Friday, June 28, 2013


Franklin Avenue is one of the less glamorous and less celebrated streets of Los Angeles.  It runs parallel to, and just a little north of, Sunset and Hollywood Boulevards but it lacks their fame and name recognition, and I’m sure a lot of people think of it simply as an access road to the freeway.  I can’t say I’m deeply upset about this lack of love, yet a drift along Franklin Avenue reveals various wonders for the Hollywood Walker. 

Franklin starts in the Los Feliz district and runs west for five miles or so, ending up in the lower Hollywood Hills, at Wattles Garden Park.  Near the eastern end you’ll see the Shakespeare Bridge, not a genuine architectural folly I suppose, since it’s a perfectly functional bridge, but its gothic styling is pure decoration. And you might consider it a distant cousin of the similarly folly-ish Sowdon House a few miles further along, a “Mayan-revival” house built by Lloyd Wright, son of Frank.

Franklin Avenue is also the location of the unimprovably named House of Pies, and of the 101 Coffee Shop which in a previous incarnation featured in Swingers, a movie that in general plays cinematic havoc with the geography of east Hollywood and Los Feliz (characters are seen standing outside one bar but when they go inside they’re in the interior of  a quite different one, that kind of thing).  However, Vince Vaughn and Jon Favreau supposedly wrote the screenplay in the coffee shop, which may be why they depict it more or less faithfully.

Janis Joplin died of a heroin overdose in the Highland Gardens Hotel, at 7047 Franklin, which is next to the legendary Magic Castle, where magicians of varying degrees of finesse ply their trade.  Gary Cooper lived at 7511 Franklin, with his parents.

But for me, and for others of a literary frame of mind, Franklin Avenue may be most notable as the street where Joan Didion and her husband John Gregory Dunne, lived in the late 1960s.  Mentions of the "Franklin Avenue house" crop up in various places in Didion’s work, but most crucially in The White Album, published in 1979.  She tells us that there was a former Canadian embassy on one side, a center for Synanon (a dubious drug rehabilitation program) on the other.  By her own account, things were extremely freewheeling inside her house, though of course there was a lot of that around back then.

She writes, “In the big house on Franklin Avenue many people seemed to come and go without relation to what I did. I knew where the sheets and towels were kept but I did not always know who was sleeping in every bed. I had the keys but not the key. I remember taking a 25-mg. Compazine one Easter Sunday and making a large and elaborate lunch for a number of people, many of whom were still around on Monday. … I remember a babysitter telling me that she saw death in my aura. I remember chatting with her about reasons why this might be so, paying her, opening all the French windows and going to sleep in the living room."

Things changed however, with the Manson killings and she and her husband and daughter, Quintana Roo, moved away to safety.  Didion said in an interview, “There were a lot of rumors about stuff, a lot of stuff going on around town, which you would kind of hear about on the edges of your mind and not want to know any more about. After the fact, it was kind of amazing to see how many lives had intersected with the Manson Family's … Later, I was interviewing Linda Kasabian, who was the wheel person -- she wasn't the "wheel man," she was the "wheel person" -- for the LaBianca murder. I can't remember. Maybe also for Tate. But anyway, the night they did the LaBianca murder, they were driving along Franklin Avenue looking for a place to hit, and that's where we lived, and we had French windows open, lights blazing all along on the street.”

I walk along various stretches of Franklin Avenue all the time, and once in a while I’ve thought I might go looking for the Didion house, but it always seemed too difficult. The only real visual clues I had were in the famous Julian Wasser photographs of Joan and her yellow Corvette, but all you can see is a section of wall and a perfectly ordinary looking garage.  That didn’t seem nearly enough to go on.

         I had also seen a picture of Didion sitting on a balustrade, but I wasn’t sure it was at the Franklin Avenue house, and in any case it was apparently in a back garden, and most likely wouldn’t be visible from the street.

         Finding the house was not a major obsession, and I can’t say I actually craved to find the place, but then I was rereading The Year of Magical Thinking, and found this passage:
“One night that summer he (John Gregory Dunne) asked me to drive home after dinner at Anthea Sylbert's house on Camino Palmero in Hollywood. I remember thinking how remarkable this was. Anthea lived less than a block from the house on Franklin Avenue in which we had lived from 1967 until 1971, so it was not a question of reconnoitering a new neighborhood. It had occurred to me as I started the ignition that I could count on my fingers the number of times I had driven when John was in the car; the single other time I could remember that night was once spelling him on a drive from Las Vegas to Los Angeles. He had been dozing in the passenger seat of the Corvette we then had. He had opened his eyes. After a moment he had said, very carefully, ‘I might take it a little slower.’ I had no sense of unusual speed and glanced at the speedometer: I was doing 120.

I completely remembered the part about her doing 120 but I’d not taken in the reference to Camino Palmero, and now it seemed a revelation.  If they’d lived on Franklin Avenue, less than a block from Camino Palmero, then surely it couldn’t be too hard to find the place.  I started my drift.

As I walked along Franklin, and approached what I knew had to be the right area, there were a surprising number of huge houses that looked like they might have been embassies at some time.   Quite what a Synanon center looked like, I had no idea.  But I did notice quite a few big, new apartment buildings that had clearly been built since 1971, so it seemed possible that the Didion house might have been demolished in the intervening years.  I did so hope not.

         Naturally, some quests are more prolonged than others, but to cut a short story even shorter, after a couple of the most minor false starts, I spotted the garage.  There was no mistaking it.  The two sliding doors had been replaced by a single up and over, but the tiled roof, the molding below it, the size, and shape, were quite clearly the same.  This was where Ms. D had parked her yellow Corvette, where she’d stood and posed for Julian Wasser’s photographs.  Eureka.

