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THE GRAND DADDY OF THEM ALL

Rose_Bowl,_panorama This last January, on New Year’s Day, I turned on my television set and watched the Pasadena Rose Parade and the Rose Bowl Game, as I have been doing, I recently realized, for more than half a century. For me, as for millions of others who have watched or attended the game and the parade over the decades, this New Year’s Day ritual is part of my identity and the culture of my country. Like anything that is deep in one’s consciousness, watching the parade and the game is for me almost an unreflective act. It is simply part of who I am. In recent years, however, I have begun to sense how much the whole thing has been changing, and how much the changes reveal about American life. I first heard the words “Rose Bowl” in the early 1950s, around age eleven, when my family and I lived in Berkeley and my young friends and I made the trek, on Saturdays in the Fall, to the University of California campus, where the ticket takers at the football stadium let us into the games for free. Midst all the cheering and pageantry and exciting plays, there was always speculation whether Cal would “go to the Rose Bowl,” even though, in most years, the team did not.

Joe Kapp
Joe Kapp

But in 1959 Cal did make it to the Rose Bowl, led by their All-American quarterback Joe Kapp and their great coach Pete Elliott, who had installed a “Split T” offense that gave his talented players an advantage over teams that relied upon the less deceptive, traditional “T” offense or the brawny, simple-minded “Single Wing” formation. Pair_of_1950_Rose_Bowl_tickets This happened to be the season when, at age 15, with my best friend Steve, I had a job selling football programs before each game. When the news came that Cal would be going to the Rose Bowl, Steve and I learned that we were among the top sales boys and would be eligible to sell programs in Pasadena and would probably be able by this means to earn enough to pay for our travel, with free admission to the game guaranteed. Rose_Bowl_July_2007 When the time came, Steve and I took the Southern Pacific train down to Los Angeles where we stayed with friends of his family. From there we made our way via a combination of buses and old trolley cars to Pasadena, where we encountered an almost deserted Colorado Avenue and learned that we had arrived too late to see the Rose Parade. But we were early enough to arrive at the stadium well before the game, and to make a good profit as sales boys. The game itself was disappointing in some ways. We did get free admission, but had to sit in the aisles on the cement stairs because all the regular seats were for paying customers. The location of our seats was a long way from the field, the players looked like dots, and it was difficult to follow the action. The stadium itself felt very old, with its weathered, splintery timbers, and lighting that proved to be inadequate as twilight neared. Worst of all, Cal lost to Iowa. But the pageantry was unbeatable, and I still cherish the fact that I can say I once actually went to the Rose Bowl. The Rose Bowl game at that time was still frequently referred to as “the grand daddy of them all,” in honor of the fact that, having begun in 1902, it was the oldest bowl game. It was truly a national event. At the same time, it was an integral part of the identity of the state of California, an affirmation of pride in a vibrant region of the country. 1st-Rose-Bowl-game-1902 But things have changed over the years. Los Angeles no longer has its old trolley cars. The Southern Pacific railroad no longer exists, and the view cars you get on today’s AMTRAK are no rivals for the old Vista Dome that was proudly featured in every SP magazine ad. Today, if you make the journey to the Rose Bowl game, you are likely to fly or, thanks to much better highways and upscale motels, to drive. And today, in probably the biggest change of all, the Rose Bowl game occupies a much different place in national life. It is no longer a good-natured competition between two regions, the Pacific Coast Conference and the Big Ten of the Midwest. It is now a way station on the road to the National Championship. And the announcers for the game no longer project a feeling of being in people’s homes as part of a family gathering. Instead, the phrasing and accompanying toughness of voice is mostly about who has just “made the hit,” who is “dominant,” and who “is a contender for the pros.” The Rose Parade, likewise, is a more high-pressure event. The amounts spent by corporations to create prize-winning floats are enormous. The television announcers do little more than read from their briefing books. There are just as many plugs for TV network shows during the parade as there are actual commercial during the breaks.

Typical Rose Parade float
Typical Rose Parade float

Some things do remain the same, of course. There are smiling boys and girls in marching bands drawn from all around the world. The local community service clubs sponsor floats. There are the numerous, very happy queens and princesses and sub-princesses. The military bands play the rousing songs. The mounted horse formations strut their stuff in their ornate Spanish costumes. The floats, even today, continue to be made from all natural materials: seven thousand petunias, four thousand and twelve zinnias, six hundred begonias carefully intermixed with orchids to form a faithful representation of the solar system.

Rose Parade float, 1922
Rose Parade float, 1922

The Rose Bowl that I knew as a boy was by no means perfect. To take two examples: The press never talked about the fact that Cal’s star quarterback, Joe Kapp, was the product of a troubled childhood in a racially segregated community. By sanitizing his biography to make him into a mainstream American, the press diminished Kapp’s achievement. Nor was it disclosed, until a couple of years later, that Cal’s seemingly upright coach, Pete Elliott, had been breaking the rules with regard to players’ financial aid. But I do believe something has been lost over the years as the Rose Bowl has become like the world of professional football. Someday, I’m sure, a few decades from now, someone who is the age I am now will look back with nostalgia on the Rose Bowl of today. That will be OK, I suppose, as long as the petunias and the zinnias continue to be all-natural.

THE FIRST LIGHTWEIGHT

Some years ago, my wife and I were taking our high-school-age son on a tour of West Coast colleges where he might want to apply if he did not stay in the East. On one particular day the three of us were touring Stanford, which my wife and I both attended. Because our son had grown up in Massachusetts, his feelings toward Stanford were mixed. He knew in principle that it was intellectually first-rate, and he was swept away by the beauty, but he had doubts. At one point he said, “Dad, you know what they call Stanford back East: Ivy League Lite.” Most Californians have encountered a sentiment of this type. Even though, in most years, California ranks, all by itself, as the fifth or sixth largest economy in the world, there is a belief in many circles that such an achievement can’t be real. The state isn’t solid enough, outsiders contend. And there is no doubt that many Californians have an airy quality, even though they may achieve a great deal. You can see the pattern, for example, in politics, by comparing Jerry Brown and Chris Christie, Ronald Reagan and Henry Kissinger, Barbara Boxer and Barbara Mikulski, or Antonio Villaraigosa and Ted Cruz. It is easy to spot the Californians. The California Lightweight does exist. And the causes go all the way back to the origins of the state. The Gold Rush stimulated people to act quickly, with bursts of energy, and not to wait for details to be worked out. The benign climate created a habit of not believing in obstacles. The mystique of being in the Far West and the interaction of many cultures promoted feelings of vision and possibility. From the mid-nineteenth century onward, these elements combined to make California a place of rapid, substantial achievement. But they could also lead to success mixed with failure.

John_C_Frémont
John C. Fremont

One of the people who illustrates the pattern is John Charles Fremont (1813-1890), the man who was, in many ways, the founder of the state of California. He was a person of enormous talent and energy and vision. He saw opportunities and seized them. But he found it difficult to commit to just one project and moved, at times almost erratically, from one object of focus to another. Imagery sometimes interested him more than substance. He did not see great value in analyzing things to the second or third level. He could be sloppy about details, and for this reason he needed perceptive advisers. In his life story, one can see the California Lightweight, as a type, beginning to crystallize more than 150 years ago Fremont was born in Savannah, Georgia. In the 1830s he gained experience as a surveyor, working to map railway routes in South Carolina and on an Army survey in Appalachia related to the transfer of Cherokee lands. He was commissioned as a lieutenant in the U.S. Army in 1838 and served for five years in the Topographical Corps, working under the great scientist and explorer Joseph Nicolas Nicollet on mapping the upper Mississippi River and areas around the Missouri River. Fremont went with Nicollet to Washington DC to report on activities and build support for further explorations.

Fremont, at right, early in his career, posing with the famous scout Kit Carson
Fremont, at right, early in his career, posing with the famous scout Kit Carson

Here Fremont made powerful friends including Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri, a leading advocate of westward expansion. In 1841 Fremont and the Senator’s daughter Jessie were married. In 1842 Fremont led an expedition that followed the Oregon Trail to the Rockies. In 1843 he was a key member of a government expedition, ordered by Congress and facilitated by Senator Benton, to go further west and explore the Oregon country and gather information that would supplement the U.S. naval expedition already in progress on the upper Pacific coast of North America. After collecting information in Oregon, and in keeping with his romantic character and Senator Benton’s belief in the importance of American expansion, Fremont decided to take his expedition south. He journeyed to Nevada, where he named the Great Basin, Pyramid Lake and Carson River. In February 1844, he braved heavy snowfalls to cross the Sierra Nevada Mountains to visit John Sutter at his fort near Sacramento. Fremont concluded that Mexican rule over California was weak. He proceeded south through California and then with help from guides made his way to Bent’s Fort in Colorado, after which he returned to the east. Fremont’s wife Jessie was an excellent writer with an acute awareness of the value and means of publicity. With her considerable help Fremont described his travels in his Report of the Exploring Expedition to Oregon and North California (1845). The report was sponsored by the Senate to add to the nation’s fund of information about geology, plant life, and exact determinations of longitude and latitude in the West. But the report was written in a much more exciting style than most such documents and tapped into the nation’s intense enthusiasm for acquiring new territory; it spoke to the feeling of Manifest Destiny that was strong in the United States by that time.   The Senate was sufficiently excited by the report to publish 10,000 copies. Parts of the document were reprinted in many U.S. newspapers and it prompted many approving articles.

Illustration from one of the several books describing Fremont's explorations
Illustration from one of the several books describing Fremont’s explorations

Using public opinion as a catapult, Sen. Benton engineered another expedition to be led by his son-in-law (1845-1846). This time Fremont led an armed party of 60 through the central Rocky Mountains, the area of the Great Salt Lake, and part of the Sierras. Reaching Nevada in 1845, Fremont named the Humboldt River, honoring the great German scientist who, earlier in the century, had explored many areas of South America. In the winter of 1845 Fremont made a dramatic crossing of the Sierras. He proceeded on to Monterey during January-March 1846 and had extensive discussions there with the American Consul. The Mexicans were suspicious of Fremont’s intentions and ordered him out of their territory. In a gesture of defiance, Fremont raised the American flag at Gabilan (later named Fremont) Peak near Monterey and then went north to Klamath, Oregon. There he met with U.S. Army agents; it has been speculated that in Oregon he received a secret message from Sen. Benton advising him to act aggressively. In any case, Fremont then journeyed south again to Sutter’s Fort, raised a volunteer force of Americans, captured Sonoma in an operation dubbed the Bear Flag Revolt, and planned additional conquests.

First California Bear Flag
First California Bear Flag

At this time, in 1846, the U.S.-Mexican War began. Commodore Stockton commissioned Fremont as a Major and directed him to attack areas to the south. With a volunteer force Fremont skirmished against Mexican forces in and around San Diego and Santa Barbara. The Mexican Governor, Andres Pico, surrendered to Fremont at Cahuenga near Los Angeles.

