (Full disclosure: my last book was published by the Univ. of Nebraska Press.)

LA Observed: Esquire's Alex Belth called this "a welcome doorstop of a book," weighing in at 560 pages (even without an index!). Did you have to persuade the University of Nebraska Press to make room for all your selections?

Ron Rapoport: Well, when the doorstop reached my editor's doorstep, he was a bit surprised and asked if I'd consider cutting it. But when I explained why I thought the book needed to be of this length, he came around.

I had two reasons for wanting a book of this size. The first was Lardner wrote for so many publications and on so many topics, and I wanted to give a good sampling of his work. He started out covering baseball, of course, but even as a young reporter you could see him beginning to stretch himself with poems, parodies, and other forms you just didn't see on the sports page. He also wrote a great deal of college football, which is fun to read. Then, when he moved to Long Island and began writing the most popular newspaper column in the country for the Bell Syndicate--it appeared in 150 newspapers and had eight million readers--he wrote about everything under the sun--politics, Prohibition, World War I, his family, life on Long Island, poems, parodies, his travels, the craft of journalism and just about anything else that came into his mind. Again, I thought it was important to have a generous representation of all of his work and I'm grateful to the publisher for going along with it.

My second reason for wanting the book to be so big is that I thought this might be the last chance to get Lardner's journalism out of the archives where it has been buried for so long. Some of it has gone unread for 100 years now and who knows when we'll get another chance to see it? So I decided to present as good a look at it as I could.

LAO: How long did it take you to research his newspaper work and how long did it take for you to make your selections for the book?

RR: It took me two years to find the material and another year to choose what to use. Lardner was incredibly prolific--I'd say the book contains less than five percent of his journalism--so there was a lot to look at.

LAO: Where did you find most of his work: was it via microfilm in certain libraries and archives?

RR: Luckily, his work for the Tribune was available on line and I caught a real break when Dan O'Brien, a writer and archivist in Indiana, sent me a disc containing all of the very important work Lardner did for The Sporting News and many of the Bell Syndicate columns. I found most of the rest of his Bell columns in, of all places, a genealogy web site. It led me straight to columns that ran in papers like the Omaha World, the Idaho Statesman, the Indianapolis Star, the Joplin Globe and others. I found microfilm of his work for the Chicago Inter-Ocean and the Chicago Examiner in the Harold Washington Library in Chicago and microfilm of his work for the Boston American in the Boston Public Library. The St. Joseph County Public Library in South Bend, Indiana, sent me some of Lardner's work for his first employer, the South Bend Times, and I was able to find his magazine work at the New York Public Library, the Los Angeles Public Library and the Santa Monica Public Library, which has an excellent magazine collection.

LAO: Why haven't there been collections of Lardner's journalism in the past?

RR: Beats me. I think it might have to do with the fact that Lardner is remembered today for his short stories, which were considered groundbreaking in their day for their use of the vernacular and remain popular today. Many journalists "graduate" to fiction and leave their newspaper days behind. The fact that Lardner didn't, that he kept writing journalism even as his fiction entered the American literary canon, confuses people, I think. Occasionally, you'll see a few examples of his journalism in collections of his fiction, but always as an afterthought.

LAO: How did he manage to write so many newspaper columns? What do you think drove him to be so prolific?

RR: I puzzled over this for a long time. Lardner was a busy guy. He had his short stories, of course, but he was also an avid golfer and bridge player, a regular at the theater--he wrote plays and musicals on the side--and a frequent traveler. He had a wide circle of friends, a wife he loved, four rambunctious young sons and a home in Great Neck Long Island, where the party scene was so relentless that his neighbor, F. Scott Fitzgerald, moved to France where he could get some work done. Lardner was also a self-confessed "two-bottle man," Prohibition be damned.

But then it came to me. Lardner stayed with journalism all his life for no better reason than he loved it. He loved newspapers, he loved the men and women who worked for them--he was always putting his friends in his columns--and he saw no reason to give it up. As long as people wanted to read what he wrote, he was perfectly happy to keep on writing it. This drove some of his detractors mad--both Fitzgerald and the great critic Edmond Wilson chastised him for not writing a novel--but Lardner didn't care. He wrote what he liked--short stories, theater pieces, and journalism.

LAO: He had a delightful habit of misspelling words and breaking punctuation and grammar rules. What was his motive for doing this? Did you find it hard to adapt to his stylings?

RR: From Lardner's earliest working days hanging around ballplayers, he was fascinated by the way they talked and was determined to capture it in print. You can trace it directly from his early columns for the Chicago Tribune into his fiction and back again. No less an authority on American language than H.L. Mencken said nobody else wrote "the speech of the streets as adeptly and amusingly as he wrote it." And, no, I don't think it's hard to adapt to Lardner's style. You might have to slow down a little bit to pick up on the nuance of his locutions, but that's one of the things that makes him so much fun, I think.

LAO: Why was Lardner so drawn to baseball: was the attraction the ballplayers or the scene?

RR: Lardner played the game as a boy and was lucky to start covering it in Chicago when the Cubs were not only the best team in baseball but also had some of its greatest characters. Frank Schulte, Jim Schekard, Mordecai Brown, Ping Bodie, Peaches Graham, Johnny Kling, Rollie Zeider--you can't make these names up--were all great talkers, practical jokers, poker players and all-around good companions. One of the wonderful things about their relationship with Lardner is that when he started writing about them they were in on the joke. They knew he was making fun of them and they loved it and teased him back. That wouldn't go over so well between sportswriters and athletes today, of course.

LAO: What most surprised you about Lardner and his writing after reading through so much of his newspaper work?

Ring-Lardner-320.jpgRR: I'd say it was his sheer tenacity. Between 1913 and 1919, his "In the Wake of the News" column appeared almost every single day in the Chicago Tribune. His editors felt his name sold papers so they begged him for at least a short poem on what would have been his day off. At the same time, he was also writing some of his most enduring fiction--You Know Me Al, Alibi Ike, Champion and more. It makes me tired just to think about it.

LAO: How would Lardner the journalist have fared if he were working in contemporary times?

RR: He'd have been fine. He'd have had to adapt, of course--I'm imagining his tweets--but his sardonic approach, his nose for frauds, phonies and snobs and his work ethic would have made him today what he was almost 100 years ago--one of the very best who ever sat in a press box or met a deadline.

December 21, 2016

'History of the Central Library'


Take My Picture Gary Leonard runs weekly at LA Observed. Click on the image to see it bigger.

December 18, 2016

Friends with books: Two men of Mars


I'm one of those people who actually enjoy it when people share their baby pictures. But I like it even better when they share their new publications, and recently, two longtime friends published a pair of books about a couple of lifelong heroes of mine.

Ray Bradbury was a beloved local literary fixture for decades until his death in 2012, often appearing at civic events, library programs, and conjuring fanciful urban landscapes and visionary transit systems. Who among us--especially in his adopted city of Los Angeles--has not at some point in our lives fallen completely under his spell? I was only 10 or 11 when my dad bought me a Ballantine paperback, Tomorrow Midnight, a collection of eight of Ray's science fiction tales originally adapted for the 1950's EC Comics line. It was the first reissue of EC material since a Senate investigation effectively shut them down in 1954, and my first exposure to their controversial but amazing work--but more importantly, it was my initiation into the mysterious realms of Ray Bradbury.

In the years to follow, I tracked down Ballantine's earlier companion paperback The Autumn People, a matching set of eight of Bradbury's early EC horror and crime story adaptations; "The October Country," a Ballantine reissue of material from Dark Carnival, his 1947 debut story collection from Weird Tales and other pulp magazines; his novels "Fahrenheit 451" and "Something Wicked This Way Comes;" his linked and themed story collections, "The Martian Chronicles" and "Dandelion Wine;" some of Bradbury's numerous other anthologies, "The Golden Apples of the Sun," "The Illustrated Man," "R Is For Rocket," "S Is For Space," "I Sing the Body Electric..."

I scooped up everything I could find, but I soon discovered Bradbury had been such a prolific author, essayist and poet over the years--with material scattered so widely in both mainstream and impossibly obscure publications--that collecting his work was far beyond my ability.

That didn't stop some people from trying, however. So I was pleasantly surprised to get a call last spring from my old friend Mary Williams--who had offered me so much guidance and help back when I was in grad school--telling me about her new book, My Ray Bradbury Collection.

It's a veritable cornucopia of Bradburiana, reproducing cover art from hardbacks, paperbacks and playbills, as well as scripts, correspondence, magazine articles, and small-press monographs, showcasing the fantastic graphics and illustrations by Bradbury's friend Joe Mugnaini and many others who complemented his work so well. Browsing through its pages reminded me how much Bradbury's best work still resonates with me 50 years after I first chanced upon it. Truly a labor of love for Mary, and for his fans, her book is one item that belongs in every Ray Bradbury collection.

* * *

Five years earlier and 16 miles away from Bradbury's 1920 birthplace of Waukegan, Illinois, George Orson Welles was born in Kenosha, Wisconsin, situated a little further north along the same western shoreline of Lake Michigan.

Welles was truly a prodigy, and like Bradbury, largely self-taught and a voracious reader. He first made his mark on the stage as an actor and director in the Federal Theatre Project, one of FDR's New Deal programs aimed at supporting the arts community through the Depression, and then founded his own troupe, The Mercury Theatre. With his sonorous voice, he soon entered and conquered the fledgling medium of radio drama, inaugurating The Mercury Theatre on the Air--and it's not hard to imagine the impact his notorious 1938 broadcast of H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds might have had on an 18-year-old science-fiction fan and aspiring writer named Ray Bradbury.

Moreover, both men shared several literary influences: In the introduction for his 1966 short-story anthology S Is For Space, Bradbury wrote: "Jules Verne was my father. H.G. Wells was my wise uncle. Edgar Allan Poe was the batwinged cousin we kept high in the back attic room...There you have my ancestry."

And one shared, too, by Welles. Only a week before his War of the Worlds broadcast, his Mercury Theatre on the Air had aired his adaptation of Verne's Around the World in 80 Days. Welles would later adapt the work with Cole Porter into a Broadway musical extravaganza, Around the World, and recycle the name and concept yet again for his mid-'50s travelogue series on British television. Welles' fascination with Poe included a radio adaptation of The Tell-Tale Heart, a draft screenplay melding Poe's "The Masque of the Red Death" and "A Cask of Amontillado," and much later, a dramatic reading of "A Dream Within A Dream" set to the music of The Alan Parsons Project.

Bradbury published his first professional short story in late 1941. Only a few months before, Welles had made his celebrated directorial debut with "Citizen Kane," the subject of my friend Harlan Lebo's new book, Citizen Kane: A Filmmaker's Journey. In this volume, Harlan expands upon his earlier Kane book with a wealth of new information about the production, detailing the tortuous studio politics, artistic disagreements, technical challenges, the campaign by William Randolph Hearst to suppress the film, and its slow climb back from a nearly forgotten money-loser to popular acceptance and critical acclaim as one of the greatest films of all time. As many times as I've seen it, Kane never fails to thrill and move me, and by pulling back the curtain for a glimpse into the mysterious workings of the studio machinery that created it, Harlan's book has only deepened my appreciation and admiration for Welles' accomplishment.

* * *

At least one genealogy site claims that Welles and Bradbury are even distantly related (20th cousins once removed), but whether true or not, they were certainly kindred spirits in many ways. Both shared a fascination with magic and magicians, a love for classic American literature--particularly Herman Melville's "Moby Dick," which inspired Orson's play Moby Dick-Rehearsed and Ray's play, Leviathan '99--and a special fondness for darkly macabre storylines. Though Bradbury was a great admirer of Welles and considered him a friend, they worked together professionally only a few times. Bradbury adapted Moby Dick for director John Huston's film, in which Welles played Father Mapple, and he wrote Welles' uncredited narration for director Nicholas Ray's Easter perennial, "King of Kings."

Welles is best remembered for his films, Bradbury for his published stories. But some of their best work was actually done for radio, where both men could give free rein to the power of imagination, unencumbered by technical or financial constraints. At various points in their respective careers, they crossed paths with radio dramatist Norman Corwin, who cast Welles in some of his best-known productions in the early 1940s, and later in the decade encouraged a young Ray Bradbury to go see a New York publisher with the sheaf of pulp science fiction stories that would eventually constitute "The Martian Chronicles," and cement Bradbury's literary reputation.

In 1983, near the end of his life, Welles once again found himself working with Bradbury, helping to promote the long-awaited film version of Bradbury's 1962 novel "Something Wicked This Way Comes." For a special movie tie-in, Bradbury skillfully wove together swatches of the film's dialogue and music with a fresh written narration voiced by Welles into a spooky and evocative 85-minute radio drama aired only once on a handful of stations. You can listen to it here. Later that year, a New Year's Eve TV special locally produced in Los Angeles marked their final collaboration, Welles reprising dramatic readings from Something Wicked and Bradbury offering viewers a hopeful seasonal message refuting the idea that George Orwell's ominous world of 1984 was just around the corner.

That program, sadly, is thought to have been lost. Most of their other work, fortunately, survives, where it continues to engage, inspire, and entertain us.

November 16, 2016

It is happening here

The angry workers...the anxious middle class...the jittery rich...the discontented military--Senator "Buzz" Windrip brought them all together with his combination of hot rhetoric, warm folksiness, and cold calculation.

The badly split Left and the wavering liberals were helpless to stop his drive for the Presidency. And once in the White House he swiftly set in motion his program to save the country from itself.

It really didn't take much to kill democracy in America...

That's the jacket copy from my 1970 paperback edition of "It Can't Happen Here," the 1936 Sinclair Lewis novel that imagines the coming of fascism to America. I bought the book in 1992, the last time a billionaire demagogue scared the hell out of me with an aggressive outsider campaign for the presidency. Running on his own Reform Party ticket, H. Ross Perot garnered the highest third-party vote tally in U.S. history--more than 19 million, nearly 19% of all ballots cast--though he didn't win a single vote in the Electoral College.

itcanthappenhere-text.jpgSo with the immediate threat safely past, I had shelved the book without finishing it. But this summer, as Donald Trump racked up a string of caucus and primary victories amid millions of dollars in free and largely uncritical media coverage, I felt the old panic rising again. So in need of some reading for an upcoming European vacation, I dug out my Sinclair Lewis and packed it along.

Touring Budapest, Vienna, and Prague, we visited one site after another marking Nazi occupation and post-war Soviet domination. In Budapest, for instance, I toured the Terror House, an elegant-looking building on a beautiful tree-lined boulevard that belied a dark history. It formerly served as the headquarters of the Hungarian Arrow Cross Party, Nazi collaborators who during their brief six-month rule murdered 15,000 people and enthusiastically deported 80,000 more to Austrian concentration camps. After the war, the Soviets turned the building into their own interrogation, torture, and execution center, where gallows still stand in the basement.

And so it went. After each day of sightseeing, back in our hotel room with BBC election coverage droning in the background, I returned again and again to Lewis's book. To ensure authenticity, he had meticulously researched it with the help of his wife Dorothy Thompson, a prominent foreign correspondent who had critically covered first-hand Hitler's rise to power before the Nazis kicked her out of Germany in 1934. Despite its clunky style and broadly drawn characters, it was profoundly unsettling. His insights into the mechanisms by which fascism could be incrementally implemented in a formerly free and democratic nation, and its once-solid citizens reduced to ruthless functionaries in a vast totalitarian apparatus, seemed somehow unnervingly relevant.

* * *

When my 1970 edition was published, the year opened with a series of Weather Underground bombings, including the infamous Greenwich Village townhouse explosion that killed three of its members when their basement bomb-making factory blew up. In May, four unarmed students were shot dead by the National Guard on the campus of Kent State University in Ohio during a student demonstration, and two weeks later, two students were shot dead by police on the campus of Jackson State University in Mississippi.

itcanthappenhere-wire.jpgPresident Nixon had secretly and illegally expanded the Vietnam War beyond Vietnam into neighboring Laos and Cambodia, and Vice President Spiro Agnew routinely denounced the administration's critics as disloyal. We would only learn the following year about the FBI's secret COINTELPRO operation, in existence since 1956, aimed at spying on and disrupting a wide range of dissent and political protest movements, including a campaign to humiliate and blackmail the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Overt racism, police brutality, illegal government surveillance, and wholesale violations of First Amendment rights to speak and assemble were quite real and raised genuine concerns and fears. And in those self-dramatizing times, it was not uncommon to sound alarms about how "Amerika" was becoming a repressive police state. But as we later learned of the criminal conduct of the Nixon administration and in the Church Committee investigations and revelations of widespread foreign and domestic abuses by the CIA, the FBI, and the National Security Agency, the claims by dissenters of illegal spying, harassment, and persecution were largely confirmed. Subsequent reforms curtailed but did not eliminate the abuses, and vigilance in policing such violations has ebbed and flowed depending on the administrations in power.

In the spirit of that time, the book's introduction, written in June 1970, concludes with this: "It can happen here. Santayana, no doubt inspired by Dante's inferno, explained how such insanities transpire: the price you pay for failing to remember your errors is the agony and doom of repeating them over and over please try to remember as your read It Can't Happen Here that it almost did, and not so long ago. It can happen here again. In fact, it may already have begun."

As shocking as it still seems to me now, we are facing the imminence of President Donald Trump, the candidate who vowed to crack down on our free press, encouraged violence against protesters at his rallies, emboldened racists and bigots and personally recirculated some of their propaganda, defended the use of torture, promised if elected to deport millions of residents and bar entry on religious grounds to thousands more, and vowed to prosecute and jail his political opponent.

It no longer seems such a stretch to believe that it is happening here.

November 4, 2016

When Ring Lardner covered the Cubs

Ramiro-Gomez-watches-cubs.jpgCubs fan Ramiro Gomez, an artist in Los Angeles, watches Game 7 of the World Series at Philippe the Original. Photo by Iris Schneider.

A few minutes after the 1908 Chicago Cubs were relieved of the burden of carrying the franchise on their backs for 108 years, Ring Lardner's grandson, James Lardner, checked in to ask if Ring had covered the team's last World Series champions. Alas, I had to tell him no, that Ring didn't pick up the Cubs until the following year when they won 104 games but finished six games behind the Pittsburgh Pirates and their long slide into oblivion had begun.

The 1909 Cubs were almost identical to the 1908 team, however, and Ring reveled in their company. These were the Cubs of Tinker to Evers to Chance and they had played in the last three World Series, won the last two and were the reigning lords of the game. But beyond that, the team contained some fabulous characters who soon came to enjoy Ring's dry wit as much as he enjoyed them. Players like Frank Schulte, Jim Schekard, Heine Zimmerman, Mordecai (Three Finger) Brown and others were story-tellers, practical jokers, poker players, drinkers, and all-around lovers of fun.

ring-lardner-cover.jpgThe players and reporters mixed freely on their long train rides and Ring began using them in his articles, which were supposed to be coverage of baseball games, in a manner never attempted before and never dared since. He put poetry in the players' mouths, invented feuds between them--and between them and himself--had them telling tall tales to gullible rookies and more. His crowning achievement may have been a $100 bet that Zimmerman, a noted baiter of umpires, could not go two weeks without being thrown out of a game. The Cubs and major league baseball went along with the gag and after much buildup Zimmerman was presented with his winnings at home plate.

Ring's flights of whimsy would often overwhelm any account of the games themselves and sometimes obliterate them altogether. Readers could count themselves lucky if they got the score. But the players didn't object to Lardner making them figures of fun. They enjoyed his satirical parodies of popular songs, which he sang while accompanying himself on the piano, and regarded him as one of the boys. It may have been for the best, however, that the St. Louis Browns had left the Cubs' spring-training site in West Baden, Ind., before Lardner wrote of their best pitcher: "Rube Waddell left in his wake various broken hearts and bottles."

Ring would soon take his writing about baseball to a loftier realm. In 1914, his first "busher" stories were published in the Saturday Evening Post and became a public sensation. They were collected under the title, "You Know Me Al," which remains a seminal text in the canon of baseball literary fiction. Ring poured everything he had learned covering baseball into this volume and even when his journalism and fiction made him one of the 10 or 12 best-known figures in America, he continued covering the World Series for many years--none of them, to his sorrow, involving the Cubs.

The story of the 2016 Cubs is sure to be told in Chicago for years to come, but unless there is another Ring Lardner lurking in their press corps, they are not likely to have the fictional shelf life of the team that won the World Series 108 years ago.

Ron Rapoport is a writer in Los Angeles and the editor of The Lost Journalism of Ring Lardner, which will be published by the University of Nebraska Press in January.

October 4, 2016

Gordon Davidson excerpt: 'Opening Night at the Taper'

Gordon_Davidson_Directing_C.jpgGordon Davidson in rehearsal for "The Trial of the Catonsville Nine." Photo: CTG.

Editor's note: Gordon Davidson, the founding artistic director of Center Theatre Group and a major force behind the Music Center in Los Angeles for 38 years, died on Sunday during a holiday meal with family and friends. He was 83. There are obituaries in the LA Times and the New York Times, and a tribute on the CTG website. Los Angeles author Ron Rapoport worked with Davidson on an autobiography. Here is one chapter from that unpublished work, about the big night in 1967 when the Mark Taper Forum debuted.

Rapoport tells LA Observed: "The fact that Gordon Davidson died the same day Vin Scully retired proves that fate has a sense of humor. I have long believed that Gordon and Vin were really the same guy--New Yorkers who came to Los Angeles to show us how things were supposed to be. In Gordon's case, it was world-class productions that took the region out of regional theater and turned it into a national treasure. In Vin's, it was word poems that conducted us into baseball's promised land.

"Twenty years ago, I spent many hours working with Davidson on a memoir that, alas, we never finished. Here is his rollicking tale of the grand opening of the Mark Taper Forum. I miss him already. Vin, too."

By Gordon Davidson with Ron Rapoport

April 9, 1967, was Opening Night at the Mark Taper Forum. It was a black-tie celebration not only of the completion of the Los Angeles Music Center but also of the city's cultural coming of age. The Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, which is the home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, had opened three years earlier at the south end of the Music Center plaza and the 2,100-seat Ahmanson Theatre was about to be inaugurated with "Man Of La Mancha" at the north end. But now it was the turn of our 750-seat theater in a striking circular building between the two larger structures on the Music Center plaza.

The guest list included Governor Ronald Reagan along with some of the wealthy Californians who made up his kitchen cabinet, Mayor Sam Yorty, dozens of city and state politicians, and hundreds of people from Los Angeles' business, social, political and movie elite. After a buffet and cocktail party attended by 300 people, we moved into the theater itself.

Gregory Peck, who had been a big supporter, gave a brief welcome as did several others, including Reagan, who called the Forum "a beautiful temple of our art and profession." As the ceremonies progressed, however, I had to wonder what this distinguished audience might be thinking about the body hanging from a noose on our curtainless stage. Everyone who had read the subscription brochures and news accounts knew the Taper was committed to presenting a different kind of drama--bold, experimental, challenging works--but I'm not sure anyone was prepared for "The Devils."

The speakers had barely sat down when the play began with a brief crowd scene and then Frank Langella walked out onto the stage as Father Grandier, wearing the full purple robes of a vicar of the Catholic church. He said a few lines and then the audience became aware of someone standing in a hole on the stage below him. It was Ed Flanders playing a wonderful character called the Sewer Man.

Ed came up out of his hole, threw a bucket of slop without watching where it was going and some of it hit Langella's robes. He tried to apologize and, when the vicar said it didn't matter, the Sewer Man, in some of the first words spoken on the Taper stage, said, "It's wrong, though. Shit on the holy purple."

For a lot of people, it was all downhill from there. Before the end of the evening, the Reagans were up the aisle never to return and many others were out of the theater with him. By the end of the play, there were a lot of people who wouldn't have minded seeing ME hanging from that noose on the stage.

All this heavy drama turned into farce about an hour later when Judi and I went home. I had been downtown working all day and she had come to the theater late in the afternoon so I drove our Volvo while she took the second-hand Dodge station wagon we had just bought.

With two infants at home, Judi hadn't been to the Music Center often and she wasn't quite sure how to get to the Santa Monica Freeway. I told her to follow me and drove out onto the Harbor Freeway. There was quite a bit of fog and a light rain, and as I turned into the long lane connecting the two freeways I couldn't see that an accident had stopped traffic up ahead. The next thing I knew I had rear-ended the car in front of me. I glanced up into the rear-view mirror and suddenly there was Judi about to run into me. All I could do was sit there helplessly as she rammed the rear end of the Volvo, sending me once again into the car ahead of me. Luckily, nobody was hurt and when the police arrived they thought it was hilarious.

"You mean YOU'RE married to HIM?!" one of them told Judi as we sat there in our evening clothes. "Hey, guys, come here. Look at this."

Soon, we were surrounded by policemen who couldn't stop laughing while I sat there thinking it was a classic California situation. Where else would you have a husband and wife driving from the same place TO the same place in different cars?

When we got home, I told Judi it reminded me of an old Library of Congress recording I once heard on which Jelly Roll Morton described a New Orleans funeral where everyone marches out to the cemetery to the solemn beat of a band, the body is buried, the musicians strike up a joyous song and they all dance home.

"And that," Jelly Roll said, "was the end of a perfect death."

I never made a conscious choice to be controversial in those days and in fact I had thought it might be appropriate to open the Taper with Shakespeare. But when I started to think about a specific play and what I could bring to it, I decided against it.

Despite the classical plays my early jobs had exposed me to, I had to admit I didn't feel totally equipped for them because I had come into the field somewhat late after studying electrical engineering at Cornell. I didn't feel schooled in the classics or that my training was rigorous enough from an interpretive point of view to handle the acting demands, especially when it came to speaking verse. What did intrigue me, though, was the fact that many new plays, those with some social or political content, seemed to be classical in form and structure and that they used the stage as a larger-than-life canvas.

What I did instinctively was try to combine those classical elements with my impulse to tell contemporary stories. "The Deputy" and "Candide," which I had done at while I was working at UCLA, and certainly "The Devils" are contemporary versions of classical themes and stories. They are concerned with man and the world he lives in, and man and his God. There was something about that particular moment in time, the opening of a new theater, that made me want to do a play that had all breadth and scope of a classical play but was contemporary in the writing, such as "A Man for All Seasons."

If I were going to have trouble with a play, I thought it would be "The Deputy" at UCLA. Its criticism of Pope Pius XII for not speaking out about the extermination of the Jews had raised a storm of protest when it was produced on Broadway. But we were on a college campus where academic freedom was taken seriously and where a remarkable man, Dr. Franklin Murphy, was the chancellor. It was a measure of Franklin's power, and the respect in which he was held, that he was able very quietly to forestall any controversy by letting it be known that we were doing the play and there would be nothing said about it. And there wasn't.

"You know, Gordon," he said to me later when I asked him about what he had done, "this is a university and if you allow it to happen once, where would it end?"

But then, two years later, I picked "The Devils" to open the Taper and the shit hit the fan before it hit the stage.

The play is based on Aldous Huxley's book, The Devils of Loudon, which relates a true story from the 18th century about a libertine priest and nun with sexual fantasies. John Whiting, an English playwright, adapted the book for the stage and it was originally performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company. There had been a Broadway production with Jason Robards and Anne Bancroft and there had been no complaints from Cardinal Spellman in New York that I knew of or from Cardinal Cushing during the pre-Broadway tryouts in Boston.

When I think about it now, I realize how wonderfully innocent and naïve I was. People ascribed all kinds of motives to the choice, but I just thought it was a good play. I liked it because the writing and the passions are so large. I thought it was a good way to show off our new stage and that American actors could handle the material well. Compared to "The Deputy," I didn't think it was a controversial choice at all. The first indication of how wrong I was came just as we were going into rehearsals when I got a call from Lew Wasserman.

"What is this play you're opening with?" asked Lew, who was head of the MCA entertainment empire and president of the newly formed board of the Center Theatre Group.

"It's 'The Devils,' Mr. Wasserman," I said. "I've told you a little about it." Which was true because although I had been given complete artistic freedom, I had kept the CTG board informed about what we were doing in our inaugural season.

"Well, you'd better come see me," he said, "because we seem to have a problem."

As I drove over to Lew's house in Beverly Hills a few days later, the gravity of the situation had begun to sink in. Lew and I had only met at formal board meetings and had never had any real conversations. All I really knew was that he was the most powerful man in Hollywood and I was causing him trouble.

"Holy God," I thought as I made the turn at the bottom of the hill leading up to Lew's house, "what have I gotten myself into?"

There were security guards--I am fairly certain they were from Universal Studios--in a guardhouse down below and after I identified myself, I drove up a long driveway that curved around to a sheltered area under a sumptuous low-slung modern house decorated with marble.

I was taken over to an adjoining house that served as Lew's screening room and contained a lot of movie memorabilia, including an old-fashioned stereopticon and a nickelodeon. There were also dozens of pictures of Lew and his wife Edie in famous company: Lew and Edie with Lyndon Johnson, Lew and Edie with John F. Kennedy, Lew and Edie with Frank Sinatra, Lew and Edie with Cary Grant, and on and on.

Waiting with Lew was Paul Ziffren, one of the most powerful lawyers in town, a mover and shaker in the Democratic party and the man who later would be most responsible for bringing the 1984 Olympics to Los Angeles. I was incredibly ignorant about the Los Angeles power structure, yet from that very first meeting with them I felt I had allies rather than adversaries.

After the usual, "Can I get you anything?" Lew said, "So tell me. What is this play, `The Devils?'"

"It's really about mass hysteria," I said as I described the plot to him, "about how a town can be incited to a form of hysteria especially when something is moving counter to the culture. The priest is finally tortured and burned at the stake by the community. Look, what's the problem?"

"Well, I got a call from the Cardinal's office," Lew said. "They're very upset. And then there's the Board of Supervisors. We're on county property, you know."

Los Angeles County is run by five Supervisors and at that time they were all men, all quite conservative both politically and socially, and two or three of them were Catholic. None of them had read the play, of course, but whoever described it to them had emphasized the sexual aspects and made it seem as if it were denigrating the church. We talked a little more and then Lew cut me off.

"You have to do this, don't you?"

"Yeah," I said. "I think we have to do it. We've said we're going to do it and there's no reason not to do it unless you tell me something persuasive."

"Do you have to do it FIRST?" he said.

"Well, no, I guess not," I said, "but I AM in rehearsal. We ARE doing it first. Listen, I'm sorry to be causing problems, but I don't see any way out of it. I think it would be a disaster, especially if you're suggesting we should cancel it."

"I agree with you," Lew said, and I could see that he had made up his mind. "OK, I'll take care of it."

What Lew didn't tell me until years later was that part of the problem stemmed from the fact that a Polish filmmaker had made a movie called "Sister Jean and the Angels," which was based on the same story as the play. That made James Francis Cardinal McIntyre, the very conservative head of the Catholic Church in Los Angeles, think the film, which he had confused with the play, was some kind of Communist propaganda, and therefore anti-God and anti-church.

When Lew finally told me the whole story, I couldn't help thinking how it was an echo of the subject matter of the play, how hysteria could be produced in a community through ignorance. I also couldn't help thinking what might have happened if I had been accused of being a Communist. McIntyre wanted to see the film, which hadn't been released in this country, and when Lew was able to get him a print by just snapping his fingers he earned some brownie points. The fact that Lew was able to handle the controversy and that the play was performed as scheduled is something I have always been grateful for.

But many people in the Catholic community were still upset and the Supervisors were so frustrated they couldn't stop the play that they slapped a tax on the Music Center. This was very hurtful because it meant not only the Taper but the Ahmanson, the Philharmonic and every other event at the Music Center had to choose between raising ticket prices or seeing their revenue reduced if they held the line. There was no doubt the tax was meant to be punitive and luckily it ended after a few years.

The Supervisors also approved the appointment of a 16-member Citizen Standards Committee to screen future productions. This could have presented real problems if Franklin Murphy hadn't been named the chairman.

"Franklin, if there's a committee, there will be censorship," I told him, "either because the committee will act or I'll face the pressure of self-censorship."

"The committee will never meet," he said.

What Franklin meant was that as far as he was concerned the committee was set up as a buffer, something to take the heat off the Supervisors rather than to censor anything at the Music Center. If someone complained, they could say, "Well, there's nothing we can do about this. That's for the standards committee to decide."

So while the existence of the committee could have been worrisome, the fact that Franklin Murphy was in charge meant nobody from the outside ever screened plays at the Taper. And after a while, the committee quietly disappeared.

In the end, something lasting and positive came out of opening the Taper with "The Devils." I hadn't chosen the play to throw down any gauntlet. I had chosen it because I thought it was the best play for us to do at the time. But the choice DID throw down the gauntlet. It told the community that we were going to stand for something, that we were going to use an art form to talk about the world we live in, warts and all.

The attempts to stop "The Devils" ultimately were not important, but the support from the CTG board and the people in the community who cared about the theater was. They had something to rally around, a forum to express their support for artistic freedom. And I think the fact we had not set out to accomplish that made the fact that we DID accomplish it more significant.

Another effect of the storm over "The Devils" was that I became a marked man and that helped the theater develop in ways I hadn't considered. For the next few years, everybody was waiting to see what the Taper would do next and this made me feel almost obligated to follow through. It was important that our first play not be seen as a one-time event. Just as we hadn't caved in on "The Devils," we couldn't retreat afterwards. We had to feel free to do what we wanted and that, as much as anything else, gave the Taper its identity. The very name, the Forum, was appropriate. We wanted to be a place where people came together and discussed volatile issues.

In our second season, I directed "In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer," and in 1970 I followed up with "Murderous Angels," Conor Cruise O'Brien's play about Dag Hammerskjold and Patrice Lumumba. A year later, I directed "The Trial of the Catonsville Nine" and, as we went from one of these plays to another, I began to see how my own ideas about the theater had begun to change almost without my realizing it.

I remember sitting and watching "Oppenheimer," which is about how one of the inventors of the atom bomb lost his security clearance. As the physicist Hans Bethe and other witnesses wrestled with the moral dilemma of the necessity to end the war, the excitement and challenge of scientific discovery and the dangers inherent in the development of the bomb, I could literally feel the ideas moving across the stage. I could sense the audience becoming a part of the action. It was like an electric current somehow becoming visible and it was very exciting.

It was then that I realized how ideas can have a dramatic power of their own. One tends to think of drama as action, but in fact there is another kind of drama--one that is typified more by Shaw than by Shakespeare--in which ideas become action. What I was learning was that ideas moving in space create their own drama.

I discovered something else that stayed with me when I directed "Catonsville," which was one of the first plays to focus on the Vietnam war and the effects it was having on American society. The war had caused tremendous controversy all over the country, of course, but nobody had yet focused the debate in purely personal terms. Now, suddenly "Catonsville" came along and here were these nine radical Catholics who were still at large and laying it all on the line.

Producing "Catonsville" was like nothing else I had ever attempted. Just meeting with Daniel Berrigan, the fugitive radical priest who wrote it, was more than a little challenging.
"Take this train, change to this bus, walk past this address and come back through the alley," his directions to me said. If you pulled my fingernails out today, I could not tell you where I finally ended up. All I know is that I was somewhere in the suburbs of Boston, I was certain the FBI was following me and only when I reached my destination was I finally able to talk to him.

"I'm used to having the playwright with me when I start a new production," I told
Berrigan. "Could you at least tape a message I can play for the cast when we start rehearsals?"

"This is Father Daniel Berrigan speaking to you from the underground," the message began and when I decided to use it at the beginning of the play itself, several people in the opening-night audience at the Taper leaped out of their seats, thinking Berrigan was actually in the theater. Later, we found out they were FBI agents.

We did some post-performance discussions from the stage afterwards and I said, "By God, I feel that if I wanted to ask this audience to do something as a result of having been put in touch with people who risked their safety and were willing to go to jail in order to protest this war, that I could get these 750 people to get up out of their seats and walk down to the Federal Building and burn more draft cards--or something."

What I realized is you CAN move a crowd--and sometimes an audience becomes a crowd--and that led me to the conclusion that in a way my critics were right. I had taken the initial posture that it's only theater, it's only make-believe and we're all listeners together. But that isn't always true. The theater can be and should be dangerous, the way "Catonsville" was dangerous in 1971. The theater is not just entertainment, not just pap. It can be and should be life-changing.

As the controversy that began with "The Devils" grew into a larger one over the direction the Taper was moving, there was always one crucial question: What did Mrs. Chandler think?

Dorothy Buffum Chandler was the wife of one publisher of the Los Angeles Times, Norman Chandler, and the mother of another, Otis Chandler. This made her not only a part of the history of the city but also of its ultra-conservative power structure. And no one ever entertained the slightest doubt that the Music Center was hers and hers alone. Everything about the complex bore Mrs. Chandler's imprint: its location, its size, its scope, its design--even its very existence. She raised the money. She brought in the city's political and business leaders as well as the highly influential pages of the Times. She chose the architects and hired the artistic directors.

I always thought she had the instincts of an artist herself the way she used her power to create and build. She studied a situation from every angle and then she let her intuition be her guide. And once she developed a passion for an idea, she was not afraid to make the leap of faith that would allow that idea to be fulfilled.

I occasionally joke that one of the reasons Mrs. Chandler chose me to run the Taper is that she is a Taurus and so am I. Carroll Righter, the well-known astrologer, was a good friend of hers and a number of the people in her social circle. Every year at Sylvia Kaye's birthday party, Righter would do the horoscope for the months of the coming year and Mrs. Chandler and her friends took it quite seriously. Zubin Mehta, whom she had chosen to be the first conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Music Center, is also a Taurus and the fact the three of us had that in common made everything seem right to her somehow.

But I think there was a more serious reason that led Mrs. Chandler to choose me to run the Taper and then to support me so strongly whenever there was controversy. Just as I was the boy from Brooklyn crashing this high-society party far from home, she was an outsider in many ways, too. Mrs. Chandler came from the wealthy Buffum family that founded a string of department stores, but she was raised in Long Beach, away from the seat of social and political power in Southern California. And when she married Norman Chandler, she found the world she was expected to join--a world of bridge clubs and garden parties--stifling and depressing.

This could have been disastrous, but Mrs. Chandler's inner resources were extraordinary. So was the forthrightness she displayed many years later when she frankly told how she had become so emotionally distressed that at the age of 31 she checked herself into a psychiatric clinic in Pasadena run by Dr. Josephine Jackson.

"I just couldn't cope," she told an interviewer. "I began thinking I was the one who was wrong, that because I couldn't conform, there was something wrong with me. Dr. Jackson helped me to see that Norman's family was not going to change or destroy me, nor was I going to change or destroy them. They're the way they are and I'm the way I am. The answer is to just go your way and be yourself. Norman, the children and the community needed me if I could be myself. I wouldn't have done anything I've done if I hadn't had that experience."

What she did was turn a corner of downtown Los Angeles into one of America's great cultural centers. When the Music Center was dedicated in 1964, Time magazine put her on the cover and called it "perhaps the most impressive display of virtuoso money-raising and civic citizenship in the history of U.S. womanhood." I don't know what womanhood had to do with it because in every important way Mrs. Chandler was a real mensch.

Since she was so inseparably tied to everything that went on at the Music Center--and since she had entrusted the Taper to me--every time I did something that was questioned she was questioned, too.

There were many times when people tried to bully her into getting rid of me, when someone asked her, "What are you going to do about that man?" It couldn't have been easy for her because these were her friends, the people with whom she ruled Los Angeles society. They were also the people who had been the earliest and most generous contributors to building the Music Center. Politically, they were extremely conservative and they simply couldn't figure out what this Jewish kid, this Commie pinko dupe, was doing. Some of them were so offended they told her they would not only stop making donations to the Taper, they would also refuse to support the Philharmonic. The symphony was her real favorite so this could have been a very effective kind of cultural blackmail.

But through it all, Mrs. Chandler was simply remarkable. There was something in her, some instinct, that made her feel that what she was doing was right. Even when she didn't totally approve of some of our productions, she knew she was creating something important. And somehow she even found a way to use the dispute to the Music Center's advantage.

What she saw intuitively was that for every person she lost because of what we were doing, there were others she could bring in for the first time. It was the old money from Pasadena and Orange County versus the Jews from the West Side who were attracted to what was new and exciting at the Taper. The theater gave Mrs. Chandler the opportunity to welcome these newcomers--making Lew Wasserman president of the CTG board had gone a long way toward opening that door--but rather than closing the other door she worked in a way that kept both sides in the arena.

She was almost like a kindergarten teacher the way she said to one faction, "Why don't you play over here in the Philharmonic?" while she was telling the other side, "And you play over here in the Taper." In time, the two sides mixed more and more and the Music Center became democratized. I'm sure we drove away some of the old guard, but there was never any public campaign to withdraw support and, as the complex became more established, donations continued to grow.

From time to time, I would meet with Mrs. Chandler at what she called The Pub, a pool house behind her mansion in Hancock Park that she had turned into an office when she first began work on building the Music Center. This was often late in the afternoon and we would talk about what was going on at the Taper, my plans for future productions and anything else that interested her. Sometime between 5 and 6 p.m., Norman Chandler, a very handsome man with a full head of white hair, would come home from the Times with the paper under his arm. The routine seldom varied.

"Martini, dear?" he would ask after fixing himself one at the bar in the pool house. "And you, young man?"

I would ask for a gin and tonic, Mr. Chandler would go off some place and Mrs. Chandler and I would sip our drinks and go back to work. Often, she wanted to hear from me whether she should go to a certain play. Early on, she realized that if she didn't see a play then she didn't have to have an opinion about it. If someone said, "Have you seen that terrible thing they're doing now?" she could honestly say, "No, I haven't seen it so I don't have an opinion."

There were times when I would tell her that if she didn't go to a particular play, it would be OK. Or I would say, "I think you should see this one," and she usually would. She didn't like everything we did, but not once did she say, "Why are you doing that?" And if anybody else criticized the Taper in her presence, she always defended us.

The greatest test of Mrs. Chandler's devotion came when we staged "Ice" by Michael Cristofer during the 1976-77 season. The previous year, we had done "The Shadow Box," Michael's beautifully lyrical play about how people respond to the impending death of those they love. It became our first play to win the Pulitzer Prize and the Tony, and Mrs. Chandler was so proud of it that she went to New York to see the production that carried the Taper's banner on Broadway. She also became very supportive of Michael and was determined to see his new play, too.

But "Ice" was a difficult, disturbing and disturbed play. It was triggered by the fact that Michael was turning 30, coping with a certain kind of success and feeling his life was in transition. This led him to explore a very dark side of himself and of human nature. The play is set in a cabin in Alaska that is inhabited by two men and a woman, it uses every dirty word in the language and is filled with the kind of explicit sex where everybody does everything to everybody.

"Ice" contains so much despair and self-contempt that at one point one of the characters says, "You only have two choices. Either you cut yourself off so you don't feel anything or you open up and let it all in till it hurts so bad you go crazy or it kills you or you kill somebody else. There's no in-between. It's one or the other. Everything else is a lie." This made for a very powerful play, but not a popular one. Many people in the audience streamed up the aisles in disgust as if they couldn't get away fast enough.

