Let’s Talk Chagall and a Stand Against Racism

Last week in Charlottesville, as the result of unmitigated hate, dozens of protesters were injured and Heather Heyer was killed during a rally of white supremacists and neo-nazis. Afterward, President Trump equated Heather and her counter-protesters with the “many fine” people who had marched with torches the night before, chanting “Blood and soil.”

My post here may cost me readers, and I accept that. Calling out racism is more important than my pre-sales on Amazon. It’s more important, I say, than any sales at all.

And here comes Chagall.

You may think that I’m shoving in a non sequitur here, but hold on. As Heather Heyer’s mother confirmed for us at her daughter’s memorial, “if you are not outraged, you are not paying attention.” I am paying attention.

Currently the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) has on exhibit  Chagall:

Marc Chagall, detail, from Chagall: Fantasies for the Stage, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, on view July 31, 2017-January 7, 2018

Fantasies for the Stage, concentrating on theater costumes, sketches, paintings, and stage designs that Chagall created between 1942 and 1967. The works are breathtaking, a tour of Chagall’s own imaginary landscape. And they almost certainly would not exist if Chagall had not escaped Nazi-occupied France in 1941.

At that time, Chagall was a Russian Jew living with his family in Paris. He was creating art the Nazi regime had categorized as “degenerate.” What were his chances of surviving the Jewish purge?

(Here is a place for us to pause and remember a torch-lit march in Charlottesville, with “many fine” marchers chanting “Jews will not replace us.”)

Chagall escaped to New York via a route devised with

Marc Chagall, detail, from Chagall: Fantasies for the Stage, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, on view July 31, 2017-January 7, 2018

help from directors of New York’s great Museum of Modern Art; in fact, he was one of many artists whose escape was made possible by a group (including MOMA) that recognized the dangers of Nazism to artists. By the next year, he was creating a remarkable body of work for the stage. These

Marc Chagall, detail, from Chagall: Fantasies for the Stage, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, on view July 31, 2017-January 7, 2018

sketches and paintings and costumes are lively and fun, like walking through a multicolored dance of flared skirts. To stand at the exhibit and be surrounded by these creations is humbling. I felt it first in my eyes, and I stood in front of Firebird and wept. There are paintings that hold more than paint–very few of them, but Firebird is one.

Now I think of the painting and Heather Heyer is who I see. She’s the woman in the midst

Marc Chagall, detail, Firebird. From Chagall: Fantasies for the Stage, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, on view July 31, 2017-January 7, 2018

of transformation, from resisting hate to rising fire. At Heather’s memorial, her mother said, “They tried to kill my child to shut her up. Well, guess what? You just magnified her.”

 

 

 

 

It’s impossible to admire Chagall’s art without acknowledging the stench of its opposite.

Marc Chagall, detail, from Chagall: Fantasies for the Stage, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, on view July 31, 2017-January 7, 2018

In Poland, the Warsaw Ghetto is a reminder that human spirit cannot be starved, shot, or beaten to nothing. President Trump is the first sitting president since the fall of communism not to visit the Warsaw Ghetto memorial. That’s important. I can smell how important it is. The stench.

I’m scrolling through the photos I took at the Chagall exhibit, and they’re like my usual photos of art. They’re pieces and details I loved and wanted to examine. Brush strokes, places the paper dips and warps and resolves itself. When I took these photos, I thought I was taking them just for me. I didn’t know I’d see Heather Heyer in a firebird, and Chagall’s post-escape art for the stage as a symbol of why we must resist hate at all costs–book sales are nothing. For Heather and her family, the cost was her life.

But I extrapolate from Chagall: He and his family

Marc Chagall, detail, from Chagall: Fantasies for the Stage, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, on view July 31, 2017-January 7, 2018

were saved, and I stood in the midst of his salvation and felt exhilarated. If I had stepped once to the side, I might have thought about art lost. What of the millions of others, the artists and writers who hadn’t yet painted or written a word? The six million who didn’t have Chagall’s stature to win a spot on MOMA’s list, or the uncanny luck to win them a spot on Schindler’s list? There were only so many lists. What art, theory, medicine, poem would their survival have given us?

As a pointed aside to white nationalist and White House aide Stephen Miller, when Chagall came to New York, Smithsonian Magazine says, he did not speak English–and he never learned. Joseph Harriss at Smithsonian Magazine quotes Chagall as saying, “It took me thirty years to learn bad French. Why should I try to learn English?”

I would say the time that could have been lost learning a third language was, for him, well spent. I

Marc Chagall, detail, from Chagall: Fantasies for the Stage, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, on view July 31, 2017-January 7, 2018

stood in the middle of the work completed during that time, and I’m sharing it (my tiny vision of it, at least) with you. I don’t think he needed to learn English. I understand him just fine.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Frida, with Diego, at the Heard in Phoenix

Phoenix is seven hours from my house, nearly a straight shot down I10. My sister-in-law, Wendy, and I drove there four days ago to see the Frida Kahlo paintings and drawings in the Jacques and Natasha Gelman collection, on view at the Heard Museum until August 20.

We went on a journey, the whole thing framed with four rules:

  1. Be generous in feeling. Spread cheer.
  2. Do not check news sites or cable news or even headlines on newspapers.
  3. Do not watch Rachel Maddow (just for three days. You understand, right, Rachel?).
  4. Do not focus on anything but the quest.

I also added another guideline, not a rule, from Cavafy:

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you are destined for.
But do not hurry the journey at all.

Hard to do, driving Long Beach to Phoenix in July. Our temp gauge hit 111 degrees, and we consoled ourselves with talk about what it had felt like to grow up without air conditioning. It was bad then, being poor. It’s easier now, with just enough money for an air-conditioned car and overwhelming consumer debt.

And I broke the first rule in Palm Springs, when we stopped for gas. A guy drove up in a beater, disabled placard hanging on his rear-view mirror, and asked me for gas money. I cut him off, shook my head, said “No, not doing that.” I’ve heard the story; one does, at gas stations in SoCal. It’s a thing. The problem is, you never know if the person really needs gas, or if it’s a scam. You’re skewered regardless, either with guilt or with resentment. So I drove off, felt the guilt skewer, told Wendy I broke a rule, and had to go back to give the guy a dollar. It’s all the cash I had.

When one goes on a quest, one brings change for those in need. This is a rule, too, but not my rule. It’s existed for centuries, a pilgrim leftover I learned from Chaucer. It’s why people still beg outside of cathedrals in Italy and France. I forgot that rule in Palm Springs, made good, and we continued on.

And arrived.

Wendy contemplates Frida at the Heard Museum

The work is glorious, the paintings vibrant, and for some reason the guards let us move toward the paintings and take pictures so close we could see the brushstrokes. If you haven’t seen these paintings in person, I present here what it’s like to be in a room with just you and Frida’s work. I took many pictures up close, not of the whole paintings but of corners and detail and whatever I found myself stepping closer to look at.

Frida Kahlo, Self-portrait with red and gold dress, 1941, detail. Jacques and Natasha Gelman collection.

This is what it’s like. You see detail. You see little bits of stuff that stuck in the paint while she worked. You see color, color, color everywhere!

Frida Kahlo, Self-portrait with braid, 1941, detail. Jacques and Natasha Gelman collection.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Frida Kahlo, Self-portrait with monkeys, 1943, detail. Jacques and Natasha Gelman collection.

 

You see shadows where before, online or in a book, all you saw was the entire painting. These shadows, it turns out, they’re as much Frida as seeing the whole.

Frida Kahlo, Portrait of Natasha Gelman, 1943, detail. Jacques and Natasha Gelman collection.

