Sunday, November 1, 2015

Literary Malibu

Frederick Hastings Rindge's 1898 book Happy Days in Southern California was the first book to be written in—and about—Malibu. 

Malibu has been home to an astonishing number—and variety—of writers who have written everything from mystery to history, and from screenplays to picture books.

I’ve profiled a number of historic Malibu authors over the years for the Malibu Surfside News. The list includes Lawrence Clark Powell, Frederick Hastings Rindge, Madeleine Ruthven, John Fante, and Phillip Dunne, and you can read about one of the area’s most famous and successful authors, Tarzan creator Edgar Rice Burroughs, right here, but there are many more.

Tarzan creator Edgar Rice Burroughs was one of the first residents of La Costa Beach and Malibu's first honorary Mayor. Several of his novels were written in his book-lined Malibu study, including Lost on Venus

Speculative fiction author and bestseller Michael Crichton,  had a house in Malibu in the 1970s and '80s. Congo was written during his Malibu years. So too were Sphere and a non-fiction book titled Travels.

Novelist Michael Crichton wrote two bestsellers, Sphere and Congo, during his time in Malibu.

Novelist Joan Didion and her husband John Gregory Dunne, who was a novelist, screenwriter and critic, lived in Malibu in the 1970s. Didion's reflections on Malibu are, however, bitter and filled with grief for the death of her husband and daughter. Didion has this to say about life on the edge of the Pacific:

“California is a place in which a boom mentality and a sense of Chekhovian loss meet in uneasy suspension; in which the mind is troubled by some buried but ineradicable suspicion that things better work here, because here, beneath the immense bleached sky, is where we run out of continent.” 

Joan Didion's Year of Magical Thinking offers a bleak vision of life in Malibu as it chronicles the pain of the author's loss.

Unlike Didion, crime writer and Edgar Award-winner Ross Thomas embraced life in Malibu with enthusiasm, taking a keen interest in local issues and working as a passionate advocate for cityhood and other Malibu causes. Thomas, who died in 1995, wrote many of his 20 novels in Malibu and was a regular at Malibu Books and Company, the community's original independent bookstore. 

That's supposed to be Paradise Cove in the background of this  rather lurid, 1980s paperback cover of Ross Thomas' 1978 thriller  Chinaman's Chance.

The opening scene in Thomas’ thriller Chinaman’s Chance is set on the beach at Paradise Cove. Portraits of local characters are woven among the pattern of the plot.

Screenwriter and novelist Myles Connolly, 1897-1964, best remembered as a novelist today for his parable Mr Blue, published in 1929 as a sort of Catholic response to the Jazz Age narcissism of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby, was an early and longtime resident of the Malibu Colony. 

Mr. Blue, published in 1929 at the start of the author's career, is Malibu screenwriter Myles Connolly's best remembered novel. 

Connolly's more famous legacy as a writer is for his work in film. He worked on more than 40 films, and his screenplay credits include The Unfinished Dance, with Margaret O'Brien; Till the Clouds Roll By, the life story of Jerome Kern; Two Sisters from Boston, with Jimmy Durante; Music for Millions, with June Allison; Youth Takes A Fling, with Joel McCrea; Face in the Sky, with Spencer Tracy. He was an uncredited collaborator on Mr Smith Goes to Washington with his friend and neighbor Frank Capra.

Wonderful New Yorker cartoonist Leo Callum lived in Malibu for many years and left us far too soon. He once drew a cartoon on the wall at Tops gallery, but the soulless corporate chain that occupied the space after Tops was forced to close painted over it.

Malibu literary luminaries of the past include New Yorker cartoonist and writer Leo Callum; poet and essayist Emery Tang; Monsignor John Sheridan, who in addition to being Our Lady of Malibu's pastor for many decades, wrote numerous books, essays and radio broadcasts;  Melinda Popham, whose novel Skywater became a runaway best seller; Gidget creator Frederick Kohner; and actress and writer Julie Andrews Edwards, who wrote her second children's book The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles while she and husband Blake Edwards lived in Malibu in the 1970s.

alibu resident Melinda Worth Popham published her bestselling Skywater, a novel about coyotes, in 1990. This somberly beautiful novel appears to be her only published work.

Many Malibu actors have penned autobiographies. The list includes Ali MacGraw, Jill Ireland, Burgess Meredith, Patrick McNee, Paul Mantee, Dick Van Dyke, and Rob Lowe.

There are numerous other writers who also make—or have made—Malibu their home, but while this seaside community is a popular setting for movies and fiction, one has to search hard for realistic—and authentic—depictions of Malibu, and sometimes even in the realms of non-fiction, fiction, or at least exageration creeps in.

