The following is a feature article from the most recent edition of the LARB Quarterly Journal: Fall 2014. To pick up your copy of the Journal, become a member of the Los Angeles Review of Books at the $15 monthly level or order a copy at amazon.com, indiebound.com, or b&n.com.
I HAD LIVED in Los Angeles for six months when I starting spending long hours in its cemeteries, drawn to them like a self-pitying moth to a lonely, maudlin flame. I still only had one friend in the city; I had expansive free time and no direction and no prospects. From the beginning, I had trouble reconciling my daily experience of Los Angeles — as a young and changing city; as green and mountainous; as an incredibly ethnically diverse city, with a culture and population that is predominantly Latino — with the sun-bleached, suburban sprawl-y, valley girlish, cultureless, entertainment-industry-glamorous idea I had of it before I moved here. Could these images coexist, both taking some share of the truth?
I would walk from my apartment in Koreatown a mile and a half north to Santa Monica Boulevard to the strange oasis of Hollywood Forever Cemetery, 60 acres in the middle of East Hollywood backing onto the Paramount lot, land Paramount bought, in fact, from Hollywood Forever in the early 20th century, when it was still Hollywood Memorial Park Cemetery. Hollywood Forever is a tourist destination, famous for housing stars like Rudolph Valentino, John Huston, Estelle Getty, and two of the Ramones. Legendary director Cecil B. DeMille is buried with his wife, Constance, in a pair of giant Arthurian tombs. Tyrone Power’s grave quotes from Hamlet — the “Goodnight, sweet prince” speech, naturally.
But the fancy pedigree of a few of its inhabitants is not immediately apparent on entering.
Hollywood Forever contains a historic Jewish burial ground, Beth Olam, and the rows of monuments with non-famous Jewish names and Stars of David were the first ones I noticed. The cemetery is very close to LA’s Little Armenia, and there are large sections of Armenian names with etchings of the dead in their Sunday best staring from the graves unnervingly. Many of the monuments are truly old, from before the birth of a Los Angeles motion picture industry, from when Los Angeles meant something completely different.
At times my eye would catch on a large or ornate monument — this is irritating because it is what these graves are designed to do; the rich exercising their control even after death — or a famous name, but the overall feeling in Hollywood Forever is not like gawking down the Hollywood Walk of Fame. As in most cemeteries, chaos reigns in Hollywood Forever — the graves go in every direction, so crowded in some places that they give the sense that they are in storage, jumbled together until they are moved to their real plots. Peacocks swagger around the grounds, indifferent to visitors. Quirky and beautiful, Hollywood Forever is more than the celebrity it is known for, in the same way that Los Angeles is.
Jules Roth, the crook owner of Hollywood Memorial from 1939 until his death in 1998, allowed it to fall into shameful disrepair, its crematorium forced to shut down in 1974 after the botched cremation of Mama Cass Elliot. In 1998, two young developers, Tyler and Brent Cassity, bought Hollywood Memorial and rebranded it as Hollywood Forever, focusing on making a center for cultural programs like concerts and summer movies, where the audience scans itself for famous faces, where before the film the audience can seek out famous names in the confused rows of graves.
But is that what it’s about? Is Hollywood Forever about celebrity, is it about Los Angeles Judaism, about its ethnic enclaves, about the city’s turn-of-the-century oligarchy? Does this depend on which iteration of the cemetery you believe — the bankrupt, shambolic Hollywood Memorial or the hip and cultured Hollywood Forever? Do these distinctions even apply? As with everything in Los Angeles, I’m learning, objects in the mirror are always closer than they appear.
Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale is spacious and sprawling — five times the size of Hollywood Forever — self-styled as an English country estate. I’ve only been there once, on a freak 100-degree day in April. When I entered its wrought-iron gates — the largest in the world, Forest Lawn claims — I saw rolling hills of grass furling from the main drive. As I approached, I was startled by the rows of bronze plaques against the green. That is what Forest Lawn is designed to be: the kind of cemetery where one is surprised by graves.
I walked the grounds for an hour, wandering through the cemetery’s oldest graves, many of them bulky and embellished, from before the bronze markers were enforced. I visited the park’s walled gardens, also filled with graves, and its specialized sections — Babyland the most chilling. It is true that many of the 20th century’s greatest stars are buried at Forest Lawn, but they aren’t luring tourists like at Hollywood Forever: Michael Jackson, Clark Gable, and Jean Harlow are all memorialized in elite sections of the cemetery’s mausoleum that are not open to the public. I was so overwhelmed by Forest Lawn’s scale and the day’s heat that I staggered straight from the cemetery to an Atwater Village bar, makeup and sunscreen streaking down my face.
