About four years ago, the Los Angeles Unified School District gained control over the fabled, long-empty Ambassador Hotel. The Los Angeles Conservancy immediately engaged the district in a long and bitter struggle over the property's destiny.
There were many arguments for preservation: The bureaucracy behind the Belmont Learning Center fiasco was incompetent to determine the fate of this jewel. The coffee shop and porte-cochere entrance were designed by Paul R. Williams, pioneering African American architect. Hotel rooms could have been "repurposed" as classrooms. Or a school could have been built elsewhere on the large parcel of land, leaving the hotel intact. Etc.
The reason this was on my radar was that, just as the Ambassador struggle erupted, I'd conceived a novel set in 1940s L.A.
As I tentatively began to map a narrative, I searched for things to fasten on: locations, attractions, buildings that still stood. As I wove a plot around historical places I'd toured, driven past, got drunk at, each became a kind of touchstone: Union Station, Grauman's Chinese Theatre, Musso & Frank Grill -- and the Ambassador.
The vicissitudes of the hotel mirrored (or so I came to feel, especially on those "difficult" days) the fortunes of my own, much-humbler creation. On days when the Ambassador's fate seemed especially dire, I had the sense I was writing my '40s novel in disappearing ink.
When I moved here 20 years ago from Manhattan, with all its serious, substantial buildings and monuments, I was surprised and amused at the flimsy quality of so much L.A. architecture -- whimsical and impermanent as scenery.
Buildings seemed to go up and come down as though the town itself was one big back-lot. One day you're pushing your babies in strollers past the Pan Pacific Auditorium (as my wife and I did in the late '80s); the next day it burns to the ground in a "suspicious fire." (In New York, tenements and warehouses burn to the ground in suspicious fires; Streamline Moderne landmarks do not.) Tiny Naylor's, on Sunset and La Brea, was such a perfect piece of '50s Pop Americana, I knew it would stand there forever. But it was bulldozed, and an El Pollo Loco sprang up in its place. The list is long (Garden of Allah, Schwab's, the Brown Derby and so on) and dispiriting.
Does L.A. have an aesthetic responsibility to its nostalgists, cultural historians, film nuts and Raymond Chandler freaks? Can the past have any claim upon the present, or must free-market forces (more mini-malls) and civic necessities (more classrooms) prevail?
What if a brilliant balance had been struck to "repurpose" the Ambassador? Imagine high school kids studying sex ed in the suite where Sinatra once gamboled with hookers after a gig at the Cocoanut Grove downstairs.
BUT, NO. The demolition of the Ambassador was completed on Monday by the Cleveland Wrecking Co. (a portion of the hotel's pantry, where Robert Kennedy was shot in 1968, was apparently saved and put "in storage" until someone decides what to do with it).
Someone once observed that three of Chandler's best-known titles -- "Farewell, My Lovely," "The Big Sleep" and "The Long Goodbye" -- were different ways of saying "death." It's a commonplace that the dark currents of noir flowed from the insecurities of GIs returning home after years overseas: young men who weren't sure that their girlfriends and wives were waiting for them -- or, if they were waiting, had they been faithful? Put the two together and you get the genre's twin themes: betrayal and extinction.
Now that the Ambassador is plowed under, I pause to reflect: Is it a surprise that the hotel got the wrecking ball rather than a loving restoration? Not when you consider its fate in a noir context. The hapless romantic Moose Malloy spends all of "Farewell, My Lovely" searching for his lost love. When he finds her at last, is he rewarded with a kiss? No, Moose gets five bullets in the stomach, fired point-blank.
In noir-land, the good die young and the bad sleep well. Through noir's tinted lens, Southern California is Eden Spoiled -- per Chandler, the "tarantula on a slice of angel food."
Perhaps sometime in the future, a post-noir literary and film tradition will be recognized, one whose themes are (let's say, for fun) hope and rebirth. The three best-known titles will be metaphors for health and happiness. Revivalists and cultists will pull over at the corner of Sunset and La Brea, stare at the old El Pollo Loco and thrill themselves by imagining a gorgeous, charismatic couple within, legendary hero and heroine of the genre, circa 2006, sharing a No. 2 Mucho Meal combination.
Could happen, right?