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Laying Bare the Nature of Nudism

He preached the benefits of nudism--for the mind and the body--and he altered the image of nudists from sex-crazed social lepers to open-minded naturists.

It was on bucolic, grassy, eucalyptus-scented grounds in woodsy Topanga Canyon that Ed Lange created the nudist paradise of Elysium Fields--the first nudist resort to adopt a “clothing-optional” policy rather than requiring all visitors to disrobe. It still exists, 30 years after he founded it.

Lange, the son of strict Chicago Baptists, believed in baring his soul and everything else to commune with nature, and spent his adult life trying to demystify the nudist way of life.

He got the Supreme Court to change its mind about whether nudist magazines could be sent through the mails, and Kodak to change its policy about printing nudist pictures. He went on early talk shows--fully clad--to promote the nudist line.

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Lange died in 1995, but his secluded paradise, Los Angeles’ only nudist colony, has thrived for three decades, despite prayer vigils outside its gates, persistent efforts by the county government to shut it down, and dismayed neighbors who might not have realized what the place was until after they moved in. Elysium Fields casts itself not as a playland for swingers or a mecca for voyeurs, but as an “educational facility and clothing-optional resort,” a place for families. It embraces a “nude is not lewd” philosophy, and sex and “provocative play” are prohibited--repeat, prohibited. It invites visitors to shed their problems along with their attire and get in touch with their senses, to smell the grass, enjoy the fresh air and count the clouds.

As a teenager in Chicago, Lange became fascinated with nudism after buying an early nudist magazine, Sunshine & Health, sold under the counter at a drugstore. Unlike most other young men, Lange was drawn to the articles more than the pictures.

Abandoning Chicago, he moved to Los Angeles in 1940, working as a set designer and as a freelance photographer for Life, Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. But his true career path opened up when he heard about what happened to Laura Glassey.

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Glassey was a pioneer in the nudist movement, and she had opened the Elysia nudist park in the hills above Tujunga. But hostile newspaper accounts of alleged lewd behavior and hints of “unspeakable orgies” behind the “impenetrable wall” prompted authorities to act. Glassey was on the brink of losing her park.

To forestall it, members complied with a 1939 county law prohibiting nudism, and took to wearing G-strings. But when an unsuspecting sunbather dropped hers to go skinny-dipping, sheriff’s deputies, peering through binoculars from the hills above, swooped in. Glassey was arrested and eventually had to close Elysia.

Through the ordeal, Lange was one of her biggest supporters. He set out to improve conditions for nudists and change what he considered an unhealthy attitude about sex and the human body. He and his wife, June, formed the Sundial Club, a social group for nudists that met in the Langes’ Hollywood apartment in the early 1950s.

He did not yet have the law on his side, but he had history.

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Benjamin Franklin regularly took “air baths,” sitting naked in front of an open window and breathing deeply. James Burnett, the Scottish scientist who was one of the first to suggest that man descended from apes, was a nudist, as was Charles Richter, inventor of the earthquake scale.

Lange waged numerous legal battles. He won a 1956 U.S. Supreme Court decision granting second-class mailing privileges for nudist publications. Five years later, he began publishing his quarterly nudist pamphlet, the Journal of the Senses, and wrote books promoting nudity, including “Beyond Nakedness” and “As Nature Intended.”

He persuaded Eastman Kodak to change its policy of refusing to return prints of nudes sent in for developing. Though he was fully clothed, he scandalized daytime TV viewers in the early 1960s by appearing on “Art Linkletter’s House Party” to promote the lifestyle.

With his different-drummer tune, Lange had a Pied Piper ability to attract followers and promote a healthier attitude toward body acceptance, health and self-esteem. But even in Topanga--whose comfortably bohemian residents pride themselves on their reputation for tolerance--Lange encountered resistance to the project he began in 1968.

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He said he had found his heaven, his ideal naturist resort, on the edge of Topanga State Park. On his eight acres--with one fig tree--he built an oasis of tranquillity where two common status symbols, clothes and cars, still have no currency. Indeed, cars, loudspeakers and radios are banned to this day.

On warm weekends, waitresses and teachers still mingle with doctors and lawyers. Some play tennis in nothing but sneakers, while others swim in the buff in the pool. Children squeal and romp across the lawn.

But the retreat has had troubles since it opened in 1968. Avidly curious neighbors climbed to the top of the hills surrounding Lange’s property, peeked over and called the sheriff. Deputies arrested Lange and two dozen others on successive weekends, charging them with indecent exposure.

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Determined to overthrow the ordinance, Lange began his first legal fight. He challenged the county code and won. The county appealed and Lange prevailed again. The state Court of Appeal finally upheld the right to assemble on private property, whether clothed or unclothed, as constitutionally protected.

Thwarted on one front, officials continued to battle over zoning and land issues until 1992, when they finally gave up and recognized the camp’s right to exist.

Spanning almost three decades, the battle to gain legal and community acceptance cost Lange more than $1 million. The same local business leadership and the Topanga Chamber of Commerce that once shunned him and would not sell him a ticket to the group’s annual dinner named Lange Man of the Year in 1994, a year before he died.

Today, Elysium Institute (which includes Elysium Growth Press, the publishing company that supports the resort and its educational facilities) is carried on by one of Lange’s daughters.

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With the passage of time, Elysium Fields--where the clothed and unclothed can mingle in harmony--has become what Lange intended, just another part of a colorful California landscape, rather than a risque spot on a titillation tour of Los Angeles.


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