As Ben Ehrenreich writes in a masterly 2010 Los Angeles magazine feature, “The End,” an exhaustive investigation of the business of dying in LA, “Los Angeles holds a special place in the history of death.” This is largely because of the fascination (and awe, and disgust) Forest Lawn has elicited in its visitors. From the time it was acquired in 1912 by Dr. Hubert Eaton — known as “The Builder” — it was designed to be “as unlike other cemeteries as sunshine is unlike darkness.” Eschewing the chaotic development of most cemeteries, the concept for Forest Lawn sprang fully formed from Eaton’s imagination: the replicas of English churches and reproductions of da Vinci’s sculptures, and the zoning, “a rigid real estate hierarchy,” says Ehrenreich, “that reflects L.A.’s own.” This is integral to Forest Lawn’s business model, as it manufactures a demand for plots in certain areas of the park and so justifies their exorbitant price tags.
One of Forest Lawn’s most enthusiastic and horrified explorers was the English novelist Evelyn Waugh, who called it “a completely unique place — the only thing in California that is not a copy of something else.” (Never mind all of the architectural and artistic imitation within.) Waugh came to Hollywood in 1947 to develop a script for an adaptation of his novel Brideshead Revisited for MGM Studios. He found the motion picture industry and the United States generally to be completely distasteful, but he took perverse pleasure in learning about Forest Lawn — “morticians […] are the only people worth knowing,” he wrote to a friend — and the American funeral industry. His short novel about Forest Lawn, The Loved One, is one of the most brutal and hilarious satires ever written about American culture.
Waugh invents the engineering marvel of Kaiser’s Stoneless Peaches, which taste to The Loved One ’s British poet hero, Dennis Barlow, like “a ball of damp, sweet, cotton wool.” Waugh adds, “Kaiser’s radio half-hour brought Wagner into every kitchen.” He writes endlessly of the convenience and indistinguishability of American women, so that they seem to be manifest from the same American mania for mass production. Dennis wonders as he stares at a woman’s leg, “Which came first in this strange civilization, […] the foot or the shoe, the leg or the nylon stocking?”
Forest Lawn — or as Waugh fictionalized it, Whispering Glades — is a pure and disturbing expression of this American sterility and consumerism. Waugh mimics Forest Lawn’s relentlessly positive and euphemistic corporate language. The Builder is figured in The Loved One as “The Dreamer.” “Let me explain the Dream” is how the Mortuary Hostess, “one of that new race of exquisite, amiable, efficient young ladies” who populate the United States, begins her discussion of funeral arrangements with Dennis. Corpses are known as “Loved Ones,” as when a makeup artist says to an embalmer, “Here is the strangulated Loved One for the Orchid Room.”
Waugh was particularly appalled by the prevalence of embalming at Forest Lawn — that is, the draining of a corpse’s bodily fluids and its preservation with formaldehyde — which, as Ehrenreich points out, “is practiced nowhere else in the world with the near universality that it achieved in North America.” Waugh writes in his 1947 essay “Half in Love with Easeful Death” about the premodern handling of death in Europe, a tradition that was full of reminders that the body is impermanent, “a marble skeleton lurking somewhere among the marble draperies and quartered escutcheons of the tombs of the high renaissance.” For Waugh, embalming nullified any memento mori, as “the body does not decay; it lives on, more chic in death than ever before, in its indestructible class A steel and concrete shelf.” This was the true horror of Forest Lawn: its cheery but enfeebled idea of death, one designed to appeal to the American capitalist. “Dr. Eaton is the first man to offer eternal salvation at an inclusive charge as part of his undertaking service,” wrote Waugh.
But America in The Loved One is not only consumerist and unnatural; it is also dispossessed. Waugh is conscious of the ethnic diversity of American names as remnants of identities lost — there are characters named Otto Baumbein and Lorenzo Medici, Miss Mavrocordato and Mr.Van Gluck. Barlow’s American paramour, a cosmetician at Whispering Glades, is named Aimée Thanatogenos, which, if my French and Greek serve me, can be roughly translated as “The Loved One.” Aimée is Waugh’s quintessential American orphan, named, by unreliable parents, after legendary Los Angeles televangelist Aimee Semple McPherson.