Campo_de_Cahuenga
The Mexican-era building at Cahuenga, near modern-day Universal City in Los Angeles, where Pico surrendered to Fremont

Immediately thereafter Stockton named Fremont military governor of California. But Fremont soon came into conflict with General Stephen Kearny, who had been marching across the Southwest to California and had conflicting orders from Washington DC about organizing a government. After serving as governor from January 19 to March 1, Fremont was removed from the office by Kearny and charged with mutiny. At a court-martial in Washington DC he was found guilty. Although President Polk pardoned him he resigned from the army. There was some possibility that the court-martial proceedings would bring notoriety. But the press, predisposed to like Fremont, pronounced the proceedings boring and directed their attention to covering the conclusion of the Mexican War and the treaty with Mexico.   By now there were many articles in the newspapers praising Fremont’s achievements as an explorer. For example, the Southern Literary Messenger declared, “the name of Fremont is immortalized among the great travelers and explorers.” The press published exciting accounts of his exploits in California and voiced admiration for the flair which he showed during the proceedings in Washington DC. To take advantage of the attention, Fremont wrote a Geographical Memoir upon Upper California (1848), which concisely narrated the story of his expedition of 1845-46. And in 1848-49 Fremont led a private expedition to explore possible railroad routes to California. He happened to be in California when gold was discovered. The gold rush benefitted him greatly. Earlier, with help from friends in California, Fremont had purchased a large parcel of land in the Mariposa area west of Yosemite. When extensive deposits of gold were discovered there, Fremont became rich. Soon after California became a U.S. state in 1850, Fremont was named U.S. Senator for California, serving the short term of September 1850-March 1851. Thereafter he traveled to Europe. But in July 1853 newspapers reported excitedly that Fremont had returned from England with the best scientific and surveying instruments that money could buy and that his aim was to establish the superiority of a railroad line crossing the Rockies to California at around the thirty-eighth parallel. The expedition Fremont formed for this purpose lasted from 1853 to 1854 and had 22 members, including a daguerrotypist, making Fremont the first person ever to include an official photographer in an exploring party. Back in New York in 1854 after the expedition, Fremont published a long letter in the press enumerating the advantages of the route the expedition had mapped. Fremont planned to follow up with more publicity, but his attention was soon diverted when prominent newspaper publishers and professional political organizers urged him to run for the Presidency as the candidate for the new anti-slavery Republican Party in the campaign of 1856.

Map of Free and Slave States at the time of Fremont's Presidential campaign
Map of Free and Slave States at the time of Fremont’s Presidential campaign

Fremont was already in some ways a legendary figure by the time he was chosen to be the Republican candidate. The campaign accelerated the process, as Republican Party publicity projected an image of Fremont that was in some ways foreign to his conception of himself. The party all but ignored Fremont’s achievements as a scientific explorer and geographer and emphasized his image as “Pathfinder.” Fremont did not totally oppose use of this portrayal but it can be said that he lost control of it. Even his wife went along with the party strategy somewhat. With assistance from Jessie, John Bigelow quickly wrote a campaign biography priced at one dollar that enjoyed large sales. Charles Wentworth Upham also published a biography. Popular songs appeared. Horace Greeley and the New York Tribune circulated a biography of Fremont in pamphlet form. Large portraits of Fremont, lithographed in New York and priced at a dollar each, appeared in many cities at campaign offices and in shop windows. John Greenleaf Whittier composed a poem in tribute to Fremont, “The Path of the Sierras,” saying that Fremont could lead the nation into the Promised Land. In the North, women and members of the Protestant clergy declared their support for Fremont in large numbers. Nearly all of these supporters stayed with Fremont when various negative accusations directed at him by the opposition were making their way around the country. In California, dozens of “Bear Clubs” formed in support of Fremont, and some six or seven California newspapers defended him.

Election poster for Fremont
Election poster for Fremont

There were torchlight parades and mass meetings with speakers who resembled religious revivalists. The campaign dwelt upon slogans as much as issues. Fremont had accomplished an enormous amount as an explorer, a scientist and a military leader; and he had previously exploited press coverage. But he found the world of full-scale campaign politics bewildering. He was particularly adrift when forced to deal with smears directed at him during the campaign: for example, that he had made false claims about several key achievements, that he was secretly a Catholic, and that he was a drunkard. His party’s inability to squelch such attacks was one factor in his loss to Buchanan. Other factors included the strong anti-slavery position taken by the Republicans and the fact that a third candidate, Fillmore, drew votes. After losing the election Fremont returned to California and developed his Mariposa holdings. At the start of the Civil War, Lincoln put Fremont in charge of the Department of the West, with headquarters in St. Louis. While in that position Fremont made the mistake of unilaterally freeing the slaves of Missouri, which aroused great local anger and prompted Lincoln to condemn him publicly and reassign him to campaigns in Virginia, where he was defeated by Gen. Stonewall Jackson. After the Civil War Fremont engaged in several unsound business projects and lost both his Mariposa grant and his wealth. In 1864 there was interest in some circles of the Republican Party and the press in making Fremont the nominee to run for President instead of Lincoln. But this movement did not gain broad support, and thereafter Fremont was not a major subject of newspaper attention as a figure directly involved in political or military action. But he did get mention from time to time as news of his business difficulties surfaced. And there was extensive attention as a result of writings in which Jessie took the initiative and to which Fremont was a large contributor: numerous articles, essays and stories under Jessie’s name from 1875 to 1890, including children’s stories as well as magazine articles that were republished in book form as A Year of American Travel, about California and Panama during the Gold Rush period, Far West Sketches, dealing with life at Mariposa, and Souvenirs of My Time (1887). In 1886, inspired by the earlier appearance of Grant’s memoirs, Fremont wrote a long autobiographical work, the first volume of which was published in 1886 as Memoirs of My Life: A Retrospect of Fifty Years. But the first volume was a commercial failure and the second was never published.

Jessie Benton Fremont, 1876
Jessie Benton Fremont, 1876

Fremont served as territorial governor of Arizona in the years 1878-83 and joined in promotional schemes for several western railroad ventures. He was not much in the public eye except for the extensive reporting on his death in 1890 and the many tributes that appeared in print and elsewhere at that time. Jessie Benton Fremont spent her widowed years in Los Angeles and died there in 1892.

Jessie Benton Fremont at her home in Los Angeles, 1892
Jessie Benton Fremont at her home in Los Angeles, 1892

A strong case can be made that John Charles Fremont was the first California Lightweight. He virtually founded the state of California. He was a brave and skillful explorer. He was the first Presidential candidate of the Republican Party. He had vision and an eye for opportunity and he acted with intense energy whenever the main chance came his way. But the world was sometimes more complicated than he realized.

Postage stamp from the 1890s honoring Fremont
Postage stamp from the 1890s honoring Fremont

There are many biographies of Fremont. In my opinion, the best is Allan Nevins, Fremont: Pathmarker of the West (1928).

CALIFORNIA DESIGN

 

House in the Hollywood Hills

In 2011- 2012, a major exhibition entitled California Design, 1930–1965: “Living in a Modern Way,” was on view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where it attracted great attention and received high praise. Thereafter, in 2013-2014, it had a very successful tour in major cities throughout the United States, indicating that the subject resonated not only with Californians but also with other Americans who were interested in the great influence exerted by California’s visual culture in the mid-twentieth century and years following.

Through its large collection of objects and accompanying commentary, California Design showed how a number of ideas and motifs about daily life came together in California beginning in the 1930s, became highly popular in the state thereafter, and then in the 1950s and 1960s became integral to the entire United States and to a certain extent the world.

In the 1930s, as part of a great trans-Atlantic migration of European artists and intellectuals to many parts of the United States, a number of European designers and architects such as R. M. Schindler and Richard Neutra took up residence in California because of the creative potential they saw in working in a place that had a benevolent climate and an openness to innovation in pursuit of democratic values. They brought with them a familiarity with the Bauhaus movement and its emphasis on use of materials new to design such as glass and aluminum that could be assembled to express mass accessibility and commonality that transcended national and class barriers.

Already present in California at the time were other new ideas about architecture and design that had come from outside the state and also had the potential to spur regional innovation, including the popularity of bungalows in residential construction and the architectural creations of Frank Lloyd Wright with their fusions of motifs from the English Arts and Crafts Movement, East Asia and ancient Latin America.

All of these developments blended together in what soon came to be called “The California Look,” characterized by vibrant colors, simple elements, and a strong interest in domestic architecture that was characterized by rectangularity, drama, innovative perspectives, and use of glass walls to minimize the visual separation between indoors and outdoors.

Even in the economically difficult decade of the 1930s, there was a large mass market for design and architecture based on these ideas because so many people migrated to California seeking employment in industries such as oil, agriculture, and construction of retirement communities that were relatively insulated from national economic trends. The market grew even larger because of the great population shift to California stimulated by the defense-based economic upswing of the Second World War and then the Cold War from 1945 on.

Another influence upon architecture and design from the 1940s on was defense-related development of new materials such as plywood and fiberglass, and a greatly increased capacity to undertake rapid construction of entire residential areas using large-scale construction strategies refined during the 1940s.

In this environment, a new wave of visual pioneers appeared, integrating “The California Look” into an ever-widening range of venues.

In home design, the work of architects such as Richard Neutra, William Wurster, and Gregory Ain, and housing tract developers like Joseph Eichler became highly influential.

 

Eichler-designed home in Palo Alto
Eichler-designed home in Palo Alto

In furniture design, there were highly influential innovators such as the St. Louis-born Charles Eames who moved to Venice, California, and set up his headquarters there.

 

Eames wood chair
Eames wood chair.

There were also innovations in household objects.

Cookware made by the French company Le Creuset, in California design
Cookware made by the French company Le Creuset, in California design

The “California Look” soon made its way beyond home design into other areas of life. For example, one could see it in movie poster design.

Movie poster for Otto Preminger's film
Movie poster for Otto Preminger’s film

As early as the 1930s, one could find the California look in women’s swimsuit design that combined angularity and use of new fabrics.

The Hollywood star Esther Williams modeling one of the new swimsuit designs.
The Hollywood star Esther Williams modeling one of the new swimsuit designs.

In the 1960s the influence of California design began to diminish. By that time it was already part of the fabric of many aspects of American life. But it no longer spread rapidly. Its optimism and daring did not harmonize with the national doubts and tensions of a decade that endured the Kennedy assassination and the start of American involvement in Vietnam. The glut of new home construction in California, with each new real estate development seeming to be a copycat, watered-down version of California design, took away the mystique of originality. And the movement so popular from 1930 to 1965 also had to confront the growing popularity of Post-Modernism, with its revival of more ornate and historically-based visual motifs hearkening back to decades before the 1930s.

But decline of influence is not the same as disappearance. “The California Look” is not as conspicuous as it once was, but it is still powerfully present, and you run across it in the most interesting ways.

Eames chairs likely to be found in any cafeteria or airport lounge
Eames chairs likely to be found in any cafeteria or airport lounge

 

Eames lounge chair in a design still found in many homes and offices
Eames lounge chair in a design still found in many homes and offices

For more on The California Look, get a copy of the fascinating and beautiful book Living in A Modern Way: California Design, 1930-1965 (2011), co-published by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and MIT Press.

 

WALTER BACK THEN

 

We have all heard someone comment, “You know, I never thought that kid would grow up to be famous.”

Several of my relatives began saying that to me in the 1980s when they started to run across news reports about one of my childhood friends from the 1950s.

In 1951, when I was eight years old, my mother, my father, my younger sister and I took up temporary residence with my mother’s parents and their three sons at my grandparents’ new home in the Berkeley Hills. My father was a hospital corpsman in the Navy at the time. He was serving on a ship stationed in San Francisco Bay and was awaiting notification to proceed north to his new duty station at the Navy base in Bremerton, Washington, where all of us would be going when the word came.

View of San Francisco Bay from Berkeley Hills
View of San Francisco Bay from Berkeley Hills

The house in the Berkeley Hills where we were staying was only around a year old at the time. It was located on one of the highest promontories in the area, on a large lot that my grandfather had purchased simply by paying the delinquent property taxes. My grandfather was an armed teller for the Crocker Bank in San Francisco. He had gone into this line of work in 1945 after serving as a gunnery officer in the Second World War. He used his financial knowledge to find the vacant lot. His oldest son, a decorator at a department store in Oakland, designed the house. A licensed architect put in the final details and then worked with a local contractor to complete the construction. The style of the house was daring, like so much of the architecture in postwar California. It was single-story, very horizontal, with numerous large windows of plate glass, exterior walls that combined white stucco and panels of redwood, and an interior that seemed to create almost no barriers between the living spaces and the front and back yards. Most of the other houses in the neighborhood were nondescript structures built in the 1920s. My uncle’s design seemed almost intrusive by comparison, and in this sense a fitting metaphor for my family’s situation.