"This may not be your cup of tea, Mrs. Chandler," I told her a little apprehensively. "You might want to skip this one."

"No," she said in the special way she spoke when she was about to do something dangerous. "I want to see it. I've heard about it. I know what it is. But I want to go."

So she and her friend Olive Behrendt plunked themselves down in their usual seats, which were in the first row of the second section of the theater just behind the cross aisle and in full view of the entire house. And God bless her, she sat there through the whole play even while people were walking out right in front of her.

It was as if she were making an announcement or perhaps even putting on a performance of her own. She was saying she didn't want to be protected, she wanted to be counted in favor of what the Taper stood for. And afterwards, she asked to be taken backstage to talk to the cast: Ron Rifkin, Cliff DeYoung and Britt Swanson as well as Michael Cristofer. I just loved her for that; I thought it was so gutsy.

As one controversial play followed another in those early years, I think Mrs. Chandler and Lew Wasserman actually began to get a kick out of the Taper's notoriety. Lew in particular would occasionally say something like, "Are you going to do this to us again?" But it was always with a certain kind of smile that let me know there was really no problem. I think they both felt the Taper was doing something worthwhile and that I was doing what I believed in. And they realized that if you do what you believe in with a certain level of passion, you're bound to cause trouble.

Another thing I came to appreciate was the fact they never pulled rank on me. They never acted in an authoritative or arbitrary way. Lew in particular didn't treat me as an employee, although I always believed that if I HAD been working for him at Universal Studios I would not have enjoyed so much freedom.

As regional theaters sprung up around the country in the late 60s and 70s, it was not unusual to see artistic directors lose their jobs when they displeased important civic and social elements. But I never felt that was an issue for me. Lew was a powerful man and a lot of people were afraid of him, but when he was on your side you felt you could do anything. What Lew showed me was how power can be used in a way that benefits people individually and society as a whole.

As for Mrs. Chandler, I will always cherish something Mickie Ziffren, Paul Ziffren's widow, once told me. They were standing together on the second floor of the pavilion that bears Mrs. Chandler's name and one of them spotted me walking on the plaza below.

"I really feel as if he were my own son," Mrs. Chandler said.

As far as my professional life was concerned, so did I.

October 2, 2016

Hollywood night: A mellower Ovitz and Meyer together

ltla-ovitz-meyer.jpgPhotos by Live Talks LA

The only reason I scored a ticket to the sold-out reunion of legendary Hollywood moguls (and foes) Michael Ovitz and Ron Meyer is because I slept with the producer.

For months, my boyfriend, Ted Habte-Gabr, had been receiving plaintive communiqués from tout le Hollywood, begging for seats to this particular event in his Live Talks LA speaker series--especially when they learned it would not be videotaped, as most of his events are.

Bestselling writer James Andrew Miller, whose new book "Powerhouse: The Untold Story of Hollywood's Creative Artists Agency" chronicles the rise of the talent agency CAA, would be on Ted's stage, quizzing the fabled firm's co-creators--who would be appearing publicly together for the first time in 20 years. If you were in "the business," you had to be present. "This is my Frost and Nixon," implored one appeal. "I MUST be there."

Though neither my professional nor personal interests take me anywhere near the Hollywood orbit, I'm wired, as a career journalist, to appreciate a good story. When Ovitz postponed the initial date because of back surgery, my curiosity was piqued further. Was he looking for a way out? What would happen when the two men met?

And so I went last Thursday to people-watch from the back of the room, diving into Miller's opus for the backstory.

The story of CAA's development is one of the most important business tales of the 20th century. Shades of the dot com run-up I long-ago happily covered for the NY Times and MSNBC were evident in abundance in Miller's pages: Young ambitious agents at entrenched old-guard William Morris brazenly strike out on their own, work their asses off, deflect alliances with anyone who doubts their ability to conquer the biggest stars, eventually change the way the industry does business--steadily becoming wealthier and more powerful (and cockier) by the moment.

miller-ovitz-meyer-ltla.jpgFrom left: Michael Ovitz, James Andrew Miller and Ron Meyer.

As Miller lays out Studs Terkel-style with hundreds of candid interviews, the tale inevitably and predictably devolves with a power struggle and acrimonious split.

Hollywood insiders young and old arrived on the big night, eagerly scouting for the best seats in the DGA theatre so they could gaze at the expected fireworks. By now, many of them had devoured the book.

Now, the principals, once the closest of allies, were to be quizzed on stage, together, with Miller--Switzerland--between them.

Live before six hundred of their peers, the men recounted the story of the events that led to the founding of their agency. The necessary ingredient to success in most any industry was clearly evident in their reminiscences: unbridled ambition.

Forty minutes in, Miller asked Ovitz who besides Meyer he sought counsel from in those heady, early days.

"There was only one guy and he's sitting on my right," Ovitz said. "We pretty much steered everything the way we wanted it to go while we had everybody else involved in feeling as if they were part of the decisions."

Meyer: "We used to joke about it, while other agencies were home reading the newspaper and cracking their eggs in bed, we were in staff meetings. We had no lawyer, we had no money, we had nothing, so we decided fuck 'em, we'll go get them. And that's what we did. For better or worse, it was a much more gentlemanly.... business before we started. Once we were let one was safe. We didn't go to sleep at night unless we stole clients."

Ovitz: "Ron and I had a goal which was 100% market share. Unfortunately it doesn't work that way unless you're in the beer business. We made lists and factually strategically targeted who we wanted."

Meyer: "No one liked us cause we were raiding their clients."

Ovitz, once considered the most hated man in Hollywood: "That's not true. Everybody liked you."

Meyer, known for being one of the sweetest: "More than you."

When Miller asked Meyer's reaction to Ovitz' ascent as the public face of the business they'd built, the conversation took a turn not for the combative, but for the confessional.

Meyer: "It was much more personal than professional. We had been through so much together. It had very little to do with the business; business was fine...I felt that, you know, our relationship had changed. Whether it was me not feeling worthy, it sounds so silly to say that...I felt so disenfranchised from our relationship."

Ovitz: "Now that I'm an old man with a look back and say to yourself what could you have done differently. We were on such a roll in every aspect of the business that I was oblivious and insensitive to a lot of the people issues....There weren't enough hours in the day. I was flying 600 hours a year to do these deals. The economics were huge....I was basically myopic in the drive to build these different businesses. When I got a taste of it after we sold--Herb Allen and I worked with the guys who formed Blackstone on selling CBS records to Sony... and when I started building those kinds of relationships I didn't realize that I was sacrificing relationships that were more important to me. I was completely engrossed in what I was doing.... I wanted to win. And when you look back on your life and realize winning at all costs is not necessarily a good thing."

Meyer: "Look, I also have some responsibility. I did not tell Mike how I was feeling....I felt he wouldn't have handled it well. I don't want to sound too altruistic, but I felt there was a much bigger picture. It was easier to shine it on than to deal with it..... Stuff built up and I allowed it to build up."

Meyer dismissed the dissolution of their partnership and friendship almost nonchalantly, as if he were erasing the last twenty years of enmity. "You're with someone for 25 years day and night. We were as close as you could be. Shit happens."

Toward the end of the conversation, Miller asked Ovitz about his vindictive purchase of a property in Malibu that Meyer had said he wanted to buy.

Ovitz: "It's really simple and uncomplicated. I was pissed off. I took the property. ... It was a giant, giant mistake. One of the reasons I made the mistake is I didn't have him to advise me. I was pissed off, I was upset. I was getting a divorce from someone I didn't want a divorce from. [Ron.] Getting old sucks but the thing that's good about it is you look back and realize places you could have made some changes. You can't do anything about it. If it was someone else I did that to, it would never have happened because he would have walked into my office and said, 'You idiot what are you doing.'"

Meyer had nothing further to say. "There's too much said about it. I appreciate what Mike said. I think there's way too much said about it."


The talk was filled with inside Hollywood anecdotes that even this outsider found amusing. A highlight: Ovitz's retelling of one of his favorite business meetings, with Prince in white satin suit and platform heels arriving with his menacing bodyguard, and the unpopular decision to make "Purple Rain. Another: Squiring Steven Spielberg, with Kate Capshaw, to a movie theater on a Friday night to see "Jurassic Park"--the first time the director had seen his films in such a venue.

Perhaps the reflective hindsight was triggered by the interviews they'd done for Miller's book. Or the fact that their families, along with various players like Sandy Climan, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Ron Silver, Howard Weitzman, Irwin Winkler and others were apparently listening in on the reunion. Or, maybe it was advancing age and the challenges of time.

In the end, the hour and 45 minute conversation ultimately was more indy movie than blockbuster tent-pole, leaving some in the industry press disappointed.

Yet, witnessing two men who shaped an industry, older now, seemingly remorseful, even wistful, about their ruthless workaholic natures and their very public rout, left more of an imprint on me.

Lisa Napoli is the author of the upcoming book from Dutton, "Ray & Joan: The Man Who Made The McDonald's Fortune and the Woman Who Gave It All Away."


August 23, 2016

From wildlife to pets: The fate of urban nature?

A lively multispecies menagerie gathered at the infamous Mountain Mermaid Inn in Topanga Canyon recently to celebrate the publication of a new book that makes the case that wildlife is not something out there, but rather close to home: wild animals are now our neighbors.

square hawk 325.JPGIn the garden outside the entrance to the former country club, gambling hall, and gay night spot, dozens of caterpillars chomped on milkweed and fennel, and butterflies frolicked among the flowers. Around the pool below the main building, guests oohed and aahed over a red-tailed hawk, a kestrel, a red fox, a prairie dog, and a very pettable Flemish giant rabbit.

Upstairs in the timbered main hall, a guest cradled a young possum as a crowd of wildlife lovers listened to Beth Pratt-Bergstrom read from When Mountain Lions Are Neighbors: People and Wildlife Working It Out in California.

pratt.jpgThe book tells the story of LA's most eligible bachelor puma, P-22, along with stories about the return of harbor porpoises to the San Francisco Bay, and the family of gray foxes that became social media celebrities when they took up residence on Facebook's Silicon Valley campus. It traces the incredible journey of the first wolf to return to California, OR-7, the wolf pack that followed, and shows how humans have learned to live with bears in Yosemite, in the process teaching bears how to be wild again. Interspersed with these stories are dozens of short vignettes, windows on the wide variety of ways that Californians are "working it out" with wildlife, from "Meatball," the notorious Glendale bear, to the "charismatic microfauna" of bugs being cataloged by the gregarious Lila Higgins and colleagues at LA's Natural History Museum, and farmers in the Central Valley sharing their rice fields with sandhill cranes.

One comes away from the book with a feeling of domesticity, mostly content that California seems to be one big happy multispecies family, but with underlying concerns, of course, as in any modern family. The similarities with another book on pets that I picked up in Mexico City recently were uncanny, and I mean that in the fullest weird sense of that word. El libro de las mascotas is a beautiful coffee-table book with 57 portraits of pets in Santa María La Ribera, a neighborhood in the city. It was produced by inSite, a famous, long-running borderlands art project that has embedded itself in recent years in Casa Gallina, a home in the barrio, in a multiyear project experimenting with art practices to engage deeply in a changing low-income neighborhood.

mascotas.jpgThe book is filled with wonderful, idiosyncratic portraits by photographer Eunice Adorno of dogs as well as cats, but also canaries, zebra finches, turtles, parrots, guinea pigs, a ferret, a duck, a rooster, an iguana, a tarantula, and even an ajolote, the strange amphibian with mystical significance that thrived in Lake Tlatelolco, but is severely endangered now that the valley is covered by the biggest city in the Americas. Each portrait is accompanied by an intimate short profile by writer Bernardo Esquinca. Together they form a compelling portrait of a multispecies neighborhood, of people's lives connected through their connections with animals.

There's an evocative, emotional continuum here from the wild to the domestic. I know it from the menagerie in my own home, which I share with my girlfriend, Ursula K. Heise, and her rescue animals, three tortoises, three cockatiels, and two green-cheeked Amazon parrots, which are endangered in their native habitat in northeastern Mexico, but thrive in Southern California, as a result of escaped pets breeding happily in eucalyptus groves in Pasadena. And I know it from talking with other animal lovers. For many people, it's a deeply personal connection to a pet that is close to the font of concern for all wildlife.

But there's still something uncanny about it for me. While I was contemplating these two new books--both of which I highly recommend--I was reminded by the powerful new movie "Embrace of the Serpent" of how some shamanic cultures share stories of "the owner of animals," a godlike figure who must grant permission for hunters to kill their prey, in the course of which the hunter may also take the form of one animal to stalk another.

The owner of animals, even if we grant that it is a human notion, is a kind of check and balance on the hunter's hubris. It is the source of an ethos outside of ourselves.

What happens when we are the owner of animals and all wildlife are pets?

This is what we are learning now.

When Mountain Lions Are Neighbors: People and Wildlife Working It Out in California, by Beth Pratt-Bergstrom, is published by Heyday Books. El libro de las mascotas: Un tejido barrial de afectos en Santa María La Ribera, by Eunice Adorno and Bernardo Esquinca, is published by inSite/Casa Gallina.

square-hawk-crop.jpgPhoto: Mollie Hogan of Nature of Wildworks with Dragon the red-tailed hawk.

April 28, 2016

'Outlander' a great fit for TV writer Anne Kenney

sam-heughan-anne-kenney-out.jpgSam Heughan, who plays Jamie Fraser on "Outlander," with writer Anne Kenney on location in Scotland. Courtesy of Anne Kenney.

"Outlander" writer Anne Kenney's cozy home office on the Westside is a world away from the fan-intense Writers Bloc event (Inside the eye of the Outlander storm) where we first met last month. As part of the press tour for the show's second season, Kenney joined her fellow writers and lead actors Caitriona Balfe, Tobias Menzies, and Sam Heughan for a panel to discuss the challenges of adapting for television Diana Gabaldon's much loved and complex series of books about a World War II combat nurse who accidentally time travels back to 18th century Scotland. It was a rare on-stage appearance for the writers. The shows actors are usually the stars of such occasions, but on this night they seemed happy to let the writers have the spotlight. Members of the always passionate Outlander fandom filled the audience at the Writers Guild Theater in Beverly Hills, many possibly realizing, for the first time, just how vital a role the writers play in bringing their favorite piece of literature to the small screen.

I visited Kenney a couple of weeks later to find out what life has been like for her since starting on the Starz show in 2013. "I've never done anything like this," the veteran writer/producer said of working on a project with such a huge built-in fan base. "I went from having four Twitter followers — my family — to almost 10,000 and it's all about "Outlander." I usually don't tweet about anything else." Kenney still finds it strange when fans come up to her at events and want to have their picture taken or have her sign things. "But actually," she says, "that's been kind of fun and mostly people have been positive."

Known for her work on "L.A. Law", "The Big Easy", "Greek, and "Switched at Birth," Kenney had read (and loved) Gabaldon's books and jumped at the chance to write for a show that combines so many genres. There is historical fiction, adventure, fantasy, romance, and refreshingly, a strong female lead character in Claire Randall (played by Balfe.) "This show is great for women. It's from a woman's point of view," says Kenney. She earned high praise from critics and fans last season for writing episode 7, "The Wedding," in which Claire is forced to marry the young, virginal Highlander Jamie Fraser (the show's other lead character played by Heughan) in order to protect her from the British army. Much was written (see How Many Women Does It Take to Make the Perfect Sex Scene?) about the episode's groundbreaking female-centric depiction of intimacy between lovers who start off the night as awkward near-strangers.

Originally from Oregon and Ohio, Kenney always knew she wanted to be a writer. After earning a journalism degree from Ohio University, she worked on small newspapers until classes in playwriting and television writing led to a move to Los Angeles in 1987. She met her husband, writer/producer Fred Golan, the same year. A voracious reader, particularly of historical fiction, Kenney enjoys the process of adaptation but acknowledges that Outlander can be problematic. While the first season was fairly straightforward, with Claire mostly trying to find her way back home to the 20th century, the second season, now well under way, was far more complicated to adapt. I won't spoil it for those who haven't yet watched, but as Kenney says, "there was so much exposition, so much more explaining to do." Things won't get easier for the writers if the show continues on to season three. Gabaldon's books are famous for their geographical reach and huge jumps in time.

The Outlander writers are based in Los Angeles (the writers' room is in the Valley and Kenney crafts her scripts at home) but all are producers as well, which means periodic stints in Scotland to supervise production of episodes. The show is shot at a studio in Cumbernauld, just outside of Glasgow. The cast and crew also spend a huge amount of time on location. As a supervising producer "you're there at the beginning and during prep when we're deciding what the locations will be and what scenes stay or go for production reasons," says Kenney. "We work with the actors and directors and there's a give and take. Sometimes there's something I've heard in my head and one of the actors will come up and say 'this sounds really weird to me'. There's a negotiation that goes on."

For example, she points out that it's "very interesting" working with Menzies, who plays a dual role: Claire's twentieth century husband Frank and his 18th century ancestor, the villainous Black Jack Randall. "I think the assumption is that actors want more to say, rather than less," she says. "I've found that's generally not the case...especially with Tobias. He often feels he can tell the story more effectively with fewer words, and frequently he's right."

outlander-diana-gabaldon-an.jpgKenney was in Scotland for two months last fall, overseeing one of her own episodes for season two as well as one written by Gabaldon. It was the Outlander author's first attempt at adapting her work into a script. Kenney says working with Gabaldon was "really fun...we had a good time. My experience was she really put her student hat on. She was there to see how it goes and she was such a trooper. It rains a lot and we were out in the cold and wet. She was fun and funny and didn't complain once. Like all of us, she got notes and certain things would get re-written and she was very cool about all of it."

Outlander production has been a boon to the economy in the areas where the show shoots, as Kenney saw one day on location with Gabaldon. "Diana and I were in a coffee shop in a place called Culross. We had our headsets around our necks...our names were on the back. After picking out some stuff, the guy followed us out, went up to Diana and said, 'oh my god, are you Diana Gabaldon? You've brought us so much business..everything's on the house for you.' After that the joke was that we all should write her name on our headsets to get free food."

In addition to dealing with inclement weather, Kenney has found some differences in the way Scottish sets are run. The typical working day is 10 hours (unless the crew agrees to go over) unlike the usual 12-14 hour day in the U.S. There is also a "right to walk" rule that allows the public to legally access any location where the crew is shooting. But so far "people have been very respectful and the actors have been extremely gracious with fans who show up and want to talk and have pictures taken," Kenney says. She admits that one of her (and fellow writer Toni Graphia's) biggest problems is understanding some of the Scottish accents. The desk clerk at their hotel was one of the toughest to decipher. "He could have said 'there's a serial killer on the third floor' and we'd be like, great!"

"Outlander" airs on Starz at 9 p.m. on Saturdays.

Lower photo: Kenney with Diana Gabaldon in Scotland.

April 3, 2016

Inside the eye of the Outlander storm

outlander-fans-jg.jpgOutlander fans. Photo by Judy Graeme.

Writers Bloc founder and head honcho Andrea Grossman is no stranger to dealing with celebrities and their sometimes extremely passionate fans. Grossman, who created the non-profit literary organization 20 years ago, regularly produces live programs that feature conversations focusing on the written word with famous authors, journalists, actors, musicians, and politicians. She's had federal marshals in attendance (to protect Supreme Court justice Sonia Sotomayor) and security provisions to deter stalkers of certain high profile guests. Tire slashing was her concern at an event with Lawrence Wright, author of a book about Scientology (thankfully none materialized). Leonard Nimoy's appearance brought out hundreds of Trekkies, and any time Carrie Fisher is in the house, the Star Wars fan contingent makes its presence known.

None of this prepared Grossman, however, for the insanity awaiting her when she agreed to present a panel featuring "Outlander" writers and cast members at the Writers Guild Theater in Beverly Hills.

3_JamieandClaire_680x680.jpg"Outlander" is the Starz and Sony produced TV series about a World War II combat nurse who time travels back to 18th century Jacobite Scotland. It is based on the best-selling novels by Diana Gabaldon, and is about to premiere its second season on April 9. Gabaldon's extremely ardent fan base has built steadily since the first book in the series was published in 1991. She is currently working on the ninth book and is a consultant to the Starz show. The potent cocktail of historical fiction, adventure, fantasy, romance (and lots of sex) seems to have struck a very deep nerve in readers, many of whom have read the books multiple times and are now equally passionate about the show. Seeing their beloved characters (in particular the two central characters Jamie Fraser and Claire Randall, played by Sam Heughan and Caitriona Balfe) brought to life by very carefully cast and skillful actors has, in many cases, only intensified their connection to the story.

Outlander press tours routinely feature fan events and panels with cast members and producers, but the idea for a writing-centric panel came via Grossman's friendship with Outlander writer and producer Anne Kenney, who encouraged her to read the first book and check out the show. Kenney was present at Thursdays event, along with fellow writer/producers Toni Graphia, Matthew B. Roberts, executive producer Maril Davis, show-runner Ron Moore, actors Balfe, Heughan and Tobias Menzies, and moderator Anne Thompson of IndieWire.

When tickets went on sale Grossman got her first clue that things would be getting intense. "I never imagined it would sell out so quickly—in 45 minutes!," Grossman said. "This sold out faster than Mel Brooks..and my Writers Bloc audience is such a Mel Brooks audience. It was happening so fast we could barely keep up." She quickly realized that word of the event had spread through Outlander fandom like wildfire. "I knew there was a fan base but didn't realize they were as ardent and enthusiastic..and I didn't realize that people would come in from all over the country," Grossman said. Her phone rang off the hook as the day approached. Then there was the case of the mysterious cake. Grossman had gotten word that a bakery in San Francisco was requesting Writers Guild Theater access to deliver a cake to the cast and writers on the day of the panel. A few phone calls with Starz and the Writers Guild determined that no one had ordered a cake (Grossman famously serves only Beverlywood Bakery cookies in her green room) and that most likely the whole episode was fan-driven.

outlander2-v-marthagroves.jpgFortunately for Grossman, Starz sponsored last Thursdays event and provided security, in the form of several very large bodyguards, for the cast. Fans began lining up at 8 a.m. (for the 7:30 p.m. start time) and the line for the first-come, first-served seating stretched several blocks down Doheny Drive by 5 p.m. Some fans had traveled from as far as Mexico, New York, and Seattle. Many were more local, driving in from San Diego, San Jose, and Temecula. [Photo right by Martha Groves.] There was lots of tartan and a few came in costume. An informal survey revealed that many had never heard of Writers Bloc and weren't especially interested in seeing the show's writers. They were there for Balfe, Menzies, and Heughan—seizing a rare opportunity to see the physical embodiment of the literary characters they love in the flesh. Inside, the theater's manager scratched his head and wondered out loud what would cause anyone to line up for anything that early.

When the time came for the doors to open, things proceeded in a surprisingly civilized fashion. Fans politely found their seats and buzzed excitedly while waiting for the program to begin. The Writers Guild Theater has no backstage area so everyone had to be in their seats before the Outlander group could enter. Grossman greeted the audience at 7:30 and welcomed them with humor and the ground rules: stay in your seats, no touching the talent (emphasizing the size of the body guards) and picture-taking for just 30 seconds. She ended with a plea to "check out our website. This is not the only fun program on our docket!"

When the cast and writers took the stage the screams were deafening, especially for heart throb Heughan, The program appeared to be a hit. The writers and producers were funny, enlightening, and candid in talking about the challenges of adapting complex novels into one hour TV episodes. The actors talked about how great it is that the show gives them a chance to work collaboratively with the writers. It was revealed that the writers and actors do imitations of each others voices. Best of all, it's very likely that audience members actually learned something about the tough business of writing for television.

Viola V on YouTube. Watch longer version.

When it was all over, the enormous bodyguards formed a wall so that the panelists could exit the theater unscathed. Everyone was instructed to remain in their seats until "the participants have left the building." Balfe, Menzies, and Heughan quickly boarded their limos and drove off into the night and a gaggle of fans and random autograph seekers lingered on the sidewalk outside the theater, some of them no doubt moving on to New York City, where the show is having its red carpet premiere on Monday. And, with the hurricane now safely past, Andrea Grossman was most certainly somewhere still inside the theater, exhaling very deeply.

claire-jamie-grab.jpgHeughan and Balfe last week at Writers Bloc. Video screen grab

March 19, 2016

City of irreconcilable dreams

"Putting our best efforts into reforming the built environment as the means to reform ourselves and society is a remarkably deeply held belief in our culture, as if we modern urban dwellers are a cargo cult, putting faith in things to transform our souls and spirits."--Wade Graham, Dream Cities: Seven Urban Ideas That Shape the World.

Wade Graham's new book, Dream Cities, is a cautionary tale. It ranges widely through time and around the world. But it's aimed straight at Los Angeles, the author's hometown, right at our present moment.

Big dreams promising to transform our city are all the rage these days:

dream cities copy.jpgFrank Gehry is reimagining the LA River!

More than $120 billion in new funding for Metro will remake the way we move around LA! (If voters approve a sales tax increase in November.)

The Olympics will make LA a world-class city! (Again!)

The Third Los Angeles is on the way!

Graham's book is not explicitly about these new dreams. But it is about dreams that have shaped--and continue to shape--Los Angeles, and how people expect the built environment, a product of urban ideas, to shape our lives, indeed even our souls and spirits. Like all good histories, Dream Cities is about unintended consequences.

Graham is a landscape designer and writer. He lives in Echo Park and teaches at Pepperdine.

When he looks at Los Angeles, he sees a city of irreconcilable dreams.

All of the big urban ideas that he traces in Dream Cities are at work here in LA:

  • The "romantic city" of the Spanish colonial villa, which can be seen most clearly in Santa Barbara, of course, but also in Beverly Hills and other wealthy redoubts around LA, where an imagined past confers the aura of historical legitimacy on a contemporary order.
  • The "monumental city" of well-ordered boulevards, stately plazas, and trophy buildings, which can be seen around Grand Park, City Hall, the LA Times building, the Music Center, and most dramatically in Walt Disney Concert Hall, which manages the neat trick of looking futuristic while fulfilling the role of a monument reflecting "glory and gravity" back on the city and those who preside over it.
  • The "rational city" of modern skyscrapers, "slabs" Graham calls them, connected by freeways. "A city made for speed is a city made for success," wrote Le Corbusier, the godfather of this dream. We see it in on Bunker Hill, in Park La Brea, and Century City.
  • The "anticity" of "homesteads" seen everywhere in LA's most dominant form, the single-family home, sprawling ever outward, as people seek to be part of the city, but apart from it. Its most iconic form shows up beautifully in the famous nighttime image of the Stahl House (Case Study House #22), where two women sit serenely conversing in a modern home cantilevered over a hillside, with the parallel lights of the city's streets receding into the safe and scenic distance.
  • The "self-organizing city" of neighborhoods, "cities within cities," epitomized in the apocryphal critique that Los Angeles is "72 suburbs in search of a city," variously attributed to Dorothy Parker, Aldous Huxley, and H.L. Mencken. But also in what all of us who live in the city know, that LA can be a very different city depending on which neighborhood you are in.
  • The "shopping city" of malls, in which "maximizing shopping equals maximizing urbanism," seen here from Third Street in Santa Monica, to the Galleria, the Grove, CityWalk at Universal Studios, and more.
  • The emergent "techno-ecological city," conceived as a kind of isolated space station in a harsh environment, concerned with the "metabolism" of the city, sustainability, water conservation, recycling, production of food and energy, and a changing climate.

Los Angeles isn't shaped by any one of these big ideas alone, Graham told me. Instead, LA is a city of "dynamic, problematic conflict between dreams," he said. Los Angeles is driven by contradictory ideas "that don't mesh well with each other."

So why are we now hoping that some new idea might somehow save the city?

"We buy into the promise of ideas," Graham said. It's easier than the hard work of "democracy, citizen participation, and boring things like that," he added. "And it leads us astray most of the time."

Despite the failure of all of these ideas to live up to their promises, Graham said, we still would like to believe that changes in the built environment could somehow miraculously solve all of our urban problems.

There is a "social project" inherent in all of the urban ideas that Graham writes about in Dream Cities. The architects and planners he profiles all believed that the right built environment would create better people, a better society, from Daniel Burnham's "Make no little plans, they have no magic to stir men's blood...." to Jane Jacobs, who fought big plans on behalf of little neighborhoods.

"We put an incredible freight of meaning into objects that don't really deliver," Graham said.

What we really need to do instead is "disenchant our objects," because if we keep acting like a cargo cult, praying that the next big idea to fall from the sky will change our lives and our city, we may be waiting forever.


March 6, 2016

Fowl play, a dark lady in Hollywood and Romeo & Juliet

As soon as I noticed that the main character in the new novel "Fowl Play" is the chief theater critic of "LA Observer," of course I had to read the book.

Fowl Play cover final 6x9 300ppi copy.jpgNo, the book's "LA Observer" is not a thinly veiled reference to LA Observed. It's a thinly veiled reference to the LA Weekly. The author of "Fowl Play" is Steven Leigh Morris (right), formerly the theater editor and chief critic at the Weekly, more recently the founder of the Stage Raw website, and currently the executive director of LA Stage Alliance.

So, even if the fictional "Seth Jacobson" (the name of the Morris doppelganger) had not worked at "LA Observer," I was looking forward to the possibility of reading a roman à clef set against the backdrop of LA theater. Books that mention Los Angeles theater are rare birds.

Speaking of birds, it turns out that "Fowl Play" is more about the "Fowl" in the title than it is about the "Play." Longtime Morris readers will recall that he wrote not only about theater in the Weekly, but also about his efforts to raise chickens in an urban LA setting. "Fowl Play" was inspired more by these experiences than it was by Morris' primary beat for the Weekly.

He refers to at least a handful of real theatrical productions that occurred in Los Angeles that "Seth" (presumably along with Morris himself) witnessed, but these references exist mainly for the purpose of providing metaphoric commentary on what's happening in the rest of Seth's life. His brief accounts of the gradual diminution of theater coverage (and therefore his job) at the Observer serve a similar purpose.

As someone who has never considered raising chickens but who sees plenty of plays, I might have been a bit disappointed to realize that "Fowl Play" is a roman à poulet instead of a roman à players-in-LA-theater.

Yet as I kept reading, I realized that Morris also emphasizes another arena — the politics and personalities of his hybrid co-op/condo community — as much as he focuses on the chickens and more than he focuses on LA theater.

As a former HOA board member in an LA condominium complex, I was regaled primarily by Morris' amusing tales drawn from the microcosmic self-government that occurs in a multi-unit community. Flaming passions arise over issues that, in retrospect, appear remarkably trivial. In the right hands, this is a recipe for deadpan comedy, and this is where the book hits its stride.

I had a few problems with the unfurling of a couple of narrative strands near the end of the book, but let us not discuss possible spoilers here.

I'm not a literary critic; I see and read so many plays that I haven't had the time to acquire a breadth of knowledge of other novels that might address the subjects that "Fowl Play" addresses. However, I must take this opportunity to offer an endorsement of another novel that also includes some references to LA theater, even though it was published two years ago.

DLH-Cover-wFrame copy.jpgDiane Haithman's "Dark Lady of Hollywood" hasn't received the attention it deserves. It's a wildly witty and intensely readable tale, told from the perspectives of two different characters — a male, 36-year-old TV comedy exec who has been diagnosed with cancer, and a younger, biracial woman who works for the preening diva who hosts "America's most popular daytime talk show" -- Really, Girlfriend? They usually take turns narrating, chapter by chapter.

Theater references arise from both of the major characters. Ophelia, the diva handler, is a would-be actress who takes lessons at a storefront theater. Ken Harrison, the TV exec, claims to have "left a permanent ass print in a seat in the back row of every theater with fewer than ninety-nine seats within a fifty-mile radius of Burbank." He's also an avid reader of Shakespeare, when he isn't overseeing decidedly non-Shakespearean efforts for network television.

After they meet on the lot, Ken begins envisioning Ophelia as his equivalent of Shakespeare's Dark Lady of the Sonnets, which leads both of them into turbulent waters. Ken's chapters are usually preceded by resonant quotes from the Bard.

The biggest laugh related to LA theater occurs near the end, when the creation of a new Shakespearean repertory company is announced — although, again, I won't explain the circumstances for fear of playing spoiler.

Full disclosure advisory: I am on a first-name basis with both of these authors. Indeed, in my final LA Observed column of 2015, I described Morris' fiery riposte to something I wrote (about an issue that he doesn't discuss in his novel.) Haithman and I worked together on the arts staff of the Los Angeles Times. But I haven't discussed my reactions to their books with either of them.

Both "Fowl Play" and "Dark Lady of Hollywood" refer to "Romeo and Juliet," among other classics. "Fowl Play" begins with a scene in which critic Seth shows up just a little late to review a performance of an adaptation called "Romeo and Julio" at the Hudson Theatre. Complications ensue.

So, as I was reading these books recently, it was fun to see not only the most famous "R & J" adaptation, "West Side Story" (in Long Beach; see my last column), but also the original "Romeo and Juliet," now in rep at A Noise Within in Pasadena.

Actually, Dámaso Rodriguez's staging for ANW is like the original in the way it sounds, but its look is closer to that of "West Side Story." The design (sets and costumes by Angela Balogh Calin, lighting by Jared Sayeg, sound by Martin Carrillo) is contemporary US-urban, with a graffiti-covered wall "memorializing lost youth," notes Rodriguez inside the program. It uses dumpsters, shipping pallets and steel ladders as set pieces and includes a mystically haunting scene in which dresses become muted chandeliers.

Romeo is played by the slender and seductive Will Bradley ("Stupid Fucking Bird," "Miravel"). Donnla Hughes' Juliet seems less pre-pubescent than Shakespeare might have imagined, becoming more of an equal partner in the couple's defiance and ultimate doom. Rafael Goldstein, who was once best known for his work at Zombie Joe's but is now in his eleventh role at A Noise Within, plays Mercutio with a driving clarity.


romeo-and-juliet-noise-within.jpgDonnla Hughes and Will Bradley in "Romeo and Juliet." Photos: Daniel Reichert

November 21, 2015

Mature postmodern metropolis seeks long-term relationship

Los Angeles has been dining out on its postmodern myth of itself for too long, it seems. The city is like an aging intellectual hipster whose love of the ineffable fragmentary nature of the decentered urban experience has gotten old. We're looking for a steady long-term relationship now, a story we can believe in.

Maybe it's just me, but I don't think so. I think this is the secret message at the heart of three very different works--an opera, a memoir, and an economic history--that have struck a strangely similar and resonant chord in Los Angeles this fall.

Hopscotch300B.jpgThis came home to me while watching "Hopscotch," the drive-by opera, which closed this weekend after taking the city by storm over the past month. Underneath all of the very cool postmodern tricks--the opera is broken into 36 chapters scattered around different locations, which the audience experiences only in pieces, while traveling on three different routes through the city--"Hopscotch" is a good old-fashioned love story with a happy ending. There was something oddly touching--and maybe oddly touched, too--about driving downtown to put on headphones to watch people driving around the city in search of what: meaning, love, relationships, a story, all of the above? Yes, all of the above.

I wasn't surprised to find an essay by David Ulin, the LA Times book critic, in Hopscotch: The Mobile Opera, which is something of a cross between a long program and a short book for sale at "the central hub" in the Arts District, where audience members could watch the opera unfold on video screens if, like me, they were unable to snag a ticket to ride along. Ulin takes a somewhat similar journey, on a smaller scale, and on foot, in his new memoir Sidewalking: Coming to Terms with Los Angeles.

Ulin's book is also composed of different routes through the city--mostly the mid-Wilshire neighborhood, but sometimes farther afield--that don't necessarily, on the surface anyway, add up. And Ulin explicitly doesn't seem to care if they add up. That they don't add up is, in fact, an important part of his experience of Los Angeles. And, yet, there is in his perambulations, too, a palpable craving for meaning, love, relationships, a story to believe in.

"We each create our own Los Angeles," Ulin said in a recent conversation about Sidewalking and "the future of the urban experience in Los Angeles" sponsored by the Ruskin Art Club, LA's oldest cultural institution. "There is no master narrative," he said. "We're all forced to take it and make it our own."

And, yet, Ulin sees the possibility of a common urban experience and relationships emerging in Los Angeles, and at the Grove, of all places--the popular shopping complex that masquerades as a Main Street urban village in the mid-Wilshire area, a postmodern trick in its own way. Ulin said the Grove is cultivating a new kind of pedestrian experience in Los Angeles, even if most people do drive there. The Grove, he asserted, may be inauthentic, but it is "an inauthentic space in which authentic interactions can happen."

Relationships are also at the center of The Rise and Fall of Urban Economies: Lessons from San Francisco and Los Angeles, an economic history written by Michael Storper and colleagues. I wrote about their book previously here. If I were to boil down to one sentence their analysis of why the San Francisco Bay Area won the new tech economy and LA did not, it would be this: Relationships matter.

Storper was part of the so-called "LA School," a loose group of urban scholars who argued that Los Angeles represented a new kind of postmodern, decentered, fragmented metropolis that required a new kind of postmodern urban theory. Postmodern Los Angeles emerged from the deindustrialization and decentralization that started around the 1970s and has defined the metropolitan region ever since, though there are signs everywhere that a new vision of the city may be emerging.

It's telling that an age-old question is now crying out at the heart of this new city struggling to emerge from the postmodern metropolis: How can we cultivate relationships?

November 1, 2015

From "Smogtown" to a model for the world?

The smell of smog makes me nostalgic. My Proustian madeleine moment is walking down the jet stairs to the tarmac at the Burbank airport on a warm day. That particular whiff of ozone and automobile exhaust combined with vaguely sweet overtones of citrus, chaparral, and hot asphalt gets me every time. I'm a kid again in the 1960s or 1970s, visiting my grandparents in Pasadena, when you couldn't see the San Gabriel Mountains from Vroman's Bookstore, which my grandfather owned and ran with his cousins.

Peyri Herrera.jpgA lot has changed since then. Being able to see the mountains most days of the year is one of the most visible counter-narratives to the lamentations about California's demise that every generation seems to relish here. Not to mention breathing the air.

Nobody misses the smog. But even though it is not as visible--or smelly--most days, we still have too much air pollution, regularly giving LA some of the worst air quality in the nation. But California's success in dramatically cleaning the air over LA led the way to national efforts and is now a signal to the world--particularly cities in South and East Asia regularly suffering some of the most dire air quality on the planet--that there is hope and a path forward.

That hope regularly brings Chinese officials to Los Angeles to learn the lessons of this transformation. It's also the message at the center of "Bending the Curve: Ten Scalable Solutions for Carbon Neutrality and Climate Stability," a new report by 50 researchers from across the University of California system, on which I was senior editor. Cleaning up the air--removing what scientists call the "short lived climate pollutants" that make up soot and smog--is the first major step in reducing global warming. It has immediate health benefits for people. And it buys us some time to work on reducing and eventually flat-lining long-term climate pollution from carbon dioxide, which we can't see or smell, but which persists in the atmosphere for thousands of years.

Can LA be a model for the world? I like to think so, or hope so, anyway. So does Chip Jacobs, author of Smogtown: The Lung-Burning History of Pollution in Los Angeles and The People's Republic of Chemicals, both written with co-author William J. Kelly. Smogtown has just been published in paperback with a new postscript that makes that argument, too.

"It's a tantalizing idea, isn't it?" Jacobs responded when I asked him what he thinks of California as an example. It's true, he said, that Chinese officials have been visiting California for years to learn how to monitor and reduce air pollution. In some cases they've implemented solutions in a few years that took California several decades.

But Jacobs offers some important caveats. Most of LA's smog came from cars, but some of it came from manufacturing that has gone overseas in recent decades. "Be careful when you ship something off to another country: you're exporting pollution," he said. "We allowed corporations to go and set up in cheaper more authoritarian places," he added. "They don't have to build in costs for pollution control. But the discount you're getting is at somebody else's expense."

As much as 20 percent of China's pollution is caused by exports to the United States, Jacobs said. Some of that pollution drifts back over the West Coast on the prevailing winds, and the carbon dioxide China pumps into the atmosphere adds to global warming.

Jacobs also said that while Chinese officials--and officials from other governments as well--are often eager to learn about scientific and technological solutions, they're not as quick to embrace another element of California's success: the ability of citizens to get access to information and to sue the government to take action. Some technocrats here have sometimes publicly wished that they could have the power of authorities in China just for a day.

But if the history of Smogtown is any guide, the power of the people is key to success. Public protests, environmental organizers, nonprofit lawyers, investigative scientists, crusading journalists, dedicated public officials, and democratically elected leaders all contributed to enacting laws and policies that have steadily ratcheted down pollution levels through regulations, taxes, and incentives.

Perversely, that success now leaves Jacobs worried about his hometown, too. "My biggest fear is public complacency," he said. We've paid our way out of our biggest problems, and we no longer "have an active, zesty engagement," he said. Aside from the hardcore activists and Prius drivers, "I'm not convinced Californians are dynamite environmentalists. People hate smog but they love their cars more. It's a passive environmentalism," he said.

"We've improved technology. We haven't changed the culture," Jacobs concluded. "We're a stabilized pollution island."

To really become a model for the world, it turns out, Los Angeles may need to relearn its own history. Rereading Smogtown is a good start.

For more on "Bending the Curve: Ten Scalable Solutions for Carbon Neutrality and Climate Stability," see my article in The Conversation and Q&A here. Want to see air quality in LA and around the world in real time? Check out the World Air Quality Index. And there's an app for that here in LA and around the United States: Air4U.

Photo by Peyri Herrera.

October 26, 2015

When LA's vineyards ruled California by abusing Native Americans

Vignes-vineyard.jpgJean Louis Vignes' vineyard circa 1855. Photo by Frank Schumacher. Courtesy of the Seaver Center for Western Research.

California's wine industry began 175 years ago in Los Angeles, though given the grotesque human rights abuses involved maybe it's best the city isn't celebrating that particular slice of its history.

In 1840, a Frenchman named Jean Louis Vignes (pronounced Vines) shipped barrels of wine made from his Los Angeles vineyard to Santa Barbara, Monterey and San Francisco. The trip is regarded as the first commercial shipment of wine in California, a baby step that would eventually lead to today's $25 billion wine industry.

There are just a few reminders now of Los Angeles's significant role in the development of the California wine business, which it dominated until 1890. There is Vignes Street, of course, along with Bauchet Street, Wolfskill Street, Kohler Street, and Requena Street - all named after early Los Angeles winemakers. There are three grapevines more than 150 years old creeping along an arbor on Olvera Street. But Los Angeles has covered up more of its wine history than it has preserved. Union Station, for example, sits on top of what was once Vignes' famed "El Aliso" vineyard, named for its towering sycamore tree.

Maybe it's no surprise that Los Angeles is ignoring the 175th anniversary milestone since aspects of the city's early involvement with wine were reprehensible. While many people know that Father Junipero Serra and the Franciscan fathers treated the Native Americans badly during the Mission era, virtually enslaving them to plant vineyards and harvest and press grapes, few realize that the Californios and Americans who flooded the state during the Gold Rush treated them even worse. Los Angeles gets special mention for the harsh and punitive laws it enacted to force Native Americans to make wine.