In Waugh’s novel the US is depicted as a land of transients, shorn of their previous identities and their history. Dennis is a World War II veteran, and he “came of a generation which enjoys a vicarious intimacy with death.” He is presumably drawn to Whispering Glades, however unwillingly, because it displays that same intimacy, a brazen comfort with death. Ehrenreich describes, in contrast, how 19th-century Europeans rejected the earlier familiarity and visibility of death in their culture, making it something “shameful and forbidden.” One reason Europeans continue to be so dumbfounded by Forest Lawn is its spectacular resistance to the modern Western trend of making death and its reminders smaller, less grand, more separate from society. In Waugh’s depiction, Forest Lawn effaces death in other ways: by stopping the effects of decay, by simplifying ideas of the afterlife. But Forest Lawn is still “a necropolis of the age of the Pharaohs,” as Waugh wrote in “Half in Love with Easeful Death,” “created in the middle of the impious twentieth century.” Perhaps Forest Lawn reflects American identity not only in its capitalist model, but also in a comfort with death that reflects the two violent and contradictory centuries of the United States’ existence.
I was wandering Hollywood Forever again when I discovered the corner of the park dedicated to the Otis-Chandler family, the legendary owners of the Los Angeles Times. Harrison Gray Otis, the first successful publisher of the paper, is buried beneath a mammoth obelisk. His son-in-law and heir, Harry Chandler, gets a curving marble slab flanked with urns and a pair of bald eagles. And among the rosebushes and religious statues shading the Otis-Chandler graves, I found a disconcerting monument, another large marble structure topped with a bronze sculpture of an eagle perched on its aerie, preparing for flight. “OUR MARTYRED MEN” reads the adorning plaque, in memory of the men who “fell at their posts in The Times Building on the awful morning of October first, 1910 — victims of conspiracy, dynamite and fire — The Crime of the Century.”
I had never heard about the LA Times bombing of 1910, in which 21 of the paper’s employees, “defenders of Industrial Freedom under Law,” as the plaque at Hollywood Forever puts it, were killed by a bomb planted by the Structural Iron Workers union. Neither had anyone I informally surveyed after my discovery: my mother, father, brothers, or boyfriend. I was perplexed that my entire education, which includes, for what it’s worth, a bachelor’s degree in history, had neglected a terrorist attack on a major US newspaper, an attack so traumatic that it had once been considered “the crime of the century.” But it is starting to seem fitting to me that I only found evidence of this trauma in Hollywood Forever. Monuments do not only serve to help us remember; they also allow us to forget and move on.
Curiosity led me to Howard Blum’s 2008 book American Lightning, an enjoyable but irritating nonfiction novel about the LA Times attack. It tracks three American icons as they converged at Downtown Los Angeles’s Alexandria Hotel at the time of the bombing: Billy Burns, the “American Sherlock Holmes,” later famous for his part in the Teapot Dome cover-up, whose agency tracked down the bombers, J.J. McNamara and his brother Jim; Clarence Darrow, the great populist attorney, who defended the McNamaras; and D. W. Griffith, the father of American cinema, as he made the first moves to establish the Los Angeles entertainment industry. The most interesting parts of the book are the chronicles of Burns’s and his operatives’ remarkable (and for Burns, characteristically illegal) detective work. Burns connected bomb sites in Los Angeles and Illinois, tracked a suspect using a pile of sawdust, trailed suspects for months in an anarchist colony on Puget Sound and the forests of Wisconsin, used the first “bug” to listen in on jailhouse conversations, kidnapped and tortured witnesses, and extrajudicially extradited the McNamaras to California.
American Lightning is compelling because of its details — its description of Darrow’s Chicago apartment, or the ship Griffith sought out for his film Enoch Arden, or the movie a Burns operative watched while on a stakeout — which make it a completely realized narrative. Its failure is in the shallow conclusions it draws from the events it recreates so vividly. The Times attack was the most dramatic in the Structural Iron Workers’ massive bombing campaign, in which they dynamited over a hundred scab sites all over the United States — they sought to economically devastate Harrison Gray Otis, the paper’s fervently antiunion publisher. Blum asserts that the McNamara trial ended the war between capital and labor, and “helped to move America into the modern world.” “Entrepreneurial opportunities took shape,” he writes breezily, “and they spread through the nation’s cities and towns as a more hopeful alternative to the desperation of violence.” Blum’s optimistic, restorative reading of the situation is even more bizarre considering that the bombing occurred almost exactly 100 years before the crime of this century, and the two events bear a ghostly similarity.
