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Reviving Salons as Hotbeds of New Ideas

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It’s late night on a gritty stretch of Sunset Boulevard when novelist Rachel Resnick makes her way through a crowd of hipsters at a Hollywood cafe, scanning the room until she spots the “S” sign at a table full of people.

The S stands for “Salon,” a mobile community of confederates summoned into orbit each month by e-mail and social links that crisscross Los Angeles like electric currents.

This is Resnick’s self-styled “intellectual pit stop,” a monthly mecca for 60 or so writers, filmmakers and actors. They trek in from all over Southern California to meet around long wooden tables for conversations filled with news of books and films and a love of language and ideas--the very things Los Angeles is often accused of not having.

For centuries, intellectual salons have served as a crossroads for people, ideas and social movements. In modern Los Angeles, salons are being reinvented with a new sense of purpose, as increasingly important forums for animating the city’s cultural and civic life.

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“This is a particularly discombobulated city, a city with no real center,” said Paul Holdengraber, the head of the Institute for Art and Cultures at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. “People want to have a place to share the life of the mind.”

In the last few years, salons have been created for lovers of art and architecture; for actors, writers, philanthropists, dot-commies and scientists; and for powerful clusters of wealthy and famous Angelenos:

* Stanley Sheinbaum, 80, a wealthy Democratic Party activist, has run a legendary salon of powerful and famous liberals for more than 20 years. King Hussein and Queen Noor were guests during the Mideast peace talks. Bill and Hillary Clinton came during their election campaigns. Regulars at Sheinbaum’s salon--Ramona Ripston, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, actor Warren Beatty, and television producer Norman Lear--feel they’re pulling up a chair at history’s table. And Sheinbaum is among those who still believe conversation can push history forward.

“Bringing people together generates an energy that goes beyond the sum of the individuals,” Sheinbaum said. “You get some action going. People get creative when they’re with each other. They add to the concepts.”

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* Guests at celebrity columnist Arianna Huffington’s high-powered literary salon include Phoenix Pictures Chairman Mike Medavoy, Black Entertainment Television host Tavis Smiley, Los Angeles mayoral candidate Antonio Villaraigosa, and Beatty. Hollywood producer Barry Diller, billionaire Eli Broad, actor Steve Martin, humorist Harry Shearer and Oliver Stone also drop in.

“There are many L.A.s, and one thing these book parties do is bring the L.A.s together,” Huffington said.

* Supermarket magnate Ron Burkle, who is endowing UCLA’s Center for International Relations, has hosted U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, Clinton administration Defense Secretary William Cohen, former Secretary of State George Shultz and Jimmy Carter at his 5-year-old gatherings. International affairs experts and UCLA Chancellor Albert Carnesale mingle with such guests as television producer Haim Saban, Westwood One radio network Chairman Norm Pattiz, Barbra Streisand and Sylvester Stallone.

* The Pasadena salon of Louise Wannier, a founder of Gemstar, the consumer electronics conglomerate that owns TV Guide, brings together entrepreneurs from the Internet and biotechnology worlds. Members include Jim Pavilack, co-founder of Hiwire, which is creating a targeted advertising marketplace for Internet radio; and Stephanie Black, chief executive of Carbon Communications, which is preparing to launch a system to send live video by e-mail. Wannier calls the monthly gatherings the “L.A. Conversation.”

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“I’m trying to create an engaged group of people to talk about interesting issues that are facing us as companies, industries and as a society,” Wannier said.

Salons Serve as Networking Tool

No one knows how many salons exist in Los Angeles. There is no registry. The gatherings are generally not publicized. Attendance is by invitation only. But they are proliferating. Claude Whitmeyer, author of “In the Company of Others, Making Community in the Modern World,” contends that traditional networks are vanishing and salons fill the void. In Los Angeles, large numbers of well-paid people who work at home or in solitary offices form a natural pool of potential salon guests.

“When my novel [“On Spec”] was published, I knew no other novelists in the city,” recalled Richard Rushfield. Then Rushfield ran into Resnick at a book reading, and she invited him to join her salon. Now he has a battalion of fellow wordsmiths who come to his readings.

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“It’s about creating a community where there’s an exchange of ideas,” said fiction writer Resnick, a flamboyant leather-jacketed thirtysomething who writes at home in Topanga Canyon. “We’re trying to encourage intersections and cross-pollination, because people are segregated, even in the arts in Los Angeles.”

Since Resnick co-founded the salon four years ago, a host of others have emerged.

