Part old boy's network, part family outside of family, members of the Artisan Coterie have been part of the South Bay--and each other's lives--for more than 67 years.
Herb Simon is surprised when he hears people say that Los Angeles isn't the kind of place where people are committed to keeping up with friends. "That's not my Los Angeles," he says, gently shaking his head.
Indeed, Los Angeles is Simon's town in a way it can never be for people who arrived too late to ride a Red Car to Santa Monica. A graduate of Manual Arts High School (Class of '25) and past president of Van de Kamp Bakeries, the 86-year-old Simon is one of three surviving men who can boast to being charter members of the Artisan Coterie, an organization established in 1924 by 12 Manual Arts students exclusively to, as the club's masthead stationery proclaims, "perpetuate friendship."
"We were originally known as the Pretzel Benders," explains Norris Henderson, 84, a retired credit union manager and former Coterie president, who now lives in Orange County. "But we decided to get a little classier, so we changed our name to Artisan Coterie--we liked 'artisan' because it refers to those who work in the industrial arts, and 'coterie' because it refers to a close association."
These men, almost all graduates of Manual Arts High School, have assembled in restaurants, clubs, and in each other's homes in the South Bay and other areas every second and fourth Tuesday for 65 years. Only lately have they begun to meet only once a month.
"Who's the oldest one here?" shouts Red Williams, 86, a retired furniture sales manager who lives in Orange County, at a recent meeting where 15 Artisan Coterie members had gathered. They shake hands and pound each other enthusiastically on the back. Everyone is talking at once. "I'm the oldest," someone shouts back. "I'm the one in 'The Last Supper'--third from the left. I'm the one asking for separate checks."
Watching these men joking with one another, retelling the stories over this afternoon's lunch of ham, baked beans and salad (prepared by two of the members' wives), is like watching a room full of teen-age boys who, much to their astonishment, have suddenly and mysteriously acquired aging bodies.
What has prompted these men to make time to see each other for the past 65 years? "We're each other's memory," explains Henderson. "We help each other remember."
What they remember is a Los Angeles others can only imagine: a Hermosa Beach sparsely dotted with modest beach cottages, a rural Palos Verdes where--at midnight--Coterie initiates careened down its steep hills in children's wagons.
"Every winter the Artisan Coterie would have its annual stag weekend at Mt. Baldy," recalls Henderson. "Even after we were married, this was the one event just for us. We'd rent a cabin up there and just have a good time.
"We used to run around naked in the snow," he adds, smiling slyly.
There were also trying times. The members' vow "to perpetuate true and lasting friendship" was brought to its first test during the Depression. Many lost jobs or were forced to quit school. Four of the Coteries members moved into the Los Angeles home of Simon's mother--"Mom Simon." One member, an osteopath, financed another Coterie associate through medical school. Recalls Simon, "We held our meetings at the Pig 'n' Whistle Cafe on Wilshire and Hauser because they offered us a private room and dinner for 50 cents."
But World War II seems to have been the event that bonded these men together (the club, at its peak, had more than 60 members; 19 are alive today). During the war, 17 Coterie associates were enlisted in the armed forces. Those members who remained home took it upon themselves to be responsible for the service men's families. To keep everyone in touch, Henderson began writing a monthly bulletin, which he sent to Coterie members and their families.
"The war cemented our relationship," says Henderson. "Everyone would write letters, send them to me, and I'd bundle them up with the latest bulletin and send it off to wherever the Coterie member was stationed. It was an important time; we started thinking that we might be getting older. Once you begin to realize that, you also understand how precious friendship is."
All the Coterie members returned safely from the war. But times were tough on the home front as well. One of the Coterie's members, Los Angeles resident Roy Ackerman, began suffering from crippling arthritis in the late 1930s. The club decided to raise $300 to pay for one year's treatment. Someone donated a radio and the group sold 500 raffle tickets at 10 cents apiece for the prize. Another member pledged four Rose Bowl tickets, and the Coterie sold 1,000 chances at 10 cents for them.
"We'd all invite football fans to come over to our homes on Saturday to listen to games on the radio, then we'd put the bite on them to buy tickets," recalls Simon. "Pretty sneaky, but it worked."
As Ackerman's health grew worse, the Coterie's commitment grew stronger. Members continued to give what money they could. One engineered and built beds and walkers to make Ackerman more comfortable. The club also paid for Ackerman's telephone, so he could call friends regularly.
Ackerman was bedridden for 23 years. Artisan Coterie members looked after him until he died in 1960.
The Artisan Coterie launched a number of successful careers. When one member's business teetered on bankruptcy, the Artisan Coterie bailed him out.
"No one knows who gave what--we kept no record," says Henderson, uncharacteristically reticent. "We would've done it for anyone."
In fact, they found each other jobs and hired members when they could and kept each other employed during rough times. Artisan Coterie members included an attorney, an athletic director, a banker, a baker, a doctor, an educator, an FBI employee, a finance executive, a foundry owner, a geologist, an oil executive, a minister, a mortician, a contractor and a U.S. government road administrator. Today, the Coterie boasts no less than seven millionaires.
Through it all, families, careers, illness, travel and relocation, these men still get together once a year for their weekend party at Mt. Baldy. No women, no children, no non-Coterie members. These get-togethers might be a fraction more civilized than those held in the 1920s, but one doubts that even this year's will be a tea and cakes affair.
One gets the sense that, after all has been said and done about wives and family (many of these men, in fact, married women who were also Manual Arts graduates), the members of this group share a bond stronger than marriage fatherhood or even death.
There is a fine and very old bottle of brandy waiting to be consumed by the last surviving member of the Artisan Coterie. Even though these men are in their mid-80s, however, it seems likely that anyone will have that dubious pleasure any time soon. These men keep each other alive.
"I had a Coterie member stand up for me at my wedding," says Henderson. "I had a Coterie member deliver my first child, build my first house and give me my first job. And when I die, a Coterie member will bury me."