IT’S ONE OF those unspoken “dirty little secrets” of American life: a fascination with your city’s past is often born of disgust with that city’s not-so-charming present. Dipping into David Kipen’s Dear Los Angeles: The City In Diaries and Letters, 1542 to 2018, you will of course feel pangs of yearning and nostalgia when you’re reading, say, some rapturous passage of nature-ecstasy over our once wild, flower-and-orange-grove-perfumed Southland (yes, John Muir was here, and Kipen quotes him), but you will also be reminded what a mixed bag of the great and the frustrating this town of ours has always been. Nostalgia so often cruelly corrects itself.
In the bad old days, before “L.A. history” took off as a hot subject for books, you’d typically have to dig through the biography of this or that movie star or studio head to glean what life was like in the old-time Land of Sunshine. But that’s really the fast-food equivalent of L.A. history. Our genial editor is after a broad and more serious chronicle of life in these parts, over six centuries. So, along with the usual dollops of Faulkner-in-Hollywood (griping) and Fitzgerald-in-Hollywood (lamenting), we get to commiserate with an obscure figure such as the British-born screenwriter Eric Knight, who went on to create Lassie (and to write, under the pseudonym of Richard Hallas, a classic work of hardboiled fiction, You Play the Black and the Red Comes Up). Knight was apparently going through a mental breakdown while in Hollywood during the Depression, intermittently churning out hackwork, when he scribbled in his journal on December 5, 1934:
Life is a pit into which we are dropping and we shall be not-knowing before we reach bottom, so why try to scratch the sides of the walls as we go down? […] I have been railroaded into this magnificent office for more than three months. […] Why have they brought me here to pay me fat money for sitting here?
Of course we’ve heard this boo-hoo refrain before … Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust comes to mind. For contrast, here’s a fun entry that Kipen culled from a letter by Samuel Goldwyn’s longtime MGM secretary, Valeria Belletti, written on April 8, 1925:
I’m so happy to be here at the studio that I just wish that all my friends were here too. I like the atmosphere and the hustle and bustle of this life. Everybody but my boss is so nice and friendly — so different from a regular business office. No one but the art director, Mr. Anton Grot, has gotten too friendly yet. Mr. Grot tried once to kiss me but my guess is that he won’t try that again.
Unexpected voices pop up throughout, like Charlton Heston, who records, on April 2, 1957, his sense of elation over wrapping Touch of Evil with Orson Welles (no writings by Orson here), but one notices how few movie and TV actors there actually are among the letter-writers and diarists in this book. Of course, I don’t suppose we need to know the deep thoughts of Pat Sajak or Merv Griffin, now do we? Not everyone can be as witty and quotable as Groucho Marx.
Dear Los Angeles is arranged not chronologically, but “calendarologically,” starting out with whatever fascinating tidbits Kipen happened to find by writers of all sorts for January 1 (be it 1910, 1950, 1849, or my personal favorite, 1928) and so on all the way to the end of his grand, cosmic, Joycean “year” of Los Angeles’s entire existence.
Of course, you, LARB’s gentle reader, are naturally curious to know the private musings of the more compelling denizens and visitors to our fair city — the artists, the composers, the novelists, the sculptors. (Yes, sculptors. Did you know that Gutzon Borglum, the man who carved Mount Rushmore, lived and painted in the foothills of Sierra Madre pre–World War I? Alas, he’s not represented in these pages.) Kipen, a bookman who founded the Libros Schmibros bookshop in Boyle Heights, knows your needs. “You know how I crave sunshine. And it does not seem to enervate me,” wrote Theodore Dreiser on July 13, 1922. He was living in Hancock Park at the time, in hot-blooded bliss with his new girlfriend and distant cousin, aspiring actress Helen Richardson. “I think I felt [sic] better here than in most places, — certainly than I felt in New York. And when I left there in 1919 I was rather run down. Out here I picked up not a little. As for being through at 50, — well, words won’t help to counteract that save words in book form.” Indeed: Dreiser had already started working on his gargantuan crime epic, An American Tragedy, which was published in 1925. If you’re feeling especially prurient, Kipen generously includes some of Dreiser’s most explicit and steamy notes from his love affair with Helen, which I will leave for you to find. The novelist’s detailed entries on L.A. streetcar trips are also priceless. He and Richardson would leave Los Angeles, but they later came back. They’re both now buried at Forest Lawn Glendale.
Among other writer transplants, you will of course find Chandler (Raymond, I mean, not Otis), lamenting how boring this town has become for him, on July 12, 1956. He’s “done” L.A. to death, but “now half the writers in the country piddle around in the smog,” as he puts it, rather awkwardly. Christopher Isherwood comes across in these fragments as thoughtful and quite beatific in the face of decades of Hollywood-ish goings-on. Here’s his diary entry for November 2, 1978: “Today we had William Burroughs over to be drawn (brilliantly) by [Isherwood’s partner] Don [Bachardy]. Was not charmed when the gate buzzer buzzed and I opened to admit five people. … Does Burroughs always go around in mobs?” His diary entries from 1940 on visits to his guru at the Vedanta temple in Hollywood are especially interesting. Los Angeles’s reputation as a capital for all forms of religion, be they long-established or newfangled, goes way back.