When Mexico secularized the mission system in 1833, it freed Native Americans from their enforced indenture. Early attempts to award them land for houses and crops failed, and the result was a nation of rootless Indians who lived on the edge of starvation or worked for a pittance in the ranchos, pueblo farms and vineyards around Los Angeles. Many of them only owned the clothes on their backs. They lived in two settlements in Los Angeles where many drank to excess and got in fights. In 1846, Los Angeles authorities, concerned about the growing violence in the camps, expelled the natives from town.

Americans took the brutal treatment of Indians a step further, in part to alleviate the severe labor shortage caused by the Gold Rush. The first law passed by the fledging California Legislature on April 19, 1850 was nicknamed the "Indian Indenture Act." It stripped Native Americans of most of their rights and permitted vineyardists to force Native Americans to work against their will. All the would-be employers had to do was identify an Indian as a vagrant or drunk, which allowed a marshal or sheriff to arrest him and sell his labor for up to four months to the highest bidder to pay off the fine.

The Los Angeles Common Council adopted its own, stricter version of this law on Aug. 16, 1850, one that allowed the marshal to form Indian chain gangs to work on municipal projects. If the city didn't need any work done, the marshal could sell the native's labor to the highest bidder.

This law created a devastating cycle that decimated the Native American community in Los Angeles. The marshal and his deputies were paid a $1 kickback for every eight natives they rounded up, so on Sunday nights they would descend on the infamous Calle De los Negros to collect the inebriated Indians who had spent the weekend in the alley's gambling dens, brothels, and saloons. They were easy to find, as many had collapsed, drunk, in doorways, alleyways, and vacant lots. The marshal would then conduct a public auction and sell the Native Americans' labor for $1 to $3 a week.

"Los Angeles has a slave mart as well as New Orleans and Constantinople - only the slave at Los Angeles was sold fifty-two times a year as long as he lived, which generally did not exceed one, two, or three years under the new dispensation," Horace Bell, a newspaper publisher, wrote about Los Angeles in the 1850s.

Lithograph of Vignes' El Aliso winery, circa 1855. And a brandy distiller used by Vignes.

All this cheap labor transformed Los Angeles into the center of winemaking in California. By the early 1850s, there were about 100 vineyards in and around Los Angeles, including Vignes' fabled 35-acre vineyard along the river that had been tended by Native Americans. The verdant city earned the nickname the "City of Vines."

The end to southern California's dominance came quickly. People poured into Los Angeles during a boom in 1886 around the time the deadly Pierce's Disease knocked out the majority of vines in the region. Soon, most of Los Angeles' vineyards were converted to other uses. By 1890, northern California took the lead in the wine business; a position it has never relinquished.

Given this dark past - and there are many other examples of the greed and blood lust of the region's early wine history - it is no surprise that Los Angeles does not glorify its role in the creation of the California wine industry.

Frances Dinkelspiel is the author of "Tangled Vines: Greed, Murder, Obsession and an Arsonist in the Vineyards of California." She will be speaking at the Homestead Museum in the City of Industry on Nov. 1 at 2 p.m., the Galleano Winery on Nov. 1 at 5:30 p.m.; the Huntington Library on Nov. 2 at noon and Book Soup in West Hollywood on Nov. 7 at 4 p.m.

Previously on LA Observed:
Books of the week

September 20, 2015

Why LA missed the new economy

The Rise and Fall of Urban Economies: Lessons from San Francisco and Los Angeles, a new book out this month, should be required reading for people who consider themselves leaders in Los Angeles, whether in politics, business, academia, advocacy, or philanthropy. It is a clear challenge. LA's leaders failed the city in the last generation. They focused on the wrong things and missed the boat on the new economy, which the San Francisco Bay Area commandeered and made its own.

Can we learn from the past? Now's our chance.

storper.jpgIn the 1970s, LA and San Francisco were in the same economic club of cities. While the Bay Area has solidified its position in the very top rank of cities since then, Los Angeles is now in danger of slipping into the rank of middling metropolitan areas. If you look at the facts and compare the trajectory of major American metropolitan areas over the past 40 years, "Los Angeles most closely resembles Detroit," write the authors of this new book.

That's got to hurt, if anyone is paying attention. And they better be.

The lead author of this searing analysis of how San Francisco beat LA to the new economy is a heavy hitter. Michael Storper is an economic sociologist and geographer with appointments at UCLA, the London School of Economics, and Sciences Po in Paris.

He and his co-authors make a persuasive case that Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area were in the same position at the dawn of the high-tech economy in the 1970s. They each had similar resources--great universities, tech talent, investors, civic institutions, nonprofit organizations--and similar weaknesses, including fragmented local governments across a diverse metropolitan region.

But San Francisco kept its eyes on the prize. And LA "foundered," the authors write. As a result median household incomes (after subtracting housing costs) are now 50 percent higher in the Bay Area than in LA. People enjoy higher wages across the board in the Bay Area. They're better educated. There's way more venture capital investment, more creative jobs, more inventions, new companies, and more high-paying jobs being created in the Bay Area.

What happened?

I just reviewed The Rise and Fall of Urban Economies for the San Francisco Chronicle. So I won't go over the case the authors make again here. Suffice it to say it is rigorously constructed and very persuasive. The book is written like a detective story, as the authors systematically examine the usual suspects that LA blames for its fate--geographic expanse, population size, immigration, the collapse of the aerospace industry--and carefully dismiss them one by one.

The fault, they conclude, is not in our stars, but rather in our leaders and our civic and business culture, or perhaps, more accurately, lack of it.

You can argue with this, but ignore it at your own peril. Actually, not just at your own peril, it turns out. At our city's peril.

And that's what I want to focus on here. What went wrong in LA? Can we fix it? Or are we too late?

The short answer is that LA's leaders in government, business, academic, and civic institutions failed to grasp the "zeitgeist" of the new economy--its open-source spirit. They failed to cultivate the "invisible colleges"--vibrant relational networks of investors, entrepreneurs, and scientists--that fostered new technologies, new businesses, and new jobs in the Bay Area. LA's universities, businesses, governments, and civic groups kept each other more at arm's length.

LA's leaders talked about the "new economy," but they actually focused on the opposite: keeping light manufacturing in the city, reducing business and development costs, and improving the vast logistics and transportation system around the ports in San Pedro and Long Beach. That was all well and good, the authors of The Rise and Fall argue, for low paying jobs. But it was a major distraction from the opportunities at hand.

Now we are trying to play catch-up. We've got Silicon Beach, though it's not big enough to have moved the needle significantly, yet. We have an open-source ethos in government, just like everybody else now. And there are efforts underway to change the civic "zeitgeist."

The" Future of Cities: Leading in LA" initiative, founded by public affairs consultant Donna Bojarsky, is one. When it convenes its first big conference in October, it will be interesting to see if it can get beyond the ideological grandstanding and divisive carping which seemed to characterize its debut earlier this summer.

But reforming this city's civic culture is going to take a lot more than a few high-minded salons and gab fests. We are way behind, and there is a long journey ahead. LA's leaders might want to sit down and draw a new roadmap for the city after reading The Rise and Fall of Urban Economies: Lessons from San Francisco and Los Angeles. Then get to work.


The Rise and Fall of Urban Economies: Lessons From San Francisco and Los Angeles. By Michael Storper, Thomas Kemeny, Naji P. Makarem, and Taner Osman. (Stanford University Press; 328 pages; $60).

August 24, 2015

When the Beatles met Elvis in LA, and why the friendship turned bitter

beatles-color-beck-telegraph.jpgBeatles at backyard party in Los Angeles in 1964, a year before meeting Elvis.

Editor's note: For the Beatles' first U.S. tour in 1964, Los Angeles-based British journalist Ivor Davis was embedded with the band. His new book, The Beatles and Me on Tour, chronicles his travels with the official entourage. The following summer, he was along when the Beatles, back in town, drove from Beverly Hills to Bel Air to meet Elvis Presley. In a piece for LA Observed, Davis recalls that night, on August 27, 1965. Sadly, no pictures were taken.

"I always wanted to be this tough James Dean type, but Elvis was bigger than religion in my life. When I heard 'Heartbreak Hotel,' it was so great I couldn't speak, I didn't want to say anything against Elvis, not even in my mind." — John Lennon

"It was a load of rubbish. It was like meeting Engelbert Humperdinck." — Lennon on meeting The King

Shortly before 6 p.m. on the evening of August 27, 1965, I got a call from Beatles road manager Mal Evans. "Get over to the house right away — we're going to see Elvis."

August had been a crazy month for me. I was keeping a close eye on the Beatles, but earlier I had spent six days covering the Watts riots for my London newspaper and dodging sniper bullets. The rioting was over and so getting a front-row Los Angeles seat for an intriguing "Summit" — of Elvis and the Beatles — sounded a lot less dangerous.

The historic visit was to take place at Elvis' one-story mansion at 565 Perugia Way in Bel Air. Mal sounded more excited than he had been on the entire Beatles tour. But then he added the disappointing kicker: "Brian says no photographers or tape recorders. Everything is off the record."

In fact I later discovered that in a personal note to his assistant, penned on Beverly Hills Hotel notepaper, Beatles manager Brian Epstein, who was savvy to the ways of publicity, went against type by stressing how important it was not to turn the visit into a press event. He scrawled:

"1. I do not think they should meet Elvis through the efforts of any newspaper rep. It (the meeting) can only be arranged (if they're that keen) then in my view it must be entirely private and unpublished. 2. In my view it is absolutely inadvisable to allow any pressman or photographer to interview or take pictures whilst they are at the house."
That wasn't what I wanted to hear, but within half an hour, I was at the Beatles' rented house in Beverly Hills on a perfect night: the 80-degree daytime heat had cooled to the mid-60's. Strangely all the Beatles were nervous at the idea of finally meeting Elvis after more than a year of intense negotiating. Epstein came into the room with a big smile: "Elvis is waiting."

Minutes later our limo with the Beatles clad in light jackets and open necked shirts, pulled through electric gates into a driveway outside a low-slung, gray house surrounded by a ten-foot wrought-iron fence. To our surprise there were more than 100 screaming young women in the street outside Elvis' house.

"We're here to see Elvis," John shouted to none in particular in a jovial loud voice as we approached the front door, which opened before pushed the bell.

Just inside the door was a big, round lobby. Off to the left was a huge living room with a giant (at least giant for that era) TV screen, which was on but without sound. The house was furnished in what I would describe as Vegas Overdone — heavy, overstuffed chairs and faux antique tables, which might have been something you'd find in a medieval castle. The windows were covered by heavy, satiny drapes, and the lighting came from a series of red and blue wall lights, plus an elaborate glass chandelier almost as big as a refrigerator. The stuccoed walls were salmon pink.

There was just too much furniture for the room. The TV, in sharp contrast to the old-fashioned chairs and tables, seemed an odd addition. At one end of the big circular room, which reminded me of a mini ballroom, was a pool table; at the other end, a white grand piano sat incongruously next to a multi-colored jukebox with an Elvis record playing at full volume. The carpet was garish, too, a pale tangerine color. The room had a big fireplace but it was not lit. I thought it was all a bit gaudy, more like the Old South than New California.

And there, lounging on a long, crescent-shaped, off-white couch covered in brightly colored pillows, was the King himself.

He stood up at the commotion that greeted the Beatles' entrance. He looked just like you'd expect Elvis to look. His enormous head of dyed black hair was brilliantined and combed back. His sideburns ran thick and deep down both sides of his face as though they had been carefully glued to his cheeks. He wore a stiff jacket with a high collar over a bright red bolero shirt and tight blue jeans. And he was surrounded by assorted minions — guys less elaborately attired and several young women (some of them teenagers) who looked like cocktail waitresses in a saloon.

It was shortly after 11 at night, but Elvis was wearing wraparound sunglasses, which it seemed he needed to cope with the blinking lights, bright walls and carpeting, though we later learned he had glaucoma. He pulled the glasses off seconds after we arrived. In his other hand he held the TV remote.

I wish I could report that great dialogue instantly flowed between the musical heroes, that there was witty repartee and instant bonding as Elvis and the Beatles swapped rock war stories or exchanged intimate details about coping with life at the top.

That just didn't happen.

The two camps of icons were positively awkward at first, and Elvis' Memphis Mafia — Joe Esposito, Marty Lacker, Billy Smith, Jerry Schilling, Alan Fortas and Sonny West — seemed more excited than Elvis did when the Beatles walked in.

Finally, after a few seconds of uneasy and awkward silence, Paul (ever the smoothie) walked straight up to Elvis and shook his hand. "Paul," he said simply. "Good to meetcha." Then the other three followed his lead, giving their first names only. Elvis kind of clicked his heels as he greeted each Beatle. Then Brian stepped forward, greeted Elvis, and shook hands with Elvis' managerTom Parker and formally introduced his boys to Parker even though they'd met him a year earlier. I thought it all played out a bit like a comedy sketch. The two managers were more at ease with each other than their stars were, stepping back to give their boys the spotlight and the oxygen they needed.

I noticed that Elvis looked a little bit annoyed, surly, even: Possibly, he was surprised and likely ticked off by the small army of strangers (all the hangers-on with the Beatles) who had filed into his house without an invitation.

A healthy complement (maybe half a dozen) of young women were soon hovering around the Fab Four and Elvis. Several were wearing short-shorts or jeans with tight blouses that displayed lots of cleavage and even a bellybutton here and there.

There were no further introductions, although as the night wore on, I saw a beautiful young woman with raven hair piled high and far too much black eye shadow. She was never formally introduced to any of us, but this, we knew, was Priscilla. When she moved territorialy closer to Elvis, he put his arm protectively around her narrow waist and included her in some of the chitchat with John and Paul. Then she withdrew.

Neil Aspinall, the Beatles other "roadie," recalled that he was fixated on Priscilla. "She looked a bit like Barbie doll," he said. "Black hair stacked high in the beehive fashion...and some kind of tiara."

While the Beatles didn't object to our prying eyes, Elvis showed his discomfort by displaying an alarming absence of enthusiasm. He didn't like the idea of being turned into a museum exhibit in his own home. It was a lot like being at the theater with the actors in costume at center stage, but no one could remember what lines they were supposed to deliver or even want the show to begin.

For the first twenty minutes or so, the boys from Liverpool sat with their host on that long white couch in front of the flickering, soundless TV, making some sort of half-hearted small talk. It was pretty painful until George plopped himself cross-legged on the floor, dragging an ashtray with him. The Beatles were given drinks (and refills) of mostly rum and coke as they surveyed the strange scene and waited, unsure of what the protocol was to be.

Finally, Paul took the TV remote and began changing channels. He was amazed at the wonderful new gadget that he could hold in one hand and switch stations from his seat without having to touch anything on the TV itself. But Elvis looked increasingly irritable at the desultory small talk. At last he stood up, took the remote out of Paul's hand, and drawled with mock severity, "If you guys are gonna just sit around. I'm goin' to bed."

Everyone laughed, and Elvis visibly relaxed: "Didn't you guys show up to jam?" he asked.

That was the signal the Beatles had been waiting for. They jumped to their feet, and as if by magic, guitars appeared. Elvis pulled off his high-collar jacket and tossed it to an aide, who gave him a guitar. Suddenly he looked a lot more animated and comfortable.

Someone pushed a large amplifier to his side, and he plugged in, and then they all began strumming like members of an orchestra warming up. No conversation, just Elvis taking over. Wordlessly, with Elvis in the lead, they moved into "Blue Suede Shoes." Next, Chuck Berry's "Roll Over Beethoven." After that, Paul moved over to the piano and the unscheduled concert continued with more Berry: "Maybelline," a staple of the King's early live shows, and "Promised Land," which he would record ten years later in the famous Stax Sessions.

It was all music and almost no conversation. I watched, mesmerized by this unscheduled jam session from the greatest popular musical talents in the world.

Ringo, looking a bit left out of it, stubbed out his cigarette and said to no one in particular, "Anyone fancy a game of snooker.

During a pause in the jam session Elvis asked, "Any of you guys want popcorn?"

"I'd much prefer a whisky with a shot of Tizer (a popular English soft drink)," John said with a straight face. "With a cheese and pickle sandwich." Elvis didn't get the joke.

In a smaller study a few feet away, Parker and Epstein were deep in conversation, Then Parker pulled a small, brown leather humidor containing three cigars out of his jacket pocket and offered it to Brian. "Have a Cohiba."

Epstein helped himself to one, and so did Parker, who pulled a clipper out of another pocket, snipped Epstein's cigar and did the same for himself. One of the Presley minions quickly stepped forward with a huge lighter. Both of the managers lit up and began puffing furiously as they walked into the anteroom with a long, gigantic buffet table laden with drinks, a big seafood platter, huge pizzas, cheese dips, bread rolls, brownies and a silver tray laden with assorted doughnuts which seemed somewhat out of place in the elaborate spread.

"Pour Mr. Epstein a bourbon," he told one of Elvis' sidekicks.

"No, thank you," said Brian, "just a whisky and a touch of soda."

Back in the main room, Elvis and the Beatles had stopped playing, and their conversation was flowing more freely. Paul seemed to drive the chat and instinctively gave Elvis the kudos he thought he deserved. "We're all crazy about your early stuff," he told Elvis. "We grew up in England with you. It's our favorite. I wish you'd do more songs we listened to in Liverpool."

Elvis nodded, though perhaps a little peeved at Paul's suggestion that his best days were past. "Yeah, they've got me doin' a new movie every week, only I play the same guy each time singing the same songs," he admitted.

Around 1:30 am the party wound down. But before they left, Parker signaled to two men, who gathered five large shopping bags laden with what turned out to be collections of all of Elvis' records, and handed them to each Beatle and Epstein.

As John walked out the front door he told Jerry Schilling, "I know Elvis can't get out, but we're just up the road and we'll be there for another couple of days. Maybe you can bring Elvis over to our place."

"Sure, John," Schilling responded, "but I knew it was never gonna happen," he recalled later.

And it never did. A few years later the Beatles were infuriated when they heard that Elvis had gone to the White House — and badmouthed the Beatles to Richard Nixon.

And a year after finishing my book and while in Los Angeles at a Beatle fanjets convention, I met David E. Stanley, who was Elvis' half brother. His mother Davina "Dee" married Elvis' father Vernon in l960, two years after Elvis' mother Gladys died.

"When Elvis went to the White House in December l970 to see Nixon and said bad things about the Beatles," Stanley told me, "I saw him leave Graceland and he was totally stoned out of his mind."

And in fact, presidential papers recently released revealed that on the American Airlines flight to Washington DC, Elvis scrawled a hand-written, sloppily worded five-page letter saying that he had talked to Vice President Agnew in Palm Springs and had become a great admirer of Nixon. He asked Nixon to make him "a federal agent at large" to help combat the nation's drug problem. As part of the deal, he said, because of his fame, he could communicate with anti-establishment types — "the drug culture crowd. the hippie elements, the SDS and Black Panthers" — who he could persuade to support Nixon.

And for good measure he also tossed the Beatles to the wolves, declaring, "the Beatles came to this country, made their money and then returned to England where they promoted an anti-American theme."

And Elvis, jealous because he had been deposed at the top of the hit parade by the Brits, and upset after their first movie "A Hard Day's Night" was an instant smash, while under contract he was forced to make three corny movies a year, bitterly denounced the Beatles to FBI director J. Edgar Hoover in l971. "The Beatles laid the groundwork for many of the problems we are having with young people by their filthy, unkempt appearances and suggestive music...."

Elvis got his honorary Drug Enforcement badge and he presented Nixon with a set of guns from his private collection, which he had surreptitiously carried with him into the White House.

The Beatles built up a healthy resentment of Elvis.

And then to add further insult, Nixon angered by John Lennon's anti-Vietnam war campaign, set the U.S. government onto Lennon in an effort to get his trouble-maker deported.

July 13, 2015

Author interview: Molly Knight on the Los Angeles Dodgers

EE0cdfoN.jpgMolly Knight tells some juicy tales in "The Best Team Money Can Buy: The Los Angeles Dodgers' Wild Struggle to Build a Baseball Powerhouse" (Simon & Schuster), including that Yasiel Puig carried on an "on-off relationship with the daughter of a Dodgers minor-league instructor" and that the front office bungled relations with manager Don Mattingly by not publicly acknowledging that his 2014 contract had vested during the 2013 playoffs. I'd trade my Juan Uribe bobblehead to check out what Knight calls the "secret owner's bunker" located inside Dodger Stadium.

Knight didn't set out to write a behind-the-scenes book when she began covering the divorce proceedings between Frank and Jamie McCourt for ESPN. But not long after the franchise veered from dysfunction to deep pockets, the self-confessed Dodgers fan realized that this story had more plot twists than a soap opera: from bankruptcy to billionaires; the remarkable 42-8 skein; the rise of Cuban import Yasiel Puig from obscurity; the emergence of Clayton Kershaw as Sandy Koufax's heir apparent. Knight's access to myriad sources within the clubhouse and the front office - no easy feat in this era of protective publicists and hovering handlers - adds nuance to a summertime read that goes down as easily as a sudsy beer in the bleachers.

The East Coast-dominated publishing industry has long ignored West Coast baseball in favor of, primarily, the Yankees and the Boston Red Sox. With Knight's effort, as well as Andy McCue's epic "Mover & Shaker: Walter O'Malley, the Dodgers & Baseball's Westward Expansion"> (University of Nebraska Press), readers can delve into two in-depth accounts from Chavez Ravine in two seasons. For those looking for a decided change of pace, there's "A Book of Walks," written by San Francisco Giants manager Bruce Bochy (Wellstone Books).

LA Observed spoke to Molly Knight by phone last week. She will be making numerous appearances throughout Southern California to promote her book, including an afternoon talk at the Los Angeles Central Library on July 29. (This interview was transcribed, edited, and condensed.)

LA Observed: I gather that you're a Native Angelino. Where did you grow up?

Molly Knight: I'm a fifth generation Angelino. My paternal grandfather went to Beverly Hills High, my maternal grandfather went to Hollywood High, and my maternal grandmother went to Fairfax High. My parents met at USC and moved to Whittier. I grew up in Whittier and lived there until I went away to college [at Stanford]. After that I moved to New York and lived there for seven years. I came back to L.A. four years ago [in 2011] when ESPN sent me out here to cover the McCourt divorce. I spent the winter out here and realized that I can't do another New York winter. I never left.

LAO: How did you approach the McCourt divorce story?

MK: At the time I was basically a cub reporter. I had never done news before. The Dodgers weren't really on ESPN's radar at that point. They sent me out here because they knew that I knew a lot about the Dodgers because I grew up here. I grew up a fan. So, I talked them into letting me write a feature for ESPN The Magazine about it. We all thought the McCourts were going to settle, and it was going to be over. But as you know they never settled, and it kept getting crazier and crazier until the whole thing went nuclear.

I was filing two stories a day on It was a crazy adrenaline rush because it was really high stakes. It was my first time ever writing on deadline. It was my first time ever having to do television and radio and talk about it on "SportsCenter." It was a lot of pressure and also a lot of fun.

LAO: When did you decide to write a book?

MK: I had gotten to know a lot of the guys on the team through the divorce reporting. During the bankruptcy, I would go to the stadium and ask the players how they felt about it and how it affected them. And, they were trying to gather information from me. They're like, "Are we getting paid this week? Here's my number. Text me if you hear anything." That's how I started developing relationships with the players. I was sharing information with them and helping them navigate it. They knew certain things that they told me off the record and that I kept off the record. They really respected that.

As time went on and the Dodgers emerged from bankruptcy, the players and everyone else in the organization -- the coaching staff and other employees -- went from being broke to being bought [in 2012] for the highest price in the history of sports and having Magic Johnson and [Guggenheim Partners CEO] Mark Walter as their owners. It was just this massive change. I remember walking into the locker-room during spring training in 2013, and a group of players were sitting around, and they were like, "Hey, we've been talking about it. You should write a book about this."

At first I was hesitant. I'd never written anything longer than 6,000 words before. The more I thought about it during the season, the more I was like, "Hmm, that's interesting." I asked the players, "If I write a book, will you cooperate?" Nearly all of them said yes. Everyone was super-supportive. I think it was because "Moneyball" [the movie] had just come out, and they were thinking that maybe Brad Pitt would play them.

LAO: Why did Mark Walter and his partners allow Frank McCourt to retain a co-ownership share of the property in and around Dodger Stadium?

MK: Mark Walter would not have made that deal unless he felt like he had to do in order to get the team. At the time of the sale, every newspaper was reporting that Guggenheim out-bid everyone by $700 million [to buy the Dodgers]. That was untrue, as I write in the book. Walter was shown a signed offer for $2 billion. So he had to go over that [with a reported bid of $2.15 billion] and still be tangentially related to [McCourt] in a business capacity.

That being said, I would be very surprised if they enter into some sort of development relationship with [McCourt]. Everybody who's ever worked with that guy has gotten sued and lived to regret it. I see the relationship as, the Dodgers are just paying him rent for the parking lot every year, which is how he has made his living in the first place.

LAO: You mention in passing that Guggenheim signed a lucrative deal with Time Warner for the TV rights to Dodger games. Will the money that the team receives [a reported $8.35 billion] trump the horrendous p.r. hit the organization has taken, with most people in Southern California still unable to tune into Vin Scully on TV?

MK: It's completely unacceptable that most fans can't watch the games. I get riled up about that. I don't know if it was that grossly overpriced or if this was just DirecTV wanting to say "F-U" to Time Warner for a whole bunch of reasons and this is the hill they're choosing to take a stand on. It's unfortunate, and the Dodgers haven't handled it well. They don't want to criticize the people who agreed to give them $8 billion. They've thrown up their hands like, "It's not our fault." Well, yes, it is your fault because you sold the rights to your games to these people and you should have figured out if it was going to be feasible and if the games were going to get on television.

The only two things that this ownership group has messed up have been the TV deal and the way they handled Don Mattingly's contract at the end of 2013. The reason why I didn't write about the TV debacle in the book was because, honestly, I thought it was going to be settled by now. In which case, it would be a waste of everyone's time [to read about it]. I still think it will get settled in the next year.

LAO: Your revelations about Yasiel Puig have set Twitter abuzz. Is he such a distraction in the clubhouse?

MK: He's definitely a distraction, and he sucks up a lot of the oxygen in that room. They're all sort of obsessed with talking about him: "This is what he did today, blah-blah-blah." The question is, does that matter? Does that impact the won-loss record? And, that's just so hard to quantify. The bottom line is, if he keeps performing at an all-star level, it doesn't matter that his teammates don't like him. If he leads them to championships, then it doesn't matter that he's not Mr. Congeniality.

When he came up, [general manager] Ned Colletti and [manager] Don Mattingly were on the verge of maybe getting fired. You had jobs at stake, you had big money on the line, and the Dodgers didn't have time to set boundaries and limits with Puig. They couldn't bench him when he was out of line because they needed him. Winning was the most important thing. That's a lot to put on a kid. Now he feels like the rules don't apply to him because that's the precedent that was set. You could see why that happened: he's phenomenal and fun to watch, and the fans love him. He's what baseball needs.

I really tried to present him fairly. The context for how he got here, and going from being a guy who no one knows to being the most talked about player in baseball in a matter of months, it's never going to happen again in the information age. I have a lot of empathy for that. He's sort of like a Hollywood child star. He's like Lindsay Lohan - so talented, but given so much, so fast, so young.

LAO: Do you think Puig will be playing for the Dodgers a year from now?

MK: Yeah, I think so. He's a great player and he's cheap. He's just kind of a jerk and kind of immature. If I were in charge of the Dodgers, I would do everything I could to make it work because his type of talent does not come along often. Baseball is full of people who have challenging personalities: Alex Rodriguez, Barry Bonds, Reggie Jackson. Reggie Jackson was a jerk, but he was Mr. October.

I love watching Puig play, so I hope that he can harness his talent and use the criticism as motivation to prove people wrong. He needs to improve his work ethic -- start showing up early and preparing better -- because right now he's in the batter's box just reacting. He doesn't have an approach.

This is a really competent front office that has shown a willingness to cut ties with players when it's not working anymore, even when they have to eat money. They have [rookie-of-the-year candidate] Joc Pederson and [prospect] Corey Seager coming up. They can build marketing campaigns around those exciting young players.

LAO: Do you think Zack Greinke will remain with the Dodgers after the 2015 season?

MK: Honestly, I don't think anybody knows. I don't know if Zack's made up his mind yet. If the Dodgers don't sign him to an extension [during the season], I think he's going to opt out [of his contract and become a free agent]. That's a good thing. That means he's done well. That means he thinks he can get more money.

I can't really see Zack going to an American League team because he loves hitting. He loves the weather here. He's also a competitor -- he wants to win -- and he wants to be on a team with a smart front office. There's not many teams that fit the bill in what he's looking for, including potentially a huge contract. The Dodgers check all the boxes.

Greinke's my favorite player to cover. He's a guy who experienced social anxiety earlier in his career, and one of the great joys about watching him is that he really appears to be comfortable and coming into his essence. He's embraced the fact that he's this loveable weirdo. He's like, "This is me. I'm going to grow my hair out and wear a Samurai bandana in the locker-room, and I'm going to walk up [to the plate] to 'Careless Whisper' by Wham."

LAO: What's your opinion of the job that Don Mattingly has done?

MK: I've criticized Mattingly. His in-game management in 2013 was not good. But he's gotten better. I've been around the club every day and I see how he handles the crazy clash of egos. On that stuff he's done a phenomenal job. He's a former player so he has clout with the players. I think, for a manager, that's almost more important than the in-game stuff. If people had known what went on in the Dodgers locker-room and how he kept the team together, he would've won manager of the year. It was drama every day. It was too many egos, too many weirdos, too much testosterone, and he handled all that admirably. He alluded to it by saying the team was like the 1972 Oakland A's [a notoriously unruly bunch that nevertheless won the World Series].

What's impressed me is that he has shown this willingness to learn. He wants to get better. He's embracing the analytics stuff. I think he's the perfect manager for [president of baseball operations] Andrew Friedman and [general manager] Farhan Zaidi. He carries the clout of an old-school guy, but he has a curious mind. He's very progressive.

LAO: How would you compare/contrast Andrew Friedman and his predecessor, Ned Colletti?

MK: It's old school-new school, both about the whole scouts-versus-stats thing and their management style. Colletti is from Chicago and likes to throw his weight around: "I'm going to go in there and yell at somebody. I'm going to put people in their place and show them who's boss." There's some intimidation at work.

Most baseball players I've met put an incredible amount of pressure on themselves. It's a really hard game with a really long season. It's brutal when they're in a slump. A lot of these guys don't need to be screamed at. Some do: Puig needs someone in his face. But most of them need to relax. They need to be encouraged and have positivity. I think with people who are too emotional, it's not a good mix. Colletti's ruled by emotion. I just think the rah-rah emotional stuff is a much better fit for football than baseball.

In Colletti's defense, he was working under Frank McCourt. We would have a different narrative today if Colletti had been allowed to add CC Sabathia or Cliff Lee to the Dodgers staff. They might have won the World Series, and Colletti would still be the g.m. But McCourt said no.

Friedman is ruled by reason. He's an analytics guy. When he came in, there was a lot of distrust between the scouting side, the drafting side, and the front office. It was a bit of a mess. They've worked to rebuild the farm system, and they're loading up the system [with young prospects].

LAO: What do you think is the most surprising part of the book?

MK: The way that I ended up in Clayton Kershaw's house the day that he got the phone call about his new contract. That was the dumbest luck moment of my life. It just so happened that we planned this random day in January to meet [at Kershaw's off-season home in Dallas]. I got there, and then all of sudden the contract deal was happening. I thought he was going to kick me out of his house. But because of how he is, he said, "No, I made this commitment with you. I'm doing the interview." He doesn't let many people in, so I felt a lot of pressure to get it right.

LAO: Do you have plans for another book?

MK: That's sort of like asking a nine-month pregnant lady when she's going to have her next kid. I'll see how this process goes and how I recover afterwards. It's such a rewarding experience I probably will.

David Davis is the author of "Waterman: The Life and Times of Duke Kahanamoku" (Univ. of Nebraska Press), coming October 1.

Photo credit: Stephen Dunn

May 2, 2015

An atlas of LA's multitudes

jc-mg-200-names.jpgJon Christensen writes: Atlases implicitly invoke the myth of Atlas, the god who carried the world on his shoulders. An atlas is designed to embrace, contain, and carry a world in its collection of maps.

All maps tell stories about the relationships between things in space. You are here at Union Station. Just in front of you are four rows of Mexican fan palms, Washingtonia robusta, natives of Sonora and Baja California. Across the street: a Moreton Bay Fig, Ficus macrophylla from Australia. Just behind that: an olive tree, Olea europea, from the Mediterranean.

LAfreeways.jpgAtlases tell stories about the relationships between the maps they contain. How are the trees of El Pueblo related to the carp in the Los Angeles River related to fires in the El Puente and Chino Hills, the San Gabriel and Santa Monica Mountains? And how are these related to the early ranchos of Los Angeles, homesteaders out in Antelope Valley, the various street grids of Los Feliz, Encino, Watts, and the crazy compass rose of LA's freeways?

LAtitudes: An Angeleno's Atlas, just out from Heyday, whole-heartedly embraces the Whitmanesque myth of Los Angeles: "Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes."

To call this a myth, I hasten to add, is not to say it isn't true. To truly know LA whole may well be impossible. It often seems so. To know LA, we are told, one must explore its neighborhoods and enclaves--even if they are constantly shifting, constantly being renamed, making maps out-of-date as soon as they are made, as Rosten Woo argues in "Naming Los Angeles," a map and essay in this new atlas. One must pick a path through this postmodern metropolis--hunt for the "speakeasy tacos" with Michael Jaime-Becerra, investigate a mysterious historical bike path with Dan Koeppel, trace the city through lyrics with Josh Kun, explore the radio dial with Lynell George, listen to the undocumented with Jen Hofer, get to know the city's ugly buildings with Wendy Gilmartin, its tribal landscapes with Cindi Moar Alvitre, its toxic legacies with Laura Pulido, cowboys and spacemen with Steven M. Graves, LGBT pioneers with Sylvia Sokup, Xican@ politics with Luis J. Rodriguez.

This is a subjective city, this atlas argues. There is no point-of view that can take it all in objectively.

In Moby Dick, Herman Melville wrote of Queequeg's native home Rokovoko: "It is not down in any map; true places never are."

LAtitudes is full of true places.

What are the relationships between these very different maps of very true places? Though most of the maps overlap in space, and many in time, too, this atlas doesn't try to answer that question. It leaves us to carry those contradictions.

Note: A series of book launch events begins May 2 in the evening at Clockshop with tacos, drinks, and presentations by the authors, followed on May 3 by a walking tour and launch party at Skylight Books. For more information: LAtitudes: An Angeleno's Atlas, Edited by Patricia Wakida; Foreword by Luis Alfaro; Introduction by Glen Creason. Heyday: 248 pages, with 19 full-color maps and infographics, $30. Image of 25 LA freeway interchanges aligned on top of one another at the same scale and compass orientation from the atlas.

May 1, 2015

Chapter 26. Sold!

veronica.jpgPhoto by Heather D'Augustine

'Veronica Street' is a novel of Los Angeles by Jenny Burman, serialized here at LA Observed. Read previous chapters.

Eugenio walks into Vega's, where he is not well-liked. He doesn't know yet about a woman named Ayla and her partner in crime, that they have taken= stolen = bought his property at auction, his fifteen acres of live oaks, with one particularly fine specimen that's probably 500 years old, plus walnuts, acacias, lupines, coyote dens, owl nests, and the hawk with a string around her ankle. With his dreams of developing just a small piece, and maybe selling off the rest someday, or perhaps leaving a third of it to Marisol, his niece, his favorite. This is the same day Lourdes' fat tear rolls down her cheek, but Eugenio doesn't know from Lourdes. What he knows is that Melody, his wife, has called in an order for beef and pork. Eugenio always buys the meat at Vons, but this is a special party. His niece's first birthday, the first he and his wife have ever thrown for her family, and the meat, apparently, must come from Vega's. (Besides, he never told her the real reason he avoided Vega's--he always said product was cheaper at Vons, got a bit heated over the subject, and they left it at that. It was one of the ways he shielded his wife from his past.)
And now the doorbell chimes, I'm here! Decades have passed! I'm just a dude, a customer with history, like anyone. Service, please!
And behind the counter, it was not a hired clerk or a son, it was Vince himself, in the same place he'd been twenty-three years earlier, the last time Eugenio had walked into this shop. He had thickened, just a little--he looks, actually, kind of handsome now, wearing that same apron--it could be the one he wore the last time Eugenio came in, placed an order, got it slammed down on the pink-and green flecked linoleum counter, in white paper, paid in silence, and then never returned, till now. He's been here all of this time! Wearing the apron--courtesy of the apron-supply company and its never-let-him-forget guarantee! Back then, the last time Eugenio was here, he allowed Eugenio to pay, take his purchase, and go. (Vince of course wasn't the only one in the Eugenio anti-fan club: At Carmelo's, the woman behind the counter refused to pour him coffee. She let him sit there at the horseshoe-shaped counters, pouring for the others, ignoring him, till he left. And they were Cuban, those owners of Carmelo's. In a small town, he might have moved. But this was Los Angeles. He switched and got his Cuban coffee at the Café Tropical. And the meat at Vons, new tires at Costco, motorcycle maintenance at Jaeger's. There were fifty-six different microclimates of economy here. You didn't have to move to be home.)
Vega Junior, AKA Vince, blinks twice. He's used to challenges. Every time the bell rings. This is a surprise. Eugenio Lares, the Cossack. Until now, he hasn't connected it to Melody Lares, who left a phone number and paid in advance by phone. A big order. He's asking himself what has brought the Cossack through his door. His cousin went to prison for selling for Eugenio, and what did he do for her? Less than nothing. Rode around on his motorcycle. Pretending to be. Remade himself. Showed his face as though it were something to be proud of.
Twenty-many years.
His eyes ask, What do you want?
Eugenio sighs.
"My wife," he makes his face as blank and unreadable as he knows how, "made an order. Melody Lares. She asked me to pick it up." He was going to say, fetch it, but he decides to keep his words as blank and unreadable as he knows how, as he used to do back in the day, with people he didn't like or didn't trust.
"You have a wife?"
"She already paid, over the phone."
"She already paid."
Vince looks like he's about to say something--like he's been waiting for a chance to throw Eugenio out of his store. He regretted not doing it the last time. But another thought comes to him. He exhales ever so slightly, and the air goes out of him, and some of his anger, too, as if it had a will of its own. Betrayed by his own breath, he relents--and rationalizes. His cousin has been out of the slammer for a long time. He's been keeping his distance from her. Does he owe her the sacrifice of a customer? Does every pound of beef have to be family-therapy approved? Besides, he has already cut the flesh, wrapped it, wiped way the blood, set the beef apart from what he offered for sale. Doesn't that trascend the businessman's rights statute of limitations? He is a business man. He goes to get it. He always said he'd refuse Eugenio if he came back--but he hadn't counted on a prepaid order. This time, he does not slam the meat down. He bags it efficiently and places it on the counter with all of the indifference he can muster, he does this almost delicately. Next time he'll send him to Vons.

April 18, 2015

Chapter 25. Redirect

veronica.jpgPhoto by Heather D'Augustine

'Veronica Street' is a novel of Los Angeles by Jenny Burman, serialized here at LA Observed. Read previous chapters.

In the rush to tell Marisol's story we've gotten ahead of the bigger picture. Fiction does that sometimes. It bolts in the direction of its choice, unseating you if you're not careful.

So, whoa, and let's back up.

Marisol remains invisible, for the most part, at school.

Lourdes has gone home crying. She is off the bus, and there's a fat tear rolling down her right cheek. "I am crying," she says to herself, not yet angry but on her way. When she gets home to the apartment...

Wait, slow down, back up. Send Lourdes home unseen.

We're following Marisol. It's an hour and some after Lourdes' first fat tear rolls. Marisol carries a brown-glass bottle with some kind of oil in it. Essential ingredients for a curse. And she carries news that her uncle Eugenio may or may not have received yet.

The timing is terrible. Eugenio has just lost his 15 acres in a tax sale a couple of days before the first birthday party of his niece, the daughter of his wife's older sister. Eugenio's wife is over the edge about the party. She has been the loser of her family--for marrying him, Eugenio, and for never having kids--and her sister has thrown a lifeline back into the family by asking her to host the party. They've been married twenty-one years, and it's the first time they've hosted his in-laws.

Eugenio's wife, Melody, has sent him to buy meat.

April 17, 2015

Chapter 24. Visible

veronica.jpgPhoto by Heather D'Augustine

'Veronica Street' is a novel of Los Angeles by Jenny Burman, serialized here at LA Observed. Read previous chapters.

Suddenly they were looking at her. She had lost her invisibility.

When she walked into the lunchroom, even with the hustle, the rush for the lines, eyes flashed and heads tilted, snickers. Girls who didn't know her name at Christmas holiday blocked her in the hallway, made her stop in her tracks, waiting to be shoved or taunted, then dispersed, laughing. "Did you see her eyes? Little girl thought she was gonna get fucked up!"

Lourdes' new best friend told Marisol that Lourdes wanted to fight after 6th period, in the alley behind Tom's Burgers. Where the green-gray restaurant slag puddled and rats schooled.

Throat tight, Marisol left early that day and walked all the way home on Sunset Boulevard, wondering--just long enough to state the facts to herself, in her head, as she avoided the cracks in the sidewalk--wondering what she had done. Her offense: For a few days she had kept to herself. She had gone to the botanica alone and didn't ask Lourdes, because Lourdes would not understand, especially that Marisol was spending $20 on liquid for a curse on anyone who messed with Uncle Eugenio's property, her property. Lourdes would have wanted to buy a burger at Toms. She was on free lunch and never had any money. To her, an after-school burger was like tickets to the Superbowl. And she wouldn't have known what to say about Eugenio losing his property. Her own parents had never owned anything--her mother stopped going to school after third grade. She could not read, in any language. Her father did not live with the family. But so many other people did. Marisol never knew who exactly lived in Lourdes' home. She never asked and Lourdes never explained why the place was always so full of people. Why her mother shooed the kids out, saying, "go play."

They had an unequal friendship. It started in the middle of a school day. Lourdes had stopped in place in front of her--in an outdoor hallway--one day, in fifth grade, two years earlier: "How come you know so much?" Marisol then stopped in place and stared back, not sure what she was being asked.

"Like when Mrs. Yoli asks everyone a question and then she asks you, and you know more than she's even asking about? It's like you know more than Mrs. Yoli."

There had been wonder in Lourdes' eyes, and pleading. Lourdes sat behind Marisol in class, probably near the back, and Marisol never had had a good look at her before. Now she took in the very light skin, pale brown eyes, the lightest brown--like they were almost a not even brown--and soft, lightish brown hair that had gone copper in the sun. Her face was round and full and there was a little pad of extra flesh around her neck, but she wasn't what Marisol's mother would call a gordita.