Looking so closely, I could imagine her decisions as she was painting. Design choices, blending, what to do or not do. Where to put the monkey. I also noticed parts of the paintings that before had faded

Frida Kahlo, Self-portrait with monkeys, 1943, detail. Jacques and Natasha Gelman collection.

into background, like this flower from Self-portrait with monkeys. When I focused just on the Bird of Paradise and not on Frida or a monkey, I could see the attention paid to shape and placement.

 

 

Frida Kahlo, Diego on my mind (Self-portrait as Tehuana), 1943, detail. Jacques and Natasha Gelman collection.

 

 

 

Ah, I’m explaining myself badly. Let me just give you my photos, and you can have your own experience with them.

 

Frida Kahlo, Self-portrait with necklace, detail, 1933. Natasha Gellman collection.

 

Frida Kahlo, Self-portrait with necklace, 1933, detail. Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Frida Kahlo, The bride who became frightened when she sees life opened, detail, 1943. Jacques and Natasha Gelman collection.

Frida Kahlo, Self-portrait with bed (Me and my doll), detail, 1937. Jacques and Natasha Gelman collection.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Frida Kahlo, Self-portrait with bed (Me and my doll), 1937, detail. Jacques and Natasha Gelman collection.

 

Frida Kahlo, Self-portrait with braid, 1941, detail. Jacques and Natasha Gelman collection.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The great Diego Rivera painting, Calla Lily Vendor, also is there, but I’m sure you can read about it from someone else. In this regard, I’m like a good friend. Athough Frida forgave Diego for having an affair with her sister, I don’t have to.

Street Corn at Taco Guild, Phoenix

Back to our journey.

We also ate, both at the museum (terrific fry bread) and elsewhere. I do have to mention Taco Guild, housed in an old church and worth a couple of pictures here because I then can come back to this post and relive what that coconut cream pie tasted like.

 

 

Coconut Cream Pie at Taco Guild, Phoenix

 

Wendy judged it the best coconut cream pie she’d ever had, and I agree, but I also have to admit that we’ve never had anything but pie made with coconut pudding from a box.

Here at Taco Guild is where we broke Rule 2: Do not check news sites. We didn’t mean to. A banner on Wendy’s phone announced: John McCain Reveals Brain Tumor. Terrible news, awful, made more awful still because we were an hour and a half from McCain’s home in Sedona. Then, once we knew, it seemed everyone knew. Everyone in Taco Guild, talking louder over loud music, the shock and worry. John McCain is much loved. It’s okay to break Rule 2 for John McCain.

Then we had to go home.

Arizona from the car, post-Frida (note the museum stickers defacing my dashboard)

But Cavafy, remember?

Don’t hurry the journey, even if it’s 111 stinkin degrees outside.

 

 

 

Saguaro in Arizona

 

 

We drove through the (hot) majestic Arizona landscape, counting saguaros.

 

 

 

 

 

 

We drove through (hot, not as majestic) California, counting dead palm trees.

Dead palm trees in California

Shrine outside private residence, Chiriaco Summit, California

 

We stopped for gas, and prayed at a shrine outside someone’s house.

 

 

 

 

 

 

General Patton Museum at Chiriaco Summit, California

Next door, the General Patton Museum dwarfed the shrine.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Marilyn shirt available at the Indio Swap Meet, if anyone wants one.

At a Panda Express food stop, I met a guy with an interesting shirt (shirt only here, to protect the guy who kindly allowed me to take his photo)…

Frida Kahlo, Statue of Liberty, drawing, ink on paper, circa 1945. Jacques and Natasha Gelman collection.

…that reminded me of a drawing I’d seen at the Frida exhibit. I see a dissertation topic here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

And finally, home to a happy dog.

Then we broke Rule 3. Still our third day, rules applied, but it was 5:50pm and we had to…just had to…turn on Rachel. Ahhh.

So go, if you can. Drive to the Heard by August 20, 2017. Set your own rules, and notice when you break them. Walk right up to Frida’s paintings, and see the conduit between you and her. It’s there.

And now the important stuff: What could we listen to, while driving the fourteen hours round-trip to and from Frida’s paintings? Of the following, I can proudly claim (and will defend my choices of) Helen Reddy and Maureen McGovern. The rest of this list springs from Wendy’s never-ending musical well.

Playlist for quest to see Frida

  • Sippie Wallace, “Women Be Wise” (1930s?)
  • Bonnie Raitt and Sippie Wallace duet, “Women Be Wise” (1980s)
  • Bonnie Raitt, “Something to Talk About”
  • Mavis Staples, “Down in Mississippi”
  • Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt, and Emmylou Harris, “Do I Ever Cross Your Mind”
  • Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris, “1917”
  • Indigo Girls, “Galileo,” “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee”
  • Barbara Dane, “The Kent State Massacre”
  • Duffy, “Mercy”
  • Christine McVie (Fleetwood Mac), “Songbird”
  • Marian Anderson ( live at the Lincoln Memorial), “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee”
  • Lorde, “Royals”
  • Shawn Colvin, “Shotgun Down the Avalanche”
  • Carole King, “So Far Away,” “Some Kind of Wonderful”
  • Jill Scott, “Back Together”
  • Marlena Dietrich, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone”
  • Pretenders, “Brass in Pocket”
  • Eartha Kitt, “Cielito Lindo” (Cielito Lindo was one of Frida’s favorite songs, but she never heard this version!)
  • Maxine Brown, “Oh, No Not My Baby”
  • Lunachicks, “Shit Finger Dick”
  • Stevie Nicks, “Edge of Seventeen”
  • Dinah Washington, “Record Ban Blues”
  • Lita Ford, “Kiss Me Deadly” (played several times, whenever the pace got too slow)
  • Suzi Quattro, “The Wild One”
  • Joan Jett, “I Hate Myself for Loving You”
  • Runaways, “Cherry Bomb”
  • Ethel Merman, “There’s No Business Like Show Business”
  • Vera Lynn, “We’ll Meet Again”
  • Andrews Sisters, “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy”
  • Nina Simone, “Feeling Good”
  • Janis Joplin, “Me and Bobby McGee”
  • Josephine Baker, “Don’t Touch My Tomatoes”
  • Rihanna, “Love on the Brain”
  • Marianne Faithful, “As Tears Go By”
  • Joan Armatrading, “Love and Affection”
  • Cyndi Lauper, “She Bop,” “I Drove All Night”
  • The Judds, “Why Not Me,” “Love Can Build a Bridge”
  • Cher, “Believe”
  • Laura Branigan, “Gloria”
  • Macy Gray, “Redemption Song”
  • Annie Lennox, “Why”
  • Sister Sledge, “We are Family”
  • Yma Sumac, “Mambo!”
  • Buffy Sainte Marie, “Soldier Blue”
  • Kate and Anna McGarrigle, “Was My Brother in the Battle”
  • Madonna, “Like a Virgin”
  • Iris DeMent, “Let the Mystery Be”
  • Wynonna, “Girls with Guitars”
  • Patsy Cline, “She’s Got You”
  • Pink, “Try”
  • Joni Mitchell, “Woodstock”
  • Yvonne Elliman, “I Don’t Know How to Love Him”
  • Etta James, “Something’s Got a Hold on Me”
  • Lulu, “To Sir with Love”
  • Lena Horne, “Stormy Weather”
  • ‘Til Tuesday, “Voices Carry”
  • Rosemary Clooney, “Come On ‘a My House”
  • Jackie De Shannon, ” Put a Little Love in Your Heart”
  • Yoko Ono, “What a Bastard the World Is”
  • Maureen McGovern, “The Morning After”
  • Karen Carpenter, “Superstar”
  • Patty Smyth, “The Warrior,” “Ode to Bobby Joe” (note: we couldn’t find Bobbie Gentry on Spotify, but Patty did an admirable job)
  • Deneice Williams, “Let’s Hear It for the Boy”
  • Heart, “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters,” “Magic Man”
  • Andra Day, “Rise Up”
  • Patti Smith, “Because the Night,” “People Have the Power”
  • Patti LaBelle, “If You Don’t Know Me By Now”
  • Pat Benatar, “Hell is for Children”
  • Susan Tedeschi, “Angel from Montgomery”
  • Sinead O’Connor, “Emperor’s New Clothes”
  • Gloria Gaynor, “I Will Survive”
  • Melissa Etheridge, “I’m the Only One”
  • The Bangles, “Walk Like an Egyptian”
  • Jenni Rivera, “Ya Lo Se”
  • Aretha Franklin, “You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman”
  • Joan Baez, “Diamonds and Rust,” “We Shall Overcome”
  • Linda Ronstadt, “You’re No Good”
  • Carly Simon, “You’re So Vain”
  • Amy Winehouse, “Back to Black”
  • Jeannie C. Riley, “Harper Valley PTA”
  • Ronettes, “Be My Baby”
  • Dusty Springfield, “Son of a Preacher Man”
  • Blondie, “Heart of Glass”
  • Gladys Knight and the Pips, “Midnight Train to Georgia”
  • Grace Slick (sans Airplane), “Somebody to Love”
  • Shirley Bassey, “Goldfinger”
  • Nancy Griffith, “Trouble in the Fields,” “From a Distance”
  • Nanci Sinatra, “These Boots are Made for Walkin'”
  • The Supremes, “Where Did Our Love Go”
  • Barbra Streisand, “The Way We Were”
  • Tina Turner, “Proud Mary” (sans Ike), “What’s Love Got to Do With It?”
  • Odetta, “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright”
  • Judy Collins, “Both Sides Now”
  • Pussy Riot, “Chaika”
  • Lucinda Williams, “Changed the Locks”
  • Helen Reddy, “I am Woman”
Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Understanding Our Mothers, and Forgiving Them

