“It’s the people I’ve written about who march through my memory like an army of shadows,” Al Martinez wrote in 2009 in his final column for the Los Angeles Times. “They all mattered to me, the clowns and the victims, those who gave and those who took....”
Over three decades, Martinez chronicled life in Southern California as a columnist who had “an extraordinary ability to take something very personal and spin it out beautifully to make you laugh or weep,” said Sue Hodson, curator of the 2012 Huntington Library exhibit “Al Martinez: Bard of L.A.”
Martinez died Monday at West Hills Hospital of congestive heart failure, said his wife, Joanne. He was 85 and had been suffering from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
The columnist was “the voice, not just of Angelenos, but of Everyman and Everywoman,” Hodson said. “He captured bits of humanity in his writing, writing eloquently, gracefully and movingly of the human situation. He told universal stories and wrote about what unites us.”
Bill Boyarsky, a former Times city editor and columnist, said Martinez “was able to connect directly with people because he was a marvelous storyteller. He really could make a walk in the park sound like an adventure.... That was his great gift.”
Unspooling the tales of people like a long-ago editor fascinated him. “Issues drift by like twigs in a tide,” he wrote in 2001, “but humanity trudges forever forward, fighting to survive, to persist … to grow.”
When his column debuted on Jan. 5, 1984, in the Westside edition of the Los Angeles Times, he wrote about a confused elderly man in Palisades Park who agreed to an interview after being assured that the writer “was about as harmful as a nun among thieves.”
In the ensuing 25 years, Martinez considered such topics as fitness, gun ownership, taxes, AIDS and surviving 55-minute roadblocks. He often slipped in a favorite complaint — taking out the trash — and pondered politics and social injustice.
“Hate won last weekend in Westchester,” Martinez began a 1986 column about an interracial couple who had been driven out of their community “by a barrage of racist mail that climaxed in the shooting death of a pet rabbit in their backyard. But the rabbit wasn’t the real target. They were.”
The column was also appearing in the San Fernando Valley edition by fall 1984, moved to the Metro section in 1988 and was published in the newspaper’s features pages starting in 2001.
His family life was a key ingredient of his columns, particularly his spirited exchanges with his wife, Joanne, whom he called by her original last name, Cinelli. In one of his final Times columns, Martinez wrote about Cinthia, the eldest of his three children, who had cancer. She died in 2011.
He often set his writing in Topanga Canyon, where he had lived since moving to Southern California in the early 1970s, and repeatedly wrote of the fire danger there.
“I have viewed with awe the immensity of flames coming toward our home,” Martinez wrote in 2006. “I have stood on the rooftop to watch a night sky red with fury, holding a garden hose that would have absolutely no effect against the forces that ruled the darkness.”
He was born July 21, 1929, in Oakland to Alfredo and Mary Martinez. His parents split up when he was 5, and he had a hardscrabble early life.
At 20, he married Cinelli, who was a fellow student at San Francisco State, and soon joined the Marines.
From 1950 to 1952, he served in the Korean War as a rifleman and combat correspondent, The hundreds of letters he wrote home show a young writer finding his voice, according to Hodson. In one, he wrote of struggling to cope “in a world of battle that seems devoid of humanity or reason.”
Upon returning from war, Martinez briefly attended UC Berkeley but left to join the Richmond Independent as a reporter. He moved to the Oakland Tribune in 1955 and stayed until 1971.
Before relocating to Southern California, Martinez and his wife took a two-month trip across the U.S. in a camper with their three children, who ranged in age from 10 to 23, and their dog, Hoover.
“Seeing Manhattan for the first time is like falling asleep in your own bed and waking up naked in the middle of a circus,” Martinez wrote in his 2003 book “I’ll Be Damned If I’ll Die in Oakland: A Sort of Travel Memoir.” The title refers to a curse his mother once hurled at him in frustration, and he said it inspired him to see the world.
His other books include a novel about the death of a newspaper, “The Last City Room” (2000); “City of Angles: A Drive-By Portrait of L.A.” (1996); “Barkley: A Dog’s Journey” (2006) about a road trip with his terminally ill English springer spaniel; and collections of his columns.
After joining The Times in 1972 as a reporter covering local news, Martinez contributed to three Pulitzer Prize-winning efforts — a 1983 series on the growth of the Latino population in Southern California (he wrote a feature on Mexican American millionaires), 1992 coverage of the Los Angeles riots and 1994 reporting on the Northridge earthquake.
In 2002 he received a lifetime achievement award from the California Chicano News Media Assn. His work as a columnist was honored by the National Society of Newspaper Columnists and the California Newspaper Publishers Assn.
Martinez also wrote for several television series, including “Jigsaw John,” a 1976 drama starring Jack Warden. The show was based on a Times profile Martinez had written on John St. John, a one-eyed homicide investigator for the Los Angeles Police Department.
His other writing credits included episodes of “Hawaii Five-O” in 1978, the short-lived 1980 police drama “B.A.D. Cats,” and “Out on the Edge,” a 1989 television movie starring Rick Schroder.
During a wave of newspaper downsizing, Martinez received a buyout from The Times in 2007. He began his June farewell column, “I don’t know how to say goodbye.” A month later, the columnist was back, he wrote, as the result of “a tidal wave of protest” by readers of his dismissal.
The Times let him go again in January 2009, when he was 79. “I’ve had a ball writing this column,” he wrote in his final goodbye. “There aren’t too many in the newspaper biz who are given an opportunity to write 800 words on their dog and actually get them published.”
He was soon writing a column for the Los Angeles Daily News, which published his final one in March 2013. Martinez began writing columns for the LA Observed website that July. He also had written a column for his community newspaper, the Topanga Messenger, and shared his craft through his Topanga Writers Workshop.
In a 1991 Times column with the headline “Sweet Bypass Blues,” vintage Martinez was on display as he wrote of his doctor:
“One of these days,” I say to my wife, Cinelli, as they wheel me down the hall toward surgery, “I am going to come back and beat the crap out of him.”
She is walking beside me holding my hand, as she has always held my hand when times have not been good for me.
“He’s pretty big,” she whispers. “Maybe you should just plan on writing the crap out of him.”
In addition to his wife, Martinez is survived by a daughter, Linda; a son, Allen; and six grandchildren.
Services are pending.
Times staff writer Elaine Woo and former Times staff writer Keith Thursby contributed to this report.
Nelson is a former Times staff writer.