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Connoisseur Takes Culture Trip Out West

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It must be official. California--”lush, ambitious, smug, quirky, sophisticated and proud”--is no longer culturally deprived.

That’s the verdict reached by super-glossy Connoisseur magazine of New York City in its current let’s-inspect-California-culture issue. In fact, editor Thomas Hoving says that thanks to new jewels like Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art, the Golden State “now outshines the eastern seaboard in creating and collecting contemporary painting and sculpture.”

Hoving calls diversely beautiful California the France of the United States--”fecund, sophisticated, opinionated, quirky at times . . . caught in its own chauvinistic dreams”--before leading a handsomely illustrated Grand Tour of the state’s wealth of art museums. Pasadena takes top museum honors: Hoving pronounces the Huntington Library and Art Gallery second only to the gem-stuffed Norton Simon, which is No. 1 thanks to its namesake, “one of the greatest collectors in American history.”

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Connoisseur’s stash of lavish color photos competes for attention with equally lush full-page ads soliciting things very few people can afford: portraits by commission (fee: $18,900) and Aston Martin Lagondas (Price: $167,000, but 1987 U.S. sales are limited to 25). Also included: a beautiful spread on California’s home-grown artists, “The Sunshine Boys”; a sharp profile of Beverly Hills new-music patron Betty Freeman, whose quiet generosity has been benefitting musical avant-gardists like Philip Glass for 25 years; and a survey of the life styles of San Joaquin Valley agribarons.

Arms for Sale

“The arms trade isn’t that risky or dangerous,” Sam Cummings, one of the world’s largest sellers of grenade launchers and machine guns, tells Ann Reilly Dowd in Fortune. It’s hard to argue with Cummings after reading Dowd’s excellent who’s-who and what’s-what of America’s small-arms peddling business.

As Dowd reports, though international sales of big-ticket items such as tanks and F-15s are slumping, the bayonet and bullet salesmen are doing well meeting the needs of armies from Nicaragua to Iraq in a market where moral squeamishness hardly exists.

There are upsides and downsides, clandestine stuff, and prison terms for the greedy who stray into the patently illegal “black” markets, such as Iran, where the biggest profits lurk. But Michael Kotkin of Los Angeles, for example, who’s seen photographed smiling serenely and flanked by mortars and machine guns at his L.A. arms shoppe, makes a nice living selling things like RPK light machine guns at $600 a pop, retail.

He’s got 16,000 items on inventory, including 25-million rounds of ammunition. He barters guns for coffee, offers his own financing and denies the accusation of an unnamed competitor that he does a lot of work for the CIA, which is apparently the worst insult one arms dealer can make to another. Kotkin’s annual sales: $40 million and growing 20% a year. As a dealer says, “This is one business you can’t learn in school.”

Wynton Marsalis’ Hot Lip

GQ has dreamy Mel Gibson on its cover, but, as usual, there’s lots of hot stuff inside too, including a photo spread on the Most Eligible Women in America “who have everything but mates” and a scary talk with three respected but ultra-bearish Wall Street forecasters who see the Crash of 1989 coming.

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The most heat, though, is generated by Bruce Buschel’s encounter with the unmuted anger of jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, whose precocious virtuosity has won many fans, critical acclaim, commercial success, and four jazz and two classical Grammys.

Just 25, Marsalis is a crusading purist who believes “Jazz is a higher form of development of human richness and complexity.” He’s made enemies by derogating classical musicians: “Concert musicians are artisans--jazz musicians are artists. It’s 5,000 times harder to play correct jazz.” And his opinions of rock ‘n’ roll are equally low: He stopped talking to his sax-playing brother and former band-mate Branford for a year after he committed the sin of going off to play for pop singer Sting.

But even sacred jazz giants like Miles Davis aren’t spared Marsalis’ sharp lip. Davis is no longer playing jazz, Marsalis says: “He’s a charlatan” who’s “now sad.” Says Buschel: “Marsalis is relentlessly bitter toward Miles, rarely passing up an opportunity to deride him as the personification of everything gone wrong with jazz.” Buschel writes excellently, doesn’t take sides and gets Marsalis to respond to the criticism that his playing--the polar opposite of Davis’ cool--is all technique and no soul.

New York Rent Control

The many idiocies and inequities created by 40 years of rent control policies in New York City are detailed in all their horror by William Tucker in the American Spectator.

Tucker, who’s written a book on rent control, explains how bad economics and crass politics have strangled private housing and made government New York City’s No. 1 landlord. The absurdity of the situation, Tucker says, is evidenced by the fact that 50,000 city-owned apartments sit vacant while 50,000 homeless ply the streets.

Meanwhile, one-bedroom apartments in Manhattan with a view of a brick wall rent to newly arrived college kids for $1,500 a month and well-off folks like Mia Farrow live in rent-controlled buildings and pay $1,870.31 for 10 rooms overlooking Central Park.

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Bits & Pieces

Only someone like determinedly contrary ex-National Lampoon editor P. J. O’Rourke would deliberately visit civil-war-wracked El Salvador at Christmastime. “Holiday in Hell” in Rolling Stone is archetypal O’Rourke--a snappy, informative, socio-journalistic travelogue rich in cultural wisecracks and grape-shot opinings about every aspect of Salvador’s unhappy state. Without grinding anybody’s political ax, and despite his smart-alecky edge, O’Rourke’s descriptions of the country’s seemingly hopeless economic woes and deadly politics are realistically grim. . . .

Director David Lynch has made a career out of disturbing moviegoers with weird and freaky stuff like his first film, “Eraserhead,” and last year’s strange “Blue Velvet.” But, as is evident from the fancy photos of Lynch and girlfriend Isabella Rossellini by Annie Leibovitz in Vanity Fair, Lynch is not “a grotesque--a fat little German with fat stains running down his chin,” which is what Mel Brooks had expected to find after experiencing “Eraserhead.” Lynch, says VF’s Stephen Schiff, is just a regular guy who’s deferential, surprisingly unlettered and shy and “an All-American visionary, the most assured and inventive movie stylist this country has produced since Martin Scorsese.” . . .

The Spencer Davis Group (with a 15-year-old Stevie Winwood), Jethro Tull, Cat Stevens, King Crimson, Robert Palmer and U2 are just some of the acts signed by Island Records’ founder and entrepreneur Chris Blackwell. In Part 1 of a question-and-answer session with Ted Fox in Audio magazine, the interview-shy Blackwell explains how he started his small company in Jamaica with ska music and eventually signed Bob Marley and “almost single-handedly broke reggae music as an international sensation.”

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