I must first disclose that I am a colleague and friend of Barbara Jaffe’s, and have been for many years. I know the aspects of her that are labeled teacher and humanist. I’m also a writer, so I share with Barbara the call to write and the work of setting down words. I also think I share with her an urgency for honest and direct critical thinking, especially now, today, when honesty has achieved social (if not political) critical mass.

Enter Barbara’s book, When Will I be Good Enough?. I was aware of the phrase “replacement child,” but knew it in the more popular sense of a child born to provide an organ for another ailing child. I remember the movie My Sister’s Keeper, based on the novel written by Jodi Picoult, about a child born for the explicit reason of saving her sibling. I didn’t see the movie, nor read that book. I was afraid of being manipulated to tears, as I always am. Crying is a big thing for me, and manipulating tears makes me angry. Then I’d be crying and angry, never a strong position. So the subtitle of Barbara’s book made sense to me through the lens of popular culture, and what I’d like to do here is provide a reflection on Barbara’s own reflections—using a wider social lens.

Barbara means the term “replacement child” at its gritty and devastating bottom line: a child born to take the place of a child who has died. That’s the crux of Barbara’s book, and, as she tells us, her life. It is a book that jabs needles at the most painful parts of a mother-daughter relationship. Yet, it’s more than that. Barbara and her mother played out their relationship in the years following World War II, those fifties fantasy family years, into the beginning of the Women’s Movement. Barbara’s mother stayed at home, nurturing beliefs that would soon become laughable to everyone but the women of her generation. Girls are bad at math, and that’s okay. Girls obey their mothers, and the father-daughter relationship is a reason for jealousy, not celebration. Girls must work toward careers that don’t take away from family life, like teachers, who have summers off that can be put to good use with their own children. Young women don’t go to college, but if they do, they sure as heck better be married to future doctors by the time they leave. If no husband is found during college years, the chances of finding a good man drop disastrously upon graduation.

In a situation like this, siblings can feel like each has a completely different childhood. Barbara’s brother was raised differently, because of his gender, and because his relationship with his parents was not fraught with the guilt and anger of being born to take the place of Jeffrey, the toddler who died.

Barbara and her mother lived out the tangled relationship of many women in those years. My relationship with my own mother was similar. Yet, Barbara had the added complication of being born because her mother received social pressure to have another baby immediately, before recovering from the grief of her toddler’s death. No grieving allowed. The doctor even slapped Barbara’s crying mother across the face, maybe the moment that is at the heart of her mother’s chronic depression. If my doctor slapped me out of a genuine moment of grief, I’d sue—and write a scathing blog post. In the 1950s, Barbara’s mother did what was expected. She stuffed the grief, and got pregnant again. Her grief escaped in bits and pieces throughout Barbara’s life, and always toward Barbara. Why couldn’t Barbara be good enough? There’s no simple answer, but I do want to try. She couldn’t be good enough because she couldn’t transform the simmering grief of her mother. She couldn’t do what she’d been born to do.

I didn’t cry when I read Barbara’s book. What I did do, and what you might do, if you are a woman and in your fifties or sixties, is pause every few pages and say “Hey!” Barbara’s mother shared experiences and reactions with others of her generation. For me, this is the true “lost” generation of women, born too early and entrenched in family life, little education if any beyond high school, and perhaps holding onto secretarial skills like Pittman shorthand, which was already going out of style. When the Women’s Movement transformed the next generation’s expectations for themselves, the same social reckoning revealed to women like our mothers that they were not fit to take their place in the world. They’d been slapped back into childrearing, and perhaps the rise of feminism provided another hard slap.

You may be jolted out of the narrative, not by anything Barbara has done, but because her story may sound familiar. Barbara’s mother used to say to her, “I don’t know what I did to deserve this.” I read that passage, and I set the book down. I didn’t pick it up again for two weeks. My own mother, after downing a few, would hit me against the wall and say “What did I do to you to deserve this?” I’d pull apart this for hours, in my bedroom alone, in class, while bingeing or starving. It turns out that I wasn’t alone. Barbara describes her own eating disorder as the one handful of control she could wield over her mother.

I don’t want to veer off into eating disorders, only to mention them in the context of control. This is what’s important here. Barbara reflects on this, which is a tricky thing. I’ve tried, and the problem is that this changed.  Whenever my mother said it to me, she changed the meaning of this without letting me in on the secret. It’s hard to get a handle on this, and whatever a mom has done to deserve this, when actually people and relationships, down to tiny, seemingly ridiculous everyday details, like whether or not Barbara should wear jeans, are dynamic. This is dynamic, but to a girl in Barbara’s situation, it’s static and needs to be analyzed. What is this? If I could only understand this, I could change what’s happening. I could change things. Whereas Barbara’s mother belonged to the generation left in the dust by a rising social movement, we are the generation who analyze what was left in the dust.  We analyze this, and Barbara does, trying to trace the shifting this over the course of her life and her interactions with Mom.

While I was reading When Will I be Good Enough?, I thought of Adrienne Rich’s examination of motherhood in Of Women Born. Perhaps the book is now out of date. I don’t know. Rich is gone, and can’t update it for us. But I love that book, because Rich herself was of Barbara’s mother’s generation with one caveat: She went to college. She did what Barbara’s mother could not do. I’m simplifying a life that took on extraordinary goals, so please bear with me. Two days ago my sister and I read out loud the short speech Adrienne Rich gave in 1974, when accepting the National Book Award in the name of all women. She prepared the speech with Alice Walker and Audre Lorde, and she read aloud these words:

We dedicate this occasion to the struggle for self-determination of all women, of every color, identification, or derived class: the poet, the housewife, the lesbian, the mathematician, the mother, the dishwasher, the pregnant teenager, the teacher, the grandmother, the prostitute, the philosopher, the waitress, the women who will understand what we are doing here and those who will not understand yet; the silent women whose voices have been denied us, the articulate women who have given us strength to do our work.

