We have received a rare letter from my old friend and colleague, Cecil Smith, who now lives with his wife, Cleo, in blissful semi-retirement in San Miguel de Allende, in the mountains of central Mexico.
I say "semi-retirement" because Cecil writes a column--A Poposito (By the Way)--for the local three-column newspaper, Atencion San Miguel.
He says, "All the reporters, columnists, etc., on Atencion work for nothing, which is just about what my column's worth."
You may remember Cecil Smith as the longtime television critic of The Times.
From his letter, which is brief, and from the copy of Atencion he encloses, I am able to picture the life he lives in San Miguel.
"Life here now that the holidays are over is tranquil," he says. "Although we live in the mountains about 100 miles north of Mexico City, it's astonishing the people who turn up. One of the advantages of San Miguel is that it's hard to get to, but gringos seem to find it."
Despite the difficulty of getting there, the Smiths have recently been visited by a cousin he hadn't seen in 30 years; a fellow he lived with in Carmel after World War II and hadn't seen since 1948; and a man he went to Stanford with, now a teacher at San Francisco State. Crossroads of the world.
From the ads in Atencion I gather that life in San Miguel is cheap. For example: "Lovely home surrounded by gardens in excellent neighborhood. 2 large bedrooms, 2 baths, kitchen, patio, garage and swimming pool--$26,500.
Cecil's main reason for writing was to call my attention to a column written for Atencion by Mimi Loomer about a trip she made to Los Angeles for her daughter's repertory opening. Cecil explains that Loomer took his place in the paper because he was directing a play at the local theater, "The Fox," byD. H. Lawrence. "Big hit--we turned scores away."
Loomer's column is a delightful example of the kind of horror and hyperbole that Los Angeles inspires in almost all visiting journalists, whether they come from the towers of New York City or the mountains of central Mexico.
Loomer notes that she was born in New York City, but after 15 years in Mexico her first visit to Los Angeles was "a revelation . . . and a shock."
She pulls out all the old stops. We spend most of our time on freeways. We communicate by answering machine:
"You must understand that in Los Angeles people do not speak to people. My answering machine calls your answering machine and leaves a message. Then your answering machine calls my answering machine and replies to the message. This can go on for several weeks, until the two machines finally meet for lunch, unless they've actually managed to get the humans involved to meet for lunch, which becomes more and more unlikely as complications multiply."
As I remember, my contractor and I actually communicated by that method when we enlarged our house a few years ago. We never did meet for lunch.
She seems to have spent much of her time here in the aura of the rich and famous. When you buy a house, she notes, it isn't really your house. "Successful people live in Cary Grant's house, or Garbo's house, or Bette Davis' or Stanwyck's."
She adds that the fellow who lives in Alfred Hitchcock's house is afraid to take a shower. Well, if you lived in Lon Chaney's house you'd be afraid to come home, and if you lived in Bela Lugosi's house you'd be afraid to go to sleep.
She describes the "obligatory lunch" at trendy and exotic restaurants with such cute names as the Quiche Joint and The Indigent Truffle, at which "a mere snack can set you back the price of a Rolls-Royce." She says the food runs from Japanese sushi, Thai spice and soul food to nouvelle cuisine and probably whale blubber.
Loomer was also intimidated by our boutiques with "modest little names like Today's Rags, which sells you exactly that, but every tatter costs $300.
"Of course," she says, "when in La-la Land you must see Rodeo Drive. Here the names are just names. Gucci, Giorgio, Chanel. I was there too early for the holiday decorations, but the fashions in the windows outdid any Christmas spectacular in Rockefeller Plaza. I'm sure the most cautious Easterner wouldn't be found dead wearing the neon and sequin creations that the Angelenos buy at Giorgio's."
But she did see below the glitter.
"Amid all this nonsense, there is a nucleus of normal life in L.A. Some ordinary people work there, wearing ordinary clothes, driving Volkswagens, and probably never seeing the inside of a stretch limousine. I saw several elderly men and women, and even a few fat ones." (I'm elderly, and I've never been inside a stretch limousine.)
"But it's true that there's a preponderance of the young and beautiful. The supermarket baggers are tall, sun-bleached blonds who seem prepared to whip out a resume and an 8x10 glossy if you remotely resemble a casting director, and every valet parker at the laundromat could stand in for Tom Selleck.
"Los Angeles has palm trees and lots of flowers," Loomer concludes, "the residents are polite and considerate and the climate is great--very much like San Miguel. But believe me, the resemblance stops right there!"
I wish Mimi had looked me up. But of course if she'd tried to call me she'd only have got my answering machine.
Anyway, she adds an epithet to our lexicon--La-la Land!