In Blum’s description of labor terrorism and the McNamaras’ trial, he must be drawing a conscious connection to the problems of our contemporary War on Terror. When Burns kidnapped and illegally transported the McNamaras across state lines, ignoring habeas corpus, his reasons were startlingly familiar: “the nation, [Burns] believed, was ‘fighting a war against terrorists’ who were determined to destroy ‘the established form of government of this country.’” And many invoked the rules of war to defend the McNamaras. An editorial written by newspaper publisher E. W. Scripps insisted that,
If belligerent rights were accorded to the two parties in this war, then McNamara was guilty of no greater offense than would be the officer of any band, large or small, of soldiers who ordered his men to fire upon an enemy and killed a great number of them.
These questions — about the legal status of terrorists and whether to classify terrorism as a crime or as an act of war — were not, as Blum seems to suggest, problems that had to be worked through in order to thrust the United States into modernity. They exactly prefigured the murkiness of modern warfare and the extreme violence of the 20th century. Blum takes a similar, strangely uncomplicated view of Griffith’s masterpiece, Birth of a Nation, which he claims “would help America — its art, its ideals, its imagination — move into the modern world.” He doesn’t attempt to reconcile this with his understanding of the film as regressive and disturbing, “an odd, sour, and disturbingly racist reinterpretation of the Civil War and Reconstruction.” With his Panglossian perspective on “modern America,” he sidesteps, without exactly ignoring, the injuries and atrocities that loom beneath the faceless ideals of freedom and progress.
Blum’s picture of 20th-century America, which is primarily ideal and secondarily actual, finds a unique reflection in Los Angeles, the quintessential 20th-century city. Much of American Lightning focuses on Otis, the publisher who helped to transform “a drab mud and adobe town of 11,000” in 1882 into a metropolitan center whose population was 900,000 at the time of the bombing. Otis was, as Mike Davis writes in his serialized biography of the publisher, The Ghost of Wrath, “the most hated man in Ragtime America,” with “his enemies ecumenically [spanning] a spectrum from evangelists to citrus growers, socialists to robber barons.” He figured himself as a military leader, calling himself “the General” and his house “the Bivouac,” leading a campaign of mini–manifest destiny that included Los Angeles annexing San Pedro and Wilmington in order to create its port.
Joan Didion, in “Times Mirror Square,” her 1990 investigation of the history of the Los Angeles Times, writes how Otis and his descendants exerted tremendous influence, using the Times as a platform not only to champion the growth of the city but also to increase their personal wealth. Didion describes how the development of Downtown LA and the San Fernando Valley, the creation of the Southern California aerospace industry, the founding of Cal Tech, the hosting of the 1932 Olympics, the making of the Hollywood Bowl, and the building of the freeway system were all undertaken because of the “impulse to improve Chandler property.”
“The extent to which Los Angeles was literally invented by the Los Angeles Times and by its owners […] remains hard for people in less recent parts of the country to fully apprehend,” Didion writes. This is a city begotten from an idea, as Forest Lawn was begotten from the mind of The Builder, and it relies heavily on the idea to sustain it. The founding idea, the dream of limitless growth, is intertwined with the city’s most troubling attributes — its sprawl, its lack of natural resources. This is why all true explorations of the Los Angeles condition express, as Didion writes, “how fragile the idea of the place was and how easily it could be lost.”
Early in American Lightning, Billy Burns describes a juicy theory of the Los Angeles Times bombing. It deals with the scheme to divert water from the Owens River Valley on the Nevada border 250 miles to Los Angeles. Los Angeles voters, after much passionate goading from the Times, had approved $22.5 million in bonds to fund the creation of the aqueduct, but at the time of the bombings, Harrison Gray Otis was about to double down on a water scheme that would make him and his business partners millions.
Otis and his partners, using the front of the Los Angeles Suburban Homes Company, had been buying and developing cheap land in the desert stretches of the San Fernando Valley, north of LA. They would use water from the Owens Aqueduct to make the Valley habitable. But their plan had encountered obstacles: the aqueduct was still not finished, and citizens would have to approve more bonds for its completion. Additionally, the Socialist party was gaining traction with Los Angeles voters, and they disapproved of, as one of them said, “handing the aqueduct water over to the land barons”; if Socialists prevailed in the 1911 mayoral election, Otis and the Suburban Homes Company would have no water for the homes they had spent so much to build in the Valley.