        And what kind of house was attached to a garage like this?  Well, rather a grand one it turned out, perhaps not strictly in the embassy class, but big and swanky enough for most tastes, and no doubt much refurbished since the Didion years., I subsequently discovered, think it’s worth $3.3m.

         The front garden gate was locked, and I wouldn’t have gone in even if it had been open.  I take seriously the “armed response” threat that looms over so many houses in LA.  However, there was a short, open driveway at the side of the house with parking for a few cars: only one was there now.  By walking to the end of the driveway I’d be able to get a look at the back garden.  I knew from reading my Didion that her daughter had played a lot of tennis on a court in there.  Nobody was going to shoot me just for peering into the garden were they, surely?

And when I got to the end of the driveway, the garden gate was wide open and there was a sign that read “Welcome to Shumei Hollywood Garden.”  It didn’t exactly look “public,” but an open gate and a welcome sign says to me “come on inside.”  I’d never heard of Shumei: I figured it wasn’t some Mansonite, or even Synanon style, organization, though I guessed they were believers of some sort.  In I went.

The garden was big, at least an acre, maybe two, and full of vegetable beds, in quantity, and elaborately arranged, with irrigation systems and trellises: it didn’t look like it was just some hobbyist growing a few tomatoes and onions for his or her own use.   There was no sign whatsoever of a tennis court.  And there was no sign of any people either, nobody working on the garden, but I assumed there had to be somebody around somewhere because of the car on the drive.  And sure enough after five minutes or so a lean, delicate, serene young man came out of the house and offered greetings.

He gave me a very quick run down on Shumei tenets: natural agriculture, art and beauty, spiritual enlightenment.  Shumei, I’ve since learned, also involves Jyorei “a healing art that by focusing spiritual light gradually penetrates and dissolves the spiritual clouds that cause physical, emotional, and personal dilemmas.” The website has a first person account of a woman who was cured of cancer. But we didn’t really go into that: actually we had a discussion about gardening.  The “natural agriculture” they practice is just staggering rigorous, no fertilizers, not even the organic kind.  I said how amazing it was to find this piece of lush horticultural land right here, so close to Hollywood Boulevard.  Yes indeed, my young man agreed, and apparently it had once been very different, there’d even been a tennis court.  I was ready to swoon.

The young man said he’d only been with Shumei for two years, and I may have been jumping to conclusions, but I didn’t think he looked like a Didion reader, so I didn’t turn the conversation that way, but he did tell me that the Shumei folks had been in residence for 34 years, which would mean they got there in 1979, some years after the Didion-Dunnes left, but in fact the same year that The White Album was published.

         I didn’t linger too long, didn’t want to overstay my welcome, and to be honest I feared I might get roped in for some enforced spiritual enlightenment, but looking from the garden toward house I now saw a balustrade, unmistakably the same one that Joan is sitting on in the picture up above.  That pleased me so much.  More than that, finding the house, finding this curious spiritual oasis, walking around the garden with this disciple, well, what can I tell you, it all seemed very, very much like being inside a piece of writing by Joan Didion.

         I’ve been reading and loving Joan Didion’s work for rather a long time now, and as with so many youthful enthusiasms I sometimes think maybe I’ve outgrown it.  But before doing this walk I returned again to The White Album, and dipped into a few other books, and the thing that struck me, the thing that so few people say about Didion: she’s an hilarious, and absolutely deadpan, writer.  People make her out to be a kind of Sylvia Plath.  Sometimes I think Anita Loos would be a better comparison.

Here from The White Album, again referring to her years in the Franklin Avenue house, “It seems to me now that during those years I was always writing down the license numbers of panel trucks, panel trucks circling the block, panel trucks idling at the intersection. I put these license numbers in a dressing-table drawer where they could be found by the police when the time came.”
If you don’t find that pretty darn hysterical, you might as well move to Malibu.

In the interests of absolutely full disclosure, I should say that Anthony Miller, the well known psychogeographer and author of encyclopedic fictions, accompanied me on the important part of this drift.


  1. Any fiction recommendations from Didion for a novice? Thanks

    1. Guy, I suspect the first Didion novel you read is going to be the one that hits you most intensely, and stays with you longest. For me that was Play It As It Lays. Good as the other novels are, they never hit me in such a direct and surprising way.

    2. Having just finished rereading Play It As It Lays, I would agree, though I'm often rereading either A Book of Common Prayer or Democracy, and they each bring their own surprises, with moments that feel so alive to me, and even cinematic. (I've puzzled over why Play It As It Lays was made into a film and not the others.) And Geoff, thanks for this piece. I'm an avid Didion reader, who now lives in Santa Monica, and have not walked around Hollywood for what seems ages; I may just have to go in search of Shumei.

  2. Didion - and on and on - she don't stop - she will roll through the hills forever - ya groupie son of a too - love that smoking picture of her.

    1. Smoking picture in every possible sense, Miss Kirsty.

  3. I am reading "The White Album" for the first time and decided to try to find a photo of Didion's Franklin house online.
    It's a beautiful house and probably was even back in the late 1960's when the neighborhood was in decline.
    I live in West Hollywood & will try to drive by soon.
    Thanks for the great photos!

  4. Just stumbled across your blog, great writing and walking. I was in LA for a few days, staying near Fountain, was hoping to walk by the Didion/Dunne manse, but couldn't find an address. It may well be in the biography just out about her. I can so relate to youthful enthusiasm, but like the doomed relationship of the Ellis and Jack from "Brokeback Mountain", I just can't quit you, Joan Didion. Nor do I want to. I just found a first edition of "Play it as it Lays" in a bookstore and will be diving in. My all time favorite is "A Book of Common Prayer" though. Peace from Matthew from SF.

  5. 7406 ..... Loved your piece. Thanks for taking the time