Appreciation: In the wake of the L.A. riots, author Jean Stein taught me the art of the interview
On a summer break in the early 1990s, a friend passed me a well-thumbed copy of Jean Stein’s “Edie: An American Biography,” an oral history about the life of Edie Sedgwick, the socialite-bohemian who’d been a fixture at Andy Warhol’s Factory studio.
I didn’t know a thing about Sedgwick at the time. But I was interested in Warhol and the New York pop art scene of the 1960s, so I took the book — and barely put it down until I finished the last page.
“Edie” wasn’t simply a story about Sedgwick.
It was a masterfully edited series of oral histories that came together to paint a vivid portrait of a troubled young woman born into aristocratic East Coast wealth. It was a story of an art world in transition, giving up heated expressionism for cool pop (and really long underground films). And it was a cautionary tale of media hype, of Sedgwick, the breathlessly covered “Youthquaker” and “It Girl,” who by the time of her death at 28 — from an overdose of barbiturates — was a fading cultural icon with a thin professional resume.
Plus, the book had crazy sex and oodles of drugs and over-the-top Manhattan art parties — not to mention the curious burial habits of an influential Massachusetts clan whose roots date back to the colonies. “Edie,” in fact, opens with the most memorable story about the early Sedgwick family members’ desire to be buried in a circle, so “that on Judgment Day when they arise and face the Judge, they will have to see no one but Sedgwicks.”
To me, a college-age Latina from Southern California, this all seemed terribly exotic in the most American Gothic kind of way.
Which is why I was devastated to hear that Stein had died on Monday at the age of 83, in an apparent suicide. I can only imagine the heartbreak of her close friends and family.
I do give thanks, however, that my connection to Jean went beyond reading “Edie.”
The summer after my pal Dawn Burneff had entrusted me with her lone copy of the book, I received an unexpected call.
It was Robert Scheer, then a columnist for the Los Angeles Times. I had worked for Scheer as both babysitter and research assistant; now his good friend Jean Stein was in town looking for a research assistant to help with her new oral history about Los Angeles.
It was 1992. The summer after the Los Angeles riots (which I missed, because I’d been doing a junior year abroad in South America). Before I knew it, I had a job with the author of “Edie.”
The summer job was as surreal as it was educational — one of those foundational moments that are difficult to recognize until too much time has passed.
For one, there was the landscape: Los Angeles, 1992, still wrecked and singed in the wake of an uprising that had resulted in more than 60 deaths, 2,000-plus injuries and approximately $1 billion in damage.
And there was Stein. Slim, petite, soft-spoken — bearing a halo of curls. Wondrously erudite. Full of ferocious curiosity and a meticulous attention to detail. She may have seemed frail, but she was steely.
In all of my 20-year-old cluelessness (no Google back then), I had no idea she was a child of Hollywood royalty — the eldest daughter of the powerful entertainment mogul Jules Stein, co-founder of Music Corp. of America. Nor was I aware of her extensive history with the Paris Review, the seminal magazine of letters where she worked with journalist and essayist George Plimpton, who would serve as editor on some of her key books.
To me, she was Jean, author of “Edie,” oral historian, the small woman with the big smile and the even bigger tape recorder.
Jean was at home everywhere with everybody — disarming high-ranking cops and inscrutable former gang members.
On most mornings of the weeks I spent working for her, I would drive to some fancy hotel on the Westside of Los Angeles — the sort with a grand lobby and towering arrangements of fresh flowers — to retrieve her. There she’d be waiting with clutches of news clippings, the names of people she wanted to interview circled in pen. It was my job to track them down, set up appointments and drive her in my car: a 1975 banana-yellow Mustang II that featured a staticky radio, a rattling engine and no air conditioning. (It is a testament to Jean’s earthiness that she never once seemed put out by having to shout her way through a conversation whenever we got on a freeway.)
In the Mustang II we would head to interviews with witnesses to some of the riots’ most violent moments: The gang specialist in downtown Los Angeles with the melodic laugh that echoed off the linoleum floors. The charming young family who operated a down-at-the-heels motel on a broad, burned-out avenue in South L.A. The former Crips gang member, marked by the many tattoos of tears on his cheek, who was working to keep kids off the street.
I can’t remember the latter man’s name, but I do remember the circumstances. It was inside his low-slung bungalow, somewhere in Compton. At the beginning of our chat, he arranged himself on a workout bench, opened the front door a crack and never took his eyes off the street. After the interview was over, he pulled out a photo album, a keepsake from his gang-banging days, which included a 1970s portrait in which, dressed like a dandy, he wielded a pair of Tommy guns. Real ones.
That summer, Jean and I interviewed cops, lawyers, judges, community activists, small business owners and ministers. We hung out in South L.A. motels and fancy-pants restaurants in Beverly Hills. Jean was at home everywhere with everybody — disarming high-ranking cops and inscrutable former gang members.
She was friendly and encouraging with her subjects, never any judgment in her voice. She just wanted to know. And in that regard, she could be relentless, asking questions about the most trivial details. What did the room look like? What did the air smell like? What color was the sky? What were you thinking in that moment?
On one occasion, after she had already returned to New York, she sent me back to interview the same South L.A. man on several occasions, because I hadn’t quite captured the level of detail she sought. Sometimes the smallest offhand anecdote, she counseled me, could become the center of a story. You just had to be attuned.
So for the summer of 1992, I dutifully collected the stories of Los Angeles, of its gangs, its cops, its liquor store shootings and the stylish young man who would materialize at a South L.A. pool in a woman’s bathing suit.
With Jean, nothing was ever ordinary. This was a woman who, after all, knew both Robert F. Kennedy and Dennis Hopper personally. Which means that even though we didn’t know it then, the summer would include one surreal touch.
Friends of Jean’s had been concerned at the idea of her running around the rougher parts of L.A., so along for the ride on many of our interviews was a former police officer who worked in private security. He was good-natured and curious and quickly became part of our mobile journalistic unit. In fact, he often sat in on interviews and asked questions of his own.
His name was Ron Shipp. Three years later, I turned on the television to see him testifying in the murder trial of O.J. Simpson. In researching one story, we had brushed up against an even bigger one. Sometimes the sidebar is the story.
I generally lost touch with Jean after I finished my assignment. I had another year of college before me. She went back to New York, where she edited Grand Street, a literary magazine that fused the wildly different things that Jean was compelled by: literature, art, film, poetry and science.
The interviews we completed didn’t make it into one of her published works. The project, after all, was exploratory. In the years that followed, she turned her focus to L.A.’s influential early 20th century families instead, publishing “West of Eden: An American Place,” last year.
But my assignment with her left me with lasting lessons about how to interview, how to tell stories, how to let the people you meet guide you — rather than imposing narrative from above.
Thank you for the education, Jean Stein. And for being so cool about that sweaty Mustang II.
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