Read the entire speech here.

The speech read by Adrienne Rich when accepting the National Book Award, 1974.

 

Few could say that with this speech Rich deliberately meant to manipulate tears in her reader, but both my sister and I cried. We sat in an upscale hot dog place where vegan corn dogs compete with handmade Florentine chicken sausage, and we cried. Barbara’s mother may not have been aware of Rich’s speech, but she is included. So is the girl who actually excels at math. What was Barbara’s mom doing in 1974? Barbara says she was chronically bedridden with depression, telling Barbara that a girl’s feelings didn’t count, they meant nothing, they weren’t even real. We know the opposite was true, and what’s more, her mother’s feelings also were real, and they were as bedridden as she was.

And now I arrive at what it means to be a replacement child. Not the showy, made-to-save-others child who gets her own novel and movie, but the girl born to a mother who really never wanted children, who questioned her ability to parent, who was forced by social role to get pregnant immediately after one beloved child had died. The mother who was slapped into pregnancy by her doctor. I can’t speak for Barbara, but for me, her story is one of compassion—first and ultimately for herself, and also for her mother. It turns out that the replacement child may not have been born to replace, but to forgive.

 

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Hitler’s Spies Over Hollywood: Should Hollywood Stay Out of Politics?

Photoplay, October, 1940, with my bedspread as a frame. This is probably how many readers viewed the issue at the time: tossed on a bed. And isn’t Claudette Colbert stunning in tailored leather and top-stitched contrasting gloves?

Actress Meryl Streep gave a starkly political speech at the 2017 Golden Globe awards, and the morning after, pictures and sayings and memes all over the Internet claimed that Hollywood should stay out of politics. People didn’t want to hear political spew from their movie stars, so shut up and be done with it.

Is that possible? Can we be done with politics in Hollywood, Jane Fonda in Vietnam, Michael Moore on the Oscars stage, Mark Ruffalo protesting the Dakota pipeline?

No, we cannot, and we should not. Hollywood, movie-making, and politics are stuck together with historical glue. To do away with political call-and-response is to get rid of the Hollywood movie industry entirely. The history of Hollywood is a struggle for and against the First Amendment, and one particular moment in that history might provide insight into the passionate activism we now see.

When I wrote The Glamorous Dead, I researched the period directly before the U.S. formally entered World War II. In Hollywood and the surrounding Los Angeles basin, that meant a moment tense with both fear and change. Los Angeles was growing out of its farming past, and although you could still drive through long swaths of strawberries, the scenery was changing. One sign of this was in Buena Park at the Knotts’ boysenberry farm on Grand (later to become Beach Boulevard). To accommodate those in line waiting for Mrs. Knotts’ fried chicken, Mr. Knott began building a ghost town. As we all know, the orange orchards surrounding his farm (and the Knotts’ berry fields) made way for an amusement park that took the name of the farm but deleted the farm itself. This was popularly called “progress.”

Outside of Hollywood, London was enduring the catastrophic Blitz. In Hollywood, the women movie stars knitted for London, stars of both genders turned out for a huge Red Cross benefit at Farmer’s Market (buy fruit from your favorite star!), and suspicion of Germans grew.

So here you are, having stood in line for three hours at Mrs. Knotts’ shack for a chicken dinner, and having visited the Farmers’ Market so Paulette Goddard could weigh and package your apples. What comes next?

You go home, and waiting in your mailbox is the October issue of Photoplay, the most popular and respected movie magazine on the market. On the cover, you see a hint of what is inside: “HITLER’S SPIES OVER HOLLYWOOD: Startling Expose of German Plans to Rule Movies.”

Nazis in Hollywood? Nazis, endangering my favorite movie stars?

The story starts with a two-page spread, four pages total. The author is one Jack Wade. As far as I can determine, Jack Wade was a staff reporter for Photoplay.

John Floherty Jr.’s original artwork for this pulp novel sold at auction in 2012.

The article is illustrated by John Floherty, Jr., a skilled artist who later became known for his pulp novel covers. (I include one of his covers, left. The subject matter I’ll reserve for another post.) They’re tantalizing and downright delicious, the most famous of which is his cover for Take My Face. According to www.askart.com, the biographical sourcebook Who Was Who in American Art says that John Floherty, Jr., also served as a combat artist during World War II, and was present with his sketchbook both at Iwo Jima and Okinawa.

So now, in Hollywood style, we have set our scene. We have an experienced writer and a famed illustrator, and the rest of the article is pure claptrap. Its central thesis is that Germans are posing as servants in the houses of the

Fabulous and terrifying, though fashionably attired, illustrations by John Floherty, Jr.

stars–right under their noses! One star who “happened to” be looking in her maid’s closet found expensive evening dresses that the star herself would have loved. And what was her maid doing at night, zooming around in fancy cars with shadowy men? Then, just as the star gets suspicious, the maid gives her notice and is gone.

 

 

Another one: On the grounds of a country club “near Hollywood,” a plane overhead drops boxes of leaflets. It’s Nazi propaganda!

Beware the German propagandist at A-list Hollywood parties! He will start by disparaging Roosevelt, and soon descend into Nazi rhetoric.

 

Another one: Good-looking young men with Germanic names are seen at A-list parties, but beware! They will begin by criticizing Roosevelt, then they will subtly and skillfully descend into the glories of fascist theory.

The article goes on. It seems the stars are inundated with Nazis, but in each instance are too stupid to catch on until the servant blithely leaves town in a downpour of Nazi pamphlets. This was how Nazis would overtake Hollywood: not from the top-down but from the bottom-up, as servants and cooks. Beware the maid who can cook but not serve at table! That is a sure sign.

The Nazi spies are portrayed as both sophisticated and amateurish, working alone and inexplicably at the same time working as part of an organized group. The article names Captain Fritz Wiedemann, at the time German Consul-General in San Francisco. Wiedemann, according to the Los Angeles Times, was expelled from the U. S. in July, 1941, along with the rest of the German consulate employees. But at the time of our “Hitler’s Spies” article, Wiedemann was at the center of a controversy hinted at within the text. Here is the Photoplay version:

[The Fifth Column’s] active, professional group of spies obviously takes its orders direct from Berlin, via San Francisco and the German consulate there headed by the ultracharming Captain Fritz Wiedemann, Hitler’s former World War commander and later his personal adjutant. Recently a German consular courier, one Herbert Hoehne, was arrested in Beverly Hills carrying a bag, which reputedly held, in code, plans for disabling the Panama Canal! His $15,000 bail was supplied by Captain Wiedemann.

Historical Los Angeles Times articles do confirm that Wiedemann was a close ally of Hitler’s, and had commanded Hitler during World War I. I was not able to confirm if Wiedemann was ultracharming. Herbert Hoehne was a 29-year-old German national who was arrested in San Francisco at his downtown hotel, readying himself for departure on a ship to South America. He was arrested for acting as a German consular courier between San Francisco and Los Angeles without having gained permission from the U.S. Department of State. He did phone Captain Wiedemann upon his arrest, and he did indeed have coded material on him, probably slated for delivery to German embassies in South America. I could not determine whether that code was immediately broken, although it’s doubtful, given that the German Enigma code was not broken until 1942.