"I can help you with your homework," was all Marisol could think to say. But it was the right thing. A smile broke across her new friend's mouth and in her eyes.
Lourdes started coming home with Marisol after school. She admired Marisol's home, the armchairs that matched the couch, the fact it was a house and Marisol even had her own room, she admired the big kitchen, which was its own separate room and not crammed into a hallway to make more space. Hairstyles: she did up Marisol's hair in braids and pulled back tight, in ways Marisol would never be seen outside her own room.

Lourdes even tried to cling to Marisol's mother, who brushed her off gently and, when she was gone--often after dinner--back to her own home badgered Marisol about making more friends who were more like her. Still Lourdes tried to help Susanna with housework sometimes, and one time when she got a good grade, she showed it to Susanna, who made a show of being impressed. She steered clear of Frank, when he was home. She might have been a real friend, had she given Marisol room to breathe, and to reciprocate. But instead, for a year or so, she became the tolerated friend, who needed help with her homework, who called the house too much, who was always available.

An now she was hunting down Marisol, who was trying to lay low and get out of her way.

"Ooooh, it's Spoooky!" she called down the hallway. And her new friends laughed as Marisol tried to ignore them. "Why you running?"

The friend she tried to help had turned into a curse, personified.

March 10, 2015

Author interview: Mort Zachter on Gil Hodges

When Gil Hodges signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers, he began his Major League career as a catcher. But after the Dodgers acquired Roy Campanella from the Negro Leagues and directed Hodges to first base, his career took off -- and the Dodgers' fortunes were forever changed. With an infield of Hodges, Jackie Robinson (second base), Pee Wee Reese (shortstop), and Billy Cox (third base), Brooklyn began a glorious run that resulted in six National League pennants and one World Series title (1955) in the decade from 1947-1957.

gil-hodges-cover.jpgThe Dodgers moved to Los Angeles in 1958, of course, and although Hodges wasn't as effective a hitter as he was at Ebbets Field, his presence helped sell Major League Baseball on the West Coast even as he helped the Dodgers win their first World Series title in L.A. (1959). Hodges retired in 1963, only to begin a second career as manager, first with the Washington Senators and then with the New York Mets (which had replaced the Dodgers and the Giants as New York City's National League franchise). Hodges was one of the most successful players ever to make this transition, and his calming presence in the dugout was a major reason why the "Miracle Mets" cruised to their first World Series title in 1969. Sadly, Hodges died in 1972, of a heart attack, at age 47.

Despite his many achievements and impressive stats, the Baseball Hall of Fame has snubbed Hodges, most recently in December of 2014, while welcoming his Boys of Summer brethren: Robinson, Reese, Campanella and Duke Snider are all enshrined in Cooperstown. Now, author Mort Zachter has written a new biography, entitled Gil Hodges: A Hall of Fame Life (Univ. of Nebraska Press), that examines Hodges' life (including his traumatic experiences during World War II) and his playing and managerial careers. I emailed Zachter questions about Hodges' experiences with the Dodgers (and the Mets) and whether he deserves to be in the HOF. (Full disclosure: Zachter and I share the same publisher.)

LA Observed: Your first book, Dough, was a memoir about how your uncles accumulated a fortune that allowed you to leave your accounting job and pursue a writing career. Do you have any regrets about becoming a full-time writer?

Mort Zachter: No regrets. When I'm writing, I'm in heaven. I never felt that way when I was a CPA.

LAO: What compelled you to follow Dough with a biography of Gil Hodges?

MZ: When I was a kid growing up in Brooklyn, Hodges was my childhood hero. He was also one of the most popular baseball players of his era. But because he was quiet and self-effacing, died young at 47, and didn't curse at umpires or gamble on baseball, he's been forgotten. I hope to shine a light on a mensch who is unknown to most people under forty.

LAO: Hodges started as a catcher, but moved to first base when Roy Campanella joined the Dodgers. How was Hodges able to make that transition so smoothly, becoming one the best defensive first basemen of his era?

MZ: Hodges was a great, and graceful, athlete. He played on the basketball, football, baseball, and track teams in college. Before that, in high school, he was a shortstop, so he brought a middle infielder's mind-set to first base.

LAO: Why did Hodges, a right-handed power hitter, struggle when the Dodgers moved to L.A. and played in the Coliseum with that short porch in left?

MZ: That season, Hodges especially tried to pull everything to left, even outside pitches, and it ruined his swing. It didn't help that he missed his family, who were still living back in Brooklyn, or that his father, whom he was very close to, had recently died.

LAO: Hodges brought the Mets their first World Series title, but you point out that, under his watch, Amos Otis and Nolan Ryan were traded away. Did Hodges not see the potential of both Otis and Ryan - or did he think that trading them improved the Mets?

MZ: After the Mets won the 1969 World Series, Hodges wasn't trading his centerfielder, Tommie Agee, a Gold Glove winner. This left no logical starting spot for Amos Otis, and they traded him for their greatest need, a third baseman. Hodges saw Ryan's potential. But two years after the Otis trade, the Mets, loaded with starting pitching, were in desperate need of a third baseman since Joe Foy (the player acquired for Otis) had not worked out, and Jim Fregosi, the player they traded for Ryan, had been one of the best infielders in baseball. Also, Ryan, who grew up in a small town in Texas, was not comfortable living in New York, and had requested a trade.

LAO: Was Hodges a better manager or a better player? How does he rank among all-time Dodger first basemen?

MZ: From what his players told me, I think Hodges was an even better manager than he was a player. And that says a lot. At the end of his last full season as a player (1962), his 370 home runs were tenth on the all-time list. At the time, only one other right-handed hitter in baseball history (Jimmy Foxx) had hit more. Hodges won three Gold Gloves, and would have won more had the award been established before his last three seasons as an everyday player. Hodges had more home runs and RBI's than any other first baseman in Dodgers history.

LAO: Does Hodges belong in the Hall of Fame? If so, what is the most compelling argument for inclusion? And, why do you think he hasn't been voted in for all these years?

MZ: Absolutely, he belongs in the Hall of Fame. The rules state that the veterans committee should consider a candidate based upon their "overall contribution" to the game. That means objectively considering both a candidate's playing and managerial careers. Hodges hit more home runs in his playing career than anyone else who also managed a World Series winning team. Every single player who had at least 300 home runs (the equivalent of 500 today) at the end of the 1962 season is in the HOF -- except Hodges. During his 15 years on the baseball writers' ballot [for the HOF], Hodges received more votes than anyone else not subsequently elected. But by the time he was up for consideration by the veterans committee, most of his peers on the Brooklyn Dodgers were gone, and he had no one with cachet lobbying for him.

LAO: What is your next writing project and/or book project?

MZ: I'm going to write a travel blog. It's time to get up from my desk and see the world.

March 8, 2015

The end of our outside in lifestyle

jc-mg-200-names.jpgJon Christensen writes: A very warm weekend in early March, even near the beach, two beautiful new books on architecture in Los Angeles, and the rise of two big-box homes on our block have left me in a melancholy mood.

Will we look back on late 20th century LA--often thought of as the worst of times, with the city's sprawling conquest of nature--as paradoxically the best of times, when a style of architecture briefly prevailed that invited the outside in, and the inside out? When a congenial climate enabled a modern style that opened up homes to nature through sliding floor-to-ceiling glass doors and floors that flowed seamlessly from the living room to the patio, while the garden flowed back indoors too?

outside in.jpgThis style is lovingly documented in Outside In: The Architecture of Smith and Williams, which celebrates the work of architects Whitney Smith and Wayne Williams, and Crestwood Hills: The Chronicle of a Modern Utopia, which celebrates the LA neighborhood shaped by Smith and Williams, along with architect A. Quincy Jones. They were inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright's dictum: "We have no longer an outside and an inside as two separate things. Now the
crestwood hills.jpgoutside may come inside, and the inside may and does go outside."

That's all over, I'm afraid. The new big-box homes on my block, like so many others around LA, have been built lot line to lot line. No outdoors survives on these properties.

California's climate and landscape made a modern "outside in" architecture and lifestyle possible. These new homes are designed for the climate coming our way. Unwittingly, to be sure, because maximizing square footage seems to be the main motive. But these are bunkers against a hotter, drier, harsher LA, designed to shelter in and keep the outside out.

Los Angeles is going to get hotter over the next several decades no matter what we do to try to stop climate change, says UCLA climate scientist Alex Hall, who has brought global climate models down to the neighborhood scale in LA. Increasing temperatures are "baked in," as they say, because of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases already in the air.

The farther from the ocean, the hotter it's going to get, Hall's model predicts. Of course. We all know that. It's already true. But even near the beach, temperatures are rising.

June gloom may become a thing of the past. Our urban heat island--concrete and asphalt retain heat and remain warmer even at night--has been steadily pushing fog and clouds higher into the sky over the past 67 years, according to a study in Geophysical Research Letters.

So precisely during the time when "outside in" architecture flourished and defined the modern Southern California lifestyle, the building boom of the post-war era helped create the conditions that could make it unpleasant if not untenable in the future.

Add this to the ironies of our postmodern predicament.

At least we'll have these pretty picture books to remind us of the way things used to be when LA was modern.

Crestwood Hills: The Chronicle of a Modern Utopia. By Cory Buckner. (Santa Monica: Angel City Press, 2015. 177 pp. 200 photos and illustrations. $35 paper)

Outside In: The Architecture of Smith and Williams. Edited by Jocelyn Gibbs. (Los Angeles: Art, Design & Architecture Museum, University of California, Santa Barbara in association with Getty Publications, 2014. 192 pp. 221 photos and illustrations. $49.95 hardcover)

February 12, 2015

Chapter 23. Cafeteria

veronica.jpgPhoto by Heather D'Augustine

'Veronica Street' is a novel of Los Angeles by Jenny Burman, serialized here at LA Observed. Read previous chapters.

Call me! Had been spray-painted in green on the double doorway that led into Lourdes' courtyard, one word on each door. The security lock had been replaced and the doors newly painted.

The words unsettled her--not because they were a new brand of graffiti, the work of artist types (though she did not know the difference, then, between anglos and artists) instead of gang-bangers and other taggers, the art types asserting their ascendance, no, their presence. No, they unsettled her because she had been calling Lourdes, repeatedly, and was either being ignored or the message wasn't being passed along. Usually, Lourdes called back.

Marisol rang the buzzer. There was a new lock on the double doors; they used to stay open. But no one answered. She knew there were people home--including Lourdes, almost certainly. There were always about twelve people in the two-bedroom apartment. They had a lot of visitors from down south, which was one of the reasons Marisol and Lourdes rarely hung out at Lourdes' place. There was nothing to do in an apartment filled with people, and she didn't like being appraised by strange men. Her stepfather, Frank, had told her not to go to Lourdes' home at all. But that was no reason to stay away.

She walked down to the main drag--where they still had drag races--hoping to see her friend at the bus stop. It had been two days since the bus ride when Lourdes had stomped off, tears in her eyes, because Marisol wouldn't say why she was riding past her home stop. And she hadn't seen her at school, or after, at Walgreens or 98 cents.

At lunch, Marisol finally spotted her. Her lunch buddy had not waited. She was up near the front of the cafeteria line. To get there Lourdes would have had to leave class early. Sometimes they didn't even get their food before it was time to go back to class. A couple of the teachers sold muffins for a dollar--a loss probably--because there were kids who didn't have time to eat. And they didn't have money to buy food outside of school. But Lourdes usually waited for Marisol.

She hurried to her--the other kids wouldn't let her get in line, but she could slip Lourdes some money to get her something.

"Lo-lo," she called out, "I've been calling you. Where--"

She stopped speaking and walking at the same moment as she took in Lourdes' stony expression--affectless, like one of the thugs. Lourdes raised her eyebrows in a blank what? Expression as another girl, whom Marisol recognized from the neighborhood and rarely noticed at school, turned and regarded her the same way.

"What, you're not talking to me? Just 'cause I--?"

The two new friends looked at each other and then both turned their backs. Other kids in line were staring at her now, hoping for a fight. She heard murmurs and mockery but didn't take it in as she stood in place, too stunned to speak, and feeling ambushed.

Lourdes turned. "What are you standing there for? A handout?" But her face was not so stony now. Her eyes were flashing anger, and Marisol thought she saw pain, too, before the other girl turned back toward her like a hoopoe bird, her chest stuck out. She had overplucked eyebrows. And now Marisol saw that Lourdes had plucked hers down further, too.

Looking at that pair of stripped brows, she saw the next weeks pass in front of her. She saw the hallway taunts, getting shoved in the bathroom, the escalation to threats as they tasted blood when she cried. She saw herself leaving school early and walking north on the boulevard to a different bus stop. She heard the edge in Frank's voice as he told her it was her fault--she should have stayed away from Lourdes to begin with. Section eight, he'd say, shaking his head and looking at Marisol. I told you.

And how could she explain that as much as she feared Lourdes and dreaded going to school, she knew that Lourdes did it because she was defenseless.

Marisol walked out of the cafeteria, wiping her eyes so hard she scratched the skin of her lower lid. She patted the pocket of her hoodie. She felt the hard shape in place.

January 7, 2015

Chapter 22. The word for Henrik

veronica.jpgPhoto by Heather D'Augustine

'Veronica Street' is a novel of Los Angeles by Jenny Burman, serialized here at LA Observed. Read previous chapters.

Call him the slave, the WRDI, a lucky criminal. Whatever you labeled him, it made good sense to have him here, puttering the yard, tending the chickens and the pool. One successful placement could lead to more, and once she had three or four workers, her construction costs? They'd be mitigated.

Ayla hadn't expected such fierce opposition from Caleb to Henrik's placement here. She had expected queasiness, which is why she didn't tell Caleb she had applied to the county's mentorship program, and why she didn't mention it until the day before Henrik's arrival. But to leave her over it? Caleb, her love, had actually packed up, put his bags in the old gold Mercedes, and driven out the gate. It wasn't until then that she thought of how few of his possessions had come with him to her home. For a person who spawned clutter--wherever he went, piles formed, there was paper, little objects, he actually purchashed junk toys for fifty cents out of supermarket coin machines--he could travel light when it suited him. In fact, she knew that his most valued possessions were in his office at CalArts. Otherwise, what mattered to him were his camera and his laptop. He did leave special books on her shelves. But he'd left valuable objects at the homes of other women. He'd told her about them, not the women, except cursorially, but the lost books. His Don Normark book, signed. Lorna Simpson, with a beautiful inscription to him. His Buddy Bolin book. His book of Soviet Space dog portraits.

She asked why didn't he get them back? Take his ex out for lunch, give her a gift to compensate and get his space dogs or his Yetis back?

Forward momentum, he'd said, and she more or less accepted it, though...if he really needed to move forward why was he regretting the loss?

She could imagine those book spines on the shelves of his exes, how the effect they had on these women was not what he hoped. They'd see weakness, his frailty, how easily he had given up. Ayla walked barefoot on the ceramic tile down to the living room in the dark, looked at the shelf next to the fireplace, where Caleb's books were placed next to volumes owned by her parents, and she wanted him to come home. And if he didn't come home? She would send these to his mother. Or wherever he wanted them to go. She would not keep them. Whether he came home or not.

When Caleb left, she had been sleepless. Drunk. Weak and ugly. He didn't answer her texts, though she sent dozens. Nor her calls. In the meantime, she couldn't look at Henrik, who had been the cause of it all. He went without houselhold assignment.

And what had Henrik done during those sixteen days days? She'd see Henrik's backside moving out of view behind the chicken coop. Or she'd see his shadow--yes, his shadow--near the pool house. His shadow made her throat tighten as if Caleb had snuck up behind her and grabbed it. It made her sick.

Ayla and Caleb had bonded over the environment and distress over the waste of human resources in righting things. They stayed up long into the night on two different occassions sketching marsh systems, talking out aesthetic principles that would dovetail the utilitarian ends. On those nights, they didn't want to sleep--they didn't even want to fuck. They wanted to sketch, and plan.

So now how could Caleb not understand that it would cost money to create a water-saving marsh, even if they had been able to purchase flat lots for their property (which they could not afford to do anyway)? How could he not see that just as people had to be more resourceful in the way they designed landscape and used water, they--we!-- needed to be more resourceful in the way projects were funded and in the human labor that went into them?

This is what she'd said to him: Either you find a way to actualize (she'd used that word) the effort, or it's just all just talk.

He had blinked at her a few times, his face tightening into a grimace and then he'd gone and packed. He'd left her standing in the breakfast nook. It must have been 11 a.m. There were no shadows. It was winter. Outside the kitchen window the messy date palm--an exotic volunteer that decidely had not been part of the landscape her parents' residential and landscape architects devised--swayed in the breeze like a rough mop.

Did Caleb leave for those sixteen days because of Ayla's morals, or because he'd been insulted to be called "all talk?"

Or did he leave because he felt Henrik's presence was a challenge, the sexual dynamics too threatening? As if she would stoop so low as to allow that kind of dynamic to develop. If anything, it was James to whom Martin should object, if he couldn't tolerate the presence of another adult male.

Unconsciously she mimicked the way Martin had blinked at her, as she stood now facing the San Gabriel Mountains, which were blocked from view by rain clouds, which clung to their upper peaks.

And what had she seen as she faced that blinking, lovely man, who'd made such beautiful photographs and multimedia works. She'd come once to one of his classes at Cal Arts. He was a generous teacher. His students loved him. In the classroom he was morally centered, he said what he believed.

He had said he wanted to be part of a project that was real. He wanted to help her not just in designing the community of houses. He wanted to show his students that conceptual artists could be utilitarian workers too.

She blinked her eyes shut. The hidden mountains disappeared and she saw the inside of her eyelids.

She simply couldn't find the place where Caleb's vision and her vision clashed. But he was back now. They'd purchased the acreage. It was really happening.

December 21, 2014

What will you pack for 2015?

jc-mg-200-names.jpgJon Christensen writes: Heyday--an independent, nonprofit publisher--this year celebrated its 40th anniversary of publishing books, spawning magazines, and creating cultural events to promote widespread awareness and celebration of California's many cultures, landscapes, and boundary-breaking ideas. Over four decades, Heyday has created an astonishing catalog of California.

This spring Heyday will publish LAtitudes: An Angeleno's Atlas, containing 19 imaginative maps and infographics offering deep insights into our supposedly superficial city from the indigenous Tongva presence in the Los Angeles Basin to the cowboy-and-spacemen-themed landscapes of the San Fernando Valley, freeways that take the shape of a dove when seen from high above, lost buildings, ugly buildings, mustachioed golden carp in the LA River, urban forests, and much more.

Malcolm.jpgMalcolm Margolin is the wise, witty, and wonderful genius in the heart and soul of Heyday. I had the pleasure of sitting down with Malcolm for a long, leisurely interview in the winter issue of Boom: A Journal of California.

Sitting down to talk with Malcolm is like settling into the shotgun seat of an old pickup truck. You know you're in for a ride. You're going to go places you've never been before, explore back roads and byways, stop in on some old friends, and sit and chat for a while. Malcolm doesn't answer questions. He tells stories.

As I contemplate the environment and people in LA, the theme of this column, as the old year ends and a new year is about to begin, I keep thinking of Malcom's answer to a question that I asked at the end of our interview.

Thinking about the stories of ancient Polynesians setting out on boats to colonize Hawaii, and packing seeds of things to grow for the future, I asked Malcolm: "What would you pack for the future of California?" I was thinking of a shelf of books from Heyday. Malcolm had a different answer.

"I think what you would end up packing for the future are environments," Malcolm replied. "I think there are environments that need to be protected, and I think that what has to be protected is not the species that live on these places but the capacity of a place to change, the capacity of a place to be fruitful and fecund and healthy, and I think it's the underlying health of a place that has to be preserved. And I think that great areas of land have to be taken into the future. I think that we have to preserve the limited waters that we have. I think for California, the future is in the natural resources that have to be preserved.

"I would love to be able to preserve the literature of California. I once created something called the California Legacy Project over at Santa Clara University, to get that older literature out. Somehow, there's been no cultural interest in it. There've been no courses in it. The state of the new, this worship of the new, nobody wants to read this Gold Rush stuff anymore. Nobody wants to read these marvelous works from the past. And somehow or other, I would like to see these preserved. I would like to see these memories preserved of what places were like, what the tonalities of people's lives were like, what the hopes of the people that came here were, what their aspirations were, how these aspirations got molded and realized or obliterated. I think I would love to keep alive the lives of people.

"I would love to see more deep hanging out. This art of deep hanging out, it's not done too often. People have become like billiard balls on a table. They click against one another, and they bounce off into their separate worlds. I go into these Indian communities. I'll go to somebody's house. I'll knock at the door and somebody will open the door, and this old woman will look at me--this has happened recently--and she'll look at me and she'll say, "Malcolm. How good to see you." And you know you're in for a three-hour visit, in which nothing much may get said, but you sit there for three hours and you absorb each other's personality, and the bigness of their lives, the sadness of their lives, the humor of their lives, and this whole business of just getting to know one another. It's so essential."

Click here to read the rest of the interview in Boom: A Journal of California.

December 17, 2014

Chapter 21. Waiting

veronica.jpgPhoto by Heather D'Augustine

'Veronica Street' is a novel of Los Angeles by Jenny Burman, serialized here at LA Observed. Read previous chapters.

Henrik could feel it, an awareness of himself. Coming from the big house--but not contained by it.

It was only a question of when Ayla would come to him.

He was lucky to be white. That's why he was here, in this comfortable assignment. The young, healthy whites were assigned, when possible, with upmarket supervisors (who were white, brown and otherwise--it was even better for the program's image better when the masters weren't Caucasian). The white incarcerateds were an argument for the program. See, it isn't racist, their presence said. See, it's modern, progressive punishment. There was a time limit, set by law. Mistreatment would not be tolerated. You served your time, you pruned some roses, you went free. You rejoined your fate. The upmarket keepers, they showcased the program, made it socially acceptable. Or so was the hope.

He stood in the nighttime shade of a lemon tree and took a slender, girlish joint out of his pocket and lit it. He'd lifted it earlier in the day from the master bedroom. Not because he wanted it so badly: He had his own very fine plant quick-growing behind the pool house. Or he could buy it--all he had to do was ask any of the service people who arrived at the house. One of them would have a connection. No, he took it because it was in Martin's rosewood box, next to the bed he shared with Ayla, where he kept his watch and an old car key and a couple of silver rings.

The match made its ripping sound, like a sheet being torn up for rags--it was such a pleasurable sound, the sulphur aroma reaching him a moment later.

The missing joint would irritate Martin. Henrik inhaled and followed with his eyes the upper edge of the San Gabriels off to the northeast. Sometimes waiting wasn't so bad. He exhaled.

December 10, 2014

Chapter 20. On the gravel path

veronica.jpgPhoto by Heather D'Augustine

'Veronica Street' is a novel of Los Angeles by Jenny Burman, serialized here at LA Observed. Read previous chapters.

After Betschart's performance, Eva unloaded the dishwasher, then went out to check the Henrik's to-do list and schedule for tomorrow, and see him off to bed.

Martin dropped into Eva's aeron chair, swivelling it. He saw a piece of card stock on her desk and tore it down to credit card size. In the center of the card, he drew a pendant-like picture of Eva's face with an angelic expression and at the top he wrote, I Am A Citizen Of The United States Of Eva. He was decorating the card with a eucalyptus leaf pattern when Eva came in.

She let her hair down and stepped close, turning the chair so she could sit in his lap. She was so light - it surprised him sometimes. He tended to think of her as larger-bodied until she did something like sat on his lap. Likewise, whenever she returned from out of town he was surprised to find her so small, like she had hollow bones.

"Have you lost weight?"

"I doubt it. But since when are you talking?"

"I don't know."

He handed her his United States of Eva citizen's card.

"I made this for myself."

There. He got a genuine smile out of her. He had conjured the sprite who ran into his arms on Ashton Park Avenue.

"In this house, this card will grant you many privileges." She pulled out of her sweater pocket a string of black, pastic beads with no clasp on the end.

"What are those?"

"She had a twinkle in her eye. She led him upstairs, she forgetting Betschart, the slave and everything except for Martin's new secret.

If Martin possessed a new secret, he was not yet aware of it. He closed the bedroom windows against the rain and sat on the bed, laying back as Eva unbuttoned his shirt and then her own. The beads came out soon enough, and he never forgot them.

After, he turned toward her with a cheshire grin that didn't look like his own.

"Well, we made a huge investment just yesterday, and it's natural to feel stressed about it."

"And I do." He turned toward her. "I've never done this kind of thing before. I don't go to auctions and buy acreage."

"Yes, you do."

"Well, I do now. That's true. I mean, I've done it now."

"Are you worried about the money?"

"It's the slave, Eva. We need to get rid of him."

Eva sat straight up. "I can't do that."

"You mean, you won't."

"It's okay," she whispered. "We're just dizzy."

But there was something she knew, a certain kind of information. And her knowledge, he was out there--on the gravel path, with thoughts, with power, and a mind she could not read.

November 30, 2014

LA needs a Department of Interstitial Spaces

jc-mg-200-names.jpgJon Christensen writes: There is nothing extraordinary about the space under the North Spring Street Bridge just north of downtown Los Angeles. But that has done nothing to diminish its power to suggest and actually become a refuge from gang violence, a no man's land where the regular rules of street life were suspended, a gallery for graffiti and other art, a stage for music, a performance studio, a workshop, a town hall, a place for weddings and birthday parties, and even a Garden of Eden for some.

AnotherCityThumb2.jpgIn the city of Los Angeles there are 12,309 blocks worth of alleys like the one that runs along the north side of the North Spring Street Bridge before it crosses the Los Angeles River--a total of 914 linear miles, according to a 2008 study by researchers at the University of Southern California. Each one could suggest, as a neon sign installed under the Spring Street bridge by USC professor Manuel Castells suggests: "Another city is possible."

Under Spring: Voices + Art + Los Angeles, a new book by Jeremy Rosenberg, chronicles the extraordinary history of the transformation of the space under the Spring Street bridge between 2006 and 2013--which brought people and plants and parties of all kinds to "Under Spring," as the space came to be known. With a project to widen the bridge underway now, the future of that space is uncertain. But Rosenberg's book does what the best histories do. It reveals the possibilities alive in the past. And it attunes us to the possibilities alive around us today--12,309 possibilities.

Under Spring came alive because of an unusual confluence. Artist Lauren Bon's Metabolic Studio backs on to the alley. Ed Reyes, the city councilmember from the first district, took an interest in the project to clean up and "activate" the space, in the lingo of urban planners. And Al Nodal, president of the city's Cultural Affairs Commission, ran the bureaucratic traps to make it work. The key was an aptly named but little used provision in city rules called an "alley vacation." Since the space was not needed for any commercial uses other than those of the Metabolic Studio, it could be closed off and used for more creative public purposes. Under Spring became an ongoing, evolving work of art, created and curated by Metabolic Studio.

"This place was not unique in this city or nationally," Nodal told Rosenberg, "there are lots of underpasses, cul-de-sacs and traffic triangles. All absurd and eminently creative spaces."

Matt Coolidge, founder and director of the Center for Land Use Interpretation, told Rosenberg: "When things don't have a designated function, anything else can occur." He added: "One could imagine that Los Angeles, of all cities, might have some of the most real estate that is interstitial space. Either under bridges or as part of flyovers and cloverleaves and freeway exchanges where the ramps kind of soar up and create little triangles or circles of space that you can't really get to. It's in those kinds of corridors, those eddies, those incidental spaces, where things that aren't scripted activities can take place."

Unfortunately, Under Spring's "alley vacation" is over. But here's a suggestion for Mayor Eric Garcetti inspired by Rosenberg's book: create a new Department of Interstitial Spaces. OK, maybe not a department. Just a small team, with a czar, or better yet, a wizard like Al Nodal in charge. The mission: scout out emerging opportunities where artists, neighborhood organizations, and citizens are re-imagining neglected patches of public space in the city, and help nudge the bureaucracy to get out of their way.

"This site in general, and Los Angeles in particular, is so full of destitute people and destitute places that the effort to rescue these destitute places and regenerate them is probably one of the most crucial projects," Manuel Castells told Rosenberg, for "a new kind of city and a new kind of society. Because we have made too much use of a policy of scorched lands in our cities. We'll call it a disposable city. You use it and throw it away." But, Castells added, "another city is possible, and even in Los Angeles, another Los Angeles is possible."

Possible, perhaps. That's at least what Under Spring suggests. But Under Spring is history now, beautifully captured in the chorus--verging on cacophony--of voices in Rosenberg's book. And it's unlikely that the unusual confluence that came together under the North Spring Street Bridge can be replicated in the thousands of other interstitial spaces that Matt Coolidge notes were "never intended to be used" but "represent a kind of untapped resource" in neighborhoods throughout Los Angeles.

But with a little help from city hall to clear the way, citizens might tap the great resource of public space for creative purposes in their own communities. Because if history shows us the possibilities alive in the past, and attunes us to the possibilities alive around us today, it is so that we can act.

Note: I'm on the board of trustees of the California Historical Society, which awarded Under Spring: Voices + Art + Los Angeles the 2013 California Historical Society Book Award. The book was published this fall by Heyday in collaboration with the California Historical Society.

November 28, 2014

Chapter 19. Dear Reader/Corpse gets an assignment

veronica.jpgPhoto by Heather D'Augustine

'Veronica Street' is a novel of Los Angeles by Jenny Burman, serialized here at LA Observed. Read previous chapters.

Dear Reader, it's Thanksgiving Friday as I write this; the big meal was yesterday. There is snow outside and cold, fresh, friendly air. I am writing this from the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia, and Veronica Street, in Ashland Park, in Los Angeles, is very far away. So is Cincinnati, Ohio, and a lot of other habits of mind. So it seems like a good time to exhale and consider events on Veronica Street.

One of the reasons I wanted to write Veronica Street that way I am doing--in "real time," fictionwise, on a blog--was for the fun of always going forward, which is not to say that revision isn't part of the process: Each installment is written and revised in a word document and then moved onto LAO. But once it goes live, in other words gets published, it's done. I might make an editorial correction, a spelling, or fix an awkward phrase (though honestly I can't remember doing that for any of the 18 chapters committed so far). But none of the characters' actions will change--Frank cannot walk into his house in a cheerful mood, hungry for dinner, having given up his mistress and having had a great day at work; James cannot choose a different day to initiate the permit process for Ayla's project; Marisol cannot undo the curse.

Or can they? The blogger's code of honor says no: No changes after publication. Snapchat being the ultimate--and opposite--expression of this. And allowing changes would turn this fiction into a draft instead of the finished thing it was conceived to be.

In the meantime, there are so many choices. This form allows for a multiplicity of characters and events. It could go on for many years or wind up in a few months. Each of the characters who have shown up to be part of the story has been pestering me to get into the action. "Where are my lines?" they all want to know. All of them! And the quieter of them, the ones who are less pushy, they deserve attention, too. Like Eugenio. Sometimes I think he's my favorite. Sometimes not. You haven't seen much of him yet. But I can tell you this: while James is busy looking through the backend of a telescope, Eugenio is at Vega's carniceria buying several pounds of raw meat. He may be in that store, among people who loathe him, for one more week, or maybe four. I am sorry, Eugenio, but that's the format.

If you have any thoughts or suggestions you'd like to share, you can email me at

Meanwhile, following is the short scene that I sketched out over a week ago and completed today. James's past has come back for him:

The first thing Alicia did when she got back to her desk was look up specs for Jimmy's Ashland Park project. Then she got to work on a scuttle.

She could still taste the smoked mozzarella of the sandwich she'd barely half-finished. It had been clear--all these years he'd barely given her a thought. All of these years she had counted him as one of the important ones. And to think, she had tried to help him get straight. She had done research. She'd made calls. She'd talked to him about AA and rehab, how you might work the system to get services.

And then, seventeen years later, he's sitting there with his pious sobriety, looking down on her--?? What the fuck. He'd said, I should have come to you with my apology when I was doing the steps. He laughed and shook his head, looking down at the tabletop.

"You must have had the whole damn city on your list."

He'd sighed. Honesty--she knew that was an element in recovery. Honest and tact were not making music together for him, or her, at this moment. He'd grown strong inside, she could see. But that was not an apology.

Dear Reader, it's Thanksgiving Friday as I write this; the big meal was yesterday. There is snow outside and cold, fresh, friendly air. I am writing this from the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia, and Veronica Street, in Ashland Park, in Los Angeles, is very far away. So is Cincinnati, Ohio, and a lot of other habits of mind. So it seems like a good time to exhale and consider events on Veronica Street.

One of the reasons I wanted to write Veronica Street that way I am doing--in "real time," fictionwise, on a blog--was for the fun of always going forward, which is not to say that revision isn't part of the process: Each installment is written and revised in a word document and then moved onto LAO. But once it goes live, in other words gets published, it's done. I might make an editorial correction, a spelling, or fix an awkward phrase (though honestly I can't remember doing that for any of the 18 chapters committed so far). But none of the characters' actions will change--Frank cannot walk into his house in a cheerful mood, hungry for dinner, having given up his mistress and having had a great day at work; James cannot choose a different day to initiate the permit process for Ayla's project; Marisol cannot undo the curse.

Or can they? The blogger's code of honor says no: No changes after publication. Snapchat being the ultimate expression of this. And allowing changes would turn this fiction into a draft instead of the finished thing it was conceived to be.

In the meantime, there are so many choices. This form allows for a multiplicity of characters and events. It could go on for many years or wind up in a few months. Each of the characters who have shown up to be part of the story has been pestering me to get into the action. "Where are my lines?" they all want to know. All of them! And the quieter of them, the ones who are less pushy, they deserve attention, too. Like Eugenio. Sometimes I think he's my favorite. Sometimes not. You haven't seen much of him yet. But I can tell you this: while James is busy looking through the backend of a telescope, Eugenio is at Vega's carniceria buying several pounds of raw meat. He may be in that store, among people who loathe him, for one more week, or maybe four. I am sorry, Eugenio, but that's the format.

If you have any thoughts or suggestions on this state of events that you'd like to share, you can email me at

Meanwhile, following is the short scene that I sketched out over a week ago and completed today. James's past has come back for him:

The first thing Alicia did when she got back to her desk was look up specs for Jimmy's Ashland Park project. Then she got to work on a scuttle.

She could still taste the smoked mozzarella of the sandwich she'd barely half-finished. It had been clear--all these years he'd barely given her a thought. All of these years she had counted him as one of the important ones. And to think, she had tried to help him get straight. She had done research. She'd made calls. She'd talked to him about AA and rehab, how you might work the system to get services.

And then, seventeen years later, he's sitting there with his pious sobriety, looking down on her--?? What the fuck. He'd said, I should have come to you with my apology when I was doing the steps. He laughed and shook his head, looking down at the tabletop.

"You must have had the whole damn city on your list."

He'd sighed. Honesty--she knew that was an element in recovery. Honest and tact were not making music together for him, or her, at this moment. He'd grown strong inside, she could see. But that was not an apology.

The fact that he hadn't opened his mouth to try a lie on her--that in itself was almost unforgiveable. Until this morning she had forgotten him. And now he wanted to get things started again. And to be honest--with herself--she did, too. And she didn't.

"How's your son?" she'd asked.

He had nodded his head. "He did okay. No thanks to me. He's a junior in high school. He goes to a Catholic school. St. X's. That's where his mother wanted him to go. He still don't want to see me, not much at least. I gotta live with it."

Now she pulled on the drag-down menu and selected "Under Review." Then she forwarded it to herself. She co-assigned a recently deceased co-worker and sent it off to gather dust. She didn't care if he found out, if he had a clerk-informant with access. She'd apologize for the mistake. There'd be no repercussion. She actually came to work--as in she showed up at the building and she spent part of the day doing the work she was supposed to do, even when she didn't get paid. There were people in this building who would protect her. There were still people who wanted to make the city work. Heroes. In fact, people like her, who came even when the payroll stopped. Give her shit for accidentally co-assigning the wrong person? No.

There had been a time, not long ago--make that yesterday--when she wouldn't have done this kind of thing.

Dear Reader, it's Thanksgiving Friday as I write this; the big meal was yesterday. There is snow outside and cold, fresh, friendly air. I am writing this from the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia, and Veronica Street, in Ashland Park, in Los Angeles, is very far away. So is Cincinnati, Ohio, and a lot of other habits of mind. So it seems like a good time to exhale and consider events on Veronica Street.

One of the reasons I wanted to write Veronica Street that way I am doing--in "real time," fictionwise, on a blog--was for the fun of always going forward, which is not to say that revision isn't part of the process: Each installment is written and revised in a word document and then moved onto LAO. But once it goes live, in other words gets published, it's done. I might make an editorial correction, a spelling, or fix an awkward phrase (though honestly I can't remember doing that for any of the 18 chapters committed so far). But none of the characters' actions will change--Frank cannot walk into his house in a cheerful mood, hungry for dinner, having given up his mistress and having had a great day at work; James cannot choose a different day to initiate the permit process for Ayla's project; Marisol cannot undo the curse.

Or can they? The blogger's code of honor says no: No changes after publication. Snapchat being the ultimate expression of this. And allowing changes would turn this fiction into a draft instead of the finished thing it was conceived to be.

In the meantime, there are so many choices. This form allows for a multiplicity of characters and events. It could go on for many years or wind up in a few months. Each of the characters who have shown up to be part of the story has been pestering me to get into the action. "Where are my lines?" they all want to know. All of them! And the quieter of them, the ones who are less pushy, they deserve attention, too. Like Eugenio. Sometimes I think he's my favorite. Sometimes not. You haven't seen much of him yet. But I can tell you this: while James is busy looking through the backend of a telescope, Eugenio is at Vega's carniceria buying several pounds of raw meat. He may be in that store, among people who loathe him, for one more week, or maybe four. I am sorry, Eugenio, but that's the format.

If you have any thoughts or suggestions on this state of events that you'd like to share, you can email me at

Meanwhile, following is the short scene that I sketched out over a week ago and completed today. James's past has come back for him:

The first thing Alicia did when she got back to her desk was look up specs for Jimmy's Ashland Park project. Then she got to work on a scuttle.

She could still taste the smoked mozzarella of the sandwich she'd barely half-finished. It had been clear--all these years he'd barely given her a thought. All of these years she had counted him as one of the important ones. And to think, she had tried to help him get straight. She had done research. She'd made calls. She'd talked to him about AA and rehab, how you might work the system to get services.

And then, seventeen years later, he's sitting there with his pious sobriety, looking down on her--?? What the fuck. He'd said, I should have come to you with my apology when I was doing the steps. He laughed and shook his head, looking down at the tabletop.

"You must have had the whole damn city on your list."

He'd sighed. Honesty--she knew that was an element in recovery. Honest and tact were not making music together for him, or her, at this moment. He'd grown strong inside, she could see. But that was not an apology.

The fact that he hadn't opened his mouth even to try a lie on her--that in itself was almost unforgiveable. Until this morning she had forgotten him. And now he wanted to get things started again. And to be honest--with herself--she did, too. And she didn't.

"How's your son?" she'd asked.

He had nodded his head. "He did okay. No thanks to me. He's a junior in high school. He goes to a Catholic school. St. X's. That's where his mother wanted him to go. He still don't want to see me, not much at least. I gotta live with it."

Now she pulled on the drag-down menu and selected "Under Review." Then she forwarded it to herself. She co-assigned a recently deceased co-worker and sent it off to gather dust. She didn't care if he found out, if he had a clerk-informant with access. She'd apologize for the mistake. There'd be no repercussion. She actually came to work--as in she showed up at the building and she spent part of the day doing the work she was supposed to do, even when she didn't get paid. There were people in this building who would protect her. There were still people who wanted to make the city work. Heroes. In fact, people like her, who came even when the payroll stopped. Give her shit for accidentally co-assigning the wrong person? No.

There had been a time, not long ago--make that yesterday--when she wouldn't have done this kind of thing.

Until this morning she had forgotten him. And now he wanted to get things started again. And to be honest--with herself--she did, too. And she didn't.

"How's your son?" she'd asked.

He had nodded his head. "He did okay. No thanks to me. He's a junior in high school. He goes to a Catholic school. St. X's. That's where his mother wanted him to go. He still don't want to see me, not much at least. I gotta live with it."

Now she pulled on the drag-down menu and selected "Under Review." Then she forwarded it to herself. She co-assigned a recently deceased co-worker and sent it off to gather dust. She didn't care if he found out, if he had a clerk-informant with access. She'd apologize for the mistake. There'd be no repercussion. She actually came to work--as in she showed up at the building and she spent part of the day doing the work she was supposed to do, even when she didn't get paid. There were people in this building who would protect her. There were still people who wanted to make the city work. Heroes. In fact, people like her, who came even when the payroll stopped. Give her shit for accidentally co-assigning the wrong person? No.

There had been a time, not long ago--make that yesterday--when she wouldn't have done this kind of thing.

November 20, 2014

Chapter 18. He holds the door

veronica.jpgPhoto by Heather D'Augustine

'Veronica Street' is a novel of Los Angeles by Jenny Burman, serialized here at LA Observed. Read previous chapters.

She declined the taco stand, and they ended up at the Marche Café. He usually avoided the Marche because of the ceiling-high lattice of wine. It was a tall ceiling, and even though most daytime people were here for coffee beverages, there'd be the young lady, the middle aged painter, at noon with a magic-looking glass of white or red, their healthy looks and prosperity so undermining to his own project.

"They have a great smoked mozzarella sandwich," he said, stepping ahead of her to open the big brass-edged door. It only worked as a joint effort, this gentleman opening the door for the lady business. They crashed into each other in the doorway.

He wanted to leave her there, in the doorway. He'd work around her. He knew the Hahn building inside out, even now. Even now, with no one getting paid until weeks after payroll, with some departments on point and others...on paper. The thing was, he understood the non-system better than most, because he'd been in prison--and when he was in prison he'd paid attention.


In front of Disney Hall he bumped into her, right on the street with plenty of room. She'd never known Jimmy to be awkward. It was as if someone had taken all the swagger, all the confidence, emptied it into the street drain below the fish skeleton where the stencil said, "This sewer drains to the ocean." They'd emptied Jimmy down there. And here, on the sidewalk next to her, between her body and the street was this dude with the expensive briefcase, shorter than he used to be. But even easier on the eye.

All she'd had to do was say no, I'm not taking lunch today. That's the message she had for the old Jimmy. No. But she was curious about this new incarnation. And curiosity trumped pride.

But he was not holding the door for her. Not in this life.


It took a while but a sloppy looking waitress finally came to their table and said they were out of smoked mozzarella. She muttered something about Cruz objecting on moral grounds. So he ordered a Cuban sandwich. And to his surprise Alicia did the same. The women at the table across from them were drinking white wine, both of them. It didn't bother him--in fact he noticed that he almost hadn't noticed. And then he became aware: these were beginner's thoughts. She had unnerved him. But that's what happened when he was faced with his past. His default place was to feel bad, to regret...anything, like that he hadn't thought to make reparations to Alicia. He'd been relieved to be rid of her back then, and his relief was deep. Did he have to be sorry about everything?

The woman across, the one who faced him, was getting anxious. Her glass had gone low, and she was looking for the waitress, while the other one kept talking, her shoulders moving, her whole body participating in the effort to win over her companion.

