Historically, California has inspired visiting writers to write in one of two ways about it--either libeling it as a cultural purgatory or eulogizing it as paradise.
Those who libeled it had such excellent models as Willard Huntington Wright, who said it was settled by “yokels from the Middle West who were nourished by rural pieties and superstitions,” and Henry L. Mencken, who said “the whole place stank of orange blossoms.”
Strangely, those who eulogized it have more often been women.
A reader has sent me an example of the second type, a rare little book called “Californiacs.” It was written by a New Englander, Inez Haynes Irwin, and published first in 1916 in Sunset magazine, then as a book in San Francisco in 1921.
I had never heard of it, but not long after someone whose name I have misplaced sent me the copy, I received a letter from Jean Spencer of Camarillo, quoting from it and noting that it has been in her husband’s New England family for many years.
“We believe it might have been brought home by his great aunts, Dr. Lucia Wheeler (who was one of the first women doctors in Massachusetts), and Miss Frances Wheeler (the headmistress of Moses Brown School in Providence, R.I.).
“We are the first of our family to venture west,” she adds, “arriving in the city of Orange on July 4, 1966. My lasting vivid memory was the medicinal smell of hot wet eucalyptus trees and wondering if California always smelled like that. Now I’ve come to especially enjoy and fight for the stately eucalyptus trees lining the Ventura Freeway on the Camarillo side of the Conejo Grande. . . .”
Inez Haynes Irwin was from Massachusetts, and she found Californians hard to take. She called them Californiacs because they were afflicted by Californoia--a disease that caused them to boast insufferably about their home state at every chance.
“The Californiac is unable to talk about anything but California, except when he interrupts himself to knock every other place on the face of the Earth. He looks with pity on anybody born outside of California and he believes that no one who has ever seen California willingly lives elsewhere. He himself often lives elsewhere, but he never admits that it is from choice.”
Irwin admits that she was so stricken by San Francisco that she saw very little else. “I treasure my few impressions of the state, however. Towns and cities, comparatively new, might be three centuries old, so beautifully have they sunk into the colorful, deeply configurated background that the country provides. . . .
“You will be constantly reminded of Italy, although California is not quite so vividly colored, and perhaps of Japan, for you are always coming on places that are startlingly like scenes in Japanese prints. . . .
“California (in the early summer) is pure gold. One composite picture remains in my memory. On one side the Pacific--tigerish, calm, powerfully palpitant, stretching into eternity in enormous bronze-gold, foam-laced planes. On the other side, great, bare, voluptuously-contoured hills, running parallel with the train and winding serpentinely on for hours and hours of express speed; hills that look, not as though they were covered with yellow grass, but as though they were carved from massy gold. . . .”
She describes the live oaks on our coastal hills: “They grow alone, and each one of them seems to be standing knee-deep in shadow so thick and moist that it is like a deep pool of purple paint. . . .”
And the eucalyptuses: “Tall, straight, of a uniform slender size, the baby leaves of one shape and color, misted with a strange bluish fog-powder, the mature leaves of another shape and color, deep-green on one side, purple on the other, curved and carved like a scimitar, of Damascus steel, the blossoms hanging in great soft bundles, white or shell-pink, delicate as frost-stars--the eucalyptus is the most beautiful tree in the world. Standing in groups, they seem to color the atmosphere. Under them the air is like a green bubble. Standing alone, the long trailing scarfs of bark blowing away from their bodies--they are like ragged, tragic Gypsy queens. . . .”
Her descriptions of San Francisco are even more ecstatic. She was enamored of its vistas, its people, its streets, its hills, its buildings, and especially its women, whom she found the most beautiful in the world.
“To walk through that limited area which is the city’s heart--especially when the theatres are letting out--is to come on beauty not in one pretty girl at a time, nor in pairs and trios, nor by scores and dozens; it is to see it in battalias and acres, and all of them meeting your eyes with the frank open gaze of the West.
“San Francisco is, I fancy, the only city on the globe where any musical comedy audience is always more beautiful than any musical comedy chorus. They are not only beautiful--they are magnificent. . . . They seem like a new race of women. . . .”
No doubt the San Francisco of 1916 was one of the world’s most beautiful and exhilarating cities. It had rebuilt itself with narcissistic passion after the earthquake, and it shimmered and pulsed and glittered, until slow decay set in during World War II; and then it was rebuilt again, like a road show New York, and that special quality was gone.
We may have had our shining moment in Los Angeles, too, in the late 1920s, when the City Hall was built, and the Library, and Bullock’s Wilshire, and UCLA, and you could see real stars tooling down Hollywood Boulevard in their open Packards.