Burns proposes that Otis himself was behind the bombing of the Times building. He had recently taken out a large insurance policy on the Times building, money that would help buoy him while the aqueduct was completed. And by blaming labor for the bombing, he would tarnish the reputation of their Socialist allies, ruining their chances in the 1911 elections.
This was wrong, as it turns out. The McNamaras were behind the attacks, and they did hurt the Socialists’ place in Los Angeles politics, handing Otis his goal of a developed San Fernando Valley, a testament to his good luck. Still, it makes an irresistible story, a solution Blum probably would have chosen for his mystery if he hadn’t been constrained by fact. It has the hallmarks of a classic noir tale, all of which take place in cities where corruption is the rule, not an aberration. The only thing the story lacks is the noir impulse to, as Faye Dunaway memorably says in 1974’s Chinatown, “cherchez la femme.”
Chinatown, one of the masterpiece mysteries in film history, is a noir-ification of the plot to bring Owens River water to Los Angeles. In the film, the chief engineer at the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, Hollis Mulwray, is murdered after he publicly opposes plans to build a reservoir. Private detective Jake Gittes ( Jack Nicholson channeling Philip Marlowe), working with Mulwray’s wife, Evelyn (Dunaway), uncovers a complicated plot by Mulwray’s former partner and Evelyn’s father, Noah Cross, to buy up land in the San Fernando Valley using the names of senile retirees and to covertly and illegally irrigate it using Los Angeles’s water.
In the film’s ending, it trades a noir aesthetic for a gothic one — Cross is a true villain who has raped Evelyn and fathered her daughter. Evelyn, as it turns out, is not a femme fatale; the film’s surprise is in how tightly the apparent system of power holds fast, how straightforward allegiances are, and how little our heroes can do in the face of corrupt authority. Melodramatic as it is, Chinatown is a weirdly apt depiction of a city that was developed by a handful of powerful men who did not have much use for rules or ethics.
In American Lightning, Blum writes about the early triumph of Griffith’s short film A Corner in Wheat. It featured an ambitious parallel structure, following “farmers stoically working in a field; the Wheat King hatching his plot to control the market; and the city’s downtrodden poor hoping to buy bread,” sending a poignant message about the power imbalance in the relationship between America’s land owners, producers, and consumers. The film is based on The Pit (1903), the second novel in what Frank Norris planned as an epic trilogy (Norris died before completing the third) that began with The Octopus (1901) — a true California story that, in California fashion, is more complicated than the patterns A Corner in Wheat would distill from it.
In her 2003 meditation on California identity, Where I Was From, Didion spends significant time trying to make sense of The Octopus. On its surface, it is an anti-corporate novel about the megalithic power of the railroad to control and abuse the humble farmer. A pivotal scene involves a shootout between ranchers in the San Joaquin Valley and federal marshals hired by the Southern Pacific railroad to evict them. There are also scenes where a poet, who writes of the plight of the poor farmer, eats in the opulent domain of the Railroad King while one of the ranchers’ widow and daughters fall into degradation and prostitution, and another in which the poet throws an anarchist bomb himself, although his capitalist target is unscathed.
But these conflicts are not as allegorical as they may appear. Crucially, these ranchers were, as Didion writes, “in no sense simple farmers”; they were entrepreneurs who had come to California seeking a fortune from its fecundity in the same way gold rush spectators had tried to exploit its mineral resources, and their business plans were dependent on their proximity to railroad routes. “The only actual conflict in The Octopus,” Didion writes, “turns out to be between successful and failed members of the same entrepreneurial class.” This recalls incestuous themes in Chinatown, as parties that seem to be opponents are in fact closely aligned. The development of Southern California followed no traditional narratives; it was uniquely intentional, flowing from a singular energy, serving the interests of a certain small population of men, whether Harrison Gray Otis, Noah Cross, or the Railroad King.
But the infighting among these men is a distraction from what has always been the real story. As Didion succinctly explains,
The Octopus is not, as it might logically seem to be, a story of an agrarian society overtaken by the brute momentum of industrialization: the octopus, if there is one, turns out to be neither the railroad nor corporate ownership but indifferent nature.
This was what Burns knew when devising his theory that the LA Times bombing was an inside job. In Los Angeles, the imperative is not to cherchez la femme; it is to cherchez the water.