"So, what have you been up to?" Alicia was asking.

"Do you mean recently?" He really wasn't being coy. He had not yet decided on how to think about her, or engage her--in terms of the past they'd shared, however briefly,
or the present. He preferred the present, of course. But that's not why they were here.

November 12, 2014

Chapter 17. The Way Back Machine

veronica.jpgPhoto by Heather D'Augustine

'Veronica Street' is a novel of Los Angeles by Jenny Burman, serialized here at LA Observed. Read previous chapters.

The door was open and James stepped into the lighted room, glancing to the left and right, along the wall, as he walked through. He had mostly succeeded in getting rid of the habit--threat assessment--the habit of checking the room, starting with the blind spots. He worked hard to break the habits. He didn't want to act like a convict. Act the part, you are the part.

The room was empty. If there was one thing he did not like it was walking into an empty room, unless he was his own home. Maybe that's why he'd been drawn to population mapping (until he was fired that is): He wanted to know where people are. The last time he'd been in this office there'd been a short line. The chairs had asses in them. A couple of first-timers were filling out forms at the counter. That was a few months ago. People got word when the friendly types worked the counter. But James hadn't wanted to wait a week for his guy to be here. He wanted to get things rolling.

He stepped in, past the dingy chairs against the wall, and went to the counter and its old-fashioned ring-for-service bell. Behind the counter was an open space with several desks, then a hallway that branched left and right and had offices. He could hear the high-pitch of a computer and the low whir of computer fans. These were the sounds of silence. He knew this office could not have been de-funded, or de-mandated, because it was a major source of money for the county, and, besides, there were file folders on desks and only two of the chairs were pushed in properly.


He could feel the circles of sound widening to fill the space. It was embarrassing, this emanation, this cry for attention.

The woman came walking from the outer hallway on the left--his first thought was he'd seen her around here before, maybe not in this office; she was another clerk to win over, until she stopped, staring at him. He didn't understand at first. He's spent enough time in the building that he was not surprised when someone looked familiar, particularly an attractive woman.


He hadn't seen that coming. With the exception of family no one he wanted to know called him Jimmy anymore.

Shit. Yes, he remembered, sort of. From the early days when he had first started using. She'd been into him and got a little crazy, calling him a lot, back in Venice. But she hadn't even made his list for reparations, when he did the steps.

She looked different--like a type, the pretty Latina who is third or even fourth generation Angeleno and doesn't really speak Spanish, tallish, for a Mexican girl, with pale skin. She'd been kind of ghetto, but not wholly.

Apparently, by half.

"Darlin'! I knew I'd find you one of these days. But I didn't think it'd be here. Look at you!"

"Yeah? Look at you." She smiled crookedly, like she hadn't meant to smile.

She looked at his nice button-down shirt, made him feel he'd stolen it.

"I can tell you a lot has happened since those days back then. I been through a lot of changes."


She was still making up her mind. Yes, she held a grudge.


"You mean instead of working the counter at the mercado?"

"Yeah. Or home with the kids."

She shrugged. He leaned on the counter, trying to get closer, reminding himself not to cross the line, though he owed her some attention. She stayed back from the counter. She flipped her hair back over her shoulder. No, no, no, that was not good. Don't do that. She looked great. But he needed to steer clear from the ladies in this building. At least while he was consulting. And he definitely needed to stay clear of women from his past, the big past. Besides, he had a girlfriend.

"I went to college," she was saying. "Northridge. I took classes for spring and the fall semester and then they let me in. I got married. That only lasted three years. I been here in this office two years."

"How come I've never seen you?"

She shrugged. "You came on the wrong days?"

"You're looking great." He reverted to the new grammar. "Really great." He leaned closer. "I was a dick--"

She held up her hand. "What can I do for you?"

She didn't want to know if he had kids--got married? He told her his business--he was starting the permit process for some connected lots in Ashton Park. He wasn't sure that his client was going to get financing--he lowered his voice, confiding--but if they (he tried to avoid saying "she") didn't get the money together to build at least they could sell the lots permitted. They'd make a profit.

She listened, impassive, hiding her interest. She looked better than back in the day, much better. She was asking questions. She knew the neighborhood, Ashton Park, she said. Not that she'd ever been there, but she knew the councilman to be responsive to neighborhood activists, who were hostile to developers, even for a single-lot project.

"That's why I need it done right."

"You know there's a backlog."

Backlog? It wasn't good when they used that word, backlog. It meant either they wanted a bribe or you were going onto the slow pile. The backlog was why he made more money than your typical consultant to small developers. But he didn't like to hear the word.

He didn't speak.

"You don't believe me? You want to see my desk?"

Her name came back to him. Alicia. Ah-lee-see-yah.

"Alicia," he said. "Can I show you some of what I have, preliminary sketches, photographs? I could use your opinion."

He was proud of his satchel, with his initials engraved on the latch, the nice leather, the fact that it was no longer new. But now he kept it mostly out of view while he fished for his manila envelopes. Suddenly it felt like someone else's pretentious accoutrement.

His mistake was showing her the photographs, the ones Ayla's boyfriend took.

Alicia looked at them attentively, her eyes tracing along the ridgeline to the wooded area.

"That a coast live oak," she said, hovering her index finger over the crown of a large tree. "You can't put a house there. And drainage is going to be a problem."

"My client knows about the tree. They're building around it."

"That's not what your drawings are saying." Saying, she emphasized the word so slightly, with such evil intent, calling him back.

"Those are preliminary. Listen, Alicia. Do you have plans for lunch? I'm starving. You want to come down to the street with me and get some fruit and tacos?"

October 29, 2014

Chapter 16. Tap Tap

veronica.jpgPhoto by Heather D'Augustine

Tap tap tap, tap another hundred yards. Ten point oh-one million county residents--and even more human bodies--meant a very long stretch of linoleum. And somewhere off to the left or right, his permits cooled like hatchlings in the shade, just an inch long, the length of a signature. James could feel the gimme of them, their tiny lizard feet. He'd got the original door-address wrong. He'd left off a zero.

Sobriety, he thought, was beautiful. He could have these thoughts and not become crazed tossing zeroes into ether. The dial had been turned back to twelve at twelve, and the magic of the hour was simple consciousness, or... his. But he was aware of the mental traps of sobriety. Thinking that every bit of magic came from the subraction...of the love of his life. Maybe that was why there were so many beautiful breakup songs, or singles. Remove the essential, the thing you needed, and you arrived at beauty. That was sobriety.

He needed to net $4000 a week minimum. Otherwise, he'd be living beyond. And there were laws now. It wasn't simple embarrassment but criminal offense.

He was a criminal, of course. He'd been a criminal before everyone was.

CEQA the door said, lizard--he'd almost walked, or tapped his way, past it. He'd arrived.

October 22, 2014

Chapter 15. The Hallway

veronica.jpgPhoto by Heather D'Augustine

Read earlier chapters of "Veronica Street"

His footsteps clipped on linoleum in smooth, steady rhythm, pleasing to his sense of image--and false. Inside his head, his ears, it was a different, irregular kind of beat.

"Oh, pardon me." He moved to the right for a slow-moving clerk who lazing straight down the center of the hallway. You had to be respectful. Once the intruder passed, James moved back to the center. In front of him, hallway, hallway, hallway, the architectural embodiment of municipal centralization. The building was fifty years old.

"Excuse me." This time he held his ground at center.

After leaving Ayla's house, James had gone straight to work--hopped in his car and come straight down here. Later, he told himself, he'd take a break. He'd sit down at the Marche Café with his laptop and make a plan for Ayla, a plan for how he'd get her project off the ground. So to speak. He liked her sketches, had joked about getting a discount. And--tap, tap, tap went the feet--he'd meant it. A sweet little house in Ayla's built environment, subdivision, call it what you will. Those houses would sell quick, if they were built right (and he could make that happen). He'd add some color to the mix. He knew a good thing.

He was pleased with himself, the way he'd handled things. He'd been knocked off balance with that WRDI business, but then he'd danced right back into the ring. He got the job at a good rate.

"Hey bro, how you doing?" a lanky white guy with pock marks and a raspy voice, calling him bro. He couldn't remember which countertop they'd faced off at--it wasn't recent. The hallway would do that to you. It would throw someone up from the past and breeze them away before you could put it in place, before you could put your finger on this debtor-slave business of Ayla's.

Tap, tap. He stepped on black scuff marks on the patterned/tan tiles. So Ayla had one of those debtors on her place. It was hardly a human rights violation. She probably fed him seared tuna. It wasn't a shit-clogged toilet hole with curled barbed wire and sleeping shifts in Koreatown. There were rules and regulations, safeguards--and rights. But that was where it went bad, in legalizing forced labor, even if the dude was working for Ayla.

James didn't like it. He'd been in prison. But he'd never been sold to a white lady who told you where to sleep and when to eat--seared tuna.

He wondered if they were already bumping nasties.

He'd walked past his doorway: 640. He stopped in his tracks and looked over his shoulder. That same whale man, who'd plowed down the center of the floorway just two minutes ago was making his way back in James's direction--the only direction from where he stood.

October 18, 2014

LA Observed interview: Toni Ann Johnson

Writer Toni Ann Johnson is very busy.The Inglewood resident's first novel Remedy for a Broken Angel debuted this summer and she recently joined Antioch University Los Angeles as a book coach and manuscript consultant for writers who need help finishing projects. A successful and accomplished actor, screenwriter and playwright, Toni Ann won the Humanitas Prize and the Christopher Award in 1998 for her teleplay of the ABC Movie 'Ruby Bridges', the true story of the young girl who integrated the New Orleans Public School system. She won a second Humanitas Prize in 2004 for her Showtime teleplay, 'Crown Heights' about the 1991 Crown Heights Riots.

Now she has turned her talents to fiction. Kirkus Review called her novel "musically and psychologically acute." The novel traces how the psychological scars of abandonment are passed between generations in a family of Bermudian-Americans. Two characters narrate the story in alternating chapters: Artie, a young woman psychologically damaged after a lover's betrayal, and Artie's mother, Serena, battling her own demons after abandoning her daughter and husband years before. Set in the world of professional jazz musicians, the novel is buoyant and therapeutic. It even includes an appearance by Charles Mingus, who comforts Serena as a scatting spirit guide.

Hearing Toni Ann read her novel aloud is a delight as she's an exceptional performer who brings her characters to life with vivid dialogue and musical phrasing.

On Saturday, November 8th at 7:30 PM, she'll be reading from her novel at the Cirque Salon Fiction Reading Series, located at 5503 North Figueroa 90042 in Los Angeles.

She also headlines a reading at Antioch University Los Angeles' free Literary Uprising reading series on Tuesday, November 11th at 6:00 PM in Culver City.

Below, LAObserved interviewed Toni Ann via email.

Jazz powers this novel. Can you elaborate on how the music influences your writing style and pacing of the novel?

I'm not conscious of how the music influences the writing, and I didn't try to use the music to set the pacing, but when I was working on this book I did listen to jazz often, if not daily. I would take walks in the morning and listen as I walked. Sometimes I'd play it while I was writing as well. I was listening to Mingus, and also to Miles Davis, Coltrane, Gato Barbieri, Carlos Santana and to a group of young musicians who used to play in LA in the 90s called BlackNote.

I suppose the back and forth in chapters between the two main characters, Artimeza and Serena could be considered a type of call and response, which is associated with jazz. And I would say that there are some "riffs" in the book within chapters that one might consider similar to an "out there" solo wherein a player goes off and does something that's part of the composition, within it, but breaks away for a few minutes into something unique to him or her. For example, there's a sequence in the book where Serena has a dream and the content is surreal and intense, and involves sex and spirits. One early reader said that the surreal tone felt different from the rest of the book and suggested that it didn't belong. Well, that's an opinion, but in a novel with jazz as an influence, a few "out-there" moments isn't incongruent, and I never considered removing that because those kinds of heightened moments--surprises are meant to be there. When you go to hear live jazz, you expect to hear surprises; you expect the musicians to delight you with something you couldn't have predicted in their solos. In composing this book, I didn't want everything to have the same tone. There's variety in style, emotion, and ideas in the story and that's intentional.

Continue reading "LA Observed interview: Toni Ann Johnson" »

October 9, 2014

Chapter 14. The Sovereign Nation of Betschart

veronica.jpgPhoto by Heather D'Augustine

Read earlier chapters of "Veronica Street"

She talked James into the job by appealing to his vanity, which was the cheap way to go but worth it. James had a work ethic. He was fearless. He had many skills - the best of which was he could pull things together. James could pull a permit out of the nastiest malcontent--without a bribe. He'd had a number of brilliant starts - designer of video games and apps. Cartoonist. Then he had been a cartographer of human beings, mapping the movement of pedestrian units for a firm that sold the information to data miners. He'd been a hairdresser, too. Now, he needed the money, and he'd keep the contractors honest. And so Caleb and Ayla would be spared from managing the day-to-day of construction, the ugly parts of it at least. And James would, in fact, keep the guys on point. He was a present to them both. They agreed that morning on an ownership stake (tiny) and some money up front, and James agreed right then and there. Ayla was pleased with her morning.

At two o'clock in the afternoon. Ayla looked up, surprised to see Caleb. He had parked on the street outside the gates, so she hadn't heard the old clank and roar of the Mercedes, a sound that still made her fingers tingle.

He gave her an odd look, as if he were evaluating her. He looked as though he had traveled far that day.

"Is everything okay?"

"My sugar went low." He made a familiar gesture, bending both hands at the knuckles and making a downward motion in tandem.

She looked at him closely. "What time?"

"I took care of it."

"How do you feel?"

"You know how it is. Squirrelly." He held his left hand in front of his face and waggled his fingers. She went to him and gave him a long hug, her arms below his, taking in the salty, musty smell of his sweater, his breath, and lean frame.

"I hired two people -- James and a girl named Alice," she said.

"That was quick."

"Nothing to be gained from moving at a languid pace here. Speaking of which, Betschart's about to give one of his state-of-the-insurrections. Do you want to watch out by the pool?"

"Let's stay in here."

"Don't you want some fresh air?"

"It's raining."

"I meant under the awning."

He gave her an odd look. They had in fact watched two movies outside in rainy weather; it was romantic, snuggled under the blanket, the air cool, the rain dribbling off the awning's edge, reminding them of the comfort they took in one another. But Ayla decided against arguing any further for romance this evening (if such a thing were possible while watching Lawrence Betschart). Caleb seemed distracted. He looked as though he were trying his best not to spill a newly acquired secret. She was sure of it.

They sat on the couch in Ayla's office, in front of the tiny antique television. Ayla sipped at her first glass of wine, which had lipstick marks and then lip marks in just one area of the rim. For all her energy, Ayla was rarely sloppy.

Caleb lit what remained of the joint he'd started earlier. He'd tested himself twice since dinner, leaving the blood-stained strips on Ayla's desk, along with a scrap sheet of paper, where'd written down both numbers, though they were stored in the penlike device that read his blood sugar levels. He'd emptied from his pockets the glucose tab papers, a small snowfall of gray lint, a few pennies and a quarter, a book of matches from Prado, the bar he hadn't returned to someone was shot in front while he was inside, and a leaking black pen.

"--delivered!" Betschart came on saying, his thick silver hair flopping forward on his forehead. It was as though Betschart had timed the moment when Ayla switch on her TV - the man had magic.

He stood in front of a navy-blue-felt wall, on which was a stencil of glittering tall buildings, telling a special outdoor audience of the faithful that by 5 a.m. the next morning, Los Angeles would have its two million new trees:

Plant them! Care for them like your own children. They are your children, just as you belong to God, just as you belong to the Earth. Los Angeles! You belong to the Earth!

Sure some of them landed on the sidewalk. There were some mishaps. And we've had reports of a tree on the roof here and there. Some of you may not know what to do in these situations. Anyone who wants assistance can call my office - the number should be streaming along the bottom of your screens right now if this station is doing its job! Call this number, and we will work together to see the situation is taken care of, at no cost to you at all.

The look on his face said, Sold! This is my city now! Or, more precisely, Bought!

The live audience cheered wildly, whistling, the camera panning to catch a few tears.

"Now, most of my good people of Los Angeles are familiar with the program, which we began two months ago, when the Riverforest Commission's climate report first became public knowledge. That night after it was first released, when I read the report, I made my promise that we would plant over a million trees, we would do it now, and we would not wait for any reason. Well, Citizens, we have accomplished this - almost! The trees are in your hands, the future is in your hands. God loves you.

"Where is he delivering this message?"

"The Greek Theatre, Griffith Park."

"He's insane."

She shushed him as Betschart continued.

Part of our new initiative is to empower private citizen review commissions for the city agencies, which I have just mentioned.

"Which agencies did he--"

"Shh!" She squeezed his hand.

Our independent audit indicates certain tasks are not being performed by the agencies you have funded and expected to function. Of course, we considered the possibility of poking around the soft belly of these places, if you could call them that, these holding pens for payroll recipients. Or we can start fresh! Without waiting for any reason, without PERMISSION! For anyone who needs a building inspection, AND A PERMIT, we have set up an office that will attend to your needs immediately. Street repairs and lighting. These offices and their agents will have the power to issue permits and licenses. And they will have the authority, and the power to protect their implementation. If the grid don't work, go off it, is our motto!

The audience cheered wildly, shrieking with joy.

"Holy shit!" Caleb shouted.

"Shhhh!" Ayla waved him off.

"I don't know about tha--"


"This motherfucker has got to be stopped!"

This was the night when Betschart invited all residents of Los Angeles to visit any of his storefronts and declare citizenship. No proof of nationality necessary. They would receive an ID card, and with the card they would be eligible for a variety of expedited services - complaints review first among them.

"Holy shit."

"Listen to him!"

This is your city, and this is what you must tell yourselves. 'This is my territory. I am a citizen here. In Rome we had citizens, and so it is in Los Angeles.'

"He better say he was kidding before they start sending the National Guard."

The sovereign nation of Los Angeles.

"Why don't they just shoot him?"

"Who? Who's supposed to shoot him? Besides another one will pop up in his place. Like mushrooms."

"Well, if there's so many of them, where are the others?"

"Henrik's growing them in the shed."

Now it was Caleb's turn to look sideways at Ayla and wonder. She hadn't seemed surprised when Betschart promised to reopen the port of Los Angeles (still four months away, according to the "master plan"). And she didn't seem alarmed now. Do you think you're above this? He wanted to shake her and ask.

"Yeah, if one of those navy jacket canvassers comes and offers you a citizen ID card, would you take it?"

There was an ancient-looking sparkle in her eye and her right lip stretched back and curled up just slightly. "Of course not," she said.

October 1, 2014

Chapter 13. You Know I Don't Have All Day

veronica.jpgPhoto by Heather D'Augustine

Read earlier chapters of "Veronica Street"

At 8:30 a.m., James rang the bell at Ayla's outer gate, and when no one answered he pushed the gate open and walked in.

In the driveway, a tall white guy was washing Ayla's car.

"Hey, man," James said.

No response.

James watched the dude slop a cloth around the rear passenger door. Then he looked up at rain clouds in the sky. "Is Ayla inside?"

The slave stared at him for a moment and then shrugged, the tiniest little dip of the shoulder and then lift. James watched him for a moment longer, registering a thick plastic-and-metal cuff around the man's ankle.

"James!" Ayla was dressed in jeans and a white t-shirt, and her hair was pulled back tight and put up in a bun. She wore large pearl-stud earrings, like a department store lady. "I'm glad you could come today. We bought the property yesterday at auction, as I told you, and there is so much to do. I didn't know the sale would actually go our way."

"Is that one of those work-release debtors you have out front?"

Ayla's face froze. "You're quick, aren't you? Yes, that's exactly who he is. His name is Henrik."

"Sweet deal. Do you feed him?"

Ayla looked at the tattooed man in front of her steadily. She had a couple of tattooes--one on her ankle, another at the small of her back. They were insignificant, but she could feel the ink under her skin when she looked at James.

"It's a good situation for everyone. Does this place look nicer to you than prison, which is where he would be? It's a lot safer, and cleaner."

James shook his head. "Wow. I never met one of those--" He gestured toward the front door. "Legal ones, I mean. I knew some slave-keepers in at Temecula Correctional, when I was in."

"He owed $100,000. They put you in an Arizona honor rancho for that."

"Like I said, I was incarcerated at one time. The guards shot bean bags at my naked ass."

"Then you see the benefit to Henrik in this arrangement."

"I see the benefit."

The stood in silence. Now was the moment for Ayla to invite James in, but she hesitated.
"I called you to discuss a project. Not to be judged."

"Oh, now, whoa. I was just surprised, darlin'. I don't judge. You have your reasons."

"There's nothing wrong with questions. But I know the difference between a question that's a question--"

"--that's a statement. I have always said you are perfect in all ways except one--you take things personal."


"Correcting my grammar is definitely a statement."

"It is? What kind?" She took a step toward him, onto the slate apron in front of the house.

James, who considered himself a boxer when it came to words--he wasn't always eloquent, but he knew how to cut off the ring, how to make the other person dance backward--had been cornered.

"What kind of statement?" He sighed, at a loss. Then he saw his opening. "It's a statement that you can pin me in a corner any time you want. You have those skills. And that's why I love you." He was going to win this round after all! "Now, what did you invite me here to talk about?"

But she hadn't heard the bell. Not yet.

"Certainly, I didn't ask you here to talk about Henrik."

"Ayla, Ayla. You're too sensitive. If you're going to have a ... Henrik around here, you have to stand up to a question here and there. That's why you want someone like me around. I talk straight. Now tell me what you have on your mind. Come on, girl. I know you don't have all day. Give me the spiel."

September 21, 2014

Chapter 12. Botanica

veronica.jpgPhoto by Heather D'Augustine

Read earlier chapters of "Veronica Street"

Half a block from George Gershwin Junior High School, Marisol scanned Sunset Boulevard. At 2:45 traffic was fairly light--there was open space between cars. You could watch a car coming, then watch it pass, and then watch it go in one smooth turn of the head. The city bus was just finally rolling into view, seven minutes late, when Lourdes ran across from Fountain Boulevard, trying to catch up to Marisol, her backpack flapping around behind her, too light to be necessary--there were hardly ever any books in it.

"Why you're out here so early?!" She waved her student pass at the driver and then dropped her body like an unwanted sack into the seat next to Marisol.

"Do you have that book they gave us--the one about making houses out of plastic bottles?"

"I have mine, yeah."

"I can come to your house then?"

Marisol turned her head to look out of the window.

"You didn't answer me, gurrl. I can come to your house?"

"I can't today."

"What?! You have plans or something?"

Marisol considered. "Here," she pulled the book out of her own backpack. "You can take it, but give it back to me tomorrow."

Lourdes hesitated. "Why you're giving this to me? We do it together. You know, study butty!" She waited for Marisol to laugh.

"I already did the assignment."

"No you didn't."

Marisol nodded.

"You should have way-ted!" Lourdes always spoke emphatically and loudly. She came from a household where no one got any attention unless they shouted. You'd be sitting right next to her on the bus and she's still yelling as if you couldn't hear her.

"We had study hall, cause Mrs. Lewis was out and the sub didn't show up. So I already wrote my essay."

"You still could have way-ted! Why'd you leave school so quick? What you got to do?"

Marisol shrugged.

"Where you going?"

Marisol considered her answer. Then she decided not to offer one because for every word she uttered there would be five questions. And nestled inside each question there would lay an accusation that she wasn't loyal. Loyalty was the major value for Lourdes.

The bus pulled up in front of the Cache mural, which showed round cartoon chickens blasting off into space. The next stop would be theirs.

"What is wrong with you today?"

Marisol knew that if she didn't reach out there'd be a problem tomorrow. When Lourdes had her feelings hurt she brooded. And then she'd feed her hurt as if it were a hungry dog.

"I'll tell you later. I promise. Cross my heart promise. I have to stay on the bus, I'll call you later."

Lourdes rose, dropping Marisol's textbook on the seat, and hurried off the front door of the bus, without looking back, her expression halfway between tears and pure rage. She started walking away, ahead of the bus, then stopped, as if Marisol had called out to her, and faced the bus, staring it down. Marisol looked away from her. Tomorrow, she would placate her friend. She reassured herself: Lourdes needed her for school at least.

At Douglas, Marisol got down and headed toward Allison Street, her heavy backpack slung over her shoulder. She walked past the brown brick storefronts--one of them was Neuroticos Anonimos; another was an iron works shop, where they made fancy gates and security bars for windows; another was a marijuana dispensary--and the courtyard apartment complexes that worked their way up the hillsides, with a central staircase and apartments on either side, their front doors facing directly onto the cement steps. Their stairs served as a plaza on hot nights.

At the botanica, she shifted her pack to the other shoulder, hesitated in front of the door and then pulled it toward her, and heard the clink of goats' bells announcing her coming across the threshold.

She had visited the shop one time before--with her aunt Nohemi and her mother, when her aunt No-ey wanted to have a baby. Ordinarily, Marisol's brothers came when they made special trips somewhere--even her older brother sometimes. But this was a trip for girls. They all went to a back room and sat on a vinyl couch and on the chairs. There was incense. The old lady left them alone in the room for a long time, and while she was gone they had spoken in whispers, her mother admonishing Marisol to stay in her seat when the little girl wanted to get up. When the old lady returned, she had a tray with small bowls filled with hierbas and amphoras of oil. She showed each one to Nohemi. Then she sat and ground some of the herbs up in oil with a mortar, the odd, musty aromas getting stronger as she ground them. Then she pointed to the vinyl couch, and Nohemi lay on it.

"I told you to wear a skirt," she said in heavily accented Spanish, an accent Marisol had never heard before. One of the Mexican Indian accents, Mayan perhaps, or Nahuatl.

Nohemi gasped. "I forgot," she said.

"Take off your pants then."

She did, and Marisol couldn't help staring at her aunt's milky white thighs, the skin so much lighter than her mother's. Nohemi had been married and divorced before, and now had a second husband.

The old woman started rubbing the oily mash onto Nohemi's abdomen, getting some on her aunt's expensive shirt. She rubbed and rubbed, not even slowing down when Nohemi cried out that it hurt. Marisol and her mother stared as the old woman dug her thumbs into flesh, Nohemi's face squeezing shut with pain.

"Next time, a skirt," the woman said as they left. Nohemi, whose mascara had bled onto her upper eyelid and just below her eyes, too, carried a brown bag filled with medicinal tea. She had agreed to bathe with a specially blessed candle lighted next to the tub. There was a candle for the marital bedside, too.

Ten months later, Nohemi delivered a healthy baby girl, who was now about to have her first birthday.

Marisol entered the shop, approaching the counter slowly, though no one stood behind it.

She looked first at the things she had expected to find in the botanica, the things she remembered: the votive candles and the glass jars filled with brown hierbas, the framed newspaper stories in Spanish, yellowing though laminated, about a Mexican Wrestler called The Monk. Amulets under glass. Candles. Some silver jewelry that looked out of place. Tiny skulls tipped in silver, along with some ugly rings, and dozens of rosaries.

"Hola?" she cried.

"Vengo." It was the same old woman. Marisol had hoped someone else would wait on her. She could have chosen a different botanica. There is no shortage of them in Los Angeles. But she didn't know one.

The old woman, who wasn't as old as Marisol had remembered didn't recognize her. She took her position behind the counter and waited for Marisol to speak. Just as she had done with Nohemi, on her first visit.

Marisol froze. The woman turned around and grabbed a small green glass bottle with liquid in it and a label that was covered in tiny print.

"Try this," she said. "It will make the boys ... notice." She opened the cap, mimed dabbing it on her chest, between her breasts.

"Oh, no, that's not what--"

"You want the Santa, then? The red one, Santa de Muerte. She will bring you love."

"It's not about a boy."

The woman looked at Marisol with a careful expression. She clucked.


Marisol had to think for a moment. "Yes," she said after the pause. "It's my uncle. They took his land."

Now she had an audience.

"He didn't have money to pay his taxes on time, and now there's this lady and her husband who came up there and they told me they own it."

"I see." The woman's eyes softened.

Marisol felt a tear wetting the outer corner of her eye. She rubbed it away.

"It's my uncle Eugenio. He bought that land with the money he got in Vietnam. He said we were going to build houses there for my family. It's where we buried cousin's ashes. My stepfather doesn't like him..." She went on talking, talking. Why was she telling so much? This was more than the old woman needed to know. But there was something about her that opened you up, wide open.

"This is about your cousin really, his ashes," she said in English. "Tell me about your cousin now."

"He was good to me. He used to tell me you're smart, you're gonna go to college and be a lawyer like your tia. I said who says I want to be a lawyer? We smoked weed together, and sat in this big tree on my uncle's property."

"Was it los desagrecidos who killed him?"

"Yeah, they were from another neighborhood. They shot him in his front yard, underneath the lemon tree. He wasn't even in the gang."

"Estupidos. They will suffer."

"I want to protect him, my cousin. I want everything to stay the same up there on my uncle's land."

"Mi angelita, what would you like to do?"

"We put a curse on it a few weeks ago. It's a curse where anyone who messes with Chris's ashes, they will have bad luck for ten years."

"So, you have taken action already."

"It's not good enough. I want them to bleed."

"You mean, unless they sell it back to your uncle?"

"If someone disturbs the ashes. It has to be for all time."

"Of course it does."

Marisol nodded. Now tears started for real, big drops pooling in the corners of her eyes. She hadn't expected to be understood.

"Wait here."

While the old woman was gone, Marisol dried her eyes and looked around the storefront. On a shelf at the back of the room, there were books that had not been dusted in years. Behind the display case was a shelf with candles of so many kinds: votive, elegiac, some were a foot high encased in glass, the kind you find at shrines when someone has been killed. There were jars filled with roots and dry plants and flowers. Outside, Sunset Boulevard was now jammed with traffic. A bus slowed in front of the shop, it's breaks sighing as though a great beast had been kicked in the belly. It's a separate misfortune to attract harm to other people, and Marisol knew it, but she had made her decision.
After a while, the old woman came back into the room.

"Angelita!" She called Marisol to the counter and leaned toward her. "I ask for $20. It is less than my usual fee."

Marisol gave her a single bill soft from handling--the old woman took a few extra moments to inspect it before handing Marisol a large brown glass bottle filled with liquid. And a smaller green bottle also filled with a thick liquid. And a book of matches from the Super Eight motel down the street.

"Pour this around the place where your Chris is resting. Big, wide circle, you hear?" She pushed the green bottle forward. "Do it tomorrow morning before the sun is"--she indicated a height at her own shoulder. "And you light a candle." She pulled a small one in a glass cup out of a drawer. "Free for you." She continued with her instructions, holding Marisol's eyes with her own, but otherwise sounding like a dentist offering instructions on a different way to brush her teeth.

"And this one?" Marisol tipped her chin toward the larger bottle.

"You'll make a bigger circle with that one later. When you need to. Don't forget to pray to the saints."

September 11, 2014

Chapter 11. The Curse is Renewed

veronica.jpgPhoto by Heather D'Augustine

Read earlier chapters of "Veronica Street"

Caleb could feel Ceci watching as he made his way down the steps. He wanted to turn, to try again to make his case, with a glance if that would work. But for once he stopped himself. What case did he have to make, after all? She liked the open fields and walnut woods that spread out below her house. What did he have to offer that would compensate for what he and Ayla were going to do to the fourteen acres here? Convince her that a better world was being engineered, no, enacted in her front yard? Convince her that she should sacrifice her home - that is, the fields immediately around it - to make the world a better place?

Nothing would compensate. But he could show her that he really saw the place. He could show he understood what they were taking. More importantly, he could take a close look at the place before the bulldozers came. He had turned off the staircase and onto the dirt track that followed the curve of the hillside. A click click click in his mind working at odds with the rhythm of his feet, shaking it out. He would do his working documentation for Ceci. And on his own, he'd create a second set of photographs, and these he would put together into a book. The idea quickened in his mind as he made his way downhill, regarding the place in his new way. The scene that now surrounded him was no longer the place where Ayla was going to build her houses - instead he saw a fabric of hills that had been shaped, written, slowly over time, through the efforts of people and through growth and decay, and it was on the eve of transformation, unknowing. Every volunteer shrub, crumbling sandstone boulder, and scrappy patch of desert buckwheat was now imbued with a new kind of integrity. The idea of ownership seemed absurd.

He began to take pictures. It was a perfect day for photography: overcast. The big coast live oak, he thought, that was one place to start. It did not occur to him that at heart his new documentary project was at odds with the new community he and Ayla would build.

The girl squatted beneath the tree, the same child who had told them to fuck off when Caleb and Ayla came to plant the olive sapling the day before. Caleb walked toward her, expecting her to look up, but she was absorbed with a little bottle she held over the ground, and she was singing quietly to herself. The wind picked up, whishing some of the dried oak leaves toward her and making the tree sing with her. She didn't notice as Caleb walked closer.

He watched as she took the small brown bottle, unscrewed the cap and poured some dark liquid onto the ground. She moved around the tree trunk, but stayed beneath the branches.

"Hey there, didn't I meet you yesterday?"

Her eyes jumped up, her shoulders jerking toward him. She held the bottle in front of her as though it offered protection.


"Weren't you here yesterday?"


"What are you doing?"
A long pause.

"I am putting a curse on this land."

"A curse. Yes, you mentioned that yesterday." Caleb waited to see if she would reply, but she didn't. She held her bottle tightly, out-waiting him. "What kind of curse?"

She stared at him.

"Would it be like a garden-variety curse, or is there something specific?"

Now he could really see her thinking. His focus sharpened. The girl had a long, straight nose, a few freckles on light skin, black hair, black-black almond-shaped eyes.

"I mean," he said, "Are you putting a curse on this fabulous tree, which looks to be what five hundred years old?"

"It's a curse on the land, like I told you."

"Why the land? Why not the people who use it?" Could he ever shut up?!

"This curse is for the land," she revised her syntax. "If you upset the land, the curse will be on you."

Caleb kicked the dried oak leaves at his feet. "So when does the curse start? Is it immediate? Is there a time frame?"

"It's bad luck to ask questions about a curse."

"No it isn't."

She said nothing, looked at him as if he were a rat in a glue trap.

"Hey, do you mind if I take a few pictures of you?" He started taking his camera off his shoulder.

"Yeah," she said. "I mind."

"Okay, then."

"There are trees everywhere these days. Do they get a lot of them up here in your neighborhood?"

The girl did not answer. She held her bottle tight in one small hand and stared at him. She held her ground.

Caleb left, shedding morning glory seeds, but there was an uneasy feeling sticking to him like aftermath. Once again, he felt himself watched as he departed, unwelcome.

September 3, 2014

Chapter 10. Here Comes Jim Dandy

veronica.jpgPhoto by Heather D'Augustine

Read earlier chapters of "Veronica Street"

While Rosalyn checked fares...

Caleb arrived at the base of the hill to find the cracked cement steps freshly tagged. It was the fifth time he had been up here. There'd been three visits before the auction, yesterday's visit after they bought the place. And now. He carried the maleleuca.

He began climbing the stairs, mustard greens towering over his head, gray skies and the smell of wet sandstone in the air. Perhaps it was the stress of buying property: his levels had been all over the place the last few days.

He stopped to catch his breath. Once again, he checked the soles of his shoes for seeds.

At the third landing, the steps turned, and off to the side old path of desire began. He thought this place is beginning to make sense.

Still, it didn't matter how many times you had climbed. Each time you went up the Veronica Street stairs you were a different person at the top than when you started. You were not always better for it. There were thoughts lost on the way up. Purposefulness of a certain kind often blew away at about stair fifty. At the second landing, some people had a momentary psychosis, which they may or may not have noticed - part of the continuum of normal consciousness, a hallucination that sometimes blended so perfectly into the landscape of your consciousness it belonged there, like a go-go beat, like a profit, like dust.

Caleb arrived at the top of the stairs, panting in the sharp winds that followed the rain, and worried that his blood-sugar level was now rising, into the range where organ damage threatens--the kidneys, the eyes. He was losing conviction. The thought that he intended to take pictures, in order to better understand this landscape, in order to remake it, seemed to belong to someone else. It was ludicrous, in fact. The camera he had shouldered up here, almost to the top of the hill, was ludicrous, too. He sat down on the final landing and looked down at the bowl--a small canyon--below him. A hawk, with a ratty brown string tied to its leg, flew above him, navigating the wind, then circled downward--Caleb look down at the bird's great back, until it flew behind some eucalyptus farther down the hill. He was looking at a landscape shaped by the "neglect" (as Ayla would call it) of the last forty-nine years.

As he sat, one of the slave's morning glory seeds that had been stuck to the tread of his shoe, fell into earth and immediately started moving to its next logical stage, cracking its casing on an accelerated schedule, taking root in the damp, sandy soil. Another blew halfway down the hill before its flight was halted by a boulder. Caleb pulled out his syringe and prepared his shot. He preferred to manage his insulin the old-fashioned way, injecting himself, rather than allow the machine to handle it. Then he ate the pear, hardboiled egg and yogurt Ayla packed for him. The sapling, its roots wrapped in a plastic grocery bag--the kind that stores weren't supposed to give anymore--lay on the landing next to him.


Ceci Lockwood looked out of her north facing kitchen window, and there he was, like Jim Dandy to the Rescue. Trespasser. Man with a camera.

He had his back to her, facing the bowl of the neighborhood, he himself framed by the fanning pepper tree branches and one of the smaller of the old oaks up here at the ridgeline. He had pointy elbows, baggy brown pants, and hair that stuck out from his head in all directions. He was hunching oddly, taking his pictures.

"Can I help you?" Ceci called through the open window.

He turned quickly toward her. As if he had purloined his field of vision, and she had grabbed it back.

"Thank you. I don't need help."

She went to the back door.

"Just browsing?" she shouted.

"Excuse me?" He began to walk toward her.

Ceci toed the gravel at her feet, wet sand underneath. It had been quite a chore to get the gravel up the hill.

"I'm just taking a few pictures."

"And I'd prefer that you leave."

"I'm not in your yard, if that's what you're wondering," Jim Dandy called, surprising her with his petulance. Her first impression was that he could be run off with a scowl. "Your property line ends in the middle of the lawn here."

It wasn't a grass lawn. Just a flat area covered with weeds that she mowed.

"And how would you know that?"

He stepped closer a few feet.

"The parcel map says...."

"Are you saying half this yard is stolen?" She pointed with her eyes at the hedge of bougainvillea, which created the natural boundary.

He narrowed his eyes at her, as though he were trying to identify some kind of migrant bird. Then he adjusted his camera strap and took another few steps in her direction, stopping as he reached into his back pocket. He had reached a new landing in a staircase neither of them could see. He raised a small white rectangle in the air and came closer.

"Maybe we should start over. My name is Caleb, and I don't have any secrets. Can I give you my card?"

Now Ceci could see that he was young, younger than she was, most likely. He was pretty, with delicate features, black eyebrows and brown eyes. He looked nervous, walking with his hand thrust in front of him, holding out the little piece of paper as though it would protect him from whatever harm she might be prepared to deliver.

Ceci waited for him to get to the door. She stepped onto the entry-patio sandstone in her bare feet and took the card, though she didn't read it.

"What kind of pictures are you taking?"

"Large format, color--"

"For what purpose is what I meant. Your project?"

"This?" He looked around the yard. He took in the overgrown terraces, the places where the retaining wall was crumbling, the gravel shot through with wild geranium and cotton weeds. "Actually, right now, I am trying to document the demarcations of Veronica Street."

"There is no street up here." She looked around her.

"It's on the map. We may not know where it is, but it does exist."

"Veronica Street does not exist. Not here. ... You work for a developer."

He hesitated. "An architect."

"What's he planning to do?"

"She. And I would rather not say," he said, though he was dying to tell her all about it--she could see that.

"And you don't care."

"In fact, I do care. She has some really out-of-this-world ideas, the kind that will change our lives. Eco-friendly, self-sustaining houses. New ways of living together, which means new relationships. It's a big project. She wants to put up these houses made out of recycled airplane parts and other salvage. But make them affordable, not boutique owner-designed kind of stuff."

He'd only been here three minutes, and already he had told her way too much. He was a spiller. He talked when he should be silent, he dropped things. He was well-coordinated, but clumsy. He was always bleeding onto tables. Dropping apples. Keys and dollar bills fell out of his pockets. Even his winter coat was always shedding feathers. He left a trail of feathers. And now he'd tipped off this young woman, who was probably going to be on the phone to her councilwoman's office the minute after he headed downhill. He should have stayed off her property - as he'd been instructed.

Ceci read all of this in his face. Ceci was a good reader of faces, especially easy ones like this -- though when it came to predicting what actually would happen, she never failed to be wrong. She began to realize, she climbed a crazy staircase to the conclusion, that Jim Dandy now owned the property that surrounded her house and yard. The Cossack must have sold it. Goddamn it! He sold it! She'd said "please please please, if you're ever going to sell, come to me first. Let me buy just the one lot next to my house. This is my home." And he had owed her - he owed her that consideration at the very least. She was the one who got him a lawyer when he was arrested--twice. He'd gone to her, not to his relatives, not to his friends, assuming he had any. And he had beaten the rap. The Cossack owed his freedom to Ceci. At least, he'd owed it to her the day he walked out of the courthouse, in debt to the county for nothing more than an afternoon in an orange vest, some fire road maintenance.

That's what Ceci was thinking. But in front of her Jim Dandy couldn't stop talking. She put his card in her pocket. When he left she would start looking into the sale. She thought of her ex-boyfriend, placed him, visually, in the scene here. For a moment, it seemed he was really right there, eyebrow cocked at this dude in her yard. And then Buddy took his body and vanished.

"Do you climb these steps every day?" Caleb was saying. "You must be in great shape. You know, they never built the street, even though they mapped it. It looks like the hill was probably just too steep." He pointed farther uphill in the direction of Gables Street. "But, you know, I'm just doing this for information -- to see what it looks like up here," he said. Chasing words with words. It was like trying to climb a wall of crumbling rock. The wall kept moving. He had no footing, kept sliding downhill.

"You're talking about building houses right here?"

"What she's really doing is building a new way of life."

"Then I'm sure you need to get going."

"I can see why you would say that. But you know, I just saw this hawk. He flew over my head, and I could see a string was tied to his foot. It looked frayed like it was an old string. Then he flew lower, into some trees down that way. He pointed downhill.

"Right here in the middle of the city," he continued. "All of these acres. I mean I know there are hundreds of properties like this on this side of town - it's a young city. In a hundred years, people will look at 'old' photographs of these hills and they won't recognize them. That hawk, he's been to the other side."

Ceci knew that hawk. Everyone on this side of the hill recognized that bird and liked him because he ate gophers. In fact, the Cossack had been the one to tie him, in the hope he could keep him in his mother's vegetable garden. It took the hawk less than a day to get free. He stayed away from the Cossack's mother's yard after his escape. And none of the owls, hawks, or falcons would land anywhere near the Cossack's mother's vegetable beds. The news had traveled.

"I guess I should go, you're right. Okay, Cecilia."

"You already knew my name."

"It's public information. When you buy a property, or it gets transferred and you own this part of the hill..." He looked at her house.