Hoehne was released in September, 1940. According to the Los Angeles Times, he was not brought to trial because to do so would reveal U. S. secrets that needed to be kept, er, secret.

Let’s conflate our two versions, one from Photoplay and one from the Los Angeles Times. A group of German spies in Hollywood believed, but not proven, to be acting directly under the orders of the San Francisco German Consul General (who was, at the time, not in Los Angeles but in the major military port of San Francisco), were working both as “lone wolves” and as part of an organized group to systematically undermine the movie industry. These spies obtained jobs as servants to movie stars and studio heads in order to do their nefarious work. We could locate these spies by their Germanic names, and they were both skilled spies and, again inexplicably, amateurish. The movie stars noticed these spies were very well dressed, drove expensive cars, and met frequently in shadowy groups. Sometimes these servants/spies were not well trained in their service positions, with spycraft clumsy enough for movie stars to notice something “off.” Yet, not one movie star–not one!–put these clues together and thought maybe the police should be called. By the time the stars thought to take action, the servants disappeared, showing the hand of a larger conspiracy at work.

If you are drawing parallels between dangerous suspicion of German servants in 1940 and suspicion of Muslim communities today, you’re on the right track.

The Hoehne story is fascinating. From the information we now have, Hoehne was indeed a spy. He was a courier of German information, and his job was kept separate from the U. S. State Department’s watch. However, he was arrested in San Francisco, not in Beverly Hills, and his case was dismissed a month before the October Photoplay was released. When we place him in another city, Hoehne is completely separated from the Hollywood milieu. His inclusion in the Photoplay story is to show the article’s veracity, but when we look closely, there is no connection between Hoehne and the poor German servants of Hollywood stars. Oh–and by the way, I researched and could not find one credible instance of planes dropping Nazi pamphlets over a Los Angeles country club.

Yet, appropriation of Hollywood by Nazi Germany was a considerable threat. Sources tell us that President Roosevelt read the Hollywood Reporter along with his other daily newspapers, for at least two purposes. Firstly, he wanted to detect any possible infiltration of the movie industry by enemy propaganda. Secondly, he wanted to work with the studios for U. S. propaganda purposes. The key word here is propaganda.

Movie stars did not just knit for London for fun, nor did they become farmers-for-a-day at the Farmer’s Market out of devotion to the Red Cross. Such organized propaganda efforts were essential to helping people in the U. S. adjust to lifetime during war. Roosevelt had to convince the people of the United States to cross over from “holdout” nation to nation-at-war, and what better way to reach households across America than through the movies?

The “Hitler’s Spies” propaganda piece is just one of the many ways American citizens were eased into accepting the inevitable involvement of the U.S. in what was then thought of as a strictly European war. Oh, those poor Londoners were in dire straits, but it was so far away! What can we do? We can knit.

Although my discussion here may on its surface have nothing to do with Meryl Streep’s acceptance speech at the Golden Globes, look closely. In 1940, studios owned its stars, and scripted their moves and public beliefs. In this way, the movie industry was in lock step with Roosevelt as we headed toward World War II. All through that war, movies showcased the endurance, courage, and downright civic goodness needed to defeat the Axis nations. Movies such as the film Mrs. Miniver sought to bolster citizens whose involvement in war efforts might be flagging.

During these years, other countries also used Hollywood and its stars as political devices. There is good reason why, at the German pronouncement in 1942 that American films would no longer be shown, many theaters in Europe chose as their last film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

Then, during the 1950s, the studio system broke down. At the same time, we see the rise of the McCarthy era. Who are called to speak before the House Un-American Activities Committee? Movie stars, writers, directors. Who were blacklisted for their views or because of popular opinion? Those same movie stars, writers, and directors. They no longer had the protection of studios, and the First Amendment was under siege.

Hop forward to the 1970s, when Hollywood reflected growing frustration and anger over the Vietnam War. We also see the inevitable backlash from the McCarthy era. Where stars had been silenced through politics, now they shouted their political beliefs. Even after the war had ended, Hollywood continued its debate in movies such as 1979’s Apocalypse Now. We needed that debate. We needed to reflect on the human toll of that war, and the political impulses that kept it going. Just as I’m writing this essay, I’ve discovered that director Francis Ford Coppola is turning Apocalypse Now into a video game. I don’t know his reasoning, but it’s sure to stir up a healthy debate.

And now I come back to Meryl Streep. She is a central figure in an industry that has bolstered citizens, criticized regimes, changed and focused an entire country’s beliefs about World War II, reflected that same country’s conflicting sentiments about Vietnam, highlighted myriad topics that otherwise may not have reached the level of national discussion, been purged through a political blacklist, and provided a touchstone for the First Amendment. Seventy years ago, Meryl Streep’s studio would have scripted her acceptance speech. Today, she writes her own. No other Hollywood representative could have given that speech, because no other carries the respect within her industry necessary to silence a roomful of peers.

Let her speak. That’s the power of the First Amendment! Better yet, listen to what she has to say. She speaks from the historical perspective of an industry that has seen it all. If we can learn from a 76-year-old propagandist fluff piece, imagine what we can learn about ourselves now from this complex and still-developing industry. And finally, if you can’t stand what she says, well, that’s the power of the First Amendment, too. You get to change the channel.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Bouchercon, 2016

I’m going back in time in this post, but not as far back as, say, 1940. A little more recent: to Bouchercon in New Orleans, held this past fall from September 15 through 18. We’re talking the world mystery convention here. I won’t write a lot of details, because so much has happened since then that I can’t remember all the details. That’s the problem about writing something after time has gone by. I have a terrible memory, and I’d rather let most of the conference glide by. Have you seen the terrific cover for Paula Hawkins’ novel  The Girl on the Train? Not the movie tie-in cover with Emily Blunt. There’s another one, with landscape swooshing by while seen from a speeding train. I saw that cover at Costco. That’s my memory, swooshing by with no detail.

My sister eating beignets at Cafe du Monde during Bouchercon 2016. I took pictures of her each night: beignets night 1, beignets night 2, etc. Here you are seeing…night 3? I’m not sure. All the pictures look alike.

So here are the details I do remember: really bad gumbo at Deanie’s where we picked at a skinny crustacean leg jutting out of the bowl; really good gumbo at Galatoire’s; and beignets every night at Cafe du Monde, with powdered sugar in our hair, on our clothes…. (Don’t go during the day. Skip the line and go at night, and you’ll even find yourself a table to sit at.)

At the conference itself (I call it a conference, but is it? Isn’t it more of a convention? I’m so unhip with these things) a few events rise in my memory. Best panel? The panel on golden age mysteries, with panelists who have read, studied, and written about those mysteries. I heard discussion from writers who value classic “locked door” mysteries (think Agatha) but perceive those mysteries and their significance from differing perspectives. The outcome of the panel, for me, is that I’m now reading through all of Agatha Christie’s mysteries. I’ve never before read them all. For Christmas I asked for a biography of Agatha. My sister-in-law, who had drawn my name for gift-giving, had ordered the book and set it aside when it arrived. Come Christmas eve she went to wrap the book and found it was not at all what she’d expected! But what was she to do? Christmas was the next day! She wrapped it, gave it to me, and issued a disclaimer.

I opened the present and was delighted. A new graphic biography! I’ve read it, and I’ll read it again. It’s delightful.

Best thing I did besides eating beignets at Cafe du Monde: I chose one afternoon to take a tour, and wanted to see a plantation. I made the right choice in visiting the Whitney Plantation. In a year when social justice gets hidden by blame and anger, Whitney Plantation is a reminder to all of us of what our country has been, and what strength people can pull out of themselves if they have to. Whitney Plantation is a slave museum.