Does Kipen include the private thoughts of those wiseacre journalists from the East who habitually junketed out here to write hatchet jobs against our city for the delight of the folks back home? Of course he does, and though we still pay lip service to some of these guys, like the “sage of Baltimore” H. L. Mencken, his opinions on Los Angeles were just as narrow and blinkered as that of any Eastern snob. I shan’t repeat them. And Will Rogers, the poor man’s Mark Twain, says mildly amusing things in the same vein. Most incisive perhaps is the interwar humorist Don Marquis, creator of Archy and Mehitabel, writing to a friend about the goofiness of it all: “There are strange cults everywhere — fake oriental, etc.: hermits in the canyon. Well, you would think all this incongruity might be interesting,” he wrote in 1929, “but it isn’t. It is only dull. All the stupidities of all the world center here. […] There is a veneer of free western heartiness over it…” (Okay, that’s enough, Don. Take a Bromo-Seltzer.)
The ugliness of 1950s Los Angeles, the era of gaudy white marble bank buildings, is herein encapsulated by a visiting journalist from Iowa, name not important:
You don’t talk about smog in Los Angeles, unless you want to be put down as a boor and an undiplomatic agitator. The natives defend the weather as an act of faith, and woe unto the unwary who dares make a critical remark. Even the newspaper weather reports sidestep the naughty word. A forecast will say, for instance, “Light eye irritation in central, foothill and San Gabriel Valley sections. But morning trash burning will be permitted.”
Wow, the bad old days indeed. Reading this, I now remember hearing that vague phrase about “eye irritation” from my own L.A. childhood.
Moving upward, it’s pleasing to find in Kipen’s book little missives, like proverbial messages in the bottle, that survive from Los Angeles’s fascinating and under-documented pre–World War II classical music scene. Here’s a nice time capsule on that score from June 11, 1919: “The players selected [for the first L.A. Philharmonic] number are among the best instrumentalists to be found on the Pacific Coast. They are all salaried men, removed from any participation in cabaret work, parades or the fatiguing engagements of five or six shows a day.” Now that’s quality!
The L.A.-born composer John Cage is included in these pages too, though his diary entries are thin on substance. In the early ’30s, Cage was studying with Schoenberg at UCLA and still, apparently, being pampered by his doting mother Lucretia Cage, a society columnist for the Los Angeles Times. Here’s the composer, at 23: “Mother says I may buy a flute.”
Maybe the biggest surprise to be found in Dear Los Angeles is that the giant whales of 20th-century literature — Pound, Joyce, Eliot, Hemingway, and e. e. cummings — are all here. The last three writers actually were here, with cummings getting in a surprising antisemitic dig during a visit to Hollywood in ’35: “O the juse the juse / they don’t amews.” But be not triggered yet, for this book also includes Jewish humorist S. J. Perelman’s 1939 letter mentioning “the only Hebe delicatessen in town” (Canter’s?). There is, in fact, so much un-PC commentary contained in these once-private thoughts, of both liberals and reactionaries, that younger readers might need the proverbial smelling salts to (what’s that expression?) get over it.
Many readers of this little roller-coaster (or rolodex?) of a book will go to the index to hunt for a favorite name, and many will come away disappointed that somebody they wanted to find is missing. Personally, I would like to have seen included here Marcel Duchamp, who wrote in 1921 that “the air here is delicious” while visiting his patrons the Arensbergs (who are included). And … no James Ellroy? One would assume he’s written more than a few colorful letters. Oh, well — at least that windbag of the 1930s Upton Sinclair, who I’m sure wrote too many, has been left out, which indicates Kipen’s discerning good taste.
Speaking of things left out, one is surprised to find not even one angry journal entry or panicked telegram (from, say, a mother to a soldier) in response to the existential shock of Pearl Harbor, which happened on December 7, 1941. Everyone felt Los Angeles was the next target. This is quite an omission, and while it might be in tune with Kipen’s more or less “pacific” mood, it will no doubt puzzle many history-minded readers.
Let’s end with one more jarring calendrical sequence — one man’s ornery impatience with the entire Southland scene, butting up against a sensitive woman’s contentment, as she serenely watches the westward dusk:
Eric Knight again, on October 2, 1934:
I’m trying to like California. […] I try to rationalize this whole country, and excuse it. If the people are nuts, it is because after the flat middle lands this is Heaven to them. […] If their houses are cheap-jack, it is because they’re afraid of earthquakes which crumble brick and stone buildings. If they dress like fools, it’s because this is the tropics in a way, and anyhow our own sane clothes are about as foolish as could be conceived for such living conditions. So the women wear pants and shorts, and everyone lives in a sort of cheap-jack fugitiveness as if all this would vanish suddenly and they’d have to live back on earth again. A temporary feeling everywhere — waiting for what?
Anaïs Nin, on October 1, 1961:
From the steep mountains on the east side of the lake, one could look west at endless rows of purple mountains around the Griffith Park Observatory. One behind another. […] Every color shone like a jewel for a moment and then dissolved; and even the gray clouds, the smoky scarves, were iridescent. For a few instants, all the sunsets of the world, Nordic, tropical, exotic, condensed over Silver Lake, displaying their sumptuous spectacle.
That sounds better than any movie.
Is Kipen’s calendar method some kind of Nietzschean, Viconian, Spenglerian eternal recurrence device? (That was a cheap, dilettantish way of putting it, but it was fun to write.) The answer is no, but it does give Dear Los Angeles a strangely “living” quality. The jumpy effect of these voices and moods in such strange proximity to each other, across centuries, creates the sense of a vibrant community — of creators, searchers, thinkers, explorers, leaders, and a few lost souls — engaged in constant conversation.
Kipen must have sensed this frisson early on, and dug it. The seven years he spent happily scouring Los Angeles bookstores, libraries, and archives have paid off handsomely with this good-looking and compact keepsake of a book. It’s the Southland’s diary, and a book for the ages.