"What natural right do you have to know my name? Tell your buddy this did not go well," she said.


And he headed for the stairs.

Ceci watched him descend the first ten steps, to the point where she couldn't see him. But, about a minute after his head bobbed out of view, she had an inexplicable impulse. She wanted to run after him, she wanted to return his business card and make him listen to the story of the old woman who had sold her the house. She stayed in place, barefoot on the gravel, her mistake confirming itself.

Ceci walked over lumpy, sharp stones to the edge of the patio. She waited to see the stranger on one of the lower flights of steps. It was in this spot where nights, Ceci listened to the mocking birds and the distant roar of the city's ever-quieter engine - the cars - and she hoped to hear the soprano who sang somewhere in the canyon below her.

August 27, 2014

Chapter 9. The News Travels

veronica.jpgPhoto by Heather D'Augustine

Rosalyn had been trying to reach her son--she'd texted once and called three or maybe four times, on the off-chance he'd turned his phone on, finally. The night before, he had written her quite a long email--it was almost a letter--and, holy shit had that contained some news. It seemed he had cashed out all of the money he'd won in settlement after his motorcycle accident and gone and bought property with his new girlfriend (well, not that new, it had been eighteen months or so, but it's not like they were engaged, as far as Rosalyn knew).

The money had been in a fund that was doing quite well. And now this Ayla, who was almost five years older than Caleb, seemed to have talked him into putting every penny of it into her get-rich scheme--or was it a make-a-name-for-herself scheme?--regardless, it was a scheme, and she ought to have left him out of it. Rosalyn hoped that lady knew what she was doing, because one thing was for certain: Her son did not.

Rosalyn had met Ayla twice. Once when they came to DC to visit. The other time was Marla's, his sister's, wedding in the Catskills. Extremely pretty, this Ayla was; however, he was not Caleb's usual type. He liked them wispy and wholesome, which had pleased Rosalyn, though she had to admit she'd found his previous girlfriends lacking in ambition--one long-termer had been a dancer. Another wanted to make a career as a painter and did close-captioning in some kind of assembly line. They'd been part of his extended social circles, and though the painter, Ellie, had had an aggressive streak, Rosalyn had liked her a great deal, or so she realized now. The dancer had tried too hard to please--and she was bit of a scenester. But she'd been polished and peaceful, and Rosalyn sometimes enjoyed her company.

But Ayla. Apparently, Caleb had picked Ayla up on the street. And, yes, she was not like the others. She was a revved up little engine, narcissistic, and brutal. Extremely pretty, yes, but in such constant motion you'd never know it. Her skin glowed, her eyes were bright - people who didn't know her turned to look when she walked past. But she would never be beautiful. Too much nervous energy. Always wiggling, jumping up, leaning too close. Too, too, too. From what Rosalyn could piece together, Ayla had been too impatient to go to school for an architecture degree. She had to start building, so she did it. And who knew if what she told you about the garage door she invented were true, or the dog houses or whatever they were. Finally, it dawned on her how much energy it was taking to get things done without a certificate. Then she'd run out to get her degree. And now, just two or three years out of grad school, she was fancying herself a builder. With Caleb's money.

Rosalyn talked to both Caleb's sisters that morning, forwarding them the email Caleb had sent--read this!, she wrote in the subject line--as they spoke. They had both said she should leave it alone. It was his money after all. Though Danielle shared her mother's feelings of suspicion about Ayla; Danielle had been the first to come out and say she didn't like her. Meanwhile, Effie, unjudgmental to a fault, seemed to like her brother's latest girlfriend. And she was the more emphatic about "letting him live his life."

And she was right. Rosalyn sat back down at her desk. Her daughter was right. Her son was grown, and it was up to him to handle his money. There was only so much Rosalyn could do. He'd been an adult for almost fourteen years now, almost as long as he'd been a child. It was hard to get used to. She sat for a moment, tried some of her ashtanga, taking breaths, positive visualization - but of what? She and Caleb laughing together when he was ten, releasing butterflies he'd grown from caterpillars.

Mind cleared (or not) she opened her laptop and started checking fares to California. When the machine made her wait, the little wheel graphic twirling on screen, she pulled open her purse, got out a credit card and tapped it against the desk. American Airlines had just dumped Orbitz--that was a surprise!--and she wondered whether that would affect fares. She stopped herself from texting him again.

He'd written that they paid for the parcels with a cashier's check. That sounded final. But, of course, final is just a word. And, in this case, she decided, it had no context, no footing. It was a withering thing, a dying seed that would soon blow off and become part of the landscape as dust. So much for final.

Read all of Veronica Street, a novel of Los Angeles serialized weekly at LA Observed.

August 21, 2014

Chapter 8. How To Get Rid of Henrik

veronica.jpgPhoto by Heather D'Augustine

How to get rid of Henrik? Caleb drove down to Mikowsky Boulevard, toward Sunset, the cityscape blending with the question. It was not the first drive that had been filled with resolutions regarding the slave, silent speeches he made to Ayla, that evaporated and turned into dust on the dashboard.

Ninety-some days earlier, Henrik had been delivered by the two deputies to Ayla's house at six in the morning. Caleb was asleep when the doorbell chimed. Ayla had been in the shower. Just a year before, the county had made unpaid credit card debt over $5,000 a class-one offense, and under the new codes it had become much more common to have remandations, like Henrik. Ayla hadn't had the guts, or the consideration, to tell him about the slave until she'd already signed the final paperwork and the arrival date was set. During the week before the Sheriff's bus arrived to deliver their hostage, Ayla and Caleb had the two raging arguments, Ayla pleading that they were helping a person who otherwise would go to a private prison in Arizona.

"But he works for free. And he has to do what you tell him. It's slavery. We can't be part of it. It's like if someone is boycotting" - he looked down at the bowl of fruit on the counter - "pears. You don't eat them, even if they've already been picked." Caleb stood on one side of the kitchen counter, Ayla on the other.

"If a pear has been picked, I eat it."

"That's crossing a picket line."

"Are you going to close your bank accounts? Because the big banks and the association of credit unions are big supporters of the debtor-release approach to reducing the prison population."

"Ayla! That "program" is not about making prison more humane! It's profits for the banks."

"Are you going to go off-grid?"

He wasn't sure if she was trying to taunt him, or if she were hungry for a piece of fruit, but Ayla leaned over the kitchen counter and took a brown bosc pear out of the fruit bowl.

Caleb left her for three weeks. He hauled a duffel bag full of clothes to a friend's (he'd come back for the rest after he found his own apartment), first vowing it was over with Ayla, then waiting for Ayla to call him with news she'd canceled her slave contract. He knew she loved him, though he didn't look great on paper. Perhaps especially because he didn't look good on paper: His most tangible achievement was a coffee table book by Abrams of his photographs from the north of Chile. Still, Ayla didn't cancel the contract, she didn't apologize, and during the days he was gone she didn't try to find him.
It was Caleb who called, returning unconditionally, Ayla crying as he held her in the driveway of Ayla's house. The same house in which she had been raised from infancy to the age of nine (her father's house, which she inherited). The slave was already installed, and seemed part of the place, building raised vegetable beds at a steady, if slow, pace, digging holes for some reason Ayla didn't explain.

Henrik was a tallish blond guy from Minnesota. (Caleb had assumed the slave would be Latino or black.) He slept in the garage. He maintained the grounds and kept a quarter-acre vegetable garden and the chicken coop.

Now Caleb pulled up at a stoplight at San Javier and Berry Street in Ashton Park. It was just on the other side of the old Deco bridge, which dated from the 1940s; most of the traffic had to wait on the bridge for the light to change. His mind strayed, and Caleb was afraid his sugar might be going down. In every moment, it was headed up or down; he always trying to figure which way. And he was always running after the information. His mind was the dupe of his body; but his body depended on the workings of his mind. It was an absurd situation. He had an irrational, visual memory of the number 106. It was after breakfast that he'd tested, just before he left on his errand. One thing about Ayla: She could tell by looking at him whether his levels were rising or falling. And she could guess within ten points what his reading would be. She was almost as good as his test-kit. It was uncanny, actually. Caleb's own mother, who'd never let down her guard since he was diagnosed at the age of ten, could never guess his sugar readings the way Ayla could.

He was thinking back to what he had eaten when, suddenly, a maleleuca in a 15-gallon plastic pot flew off a truck, soared through the air and landed on the street in front of car, like an insult. Dirt sprayed onto the asphalt, decorating the crosswalk. The truck had continued across the street and now turned down a narrow alley-like passage.
Caleb backed up and drove around the maleleuca. At the following street, another maleleuca. This was the fifth tree since he left home, not counting the one he saw falling from a helicopter into Ashton Park Lake, where the splash had been accompanied by the panic of ducks, geese, and American coots. Caleb accelerated and ran over a sapling that lay in Sunset Boulevard. A young man in the truck pointed at Caleb with his finger and thumb and pulled the trigger, made a falling-back motion, then laughed.

At Echelon Street, Caleb made a U and returned to the sapling, just a baby, which lay on its side, dirt spilled out of its container like crumbling chunks of blood. Lifting the root ball and gently shoving it back into its pot, with as much dirt as he could scoop up with his hands, he vowed to see this one planted and cared for. One of the orphans. He put it on the passenger seat, tilting so its leaves blue-gray leaves splayed across the back window. He started down Sunset again, and as the shops blinked in and out of his side view, Caleb told the tree he was sorry he had run it over:

"I will never use you or your plight as a cheap metaphor about transplantation or reaping what you sow or love. I will respect your core dignity as a living entity. I know just the place for you. Perfect place. Next to an olive tree. The only things you have to fear are fire, too much or too little water, the wind, and the tides of human imagination. And root rot."

A streetlight turned red in front of them, and Caleb hit the brakes. Dirt flew.

The car was a mess. He had spilled dirt into his shoes and on the shaggy carpet floor of his car. The slave pulled Caleb's chain by constantly washing the car's exterior, but he never cleaned out the inside. Perhaps, Caleb considered, he should order him to do so. Then he turned his mind down a pretty side street that was thoughts of planting the sapling he'd just rescued.

His mind began to quiet. His breath slowed, though he did not notice. Misgivings about the project; misgivings about the slave; even the tree that sat beside him, all of these things stole away from his mind discreetly, like sober guests at a party where the host has passed out.

He pulled the car over, took out his test kit. Fifty-seven. Time for some M&Ms, then a stop at Cookbook Cafe; they knew what to make him there: some oatmeal with fruit. Then: to the acreage to take pictures. Ayla was already at her drafting table; she said the photography he'd done so far was not enough.

Caleb's hands were dusty. A morning glory sprout was just starting in the soil near the clutch. And then it came to him: how to get rid of Henrik.

Read "Veronica Street" from the beginning

June 15, 2014

When summer meant fun

pfsloan-grab.pngP.F. Sloan may be the most famous songwriter you never heard of. But for those who grew up in Southern California in the golden glow of the mid-'60s, back when the music really mattered (to us, anyway), for a brief incandescent moment he produced the soundtrack of our lives.

Sloan's range was phenomenal: starting with 1950's rockabilly, he cycled through a little R&B, short-order surf and hot rod tunes, British-invasion-styled pop songs and ballads, jangly folk-rock "protest" music, shimmering sunshine pop, and by the end of his run, had even wandered off into the garden of psychedelia. Sloan's output was prolific, and no genre seemed beyond his ability to master.

His songs have been widely anthologized, and many are not just good, or even great: they're certifiable classics, instantly familiar to even the most casual oldies fan. But Sloan was more than an unusually adroit young hack in Tin Pan Alley's West Coast branch:  besides writing or co-writing so many memorable tunes, he played electric and acoustic rhythm and lead guitar, sang both leads and high harmonies, produced and arranged with such polish that even his demos could become hits.

Sloan's career was meteoric in every sense - it flared as briefly as it did brightly before it suddenly burnt out. The bulk of his output spanned only four years, from 1963-1967, with only fitful attempts at a comeback since then. And despite his fantastic early success, when he had the Midas touch and his work seemed to be everywhere, within a few short years Sloan had faded away in the industry so completely that others could claim with impunity to have created his licks, written his songs, and in one bizarre case, even invented his very identity. By 1971, in fact, he'd become such a ghost story that fellow composer Jimmy Webb (By the Time I Get to PhoenixWichita Lineman) codified the legend in a poignant tribute song, P.F. Sloan:

Last time I saw P.F. Sloan He was summer burned and winter blown He turned the corner all alone But he continued singing

Now, 50 years after his first breakthrough hit, Sloan himself has re-emerged to reclaim his legacy in a new memoir, What's Exactly the Matter With Me.

Born in New York in 1945 to middle-class Jewish parents (his father Harry was a pharmacist), in the mid-1950s young Philip Schlein relocated with his family from Long Island to Los Angeles. They took an apartment on Crescent Heights just off Sunset and half a block from Greenblatt's Delicatessen. But almost perversely, the Schleins inaugurated the move into their new Fairfax neighborhood by dropping their Jewish surname in favor of the more safely assimilationist "Sloan."

Not unlike Jerome Felder -- the lonely and polio-stricken Jewish son of Brooklyn who fell in love with rhythm and blues and reinvented himself as the celebrated songwriter "Doc Pomus" -- young Philip became infatuated with popular black music. Encouraged by his family's supportive black housekeeper, Freddy, "Flip" Sloan won an audition with a tiny local R&B indie called Aladdin Records to cut his first record while still a bar mitzvah boy attending John Burroughs Middle School. A pubescent homage to his idol Elvis Presley (whom Sloan once chanced to meet at Wallichs Music City), it was cut in Presley's favored RCA Hollywood studio with some of the King's own session players, under the legendary producer Bumps Blackwell, known for his work with Little Richard, Sam Cooke and Ray Charles.

The record flopped, and not long after, so did the label. No matter: he was only 13, but Sloan was already on his way.

He spent the next few years listening obsessively to hundreds of records, seeking his own musical voice and trying to unlock the mystery of crafting a hit. Sloan formed a little band and started gigging at local teen parties to earn record money. He began hounding record labels for free promo copies of the latest releases, and dumpster diving for unsold discards outside Columbia Records ("That's where I got my first Bob Dylan album," he tells us), which also included albums by Harry Belafonte, Woody Guthrie, Odetta, Leadbelly and Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee.

By 1963, Sloan had wangled a gig as a young contract songwriter working for Lou Adler at Screen Gems Music, Columbia's publishing arm - which also happened to be the West Coast headquarters of Aldon Music, the legendary NY publisher founded by Al Nevins and Don Kirshner, whose Brill Building roster of powerhouse songwriting teams included Gerry Goffin and Carole King, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, and Neil Sedaka and Howard Greenfield.

Before long, Sloan and his new songwriting partner Steve Barri (born Stephen Lipkin) were writing and cutting several demos a week seeking that elusive payday. Many featured the cream of LA's session musicians, the legendary Wrecking Crew of Hal Blaine, Joe Osborn, Larry Knechtel, Tommy Tedesco, Bill Pitman, Carol Kaye and others, who can be heard on literally hundreds of the era's biggest hit records. Increasingly proficient and gaining confidence, the budding Sloan-Barri team finally scored with Kick That Little Foot, Sally Ann, a bouncy calypso number by a rotund black singer from South L.A. calling himself Round Robin. It was released on the tiny Domain label, whose offices were across the hall from Screen Gems, and intended to cash in on a short-lived local dance craze called "The Slauson."

Sloan writes that their song -- actually not an original, but a remake/remodel of an old mountain music tune first recorded decades earlier -- had previously been rejected by Harry Belafonte. But in fact, Belafonte had already performed the song "Shake That Little Foot" live at the Greek Theatre earlier that same summer, and he would later release it on a double album (the liner notes call it a traditional folk song, but Belafonte and his arranger took a publishing credit.) Sloan, a fan of Belafonte's, might even have attended. But graced by top notch-production and a swinging gospel arrangement by Jack Nitzsche, and powered by the Wrecking Crew, the Sloan-Barri team had cast their spell and racked up their first hit.

Round Robin on "American Bandstand," 1964 (from Los Angeles)

In short order, Adler bailed from Screen Gems to found Dunhill Productions (and still later, Dunhill Records), taking Sloan and Barri with him. Throughout the rest of 1964, the team were cranking out -- as well as singing playing on, and producing -- a staggering number of surf and hot rod hits for established performers like Jan and Dean, studio groups like The Fantastic Baggys (Summer Means Fun and Tell "Em I'm Surfin'), and various one-off cash-ins like The Wildcats, the Rally-Packs, The Lifeguards, and Willie and the Wheels.

But toward the end of 1964, something strange was happening to Sloan. As he describes it, he heard a voice, "perhaps an angel's," who began issuing songwriting instructions. A man possessed, over the course of one feverish night, he tells us, he wrote the music and lyrics to "The Eve of Destruction," The Sins of A FamilyThis Mornin', Ain't No Way I'm Gonna Change My Mind, and What's Exactly the Matter With Me? And just like that, folk-rock was born.

Over the next several years, Sloan's career accelerated into hyper-drive. Against Adler's better instincts, by 1965 his new Dunhill label found itself in the protest music business: former New Christy Minstrels lead vocalist Barry McGuire, who only cut Sloan's Eve of Destruction" as a reluctant afterthought during another session, suddenly found himself with a B-side that had become a #1 worldwide smash, leading to several follow-up singles and two more albums. While hanging out in a hotel room with Bob Dylan, Sloan was given Dylan's "Ballad of a Thin Man" to record -- the Sloan-Barri team stripped it down and recorded the song as Mr. Jones under Adler's cooked-up name, "The Grass Roots." Adler may have intended little more than a fast buck, but the project proved so successful it spawned not only a subsequent Sloan-Barri "Grass Roots" album, but required them to go out and create a real group to tour and record behind the fake name. So they recruited a group called The Thirteenth Floor, christened them as the new Grass Roots, and built themselves another hit machine.

McGuire with the moody Hullabaloo Dancers in 1965.

The Sloan-Barri hits continued - Take Me For What I'm Worth by the Searchers, Let Me Be and You Baby by the Turtles, A Must to Avoid by Herman's Hermits, Secret Agent Man for Johnny Rivers, and others. A lucky contact with Brian Epstein early in the Beatles' career, long before Beatlemania swept the nation, led to Epstein packaging and underwriting a UK and continental tour for Sloan and McGuire. Paul McCartney's brother Mike was dispatched to personally show Sloan the sights in London. He hung out with the Stones.

Heady stuff. But increasingly, Sloan found himself in trouble, struggling to reconcile the two sides of his creative personality: Phil Sloan the commercial tunesmith, and P.F. Sloan the more introspective, politically engaged poet and social commentator who had leveraged his songwriting success into two albums of his own. Meanwhile, pressure was mounting from Adler, who was eager to dump McGuire for good, shed the waning protest-music fad that was becoming increasingly problematic for him commercially, and  concentrate on relatively safer, more promising commercial prospects like The Mamas and the Papas, who had originally come to his attention as McGuire's hippie background singers.

Greed and drugs, too, were taking their toll. At one point or another, the Byrds' David Crosby, "Papa" John Phillips, and even one of Sloan's Dunhill bosses, Jay Lasker, all threatened to kill Sloan over various business or personal perceived transgressions. It was getting to be all too much. And so by 1967, Sloan found himself washed up in the business.
Musical fashions were changing again: bright, happy sunshine pop had chased away the doom-laden clouds of protest music, and psychedelia, quivering with anticipation, was poised to erupt and completely engulf the pop scene. To save on royalty payments, Sloan suggests, Adler and his venal business associates decided to retain the more commercial and compliant Barri, but virtually blackmailed Sloan into signing away his royalties and fleeing town for New York under threat of violence. Musically adrift, emotionally fragile, and falling into serious substance abuse, heroin addiction, and eventually mental illness, Sloan plunged into decades of darkness.

Throughout the wilderness years, however, Sloan's music has never faded. The key to its enduring appeal is the combination of sunshine and shadows: loneliness, doubt and vulnerability wrapped inside a shiny, beautiful and irresistible package. When Sloan describes John Lennon refusing to be in the same room with him, or Pete Seeger declining to share a stage with him -- clearly Sloan wasn't considered "authentic" enough -- the pain is palpable. His prodigious talent and outsized commercial success only undermined his street credibility and lowered his standing among some of those he most respected.

But as Orson Welles used to say, "if you want a happy ending, that depends on where you stop your story." The P. F. Sloan story continues, and there's much more to it -- his eventual salvation, redemption, sobriety, spirituality and creative rejuvenation. Fortunately, Sloan himself is still with us to tell it -- offering a poignant remembrance of a vanished era when summer meant fun, and a gifted young songwriter could take a little ray of sunshine, a little bit of soul, add just a touch of magic and get the greatest thing since rock 'n' roll.

June 8, 2014

Sebastian Junger finishes with war in 'Korengal'

Sebastian Junger felt as though he had never been tested. Growing up in a "peaceful American suburb during the 80's" he needed to prove himself, to experience some adversity. So in 1990, approaching 30, the author took himself to Bosnia to cover the war. He survived and proved to be an astute observer. He went on to bring his observations to a wide audience through his first film, "Restrepo," the outcome of a year-long collaboration with photojournalist Tim Hetherington embedded with the 173rd U.S. Airborne Brigade on a remote mountain outpost in Afghanistan. Junger was in LA last week to talk about his latest film, "Korengal," and he remembered vividly an essential element of his lengthy visits to the war zone: the bone-crushing boredom.

sebastian-junger-iris.jpg"Monotony is an important part of war," Junger said. He and Hetherington spent the better part of a year documenting combat and life for their first film. "Korengal" is the companion piece to "Restrepo," done after the tragic death of Hetherington on assignment during Libya's civil war in 2011. Junger reluctantly revisited the footage shot for Restrepo to complete a second film that he and Hetherington had talked many times about making. And after Hetherington's death, he decided ("within an hour") never to cover combat again.

"Restrepo" showed what combat looks like. "Korengal" tries to show what war feels like. He recalled a period of several weeks on the mountain outpost where no fighting had erupted. "I felt a little guilty for finding myself wishing something would kick off. Then, the lieutenant walked by muttering 'Please, someone attack us today.' I heard that and thought--nothing to feel guilty about. We're all on the same page."

That anecdote seems to sum up the complexity of war, and the conflicts our military men and women live with every day. Junger knows that there are many reasons why they sign up for military service, from altruism to curiosity to adrenalin. "Korengal" gives the soldiers a chance to talk about those conflicts and complexities. It asks the audience to consider these questions: How does fear work? What do courage and guilt mean? Why do so many soldiers miss the war when they come home?

"Korengal" reflects the structure of an earlier book of Junger's called "War," which he divided into three parts: fear, killing and love. "There is a psychic voltage in the experience of combat, and you can absolutely grow to like it," he says. "But equally and more important than that is the true sense of brotherhood and close bonds." He feels that a big part of the re-entry problem that returning veterans experience occurs because "they are not coming back to a close-knit, tribal or agrarian community where as warriors they are welcomed back into the fold, but to Western society. And for all our technology and culture, we are a very fragmented and alienated society. We have the highest rate of suicide, and depression, child abuse and mass murder of any society. They are coming from an environment of extraordinary closeness and loyalty. So who is messed up, us or them?"

His explanation puts the re-rentry process into a different perspective and makes it easier to understand how a soldier can miss the war once he returns home. "Brendan (O"Byrne) misses the war a lot, but is also very damaged by it. This is the dilemma. He did a lot more thinking than some of the guys in the platoon and can be wracked with guilt over the killing of innocents during warfare, yet says he would jump at the chance to get back to the battlefield. He has all those conflicting feelings and is not landing on any one of them...he's stuck with all of them. That is the moral confusion of war," Junger says.

Indeed, watching "Korengal" does give you an understanding of the bond that was forged on that remote outpost. And no matter how primitive and dangerous the conditions are, the experience creates a closeness that pales in what we know as daily life for a civilian. Add a dose of PTSD, the physical and mental pain of war injuries and the stress of earning a living, and the tremendous difficulty of being a reentering veteran becomes crystal clear.

"Korengal" opens June 13 in Los Angeles.

Photo of Junger by Iris Schneider

May 3, 2014

Newest O'Malley bio looks deeper at the move from Brooklyn to L.A.

Andy McCue has devoted a good chunk of his life to working on a biography of one of baseball's most important, and perhaps, most divisive figures, Walter O'Malley. His book, Mover and Shaker: Walter O'Malley, the Dodgers, and Baseball's Westward Expansion, came out from the University of Nebraska Press on May 1, although it was available in April in Kindle format, which is how I read it while vacationing in Denmark (where Dodger games were not blacked out on

The most important difference between McCue's book and Michael D'Antonio's Forever Blue: The True Story of Walter O'Malley (2009, Riverhead) is that McCue's work did not receive any cooperation from the O'Malley family, while D'Antonio received the family's imprimatur.

A good chunk of the book, as you would expect, covers the Dodgers move from Brooklyn to Los Angeles, which ends up telling you a lot about the political culture in New York in the 1950s and how politics in Los Angeles and California has always been, for lack of a better phrase, somewhat confusing.

McCue_cvr2-1.jpgSince I'm a friend of Andy's and listed in the acknowledgments, I don't feel right in doing a review of the book, but I will link you to Paul Dickson's review of the book in the Wall Street Journal.

Continue reading "Newest O'Malley bio looks deeper at the move from Brooklyn to L.A." »

April 23, 2014

BritWeek Interview: Anthony Russell

In honor of BritWeek Los Angeles, a festival of all things UK, Native Intelligence will post a series of interviews with three different Brits who reside in the Southland.

russell-final.jpg Starting with Anthony Russell, an author, musician and aristocrat who now resides in Bel Air. Born into a titled family with their own fairy-tale castle in Kent, Mr. Russell shares tales of a privileged childhood in his memoir, Outrageous Fortune: Growing Up at Leeds Castle. The book is a vivid read about a world resembling "Downton Abbey" described with precise and spirited prose. For example, Russell writes that his mother's "dazzling, alluring forget-me-not blue eyes radiated warmth and kindness, and her personality, though given to moods, was generous and imbued with a contagious sense of fun."

Eventually, Mr. Russell struggled to reconcile his privileged upbringing with his musical aspirations in the 70s but he triumphed in the end to become a seasoned performer.

Below, the writer shares his impressions of his adopted homeland.

Did you write your book while living in Southern California? If so, how did you recall the details of your family's estate in England?

I wrote Outrageous Fortune in Los Angeles and in France where my wife, Catherine, and I spend four to five months each year. All the events and descriptions in the book are culled from memory (including the pram scene outside Harrods aged two!) and needed no recourse to libraries or family records. I used the Web for historical accuracy when it came to corroborating what my English and American ancestors had been up to all those years ago; the origins and size of my Whitney cousins' vast wealth; and the smorgasbord of Russell titles, land holdings, Crown appointments and Parliamentary achievements over a period of some five hundred years.

What do you like about living in Los Angeles?

Everything! The weather, of course. London's gray skies and drizzle used to drive me nuts. Here you work and play under sunny blue skies. I love the 'look' of LA, from Downtown to the ocean. So many totally different neighborhoods seemingly at odds with one another which somehow succeed in forming a cohesive whole. I find the contrast between life in LA and life in France and the UK very stimulating. London and Paris have history, beauty and street life on their side. LA has a unique form of easy living. Life is casual. You dress up, or down, according to taste. It's not a hassle to get around. You go to the movies, park in the same building (for free), have lunch before, or dinner after, all without raising a furrow on your brow. My wife and I are foodie fanatics. We like to eat in the plethora of Japanese restaurants across the city, from Nobu in Malibu to Kiwami on Ventura Blvd. We also like Paiche in Marina del Rey and Hinoki and the Bird in Century City. I write in the morning (and sometimes early in the evening), have lunch with my wife, then we play tennis and have a Pilates session after. Before going home we run the vital errands. Every Sunday we go to the Beverly Hills Farmer's market. We'd never have this kind of schedule anywhere outside of LA - I don't think!

Continue reading "BritWeek Interview: Anthony Russell" »

March 8, 2014

Misty Copeland: A ballerina from San Pedro has her say

Misty Copeland performing with ABT. Photo: Gene Schiavone.

Misty Copeland has just returned from two weeks performing in Japan, and though severely jet-lagged, the American Ballet Theater soloist is eager to chat. Her excitement about the publication this month of her memoir, Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina, is palpable, even in a phone call from her home in New York City. "I've known from the time I started dancing that I would be telling my story at some point," she said. "I definitely didn't think it would be this soon!" There is a lot about Copeland's story that has been well documented in the press. In the book (written with Charisse Jones, the former Los Angeles Times staff writer), Copeland herself speaks out for the first time about her emotionally turbulent and often financially precarious upbringing in San Pedro, the court battle between her mother, Sylvia DeLaCerna, and her ballet teacher, Cynthia Bradley, and her ascension in the world of classical ballet starting with her win at the 1997 Los Angeles Music Center Spotlight Awards. The story continues with Copeland's opportunities outside of ABT, including performing with Prince, and her quest to become the first black female principal dancer in an elite ballet company.

misty-copeland-life-in-motion.jpgCopeland, 31, discovered ballet at the San Pedro Boys and Girls Club, where she would spend after-school hours. Bradley, a former dancer, was teaching a class there and quickly realized that she had a dance prodigy on her hands. Copeland was 13 -- generally considered old for girls to start ballet training, but she demonstrated grace, flexibility and the capacity to quickly learn the fundamentals of ballet. She began studying more seriously at Bradley's school. To ease the commute between school and the Gardena motel where the family was living, DeLaCerna allowed her daughter to move in with Bradley and her family.

Copeland switched to home schooling and flourished in her new living arrangement. But after the success of the Spotlight Award, and a subsequent summer intensive course at San Francisco Ballet, she sensed that all was not well between her mother and Bradley. Resentment boiled over and DeLaCerna decided that Copeland, at the time 15, should move back to the motel. Plans were made for her to attend a new ballet school and enroll at San Pedro High School. At Bradley's suggestion, Copeland sued for emancipation. Gloria Allred was brought in to represent DeLaCerna and eventually the emancipation request was dropped. The unsavory episode had ended but Copeland describes in the book how she was traumatized and crushed. (Copeland writes of their relationship today, "I love my mother but I've never really understood her.")

In time, she managed to recover and continue her training in Torrance. The following year she was accepted into ABT's summer intensive program in New York City. She joined ABT's studio company in 2000, became a corp de ballet member in 2001, and was appointed an American Ballet Theater soloist (the first black female ABT soloist in 20 years) in 2007.

"It was really nice to feel comfortable enough and mature enough to be able to look back on all of those experiences that made me the dancer and woman I am," Copeland says of the memoir. "It's amazing to be sharing my story while I'm still in the midst of my career." Copeland has spoken out often about the difficulties connected with being a black ballerina in a world that is mostly white. She fully embraces the fact that she is a role model for young dancers of color, recently becoming the public face of ABT's diversity initiative Project Plié, which offers scholarships to minority dancers around the country. "I'm constantly out there, hands on with kids and mentoring them. They seem to feel I'm like them and I'm real. They're not intimidated. I think for the most part they want to hug me, which is so nice. They see themselves in me. I didn't have that when I first became a professional. It's a very powerful thing."

Copeland speaks to children.

Copeland's reverence for the tradition and history of ballet has both consoled and sustained her since she began dancing. "I think that coming from my background, I never really felt like I was part of a lineage or anything I could really put my hands on," she says. "Entering the ballet world, there was something that was so comforting about knowing there was such a rich history....It was like, wow, I'm a part of this thing that's so much bigger than me.

"In ballet there is a technique that was built and we still follow that technique. There was just something about the tradition that really drew me in. I think ballet in general was this safe haven that I had never experienced before in my childhood -- feeling like I had this beautiful and fun escape from my everyday life. I still think of it that way. It's a very sacred place -- the stage and the studio -- where you can kind of escape what's happening in the world."

In addition to her book tour, Copeland is busy preparing for ABT's spring season at the Metropolitan Opera House. The company is traveling to Abu Dhabi this month for the touring production of "Coppelia;" Copeland will be debuting in the principal role of Swanhilda, a first for her. Here in Southern California, Orange County ballet audiences can see her dance with ABT next March in the company's new production of "The Sleeping Beauty" at Segerstrom Hall in Costa Mesa. The ballet will premiere here before becoming part of the spring season at Lincoln Center. That means Copeland's family and friends get to see it before New York audiences.

Returning to Southern California to perform is a positive experience for her. "The first time I was on a big stage was at the Music Center," she says nostalgically. "I feel like this is home. It's so cool that I get to come back here and perform for my community."

Misty Copeland will speak at Live Talks Los Angeles on Thursday, March 13, at the William Turner Gallery in Bergamot Station Arts Center in Santa Monica.

Misty Copeland discussed her desire to become the first African American principal dancer in a major company at a TEDx Talk in Washington, D.C. in 2012.

Copeland solo at Gala de Ballet "Despertares" in 2012 in Mexico City.

Previously on LA Observed:
Ballet dancer Misty Copeland comes home to San Pedro
Misty Copeland takes NYC

December 1, 2013

Letter from Down Under: Welcome to the Homogenocene

jc-mg-200-names.jpgJon Christensen writes from Australia:

I lost the day after Thanksgiving, but not in the usual Black Friday pursuits. I took off Thursday evening from LAX bound for Melbourne, Australia, and landed Saturday afternoon in a strangely familiar landscape, though I've never set foot here before.

With sunny blue sky, grassy hills dotted with eucalyptus, and tree-lined, car-clotted city streets running down to the ocean, it feels a lot like Southern California. Although the Pacific is east of here, not west, in a geographic coincidence, St. Kilda, the neighborhood where we're staying, faces Port Phillip Bay to the west, just as Venice does to Santa Monica Bay. And the nearby, rapidly gentrifying Prahran precinct could easily be the coolest neighborhood in LA on a hot Saturday night, with a few people even sporting Lakers gear.

Welcome to the "Homogenocene"--the rather worrisome title that some observers have given to our era of globalization, in which one increasingly finds a similar cosmopolitan mix of culture and nature wherever one travels in the world. As Buckaroo Banzai says: "Wherever you go, there you are."

I'm here with my partner, Ursula Heise, for conferences and meetings at the University of Melbourne with colleagues in what we call the "environmental humanities," a rapidly emerging global interdisciplinary field of study that brings together history, literature, philosophy, cultural anthropology and geography, art, media, and communications. Our concern is what the disciplines that study culture can contribute to understanding and improving our relationship with nature.

The environmental humanities take the Homogenocene as a subject to study, but you might also rightly conclude that the field is symptomatic of the era. In the Homogenocene local diversity--biological and cultural--is increasing in most places, even while the differences between places seem to be decreasing. Our global connections, while not new, are increasingly dense, and everywhere, nature and culture are inextricably entwined.

treesinparadise.jpgOn the long flight over I was reminded of this again and again while reading my friend Jared Farmer's enthralling new book Trees in Paradise: A California History.

Melbourne, it turns out, is an important node in the network of ideas and species that has connected Australia to California. The great nineteenth-century California eucalyptus promoter Elwood Cooper came by much of his knowledge about eucalypts through the U.S. consul general in Melbourne, who introduced Cooper to the work of the great Australian eucalyptus authority Ferdinand Jakob Heinrich von Mueller.

Actually, there was a two-way exchange of knowledge and seeds. Eucalypts traveled from Australia to California, Monterey pines came the other way. A "tree culture" was shared across the Pacific, writes Farmer: "These 'improvers' believed they could accomplish good works through tree culture, a nineteenth-century term for a body of practical knowledge that includes afforestation, horticulture, and landscaping." They believed not only that the landscape could be improved--or even "emparadised," to use an old-fashioned term--but that good citizens would also grow among the orange groves, underneath the palms, protected by towering, fragrant eucalyptus trees.

We're skeptical of such ideas these days, and for good reason. This kind of "civic environmentalism" was often deeply racist and not subtle about it. It was white families this landscape was meant to create. This brand of environmentalism--propagated by Californian and Australian environmental reformers a century ago--has rightly been thrown on the trash heap of history.

But, perhaps, in this era of the multicultural Homogenocene, there is still something useful to be harvested from these "renovationists," as Australian environmental historian Ian Tyrrell calls folks like Abbot Kinney, who succeeded Cooper as the leading eucalyptus expert and promoter in Southern California. As Farmer writes, "to renovate means to repair and also to improve."

These days, we don't like to think of improving nature much either. The idea is filled with hubris. It's what gave us the LA Aqueduct, Hoover Dam, and the California State Water Project, all of which we feel ambivalent about at best. We'd rather try to return to nature. But there's no pure nature or culture to go back to. So as we try to figure out how to repair the damage that has been done by the hybrid human and natural systems that we depend upon, and adapt to a rapidly changing climate, we better get good at renovating again.

And maybe now, in the early twenty-first century, in the thick of the Homogenocene that Cooper, Kinney and many, many others set in motion, Melbourne and Los Angeles can play an important role again in the global network of trade in ideas, and, yes, species too--but this time as vibrant cities where people from dozens of countries, speaking dozens of languages, are all contributing their own creative ideas to shaping nature and culture and new forms of civic environmentalism. Listening to them might be a good place to start.

October 13, 2013

Three new photojournalism books from masters of the craft

erwitt-provence-boys.jpgBoys in Provence, 1959. Courtesy of teNeues/Photo © 2013 Elliott Erwitt/Magnum Photos.

Veteran war photographer Don McCullin started a controversy last month when he declared, after receiving the lifetime achievement award at Perpignan's Visa Pour l'Image Photo Festival, "We haven't changed a thing. Once the Syrian war is over you can bet your life there will be another tragedy in my lifetime. We will not see the end of war and suffering." McCullin has spent decades documenting war and cruelty, from Vietnam to Biafra. But rather than feeling satisfied that his images raised awareness of the tragedy of starvation, or the cruelties of war, he feels disillusioned and inadequate. On a panel discussing the merits of war photography with David Douglas Duncan, 97, famed photo editor John Morris, 96, and several younger photographers, there was much disagreement. Certainly, the images brought home from Vietnam shaped public opinion, turning many against our involvement in that war. But McCullin seemed deeply troubled by his time spent documenting unspeakable horrors he did not try to halt, but only document. "You have to suffer the shame of memory and then you have to somehow live with it, sleep with it, understand it without trying to become insane," he said.

The pull of war is strong. Whether it's the search to expose evil and human suffering, find the adrenalin rush or make a name for yourself, there are many young and old photographers still traveling the globe to document the battlefields and disasters that the world never seems to run out of. McCullin himself headed to Syria last year. But in looking back, he realized he was just too old to run for his life wearing his equipment and a flak jacket. He deemed the mission a mistake. Several photo editors on last month's panel said the risks are just too great, and they no longer will take freelance photos from Syria, not wanting to encourage anyone to risk their lives in search of a great photograph. Most major agencies and newspapers do not have staffers in Syria now, citing its danger.

salgado-iceberg.jpgIceberg between the Paulet Island and the South Shetland Islands, Antarctica. 2005 © Sebastião Salgado / Amazonas Images. Courtesy Peter Fetterman Gallery. Below: Nenet Nomads (Windstorm). Siberia, Russia 2011. © Sebastião Salgado / Amazonas Images
Courtesy Peter Fetterman Gallery

Sebastiao Salgado is another photographer of conscience who has spent much of his adult lifetime documenting the world's conflicts and mayhem. He recently decided, for very different reasons, to change course. In a recent TED talk, the renowned and respected photographer, whose luminous black and white images--of drought in the Sahel, gold miners harvesting gold by hand snaking up a mountaintop in Brazil, looking more like ants than people, or oilfield workers, faces stained black with oil, dealing with the gushers running rampant after the Persian Gulf War--almost belie their tragic overtones. He revealed that his doctor told him he must stop shooting disasters and tragedy as his own health was suffering along with that of his subjects. It forced him to reevaluate his life and work, and put the brakes on a career that spanned several decades. "I had lost all faith in humanity," he says in the introduction to "Genesis," his impressive new book.

Salgado, 69, retreated with his wife to his family's farm in Brazil to ponder his future. The two decided to issue their visual wake-up call to the world by spending several years documenting the pristine landscapes and cultures that are at risk unless we change our ways and begin addressing the environmental issues that threaten the earth.

salgado-nenets.jpgThe resulting images, as one would expect from Salgado, are exhilarating, compelling, breath-taking. He spanned the globe on an eight-year odyssey that he calls his "homage to the grandeur of nature," seeking out tribes and landscapes untouched by the modern world. You can feel the cold of Northern Siberia as you gaze upon the Nenets tribespeople walking through a snowstorm or feeding their sled dogs. The book is filled with one natural wonder or remote tribe after another, captured in a way that makes you feel you are right there next to Salgado. These majestic landscapes are so remote it's easy to imagine the sound of the shutter piercing the silence as Salgado worked.

The resulting photographs are available two ways: as a coffee table book published by Taschen, affordable at $65, and as a limited edition two-volume book, each one almost three-feet long, with a wooden stand of its own designed by architect Tadao Ando. In a pre-publication ad in many major newspapers, Taschen offered the two volumes for $3,000. If they didn't need a room of their own to view them properly, I would have made the purchase. Having them nearby to gaze at seems to restore your faith, if not in humanity, then at least in Mother Nature. This is photojournalism at its purest. No ego involved, just conscience and artistry perfectly combined. Two rooms of large prints are currently on exhibit at the Fetterman Gallery in Bergamot Station.

Two other large photo books offer photo collections from masters of the craft. The first accompanies a small show also at Fetterman Gallery by National Geographic and Magnum photographer Steve McCurry. The show marks the publication of his book "Untold: The Stories Behind the Photographs." McCurry, 63, has spent most of his career as a Magnum photographer working on assignment for many publications, including National Geographic. He has traveled the world, to India, Tibet, Cambodia, Kashmir, the oil fields of Kuwait after the Gulf War and Afghanistan. It was there in 1984 that he made the most iconic photo of his career: a green-eyed Afghan girl whose face graced the cover of National Geographic in 1985 and riveted its readers. He returned to Afghanistan 17 years later and miraculously found her again, and told that story for Geographic. This large book presents fourteen of his photo essays with text that tells how he got the photos. The chapters present rich color images from his travels around the world and clearly, McCurry is extremely gifted. His images, often bathed in ethereal light, provide a travelogue of diverse locales and faces, showing daily life as well as monsoons, war and hardship.

mccurry-mother-child.jpgMother and child looking through taxi window, Bombay 1993. Copyright Steve McCurry/Magnum Photos.

Unfortunately, though, rather than letting his work speak for itself--and the photographs do, eloquently and powerfully--he decided to package the photography with newly commissioned essays and ephemera collected over the 30+ years of his career. The first photo in the book is a full page picture of McCurry armpit deep in water in India, camera hoisted above his head. The book travels down the path of "how he got the picture" with essays written by someone, not McCurry, reverently describing in detail how these stories came to be and relating how, as a young boy looking at a Brian Brake photo essay in National Geographic, "he could not have imagined that he would one day inherit Brake's mantle as the master of the photo essay..." Of the many qualities that made McCurry a good photojournalist, humility was not one of them.