Peter Theroux, who had lived in Los Angeles for 10 years when he published his book Translating LA, obviously didn’t spend much time in Malibu. He dismisses Point Dume as “a small prominence of land sheltering a Marine station.”

Theroux seems to have been under the impression that the Point was still a U.S. Army outpost as it was during War War II, or he may have mistaken the Los Angeles County Lifeguard HQ at Zuma Beach for a “marine station,”  either way, Malibu doesn’t seem to have made much of an impression.

Mike Davis has much more to say about Malibu, although little of it kind, in his 1996 book The Ecology of Fear, which includes his essay titled “The Case for Letting Malibu Burn.”

Davis provides a succinct history of Malibu and a wealth of fire-related statistics, including a list of Malibu wildfires from 1930-96, a discussion of the mechanics that drive local wildfires, and an acerbic denouncement of development in the Santa Monica Mountains. 

Mike Davis' Ecology of Fear is a must-have for the Malibu bookshelf.

But Davis also perpetrates one of the most pervasive Malibu myths, the claim that in Two Years Before the Mast, Richard Henry Dana described seeing Rancho Topanga Malibu Sequit engulfed in “a vast blaze” as his ship sailed from San Pedro to Santa Barbara in 1826. 

What Dana actually wrote concerning wildfire is not an eyewitness account and pertains to Santa Barbara, not Malibu:

 “The town is finely situated, with a bay in front, and an amphitheatre of hills behind. The only thing which diminishes its beauty is, that the hills have no large trees upon them, they having been all burnt by a great fire which swept them off about a dozen years ago, and they had not yet grown again."

British actor Patrick MacNee focused on positive aspects of life in Malibu. In his 1988 autobiography Blind in One Ear, he discusses the peace and tranquility he found in Malibu in the 1950s. MacNee laments that the ramshackle beach bungalows were already being replaced by expensive estates when he returned in the 1960s, but the tranquility remained. 

MacNee captures a different side of life in Malibu with an account of how he assisted a film industry animal wrangler by rescuing a carload of chimpanzees from a fast-moving wildfire in the 1960s. 

Author and screenwriter John Fante and his family moved to Point Dume in 1952. The author gave a piquant portrait of life in the community in his novella My Dog Stupid. He described the Point Dume that many longtime residents still remember, one with fewer fences and houses, more horses and open space, but also a dangerously wild surfing and beach party crowd and free-ranging dogs that were known to terrorize the wildlife and small children.

John Fante's novella My Dog Stupid, set on Point Dume in the late 1960s, can be found in the compilation West of Rome. Despite the name, it is most definitely not an amusing story for children, but it paints a memorable picture picture of the time and place. 

UCLA librarian Lawrence Clark Powell moved to the Broad Beach-area of Malibu at approximately the same time as Fante. His recollections, collected in a series of essays titled “Ocian in View” (a reference to the Lewis and Clark expedition’s creatively spelled journal entry commemorating their first sight of the Pacific)  are gentler, focused instead on the natural world and the pleasures of exploring the beach and the secluded canyons. Powell proves vivid descriptions of his home, the seasons, and natural phenomena, including the devastating 1956 Sherwood Newton Christmas Fire.

Our copy, purchased at a secondhand bookstore for almost nothing, bears an inscription by the authors presenting it as a gift to another local, Ronald Reagan. Apparently, Mr Reagan didn't think much of it, since his copy is now on The Malibu Post's bookshelf instead of someplace more significant.

In 1958, “Ocien in View” was published with a short history of Malibu by W.W. Robinson in a booklet called “The Malibu.” Much of Robinson’s material was culled from Fredrick Hastings Rindge’s 1898 book Happy Days in Southern California. 

This portrait of Frederick Hastings Rindge from the Adamson House archive  shows the businessman but not the poet.

Rindge’s first-person account of life in Malibu when the entire Topanga Malibu Sequit Ranch was his own personal terrestrial paradise has enduring beauty and captures a landscape that has changed in many places almost beyond recognition. He was a gentle soul, and something of a poet, infusing a luminous if occasionally overwrought beauty to his descriptions. Even the most rose-tinted passages preserve something rare and wonderful—the earliest known literary portrait of Malibu.

Here at the Malibu Post we have no illusions about aspiring to the league of Crichton or Didion, but November always brings the siren song of literary aspiration, as writers all over the world commit to 50,000 words during National Novel Writing Month, and this year we’ve decided to answer that call. 

See you in December, with either a newly hatched novel or a lot of scratch paper suitable for grocery lists and the bottom of bird cages.

"It was a dark and stormy night..."

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