City of Dreadful Joy: Random Ponderings on the Paradoxical Mechanics of a City in Search of Self.

Confession: I love Los Angeles. It’s not my favorite city in the world– that crown rests in the heart of my old home across the Pond– but I’ve pretty much reconciled to the fact that I do love Los Angeles.

Problem is, I hate L.A.

Yes. There is a difference.

For me, Los Angeles is the tangible city:  its sun kissed sloping hillsides and stretching curves of blue coast; its whimsical architecture that blends neoclassicism, deco and Moorish sensibilities with carefree abandon; the farm town framework disguised under a bustling metropolis; those knockabout formative years with the industry that would one day come to consume it ….  I love all of it.

Real Los Angeles - Angel's Fligh

However, a key factor in the definition of a city’s character is the people who live in it. They are the ones who choose what to make of the tangible city, and what not to make of it. And modern Los Angeles has amassed a considerable part of its population that does not seem to be remotely interested in that tangible city– but rather, the image it projects.

A problem, because a city cannot be truly great unless its organic self is allowed to become a part of the flesh of the people who live there. Perhaps this great distinction is what leads many a visitor to Los Angeles to label it  ‘fake’ – the absence of the organic city as an inherit part of its people is perhaps both obvious and inexpressible and therefore described as, simply, a “feeling” one gets.

Fake L.A. - Plastic Fame

Perhaps, however, this is something that has more to do with Father Time than anything else. Los Angeles is, after all, just a toddler. (History Alert: restless readers are hereby forewarned and apologies sincerely offered for any gross factual inaccuracies… the title of this post, after all, is random ponderings…) Sure, Los Angeles has Spanish roots that reach as far back as the 16th Century, but it has only been an incorporated city since 1850. At 160 years old, Los Angeles therefore trails her East Coast counterparts in both experience and maturity by some two hundred years—and by her European counterparts, upwards of a millennium. By way of perspective: when her shores were first spied by Spanish explorer Juan Cabrillo in 1542 (which he rightly dubbed Baya de los Fumos– that smoke-like morning fog still a natural fixture) , his Spanish home had long been a formidable world presence, and was soon to battle her mortal enemy, the powerful, proud England, in the naval battle of the millennium.

The wilds of Baya de los Fumos was not to be officially recognized as a civilized township for some 300 years.

And even then, from the very beginning, Los Angeles was a North American curiosity. It should not have been a metropolis, this arid chaparral. And yet, America had fought for it. The  Mexican American War claimed California as its own, and with it the progressive reality of transcontinental railroads, the unsavory-but-necessary enterprise of irrigation, and the delicious reward of Oil.

Even so, this outpost of American civilization quite literally had to will itself into being– its purpose and place in the American tapestry very carefully curated by its boosters and backers. Well into the early 20th century, this city without a solid identity was being furiously fought for. The Los Angeles Times power players and the wealthy Maritime institutions fancied it a WASP wet-dream  … a delusion not to materialize (at least, not permanently) thanks to a vibrant, unstoppable ethnic population and a sleepy little farm town hamlet to the west called Hollywood. This pepper tree-lined enclave suddenly became the center of Los Angeles’ foremost export:

Motion Pictures.

Hollywood pre-1920 was a small-town USA community steeped in strict Conservative morals. Winding dirt roads and General Stores and church picnics with sweet lemonade and knitting bees. On the other side of the spectrum was the motion picture industry which had been birthed a million miles away, in the bowels of New York City and New Jersey, by immigrants– many of them Jewish. Los Angeles fought its newly forced upon identity as the entertainment center of the world, and even into the Sound-era, only Conservatives such as Cecil B DeMille were admitted into the city’s established circles.

The rest created their own.

It was from these Garden of Allah dens of devilish delight that the incoming thronging masses from the world over– Iowa to Istanbul– fabricated their own realities in a city of conflicted identity. The respectable Theodosia Goodman from Ohio became the vampiric Theda Bara and circus performer Archie Leach from Bristol became the debonair Cary Grant.

The city’s reputation was now beginning to precede it. Los Angeles was not the sleepy Spanish hamlet of Jacaranda and Pepper Trees; the wide-eyed Chicago of the Pacific with its Downtown sky-climbers; not even the Riviera of the West with its dramatic coastline so very similar to Cannes and Monte Carlo. Los Angeles was now synonymous with one word: showbiz. And Hollywood was its fated patron saint.

There is to this day, a very tangible dichotomy.  Those who emigrate here desperately, searching for the smoke-and-mirrors dream of a selective reality, and those who simply live here

Novelists from Raymond Chandler to F Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway belabored their frustrated romanticism of it.  Aldous Huxley’s observations were rather more acidic. He wrote of it in 1926: “Thought is barred in this City of Dreadful Joy, and conversation is unknown.” And, of course, there’s Woody Allen famous summation of the City: “I cannot live in a city where the only cultural advantage is making a right turn on a red light.”