I just wrote a paragraph about my tour of the plantation and then I erased the paragraph because it was mealy and meaningless. Visit the Whitney Plantation. Take the tour. Let yourself touch the lives of the people enslaved there. It is immensely humbling.

At the Kensington Librarian Tea, Bouchercon, 2016. Photo by Eugene George.

My last detail is of the Kensington Librarian Tea held one afternoon during the conference. A couple of weeks ago I received an email from photographer Eugene George, who sent me a photo he snapped of me at the tea.

 

 

 

 

Photo and nifty noir revision by Eugene George.

Then he sent me another, this one revised slightly for my own literary interests.

I’ve enlarged this photo umpteen times to look at detail that passes me by, and darn it, I look like I’m really wearing that fedora! Thank you, Gene.

The point of the tea was for Kensington authors to meet librarians and book sellers, and I lucked out big-time. I met Debbie Mitsch, the owner of a wonderful independent mystery bookstore in Huntington Beach, California: Mystery Ink. I don’t live in Huntington Beach; my beach is just over Pacific Coast Highway from HB, but not very far over. I can visit anytime I want to, and I drive that way about once a week.

One more important item to mention. I am a shy person who would stand facing walls rather than talk to the person next to me. My friend Lissa Price was incredibly helpful at Bouchercon. Before the conference she told me exactly what to expect, and she spent much time with me while we were there, introducing me to people and basically making sure that I never walked into a room where I knew no one. I am indebted to her.

There is so much more to say about Bouchercon, if only I could remember it! And, I’ll admit, if only I had time to excavate it from memory.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The year 1940 isn’t that far away. With the election trauma that’s kept me silent for months, 1940 seems pretty darned close and inviting. My first novel The Glamorous Dead is set in Hollywood in November and December, 1940, so I’ve done my bit of research on how Christmas was “done” that year in Hollywood.

It was done, all right. Hollywood in 1940 celebrated Christmas stem to stern. Let me do a little stage-setting:

Opening night at the Hollywood Palladium, October 31, 1940. Frank Sinatra and the Pied Pipers sang with Tommy Dorsey’s orchestra.

Halloween, 1940: The Hollywood Palladium opened, with an extravaganza night that packed in 10,000 people to watch Tommy Dorsey and that little-known, too-skinny singer Frank Sinatra. Dorothy Lamour cut the ribbon and they all danced the night away.

 

 

 

Londoners sleep on the platform and on the train tracks at Aldwych Underground station,London, during heavy all night Nazi bombing raids. Photo from Huffington Post UK.

 

Same time, London: The Blitz is underway, with bombing runs every night that continue through May, 1941.

 

 

 

 

 

Article from Photoplay, October, 1940, discussing the threat of Nazi spies infiltrating Hollywood as service workers

November and December: Stars in Hollywood are knitting–yes, knitting–for Londoners. Also, a rumor has taken hold that Nazi spies have infiltrated homes of movie stars and studio heads, posing as service workers (cooks, assistants, maids).

 

 

 

This photo, although undated, can be placed in the 1940s because of the lampposts turned into Christmas trees for the holiday. Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library.

December: At Christmastime Hollywood Boulevard officially changes its name to Santa Claus Lane. And there’s a parade!

The 1940 Santa Claus Lane Parade, looking south down Broadway. Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library.

Actually, there are multiple parades. The main parade is held on November 21, and smaller parades continue every night until Christmas. We are fortunate to have a recording from one of the 1940 Hollywood Christmas parades

Santa Claus Lane Parade 1940: This photo was published in the Herald-Examiner with the caption “Joan Leslie, beautiful sun goddess of Southern California’s All-Winter Sun Festival, and Santa Claus are shown on a rocket ship float in the colorful Santa Claus Lane parade. Photo dated November 21, 1940. Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library.

that was broadcast live to radios across the country.

 

 

 

 

 

Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland highlighted that parade, and sent Christmas wishes to listeners via the “Leo is On the Air” show:

The Herald-Examiner caption for this photo read “Xavier Cugat donated several hundred boxes of candy to Dale “Little Hunter” Blanchard and Wanda Willis for distribution to needy Indian children of the Navajo and Hopi tribes this Christmas. The needy children also need clothing and toys, too, says Miss Willis.” Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library.

Other festivities involve the Hollywood milieu. Xavier Cugat, for example, is pictured here in a candy giveaway to Native American children. The caption says that Cugat donated the candy, but this looks like a publicity opportunity arranged by Cugat’s then-studio, Columbia (or possibly MGM, because Cugat’s film appearances in the 1940s were primarily for MGM movies).

We have a wonderful archive at the Los Angeles Public Library that documents cultural history in the Los Angeles area. Quite a few photos survive of Christmas in 1940 as it was celebrated by people living in Los Angeles.

American Indian girls in school play. Photo courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library.

 

 

 

 

 

I’m captivated by these photos, knowing that the world was falling into a terrible war and the U.S. would join that war in a year’s time. London is under attack, Hollywood is rumored to be rife with Nazis, yet the people who live in Los Angeles continue their traditions in ways that would be lost to us now if not for the foresight of those who gather and preserve these photographs. Do they have anything to do with Hollywood? Yes, they do. I’m not sure exactly what, but they are important to my understanding of how Los Angeles came to be an incredibly complex test pattern of people and beliefs, all living with and dodging each other. Enjoy these photos, and have a wonderful holiday!

The Herald-Examiner caption on this photo reads “Far away from family and friends, these men and hundreds of others, found a bountiful Christmas table spread at the Union Rescue Mission, 226 South Main Street. Many other places also served those who otherwise would have gone hungry.” Photo dated: December 25, 1940. Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library.

Filipino Americans in nativity scene, 1940. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library.

The baby bottle race: The Herald-Examiner caption for this photo reads “Stunt and games are mighty features of the 12 days Los Posadas Festival at Santa Catalina. This game being played is a race to see whose wife or girl can drink a baby’s bottle of milk the fastest.” Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library.

A Santa Claus traveling circus in Los Angeles, 1940. Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library.

The Herald-Examiner caption for this photo reads “Conchita Cervantes mashes the piñata, a substitute for the Christmas tree in Mexico, while Reynaldo Robles tries to make her miss in a scene from ‘Las Posadas’. The play reproduces the quaint yuletide ceremonies of Old Mexico at the Padua Hills Theatre. Theater patrons have the opportunity to participate in the breaking of piñatas in the foyer following some performances.” Photo dated: December 16, 1940. Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library.

Posted on by suzannegates | Leave a comment

The Kensington reception at RWA

The Romance Writers of America conference was held in San Diego this year, just a couple of weeks ago at the San Diego Wine and Culinary Center. I don’t write in the romance genre, but I was happy to be invited to the reception Kensington Publishing gave for their authors. I was probably the only writer there who didn’t write romance! There’s such a rush of energy when a group of writers are connected by theme or genre, and I could feel that energy at the reception.

Photo by DesertRosePhoto.com

Photo by DesertRosePhoto.com

And the food was fantastic! It’s hard to do little bites and have them be anything but dry. However, this food was fresh and tasty, and became dinner for my guest and me. A big dinner. Lots of little bites. Sliders and chicken satay.

The highlight of the evening was watching Steven Zacharius, the president of Kensington Publishing, welcome all the authors, agents, and publishing people attending. He was warm and genuine, and had I not been eating an entire trough of dessert at the time, I would have introduced myself.

