Good Talk : Gertrude Stein...


It is an idea whose time has come--again.

The salon, a gathering of people thrilled by good talk (good food optional), is making a comeback throughout the country. In Los Angeles there are more than half a dozen salons that meet regularly on the Westside alone, attracting people committed to discussing something more cosmic than those local conversational staples: real estate and the perfidy of talent agents.

Ironically, the new salon was born not in Los Angeles, the mother of all trendsetters, but in Minneapolis, the mother of really bad winters. In its March/April 1991 issue, the Utne Reader ran a special issue on saloning and asked readers if they would like to start sharing the sacrament of good talk with their neighbors. Eric Utne, founder of the prize-winning magazine, which reprints stories from the alternative press, has been active in salons for years. And the magazine promised to provide to anyone who wrote in the names of like-minded people in nearby ZIP codes.

According to Utne staff member Griff Wigley, the magazine expected a thousand replies. It got 8,200. "We really were surprised to the point we were caught totally unprepared to handle it," said Wigley, whose official title at the magazine is salon-keeper. It took the journal months to process all the reader replies. Since then, it has installed new software to provide electronic support for the popular project.

Wigley said he believes about 250 of the Utne-inspired salons are active nationwide, including 15 or so in Greater Los Angeles. He also runs the magazine's electronic salon, whose members communicate by computer, a subspecies of the new salon that writer Gareth Branwyn praises for its "good company, freewheeling conversation and imaginary martinis."

The idea of bringing movers and shakers together to make astute observations dates back at least to 18th-Century France, where salon-keepers such as Madame de Stael helped make intellectual history. Early in this century, memorable salons were run by Gertrude Stein and Mabel Dodge, whose Greenwich Village Wednesday nights attracted writers, activists and artists and were also notable for the quality of the Scotch and Gorgonzola.

Today's local salons are as varied as their members. Carleen Brady, 49, an animator who lives in Mar Vista, has been going to a group that meets twice a month in Santa Monica. She joined, she said, because she missed "that old college thing where you sit around all night discussing philosophy and the meaning of life."

The desire for intelligent discourse is apparently one of the great unrequited needs of contemporary America. Brady seemed to speak for many of the saloners or salonites (a preferred term has not yet emerged) when she observed: "You have a little route you carve out to work and back, and you have a little circle of friends whom you really like, and then you realize you're telling the same jokes over and over again."

Brady said her salon, which has attracted as few as three and as many as 20 people twice a month, has not been as successful as some of the others because so much time is typically devoted to deciding what to talk about. "But I've not given up on it," she said.

Wigley speculates that the new salons are so popular because there is nothing else quite like them in contemporary society. Yes, there are lots of groups. But the vast majority of existing groups are devoted to helping people climb the 12 steps to recovery or offering people support in times of crisis. Salons tend to attract people who see themselves not as wounded but as articulate, educated, curious, committed and emotionally healthy, thank you, rather than recovering.

For many members, the salons are a place where they can exercise an attractive mind and display a supple intellect to advantage. "If you have things to say and you know you can say them forcefully, amusingly and pointedly, then you're desperate for a place to do that," Brady said.

Barry Tavlin, 42, lives in Santa Monica and designs software for a living. He has been part of a Hancock Park salon ever since he was directed to it as a result of a ZIP code error on the Utne Reader's part.

Tavlin revels in the mix of members, who include a screenwriter, a psychiatrist, a manager of senior housing and a graduate student. Members range in age from the 20s to late 60s, and the group meets in the office of member Pamela Rogow, who designs museum exhibits. At one recent bimonthly meeting the topic was gun control. It had been chosen by a member who had recently been held up at gunpoint "one sunny Monday morning" outside his home in Westwood. That meeting revealed almost universal support for gun control within the group.

But other subjects have revealed the discontinuities in the members' views and those have made for livelier meetings. Tavlin especially relished the talk the night the group tackled the issues raised by the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings. The women told personal stories of sexual harassment that were a revelation to Tavlin, and a few of the older men had momentary lapses from political correctness. Someone even used the term girls. "It was kind of wild and woolly," Tavlin recalled.

Robert Berend, 35, is also a member of the Hancock Park group. An attorney who specializes in estate planning in socially responsible investments, Berend joined, he said, "because I'm intrinsically opinionated and moderately well-read, and I like throwing monkey wrenches into conversations." He is also active in a salon in the Fairfax District, which has a somewhat younger membership, and two months ago he bought a modem and began electronic saloning as well.

The Hancock Park group is friendly but businesslike in its pursuit of thoughtful discourse. Although participants bring the occasional cookie, they are not hard-core foodies. Nor do they use alcohol to lubricate the conversational process as some groups do, apparently believing with writer Geoffrey Wolff that alcohol often functions as "loudmouth soup."

Many of the Angelenos in salons say their group has made them feel more connected to their neighborhoods and the sprawling city as a whole. Lindsay Dyson, 44, who is active in a lively group in Echo Park, said she is getting exactly what she wanted from her salon: "A sense of community and getting to know people of a like mind in my area."

Her group, which took their spirited discussion of the Thomas hearings outside to the park, is particularly well-organized. Dyson even publishes a salon newsletter that tells members "what happened last time and what is going to happen next time." Dyson likes to decorate it with saloneering slogans such as "Let's Waste Some Quality Time."

The Utne Reader is starting a second generation of its salons. It has just instituted the Neighborhood Salon Assn. Membership is $12 a year and participants get a list of potential salonites in their area, a quarterly newsletter and a copy of "The Salon-Keeper's Companion." The last is a guide to starting and sustaining a salon or one of its sister institutions, such as a study circle or a council, a group based on American Indian tradition in which a "talking stick" is used to designate the speaker of the moment and limit interruptions.

Tikkun, a bimonthly that deals with Jewish, intellectual and social justice issues, is also encouraging readers to form salons.

Wigley thinks the salon revival is a sign that more and more people have come to the conclusion that "living the life of a consumer or breadwinner is not enough." People are asking themselves what it means to be a citizen and finding the answer in talk.

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