There’s the Dead Poets Society, for lovers of the work of deceased literati like Allen Ginsberg and Pablo Neruda. There’s the West Hollywood Red Cup Club of fine arts lovers, run by independent filmmaker Gretchen Sommerfeld and film editor Larry Bock. There’s the Los Feliz salon for owners of architecturally significant homes. There’s the sometime salon of Persian emigre novelist Gina Nahai for members of the Western arm of PEN, the international writers group. Regulars include such writers as Carolyn See, Jonathan Kirsch and Eric Lax.

Some salons are linked to institutions.

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East Los Angeles’ Self Help Graphics hosts an occasional “Tertulia,” or conversation group, that often focuses on the role of the arts in the community. Artists like Leo Limon and Margaret Garcia are frequent attendees, along with such writers as Bill Bejarano.

The Los Angeles Institute for the Humanities meets at USC every other Friday. In three years, its membership has swelled to 75--writers like Susan Faludi, Mona Simpson, Yxta Maya Murray and Sandra Tsing Loh, as well as artists, academics and art curators.

“We want artists, writers, dancers and scientists--who are all interested in humanistic questions--to talk to each other,” said co-director Steve Ross, a USC historian.

For Stephen Brooks, the administrative director of the Center for the Study of Popular Culture--whose salon draws such people as National Rifle Assn. President Charlton Heston to hear speakers such as Florida Gov. Jeb Bush--the gatherings show Los Angeles “is reaching outside its identity as a one-horse, entertainment-only town. We’ve entered a new phase of openness to new ideas and intellectual curiosity. It’s probably cyclical. But I’m glad we’re at the apex.”

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Huffington’s salon is ostensibly about books--but it is also about politics, celebrity and buzz. Here, academics mix with pop culture icons, and it’s never quite clear who is slumming. Celebrities are less likely to be treated as zoo animals, and they do not trigger the intense self-consciousness in others that can make for an arid social experience.

At one recent Huffington gathering, Geraldo Rivera chatted up Shirley MacLaine. “West Wing” writer Lawrence O’Donnell mingled with real-life politicians such as liberal congressman Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio). Former Universal Studios chief Frank Biondi made his way through a foyer crowded with such guests as Motown veteran Suzanne de Passe, co-writer of “Lady Sings the Blues” and executive producer of this year’s NAACP Image Awards ceremony; and county Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky.

The guest of honor, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., held forth in Huffington’s drawing room on reforming the electoral college so that “it would no longer be possible for the popular vote winner to lose the electoral college.”

‘It Just Opened Up a Whole New World’

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For USC critical studies professor Todd Boyd, Huffington’s salon is as serendipitous, syncopated and spontaneous as the jazz that is his passion.

Boyd, a screenwriter and author of “Am I Black Enough for You: Popular Culture From the Hood and Beyond,” says the opportunity “to be able to hear [black intellectual] Randall Robinson talk about his book on the debt, hear somebody talk about a controversial political issue and get into a detailed conversation with Warren Beatty--to me, that is the coolest [stuff] I’ve been involved with in a long time. I can feed off the drama.”

Former Assembly Speaker Villaraigosa calls Huffington’s salon “an opportunity to have intelligent and stimulating conversations about important issues affecting society.”

And though Villaraigosa does not mention it, the salon is also a brilliant perch for critical Westside support for his mayoral bid, a living, breathing A-list of Democratic Party campaign donors.

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Fifteen miles east, Resnick’s salon feels more like a music video.

An infectious rock soundtrack plays. People lean close to each other, talk and order another beer. The mood is unpretentious, intimate, warm. Film actors drop in, but their presence is downplayed.

“For me, working in the film business, this is an oasis,” said Rene Simon Cruz, the owner of a production company, Esperanza Films. “It just opened up a whole new world. The vibe here is great. People here are very successful--but cool about it.”

Tonight, a handsome young playwright is discussing his work with a guy who has a film studio development deal. Literary writers mix readily with punk singers, and high-brow bleeds into pop culture.

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Take Mark Danielewski, author of the critically praised “House of Leaves,” a novel with cinematic influences that has been called a literary “Blair Witch Project.” Danielewski is the brother of the singer Poe. Her new album was inspired by his literary themes, and the two are touring together.

“There’s a wonderful presence in Los Angeles of writers and poets who have no association with Hollywood,” Danielewski said. “Los Angeles is rich in that way.”

Creative people have produced salons in Los Angeles since the days when French writer Anais Nin ran her Silver Lake scene. In those days, Los Angeles salons were filled with European intellectuals fleeing the spread of fascism in Europe.

Heinrich Mann, author of “The Blue Angel,” ran a salon out of the Farmer’s Market off Fairfax. There was the Garden of Allah crowd at Musso & Frank’s, which drew Raymond Chandler, F. Scott Fitzgerald and radical playwright Bertolt Brecht. Thomas Mann hung out at the Villa Aurora salon of Lion Feuchtwanger, overlooking the Santa Monica Bay--a house that is now a cultural center. Aldous Huxley’s gatherings helped turn English poet Christopher Isherwood’s trip to California into a four-decade idyll.

