In a backyard of unfinished projects, a writing shack rises on a slope of fruit trees, rosemary and sage. The woman inside may come across as prim. But she’ll crack you up if the mood strikes. The Hollywood sign hovers in the hills, and when she leaves the shack, passing the home of a long-dead film star, she drives downtown, where cranes rattle in the noisy remaking of Los Angeles.
Louise Steinman has for decades taken the short trip from her Silver Lake home to the central Los Angeles Public Library on 5th Street. The city has changed much, but the library, designed with a whisper from ancient Egypt, remains an elegant landmark bordered by skid row and high-rise architecture preening against the skyline. Steinman thinks a lot about how such contrasts echo through the city’s cultural and intellectual life.
“The phrase I’ve been working with lately is finding beauty in horror,” says Steinman, founder and curator of the library’s Aloud program, a lecture series that for 24 years has hosted writers, academics, scientists, musicians and artists to explore the human — as well as the L.A. — condition. “My father came here to reinvent himself after World War II, and it’s true you can constantly make things happen here that might not have been possible with a more strict tradition of art-making.”
Run by the Library Foundation of Los Angeles, Aloud casts a wide range of ideas. Recent talks and discussions have included what happens when the FBI investigates the White House, an evening with Alan Alda, African literature, the biology of humans, and the national scourge of poverty and eviction. One night Rosanne Cash reminisces and sings; on another, musicians and critics debate the sexuality and significance of Prince.
“You don’t know who’s going to be sitting next to you at an Aloud program,” Steinman said. “That’s a wonderful thing. It might be a homeless person. It might be a lawyer from the Westside.”
Steinman, 66, is intimate with the city’s contours and multilingual inflections. The daughter of a Culver City pharmacist, she has been shaped by Los Angeles and, through Aloud, she is at the forefront of the city’s intellectual ambitions. She is one of a number of artists, poets and others The Times will profile in coming months whose personal bonds to the city feed its diffuse soul.
Los Angeles is not so much a place as a glide through the imagination, a splintered state of mind playing out amid infinite yearnings and fleeting dusks. It soothes and seethes, invites and repels. Or so it seems on many days.
The prattle of construction downtown, including the recently completed Wilshire Grand, is changing the city’s aesthetics, leading to questions about identity, mood, race, money and politics at a time when national debates over issues like immigration and the environment carry deep, local meaning. Programs like Aloud examine how we think about where we’re going in a century that is reshaping everything from the movies we make to the art and literature we hold up as emblematic.
“It is about framing attention,” Steinman, who works closely with library foundation President Ken Brecher, an anthropologist who once ran the Sundance Institute, said of Aloud. “What kinds of conversations would be useful to have?”
Steinman is a writer and dancer who finds solace in Buddhism. A saying in her office reads: “I know this glass is already broken, so I enjoy it incredibly.” She moves with the soft noise of a breath, but beneath her tied-back hair and blue eyes, a curious, questioning defiance mixes with a kind of whimsy, which one day sent her twirling across the library’s rotunda.
Pico Iyer, novelist and essayist, says of Steinman: “What is unique about Aloud is that it's run by a fellow writer, with deeply discerning literary tastes, who really cares about letters and the history of thought. How often does one get to offer literary programs for and with someone who has written memorable books on Poland and Japan, and whose interests stretch from postmodern fiction to Jungian psychology and the special art of Meredith Monk?"
Steinman’s memoirs offer a glimpse at what influences her curating: demystifying the past to discern the present while crossing boundaries, cultures and national sins to reveal our commonalities more than our differences. “The Souvenir” is a daughter’s exploration of her father’s service during World War II that leads her to Japan, and “The Crooked Mirror” traces her Jewish ancestry and the complicated friction between Catholics and Jews in Poland.
The L.A. writers Steinman admires include John Rechy, who captured the life of a working class Latina in “The Miraculous Day of Amalia Gómez”; Marisela Norte, whose verse is gleaned from glimpses caught on buses and sidewalks; Judith Freeman, whose “The Long Embrace: Raymond Chandler and the Woman He Loved” peeled back layers of history around MacArthur Park and 1940s noir; and D.J. Waldie, whose essays and memoirs conjure the idiosyncratic splendor of Southern California life.