The book also has pages of beautifully photographed letters, journals, visas, press passes, passports, foreign currency, well-worn shoes, perfectly preserved tearsheets from every magazine and newspaper that ran McCurry's photos, every journal and note he scribbled to himself and seemingly every receipt for every purchase McCurry made over the decades of his career. While it's interesting to see the paper trail that his assignments created, in the end I found it distracting. I kept wondering, where did he keep all this stuff and how did he keep it in such pristine condition while wading through waist-deep water or running with rebels in Karachi? Perhaps that's part of what his Geographic assistants were for.

For me, there is too much McCurry here. Each chapter includes photos of McCurry, often posed with his subjects who oddly seem like props. These add a sour note to an otherwise beautiful book. To my mind, a photojournalist is a fly on the wall, unseen, unheard. The most egregious of these "I was there" mementoes is a series of photos taken by McCurry's assistant on September 11. Sad for all the wrong reasons, his assistant photographed him photographing the twin towers going up in flames. Why were they included? Why were they shot, for that matter? Didn't his assistant have more important photos to take that day? It's quite obvious that McCurry was there, given the hauntingly beautiful images in the book. I wish McCurry had let the photography speak for itself and saved the ego-trip for a presentation to a photojournalism class.

Elliott Erwitt, 85, has also published a scale-tipping new book called "Kolor." Erwitt's sense of humor and sardonic eye has kept me a fan for years, and after a long career, he is at the point where he probably has rooms full of unpublished images. Erwitt has said in interviews that photos take on special significance when they are put together and published in a book, which he does periodically--there are 8 titles on the backflap from his latest book. He felt it was time for another one, and so he went through his stockpile of unpublished Kodachrome slides, edited them and published "Kolor," which he calls his homage to George Eastman, founder of Kodak. The book presents a huge collection of never-seen color work made over the years, including outtakes of his Hollywood film work shot on the set of "The Misfits" and many images taken while shooting commercial work in Los Angeles and elsewhere. Erwitt always kept a second camera at his side on commercial jobs and found time to shoot personal pictures. Many of those are published here, offering a glimpse beyond the black and white photography he made his name with on assignment for Life and other magazines, while working in the editorial and advertising worlds as a member of the prestigious photo agency Magnum.

erwitt-fashion-coat.jpgFashion shoot in New York, 1989. Courtesy of teNeues/Photo © 2013 Elliott Erwitt/Magnum Photos.

His humor shines through, even if not every image published here makes it onto the top rung of his impressive body of work. Even Erwitt's rejects are worth seeing, and they are paired across the spreads in a way that takes advantage of his off-kilter sense of timing and humor. It's fun to wade through. After decades of producing stellar images, it's impressive to see the result of his longtime passion of documenting life and its simple moments. As a side note, Erwitt, who has always been somewhat reclusive, has recently appeared in a video for a Cole-Haan marketing campaign that featured four still-vibrant artists born in 1928. All beautiful seniors and creative souls in their unique way, they are people whose commitment to their craft keeps them going into their 80's. In Erwitt's case, we appreciate the many laughs he brought us as he held up a mirror to our society while exposing our humanity along the way.

October 11, 2013

In the autumn of my books

Thumbnail image for al-martinez-photo.jpgI was sitting on the edge of an easy chair in my home office looking at books piled here and there when it occurred to me that maybe I shouldn't be giving so many of them away. It was beginning to feel like I was nudging unwanted children out the door.

I could see them in the rains of autumn, shivering against the inclement weather, looking back at the shelves they had occupied for so many years; where they had brought so much pleasure to me and to others who sought the comfort and emotional distance that books provide.

I was cleaning out my cave, which is to say my office, a chore I assume occasionally when the room becomes too cluttered even for me, and the hundreds of books and travel souvenirs and, well, this and that seem to be closing in on me. The electronic Nook and the Kindle were taking the place of books, I told myself, and I had to keep up with the new and hip digital age.

But as I was pretty much into the job of creating different piles of books to give away, to keep and to decide on, I took a break to see what was going on in Facebook. So doing, I came across the photograph of a man on oxygen reading a volume of Mark Twain stories.

He was sitting in what appeared to be his home library, perhaps recovering from surgery, seeking emotional comfort, transported from his own painful presence into the barefoot world of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn along a trail laid out by the master story teller who created them.

I could understand that. During recovery from heart surgery and other critical operations, books were my attendants, easing me back into a reclining chair and being by my side for the moments it took for me to drift away from self-pity into landscapes of imagination. John Steinbeck was my main guide. I can't tell you how many times I read from "Grapes of Wrath," not sunny prose but the eloquent syntax of history seen through eyes of compassion, diverting me from the self-obsessions of my lesser griefs. The Joads suffered for a lifetime, I for a few days.

I lived in the magical words of Ray Bradbury too, picturing him at the center of his own clutter during visits to his home, calling him my friend, and mourning his passage from Earth to God's gleaming stars and to the eternal spaces of his own creation. Alex Haley was a friend and collaborator too, and I have read from "Roots" when my own distress needed comparisons to the hard worlds of others.

Poetry, memoirs, biographies, novels, non-fiction accounts—they all lay in piles around me. Dylan Thomas, Walt Whitman, Alice Munro, Albert Einstein, Ernest Hemingway, Joan Didion, Sylvia Plath, Dorothy Parker... literary royalty intersecting to lift up their readers, to make us well.

I sat there for a long time, paralyzed by my own indecision, then I picked up "Grapes of Wrath" and read its classic opening: "To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth..."

And I knew what I had to do.

August 22, 2013

Misquoting Dorothy Parker

Today is Dorothy Parker's 120th birthday. She was born on August 22, 1893, and her devotees shall observe the occasion by posting her quotations and poems on the Internets. However, a famous quip about Los Angeles may not be applicable.

As the president of the LA Chapter of the Dorothy Parker Society and tour guide, I am asked on a regular basis if Dorothy Parker actually said that Los Angeles is "72 of suburbs in search of a city." The answer is...probably not.

The quote has been attributed to Dorothy Parker but it's really a paraphrase of Aldous Huxley's bon mot found his 1925 book, Americana. He wrote that Los Angeles was "nineteen suburbs in search of a metropolis" and he was probably quoting someone else who initially said Los Angeles was seven or six suburbs in search of a city. The witticism expanded from there. At times it was attributed to H.L. Menken, Robert Benchely, Alexander Woolcott and Dorothy Parker.

Most likely it was Mencken who used the phrase in an essay published in the April 1927 issue of Photoplay magazine after visiting Los Angeles for three weeks in 1926. I cannot find the actual essay so I must reserve the right to be wrong. Thanks to Kim Cooper, I have found the publication online. But I still reserve the right to be wrong.

Regardless, Mrs. Parker's hatred for our fair city inspired plenty of other waspish quips.
I can verify that she once told a reporter that she loathed palm trees, calling them "the ugliest vegetable God created." You can tweet that.

April 25, 2013

Paris Photo comes to Hollywood

Thumbnail image for paris-photo-paramount-iris.jpg
Paris Photo is the annual photography fair held in France — transported to the U.S. this weekend for the first time. On the lot at Paramount Studios are gallery spaces, booksellers such as Taschen and Aperture and live artist conversations and film screenings. Matthew Weiner, the creator of "Mad Men," is one of the featured speakers. At the preview on Thursday, City Hall's culture maven Olga Garay-English welcomed the organizers to LA and Councilman Tom LaBonge presented a proclamation and a calendar.

Photos by Iris Schneider. Top, looking onto the New York backlot at Paramount Studios from a facade occupied for the weekend by Zucker Art Books. Below, display space inside facades on the studio's New York street.

paris-photo-3.jpg paris-photo-2.jpg

April 8, 2013

April in LA is for film and books

colcoa-poster-2013.jpgThe City of Lights, City of Angels Festival, celebrating the best in new and classic French films, will be held from April 15-22. Over 35 features will be screened at the Director's Guild in Hollywood and it's open to the public. While we know that a few of the films have already been picked up for release in the States, this may be your only chance to see most of these gems. Every genre of film is represented, but I am a sucker for French comedies so I am particularly looking forward to Daniele Thompson's "It Happened in Saint-Tropez," Christian Vincent's "Haute Cuisine" and Philippe Leguay's "Cycling with Moliere." There are opportunities to meet with filmmakers at the afternoon "happy hour" talks as well as classic films such as Louis Malle's "The Fire Within" and one my all time favorites, Jacques Demy's "Bay of Angels," both starring Jeanne Moreau. Tickets and more information

With the guessing games over who the next owner of the Los Angeles Times will be heating up, we should rejoice every year the Festival of Books continues. Started 18 years ago by Narda Zacchino and Steve Wasserman, both now long gone from the paper, the festival is a gift to the community. Over the course of Saturday and Sunday, April 20 and 21, USC will be host to over 100,000 people appreciating over 100 panels, stage presentations, music and children's programs. Admission is free as are all the outdoor events and most of the panels, but tickets are required for the indoor conversations, such as Joyce Carol Oates with Patt Morrison and Anna Quindlen with Karen Grigsby Bates. These are always popular and for thirty dollars you can buy a pass that allows you to reserve a spot at up to eight of the conversations.

Outdoor stage events this year include such big names as Debbie Reynolds, Paul Anka and Valerie Harper and there are dozens of panels focusing on history, biography, fiction, crime — you name the genre. The festival is akin to Queen for a Day for authors who toil alone to create their works and suddenly are surrounded by so many readers. They come from all over the country for this special weekend so it seems like the least we locals can do is show up and take advantage of it while we still have it. This year, for the first time, there is the added advantage that the Expo Line drops you right in front of campus. More details

The most recent addition to the April festival calendar is the Turner Classic Movies Film Festival. We are so spoiled here in Los Angeles with the Academy, the Cinematheque and UCLA screening classic films all year round, but last year several thousand attendees from 49 states poured into Hollywood to remind us of the incredible pull the home of the movies has on the world. The Fourth TCM Festival will be held April 25th through the 29th and they take over the Roosevelt Hotel and the Loews at Hollywood and Highland for a packed schedule that gives audiences a choice of four or five films at a time, from early morning until late at night. Films are screened at Grauman's, El Capitan and the Egyptian.

Highlights this year include Jane Fonda immortalizing her hand prints in the forecourt of Grauman's Chinese theater and introducing "On Golden Pond" and stars such as Max von Sydow and Eva Marie Saint discussing their extraordinary lives and careers. Academy Award-winning film historian Kevin Brownlow will be in conversation with Carl Davis, the composer and conductor who has illuminated and elevated Kevin's restorations of films such as "The Wind," "Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse" and the incomparable "Napoleon." Still, it is the simple joy of watching a great movie on the big screen that has to be the biggest draw of the festival. This year's sampling includes "The Great Escape," "Bonnie and Clyde," "On the Waterfront" and "From Russia with Love" as well as brilliant comedies such as "The Lady Eve," "Ninotchka," "Libeled Lady" and "It Happened One Night." A few passes are still available and tickets for individual films can be purchased on a first come, first served, stand by basis for twenty dollars each, ten for students, at the theater box office. Full schedule

December 2, 2012

7 hours of 'Gatz' leaves her wanting more

One of the great perks of being a kid is that people read to you. I still miss it. That may be part of why I was so enchanted by "Gatz," currently playing 9 performances at the Redcat at Disney Hall. The theater production, put together by the New York-based avant-garde troupe called Elevator Repair Service, brilliantly performs F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby" by reading the entire novel onstage, incorporating every written word into the production. In doing so, it becomes so much more than the novel is, or than a play could be--I guess that's why the word transformative was invented.

I admit I was nervous before the show. But it was a nervous anticipation. Could I last seven hours (eight including a dinner break) in a not-that-comfortable chair listening to a whole novel? Within minutes I was swept away. If you're going to read a novel in one sitting, better make it a good one and in choosing "The Great Gatsby," ERS chose well.

I was awed by the beauty of the words, the way they sounded strung together, the images they painted. The staging was quirky and minimal. It allowed my imagination enough room to fill in the blanks, making the event participatory and thrilling. Like good theater should be, it was a very social experience: the intimate Redcat is a perfect venue — everyone knew from the start that we were all in it together and you could sense that excitement as we took our seats.

Set in a dingy office, the play begins with the narrator, Nick, played by Scott Shepherd, finding a copy of "The Great Gatsby" in a Rolodex on his desk. While waiting for an interminable reboot of his aging computer, he picks it up and starts reading. His bored colleagues gradually drift in and out of their workaday doldrums playing the characters so elegantly drawn by Fitzgerald. The seminal novel about the dreams and delusions of the young strivers of New York's upper and wannabe-upper class took flight onstage. The drab office was a perfect contrast to the life, both lofty and artificial, depicted in the book.

There are many surprises. First, it's funny — something unexpected from one of the great tragedies in American literature. But it's undeniable when hearing and seeing it onstage. Of course ERS has helped entertain with its inventive staging and visual touches. You feel you are witnessing something fresh and new. Great art often makes you see something familiar in a totally new way. Director John Collins said recently, "We knew we might fail, but it would be a worthwhile failure."

gatz-shepherd-iris.jpgAs Shepherd reads and the action takes place around him, the novel he holds becomes the most important character on the stage. In fact, when he leaves the book after Gatsby's murder and starts reciting the words by heart, it's somehow shocking to see him go on without the novel in hand.

It was exhilarating, exciting, hypnotic, poignant, heartfelt, intelligent and utterly charming theater. It lasted from afternoon 'til evening and it didn't make me tired. I laughed, I cried and felt everything in between.

When it was over, I was weirdly energized. I confess that somehow I had gone all these years without actually ever reading the novel, having started it a few days before I saw the show. After it was over, I couldn't wait to go home and finish it, relishing the thought of being immersed in the writing all over again.

Elevator Repair Service has been trying since 1999 to do a staging of "The Great Gatsby." Initially, it was not their intention to read the whole book onstage. But in trying to structure a play from the book, Collins and Shepherd said that every time they tried to extract something meaningful from the novel, it always seemed to diminish the work.

After years of wrestling with the book they decided the only way to do this was to read the novel it in its entirety. It took years to get permission from the estate to play in New York and Los Angeles, although it has been performed abroad intermittently since its Brussels premiere in 2006. Redcat finally succeeded in bringing it to its stage. It will run for 9 performances through December 9.

After seeing this production, I watched a trailer for the upcoming film of "The Great Gatsby" by Baz Luhrman, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey McGuire, Carey Mulligan and a cast of thousands. Multitudes of elaborately costumed extras leap off the screen, carousing in opulent locations featuring Gatsby's extravagant mansion lit up like a house on fire. It was a cacophony of excess. Nothing was left to the imagination and I'm sure no expense was spared. The clip only lasted two minutes, but I afterwards I thought "Now THAT was exhausting."

It was so much more satisfying to settle in for 7 hours of inventive storytelling, seated in a roomful of perfect strangers who had gathered together to share something unforgettable.

Photos of the production and of Scott Shepherd by Iris Schneider

October 25, 2012

Q&A: Daniel Olivas and USC poet Andrew Allport

Daniel A. Olivas is the author of six books including the novel, "The Book of Want" (University of Arizona Press.)

In my day job as a government lawyer, I work with many non-writers who love literature. They belong to book clubs, read publications such as The New Yorker, the Los Angeles Review of Books,, and LA Observed. And they argue, argue, argue about the merits of the latest "big" book.

body-of-space-in-the-shape-of-the-human.jpgSome of my colleagues have an even closer connection to literature. For example, one of the lawyers on my floor is married to an acclaimed novelist. And I recently learned that one of our newly hired attorneys has an award-winning poet for a husband. That poet is Andrew Allport, who holds a Ph.D. in Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Southern California, where he now teaches writing and literature. He is the author of a chapbook, "The Ice Ship and Other Vessels," published by Proem Press. His reviews and poetry have appeared in Boston Review, Colorado Review, Denver Quarterly, and elsewhere.

And now Allport can add a full-length collection to his name. His book, the body | of space | in the shape of the human, won a poetry contest and was published this year by New Issues Press. After reading his new book, I asked Allport if he'd be open to an online interview, and he agreed.

DANIEL OLIVAS: Your debut collection, "the body | of space | in the shape of the human," was the winner of the 2011 New Issues Poetry Prize. How did you learn that you'd won? Had you submitted the manuscript to other poetry contests?

ANDREW ALLPORT: I had submitted the manuscript to at least a few other first book prizes, though I had really forgotten about them when I got a call from Marianne Sweringa, the managing editor at New Issues. At the time I was working as a sort of writer-for-hire in a sleepy corner of the university bureaucracy; everything I wrote was in bullet points. I was a little dazed by the news. I remember being quite sure that my name had been mistakenly put on some other poet's manuscript, and it would only be a matter of time before Marianne called back to apologize for the mix-up. She sounded like a nice person, so I hoped she'd take pity on me and publish mine as well.

DO: How did your manuscript take shape? Did it go through many iterations before you believed it was ready to submit it to the New Issues contest?

AA: It was a long and confusing process to get the book to where it ended up. I can't remember all of it, but basically what happened was this: when my father died very unexpectedly in 2008, I was already nearly done with a poetry manuscript. After a period of incapacitation, I managed to write a couple poems about the experience. But they hardly fit with the rest of the collection. Instead of starting a new manuscript, which might have been less effort, I began replacing poems, and the book gradually shifted in tone as the feeling of elegy took over, becoming darker and more emotionally direct. I think I worked this way because the idea of starting something new seemed too daunting at the time; perhaps this had to do with finding ways of making life after a traumatic experience somehow contiguous with life before, or perhaps it was something else. In any case, in the end only a couple of poems remained from the original when I submitted it to New Issues, and those were subsequently cut.

DO: You divide your collection into four sections each beginning with quotations from, respectively, Shakespeare's "King Lear," Robert Musil's novel, "The Man Without Qualities," Samuel Taylor Coleridge's 1797 letter to Thomas Poole, and August Wilhelm von Schlegel's "On the Study of Greek Poetry." How do these authors set the stage for each section? How have they influenced you as a poet?

AA: Lear is my favorite play. I think it has affected me in different ways ever since I read it for the first time in high school, when I cried in English class over Cordelia's death, which I never saw coming. The quotation in the book, which precedes the first section, is from the scene where Edgar, the good son, is pretending to lead his blind and suicidal father towards a cliff. Edgar has to keep reassuring Gloucester that yes, the cliff is coming up soon, feeding him all this sensory information: the pitch of the hill, the smell of the sea, the tininess of the people below. When I set out to write about my father, I decided that I needed that kind of transparent artifice, in which the fictional setting becomes more evocative than the real one. The fact that there is no cliff only heightens the pathos of Gloucester's attempt at suicide; Edgar's resurrection of his father is a moment of love and forgiveness but also a lie. I knew I would lie about him, but I knew that lying would be part of telling the truth about him.

As for Musil and Coleridge and Schlegel, I don't have such a clear idea. They were things I was reading at the time and must have jotted down. They represent different ideas of art and different thematic elements of the book, but it's all kind of jumbled up and impossible to put one epigraph to a particular theme. Coleridge is talking about the difference between parts and the whole; Schlegel about naturalness and the sentimentality; Musil about progress and nostalgia. The epigraphs freeze each of them into little statuettes of thought, probably grotesquely distorted. The first epigraph of the book is the important one, I think, but--and this is true of the section breaks as well--I think it's important for a collection to have little stopping points where readers can take a break, reflect, and decide if they want to keep going or call it a day.

DO: One of my favorite poems in your collection is "Keats, Listening to Van Morrison" because I love Morrison's song "And It Stoned Me" which paints a nostalgic scene of two boys caught in the rain after going fishing. You play off the Morrison lyrics as you imagine John Keats being moved by his vocals ("Strange entanglement of singing, a twin voice..."). What brought you to this unusual pairing?

AA: Keats seems like he would have been one of those boys in the song. There's a freedom to the scenes of the song! These two boys hitchhiking around and drinking whiskey with strangers...but such an innocence, too. And the speaker is so observant and close to the sensations of the experience, with the water on his skin and the joy of just being out and alive in the world. Keats was, from all accounts, a fierce and funny guy to be around, despite the tuberculosis. I'm into the Romantics--Wordsworth gets an appearance in the book, too, hiking around in California--but to me their value is their effect on our current moods and problems, not so much their original context. The title used to be "Reading Keats, Listening to Van Morrison," but someone suggested it would be better without "Reading," because it suggests that it's Keats who is listening to the song, which is an image I like better: the two boys make him think of his brother Tom, and perhaps all the water makes him think of mortality, and his own epithet as well--"one whose name was writ on water." Likeness in the unlikeness, right?

DO: The poet, Mark Irwin, observes that your collection "take[s] its emotional heart from Book VI of St. Augustine's 'Confessions,'" a book that is considered by many as the first Western autobiography. When did you first read Confessions? Do you agree with Irwin's assessment?

AA: The title of the book comes from this section of Augustine, although the words aren't in that order. As does the question at the heart of writing: "In what state shall we depart this life?" When I first read Augustine I was attracted, as many people have been, to its honesty and specificity. As you say, it's an autobiography, and it has all the best aspects of contemporary autobiography (or what is increasingly labeled, oddly, "creative non-fiction"): humble beginnings, ambition, drugs, concubines, spiraling doubt and despair, divorce, self-reinvention, apostasy, and spiritual rebirth. Bob Dylan, basically. The metaphysical question of Book VI is the physical existence of the divine--how do you picture something that simultaneously has no shape but is everywhere? For Augustine, this was about reconciling ideas of God, but I found that they echoed the difficulty of thinking about grief and absence: someone who dies is like God to us, unknowable and intimate.

DO: How would you describe your writing routine? How do you juggle teaching, marriage and fatherhood with the writing life?

AA: It's not much of a routine. My mentor, David St. John, once gave me some reassuring advice about writing that I try to keep in mind. He said you have to recognize how you work and respect your method, no matter how erratic or disgraceful it seems compared to other people's habits. I write when I can, which is not to say I'm always writing when I could be. Teaching is a funny business in that you're always exhorting your students to write, and sometimes feel bad if you're not taking your own advice.

DO: How much do you hate the question (usually from friends and family): What are you writing now?

AA: Wait, are you pointing out the aggravating nature of this question while also asking it? Tricky...well, since you asked, I'm early in another collection. It's on boyhood, drone aircraft, Pythagoras, and water rights. So far...

October 18, 2012

Revisiting the Garden of Allah

GOA pool.jpgIn early October, contributor Kaitlin Parker posted a lovely history of the Garden of Allah hotel/apartment complex in slide show format, featuring an underground tour of the site in its current incarnation as a mini mall at Crescent Heights and Sunset. Ulisses Acosta, the site's current property manager, even revealed tiles and tunnels that may date back to the hotel's original foundation.
TTWS-cover-11-SMALL-195x300.jpgOne of the few people who might know for sure is author Martin Turnbull, who has devoted himself to tracking down bits of Garden of Allah hotel lore and integrating them into his fictional series about the famed residential hotel through the decades.

On Saturday, October 20th at 1 PM, Martin will join the LA Chapter of The Dorothy Parker Society at Greenblatt's Deli to discuss his research and latest Garden of Allah novel, The Trouble with Scarlett, featuring Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley who both lived in the hotel its Golden Age in the '30s.

Martin may even have an update on the status of the historical, original scale model of the complex that's still up for auction.

Join us on Saturday. We'll be on the second floor of Greenblatt's Deli at 1 for a no-host lunch.

Historic Garden of Allah photos from Marc Wanamaker and the Bison Archives.

September 11, 2012

LA-centric text-speak

In this town of vanity license plates — WINBIGG lives right up the street and we've spent hours trying to figure out what he does; SLPYDOC who you'd think might work at Disney, but actually is an anesthesiologist who was famous for making house-calls; and my fave, A GUCCI on the back of an ancient mint-green Cadillac Eldorado the color of a pack of menthol cigarettes; BKINIS; CBRISKET; PERFECT; I♥BOTOX, and the somewhat interesting MOD3RN — my car doesn't have a license plate at all.

I got a new car a year and a half ago. My neighbor, who'd moved here from Atlanta a year ago, asked me yesterday in her adorable drawl, how I'd gotten a-way with driving a car for a year that doesn't have a license plate...

a-gucci-plate.jpg"I can explain," I said. "I really can."

I didn't want a new car. My lease was up and it cost too much to buy it in some banking formula I don't understand (as I'm sure the second I turned it in, they resold it to someone else for half the price.)

I realize this is LA-centric but it's not my fault I live in a city where it's not possible to walk from one place to another; public transportation is limited and sluggish; I'm too scared to ride a bicycle on a city street, let alone navigate a high-speed canyon; and constructing a subway, in my opinion, under a city that's actually on an earthquake fault (or three) and has a working oil-well dead-center (on the high-school campus of Beverly Hills) is one of the worst ideas ever, and if I was FEMA I would be fighting it.

But back to my car. I got the same exact car I had before just a newer model. I don't like it as much. It's not quite as zippy. It's probably a little safer: I can't quite drive it with one finger, I have to keep both hands on the wheel.

A few weeks later, a yellow envelope arrived from the DMV which due to its inflexibility and size was obviously my new license plate. I knew the moment I saw it. I had some sixth sense. I put it on the mail table like an unwanted court summons. I didn't open it.

A friend came for dinner. I brought the envelope into the dining room. "I can't open this," I said. "I know it's terrible. I know I can't put this on my car."

My husband rolled his eyes. My friend said, "You're being ridiculous. Just open it."

I opened up the envelope and looked at the license plate. It was worse than I could've even imagined -- it was a perfect abbreviation in text-speak.

My license plate said in big capital letters: 6SXL208.

I instantly translated the "SXL" to Sexual and when you add the "6" in, it became Sick Sexual. (No idea what the 208 meant, but I wasn't taking any chances.)

The "SXL" was bad enough but when you put the "6" in front of it. The text-speak instantly transformed to a sext.

What if somebody thought it was a vanity license plate?!

"Not happening," I said to both of them.

They looked completely perplexed. My husband said sheepishly, "It's just a license plate."

"No, it's not," I insisted. "It's asking for trouble. Worst case scenario, someone could think it was an invitation to follow you home."

The next day, I called the DMV. I got a very nice person named Anthony. I told him my story. "OMG," he said, without missing a beat, "you can't drive around with that on the back of your car. I get it completely. What if you were driving home alone late at night and someone decided to follow you?!" He told me to make an appointment at the DMV and for an $18.00 administration fee, they would give me a new license and registration.

I asked him if he'd ever had a call like this before. "Oh, yeah," he answered. "We've been having a lot of trouble with the 6 series. A lot of people are getting 666 and they don't like it, at all. But I have to tell you this is the worst one I've ever heard."

I can't explain why it took me a year and a half to get to the DMV. Well, I sort of can. Our local DMV was shuttered for renovation, life got in the way, I sort of liked being anonymous, if I got caught by a red-light camera, they wouldn't be able to find me. For the record, I have a clean driving record.

But last week, I finally went to the DMV. My husband came with me, partly because he's supportive and partly because he was certain they weren't going to take it back.

I told my story to the woman behind the counter. In some version of the "cheese-lady," she rolled her eyes at my husband sympathetically. (Everyone has a "cheese-lady." The cheese-lady is the woman behind the counter at Whole Foods who whenever I'm being particularly fussy about cheese, rolls her eyes sympathetically at my husband and then bats them three times. And I maintain that in every marriage, there's someone like the cheese-lady. For the record, we have a cheese-man, too.) But since I figured we never had to interact with the woman at the DMV again, I didn't give her the kind of dirty look I usually give the "cheese-lady." Also, I was a little worried about my replacement license plate.

"You can return it," she said. "But I only have one," and added with some attitude, "I hope you like it."

"I'm sure I will," I said with extreme confidence. I did. It was better than I could've even imagined.

My new license plate is 6WQW213.

My husband looked at me somewhat baffled as did the "cheese lady" at the DMV.

But in some text-speak version of K$sha with a dollar sign instead of an "e", I instantly interpreted the "Q" as a fancy variation of an "O" and "213" being L.A.'s primary area code translated it to 6WOWLA. Yep. Text-speak.

So, I have an appointment this week at the car dealership to get holes drilled into my car (why they aren't there in the first place, is also something that baffles me) so I can put the darn thing on the car. And if a police officer stops me in the meantime (for driving around without a plate), I'll just have to try to "sxplain."

loose-diamonds.jpgThe paperback edition of Amy Ephron's latest book, Loose Diamonds...and other things I've lost and found along the way, was just released with an added story, "Secrets," and a bound-in readers' guide. She will talk about the book and sign copies at Book Soup in West Hollywood on Thursday night at 7 p.m.

She writes a monthly column "L.A. POV" for the New York Times' T on-line on fashion, entertainment, food, and occasionally court. She recently directed a short film, "Chloe@3 AM," which was featured by the American Cinematheque at the female director's festival in January 2011.

Amy Ephron is also the author of five novels, including the international bestseller "A Cup of Tea;" "Biodegradable Soap;" the L.A. angst ridden "Bruised Fruit," and the cult classic "Cool Shades." She is publisher and editor of One For the Table, a website devoted to food, politics and love. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, Alan Rader, and any of their five children who drop in.

Photo: Maia Harari

August 14, 2012

Who you gonna call?

The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department has been under siege lately, with its operations and practices going back for many years under scrutiny. But there's a side of law enforcement that is rarely talked about. It came to the fore the other day, in the Texas shooting of a cop and several others; as it happened, the constable had gone to the home of an unstable man to serve eviction papers. The man killed him.

I write about a very similar incident in my new book Desert Reckoning: A Town Sheriff, a Mojave Hermit, and the Biggest Manhunt in Modern California History. It's about a beloved deputy in the Antelope Valley - the little-known side of LA County - who was gunned down by a hermit in August of 2003 (nine years ago this month) by a hermit who may have feared eviction. As it turned out, the deputy was looking for someone else he had evicted from the area in the days prior to his visit - and there were additional, underlying reasons for the incident, all of which are explored in my book.

I first wrote about the killing and the manhunt for Rolling Stone; during the two years that I worked on my piece, I came to see a side of law enforcement that is not generally apparent to many civilians. The work of a cop is dangerous. It's one thing to say that but another to see it. Most cops get nervous about domestic violence calls or traffic stops - the deadliest kind of police work. Deputy Stephen Sorensen had volunteered for the position of resident deputy in Lake Los Angeles. That involved patrolling a far-flung area of the Mojave, where if you're in trouble, it might take an hour for back-up to arrive. As it happened, he had a run-in with the hermit Donald Kueck during a highway encounter years before their final clash. It nearly became violent, and strangely, occurred at just about the same time - high noon on a summer day - in the Antelope Valley.

llano-sign-lao.jpgAfter my magazine piece came out, I spent the next six years working on my book. It continues my long-time desert wanderings, expanding the story of the week-long manhunt and the two main characters, the sheriff and the hermit. In addition, it takes a look at the history of the old commune of Llano; it was near these crumbling ruins that the shoot-out occurred, just outside the trailer where Kueck once tried to build a utopia for one, and not that far from where Sorensen lived and worked, available when anyone had a need.

During my journey into this story, I spent time with several cops who were involved with the hunt for Kueck, a dedicated desert citizen who knew the terrain so well that he managed to outfox a massive, high-tech posse for seven days. One of the cops, veteran homicide detective Mark Lillienfeld, loaned me a book which recounts the history of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. Through that book and others, I learned that Los Angeles - not Deadwood or Tombstone - was the most violent of all frontier outposts, the place where many an outlaw landed as they rolled westward.

I also spent hours listening to tapes of the final conversations between Detective Lillienfeld and Donald Kueck, as the cop tried to convince the fugitive to surrender after he was surrounded in a complex of sheds where he was making his last stand. Throughout this strange shadow play, Lillienfeld was at the Riverside apartment of Kueck's daughter; Kueck had been calling her while on the run and now, in his final hours, the siege was being televised, with choppers hovering over the hide-out as a sundown deadline for surrender approached. The conversations between the cop and the hermit are recounted in my book, with both men wanting something from the other as a distraught daughter is caught in the middle. Listening to these conversations told me a lot about an unseen side of police work - an emotional toll that cops try to hide in one way or another - and a few other things as well.

To write my book, I also went inside the SWAT operation, with the help of Lt. Bruce Chase and then others involved in it. During my many conversations with Chase, we talked about why he signed up with the sheriff's department. To my surprise - and I'm not sure why, as I'm not surprised by all that much - one of the reasons was that he was a long-time fan of Louis L'Amour. Reading L'Amour's work as a kid, he was struck by the code of honor that motivated the Sackett brothers and other L'Amour characters; like them, he came west one day and joined the law.

But that doesn't mean law enforcement didn't throw him a few curves. For instance, during the manhunt, the SWAT team staged its operations from, of all places, a desert convent. In addition to their own vans and other equipment, the sheriff's department needed a structure near the crime scene which could serve as a base. They also needed a place where they could land a chopper. A convent in Lake Los Angeles served the purpose and during the seven-day hunt, deputies were coming in from the desert to eat and sleep; some prayed with the nuns. Chase was relieved to throw off his gear in a shady place and catch some rest on the cool cement floor of the convent after trekking across the desert bakery all day. Yet it was certainly not how he or any of his compadres had envisioned a life in law enforcement.

Months after the manhunt concluded in a Wagnerian firestorm under a full moon, I sat down with Sheriff Baca and asked him why someone would want to go to the desert and guard it, alone. "Whatever it was," he told me, "it was Steve's mission to protect God's creation." It's an apt description of the Mojave Desert, with its Joshua trees, terror, and beauty.

When it comes to law enforcement, we have a schizophrenic relationship. A free country needs rules after all, and nowhere is this dynamic more palpable than in the Mojave, where the silence can calm you down or jack you up, whispering all sorts of messages until one day, someone has a problem and the man shows up and you suspect that you have to leave your home.

Photo: LA Observed

May 29, 2012

Counter of books at The Last Bookstore downtown


Photo by Judy Graeme.

May 7, 2012

What I learned from biographer Charles Higham - and Orson Welles


Joel Bellman, a former radio and newspaper journalist, is communications deputy for Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky.

Chances are, the recent passing of author and biographer Charles Higham escaped your notice. He left no survivors. His longtime partner had died two years earlier. And Higham - who'd reportedly broken his hip earlier in a fall - had passed away more than a week before the story of his death finally broke in the Hollywood Reporter.

To the extent that Higham was known at all by the general public, it was for a series of sensational tell-all celebrity biographies notorious for their scandalous, sometimes thinly sourced and often hotly denied allegations of personal peccadilloes, weird sex (lots of it) and general depraved portrayals of his subjects. Critics dismissed them; the entertainment industry reviled them; and ultimately, many readers simply tired of them.

Still, I felt a twinge of sadness when I read about his lonely death. And I thought back to a long-ago interview I conducted with him, and how, though it was our only contact, it taught me one of the most valuable lessons of both my professional career, and my life.

Higham's literary career was controversial, to put it mildly. Born into privilege in England, his family fell on hard times following a divorce. He published poetry from a young age and wrote several plays. Later, as a successful journalist and film critic, he took a writer-in-residence position at UC Santa Cruz, which led to his first book, one of the few serious critical overviews of the films of Orson Welles. Though generally admiring, it was also unsparing - and committed, for Welles acolytes like Peter Bogdanovich and author Barbara Leaming, the unpardonable sin of blaming Welles for many unnecessary self-inflicted career wounds. Higham attributed them to Welles's "fear of completion" that repeatedly led him to abandon projects that remained unfinished, or were subsequently maimed and mishandled by others attempting to salvage what was left.

Higham went on to become the New York Times Hollywood correspondent, and the successful author of numerous formulaic and increasingly sordid biographies largely trashing some of the biggest movie stars of the 1940s and 1950s.

I don't know whether Errol Flynn really was a Nazi spy or Cary Grant a "wife-beating, miserly closeted homosexual," as one obit short-handed two of his more sensational claims. But when I had the opportunity to interview Higham for a radio documentary I was producing on Orson Welles, I didn't care. Tawdry tales of Tinseltown - true, exaggerated, invented, unverifiable - didn't interest me.

What did interest me, intensely, was what he'd written about Welles, an early hero of mine both for his prolific and wildly successful radio career in the 1930s and 1940s, and for a small handful of some of the most memorable American films ever made, from the acknowledged masterpieces "Citizen Kane" and "The Magnificent Ambersons" to the noir classics "Lady From Shanghai" and "Touch of Evil."

In 1985, Welles turned 70, and Higham had written "Orson Welles: The Rise and Fall of An American Genius," the more critical of two biographies published that year. The other, by Hunter College film professor Barbara Leaming, boasted Welles's complete cooperation and Leaming's uncritical adoration, offering a gracefully written and colorful portrait of an uncompromising genius who'd suffered more than his share of indignities and tough breaks in a world of artistic philistines. Higham's book, by contrast, had enjoyed no cooperation from Welles at all - that earlier book had ensured lifelong enmity from the sensitive and easily wounded Welles. Its writing was mechanical, the tone generally unsympathetic, the narrative a tragic arc of vanity, indulgence, and artistic dissipation. Small wonder that critics dismissed it as merely the latest uninspired product in a literary assembly line of celebrity takedowns.

Still, much as I love and admire so much of Welles's work, I could not brush aside Higham's "fear of completion" thesis. And when I interviewed Higham - after having earlier interviewed Leaming - I found myself increasingly skeptical of her sunny, uncritical embrace of the Orsonian world-view. I really wanted to embrace her simplistic account of the unjust victimization of a misunderstood and underappreciated genius. But Higham, a more graceless writer, nevertheless made a compelling case for something more than just bad luck dogging Welles's career. As an acting prodigy whose lifelong infatuation with Shakespeare began when he was a young boy, Orson himself in a candid moment might have agreed with Cassius: "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves..."

As I was wrapping up my interview with Higham, he offhandedly asked me if I'd interviewed Welles himself for the piece. "Oh, God, no," I said, dismissing the possibility. "I can't imagine he'd agree to do something like this. He doesn't know who I am, and I don't know anyone who knows him." Higham replied, "You should do it. At least try. He's staying here in town at a house in the (Hollywood) Hills close by."

As I pondered our conversation later, I began to think, "Yeah - what the hell? What have I got to lose? Why don't I?" I made a mental note to follow up.

The following week, as it turned out, based on some previous investigative reporting I had done, I was subpoenaed to testify as an expert witness in a civil lawsuit brought against the Lyndon LaRouche political cult. After almost two full days on the stand, getting pounded in cross-examination by the LaRouche attorney - an aggressive former prosecutor - I was exhausted and anxious to get back to my documentary.

As I was about to pull out of the parking lot, I snapped on KNX for a quick news update, only to hear: "Actor-director Orson Welles was found dead today in the Hollywood Hills home where he had recently been staying. Officials said he had suffered an apparent heart attack, and died alone. Welles, 70, was best known..."

I don't remember the rest of the report; I don't think I heard it. I may have been in shock. Not only would I have to reconfigure the documentary from a birthday tribute to a eulogy, I could not believe how my timidity and procrastination had cost me a priceless opportunity to snare what might have been one of the very last interviews Orson Welles would ever grant. At the very least, I had missed forever a chance to tell the great man how much his work had inspired me. And he'd been living less than a mile from my office.

I went on to finish what became a two-part documentary, a sad and difficult job quite different than the project I had eagerly embarked upon. It got some attention and won a few awards, and today it's part of the archived holdings in the Paley Center for the Media. But I will always regret the failure of nerve that carried such an incalculable price.

Late in his career, in a reflective moment, Welles famously observed that "We're born alone, we live alone, we die alone." Last month, Higham - like Orson - apparently suffered a fatal heart attack, at home, alone. He, too, was past his prime, his early artistic promise not eclipsed by a string of hammy bit parts, chat-show appearances and Paul Masson commercials, but buried under a pile of lurid yet lucrative celebrity exposes that similarly earned him wealth and fame, while costing him dearly in credibility and respect.

But it's the second half of Welles's quote that I want to remember: "Only through our love and friendship," he added, "can we create the illusion for the moment that we're not alone." And that's the lesson I learned not just from Orson, but from Higham: in work, and in life, never hesitate to reach out to someone, no matter how prominent or inaccessible they may seem.

They can only say no. But over the decades, I've been surprised by how often they say yes.

Washington Post file photo from 1981 of Charles Higham; young Welles photo from Bellman

April 16, 2012

The Stendahl connection

P4140087.JPGNow that I've read April Dammann's book, The Exhibitionist: Earl Stendahl, Art Dealer as Impresario, I'm discovering more and more that art dealer Earl Stendahl still influences our city's artistic evolution.

There's a Stendahl connection to LACMA's exhibition "Children of the Plumed Serpent: the Legacy of Quetzalcoatl in Ancient Mexico," which opened April 1st. Stendahl, the first U.S. dealer in Pre-Columbian art has a piece in the show, a large capstone from Teotihuacan, Mexico, which the late Dr. Virginia (Ginny) Fields acquired for the museum before her untimely passing. In addition, Stendahl Galleries loaned Earl Stendahl's letters from Diego Rivera, promoting Emmy Lou Packard, a young American artist who worked with Diego and Frida Kahlo in Mexico, to the current LACMA show "In Wonderland: The Surrealist Adventures of Women Artists in Mexico and the United States." Earl Stendahl became Packard's dealer and sold her work at rates equal to his male artists at a time when many dealers did not.

Upcoming are two rare occasions to tour Earl Stendahl's home/gallery in Hollywood. Author April Dammann will be discussing her book and Earl Stendahl's work at an open house with the Los Angeles Visionaries Association on Sunday, April 22nd at 1 PM. Make your reservations here.

Stendahl Galleries will host a new show that is only open for one weekend. From Friday, April 27 through Sunday, April 29, the work of Maynard Hale Lyndon will be on view in an exhibit called "Looking Boxes: Playful Ways of Seeing the World." "Meet the Artist" receptions are planned for Friday, April 27, 6 - 9 pm and Sat, April 28, 4 - 7 pm. RSVP. Contact for details and reservations.

Be sure to check out the Pre-Columbian art in the garden as pictured in this post. If you like what you see, here's the book's video.

April 11, 2012

April is my favorite month to stay in LA

annie+hall+tcm.jpgYou never have to look too far to find lots of things to do in Los Angeles, but April is the one month of the year I make sure I stay in town because so much comes to us. The third annual Turner Classic Film Festival opens on Thursday, April 12, immediately followed on April 16 by the City of Lights, City of Angels Film Festival and then their final weekend is overlapped by the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, held at USC on April 21st and 22nd. So many choices, so little time.

This will be the 3rd annual TCM festival and I have to admit, when I first heard of their plans to bring classic films to the big screen at Grauman's and other theaters in the heart of Hollywood, I was dubious at best. How many people would show up to see "Sunset Boulevard" at 9 in the morning when they could stay in bed watching it on their television? Well, I was humbled to learn several thousand people from 49 states and throughout the world would and the festival has been selling out ever since. This year, stars such as Liza Minnelli, Debbie Reynolds, Shirley Jones, Kim Novak and directors John Landis, John Carpenter and Stanley Donen are among the dozens who will be introducing films such as "Cabaret," "Two for the Road," "Auntie Mame," "Vertigo," "The Women" -- over 100 films in all. It is a veritable convention of film lovers and part of the joy of it for those of us who live here is that it is a reminder of how lucky we are - between UCLA, the Cinematheque at the Aero and the Egyptian, and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences we have access to classic films year round.

