Searching for Our Bohemian Past
[This is a blast from the sixteen-year-old past, talking about a still older past, from a column by the LA Times’ Patt Morrison of September 20, 1998.]
* * *
At intervals of a half-century or so, a utopian spirit was known to move across the country. With its propulsion, people struck out from old homes and old ways for the newer, the better, the purer. The Transcendentalists at Brook Farm in New England. The Oneida community, remembered now for forks and spoons. The Amana colony, living on vestigially in side-by-side refrigerators. And, of course, the original rigid utopians, the “my way or the highway” crowd who disembarked from the Mayflower.
Later the utopian impulse would propel thousands to California, where we individualized it, secularized it and renamed it “the dream,” the way a single human has dreams and many humans have a vision. Here its motto became one man-one utopia, its altar the brick barbecue, its baptismal font the swimming pool. Its variants are Autopia, one man-one car in Walt’s dream-world playland; fruitopia, the wacky fringe that plays center field for California, and dystopia, any place where a dream fails the dreamer or a vision succeeds so well it tyrannizes its visionaries.
Utopia, fruitopia or dystopia, Southern California laid claim to: the Elysia nudist colony, which thrived furtively above Tujunga. Gaylord Wilshire, the silk-hatted socialist millionaire and early health-food connoisseur, who published a utopian political newspaper; the richest street in Los Angeles bears his name. The Polish actress Helena Modjeska and her titled husband, who started a rustic retreat in Anaheim; it failed because none of its residents knew the first thing about farming. England’s Fabians, who found a warmer welcome in Pasadena. The socialist Llano del Rio cooperative colony in the Antelope Valley, which was briefly home to Aldous Huxley, whose novels swung between utopian and dystopian and who summed up the envy and the awfulness of Los Angeles in his observation that “the writer of ‘The Beverly Hillbillies’ earns more in a week than I do in a year.”
Into this mix comes Lionel Rolfe: native son, chronicler of the yearnings and failings of some quarters of this huge city, a man who met Huxley and all manner of people who don’t come to mind when you think of L.A.–but should.
Lionel Rolfe’s L.A. is not the L.A. of the O’Malleys or the Long Beach Iowa Picnic. In an intellectual desert reputed to be as wide as the Sinai, Rolfe’s family included a pianist mother, a poet-photographer-judge father and his uncle, violinist Yehudi Menuhin. The other boys at military schools mocked Rolfe for liking “that longhair music” and figured him to be “a pansy, because I liked classical music.”
Classical music was not L.A. In fact, little in his life seems to have resembled the California of Sunset magazine–except for the weather.
Bohemians, like composer Darius Milhaud and writer Thomas Mann, populated his mother’s salons, and he took to their presence as naturally as other California kids accepted Mickey Mouse. “I do seem to have had,” he says dryly, “a lot of interesting friends over the years.”
Back in the early ’50s, the disdain was mutual: “The musicians who came to our house looked at L.A. as a bunch of yokels.” L.A. was small-town provincial, yet “with other stuff going on underneath. There was always this sense of hidden history, that L.A. had all these things nobody knew about, like the radical history,” including its Llano experiment, which Rolfe collaborated on for a book, “Bread & Hyacinths: The Rise and Fall of Utopian Los Angeles.”
He’s a guy who earns a living, and not a lavish one, as a wire-service cop reporter, recording the city’s nastiest acts. On his own time, Rolfe writes often and wistfully about “boho-topia.” His book “In Search of Literary L.A.” is an updated edition of the classic “Literary L.A.,” the city’s intersections with Henry Miller and Upton Sinclair, Huxley and Mann, Ken Kesey, Evelyn Waugh and Nathanael West. Some reviewers complained of too little literary and too much Rolfe, and there is something to that. But that criticism hardly bears on his latest, the collected autobiographical and picaresque essays of “Fat Man on the Left: Four Decades in the Underground.”
The fat man on the left would be Rolfe. The fat man on the right is Rush Limbaugh. In politics and in bulk, Rolfe is intent on balancing the teeter-totter.
Working on “In Search of Literary L.A.,” he exorcised at last his love-hate relationship with L.A., born of deadline days at the Herald Examiner and the old Free Press and of coffeehouse nights and ardent Lefty politics here and in San Francisco. “When I realized that San Francisco was no longer the center of the universe, I began to see that L.A. had a lot that had just been ignored.”
His own utopian vision of L.A., of anywhere, really, requires trains. Sound public transit is the sine qua non of a working people’s working city, and so what if there’s a whiff of kickbacks and back-scratching in Metrorail? “Any time you have big public works projects,” he says, you have such problems, but New York and Chicago got over it, didn’t they, and now look at how well those cities move. The Fat Man on the Left says that if L.A. is ever to break out of the same iron confines that burden soccer (the sport of the future, and it always will be), we need “a good, real rapid-transit system–the whole nature of the place would change.”