The Octopus begins on a day when “all the vast reaches of the San Joaquin Valley — in fact all South Central California, was bone dry, parched, and baked and crisped after four months of cloudless weather.” More than a century later, this description bears down on the San Joaquin like a death sentence. A May 30, 2014 Los Angeles Times feature describes how extreme drought conditions have devastated families of migrant farm workers. Waves of farmers fled to California from Oklahoma, Texas, Missouri, and Arkansas during the disastrous droughts of the 1930s; now farm workers are migrating away from Southern California’s own dust bowl. Communities in the San Joaquin are fading, in danger of becoming ghost towns. “Maybe this town won’t be here anymore?” a farm worker in the article speculates.
By summer 2014, drought covered 100 percent of California, with 76 percent of the state experiencing extreme drought conditions. These are remarkable and terrifying circumstances, certain to lead to forest fires and agricultural devastation. But it is hard to look at a drought as an emergency — it quickly becomes the new normal. A farm worker in the LA Times article comments that, “Drought is different from other natural disasters because it doesn’t end.” My boyfriend laughed when we saw a sign on the 101 freeway reading, “SERIOUS DROUGHT. DON’T WASTE WATER.” “I thought it said ‘serious thought,’” he said. Well, I reminded him, it is a serious thought.
Evergreen Memorial Park. Photo by Alice Bolin.
In May, it took me two buses and almost two hours to get to Boyle Heights, the East Los Angeles neighborhood where Evergreen Memorial Park and Crematory is nestled. Evergreen, established in 1877, is the oldest graveyard in Los Angeles and one of the largest, housing 300,000 graves in its 67 acres. Evergreen is a fascinating cemetery. Its “Garden of the Pines” is a monument to Japanese pioneers, and rows of beautiful Japanese graves lace through the rest of the park like veins.
Evergreen is different than other Los Angeles cemeteries — it feels less preened, more chaotic. Its grass grows sometimes green, sometimes yellow, straggling in dehydrated patches or failing altogether, revealing expanses of bare dirt. Amid the Japanese graves are monuments to LA’s early movers and shakers, or as Ehrenreich puts it in “The End,” a “stratum of dead whites with streets named after them.” This includes John Edward Hollenbeck, who sold the city the land that would be Exposition Park, and Theodore Rimpau, whose massive Rancho Las Cienegas became much of West Los Angeles. Isaac Lankershim and Isaac Newton Van Nuys are also buried there, Otis’s important collaborators in the Los Angeles Suburban Homes Company and the scheme to develop the San Fernando Valley. There are layers of irony here — the graves of men who went to great lengths to keep Los Angeles evergreen grow up amid yellow grass in a cemetery called Evergreen. When I was there, I saw a family gathered around a grave, watering it with a hose.
Evergreen illustrates why its men with streets named after them had to dream up Los Angeles so completely, lending it the same artificiality that Waugh disdained in Forest Lawn. Los Angeles is not a city that could ever have existed naturally — given its natural resources — in its current form. In “Half in Love with Easeful Death,” Waugh makes a confident prediction about the end of Los Angeles. “It will be destroyed by drought,” he writes.
Its water comes 250 miles from the Colorado River. A handful of parachutists or partisans anywhere along that vital aqueduct can make the coastal strip uninhabitable. Bones will whiten along the Santa Fe trail as the great recession struggles Eastwards. Nature will re-assert herself and the seasons gently obliterate the vast, deserted suburb.
It was obvious to him that Los Angeles’s hyper-development was no match for indifferent nature. Los Angeles has several of the largest cemeteries in the world, emblems of the city’s excessive nature, its belief in relationships of space and growth that only exist in the physics of dreams. But they also embody Los Angeles’s relationship with destruction. Engineered to be a tropical paradise, a verdant ocean city enjoying everlasting youth, its citizens carry on in spite of the imminence of many natural emergencies, including droughts, fires, mudslides, and earthquakes.
Its giant cemeteries are both an attempt to control death and evidence of the city’s strange comfort with it. Didion writes in her essay “Los Angeles Days” about the “apparent equanimity” with which Los Angeles residents meet disaster, the fragility of the dream. “Something in the human spirit,” she writes, “rejects planning on a daily basis for catastrophe.” On the plaque in Hollywood Forever, the Los Angeles Times finally wishes farewell to its “martyred men” with this Los Angeles signature denial. “Forever green be the turf which California,” it reads, “through all her perennial summertime, will graciously tend above their cherished graves!”