Still, the TCM festival is something special. For those who didn't buy passes last summer when they went on sale, individual tickets are sold before the screenings on an "as available basis," so your chances are best at those shown in the largest venues, Grauman's Chinese and The Egyptian. Check out for the schedule and check again in a month or so to see when next year's passes go on sale.

The City of Lights, City of Angels Film Festival is in its sixteenth year -- and with fewer theaters showing foreign films year-round, it is a rare chance to see over thirty French films that may never be released in this country. Because of ColCoa, past attendees were already familiar with Jean Dujardin, this year's Oscar winner for best actor for "The Artist," because several of his previous films, including his hilarious OSS James Bond-spoofs, have been shown in past years. This year, new releases include the much anticipated "Another Woman's Life" starring Juliette Binoche and "Americano," starring Salma Hayek from the writer director Mathieu Demy, son of Agnes Varda and Jacques Demy. Classic films are celebrated at ColCoa and this year those include "Call Me Savage" starring Yves Montand and Marcel Carne's "Hotel du Nord." The festival is held at the Director's Guild and is open to the public. Full schedule

The Los Angeles Times continues with its budget struggles, but miraculously their Festival of Books flourishes. Each year hundreds of authors -- who spend so much of their time alone with their computer -- gather for a weekend to engage with -- and be amazed by -- thousands of active, engaged readers. There are a variety of "stages" -- the cooking stage, the poetry stage, the children's stage -- you get the idea -- and dozens of panels and one on one "conversations" such as Rodney King with Patt Morrison.

This year's "celebrity authors" include Betty White, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Julie Andrews; Scott Berg will be moderating one of several biography panels (I am moderating another) and discussions with the likes of Katrina vanden Heuvel, Tom Hayden and Robert Scheer are sure to be lively and informative. Something for everyone. The Festival of Books was the brain child of Narda Zacchino and Steve Wasserman -- now both long gone from the Times -- and has evolved into one of the finest book festivals in the country. For years, the Festival was held at UCLA, but last year moved to USC. It opens on Friday night with what will be the 32nd annual LA Times Book Awards, coordinated by the Times' film critic Kenneth Turran, and that too has public tickets available. Admittance to the Festival of Books is free, but this year they are selling passes for $30 to eight panels for those who want to be sure to get in to see their favorites. (Stages and outdoor performances are all free as well.) It is still one the best deals in town and for tickets and more information. Website for info

Happy April.

Annie Hall screens at the Turner Classic Film Festival on April 15 at Grauman's Chinese Theatre

February 18, 2012

Brushes with death and greatness

We start the day in Seattle. My husband and I meet a guy who buys green coffee beans. He's getting on a plane to Uganda in two hours, but has time for a chat that includes a brief discussion of the "magnificent bastards" one sometimes meets in various African countries, the ones who sluice your way to product, to connections, who offer outsize hospitality and big belly laughs, until the talk turns to money, which is when it all comes apart, and you realize you have once again fallen for a magnificent bastard.

I tell the guy, I just read and reviewed Behind the Beautiful Forevers, the actually magnificent book by Katherine Boo, about a slum in Mumbai and the commerce that rages there, the recycling of the tiniest of objects (used tampon applicators, anyone?), the micro-saboteurs, the NGO money that never goes where it's supposed to go, the smiling for the Western cameras. And yet, life goes on, as does death.

Two hours later, we are on our way back to Portland, driving south on the 5 freeway with several hundred pounds of green coffee in the back of the car. We've just picked up drive-thru. I am dumping fries into a bag my husband can easily access while driving when, POP! CRACK CRACK!

"Holy shit, what the fuck?" or something like it comes from our mouths, as does, "What happened?" Though we don't need to ask; the cold air rushing in the window just behind my husband tells us the window has exploded, as does the green glass that continues to shatter and pop.

"That did not come from a rock," says my husband, who does not slow down, who does not swerve. "Someone shot at us."

I undo my seatbelt and scrabble through the glass and coats in the backseat. I tell him, I see no shell...

"It wouldn't have been a bullet because that would have gone out through the opposite window," he says. "It was probably from a pellet gun."

We have no idea what car it came from; we're in the middle lane, cars and trucks passing on the left. But what an incredibly stupid thing, I am thinking, and then, as I look at the fish sandwich in my hand, what if they had shot through the driver's window? What if they had shot my husband in the head? I am not sure what sound I make, but he reaches over and says, "It's okay."

Yes, it is okay. Also, disturbing, to the point where terror is in your throat when you think about it, but what are you going to do?

What I am going to do, ninety minutes after we get back to Portland, is interview Katherine Boo. I had admired her book so much; at the work she did over a three-year period. We all, those of us who practice long-form narrative, have walked into projects with a great deal of gung-ho; sometimes, we falter. Boo did not falter. The opportunities for her to not merely leave, but to flee, were everywhere, as was dying, nearly always brutally, especially among the young. But she stayed, and with her staying, wrote a great book.


Boo approaches the table where I am to interview her. She is a tiny thing, I might easily cup both her hands in mine. As soon as she sits, we are in the thick of talking, of what it can feel like to be in the midst of a story, the trespassing nature of it, the slowness, the small moments of beauty you would never get if you did not stick around, the toll it can take and the push back from authorities, which in Boo's case meant being held by police. Also, the immense gratitude to friends, editors, spouses who say, don't be afraid to do this, and, you must do this.

I check the phone app I am using to record, files from which can be instantly loaded into the cloud for human transcription.

"Maybe in India," Boo says. Maybe. And it might be transcribed by the time I drive home. Not that I am driving tonight, glass still all over the car, and as I will later find, in my shoe.

After the interview, Boo and I hang out in front of her hotel. It's her first reading tonight. I tell her, the butterflies subside by the third or fourth. She asks what I am working on. I tell her, two projects, one for which everyone wants to tell me their stories, the second, about a murder, for which few will, people are afraid, not even the cops will talk to me...

"But they will, you know they will," Boo says, the subtext being, if you stay, if you commit. Standing in the light rain, smiling, she is so little but so big.

I take a cab home, and think what I nearly lost today, and what I was given, and how much I need both.

Nancy Rommelmann is the author of The Queens of Montague Street, which was recently excepted by the New York Times Magazine ("Dazed and Confused," February 5.)

November 17, 2011

Angeleno Datebook- November 17, 2011

Thursday, November 17, 2011

  • Los Angeles Press Club honors Hugh Hefner at its Fourth Annual National Entertainment Journalism Awards dinner at the Millennium Biltmore Hotel
  • Victoria Patterson speaks at Gustavo's [ Arellano] Awesome Lecture Series at Fullerton Library about her new novel, This Vacant Paradise. 6:30 PM
  • Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra hosts "Austria a la Carte" at the Austrian Consul's residence in Brentwood.
  • Author Richard Polsky converses with Shepard Fairey about Polsky's book, The Art Prophets: The Artists, Dealers, and Tastemakers Who Shook the Art World, at Book Soup. 7 PM

Friday, November 18, 2011
  • The Spa Less Traveled: Discovering Ethnic Los Angeles, One Spa At a Time editors read their book at Vroman's. Oh, and happy 5th birthday to Prospect Park Media. 7 PM
  • Pasadena Children's Guild hosts its 44th Annual Snow Ball Preview Party and Auction at the Castle Green in Pasadena. 6:00 PM. Event continues with a brunch and holiday boutique at the same location on Saturday.
  • Filmmaker Wim Wenders discusses and signs Places, Strange and Quiet at Book Soup at 4 PM.
  • Randall Robinson discusses his novel, Makeda, at Eso Won Books at 7 PM.
  • Soil Desire People Dance performance starts at The Velaslavasay Panorama. Continues to Saturday. 8 PM

Continue reading "Angeleno Datebook- November 17, 2011" »

November 4, 2011

Angeleno Datebook- November 4, 2011

Friday, November 4, 2011

  • Dick Howard and Martín Plot discuss "Democracy in America" as part of the new West Hollywood Lecture Series curated in partnership with CalArts at the West Hollywood Library, City Council Chambers, starts at 7 PM
  • "Antiquity in the Twentieth Century: Modern Art and the Classical Vision" symposium starts at the Getty Villa and continues to Saturday. 10:30-5 PM
  • Los Angeles Transportation Club hosts its 88th Annual Installation Dinner at the Hyatt Regency Long Beach.
  • Lupus LA hosts its Ninth Annual Hollywood Bag Ladies Luncheon at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel.
  • La Luz de Jesus Gallery 25th Anniversary Celebration Part 11 with Mark Mothersbaugh, Mark Ryden, and many, many others. 8 PM
  • Designer Alber Elbaz visits Lavin Store in Beverly Hills tonight.
  • Night & the City: LA Noir in Poetry, Fiction, & Film events at Beyond Baroque: Raymond Chandler and his Los Angeles Legacy at 7:30 PM and A Night with James Ellroy, live and in person, at 9:30 PM. Venice
Saturday, November 5, 2011
  • SNL's Molly Shannon signs new book, Tilly the Trickster, at Barnes & Noble at the Grove. 1 PM
  • Los Angeles Police Foundation hosts its True Blue Gala at L.A. Live.
  • American Indian Arts Market at Autry National Center 10 AM -5 PM.
  • Friends of the Los Angeles River benefit hosted by the LA Weekly at its LA 101 Music Festival at the Gibson Ampitheatre, Universal City.
  • Leslie Klinger discusses Before Dracula: History of Vampire Literature at Brentwood Branch Library. 2PM
  • Los Angeles County Museum of Art honors John Baldessari and Clint Eastwood at its inaugural Art and Film Gala.
  • Seth Rogen, Adam Arkin and others host Exceptional Children's Foundation's Fourth Annual Art Sale Fundraiser at Downtown Art Center Gallery. Los Angeles. 6 PM

Continue reading "Angeleno Datebook- November 4, 2011" »

October 28, 2011

Angeleno Datebook- October 28, 2011

Friday, October 28, 2011

  • Young Literati 4th Annual Toastbenefit for the Los Angeles Public Library hosted by Shepard Fairey and featuring the talents of Russell Brand, Demetri Martin, Henry Rollins at Richard J. Riordan Central Library, 630 W. Fifth Street, Los Angeles, CA 90071. 8 PM
  • Zombie Prom starts at 9 PM in the historic Linda Vista Hospital , formerly Sante Fe Railroad Hospital, 610 S. St Louis St, Downtown, continues Sunday.
  • Peace Over Violence honors Los Angeles Police Chief at its 40th Annual Humanitarian Awards at the Beverly Hills Hotel. 6 PM.
  • Urban Land Institute hosts Night at the Square on 10/27 from 6-8 PM
  • Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Los Angeles throw the The Big Bash! fundraiser at the Beverly Hilton Hotel.
  • Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra (LACO) presents "BELGIUM à la carte" at the Hancock Park residence of the Consul General of Belgium 7PM
Saturday, October 29 2011
  • ¡Vivan Los Muertos! at The Autry in Griffith Park, 4700 Western Heritage Way, Los Angeles, CA 90027-1462. 3-9 PM
  • Janet Fitch reads at the Hedgebrook LA Alumn Garden Party at the historic Stendahl Galleries in Hollywood Outpost Estates, benefiting Hedgebrook Women's Writer Colony in the Puget Sound.
  • First annual Automotive Authors Book Signing featuring Matt Stone, Steve Lehto, & Phil Noyes at Petersen Museum, 6060 Wilshire Blvd, Miracle Mile. 2-5 PM
  • Night & the City Lit Bar Crawl with PENUSA. 7 PM h/t Rina Rubinstein's Culture Alert newsletter:
  • Cedars-Sinai Medical Center hosts the Women's Guild Annual Gala at the Kodak Theatre.
  • Girl Scouts of Greater Los Angeles hosts Girltopia: The World of Girl Live at the Los Angeles Convention Center. Run for cover from the Girlzillas running amok Downtown at the sold out event.

Continue reading "Angeleno Datebook- October 28, 2011" »

October 24, 2011

LARB eyes Joan Didion

Los Angeles Review of Books (LARB) devotes a week to the work of Joan Didion, who has just released another memoir, called Blue Nights. Meghan Daum, Susan Straight, Amy Wilentz, Richard Rayner, Amy Ephron, and today, Matthew Specktor, who grew up around the corner when Didion lived in Brentwood, contribute essays contemplating the author and her place in the L.A. literary landscape.

The upstart literary review now comes in e-book format via Kindle. And on Thursday, November 3, Live Talks Los Angeles hosts a benefit for the LARB in the form of a conversation between the New Yorker's Adam Gopnik and filmmaker Ed Zwick.

Can't get enough of La Didion? Catch "An Evening with Joan Didion" at Vibiana on Nov. 16 through the ALOUD lectures program.

October 20, 2011

Angeleno Datebook- October 20, 2011

Thursday, October 2011

  • Celebrity Chef Tour fundraiser for the James Beard Foundation, featuring the cooking of Iron Chef Marc Forgione and family at Chaya Brasserie, West Hollywood, 7:30 PM. h/t Eater LA
  • Outfest Legacy Project honors Adam Shankman at its Legacy Awards 2011 at the Directors Guild of America. 8 PM
  • Eric Olsen, Glenn Schaeffer, & Michelle Huneven discuss and sign We Wanted to Be Writers: Life, Love, and Literature at the Iowa Writers' Workshop at Book Soup at 7 PM.
  • Boys & Girls Clubs of America honors Earvin "Magic" Johnson at its Heroes & High Hopes Award at the Ritz-Carlton, Los Angeles at L.A. Live.
  • Bonnie Nadzam will read and sign her debut novel, Lamb, at Skylight Books at 7:30 PM
Friday, October 21, 2011
  • LA Fashion Week starts today at the Sunset Gower Studios.
  • Thad Nodine will read and sign his debut novel, Touch and Go, and Andrea Portes will read her novel, Hick, at Skylight Books, starting at 7:30 PM
  • GLSEN-Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network honors Chaz Bono and Rob Reiner at its Seventh Annual Respect Awards at the Beverly Hills Hotel. 5:30 PM

Continue reading "Angeleno Datebook- October 20, 2011" »

October 14, 2011

Angeleno Datebook- October 14, 2011

Friday, October 14, 2011

  • Congresswoman Karen Bass discusses Obama's Job Package at the Urban Issues Breakfast Forum of Greater Los Angeles in the North Campus,Crystal Ballroom of the West Angeles Church of God In Christ, 3045 Crenshaw Blvd., Los Angeles, CA. 7:30 AM
  • William Shatner signs his release of his new space-themed concept album, "Seeking Major Tom." at Amoeba Music in Hollywood. 7 PM
  • American Cinematheque honors Robert Downey, Jr. at its 25th Annual Awards at the Beverly Hilton Hotel. Starts at 6:30 PM
  • ArtNight starts in Pasadena at 6 PM

Continue reading "Angeleno Datebook- October 14, 2011" »

October 6, 2011

Angeleno Datebook- October 6, 2011

Thursday, October 6, 2011

  • PEN USA and The Paris Review host a party featuring insights from Ann Louise Bardach, David Kipen, Jonathan Lethem, Tom Lutz, Mona Simpson, and Michael Tolkin in the Cactus Lounge of the Standard Hotel. 7:30-10 PM
  • The Drucker Business Forum hosts Deputy Mayor Austin Beutner for a look at "Keeping LA Competitive in the Global Economy" at Crawford Family Forum, 474 S Raymond Ave, 3 PM
  • LA Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne discusses cars, freeways, & getting around LA as part of a series on "Transportation & Living Streets" at Occidental College
  • Documentarian Aron Ramen screens his documentary "Pwer & Control: LSD In the 60's" at Beyond Baroque , 681 Venice Blvd, Venice 5 PM
  • LA artists Larry Bell, Billy Al Bengston & Betye Saar reminisce at Natural History Museum as part of Pacific Standard Time. Natural History Museum, 900 Exposition Blvd
  • Aloud presents criminologist David M Kennedy in conversation with LAPD Police Chief Charlie Beck at 7 PM.Taper Auditorium, LA Central Public Library, Downtown LA
  • "The Hollywood Librarian" documentary screens at CSULA, U-SU Theatre, Cal State Univ, 5151 State University Dr, LA. 6 PM
  • Harry Gamboa, Jr. & Willie Herrón lead a tour of the exhibition "Asco: Elite of the Obscure, A Retrospective, 1972-1987" at 7 PM at LA County Museum of Art

Friday, October 7, 2011

October 4, 2011

A Hot Date with Libros Schmibros

The hottest literary ticket this month isn't LA Aloud or Arianna Huffington's salon or a poetry slam at some Johnny Depp-owned dive in darkest Hollywood.

It's hanging out at Libros Schmibros in Boyle Heights or the second, pop-up Libros that is now temporarily ensconced in the lobby of the Hammer Museum in Westwood.

For those who haven't yet heard, Libros Schmibros is a lending library and used bookstore in Boyle Heights dreamed up by critic, literary flaneur, former NEA bigwig and all-around book geek David Kipen. Can we clone him, please?

Recently, some brilliant minds at the Hammer got the idea to replicate Kipen's eclectic Boyle Heights set-up at their museum for six weeks. The functional yet conceptual art installation has been such a success with staff, museum visitors and area neighbors that the Hammer has extended Libros Schmibros West til November 5.

Initially, Kipen wondered how he would staff two bookstores at the same time. So he sent out a literary SOS to LA's community of writers. Would authors be willing to spend a few hours hanging out in either the Boyle Heights and the Westwood pop-up store as artists-in-residence.

Our mission: to shelve books, explain the Libros Schmibros philosophy to anyone who wandered in and generally hang out. Think Les Deux Magots without alcohol.

Here's how Libros works:

Every book in the library is for sale at half its listed price. Browsers may also borrow a book for three weeks on the honor system, leaving only an email address or phone number as collateral.

The city's scribblers responded to Kipen in droves, so that on any given day, you're liable to run into Mona Simpson, Jonathan Gold, Hector Tobar, Jervey Tervalon, Aimee Bender, Louise Steinman Sarah Bynum, Richard Rayner, DJ Waldie or Gary Phillips shooting the breeze with whoever wanders in.

Libros Schmibros has also hosted several nighttime events, including a standing-room only marathon reading of Jack Kerouac's On The Road and author Mark Z. Danielewski and guests discussing Thomas Pynchon's LA Trilogy. On Oct. 8, the Boyle Heights store will host a post-Yom Kippur feast with Jonathan Gold.

Last week, it was my turn at the Hammer's pop-up store. J. Michael Walker, artist and author of "All the Saints of the City of Los Angeles" was there too. (A gifted interpreter of LA culture, mythology, history and art, he also created the illustrated LA cultural map on the back wall of Libros West).

Michael and I hung out and chatted with visitors who came and went.

"You're Denise Hamilton?" asked one bemused visitor. "I've been meaning to read you!"

The visitor bought one of my books, which I happily autographed. Then I autographed four more for other people.

Soon Mike the Poet dropped by with some book donations and serenaded us with a brand new poem that Suzanne Lummis of the L.A. Poetry Foundation had commissioned for the Night and the City LA Poetry Festival this month.

The books for sale or borrow are wildly eclectic and include many that Kipen amassed in his years as book critic for the San Francisco Chronicle. There are first editions, paperback classics, gorgeous coffee table art books and noir paperbacks. In a poignant twist, the bookshelves at Libros Schmibros West came from the much lamented and recently closed Mystery Bookstore in Westwood.

Which incredulously, leaves exactly zero bookstores in the cultural hub of Westwood, (except for UCLA's) except this modest pop-up whose lights will go out for good on Nov. 5.

So come on down to Libros Schmibros at its original Boyle Heights location or the temporary Westwood digs at the Hammer. I'm about to sign up for a second gig myself. You never know what interesting people I might run into.

david-kipen.JPGDavid Kipen with visitor at Libros Schmibros in Boyle Heights. Photo: Marianne Williams.

September 27, 2011

Angeleno Datebook- September 27, 2011

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

  • Los Angeles Philharmonic's gala "Rhapsody in Blue" expects about 650 guests at Disney Hall.
  • Chris Salewicz discusses his book, Bob Marley: The Untold Story, at Book Soup, 8818 W. Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood. 7PM
  • Aloud at Central Library presents Adam Winkler, the author of Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America in conversation with UC Irvine School of Law founding dean Erwin Chemerinsky. Richard J. Riordan Central Library, 630 W. 5th St., L.A. 7 p.m. Free.
Wednesday, September 28, 2011
  • Jaimy Gordon: The National Book Award-winning author of The Lord of Misrule will read and discuss her work at Otis College of Art and Design, 9045 Lincoln Blvd., L.A. 7:30 PM
  • Violence Prevention Coalition of Greater Los Angeles honors Connie Rice at its Angel of Peace Award Luncheon at the offices of the California Endowment.
  • Amor Towles signs his new novel, Rules of Civility, at Diesel Bookstore, 225 26th St., L.A. 7 PM
Thursday, September 29, 2011
  • Joachim Sauter, Art Center alumna Rebeca Méndez and Christian Moeller discuss digital media in a built environment at Art Center in Pasadena 7 PM, as part of the school's 3X3 series: "Get Physical, New Media in Space."
  • Author Mark Z. Danielewski ("House of Leaves," "Only Revolutions") will give a talk on Thomas Pynchon's three Los Angeles novels, not counting Gravity's Rainbow. Libros Schmibros, 2000 E. 1st St., L.A. 7

Continue reading "Angeleno Datebook- September 27, 2011" »

September 23, 2011

Q&A: April Dammann on Earl Stendahl and the early LA art scene

porch.jpgPacific Standard Time: Art in L.A. 1945-1980 -- that Getty-supported initiative documenting the origins of the area's contemporary art scene currently on display at various cultural institutions across the Southland -- provides Angelenos with unprecedented opportunities to peep into hitherto hidden private collections and galleries all over town. One such treasure is the Stendahl Galleries in the Hollywood Hills. It is the legacy of legendary art dealer, Earl Stendahl, who played an important role in incubating a market for Modern art in Southern California in the early 20th century.

Continue reading "Q&A: April Dammann on Earl Stendahl and the early LA art scene" »

September 8, 2011

Angeleno Datebook- September 8, 2011

Thursday, September 8, 2011

  • Zócalo at the Hammer: Randall Kennedy ponders "Is Obama Erasing the Color Line?" at Hammer Museum at 7 PM.
  • Taschen Beverly Hills hosts a tasting and book party for Jim Heimann's Menu Design in America from 7-9 PM. Reservations required. Call 310 274 4300.
  • MAK Center Exhibition Opening Reception for "Final Projects" 7:00 PM
  • Fashion Night Out events all over town

Friday, September 9, 2011

Continue reading "Angeleno Datebook- September 8, 2011" »

August 30, 2011

Diesel Books returns to Malibu!

diesel books returns to Malibu!

It's official -- Diesel, a book store, Malibu's beloved indie bookstore, is coming back. Owners Alison Reid and John Evans, who finalized a lease at the Malibu Country Mart on Aug. 30, expect their new location to be up and running by mid-October.

The new store, in the Malibu Country Mart's interior courtyard, will be roughly the size of the Brentwood location, which opened in December 2008. The couple, who opened their first bookstore in 1989, also own a shop in the Rockridge neighborhood of Oakland.

John and Alison have been working to re-open in Malibu almost from the instant they realized last February that they would have to close their seven-year-old store in Cross Creek. The Country Mart location, while a bit smaller than the previous Malibu iteration, has a far better vibe. It's a light-filled space with soaring ceilings, a beautiful wood floor, and a great view of the neighborhood's new hardware store across the street.

Added bonus -- the courtyard location offers ample space for Diesel's popular events and readings. (And for anyone worried about Malibu Shaman, a specialty book seller in Malibu since 1983, shoppers looking for books on the metaphysical will instead find a sign directing them to owner Scott Sutphen's store upstairs.)

Congratulations, John and Alison! And to the many devoted friends of Diesel Malibu who have phoned with questions and encouragement -- your calls have been answered.

July 25, 2011

Sunday afternoon with books and Mr. Hearst

I love books. I also love historic architecture and gossip, especially gossip involving historic architecture. So I was delighted to mix all my obsessions at a reception celebrating the publication of George Snyder's novel, On Wings of Affection, in William Randolph Hearst's two-story, customized suite at the historic Los Altos apartment house near Hancock Park.

The novel is about a well-connected Angeleno immersed in the West Hollywood substance abuse-recovery scene who struggles to keep his social circles from intersecting when his young ward befriends a notorious gigolo kept by a Beverly Hills interior decorator who turns up dead. It's a sexy read and well-written.

Continue reading "Sunday afternoon with books and Mr. Hearst" »

June 6, 2011

LA Public Library honors Walter Mosley on June 12th

Library devotees honor Walter Mosley at the upcoming Los Angeles Public Library Awards Dinner, scheduled for Sunday, June 12, at the
Richard J. Riordan Central Library in Downtown Los Angeles.

Get your tickets now.

May 26, 2011

Peeping in on L.A.'s literati

The Los Angeles Review of Books Matthew Specktor shares his Los Angeles Cultural Diary on The Paris Review Daily blog this week. He covers a lot of ground in a brief amount of time.

It's a fun read with literary stops at David Kipen's Libros Schmibros lending library, Skylight Books for a Bret Easton Ellis reading and drinks at Musso & Frank's where he meets a struggling novelist who squats at an old folks home. That's intriguing...could the squatter live at the lovely old Montecito on Franklin or the Knickerbocker? I guess we will have to wait until the kid's novel comes out, eventually...

May 11, 2011

In praise of The Barn and Valentino

the-barn-hollywood.jpgThe Hollywood Heritage Museum, known to many simply as "The Barn," is the oldest surviving studio structure in Los Angeles. Originally situated at the corner of Selma and Vine, it was already twenty years old when it became Cecil B. De Mille's headquarters for directing his first feature, "The Squaw Man," in 1913. Paramount grew up around the building and when the studio moved to its current Melrose location, they took the barn with them.

Even though it was designated a California landmark in the mid 1950s, it sat for a while in an empty parking lot before Hollywood Heritage took it over in 1985, preserving it and moving it to Highland Avenue, right across from the Hollywood Bowl. Since then, the non-profit, member-supported group has developed it into a real little treasure of a museum, with historic props, cameras and photographs of the silent days. What makes it all the more amazing is that it is run by an all volunteer staff with a fabulous little gift shop and a variety of programs unavailable anywhere else in town.

valentino-in-blood-and-sand.jpgOn Wednesday night, Donna Hill, the author of "Rudolph Valentino, The Silent Idol: His Life in Photographs," will be celebrating the star's May birthday with a presentation of rare photographs and a screening of "Blood and Sand." On Sunday, June 5th, there will be a signing of the new book "Hollywoodland" and a tribute to June Withers will be held on June 8. One of my favorite events is "Silents under the Stars," presented by The Silent Society, an offshoot of Hollywood Heritage, with films screened outdoors at the old Paramount ranch. This summer they are featuring Harold Lloyd's 1923 comedy, "Safety Last" on July 17 and Tom Mix's "The Great K & A Train Robbery" on August 21.

The Barn is open five days a week, Wednesday - Sunday from noon until 4:00 pm and if you have never been, you owe it to yourself plan a visit. I guarantee you will learn something and have a new appreciation of the Los Angeles that was. For more information on Hill's book, go to and for information about the Barn, their programs or joining Hollywood Heritage,

Photo: Valentino in "Blood and Sand"

May 2, 2011

My LA Times Festival of Books Top/Bottom 10

My LA Times Festival of Books Top 10

1. Chatting with Patti Smith in the Green Room and trying not to go all fangirl as I raved about her music and her awesome memoir "Just Kids." She told me she loves detective fiction. Who knew?

2. Hanging out with all the author friends I haven't seen since the last LATFoB.

3. The food at the LA Times Book Awards reception Friday night, especially the braised brussel sprouts.

4. Funny astrophysicist Gregory Benford, who introduced the Science & Technology Award. More Strangelovian presenters, please.

5. Meeting my new Facebook Friend Olga Grushin, who writes gorgeous novels about Moscow under Communism.

6. No heat wave.

7. Chocolate and cookies that several readers brought me when I signed their books. Y'all are sweet.

8. Shorter commute, as I live on the Eastside.

9. Listening to Mississippi Man Tom Franklin, winner of the LA Times Mystery Book Award, tell grisly tales about deer, knives and toxic waste.

10. Having an author escort recount how he stood guard over a NY Times Best-selling male author who looked in vain for a bathroom, then ended up 'watering the bushes' because he was late for his panel.

10. Being surrounded by 100,000 other people who luurrrvvee books.

My LA Times Festival of Books Bottom 10

1. No Mystery Bookstore Booth because the store closed. I miss the military precision with which the staff lined up 10 authors an hour, elbow to elbow, to autograph books, then kicked us out for the next wave.

2. Having to navigate a brand new campus just when I'd figured out UCLA and the giant booth sprawl.

3. When author Stewart Woods told the three female authors on my panel to relax because we revise and spend too much time writing. He told us he writes 1 hour a day and puts out three books a year. Naturally, this made us even more tense.

4. No time for café con leche with Cuban-American detective writer and real life PI Carolina Garcia Aguilera. The chica had our panel in stitches with her Miami stories.

5. Frantic searching for bathrooms between panels and signings. Unlike big macho male NY Times bestselling authors, we ladies have a harder time.

6. But not impossible. I stood guard this weekend while a desperate female hiked into the shrubbery between buildings and watered the bushes.

7. Having to skip all the panels and author signings I wanted to see because of my own panels and signings.

8. Missing the Granta party Saturday night because I was too tired and wimped out.

9. Not being able to wear high heels cuz of all the walking.

10. No Happy Hour booze in the Green Room. Maybe next year.

April 18, 2011

"The Bad Mother" vs a Bad Mother

Most writers have someone to whom they show their works in progress. Mine is Victoria, the lady that works the cash register at the donut shop. Victoria is maybe 5-foot-nothing in the 6-inch mules I have never not seen her tottering on behind the counter. She is also always, by seven in the morning, in full make-up, her processed blond hair rippling like a mermaid's to her waist. Victoria and her husband, who makes the donuts, moved to Portland from Mexico; they have seven children and own three businesses and work seemingly all the time. Despite this, Victoria is perennially cheery and a big reader, something I learned when I used to pick up the donuts every morning for my husband's coffee business.

As wives will do, we discussed our lives. When Victoria learned I was a writer, she asked to see some things I had written. I brought her two features I wrote for the LA Weekly. When I stopped in a few days later, she took my hands and said, "I need more." I brought her more. And more. She wanted to see everything, she professed to love the way I wrote and the topics I chose. How can this not be the best things a writer can hear?

Two years ago next month, I began to write about Amanda Stott-Smith, after she dropped her two young children from a Portland bridge at 1:43 AM, killing her four-year son. Her seven-year-old daughter survived for an hour in the 45-degree water and essentially saved her own life by screaming so long and so loud that two residents along the river motored their boat into the darkness and found her. I knew almost immediately the writing would become a book, if not how long it would take to get members of the family to trust and speak with me.

Victoria, who I would see every two weeks when I paid the donut bill, and I talked about Amanda, about the children. She asked when the book would be out; I told her, not for years. She said, she could not wait that long. And so last December I gave her the book in progress, about sixty pages. When I next saw her, she said, "I need more." I promised her that more would be forthcoming.

It was not, not for lack of material, but because The Bad Mother, a novel I finished writing in March 2009 -- two months before Amanda dropped the children from the bridge -- was slated to be published. I found this out in late December; there was editing to do, and once it was published, in March, pushing the novel into the world, what a writer friend refers to as, "rolling that log." There was and is travel, and appearances, things one does not anticipate, or that I did not anticipate, that make you portage from one writing stream to another.

When the novel was released last month, I brought a copy to Victoria.

"My god," she said. "You wrote it so fast!"

I explained, as I would wind up doing with many people, that the novel was not the book about Amanda, and that while I understood why people would, from the title, imagine it to be about a mother who drops her children from a bridge in the middle of the night, it was actually about homeless kids in Hollywood. That the confusing coincidence of the titles was just that, coincidence, and that the book about Amanda is called, "To the Bridge."

Last Thursday, I stopped into the donut shop. I had not seen Victoria for a month, as I had been out of town on readings. She was interested in these, saying, "I bet when people hear you read it, it changes their opinion about what happened."

I told her, that was true. That some people read the book and are scared of what happens to these kids and the dangers they are in. But when they hear me read it, they understand I feel only tenderness for these kids. Victoria nodded.

"You are also showing that the mother is a human being," she said. "That they didn't get the whole story in the newspapers."

Victoria had another customer, and so I had about two seconds to tell her, it was the novel I was doing readings for, not "To the Bridge." She looked puzzled, as though the overlaps in the stories were causing vexation, and it put me in mind of something my mother often asks: why are you always writing about dead children?

I left the donut shop thinking about this, as well a question I receive at each reading of The Bad Mother: was the novel inspired by your experiences as a journalist in Hollywood? I answer that, while it makes sense this is the case, it is not. That the characters are made up; that I have never interviewed a homeless or dying teen; that it must be the osmosis of driving through Hollywood every day for eighteen years that created the book.

I was pressing the clicker that opens my car door when I realized the genesis of the work is quite the other way: that I began writing nonfiction books and articles about murdered children after I began addressing them as fiction. That "To the Bridge," in fact, grew from The Bad Mother.

Nancy Rommelmann reads from The Bad Mother at Book Soup on June 30.

April 15, 2011

Noticing National Library Week

Have you hugged and thanked your neighborhood library employee for his or her dedication and service yet?

I've just received an email from the Library Foundation of Los Angeles informing me that National Library Week comes to an end on Saturday, April 16th.

Since library hours have been reduced following budget cuts, the libraries of the city of Los Angeles need your warm presence and support more than ever. As the late, great Miv Schaaf, a Los Angeles Times Sunday Edition columnist and public library booster, once wrote, "When life seems not worth living, ten minutes in the library proves otherwise."

Since voters approved Measure L last March, perhaps there's hope that lost services will be reinstated in July. Martín Gómez, the city librarian, told Library Journal, "Starting in July, we will add back a sixth day of service, probably a Monday, and in the second year we will add back two more evenings, and in the third year we will provide seven days of service at nine locations."

Time will tell if these predictions come to pass. In the meantime, consistently support your neighborhood library NOW with donations, bequests and the commitment to keep advocating for the financial health of our public libraries. Just because Measure L was successful does not mean that the struggle to safeguard our library system from erosion has ended. Complacency is no longer an option.

March 21, 2011

Life Imitates Art

I was visiting a mentoring and art center for homeless teens in Portland last week when my cell phone rang. It was Gordon (not his real name), calling from Orange County. I went to grade school with Gordon, and had not had contact with him since 1980. Earlier in the day, I had received a Facebook message from a fellow schoolmate, asking whether Gordon had also contacted me saying he needed $2500 or would be evicted by 3 PM. I told the classmate no; that I was sure it was SPAM, and that he should contact Gordon to let him know.

Standing yards away from a dozen homeless teenagers, two of them in wheelchairs, I asked Gordon if that was why he was calling, to let me know, the SPAM was not from him.

"No," he said. "I actually do need $2500 or I will be evicted."

I processed this, looking at the kids who come to the center each day for two meals, to make art and to read and use the computer until 2:30, when, rain or shine, the center closes and the kids are back on the street. I was visiting because the week before, I published a novel, The Bad Mother, about homeless teens in Hollywood. The kids at the center had found out about the book, they wanted to read it and to meet me. One girl told me she'd essentially been on the streets since age five, and then followed me around like a puppy, telling me her story, not with self-pity, just the facts, which included that she is, with the assistance of the center, renting a studio apartment and attending community college classes to become a CPA.

And here was Gordon, if it was Gordon, on the phone. We attended private school together in Brooklyn; last I heard, he had a white-collar job and was living in Southern California. I told him, his request had the sound of a common scam, and how did I even know it was him? I asked him what he called me in 7th grade. He got the answer right, and even sang the little ditty he'd sing when he said it.

I asked Gordon, what was going on? How did he find himself in this place? He said something about his business having lost clients, some bad financial decisions. He said he needed money and that he needed it today or would be out on the street. I asked him about his wife and children; he said they were with him and fine. He sounded cavalier. I told him, I was not going to give him money, and that his reaching out to people he had not seen in 30 years was very suspect.

"I appreciate you saying that, Nancy, but I always thought, once a Saint Anner, always a Saint Anner," he said, referring to the name of our school. "And if it was you calling me for money, even thirty years later, I would give it to you."

I told Gordon, I had to go. I might have added, take care, or get help, but did not. I have, as have nearly all of us, been around the block with people and their addictions, to drugs, booze, gambling, lying. We have learned that throwing money at the problem does not help.

I walked back into the center, thinking how bizarre it was to get this call here. I thought about the characters in my book, without homes, often without hope. And I met E, who was playing around on an espresso machine donated to the center. He told me he was learning to be a barista; that he didn't know a lot yet about coffee but he loved it. I told him, my husband was in the coffee business.

"Really?" he said, his face becoming both bright and shy. "Do you think I could meet him?"

I told him, I would be happy to help.

January 11, 2011

Grim-Lit Serial Killer Strikes Again in Westwood!

Police said the predator glides invisibly through crowds, disguised by his very ordinariness.

"He looks exactly like you and me," said LAPD Detective Margaret Millar. "He's smart, bookish. He likes a bargain. Maybe he wears glasses and has a ratty paperback crime novel tucked in his back pocket. At this point, we're not ruling anything out."

The most recent victim is Broxton's Mystery Bookstore, which suffered a fatal blow on January 11, 2011, and will expire at month's end.

Continue reading "Grim-Lit Serial Killer Strikes Again in Westwood!" »

January 10, 2011

It's never too late


This morning I opened the Los Angeles Times -- which I've frankly been doing more often lately (web overload?) -- and was rewarded by discovering a very nice review of a book I co-authored almost ten years ago.

DEVIL AT MY HEELS is the autobiography of Louis Zamperini, whose story has lately received much notice because Laura ("Seabiscuit") Hillenbrand's biography of Louie, "Unbroken," is everywhere, including at the pole position on both Amazon and the New York Times non-fiction bestseller list.

Universal Pictures bought the rights to Louie's life in 1956, on the heels of the same-titled, first book version of his life, with plans for Tony Curtis to star (it didn't happen). Now they plan to give the movie another try.

I'm glad that the Los Angeles Times graciously acknowledged Louie's own book -- especially eight years after publication! -- when, in the flood of publicity and praise for "Unbroken," the paper could have easily acted as if Louie's own words didn't exist at all.

Louie's going to be 94 later this month. He's lived an incredible life and I'm thrilled that it's finally getting the wide recognition it deserves. He's a great guy, too, a constant inspiration, and I'm fortunate to still have him in my life.

Here's the Times story link.

December 1, 2006

Farewell, Autumn for Ray Bradbury

It was the early 1970s when Ray Bradbury and I met at Saint Patrick's Elementary School Library in North Hollywood. We were introduced through a dog-eared, much-underlined, yellowing paperback called "Dandelion Wine" and I promptly fell into puppy love. Ray was already ancient then, with graying hair and horn-rimmed glasses, or so it seemed to an 11-year-old, but I didn't care. I promptly read all his books on the shelves, sneaking in at odd hours since our little library doubled as the teachers' lounge. I recall pouring over "The Illustrated Man," "M is for Melancholy" and "The Martian Chronicles" at recess and lunch with the ardor that my school chums reserved for Tiger Beat Magazine. Ray's books transported me to shimmering far-off worlds. As you might imagine, my solitary obsession made me very popular with my David Cassidy/Bobby Sherman swooning peers.

Back then, I had no idea that Ray lived in Los Angeles, less than 20 miles from me. I realize now that he probably gave talks at bookstores and libraries and schools and generally swanned about town the way famous authors do. However, this literary largesse did not trickle down to my part of the Valley, and if it did, my family wasn't aware of it. While we were all very bookish, we were insular, bringing home booty scavenged from rummage sales and used bookstores. It would have been frivolous for my cash-strapped parents to spend good money on a new book when there were so many perfectly good used ones out there.

In college, Ray and I broke up. He'd become a bit of an embarrassment to me, proof of what a rube I'd been. I spurned his simple prose, his dated science. I was in love with more sophisticated, demanding and transgressive writers. Henry Miller, D.H. Lawrence, Anais Nin, Andre Gide, Thomas Mann, T.S. Eliot, Jean Paul Sartre, Laurence Durrell, Thomas Pynchon, Feodor Dostoevsky. Ray was the freckled hometown boy in overalls who lacked the glittering allure of my edgier, faster crowd.

Then I must confess, I forgot about him altogether. I became a journalist, traveled the world, wrote my own novels, read many other things, had babies. Then my babies began to grow out of picture books. Browsing in my home library one day, I pulled out a dog-eared, much-underlined yellowing paperback copy of "Dandelion Wine" and all the fond spooky memories came rushing back. I began to read the book out loud to my oldest son each night, savoring the exquisite moods, the evocations of terror, of joy, the unbearable lightness of summer and the dark that lurked at the edges of things. It was a double pleasure to rediscover him as an adult, a triple pleasure that my son liked him too. Next came the "Martian Chronicles." Then "Fahrenheit 451." Bam, another generation was hooked.

Two weeks ago, Ray Bradbury came to a small independent bookstore in Glendale. He's 86 and in a wheelchair now, with a leonine mane of pure white hair, a kind of living time capsule, a character beamed out of one of his own Mobius Strip stories.

I told the kids we were going. After all these years, I would finally meet Ray. And the kids would see this literary legend in flesh and learn that even famous writers are just plain folks. It was glorious to see four generations of people crammed into the aisles of Mystery and Imagination Books ' hundreds of them, all holding cherished copies of old books and brand new ones.

My kids studied Ray. "He's old," my 8-year-old said. They were shy when we got to the front of the line, though we did get our picture taken with him. I had so much to say, it would have taken a whole book's worth of words. Ray was the first man whose writing I fell in love with, whose photo I recognized, whose words I emulated when I took my own baby steps at writing stories.

I settled for telling him that I was reading "The Illustrated Man" to the boys, one story a night. They'd found "The Veldt" especially unsettling. Ray twinkled fiendishly and said that was wonderful. He signed our books, including his newest, the sequel to "Dandelion Wine" that had been 60 years in the making. It's called "Farewell, Summer."

There was a certain melancholy to finally meeting him, in the late autumn of his life. There's the awareness that he's not going to be around forever, that it will be his words that survive the ages, not his flesh. So it goes for all of us. I hope my kids remember their afternoon with Ray long after he's gone. Maybe even after I'm gone. I hope that one day, they'll pull a dog-eared, much-underlined yellowing paperback of "Dandelion Wine" from their own shelves and read it to their children and that its themes will still resonate, regardless of what future they live in.