Typical homes in the Berkeley Hills
Typical homes in the Berkeley Hills

The house put all of us in touch with a class of people we might never have known if my grandparents had bought property elsewhere. Given the highly desirable views and the cost of property, Berkeley in its hilly areas was an upper middle class neighborhood — and in some areas a very rich neighborhood. My grandparents were only able to enter by buying at a bargain rate and doing much of the property improvement with their own hands.

And so they found themselves next to new types of acquaintances: corporate executives, attorneys, members of major San Francisco accounting firms, doctors and dentists, professors from the University of California, and retired admirals and generals. All were white. All had black maids and Japanese-American gardeners. Nearly all had college degrees. Into this environment, we came: My Scotch-Irish grandfather, who had left school at age 13 to become a Navy gunner, was a short, stocky, hard swearing, muscular man who had once been the wrestling champion of the Pacific Fleet (or so he said). My grandmother, from a Portuguese Catholic family in Hawaii, had been educated at a convent school for girls. She had an olive complexion, dark eyes and short, shiny black hair; she seemed almost Arabic in appearance. Her defining trait was a lighthearted, entrancing laugh that could cheer up an entire roomful of people. My oldest uncle, the department store decorator, never planned on college and never went; he was not only visually talented but also a gifted singer who, because he disliked show business people, turned down offers in New York City to join Fred Waring’s choir. The next oldest uncle loved to hunt and fish, drove a beer truck after leaving high school and then joined the Air Force during the Korean War, and was talented in mathematics. He went to college because his fiancee, a teacher, insisted. My youngest uncle was a talented gymnast who hated his studies in school but was handsome and an amazing dancer. He knew cars well enough to steal them and get in trouble with the law. Then, after graduating from high school, he married, entered the car business himself and eventually owned a dealership. And there was the eldest child, my mother, who eloped to Reno to marry my father but always remained close to her family.

Some of the neighbors didn’t like us. We were never invited to certain homes. Other neighbors were fascinated and liked the change from routine we provided. Next door, for example, there was an accountant who had grown up in a stuffy family. He dropped by often. He loved it the night my youngest uncle, by then a car salesman, arrived at one a.m. with three cars full of friends and hangers on from an Oakland nightclub, accompanied by a five-piece Cuban dance combo that played as they walked up the path in our front yard.

One of our upper middle class neighbors was the Alvarez family. Luis Alvarez, the father, was a famous scientist. He had pursued Physics at the University of Chicago during the years when Enrico Fermi was conducting the experiments that led to the world’s first controlled atomic chain reaction. In Chicago he married into a family as wealthy as his. In the 1930s he and his wife moved to Berkeley at the invitation of Ernest O. Lawrence. In the Second World War, Dr. and Mrs. Alvarez moved to Los Alamos and helped to make the Atomic Bomb. They had two children: a daughter, Jean, and a son, Walter. After the War, the family returned to Berkeley and moved into a house just down the street from the one my grandparents owned.

Water Alvarez, right, with his father Luis in 1961
Water Alvarez, right, with his father Luis in 1961

We might never have come into contact with the Alvarez family, so great were the class barriers, if I had not become friends with Walter. I was 8 years old at the time. He was 12. One day, I think it was while playing army man with several of the neighborhood kids in a vacant lot near our house, I met Walter. He found me refreshing. He was brighter than the other kids and he could see that I was, too. He enjoyed jokes and pranks just as I did. In his case, the proclivity had been passed on from his father, who used puns and absurd mechanical toys to relieve the mental and emotional strain of his intellectually demanding profession. Walter especially appreciated my ability to tell funny stories, which came easily thanks to a great fondness for conversation and wisecracks on both sides of the family. A free-flowing, communal feeling trailed along with me from my working class relatives. It gave Walter a release from the propriety of his own home.

At Walter’s house, life was heavy with civilization. There were Middle Eastern carpets on the floor, serious paintings on the walls, bookshelves in every room, and models of New England sailing ships in large glass cases at the top of the stairs near the bedrooms. The living room was dark and had just one small window that did little to take advantage of the view from the hills. For dinner, in the formal dining room, Walter had to put on a clean white shirt. Before the meal, however, he was required to sit at the family’s grand piano and do his daily practice. The first time I heard him, I was entranced by the beauty of the sound. I had never heard classical music before and I asked Walter what “tune” he was playing. He explained that it was one of Chopin’s Polonaises.

When Walter came to my family’s house, there was as much culture as at his, but it was untutored. My uncle Buddy, home from work, might be singing in the shower. My grandfather Harry, in a Hawaian sport shirt, might be telling lies about his experiences at sea. My mother, Flo, might be asking Walter what he liked about school, surprising him with the intelligence and perceptiveness of her questions.

The largest contrast between the two homes was the light. Walter envied the way the view of the entire Bay Area seemed to come right through our living room window, just as I envied his pedigree and social position and his parents’ formal education.

Walter and I spent most of our time together roaming the neighborhood. We did the kinds of things two smart aleck boys would do. One day, for example, we got some soap powder and used it as imitation white paint to put a sign on the concrete of the street with the words “Caution, Apes Crossing.” Most cars stopped. In the front yard of a house down the hill, where a pretentious couple lived, we constructed a sign made from orange crate wood and nailed it to a post. The sign read, “A former burlesque queen lives here.”

We directed our most inspired impudence at the house where the crabbiest family lived. It happened to be right next door to my grandparents’ house, which was important because our prank involved heavy lifting. My two older uncles often gave parties for large groups of friends. There was lots of gin, whiskey, and beer.   After the parties, the empty bottles and cans ended up in our backyard in cardboard boxes, where they remained until the family made the next drive to the city dump. One evening after dark, Walter and I carried all the liquor bottles to the front yard next door and spread them in the shrubbery and all over the lawn. Next morning, all day long and into evening, pedestrians stopped, and passing cars slowed, to register their amazement that any family could be so besotted. Walter and I had to clean up the yard and each lost an allowance. I sometimes wonder if, today, a prank such as ours might cause a homeowner to phone the police. Times were different back then.

1940s_bourbon_whiskey_bottles

The thing that Berkeley has always been best known for is its status as the home of the flagship campus of the University of California. That fact was hugely important in my life. I don’t recall when I learned the word “campus” or first saw one. My earliest exposure to all the elements of a campus — a zone, usually in a natural setting, where there were buildings and people devoted to advanced learning — occurred around that time at age 8 when I was living at my grandparents’ house. Walter asked me if I would like to “see where my dad works.” I said “sure, why not,” got permission from my parents, and rode with Walter and his father through a park-like area that was, I was told, “the Cal campus.” Then we made our way up a winding road, through a guard’s gates, to the Radiation Laboratory that sat on the top of the hill behind the rest of the university.

UC Berkeley campus, with Berkeley Hills in background and Radiation Laboratory at left
UC Berkeley campus, with Berkeley Hills in background and Radiation Laboratory at left

We toured several buildings. At the Cyclotron, I watched metal fly across the room, attracted by the powerful magnetism. In a long, low, shabby, wooden building nearby, Walter showed me a slender, metal structure that extended the length of the interior. It looked like a lumpy metal snake, or like an automobile crankcase. Walter’s father kicked it. “I built this,” he said matter of factly. I was unimpressed and wondered why Walter’s father wasn’t working on anything more exciting. Years later, I learned that I had been standing next to one of the components of the world’s first linear accelerator, and that the odd object was one of the inventions that earned Walter’s father a Nobel Prize.

The 27-inch cyclotron at UC Berkeley
The 27-inch cyclotron at UC Berkeley

After my family left the Berkeley Hills and moved to Bremerton, I lost touch with Walter and did not hear anything about him for many years afterwards. Then, in the early 1980s, when I was back on a visit to the Bay Area, one of my uncles handed me a local newspaper and said, “Say, didn’t you used to play with a kid named Walter Alvarez? Well, he’s in the headlines.”

From that first newspaper article, and others that followed in later months, I learned that, after high school in Berkeley, Walter had attended Carleton College in Minnesota, obtained his Ph.D. in Geology at Princeton, and eventually joined the faculty at UC Berkeley, where he and his father Luis had developed a revolutionary theory that, 66 million years ago, because of the impact of a giant asteroid or comet on planet earth, a mass extinction had eliminated 75% of all species, due to ejection of large amounts of rock debris into the atmosphere, cutting off most access to light, lowering temperatures, and fouling the atmosphere. The result was elimination of all non-avian dinosaurs, with only smaller mammals and birds surviving. Walter and his father had propounded their theory before the 1980s and attracted worldwide attention because of it. The theory appeared to be confirmed in the 1980s by discovery of the largest impact crater on the planet, in the subsurface of the Yucatan Peninsula, dating precisely from the time of the extinction. Then in 2010 an international panel of distinguished scientists upheld the Alvarez findings.

Walter and friends in Italy at the meeting of the Big History Society he formed to relate geology to human history
Walter (in beret) and friends in Italy at the meeting of the Big History Society he formed to relate geology to human history

I have not had any contact with Walter since the early 1950s. But from time to time I read about his many discoveries and honors, and I remember the pleasure of having him as a friend and I imagine myself drinking a toast to him, using whatever whiskey might have remained in the bottles we scattered on that neighbor’s lawn many years ago.

For a fascinating memoir about Walter and his family, get a copy of the book by Luis Alvarez, Alvarez: Adventures of a Physicist (1987).

Walter Alvarez at a campus-wide lecture convened in his honor at UC Berkeley
Walter Alvarez at a campus-wide lecture convened in his honor at UC Berkeley

 

 

THE CASE OF THE MULTIPLE MASONS

 

In 1965, during the first of my six years studying for a Ph.D. in History at Harvard, I lived in an on-campus residential complex that housed around 600 students. Perhaps one-third of them were at the Law School. I soon noticed that, each weekday evening from 5 to 6 pm, nearly all of the Law students were gathered in the residence hall common rooms to watch the mesmerizing trial lawyer Perry Mason on the small black and white television sets provided there. Then, a few minutes after 6, with Perry Mason’s courtroom legerdemain concluded, the law students proceeded, as in a herd, to the nearby cafeteria for dinner, animatedly discussing the just finished episode as they walked.

In conversations with those students, a large number admitted that Perry Mason was their reason for wanting to become attorneys. From a young age they had watched the TV show and they wanted to pursue careers inspired by his example.

This was the start of my own interest in Perry Mason. I didn’t want to be an attorney, but I was fascinated by the Perry Mason cultural phenomenon.

Erle Stanley Gardner
Erle Stanley Gardner

The creator of Perry Mason, Erle Stanley Gardner (1889-1970), was born in Malden, Massachusetts. At the time of his death he was the best-selling American author of the twentieth century. Gardner is best known for the Perry Mason stories, but he also wrote many other successful crime stories under pseudonyms such as A. A. Fair and Robert Parr, and travel essays about Baja California, a region that fascinated him.

Gardner’s father was a mining engineer who moved the family from place to place as jobs required. Gardner eventually landed in Palo Alto where he graduated high school in 1909. Gardner then enrolled in law study at Valparaiso University in Indiana but left after one month because of poor grades, caused in part by too great an interest in boxing. He moved back to California, got a job as a secretary at a law office in Oxnard, studied at night, passed the state bar exam in 1911, and married in 1912. He opened a law office in Merced in 1917, and then in 1921 joined a law firm in Ventura where he worked until 1933. In 1937 he moved to Temecula where he lived for the rest of his life.