Steven Zacharius, president of Kensington Publishing, thanks everyone for attending the Kensington reception at the Romance Writers of America conference in San Diego. Photo by DesertRosePhoto.com

Steven Zacharius, president of Kensington Publishing, thanks everyone for attending the Kensington reception at the Romance Writers of America conference in San Diego. Photo by DesertRosePhoto.com

The Kensington folks really do think of each other as family. One moment that touched me was when Steven Zacharius introduced his wife’s hair stylist, a huge romance fan. Like I said, family. In fact, in the picture at left I think he is introducing the stylist now. I didn’t catch her name, but it was clear to me that this family-owned and independent publishing company values their relationships with others. I appreciate that thoughtfulness and sense of community.

 

Yum

Yum

And I’m serious about the dessert. I almost shoveled some extra cheesecake into my purse to take back to the hotel.

My first Kensington event was successful. I’m rather shy and don’t say much at cocktail parties like this one, but I immediately felt comfortable with the authors and Kensington representatives. Mostly, though, I was grateful that I had entered publishing with a company that puts relationships and writing first. I didn’t know much about Kensington when I signed with the company, and I’m fortunate to discover that their values align with mine.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Visiting Raymond Chandler

I don’t hang out at all cemeteries, but since my “jam” (idiom courtesy of my nephew) is historical mystery, I must pay respects to Raymond Chandler whenever I am in San Diego. He’s buried at Mt. Hope Cemetery, by a little bush. The bush is all I remembered last weekend, when my sister and I drove to San Diego to attend a Kensington author reception held during the Romance Writers of America conference. We were entering San Diego anyway, and I remembered the bush, so off we went.

Here is what I discovered: first, no freeway entering San Diego moves fast enough to get you to Mt. Hope before it closes at 4pm. It’s simply not possible, even on a weekday. If you’re on I5, you’re interminably stuck at La Jolla. That’s okay, because Chandler lived in La Jolla for the last few years before his death. You’ll have time on the freeway to think about him living in such a beautiful and expensive seaside town (although, sadly, I doubt that he took comfort in La Jolla’s beauty. His wife’s death plunged him into years of emotional extremes), and you can imagine yourself living in La Jolla, as well. I know I fantasized about it as we sat in traffic. I could do some badass snorkeling there.

We arrived at Mt. Hope at ten to four. A white groundskeeping truck drove the, well, grounds, closing the place down. The office was locked, but two cemetery workers were kind enough to show us the grave and let us have a few moments. I got the sense that others before us had slogged through the freeways only to arrive at closing time.

The bush has grown

The bush has grown

And the bush has grown. I guess it had been a few years since my last visit. I also was surprised and delighted to see that Chandler is no longer alone. His beloved wife Cissy’s ashes have been moved at last to Chandler’s gravesite, and a new headstone rests below the original stone.

I don’t know if Cissy’s presence there gives Chandler’s spirit peace (I like to think it has), but their new headstone did calm me after the frustrating freeway experience.

The original marker

The original marker

 

 

Raymond Chandler’s writing has helped me become a stronger writer. His novel (and my favorite Philip Marlowe story) The Long Goodbye is groundbreaking, and a couple of years ago I made a list of all the Chandleresque writing techniques I distinguished in that novel. There were quite a few. One obvious one, his narrator’s celebrated voice, I did not need to list. But look at how Chandler uses dialogue:

The new marker, underneath the original

The new marker, underneath the original. The quotation “Dead men are heavier than broken hearts” is taken from Chandler’s first novel, The Big Sleep.

honed, deliberate, and deliberately surprising. Throw-away characters like taxi drivers or doormen, the characters we don’t notice except for their moving the plot’s action from one place to another, are given depth and intelligence in just a few words. I love that stuff. To really get a sense of Chandler’s level of craft, read “The Simple Art of Murder” and notice Chandler’s voice as he’s writing a critical essay. It sounds like a critical essay, and his British education is evident in his syntax and vocabulary. Then look at any page in The Little Sister–go ahead, open the book to any pageto see the dramatic difference between Chandler’s voice and his narrator’s voice.

The bush, the grave, the sister

The bush, the grave, the sister showing remarkable fortitude after a three hour freeway trip that should have taken two

The “hard-boiled detective” has become so familiar it’s almost a joke to some, and I’ve talked to writers who disparage narrators like Marlowe or Hammett’s Sam Spade as caricatures rather than characters. Not so for me. Marlowe is real and lives somewhere in the imaginative landscape (although I’m pretty sure he doesn’t live in my fantasy of La Jolla).

A heartfelt tribute to Chandler’s craft can be found at the thrillingdetective website.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Visiting Billy Wilder

Guess which clean crypt is Marilyn's.

Guess which clean crypt is Marilyn’s

The most visited grave at Pierce Brothers Westwood Village Memorial Park undoubtedly is Marilyn Monroe’s. I have empirical proof: her crypt face has to be cleaned regularly because of the lipstick build-up. Fans like to leave their lip marks smack on the stone.

Marilyn Monroe was the reason for our visit to the cemetery three weeks ago. My sister, who lives in Oregon, was visiting me in Southern California, and she is writing a novel concerning Marilyn, so off to the cemetery we went. A pilgrimage of sorts. A trip to post-modern Canterbury, via the 405 freeway.

Lipstick on Marilyn Monroe's crypt

Lipstick on Marilyn Monroe’s crypt

I visit this cemetery once or so a year. I have a faulty analogy that explains my need to go: many years ago in a college Shakespeare class my prof told us gullible students that every educated man should read Hamlet once a year. I did that for several years–read Hamlet, dutifully, yearly. Then I realized hey, I’m not a man, and I felt freed from the obligation.

Visiting Marilyn’s grave is like that. I feel called to pay respects about once a year, more if an anniversary occurs that makes the trip extra meaningful. The 50-year anniversary of her death, for example, where we met many other pilgrims, including several who had come from out of the country (Germany, France, the Netherlands) to be there on the anniversary date. Also several drag impersonators, always a pleasure. Years ago my dad and I visited on Marilyn’s death anniversary, and were delighted to meet a woman and her cat. The cat was Marilyn incarnate, at least that’s what the woman said. The cat didn’t say anything.

So in the world of cool cemeteries, this one is pretty high on the list. Not the best cemetery (that award is reserved for Paris’s Pere Lachaise), nor the most moving (to me, that must and always will be the American cemetery at Normandy), nor even the one with the most

Cats at Montmartre Cemetery, Paris

Cats hanging out at Montmartre Cemetery, Paris

feral cats (Paris’s Montmartre cemetery), but those cemeteries do not have Marilyn Monroe. They also are not tucked in an urban surrounding, accessed by a small alley between high-rise buildings.

When I first moved to Southern California, I gave myself a mini quest. I was to find Marilyn’s grave without resorting to books or other research. I had to go to one cemetery at a time, hunt for her, and then move on. You can imagine that this took a long time, but quests are like that. Along the way my best friend and I found many important graves, most notably Liberace’s (the headstone engraved with his signature and drawing of a piano) and Tyrone Power (where a friend and I sat on his memorial bench and had a terrific conversation about waxing our mustaches) and we finally determined that Marilyn was buried in Westwood, the area of L.A. that also includes UCLA and the FBI building. However, because the cemetery is hidden, and because I could not access outside research, I had a heck of a time finding it. One night after a raucous dinner at Westwood’s Olive Garden where many breadsticks were consumed, two friends and I set out on foot to search the buildings and find Marilyn.

We did finally find the cemetery, but by then it was 10:30pm and the gate was locked. So we tried to climb over. It’s so easy to climb fences in my imagination! Much tougher to do after twenty breadsticks and facing an alert security guard. We were able to peer over the fence, but that’s all. I’d wanted more fanfare for achieving the quest.