“They’re all writing about the city in a very interesting way,” says Steinman, who is also co-director for the Los Angeles Institute for the Humanities at USC. “Learning the history of our city that we didn’t learn for those of us who grew up here. That to me is a revelation, like learning that Culver City was a sundowner [racially discriminatory] town. When you grow up there you see, ‘Oh there are no black people here, that’s just what is.’ There’s a reason for that; they can’t buy houses here.”
One cannot understand Los Angeles without also delving into its broader ecosystem. Earlier this year, historian Dan Flores spoke at Aloud about his book “Coyote America: A Natural and Supernatural History” and the myths and realities of a creature that roams urban landscapes.
“I’m really interested in scientists who can communicate to the public and get them excited about natural history, because that’s another phenomenal thing about L.A.,” Steinman notes. “I have coyotes walking through my backyard. We’re living with wildlife and the San Gabriels are right there. But we’re also a very park-poor city. There are parts of L.A. that don’t have that experience. We’re many, many cities. It hard to talk about L.A. as one city.”
Landing a writer to appear at Aloud, held mostly in the library’s Mark Taper Auditorium, can be circuitous. Steinman and her staff collaborate with New York publishers and cultural groups in the Los Angeles, including Clockshop, the Broad museum, Machine Project, Amnesty International and the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts. Steinman is both patient and swift in courting an author, sometimes tracking a book years before it’s published to catch it at the moment, and often just before, it enters the wider zeitgeist.
She worked five years to get photographer Sebastião Salgado to discuss his stirring pictures of laborers, migrants and people living beyond the modern world. Scheduling Ta-Nehisi Coates to talk about race relations — weeks before he won the National Book Award in 2015 for his memoir “Between the World and Me” — was quicker. “I read a piece of his in the Atlantic and I said this is a guy you want to hear,” she says.
One too can hear the salacious at Aloud. A woman in the audience once took a microphone and described James Ellroy as: “This undercurrent, this junky, funky guy. Listening to you talk, so precise, so controlled, I have to ask, I’m wondering what you’re like in bed.”
In a 2013 talk to mark the 50th anniversary of Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique,” Amy Parish, a biological anthropologist, had a query for Carol Downer, co-founder of the Los Angeles Feminist Women’s Health Center, which taught women how to perform cervical self-examinations.
“So I was just joking in the green room,” says Parish, an expert on bonobos, “and I say to Carol, ‘Did you bring your speculum?’ And she whips it out of this little holster like somebody might have a gun hanging on her hip and she says, ‘I never go anywhere without it.’”
Steinman lives with her husband, Lloyd Hamrol, a sculptor and a tinkerer with a magpie’s eye and a mischievous garden. Hamrol ‘s public works, including “Stonerise” in Iowa City, Iowa, appear both subsumed by and independent of the landscape. Hamrol is a mercurial 79-year-old with a ball cap and a white mustache. “He’s always moving things around,” says Steinman, “building walls, tearing things down.”
The couple bought the home, built in the 1940s by a Swiss engineer whose wife never made it to L.A., in 1996. It has the air of an artist’s hideout: tiles, small rooms, Afghan carpets, good light, and a hillside dotted with apricot and orange trees, flowers, bees and Steinman’s writing shack. She and Hamrol know about minimalism and the works Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko but are less fluent in “The Handmaid’s Tale” or “Transparent” and other popular streaming shows.
“We still get DVDs from Netflix,” she says one morning over a late breakfast of cantaloupe and almonds. “People are astonished at this.”
It is from this vantage, with a new downtown rising on the horizon, one can see the incongruities that over decades have fused not into a singular dream of Los Angeles but a place of an oddly rich, and at times strained, coexistence of vernaculars, architectures and cultures. To say nothing of nostalgia. Like the memory Steinman has of her father, Norman, roaming streets at night to see what other neighborhood pharmacists were up to in the days before CVS and Walgreens.
This is the essence of the city, a past still close, a future under construction. Dreams carried here become something else, the mosaic widens, and a woman like Steinman, who was born in a hospital on Hope Street a few blocks from the library, invites in poets from faraway lands.
“The places of people coming together, like the library, are really crucial to the city. To get people to mix it up,” she says, mentioning a recent performance at Echo Park sponsored by the Machine Project: “Only in L.A. I thought. Oguri, the great Butoh dancer, was on a raft in the lake and there was a Oaxacan youth brass band playing music and a soprano on another raft and the people on the shore were of all races, African America and Latino, Russian and whoever happened to have been jogging by. When L.A. mixes it up like that it feels at its best.”