Funny as hell. And true too– if you’re judging on appearances.

The dichotomy here is tangible and one can find truth absolutely in both sides. Those who emigrate here desperately, searching for the smoke-and-mirrors dream of a selective reality, conduct a conspicuous manner of ‘living the life plast-astic’ so loud that onlookers can’t help but assume ‘that’s all there is’.

But… it’s not.

You just gotta do a bit of digging.  The real Los Angeles belongs to boarded up crumbling black alleys, old Spanish estates, the foothill wilds and reaching Deco spires. Its a past that time has yet to blacken over completely. It’s still there, living and breathing and waiting to be discovered…

All you gotta do is know where to look.

Through the tireless, passionate efforts of nonprofits like The Los Angeles Conservancy, The Los Angeles Historic Theatre Foundation and the Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Commission, and their fight to protect and preserve, there is a bright hope that this tangible city will indeed remain just that.

Westwood Village in 1941 (via the Neat Stuff Blog)

The Bendix Sign today, Downtown LA. Copyright James Herman

Pershing Square, Downtown Los Angeles in 1965

The Vine Manor Hotel, at Vine and Yucca St. 1953

Sunbathers at The Hollywood Roosevelt, 1956 (via ElectroSpark)

Downtown's beautiful Eastern Building, today. Copyright A.C. Thamer

La Cienea Blvd at sunset during the 1950s

Towards the Pantages at Hollywood and Vine, 1962

Musso & Frank's Restuarant today, with its legendary bartender, Manny. Copyright Arturo Sotillo.

View of Hollywood Blvd and Hills from the Roosevelt, 1956 (via ElectroSpark)

The Tournament of Roses Parade – Through the Years

Mornings on the first of January are a cuddly affair of cocoa, coffee, cinnamon buns and Pasadena’s Tournament of Roses Parade. Or, at least, for that’s the way it is for Southern Californians. The parade itself is high camp, and network coverage is overinflated cornball… but boy if it doesn’t make me all warm and fuzzy inside.

These days we have everything from pyrotechnics to pop star solos. Yet another reason I long for the good old days when it was a bit more… grounded, shall we say. But having said that, in looking at the following collection of photos spanning the Parade’s history, from Day One the parade has held that whimsical flair that makes it so easy to cozy up to on a chilly January morning.


1906 Rose Parade - Queen Elsie Armitage and her Court


1923 Rose Queen, May MacAvoy


1933 Rose Parade - Queen Dorothy Edwards and her Court


1943 Rose Parade - Queen Mildred Miller and Court (isn't this the BEST?)


1946 Rose Parade (photo copyright O.W. Jogren)


1954 Rose Parade (photo copyright O.W. Sjogren_


1958 Tournament of Roses Parade (photo copyright O.W. Sjogren)


1966 Tournament of Roses Parade


The 1967 Tournamen tof Roses Parade Court



Pictorial Palette – Marilyn Monroe

There is a moment in the 1956 film Bus Stop that is a striking testament to the worth of Marilyn Monroe as a serious actress. It doesn’t last long–a few seconds at most–but like all great screen moments, it seeds itself into your subconscious, rendering it impossible to forget.

Having been relentlessly chased down and very literally kidnapped by an eye-rollingly over-the-top chest-thumping cowboy, the beautiful nightclub singer Cherie (that’s sher-ee, not cherry, and don’t you forget it!) has a quiet moment of respite at a bus stop diner. She’s tired. She’s confused. She’s fragile and, at any moment, could break completely. And as she rests her head on the counter, the director Joshua Logan pulls in for a close-up. Monroe’s face is ash-white and fills the frame completely. Her suitor appears, having (apparently) learned his lesson, and employs a change of tactic. We can hear his voice in the background, but all we can see is the haunting vacancy of Monroe’s beautiful face, filling every inch of the frame. He’s apologizing… he’s telling her that he’s in love…that he wants to marry her… that he needs her.

And the viewer is absolutely heartbroken. For it is all too obvious that those tears aren’t play-tears. This is Marilyn bearing her soul absolutely one-hundred-percent in a fashion that even so called ‘better actresses’ could never dream to duplicate.  We might be able to see the pain of another actresses performances… but with Marilyn, it is felt. Deeply.

I’ve always loved Marilyn– that lost, lonely soul whose divine beauty was both her making and her breaking. The quote about her in the brilliant new TCM documentary Moguls and Movie Stars summed it up succinctly: ‘We revere [celebrities]. Then we destroy them. Then we recreate them as saints.’