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Intellectual salons have been around practically as long as there have been intellectuals. There are mentions of salons from 10th century Moorish Spain and earlier. French historian Eugen Weber dates the term to the receiving salons in ladies’ chambers of French chateaus. Salons have been credited with spreading the ideals of the Enlightenment and the American Revolution, aiding the rise of European liberalism, women’s suffrage and modernism--and with encouraging snobbery and social separatism, Weber added.

More recently, the Bloomsbury Group gave Virginia Woolf “A Room of One’s Own,” and Gertrude Stein’s Paris digs hosted the Lost Generation of Ernest Hemingway and James Joyce.

Some say book clubs--and even Internet chat rooms--are the new salons.

One flourishing book club is hosted monthly by Mayor Richard Riordan and his wife, Nancy. At the meeting last week, they discussed “The Red and the Black,” Stendhal’s novel of an ambitious young man negotiating the treacherous political climate of post-Napoleonic France. Among the members are political pundit Susan Estrich, state Librarian Kevin Starr, actor Michael York and his wife, photographer Pat York; and author and social scientist James Q. Wilson.

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In today’s media-saturated world, salons no longer play the central role in transmitting ideas, but they still offer a supportive forum for sharing and developing them.

Critically praised writer Aimee Bender is now the organizer of Resnick’s salon, but Resnick is still a “switchboard operator,” always on the lookout to draft new members. Malcolm Gladwell, the author of “The Tipping Point,” a book on the spread of social trends, calls people like her “connectors” or “mavens”: networkers who “specialize in bringing society together and moving ideas around.”

Connectors, he writes, “know everyone, and in some oblique way, may actually run the world. They spread ideas and information. They connect varied and isolated parts of society.”

And once people come together, they achieve things they couldn’t do alone.

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One night, producer Rene Simon Cruz met a New York writer at the salon.

“We both vibe. He says, ‘I’ve got this script, this thing I’ve been writing for a year, and no one wants to touch it,’ ” Cruz said. “I said, ‘Send it to me.’ ”

They met with film financiers, and “we rocked them,” Cruz said. They’re hoping to close a deal to produce a series of low-budget films together.

At the most recent salon meeting, writers talked about forming a new literary magazine, or even a publishing house for Southern California authors.

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“Why not?” asked Deanne Stillman, the Marina del Rey author of the upcoming “Twenty-Nine Palms.”

If it weren’t for the salon, “I’d probably have to go to 10 different bars where the seeds of something like a really good Southern California literary journal might be sown,” she mused. “A small group of people get together, the elements can fall into place and anything can happen.”

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Los Angeles Salons

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Host: Stanley Sheinbaum

Location: His Brentwood home

Among the participants: Ramona Ripston, executive director of the ACLU of Southern California, television producer Norman Lear, Warren Beatty, Barbra Streisand

Previous guests: Greek Foreign Minister George Papandreou, former President Bill Clinton and wife Hillary, Jordan’s King Hussein and Queen Noor

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*

Host: Arianna Huffington

Location: Her Brentwood home

Among the participants: Phoenix Pictures Chairman Mike Medavoy, Black Entertainment Television host Tavis Smiley, Los Angeles mayoral candidate Antonio Villaraigosa, Hollywood producer Barry Diller, billionaire Eli Broad

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Previous guests: Historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., writer Norman Mailer, playwright Anna Deveare Smith

*

Host: Ron Burkle

Location: His Beverly Hills home

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Among the participants: UCLA Chancellor Albert Carnesale, television producer Haim Saban, Westwood One radio network Chairman Norm Pattiz

Previous guests: UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, former Secretary of State George P. Shultz, former President Jimmy Carter

*

Organizer: Louise Wannier

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Location: Her Pasadena home

Among the participants: Hiwire co-founder Jim Pavilack, Carbon Communications CEO Stephanie Black

*

Organizer: Self Help Graphics

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Location: Their East L.A. studios

Among the participants: Artists Leo Limon and Margaret Garcia, writer Bill Bejarano

*

Organizer: Aimee Bender

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Location: Unidentified Hollywood restaurant

Among the participants: Fiction writers Rachel Resnick, Wendy Belcher, Richard Rushfield and Mark Danielewski; filmmaker Rene Simon Cruz

*

Organizer: Los Angeles Institute for the Humanities

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Location: USC

Among the participants: Writers Susan Faludi, Mona Simpson, Yxta Maya Murray and Sandra Tsing Loh; film producer Linda Obst; California Institute of the Arts President Steven Lavine; Carol Wells, founder and executive director of the Center for the Study of Political Graphics


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