All_Detective_Magazine_February_1934

Gardner liked trial work but was otherwise bored by law practice. In his spare time he wrote for the many pulp magazines of the era, such as Black Mask, Argosy, and Dime Detective, publishing his first story in 1927. In the early 1930s, Gardner wrote a series of six stories for Black Mask about a crusading defense attorney; these were probably the basis for the Perry Mason character. The first Perry Mason novel, The Case of the Velvet Claws, was published in 1933. The Mason series eventually ran to more than 80 novels and gained a very large international readership. Erle Stanley Gardner’s novels enjoyed sales of more than 100 million copies during his lifetime. Gardner wrote with amazing speed. In the early days he typed out his stories using two fingers. Later he dictated to a team of secretaries. He was, nevertheless, a careful author. He worked out every novel in longhand outline before starting to write.

Many authors, including Rex Stout, regarded the Perry Mason stories as hackwork. But some writers disagreed. For example, the English author Evelyn Waugh declared approvingly that Gardner was the best living American writer, and the famed detective story writer H. R. F. Keating thought very highly of Gardner’s work.

The character of Mason has undergone many changes over the years. Mason was hardboiled at first but in some later stories was softened by Gardner so that the novels could appear in serialized form in the family magazine The Saturday Evening Post.

Large modifications occurred when Perry Mason appeared in a series of Hollywood movies produced by Warner Brothers in the 1930s and 1940s. One distracting element was the almost total lack of awareness of a sense of place, noticeable in the first two films, The Case of the Howling Dog (1934) and The Case of the Curious Bride (1935) starring Warren William as Mason.

Warren_William_in_Goodbye_Again_trailer

Weak awareness of place was conspicuous as well in The Case of the Black Cat (1936) with Ricardo Cortez as Mason and in The Case of the Stuttering Bishop (1937) with Donald Woods as Mason. There is very little in the films to convey the fact that Mason operated in Los Angeles. Mason works out of a tall office building that is indeed in downtown Los Angeles, but feels more like an office building in 1920s Manhattan. When scenes shift to more suburban locations, the story feels incoherent, as if it is missing one of its major characters, namely the city of Los Angeles itself.

The films also stray from the novelistic emphasis upon the steadfastness of the Mason character. Warren William seems like a playboy and constantly flirts with his secretary Della Street, who is a girl Friday and good friend in the novels. In one of the films Mason even proposes marriage to Della. Ricardo Cortez coveys too much of an ethereal quality and relies too much on his haunting voice, making Mason overly mysterious and not at all solid or logical. Donald Woods as Mason is overly clerical, hard to distinguish from the bishop mentioned in his film’s title. Given such drawbacks, it is easy to see why Erle Stanley Gardner never liked the way Warner Brothers treated his creation.

The_Case_of_the_Stuttering_Bishop_poster

Perry Mason was the lead character in a very popular radio program, which ran from 1943 to 1955. Mason also appeared in a popular comic strip from 1950 to 1952. In both formats the character was generally faithful to Gardner’s original conception.

An old time radio, probably from the 1940s, with a Perry Mason paperback, probably from the early 1950s
An old time radio, probably from the 1940s, with a Perry Mason paperback, probably from the early 1950s

The TV series began in 1955 and continued to 1966. There have been reruns continually ever since, along with expansions into DVD and other formats. Raymond Burr originally auditioned for the role of District Attorney Hamilton Burger in the TV series, but Gardner persuaded producers to cast him as Mason. Burr had begun acting in the 1930s, appearing first in stage roles and then in films ranging from Biblical epics to film noir productions to science fiction offerings. Burr had the stocky body of a Turkish wrestler, haunting eyes, and a deep, resonant voice that could convey both compassion and menace. He also projected a quick, powerful mind. Fans loved him.

Raymond Burr as Perry Mason and Barbara Hale as Della Street
Raymond Burr as Perry Mason and Barbara Hale as Della Street

The TV series of the Burr years very much conveyed the sense of place that had sometimes been lost in earlier versions of the Mason stories. One knew that one was unmistakably in the Los Angeles of the late 1950s and early and mid-1960s. Mason’s cases take him to aircraft factories in the area, Hollywood-style mansions, the Navy base at nearby Long Beach, small businesses in the downtown area, local restaurants, and cabins and lakes in the southern Sierra Nevada Mountains that were known to be frequent weekend getaway spots for Los Angeles residents. In almost every episode there are establishing shots of the Los Angeles County Courthouse, where Mason works his courtroom magic and also sometimes visits his clients in jail. And Mason’s office is definitely in the Los Angeles of the era. We know this because of the view through his office window, which shows a skyline of new, boxy, steel and glass buildings of the kind being hastily constructed all over Southern California at that time. Nor should we forget the buxom women, the hunky men, and the sleek, long cars dripping with chrome that evoke Hollywood as it was back then.

Los Angeles County Courthouse
Los Angeles County Courthouse

After conclusion of the Burr-based Mason series in 1966, a TV revival, entitled The New Perry Mason, ran from 1973 to 1974, with Monte Markham as the title character. Markham conveyed intellectual penetration but lacked the stolidity that viewers had come to expect from Raymond Burr’s interpretation. His series did not last.

After his first stint in the Mason role, Burr began a new TV show, Ironside, in which he plays a wheelchair-bound detective based in San Francisco who mentors and directs a team of younger assistants. The series ran from 1967 to 1975 and was a hit worldwide.

Raymond Burr as Ironside
Raymond Burr as Ironside

After Ironside ended, and in response to continuing demand, a series of 26 made for TV movies, beginning with The Return of Perry Mason, and starring Burr in the title role, ran from 1985 until Burr’s death in 1993. For this series the locale was moved from Los Angeles to Denver to save on production costs. The Denver backdrop was scenic but added little to the atmosphere of the stories. Filming the show in color may also have been a problem. The black and white format of the original TV series had a Manichean feel that the Denver stories lacked. The series was successful mainly because of the legendary status by that time of both Burr and his co-star, Barbara Hale, who continued in her role as Della Street. Other major actors from the original TV show (William Talman as Hamilton Burger, Ray Collins as Lt. Tragg, and William Hopper as private detective Paul Drake) were by that time deceased.

The Perry Mason novels continue to sell well, and the TV shows are re-played around the world. I do not know if young law students still turn to Perry Mason as their career model. And yet, over the years, every time I have had dealings with an attorney, I have, in the manner of Perry Mason, had my suspicions.

 

A RAILWAY PUBLICIST

 

Charles Nordhoff (1830-1901) was born in Prussia and grew up in the United States where he became a prominent journalist. He traveled in Hawaii and throughout the U.S. and was a reporter for eastern newspapers. He was the author of, among other works, California for Health, Pleasure, and Residence (1872). The book is still widely read and in its time captured large audiences in the United States, England, and Canada, becoming the most influential of the many travel guides produced in the second half of the nineteenth century to persuade people to migrate to California. Nordhoff himself eventually settled in California, living for a time in Ojai and retiring in Coronado. His guidebook provides a fascinating look at California in the decades after the Gold Rush but before the transformations wrought by later developments like the coming of the oil industry and the entertainment industry.

Charles Nordhoff
Charles Nordhoff

            Nordhoff initially wrote California for Health, Pleasure, and Residence as a series of articles published in Harper’s Magazine, the New York Tribune and the New York Evening Post. In the Preface to the book, Nordhoff says that his purpose is to persuade Americans thinking of tourism or migration to turn from any thoughts they may have of going to Rome, the Alps, or Paris and “think also of their own country, and particularly of California, which has so many delights in store for the tourist, and so many attractions for the farmer or settler looking for a mild and healthful climate and a productive country.”

Major Western railway lines during Nordhoff's time
Major Western railway lines during Nordhoff’s time

Nordhoff does not volunteer the information that his writing has been done on commission for the Central Pacific Railroad. This unstated fact is perhaps the best way to resolve what otherwise seems to be a contradiction.

Roughly the first half of the book dwells upon the scenery a well-off tourist will encounter while making the journey from Chicago to San Francisco on board the new transcontinental railroad, opened in 1869, and the comfortable accommodations which are available. Most of the second half of the book, on the other hand, is addressed to Easterners who might be persuaded to consider moving west permanently, either as farmers or as residents of the growing number of health and retirement communities being established in the state, based on agriculture, particularly in the mild climate of Southern California, which was thought to have medicinal properties in according to nineteenth century assumptions about the value of sunlight.

The only large interest these two audiences would have had in common would have been willingness to use the railroad. A secondary feature of both audiences would have been their similar economic capacities. The tourists would have needed sufficient funds to pay for traveling in great comfort. The farmers, retirees and health-seekers would not have needed quite as much money to achieve their goals, as long as they had enough cash for a down payment and could borrow money, but they still would have needed significant means. Nordhoff was not addressing laborers heading west, even those who might travel in the low-cost sections of the trains.

In his first chapter, Nordhoff says, “Though California has been celebrated in books, newspapers, and magazines for more than twenty years, it is really almost as little known to the tourist…as it was to Swift,” who wrote, quoting Swift, that his mythical kingdom of Laputa was an “unknown tract of America westward of California.”

The typical New Yorker, Nordhoff claims, lives in a city “overridden by a semi-barbarous foreign population,” has to endure “incapable servants, private as well as public,” and must put up with “dirty streets, bad gas, beggars … improper conveyances” and “high taxes, theft, and all kinds of public wrong.” Such a person, Nordhoff argues, ought to consider moving west. “There are no dangers on the beaten track to California,” and at journey’s end in San Francisco the traveler will find elegant hotels and restaurants as fine as any in the East, along with well-maintained roads both in and outside the city, and inspiring sights nearby like Yosemite, the Great Salt Lake and the Sierra Nevada.

Without seeing such places, Nordhoff maintains, no American can “honestly say that he has seen his own country, or that he even has an intelligent idea of its greatness.” And the journey by rail from New York to San Francisco can be completed in a mere seven days. Fare: Chicago to San Francisco $118, plus $3 per day for sleeping car.

Nordhoff assumes that the traveler will avail himself of the fine accommodations available in the new Pullman cars, which make the journey to California comfortable not only for men traveling alone but also for families. Moving along at a comfortable twenty-two miles per hour, the trains offer fascinating views of the passing scene, fine dining, comfortable berths for sleeping, and “all the sedentary avocations and amusements of a parlor at home.”

Pullman car interior
Pullman car interior

Nordhoff’s lush description of the Pullman experience seems of a piece with the portrayals of the world outside the train that follow. These mark the start of the numerous invocations of the “railway sublime” – a category identified by later literary scholars — which are found throughout the book and which adapt older forms of romantic description of landscape to the experience of seeing everything from a train window. Nordhoff takes up such portrayals slightly west of the Mississippi: “And from the hour you leave Omaha, you will find every thing new, curious, and wonderful; the Plains, with their buffalo, antelope, and prairie-dogs; the mountains, which, as you approach Cheyenne, lift up their glorious snow-clad summit; the deep canyons and gorges which lead from Wasatch into Ogden, and whose grim scenery will seem to you, perhaps, to form a fit entrance to Salt Lake; the indescribable loveliness and beauty of the mountain range which shelter the Mormon capital; the extended, apparently sterile, but, as long-headed men begin to think, really fertile alkali and sage-grub plain; the snow-sheds which protect the Central Pacific as you ascend the Sierra; and, on the morning of the last day of your journey, the grand and exciting rush down the Sierra from Summit to Colfax, winding around Cape Horn and half a hundred more precipitous cliffs, down which you look out of the open ‘observation-car’ as you sweep from a height of 7000 feet to a level of 2500 in a ride of two hours and a half.”