And it was easy for the press to pick on Marilyn. For the public to write her off as ‘nothing more’ than a pretty face. But moments like the finale of Bus Stop are a direct “F-You” to any such accusations.

You’ll notice, however, that the Pictorial palette for the week is NOT a still from Bus Stop, but rather 1959‘s The Prince and the Showgirl. Hardly a Bus Stop, but this particular frame (photographed by the inimitable Jack Cardiff) captures that emotional purity Marilyn so harrowingly displayed in the Bus Stop finale. (If anyone has a high quality image from Bus Stop, I’d love to see it!)

So here it is, the Pictorial Palette for the week. And a loving salute to one of the best: Marilyn Monroe.

Marilyn in The Prince and the Showgirl

and here’s the palette:


Previous Pictorial Palette’s include:

Grace Kelly


Judy Garland

Rita Hayworth


Hollywood Blvd … Then and Now

So it was a little over 80 years ago (like, 80 years, one month and a couple hours) that Howard Hughes’ wartime epic Hell’s Angels premiered to a thronging crowd at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. (It also catapulted Jean Harlow to stardom, but that’s another post.) The glittering premier was the grandest such event Hollywood had ever seen, up to that time. Hollywood was about to enter its prime, its legendary golden age, and the precipice it stood upon that glowing neon night in 1930 is powerfully obvious in the following archival footage:

(The archival footage from this re-release trailer of the comes courtesy of Twitter’s LA History group.)

So indelible are those images of the Boulevard that it rather of got me thinking about the inescapable fact that the infamous Boulevard of Broken Dreams as a part of this city’s living history and its truly fascinating metamorphosis over the decades.

From the quiet, pepper tree-lined Prospect Avenue of turn-of-the-century farm town Hollywood to the glittering, glamorous ground-zero of all things Tinseltown, to  a bitter and moth-eaten has-been, to a sleazy sex-shop porn-o-vard, to its current mutation of squeaky clean, sterile shopping centers and panhandling superheroes …. Hollywood Blvd is like the cockroach that refuses to die.

Or perhaps, more appropriately, a true survivor that refuses to throw in the towel.

Prospect Avenue (soon to be Hollywood Boulevard) c. 1905

Hollywood Blvd from the top of Lookout Mountain, c. 1919

The Hells Angels premiere on Hollywood Blvd, 1930

Christmastime, mid 1940s

Hollywood and Vine, 1947

Hollywood Blvd. in 1955

Hollywood and Highland in the 1950s

Hollywood at Cahuenga in 1956

Hollywood Blvd. in 1965

The Chinese Theatre in 1977

On the Blvd circa 1980

Favorite Website of the Week: Sepia Town

Forget the Flux Capacitor—Time Travel is HERE. Well… virtually. SepiaTown is an ingenious new service that allows users to upload and map historical images from any given place or period.  (Think of it as a GoogleMap Street View with a Then and Now function!)

We heart SepiaTown and want to live there. Permanently.  Starting now.

Visit the site and subscribe to their blog and you will too. This is a social experiment that could yield untold historical insights, but it needs your support!

So get mapping!

Out of the Vaults: Lois Moran

Lois Moran was, briefly, an actress in silent films. But she is better known for the literary character she inspired: the vivacious red-headed starlet Rosemary Hoyt in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1934 novel Tender is the Night. Fitzgerald became enamored with Moran, whom he called the most ‘beautiful girl in Hollywood,’ and carried on an intense affair with her. Fitzgerald’s own wife, Zelda, had been in and out of sanitoriums for the better part of 4 years by the time the book was published, and the aching lust that protagonist Dick Diver has for the scintillating Rosemary, is textbook sublimation.

Judging from these sultry George Hurrell shots, it isn’t hard to see why.

Lois Moran: 1909 - 1990

by George Hurrell, 1931

Albert Kahn's Experimental Color Photography

Our earlier posting of early 20th century color photography in Russia generated quite a lot of interest, so we’re following up with a look at the work of French-Jewish photographer Albert Kahn.  The excellent photo blog Citynoise posted a collection of Kahn’s experimental color photography from the early 1900s, for which he used a process called “autochrome”—a technology generally acknowledged to be the first industrial process for color photography. According to citynoise, autocrhome consists of “fine layers of microscopic grains of potato starch, dyed either red-orange, green or violet blue, combined with black carbon particles, and spread over a glass plate where it is combined with a black and white photographic emulsion.”

The colors are not as rich or vivid as the Russian chemist Sergei Prokudin-Gorskii was, but the subject matter is every bit as arresting.  Kahn’s collection was called “An Archive of the Planet” and through his lenses we see everything from world war one trenches to Vietnamese harems … in color.