CURBSIDE L.A. : Land of Literati

Compiled by Times researcher Cecilia Rasmussen

A harsh kind of poetry was created by writers when they set their fiction within the very real city of Los Angeles. Whether they loved it or hated it--and many despised the city--they were still fascinated by it. Hollywood and the Santa Monica Pier are vividly described, while other places are more obscure. Still, there are enough clues in some novels to aid the curious who go in search of exact locations. Here are a few houses where noted writers lived while creating their portraits, and the locations of places rich in literary legacy.

1. Alex Abella----Downtown Jewelry District: A Spanish-language interpreter in Los Angeles Superior Court and the author of “Killing of the Saints” (1991), Abella portrays through the eyes of his protagonist, Charles Morrell, the city’s legal, criminal, ethnic and racial subcultures. The opening scene describes robbers driving a De Soto to the scene of their crime at “Schnitzer Jewelers,” at 6th and Hill streets: “The car made quite a sight, its sky blue aerodynamic hood and fenders and shiny chrome torpedo bumpers muscling through downtown rush hour traffic, as conspicuous as a Whittier Boulevard cholo strutting down Hill in flying colors with his ruca on his arm.”

2. Raymond Chandler----12216 Shetland Lane, Brentwood: Chandler’s style revealed an intense love-hate relationship with Los Angeles, where he lived from 1912 to 1946. At times, he evoked a wistful, affectionate attitude in his private detective hero, Philip Marlowe, a kind of an urban knight who struggled to be honest in a corrupt city. While Chandler at the Brentwood address, his character lived on the cliffs above High Tower Drive in Hollywood Heights, in a building with a fancy elevator tower described in “The High Window.” and the movie version of “The Long Goodbye.” In “The Big Sleep,” the Santa Monica Municipal Pier is called the Bay City Pier, and it is from here that Marlowe and others catch a launch to an offshore gambling ship. There is no mistaking Malibu in the description of Montemar Vista in “Farewell, My Lovely,” nor “the violet light at the top of Bullock’s green-tinged tower"----the old Bullocks Wilshire.

3. Christopher Isherwood----145 Adelaide, Santa Monica: The novelist and outspoken gay-rights advocate had a tartly damning vision of Los Angeles in “A Single Man” (1964). “He stops the car and stands at the road’s rough yellow dirt edge, beside a manzanita bush, and looks out over Los Angeles like a sad Jewish prophet of doom, as he takes a leak. Babylon is fallen that great city. But this city is not great, was never great, and has nearly no distance to fall.”


4. Arna Bontemps----Watts: One of the nation’s most important black writers of his time tells what it was like growing up in Watts in his novel “Anyplace But Here.” Bontemps traces the evolution of black ghettos, making Watts his “Mudtown.” He recalls fond childhood memories as well as problems of going to school and working nights at the post office in the early 1900s. He writes with special pleasure of New Orleans jazz greats such as Jelly Roll Morton, whose Los Angeles heyday was in the 1930s. He waxes nostalgic over pre-World War II Watts, when “Los Angeles in legend became ‘paradise west’ to Negroes still languishing in Egyptland of the south.”

5. Joan Didion----Sunset and La Brea: The author places the still center of the turning world at the corner of Sunset and La Brea in “Play It As It Lays” (1970), a decade or so before everything around that intersection was leveled for mini-malls. Didion’s heroine, Maria Wyeth, roams the freeways in a Corvette, or the Ferrari she took from an actor who beat her up. “Again and again she returned to an intricate stretch just south of the interchange where successful passage from the Hollywood onto the Harbor required a diagonal move across four lanes of traffic. On the afternoon she finally did it without once braking or once losing the beat on the radio she was exhilarated. . . .”

6. James M. Cain----6301 Quebec St., Hollywood Hills: The classic novel “Double Indemnity” (1936) uses the distinctive features of Spanish Colonial Revival architecture to set the scene for this drama of lust and murder. “It didn’t look like a House of Death when I saw it. It was just a Spanish house, like all the rest of them in California, with white walls, red tile roof, and a patio out to one side. It was built cockeyed. The garage was under the house, the first floor was over that, and the rest of it was spilled up the hill any way they could get it in.”

7. Judith Freeman----MacArthur Park: In “The Chinchilla Farm” (1990), the writer explores the crime and drug-plagued neighborhood. “One day, returning from work, I was walking through the park when I saw a man lying face down near a fountain. His belongings were stuffed into plastic bags surrounding him on the grass. From somewhere came the sound of a baby bird, the unmistakably frantic chirpings of distress, like the protests of a small chick separated from its mother. . . . How could he sleep, I wondered, with the constant sounds of distress filling his ears?”


8. Aldous Huxley----740 North King Road, Los Angeles: Best known for “Brave New World,” Huxley lived in California when he wrote “Ape and Essence” (1948). It is the ultimate horror vision--but one not without humor--of Los Angeles in the year 2018. Mutant survivors of an atomic war gather in Pershing Square, across the street from their temple at the Biltmore Hotel. Heat for communal ovens is provided by the burning of books taken from the nearby public library. The main event of the year is held at the Biltmore--a wild two-week orgy; sex is outlawed the rest of the year.

9. Robinson Jeffers----Hermosa Beach: The last of the great narrative poets was mostly associated with Big Sur. Although Jeffers lived most of his younger years in Highland Park, Pasadena, Hermosa and Long Beach, he also frequented several bars along Spring Street during the early 1900s. Imbued with a passion for nature, Jeffers wrote about the San Gabriel Mountains. He also lived in Hermosa Beach, and wrote movingly in “At Playa Hermosa” of a place having neither “despair nor hope.”

10. Jack Kerouac----Flophouses, Downtown and San Pedro: Kerouac was the King of the Beats----the eternal wanderer. “Lonesome Traveler” (1961) begins with Kerouac arriving in Los Angeles on a train called the “Zipper,” a play on the train named Zephyr. From a hotel on Main Street, he looks out at the “hot sunny streets of Los Angeles Christmas.” That same night, another hotel, this one in San Pedro, “had potted palms and potted barfronts and cars parked, and everything dead and windless with the dead California sad windless smokesmog.”

11. Evelyn Waugh----Forest Lawn in Glendale: This English gentleman was the author of the satirical novel “The Loved One” (1948). The book followed a 1947 visit to Hollywood, and Waugh, appalled by Southern California in general and Forest Lawn Cemetery in particular, set most of the book in “Whispering Glades,” a thinly disguised Forest Lawn.


12. Nathanael West----1817 Ivar Ave., Hollywood: “The Day of the Locust” (1939) was inspired by a hot, terrible summer of 1935 that West spent in this Hollywood boardinghouse, at the height of the Depression, when he was broke and suffering from gonorrhea and prostate problems. The fires in the Hollywood Hills that summer forever colored his perception of Los Angeles. West wrote that in the rooming house, which he named “Chateau Mirabella,” the halls “reeked of antiseptic,” and that “another name for Ivar Street was Lysol Alley.” Whitley Avenue was the street where patent medicine was sold, and Grauman’s Chinese Theater (now Mann’s) was the setting for the violent conclusion.

Source: “Literary L.A.” and “In Search of Literary L.A.” by Lionel Rolfe