Trestle on Central Pacific Railroad
Trestle on Central Pacific Railroad

Nordhoff adds: “A grander or more exhilarating ride than that from Summit to Colfax, on the Central Pacific Railroad, you can not find in the world. The scenery is various, novel and magnificent.” Similar evocations of the sublime appear throughout Nordhoff’s book. Many are well written, enjoyable and informative; and they do capture the truth that the landscape is awe-inspiring. But all the descriptions are marshaled to generate the single conclusion sought by the railways executives who have commissioned Nordhoff. He writes: “On the plains and in the mountains the railroad will have seemed to you the great fact. Man seems but an accessory; he appears to exist only that the road may be worked; and I never appreciated until I crossed the Plains the grand character of the old Romans as road-builders.” Further: “The ‘Great American Desert,’ which we school-boys a quarter of a century ago saw on the map of North America, has disappeared at the snort of the Iron Horse.” And: “One can not help but speculate upon what kind of men we Americans shall be when all these now desolate plains are filled; when cities shall be found where now only the lonely depot or the infrequent cabin stands…. No other nation has ever spread over so large a territory or so diversified a surface as ours.”

Nordhoff provides a long chapter voicing his admiration for the dynamic “railroad capitalists” who developed the “magnificent and daring” Central Pacific Railroad that takes the traveler to the end of his journey. He re-tells in heroic terms the by that time well-known story of a group of Sacramento merchants who not only opposed the pro-slavery Democratic Party of San Francisco to establish the Free-Soil Republican Party in California but then also managed the financing and construction of their half of the Transcontinental route, which Nordhoff calls “probably the greatest feat of railroad building on record.” Strategically he concludes his chapter with a description of the Central Pacific main offices in Sacramento, the headquarters of a company that “now employs more men than all the other manufacturers in California,” more than 7,000. He adds purposively that the headquarters building in Sacramento also happens to house “the most complete land-office in the United States — not excepting that at Washington.” From this building the Central Pacific markets the thousands of parcels of land given to it by the federal government as partial payment for constructing the Transcontinental Railroad.

Group portrait of a Central Pacific maintenance crew in Sacramento
Group portrait of a Central Pacific maintenance crew in Sacramento

More tour-related information follows. Nordhoff advises visitors to San Francisco to be sure to visit the Cliff House with its stunning views of the Pacific Ocean, a local animal park where one can see “a good collection of grizzly bears, and other wild beasts native to California,” Japanese shops, and Chinatown. He emphasizes that, both within San Francisco and throughout the Bay Area, there are well-maintained, “macadamized” toll roads built by energetic private operators who have not relied upon the “slow-moving Government.” He characterizes San Francisco as a very safe city and says that, even Chinatown, for all its strangeness, is “perfectly safe and orderly; and you need no protection, even for ladies and children, in going to the theatre or elsewhere”, although he does recommend, if visiting an opium den or touring the area late at night, that it is best to go with a policeman.

Cliff House, San Francisco, before 1907
Cliff House, San Francisco, before 1907

Nordhoff points out that excellent stagecoach service connects San Francisco to Yosemite, the Santa Cruz Mountains, Napa Valley with its vineyards, and even Stockton and Merced. And he praises the coastal steamer service that is the best means to reach Los Angeles, San Diego, and other parts of the south. He points out the varieties of beautiful and sometimes exotic plant life, including Live Oak trees, California poppies, flourishing rose bushes, palms, orange trees, and eucalyptus trees brought from Australia. He advises that water is plentiful in many areas, and that, where it is scarce, windmills and artesian wells can be used. In contrast to the east, there are “no malarious fevers, no musquitoes (sic), no poisonous reptiles.” He also mentions sights that the tourist should see on the return journey from California. For example, “Lake Tahoe, Donner Lake, and Virginia City, you should see on your way home.” And he includes long descriptions of the gold country of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, where one can see the large-scale, spectacular, hydraulic mining operations that have supplanted placer mining.

Dale Creek Bridge, California
Dale Creek Bridge, California

Around halfway through his book, Nordhoff shifts from addressing tourists to encouraging travellers to settle in California. Great expanses of cheap land are already available, he advises, and more will be cultivable thanks to the increasing adoption of irrigation in areas like the Sacramento, San Joaquin, Tulare and Kern valleys. Some of the land is still un-appropriated; here, one can “graze stock freely.” Additional lands can be purchased for reasonable prices at the land offices run by the government and the railroad. Under the terms of the federal Homestead Act, Nordhoff acknowledges, settlers can obtain up to eighty acres of land for free.

But, not surprisingly, Nordhoff emphasizes the potential of railroad lands. He claims, “the railroad land office in Sacramento has an organization so perfect that a farmer searching for land can obtain there, without delay, the most precise and detailed information, not only as to location, but as to quality and distance from the railroad and from settlements. Moreover, the titles are perfect, which is not always true of lands held under the old Spanish grants.” Nordhoff adds that the railroad companies will offer a purchaser five years’ credit. And, lest his point be lost, he writes that, for the man thinking of starting a farm, “A day or two in the Sacramento railroad land-office would give him more information about the disposable land in California than a more tedious and costly search among the three or four Government land-offices located at different points, and each concerned with only a part of the state.”

Nordhoff advises settlers to avoid purchases from developers of land colonies; the prices are too high. But he is enthusiastic about the strategy of settlers who already know each other banding together, buying adjoining areas of land, and developing everything cooperatively. He singles out Anaheim, settled by Germans in 1857, to which he devotes an entire chapter of his book, as an instructive and inspiring example. Here, he notes, some fifty families have settled and established a prosperous economy based on vineyards. Nordhoff says he hopes to see numerous additional colonies of the same type established elsewhere in the state through strategic purchase of railroad lands.

Display ads for Central Pacific Railroad
Display ads for Central Pacific Railroad

 

Reading California for Health, Pleasure, and Residence today, one can easily understand why, in his era, Charles Nordhoff was a popular, widely influential journalist, and why his guidebook is still worth reading. But his work is also a reminder of how much of the early writing about California was promotional in intent.

 

 

NAVY HOUSING, 1950

 

My father spent 20 years as a Hospital Corpsman in the U.S. Navy, beginning in 1942 when at age 19 he enlisted to serve in the Second World War until 1962 when he “retired,” and began a second, civilian career as a life insurance salesman. This meant that I had a military childhood. One feature of that way of growing up shared by all military children is the experience of living in military housing.  It is a bit like living in a parallel universe: a common experience for those within the bubble, but often exotic to those who grow up in other ways. My time living near the Naval Air Station in Alameda, California, many years ago was an interesting example of the process.

Alameda Naval Air Station, in its years as an active base, runways and service buildings in foreground
Alameda Naval Air Station, in its years as an active base, runways and service buildings in foreground
NAS in the 1990s after decommissioning, but with clearer view of tree-lined housing area for personnel at upper right
NAS in the 1990s after decommissioning, but with clearer view of tree-lined housing area for personnel at upper right

In 1950, I went, at age 6, with my mother and father and my sister, age 3, to a Navy housing project that was very close to the Air Station where my father was assigned. We had an apartment, on a cul de sac called Ammen Court – probably named after some war hero — that was one half of a single story bungalow. There were three bedrooms. For the first time in my life, my sister and I both had our own rooms. In mine, I could spread out my toys, have my own bureau for clothes, and even collect things like the bunch of rocks I kept under my bed. The place also gave my parents more of a feeling of being settled, something that did not come easily to military people even five years after the Second World War and with the Cold War in progress. In a gesture of commitment, my father requisitioned tools and lumber from the Air Station and built a picket fence around the backyard. My parents bought me a fast running little cocker spaniel dog. Un-euphoniously, but appropriately for the era, I named him “Jet Propelled.”

We also got our first television set on which, like many others in America who were mesmerized by this fledgling medium, we watched endless hours of Roller Derby and all of the movies of Hopalong Cassidy. Hoppy’s black costume and white horse took on an extra degree of drama, and sometimes of menace, because people in those days were in the habit of watching television in darkened rooms.

Hoppy in color for a movie poster, with black and white image from the movie as it would have appeared on TV
Hoppy in color for a movie poster, with black and white image from the movie as it would have appeared on TV

My overall memory of that apartment is one of peace and settledness. I felt it when my father played the phonograph he bought and put in our living room. He had a large collection of 78 RPM recordings which I had never seen before and which he had begun accumulating in the late 1930s. They must have been in storage during the Second World War. It was logical that he would own the collection. He was a talented singer and guitarist. In high school, before the war, he and two friends — one man, one woman — formed a musical trio that won many talent contests. My father sang tenor. He had a clear, resonant, evocative voice. One of the records in his collection was his own rendition, which he sent to my mother during the war, of “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square.” He also played lots of songs by Bing Crosby, the Andrews Sisters, and the young Nat King Cole. Vocals predominated. We also listened to instrumentals by Frankie Carl and various Boogie Woogie artists.

The Andrews Sisters, here in a Second World War movie, but still wildly popular thereafter
The Andrews Sisters, here in a Second World War movie, but still wildly popular thereafter

I had a collection of my own. My parents bought me the recorded story of “Little Toot,” the boy tugboat in the harbor who mistakenly dragged several ships onto the shore, was ostracized, and then redeemed himself by bravely rescuing an ocean liner stranded in a storm at sea. I also remember listening, again and again and again, to the story of “Bozo the Clown” who journeyed from one country of the world to another in his rocket ship, landing in Holland and Russia and China just long enough to hear welcoming remarks in foreign accents and a joke from some local resident before zooming on to the next destination. Both albums included music and sound effects that moved the narration along. I can still hear, in my mind, the sounds of waves and wind and lightning as the Andrews Sisters sang “Wake Up, Little Toot” to make certain that he got out to sea in time to make his heroic rescue.

Bozo the Clown
Bozo the Clown

The neighborhood was full of children. I played Army Man, and Cowboys and Indians, with the boys my age. We liked to trade outfits and toy weapons. The kid who had the Hoppy guns, with the white handles and double, black leather holsters, would trade with the kid who had the Roy Rogers hat and neckerchief, or with me, the proud owner of a Red Ryder repeating rifle, or with the kid who had the Lone Ranger hat, mask, and belt with extra silver bullets.

Roy_Rogers_and_Trigger

Sometimes the girls joined in, taking the role of Roy’s wife Dale Evans, or perhaps a ranch woman needing to be rescued from scalp hunting savages. After we rescued the girls we made them our prisoners in the fort we created in the ground under one of the bungalows. Those were the rules of the era.

Living next to the Naval Air Station created interesting possibilities for play. The kids my age, and a few who were older and had more sense of strategy, sometimes got together at a cherry tree that was next to one of the storage areas of the base. After we got tired of climbing the tree, we went over to the cement drainage ditch that was next to it. There was no fence to keep children away, as there probably would be today. The channel was about four feet wide and usually had water in it, to a depth of about two feet. With a running start, we could jump the ditch. Then we crawled under an opening we had dug in the dirt under the chain link fence that separated the housing project from the base. The area was filled with wooden hangars and warehouses. They were seldom needed now that the War was over. Inside we discovered old fighter planes and bombers. Most had parts missing — a wing, a motor, a tail, sometimes all the landing wheels. There were lots of seaplanes. In and near the warehouses, there were thousands of spare parts for the planes, some in big packing crates on wooden pallets, some just strewn around. No adults ever seemed to be in the area. At will, we wandered from one building to another, sometimes playing hide and seek, sometimes just enjoying the adventure of being in a mysterious place and wondering what kind of war would have required so much junk. Our favorites of all the spare parts were the aluminum pontoons. They were stored in halves, not yet bolted and welded together, that looked like elongated eggshells bisected lengthwise. To lift each half of a pontoon required the coordinated, experienced muscle power of four children. We carried the halves back to the chain link fence, pushed them through our opening, and then paddled them along the drainage ditch with boards or our hands.

Wreck of a pontoon plane at NAS, 1947, with hangar in background
Wreck of a pontoon plane at NAS, 1947, with hangar in background

A popular activity for boys in the 1940s and 1950s was soap box derby racing. You and your buddies built a small motorless racing car, about four feet long, out of old packing crates and leftover wheels and hardware you scrounged up in your neighborhood. Or, if you were skilled at carpentry and perhaps got help from adults, you constructed your car in the sleek Art Deco style that had been popular since the 1930s. If you built a good car, a local merchant sponsored you as his entry in the annual race for your part of town. If your neighborhood was hilly, the cars simply got a push and then coasted to the finish line. If there were no hills, your friends pushed you the whole way. The winners of the derbies got prizes –things like U.S. Savings Bonds, tee shirts, movie passes, or a month of free ice cream cones at the local soda fountain.

Starting ramp for a soap  box derby race
Starting ramp for a soap box derby race

My friends and I decided to build a soapbox derby car. We were too young to enter an official race. For that you had to be at least ten years old.   But we thought it would be fun to build a car of our own and zoom it around. So few people on the base owned automobiles in those days that kids could play safely on residential streets. We got some tools from our parents and found various pieces of discarded wood. My mother let us take the wheels off the baby carriage she had used for my sister, who was by then three years old and no longer needed it. My friends and I sketched plans, sawed and pounded for a few days, and soon had a respectable looking race car complete with a roof over the driver’s head to protect against the rain, which, for who knows what reason, seemed important to us. Unfortunately, the active life of the car was very brief. The tragic flaw in our effort was that we did not understand weight. The wheels from the baby carriage were not strong enough to support the car. Even if they had been, we would not have enjoyed success. Our car had no axles. We didn’t comprehend the need for them. We simply attached the wheels from the baby carriage to the wooden floor of our car, using four large nails. When the first one of us climbed into the car, the rest of us pushed it forward, there was a slight buildup of speed and about ten yards of forward motion, and then the nails ripped from the wood and the car skidded to a stop like a platypus on sand.

That would have been the end of things, except for a happy coincidence. My mother’s three brothers, Franklin, Donald, and Buddy, who were all teenagers, had recently entered the soap box derby in nearby Albany, where they were living, and where there was a large hill that made the annual contest there very exciting. When my parents told them about my friends and me, my uncles generously gave me their racing car. It arrived by pickup truck and was truly beautiful –bright red, with sleeked, curved lines, strong axles and well-aligned wheels, and a responsive steering stick in the comfortable, padded driver’s cab.

A  sleek soap box derby racing car like the one my uncles gave me
A sleek soap box derby racing car like the one my uncles gave me

For the next several weeks, my friends and I pushed our new car all around the neighborhood, enjoying the excitement even after covering the same routes hundreds of times.  We might have gone on for a much longer time, had we not run into another area of ignorance. As part of the fantasy we were enjoying, one of us decided that, after so much time on the road, our car needed gas. We got a stick and poked a hole in the rear end. Only then did we learn that the vehicle was made of papier mache attached to a wooden frame. When we inserted the nozzle of our gas pump, which was a garden hose, and turned on the water, the papier mache began to decompose. Instead of stopping, however, we put in more water. The beautiful design of our car was soon marred. Without the sense of sleekness, racing around the neighborhood was no longer fun. We relegated the car to a corner of my backyard and, with apologies to my uncles, my father later took it to the dump.

One of the big events of the week during this time of my life was the “Saturday Matinee” at local movie theaters. Every weekend, my mother gave me a dime for admission, a nickel for popcorn, and another five cents to buy a soft drink. One of the theaters, the Alameda, showed the most current movies but required transportation by some generous parent with a car.

The Alameda Theatre
The Alameda Theatre

The other theatre, called the Rio, was located on Webster Street, half an hour’s walk away from our Navy housing.

Typical Victorian architecture on Webster Street
Typical Victorian architecture on Webster Street

My friends and I went in a group but were not accompanied by adults. Neighborhoods were safer in those days, or at least perceived to be so. The theatre, which held about three hundred people, was filled with kids from all over the city. We watched cowboy movies, pirate movies, The Three Stooges, and Abbott and Costello.

Abbott and Costello in a scene from one of their movies, with Carmen Miranda
Abbott and Costello in a scene from one of their movies, with Carmen Miranda

Actually, we did not so much watch the movie as attend it. We spent about half the time running back and forth between our seats and the lobby, where we stood in long lines to buy our refreshments and then spilled half of what we bought as we ran back to avoid missing any more of the story. Through most of the movie, we talked to each other loudly in the dark. The ushers didn’t seem to mind, as long as we didn’t get in fights or throw food. Then suddenly, as the hero of the day’s film seemed to be almost doomed, the whole theatre would become quiet, and, as the cavalry rode in, three hundred little boys and a few stray girls would cheer, stomp, and clap their hands in shared, loud joy.

And of course there were visits to the nearby air base. That was where we bought our groceries at the commissary, went with many others for holiday dinners served on stainless steel trays at the base dining hall, and enjoyed spectacles like the air shows offered from time to time and the dramatic takeoffs and landings of the trans-Pacific seaplanes that used the Air Station as their terminus.

Seaplane taking off from San Francisco Bay next to Naval Air Station
Seaplane taking off from San Francisco Bay next to Naval Air Station

On many of the trips to the base we visited my father at the medical dispensary that was his workplace. Sometimes the whole family visited, to let my father know we were always thinking of him and to learn more about his job. At times he also took me for the day by myself. I knew I didn’t want to be a medical corpsman, but I was fascinated by the dispensary: the shelves containing hundreds of bottles of medicine and more Band-Aids than I had ever dreamed could exist; the mysterious operating room where the staff performed emergency surgeries on pilots who had bad landings; the steam cabinets where the medics sterilized hypodermic needles and surgical equipment; and the nurses who shuffled silently past me in the hallways dressed in their starched, all white uniforms.

When I was around six and one half years old, my family’s period of living in the housing near the Naval Air Station came to an end. My father received orders to report for duty on a U.S. Navy ship that would be crossing the Pacific Ocean to participate in the Korean War. Without him there, my mother, my sister and I no longer were eligible to live in Navy housing, and so we moved to an apartment elsewhere in Alameda, a short bus ride from the Naval Supply Depot where my mother took a job as a secretary to supplement the family budget and make time move more quickly while we awaited my father’s return.

Douglas fighter plane next to runway at NAS
Douglas fighter plane next to runway at NAS

 

THE MAN WHO INVENTED THE SOUTHWEST

 

Charles Fletcher Lummis (1859-1928) grew up in Massachusetts and was educated at Harvard. He was part of a generation of easterners, like Owen Wister and Theodore Roosevelt, who found the late nineteenth century East to be constrictive in its traditions and overly urbanized, and who hoped to find liberation and renewal by going West. From a young age, Lummis showed an interest in journalism. He turned his talent into a job as a newspaperman in Ohio. Then in 1884, after persuading the Los Angeles Times to pay him for his account of the trip, he hiked from Ohio to Southern California, as if on a pilgrimage, completing the trek in 112 days. Impressed by his initiative, the Times gave Lummis a permanent position, and he soon became the city editor of the paper.

Charles_Fletcher_Lummis
Charles Fletcher Lummis

 

One of his early assignments at the Times was to travel to Arizona to cover the Apache revolt led by Geronimo. Lummis found that he was deeply affected by the color and spare beauty of the area. Lummis stayed briefly in New Mexico, at the hacienda of Don Manuel Antonio Chaves, where he was profoundly impressed by the dignity and chivalric manner of the family and their way of life, which seemed a highly civilized blend of Old Spanish and Indian cultures.

After returning to Los Angeles, Lummis suffered a paralytic stroke probably as a result of overwork and too much drink and a generally decadent life. Thinking that a change of scene would improve his health, Lummis returned to New Mexico in 1888 and lived with the Chaves family until 1892. While there Lummis met the son of Don Manuel, who had earned his law degree in Washington DC. He was an enlightening example for Lummis of the possibilities of combining values from the eastern United States with those of the Southwest.

Although Lummis suffered two more strokes while in New Mexico, he eventually regained his health and, in 1892, ever more fascinated by the exotic, he joined an archaeological expedition to Bolivia and Peru and then returned to California. When he returned to California, he was invited to serve as editor of a new magazine, Land of Sunshine, where he worked from 1895 to 1903 (the title changed to Out West in 1902). The magazine was owned and subsidized by the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce as an advertising vehicle to attract settlers and businesses to Southern California and to build local pride. Lummis seemed to the Chamber to possess just the combination of assets they were looking for: entrepreneurial spirit, local knowledge, eagerness to enhance the reputation of the area, journalistic skill, and sufficient interest in culture to persuade people that the region was not only beautiful as a landscape but also civilized.

Land_of_Sunshine_June_1899_cover
Cover for Land of Sunshine, with Borglum design

In addition to his work in journalism, Lummis served as librarian of the City of Los Angeles from 1905 to 1910, making it a center of free public education and literary gatherings. He also founded the Landmarks Club (1897) to preserve California’s missions and other historic sites. As an amateur ethnologist and a leader in efforts to defend the rights of Indians and to preserve Indian cultures, he helped found the Southwest Museum (1914), which collected, preserved, and publicized Indian relics and artifacts.

The staff of Land of Sunshine/Out West
The staff of Land of Sunshine/Out West

But the key source of his influence was journalism. In thousands of pages of articles for newspapers and magazines, and in several books, Lummis crystallized the American conception of “the Southwest.” In the 1880s, American cultural perceptions of Southern California and the even less settled areas directly east of it were superficial and un-synthesized. New Mexico and Arizona were thought of as water-starved, large, generally empty spaces still riven by frontier violence involving warlike Indians and outlaws, where the land was dotted with small settlements flavored by an exhausted Spanish and Mexican culture, and mining was the major economic attraction. Southern California was regarded as a mostly un-urbanized region with a growing population of retirees and health seekers, made quaintly picturesque by its orange trees, missions, and bungalows.

Lummis used his base of operations in journalism to give audiences a deeper appreciation of the Spanish heritage of the area, to see the complexity of the Spanish culture, with ideals that could be appreciated even if one was not Catholic, and its interplay between internal complexity and external sparseness. He asked audiences to see the value of the slow, measured pace that was part of Spanish culture and seemed to emerge from the landscape. He also invited readers to appreciate the spiritual achievements of Indian cultures and the wisdom of the Indians in forging a creative relationship with the land. Lummis hoped to achieve a synthesis of these values and the capitalistic habits Americans from the east brought with them to the west.

In his personal life Lummis did not completely achieve the synthesis he advocated. He always drank too much and he was a notorious womanizer. He had something of the frontier duelist in his character and nearly lost his life once as a result. And he was very theatrical. He asked friends to call him Don Carlos, dressed in a green corduroy suit, wore a Spanish sash and sombrero, sometimes added Navajo jewelry to his outfits, rolled his own cigarettes, flamboyantly told the folk tales and sang the songs of Old California and the Spanish borderlands, and built a large stone-and-adobe hacienda in northeast Los Angeles which he called El Alisal (The Sycamore), named after the grove of trees on the property.

Exterior view of El Alisal
Exterior view of El Alisal
Interior view of El Alisal
Interior view of El Alisal

Lummis made his estate a gathering place for those who were locally prominent, along with the occasional visitor from the east. One of the writers he sponsored was Mary Austin, author of the widely influential book The Land of Little Rain (1903) about her life on the desert near the San Joaquin Valley. Lummis saw Austin’s writings as a corrective to the phenomenal best-seller Ramona (1884), by Helen Hunt Jackson, the story of a tragic romance between a California Indian shepherd and his half-breed wife Ramona who live out their lives against the background of California mission culture and whose love affair is destroyed by greedy whites. Lummis viewed that novel as an example of a shallow approach to culture that he aimed to correct.

Mary Austin
Mary Austin

Another figure attracted to the Lummis circle was the painter and sculptor John Gutzon Borglum, who would later become famous as the creator of Mount Rushmore. In 1884, tired of the harsh life on the Great Plains in Nebraska, Borglum’s doctor father moved the family to Los Angeles. Lummis first met Borglum there when Borglum was a teenager apprenticed to a local lithographer. Recognizing artistic talent, Lummis persuaded a group of L. A. businessmen to support Borglum. Even after he went to Paris in 1890 to study, Borglum felt the strong influence of the West. When he returned to Southern California two years later, he helped Lummis build the audience for Land of Sunshine. Borglum wrote an article for the magazine, entitled “An Artist’s Paradise,” in which he called attention to the beauty of the setting and extolled its potential as an artistic center. Borglum also greatly improved the visual appeal of Land of Sunshine itself by giving it a new cover and logo, a mountain lion and a setting Southwestern sun.

Gutzon Borglum at The White House
Gutzon Borglum at The White House

Another example of the ways Lummis extended his influence through networks was his friendship with the illustrator Lafayette Maynard Dixon. Born in Fresno in 1885, into a southern family that had moved to San Francisco in 1846, Dixon grew up in comfortable circumstances and was already producing drawings of impressive quality at age 7. After art school Dixon pursued a variety of jobs in San Francisco as an illustrator for the Morning Call, William Randolph Hearst’s Examiner, and the Overland Monthly, working with a succession of writers that included Frank Norris, Ambrose Bierce, Jack London, Edwin Markham, and Kathleen Norris. By 1900 Dixon was able to support himself full-time as a freelance. In December 1898, thanks to an article by Lummis in Land of Sunshine, Dixon received his first public recognition from an influential critic. Thereafter the two were close friends. Dixon visited Lummis often and aided with the construction of El Alisal. Dixon and Lummis helped each other see the Southwest as a coherent whole. In 1900 Dixon took Lummis on a tour of the Southwest, using funds he had saved while working at the Examiner. Lummis, in turn, increased Dixon’s understanding of the Indians of the area, for example introducing Dixon to the headman of the Isleta pueblo and arranging for the two to remain there for several weeks. Dixon gave Lummis an added appreciation of the visual drama of the area, its color and intensity, and the potential of art to capture the nobility of the Indian and Spanish cultures. For Dixon the trip was an important step toward his life’s work as a celebrated and influential painter of the Southwest.

The most concentrated and disciplined writing that Lummis published appeared in his books, especially The Spanish Pioneers (1893). (He might have been able to enlarge his scholarly reputation if he had been able to complete and publish the Dictionary, Concordance, and Encyclopedia of Spain in America, 1492-1900, which would have run to ten or more volumes but was never finished.)

The accumulation of writings for Land of Sunshine/Out West, often produced in spurts, was the source of his greatest influence. To readers of the magazine, both in the Southwest and beyond, Lummis transmitted a variety of important ideas. In what Kevin Starr has called an anticipation of the “Sunbelt” theory of more recent times, Lummis argued that the center of cultural, social and economic influence in the United States would gradually move from the East to the Southwest, with Los Angeles as the capital of a region extending from the Pacific Coast to Texas. The unifying symbols of this region, Lummis argued, were the sun and the Spanish heritage. Acknowledging that too much sun and too few challenges from the environment could debilitate, Lummis nevertheless argued that the climate and topography of the region were ultimately generative. The motto of the magazine was “the lands of the sun expand the soul.” Lummis reminded readers that sunny regions had produced Homer, Socrates and Jesus. As for the Spanish influence, Lummis argued, it was as valid a part of U.S. colonial inheritance as the English way of life in the original thirteen colonies.

Photo from Land of Sunshine, showing a home  in Riverside to illustrate the Southwestern ideal
Photo from Land of Sunshine, showing a home in Riverside to illustrate the Southwestern ideal

Land of Sunshine was also influential as an exercise in economic boosterism. The magazine received enthusiastic support from Los Angeles business leaders like the development-oriented founder of the L.A. Times Harrison Gray Otis and the L. A. streetcar magnate Henry Edwards Huntington, as well as the anti-union members of the Los Angeles Merchants and Manufacturers Association. They provide a reminder that the journalism produced by Lummis, with its crystallization of the important cultural concept of “the Southwest,” was always a form of commercial advertising even though Lummis did so much to expand beyond that base.

(Biographical detail on Lummis is available in Mark Thompson, American Character: The Curious Life of Charles Fletcher Lummis and the Rediscovery of the Southwest (2001). Informative observations on the influence of Lummis over the years can be found in three classics by Kevin Starr: Americans and the California Dream, 1850-1915 (1973); Inventing the Dream: California through the Progressive Era (1985); and Material Dreams: Southern California through the 1920s (1990).

 

 

SAVING THE COUNTY

 

If today you drive around Monterey County, stopping, for example, in the urban areas of Salinas, Monterey, or King City, or in the vast agricultural areas that provide the United States with a significant portion of its lettuce, artichokes, radishes, wine, herbs, and other products, you will be impressed by the great care that has been taken to protect and publicize the area’s many historic sites and structures.

Mission_San_Antonio_de_Padua_modern
San Antonio Mission, Monterey County

The resources that have been saved and made part of the ongoing life of the county are numerous and mesmerizing: for example, several Spanish missions, hundreds of ranch buildings and farmhouses, small town collections of Victorian business buildings, Stone Age remnants of hunter-gatherers, the building where California’s constitution was drafted, Gatsby-like mansions near the Pebble Beach golf course, the house where John Steinbeck was raised, and the nineteenth-century building where Robert Louis Stevenson lived for a time when he visited California.

Stevenson_House_Monterey
Robert Louis Stevenson house, city of Monterey

As in all parts of the United States, there is a constant danger that such resources may be lost because of neglect or, more likely, demolition to make way for land development and new construction driven by short-term concepts of economic gain. But in Monterey County, at least, something like a balance has been achieved. Local residents and visitors appreciate the value of historic sites and structures, yet still make room for intelligent growth.

I take pleasure in knowing that I played a role, several generations ago, in achieving the present balance. My memories go back to the 1970s, when one could not at all say with certainty that Monterey County would be protecting its patrimony, and when historic preservation there was in the midst of a “quiet crisis,” to borrow a phrase the novelist Wallace Stegner coined at the time to describe America’s nationwide challenges in natural resources conservation.

Dutton Hotel, a nineteenth century stagecoach stop in the south of Monterey County, a preservation failure
Dutton Hotel, a nineteenth century stagecoach stop in the south of Monterey County, a preservation failure

In 1972 I was working as an assistant to the president of the community college that served the Salinas Valley. The college was under great budgetary pressures. In the early summer of 1972, the president decided he would partially meet the crisis by eliminating my job.

Through a string of fortunate coincidences, I was eventually able to find a new source of income. One day, a retired member of the college’s History faculty, Bob Johnston, asked me if I would like a job helping several groups, made up mostly of retired people like him, who were working to preserve the old homes and historic landscapes in Monterey County where they had grown up. The groups thought that I, as a historian who, more than most academics, enjoyed working with local organizations, and was as an experienced writer of grant proposals, might be able to help. I said I’d love to, but I didn’t know where the money would come from. Bob explained how it would be handled. “We will talk to the members of the Monterey County Board of Supervisors. We will simply tell them to create a consultant’s position for you.” They did.

 

Deteriorating buildings at Cannery Row, Monterey Bay
Deteriorating buildings at Cannery Row, Monterey Bay

That was my accidental introduction to the historic preservation movement, one of the streams of environmental consciousness that was beginning, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, to take on its own features within the larger river of awareness about ecology then developing in the United States.

A contract with the County soon materialized. I was supposed to inventory the good work that had already been done in some parts of the Country, for example in the excellent preservation efforts in the city of Monterey; fill out forms to nominate eligible sites and structures to the National Register of Historic Places, a federal listing that had been established in 1965 and that was gradually expanding throughout the United States; and visit a sampling of concerned groups and organizations to learn their views and mobilize public support. This would lead to a written plan of action for preserving resources, following precedents established by historic preservation efforts elsewhere in the United States, such as Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Williamsburg, Virginia.

Bob Johnston and his fellow senior citizens pointed out to me that all of these activities should have been set in motion many years before. They hoped that, now, they could catch up and rescue the county’s patrimony before it was obliterated.

Point Pinos Lighthouse, Pacific Grove
Point Pinos Lighthouse, Pacific Grove

In my car I wandered around the county to learn more about sites I had not yet visited. I talked with old timers – in their homes, in bars, at truck stops, at their farms. At local newspaper offices, I spent fascinating evenings going through old clippings and files. At home, tapping away on my portable Olympia typewriter (I knew nothing about computers in those days), I happily produced nominations to get sites listed on the National Register. Drawing on past experience as an intern in Washington DC, I compiled lists of funding sources and relevant regulations, and I gathered information about successful preservation efforts already in progress in places such as Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Williamsburg, Virginia.

The parts of the job involving public contact showed me the reasons why historic preservation had made some progress in years past, but still was not moving quickly. In one series of meetings, I worked with a group of wives of local growers who were determined to save from the wrecking ball the old house in Salinas where John Steinbeck had grown up. The women explained that their greatest obstacles were their own husbands, who maintained that the house ought to be demolished because they believed that Steinbeck, if still alive, would have sided with the migrant workers’ unions who were striking to obtain improved conditions at the time.

At the meetings of the Parks Commission, my challenge was the odd assortment of members, none with formal training in history or even a college education. Most of the commissioners were longtime community volunteers who knew a lot, in a concrete way, about outdoor recreation. One of the members, wealthy and garrulous, revealed his conception of history by using up all the time at one meeting to reminisce about the food he and he his wife had eaten while touring picturesque inns on a recent vacation in France. With people of this kind, I had to learn the trick of presenting the past in small chunks. I had to be respectful. But I had to present the intellectual aspects of history gradually, and disguise that I was doing so.

To move things along, I relied often on the Chair of the Commission, a charismatic, elderly woman named Elmarie Dyke. In the course of more than a half century of community organizing, she had accumulated a great deal of knowledge and developed a sense of the difference between big issues and little issues, and she was an attentive listener who loved to learn and knew how to ask penetrating questions. She had also lived a significant part of the history we were trying to preserve. I realized this once when I asked her to mail me something. She asked my address. I told her, and then asked, “Do you know where that street is?” She laughed and answered, “I not only know where it is; I named it.”

Bixby Creek Bridge on California's Big Sur.
Bixby Creek Bridge, on Highway 1, Big Sur, south of Carmel, a successfully preserved work of historic American engineering

The speaking engagement that I enjoyed least took place at the historical society that drew its members from Carmel, the city of Monterey, and Pebble Beach. The society was not representative of the enlightened attitude toward preservation I found in the local population as a whole. At the time almost all the members of the society were newly rich and regarded historic structures merely as prestigious antiques, not as assets for the community.

At the opposite extreme, in terms of integrity, was the historical society that served the southern portion of Monterey County. This area was almost completely rural. The economy was based partly on viticulture, but mostly on ranching. The largest urban area, King City, was essentially a town of about 5,000. There were a few rich landowners in the area, but most of the holdings were small and medium-sized and were owned by families who traced themselves and their workers back to the nineteenth century. These people liked their way of life and wanted it to continue. They had their share of foibles and weaknesses, but they also had tremendous dignity. Meeting them, I understood what it meant to say that someone revered the land. They regularly received offers to sell their properties to agricultural conglomerates or to re-zone the area for industry. But they refused and were willing, if necessary, to be cash poor and land rich.

They also pushed hard politically to protect the large areas of conserved land that were between their area of the county and the Big Sur coast to the west. Here there were several national forests and state parks and a large military reservation. The landscape in these areas was unsettled, unknown to most tourists at the time, and hauntingly beautiful. Here and there, midst the forests and creeks and valleys, one found important archeological and historic sites, including caves used by Stone Age Native Americans, as well as stagecoach roads, the remnants of old inns, and pioneer graveyards. The San Antonio Mission was also in the area. Many people regard it as the most beautiful of all those in the network built by the Spaniards in California.

Art Deco facade of the community theater in King City
Art Deco facade of the community theater in King City

With two of the local ranch owners, I developed a close friendship. Their names were Olive and Rachelle Gillette. They lived on separate ranches and were sisters. They told me fascinating stories about themselves and their neighbors, led me to important historical documents, gave valuable advice about county politics, asked probing questions about preservation initiatives elsewhere in the U.S., and took me on numerous drives in their old cars to see historic sites I would never have been able to discover on my own. Several times I got phone calls from the sisters before dawn in my apartment seventy miles to the north. “Dr. Messinger,” I would hear one of them say, “I’ve been tending the chickens and it looks like it’s going to be a nice day. Would you like to come down here for a tour?”

Even with the cooperation of gracious people like Olive and Rachelle, I might not have succeeded in my work, had it not been for the help I received from Bill Curry, the Deputy Director of the county planning department. Bill was my immediate contact at the department, the person assigned to help me navigate local politics and bureaucracy. Bill had grown up in the county, but had then gone on to Yale where he received a degree in Architecture before returning home. He understood local mentalities, but was also well equipped to integrate the contributions of an outsider like me.

Remains of the Pacific Biological Laboratory maintained by Doc Ricketts and immortalized in John Steinbeck's Cannery Row; protected against abutting new construction
Remains of the Pacific Biological Laboratory maintained by Doc Ricketts and immortalized in John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row; protected against abutting new construction

I dropped by to chat with Bill every few weeks in the big county office building in Salinas. We didn’t become close friends but we did greatly enjoy each other’s company, and we had both experienced the bittersweet process of understanding home by means of temporarily leaving it.

About five months into the project, I got a late afternoon phone call from Bill, saying he wanted to come over and see me right away to discuss the introduction to the draft plan I had given him earlier in the week. When Bill arrived at my apartment, he was carrying the plan in one hand and a six-pack of beer in the other. We sat down in my living room and Bill opened two cans of beer and told me we needed to talk friend-to-friend. Bill showed me passages he had circled. All were in the opening section of the draft where I had provided an analysis of the interest groups in the county that helped or hindered preservation.

My analysis was accurate, Bill said, but politically naïve. I seemed to be trying to impress an out-of-county audience — perhaps others in the planning profession, perhaps academic historians, perhaps my friends in Berkeley, perhaps readers of the New York Times and Harper’s Magazine. I did not yet seem to have learned the difference between a document that is designed simply to speak the truth – especially that portion of the truth that attacks everyday assumptions – and a document that is going to be used to get a diverse group of people to unite for action. I did not need to go on at length about the snobbery I had seen among some of the preservationists, or about the anti-Hispanic prejudice of some of the growers in the Salinas Valley, or the reluctance of many county organizations to accept federal grants. I should focus upon the elements of pride that all county residents shared when they encountered their heritage. I should talk about the admiration that would be won by impressing outsiders with the history and achievements of the county. I should more fully explain the economic and social benefits obtainable from well-managed preservation.

In 1974, my work culminated with an address to the County Board of Supervisors after two years of working as their consultant. I described the historic treasures the people of the County had been given by earlier generations, and I talked about the fragility of the historic landscape in Central California, most of which was still in private ownership. I emphasized that, in the hands of the wrong people, much of this environment could be gone within a year, taking away vital benchmarks of identity, as well as economic assets that were vitally important for strategic expansion of the tourist industry. In response, the Supervisors voted my plan into law, directed the planning department to publish an illustrated version, and prepared to hire a staff to coordinate preservation energetically. The groundwork had been laid for more extensive activity.

By this time, however, the County was running into budgetary problems just as the state education system had two years before. I did not see much of an economic future for myself locally. I decided that I would try to find work in Los Angeles, and, if that failed, go to Washington DC. I gave notice to my landlord, packed my car, and began a long journey to find a place that would, I hoped, have room for a historian with a practical bent.

John Steinbeck's childhood home in Salinas, preserved by adaptive economic reuse as a restaurant
John Steinbeck’s childhood home in Salinas, preserved by adaptive economic reuse as a restaurant

 

COMMIES AND COOKIES

Senator_Joseph_R._McCarthy,_ca._1954

From its beginning after the Second World War until its end with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Cold War was marked, as everyone knows, by great worry. Some of the fear, like the universal contemplation of the possibility of nuclear destruction, or the thought of losing a war in Europe to the Soviet Union, was well founded. And some of the anxiety, such as paranoia about the possibility of communist agents taking over the U.S. government, was less justifiable..

Many of the fears were expressed explicitly, for example in activities during the time which have become legendary, such as the construction of family bomb shelters in suburban backyards, the Congressional hearings chaired by Senator Joseph McCarthy, and the air raid drills which nearly all American students had to practice roughly once a month, when the sound of a siren emanated from somewhere down the street and our teachers told all of us to get on hands and knees under our desks and wait for the all clear.

In other cases the fears were expressed indirectly, for example in the many science fiction films of that era about strange invaders from outer space and lizards made monstrous by nuclear mutations in their genes.

Godzilla_King_of_the_Monsters_poster

I have some claim to being the originator of one of the more creative expressions of indirect anxiety to appear during the Cold War.

In 1953, my father, my mother, my sister and I were living temporarily with her parents at their home in the Berkeley Hills while my parents looked for an apartment for us in the East Bay area. At the time, my father was a Hospital Corpsman in the U. S. Navy. He had served in the Korean War and then completed a tour of duty at the Naval Hospital in Bremerton, Washington, a small city with a very large harbor, where a major portion of the Pacific Fleet was stationed. Now he was beginning a tour of duty at the Naval Hospital in Oakland, and we were purposely taking our time to find an apartment, enjoying the chance to be with my mother’s family again.

My father, my mother, my sister and I stayed with my grandparents long enough for me to spend about six months in the fifth grade at elementary school in the Berkeley Hills.

Hillside School, 1581 Leroy Ave, Berkeley, CA
Hillside School, one of the elementary schools in the Berkeley Hills

 

During that time, my thirty fellow students elected me to be their class president. The position was an honor, to be sure, but in reality I only had two duties: to lead the pledge of allegiance each morning, and to stand in front of all our desks once each month and preside when we held the class meetings to discuss such issues as whether we were all being polite in class, who would be responsible for cleaning the chalk powder out of the erasers, and whether we liked the food being served in our school cafeteria.

The point of it all, our teacher explained, was to learn citizenship. And the attention to duty was reinforced in other ways. In the boys’ case, for example, most of the fifth and sixth graders came to school early and left the classroom early each afternoon to put on uniforms and march together to assigned intersections where we served as junior traffic policemen assisting students to cross the streets.

I got more models of duty at home. Not only was my father a Navy man; so also, was my grandfather. He had served as a gunnery officer in both world wars and, after leaving the Navy, as an armed teller at the Crocker Bank in San Francisco. Both men were, I would say in retrospect, levelheaded patriots. They saw war as an inevitable human activity, but they also wanted it to be avoided whenever possible, and they told all of us stories from time to time that made the evils of war very clear. At the same time, the two men were firm about the need to do one’s duty when the nation called. And they did enjoy the adventure of war. An important part of my boyhood was the stories they told from time to time about sea battles, island invasions, outrunning typhoons, rescuing comrades and refugees, and visiting exotic foreign ports.

All of the concerns about citizenship and rising to challenges came together in a very odd way a month or so after I became class president. Probably because I did not yet feel accepted enough at my new school, even though elected president, I began to get the feeling that I was not making sufficiently impressive use of the powers of my office. And so I started looking for a way to change the situation.

At this point, television exerted its effects. In the 1950s, television was full of items reflecting the Cold War, such as the anti-communist weekly program of the Catholic bishop Fulton J. Sheen, the televised Congressional hearings led by Senator McCarthy, and the long-running documentary Victory at Sea, which chronicled in triumphalist manner the exploits of Americans during the Second World War.

One of the items that happened to come to my attention at this time, while I watched the TV screen at home with my relatives, was a public service commercial for Radio Free Europe. Operating in tandem with a companion organization, Radio Liberty, RFE was a network of broadcasting stations, widely known at the time, set up in the United States and Western Europe to beam anti-Soviet programs across the Iron Curtain via short wave.

FreedomGram
Fundraising leaflet for Radio Free Europe and its assistance to the Crusade for Freedom

 

Radio Free Europe received extensive funding from the U.S. government but also had authority to raise funds from the private sector as if it were a philanthropic group such as the Red Cross or the American Cancer Society.

Truth_Dollar
Newspaper ad for Radio Free Europe

 

On the black and white screen in front of me, as I watched TV one evening at my grandparents’ house, there suddenly appeared an ad for RFE. It opened with suspenseful music and a static line drawing of the map of Europe. Then, as the music became more menacing, tar-like black goo began seeping from the right hand of the screen just west of Moscow. Soon the goo was making its way across the Iron Curtain and beginning to cover West Germany and France, at which point, in white, a hammer and sickle appeared in the midst of the goo, and radio towers, to the left of the goo, began pushing back against the goo by means of the lightning emanations of their broadcast signals. Then, as the music quieted down, a deep male voice told us that we could help to fight the communist menace by sending our dollars to the post office address that suddenly appeared on the TV screen.

That’s it! I thought to myself. Our class needs to hold a Radio Free Europe Cookie Sale!

Chocolate_chip_cookies

To this day, I do not understand how I connected selling cookies with the communist menace. Maybe my mother and grandmother had baked cookies a few days before. Maybe there had been a Pillsbury commercial on TV earlier in the evening or the day before. Maybe I had passed a charity’s cookie sale downtown a few weeks before. But none of that mattered to me at the time. All I knew was that I had come up with a brilliant idea for doing my duty, and that it would make everyone more secure.

Later in the evening, when the TV was turned off, I asked my relatives what they thought of my idea. They were encouraging but not wildly so. Communism was a bad thing, they agreed; and being a good citizen was important. But, they advised, first present the idea at school, and, if you all get permission to go ahead, we’ll do our part.

The next morning, in class, after our pledge to the flag, I told everyone that I had a special announcement and dramatically outlined my idea. The students loved it, and our teacher gave his approval and said he would make the necessary arrangements with the Principal, other teachers, and the Parent-Teacher Association.

Three weeks later, during five successive lunch periods, our class set up card tables at one end of the school playground and sold the many, many platefuls of cookies our parents had baked or helped us to bake. Various parents showed up to act as chaperones along with our teachers and to help us be cashiers. The cookies were three for a nickel, and we made almost forty dollars in total.

Jan_Nowak-Jezioranski_RFE
A refugee Polish broadcaster for Radio Free Europe

Looking back, the innocence of it all is rather striking. Neither my fellow students nor I ever checked to make certain that the forty dollars actually made its way to Radio Free Europe. And most of the students who bought the cookies, especially the younger ones, probably did not know what Radio Free Europe was, even allowing for the fact that a couple of the parents brought RFE posters to school and set them on easels behind the cookie tables.

But we did all know, whether intuitively or logically, that we had done our part to be good citizens and to fight the communist menace, whatever it might be.