Paramount publicity photo of Billy Wilder, 1946. Photo courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library.

Paramount publicity photo of Billy Wilder, 1946. Photo courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library.

If you go, and I hope you do, because every educated woman should visit Marilyn Monroe once a year, please know that Marilyn may not fulfill your quest. If you are a writer or film director, someone else rests at that cemetery and he calls to you: Billy Wilder. Funny-looking and brilliant. Ephemeral.

His grave is at the opposite end of the cemetery from Marilyn, an easy and direct walk because this cemetery is about the size of one meatball in a large pot of spaghetti.

On Wilder’s side of the cemetery, some who now rest there have used their headstones to IMG_0768make their presence more real. Their headstones carry clever messages that delight me and give me a sense of their lives and legacies. Rodney Dangerfield, for example. No dates, no pithy verse on his headstone. There is only his name, and then at the bottom of the headstone, a message that could only have come from him: “There goes the neighborhood.”

Example number two: Merv Griffin’s headstone reflects who he was in life. In case you can’t read the IMG_0769message in the photo at right (taken with my phone), it says “I will not be right back after this message.”

Such fun. Who knew the dead had retained their senses of humor?

But the best, the most original and self-effacing and just generally the all-around best-ever headstone is Billy Wilder’s.

Billy Wilder's headstone at Pierce Westwood Memorial Park

Billy Wilder’s headstone at Pierce Westwood Memorial Park: “I’M A WRITER but then NOBODY’S PERFECT”

When I think that all my writing is crap to be scraped off the page, I go see Billy Wilder. I sit on the bench next to his grave, and I talk to him. This means a time investment for me, because it takes an entire afternoon to drive to Westwood (on the northern edge of Los Angeles, bordering Sunset Boulevard and Bel Air), hang with Billy, and then sit in 405 traffic on the way home.

Entirely worth it. Sitting with Billy is a gift, every time. I guess if I had family members buried in SoCal I’d visit them, instead. But most of my family are in Oregon, dead and living, and the one Oregon grave I would sit by is 17 hours too far for an afternoon drive. I sit by Billy.

And so it was three weeks ago. My sister sat with Marilyn, I sat with Billy, and my other sister roamed the cemetery tracking Frank Zappa’s unmarked grave. Pierce Westwood Memorial has something for everyone.

If you are interested in checking out the other notables buried at Pierce Westwood, I recommend the following website: http://seeing-stars.com/Buried2/PierceBros.shtml. No, I did not use this site to find Marilyn’s grave. Even if the internet had been available in 1992, that would have been against the self-imposed rules of my quest.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Visiting The Millennium Biltmore

The Millennium Biltmore’s website

What a terrific focus for a first real post: The Biltmore. Last Tuesday two of my sisters and I went on a research trip to Los Angeles. This isn’t as complex as it sounds; it means getting in the car and driving the freeway for maybe 40 minutes, depending upon traffic. Of course, traffic can mean a great deal in terms of time on LA freeways, but the drive there wasn’t bad. Plus I wore my “I Voted” sticker prominently on my shirt, and I felt completely patriotic and ready to dive into LA history.

We did make a couple of stops before the hotel, but I’ll save those for other posts. I also had to park underneath the crappy Pershing Square, but I’ll have to save that rant for another post, as well. Much to say about historic Pershing Square and what it’s become.

For now, I’ll stick to the Biltmore. It’s a stunning hotel, built in 1923 (according to the information the friendly concierge gave me), and worth stopping by if ever you’re in the historic core of downtown Los Angeles. In fact, it’s worth going downtown just to go to the Biltmore. The photos below are from my sister’s cell phone, and taken either by her or by me.

IMG_4140

Please ignore the yellow disaster across the street from the Biltmore. That is what has happened to  the formerly beautiful Pershing Square. But I digress.

The Biltmore. You may know this hotel for its place in LA noir history as the last place Elizabeth Short, the 1947 murder victim known as the Black Dahlia, was seen alive in public. Apparently she was dropped off at the Biltmore by suspect Red Manley, who had driven her from San Diego to Los Angeles. She had told him she was meeting her sister at the Biltmore, but that wasn’t true. She went into the hotel, made a phone call, and left. Five days later, her bisected body was found near 39th and Norton Avenue. She would have stepped into this room, at that point the lobby of the hotel:

IMG_6374

Here is the same room, photographed from the opposite end:

IMG_3336

The few times I’ve been in the Biltmore I’ve thought about Elizabeth Short and the horror she must have lived through. I did so this time as well, even though I had research reasons to visit the hotel. One scene in my current writing project is set in the hotel. We had time, though, to soak up its beautiful details.

IMG_4171

Here is the galleria hallway, the main artery through the hotel’s ground floor. It’s a stunning run of corbeled plaster. In the middle medallion are handpainted mythological figures. More figured painting covers the ceiling of the Crystal Ballroom. All the chandeliers, in the galleria and elsewhere, are original to the Biltmore.

In my current writing project a character has to enter the hotel in some sneaky way and then go to the Crystal Ballroom. I could have found far more beautiful pictures of the Biltmore’s ceilings and rooms online, but what I couldn’t really “get” was where the service entrance and kitchen entrances were, and where those entrances were located in 1934. Google Earth just wasn’t doing it for me. That’s what’s so great about living close to where I’m writing about. I can experience the hotel (in this instance it’s a hotel) from more than photographs.

IMG_4160The Biltmore is the site of early Academy Award dinners, and a few hallways and rooms hold pictures of those events. Here is one from 1937. I love this photo for its recognition of an important event: everyone in the room looks one direction, knowing the photo is being taken. I have seen other historic photos where the crowd acknowledges that a photo is being taken, but I haven’t seen any contemporary photos that do the same thing. I’m sure they exist, somewhere, but the ability to hold the attention of an entire banquet space while one photo is taken seems a talent lost with black and white photography. I’m digressing again, aren’t I? Try this, then: the key to all those people in the photo.

Henry Fonda is one more reason to love this photo. That’s him at the very bottom, right IMG_4165side, looking over his shoulder at the camera. 1937 was the year Henry Fonda made the Fritz Lang picture You Only Live Once. I admit, I haven’t seen this picture yet. I just like knowing what he was working on the year of this awards ceremony.

The photo above was taken in the basement of the Biltmore, in a large room called the Biltmore Bowl. I don’t have a picture of the Biltmore Bowl because it’s changed significantly since its reconstruction after a fire years ago. However, it has a significant place in LA history other than its Academy Award banquets. During the Depression the Biltmore Bowl was a nightclub featuring the top orchestras of the day. The information the Biltmore concierge gave me said that cover was $5, and included a bottle of French champagne. That’s pretty pricey, considering that in 1940 you could get into the Hollywood Palladium and see Tommy Dorsey and Frank Sinatra for a buck and a half. It sounds like the Biltmore Bowl was certainly not for the many workers in LA. I’d be remiss, also, if I didn’t mention that in Pershing Square, the dreadful Pershing Square, many poor and homeless would pitch tents and use the park as a place to spend the night. This included families. Across the street, in the Biltmore Bowl, you could dance to Spike Jones and toast with champagne. The dichotomy is appalling.

IMG_4176

The Biltmore’s Crystal Ballroom on the ground floor is stunning. From photos posted elsewhere in the hotel I know that the balconies held tables, perhaps the forerunner of nightclub VIP sections today. The ballroom’s ceiling continues the mythological paintings of the hallways.

I did get my research questions answered, and more. From the concierge I found out  a secret about the Biltmore that will definitely play a part in the scene I’m currently writing. I’ll leave that secret to be discovered when the book is published, probably in summer, 2018.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment