Drifting and striding, in Hollywood and elsewhere, with Geoff Nicholson - author of The Lost Art of Walking, and Walking in Ruins withcholson, author of Toff Nidrifting and stomping withcholson, author of The Lost Art of Walking, considers the narrower and wider shores of obsessive pedestrianism.
Showing posts with label Joan Didion. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Joan Didion. Show all posts

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.  Zillow.com, 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.

Saturday, September 10, 2011


It’s been a strange week here in Los Angeles.  The temperature hit 100 degrees on Wednesday, and although I may be a mad dog and an Englishman even I know my limits.  In addition to that, I’ve been demolished by some hideous bug I must have picked up on the plane, and even getting out of the chair to walk to the bookcase has seemed like quite an expedition.

So, thus immobilized, I have been reading Joan Didion’s forthcoming memoir Blue Nights, and watching a rough cut of a forthcoming documentary titled Betty Page Reveals All.  You might think that Betty Page and Joan Didion were some way from being soul sisters, and yet, and yet …

It's hard to think of Didion without picturing those famous photographs showing her with her Corvette, and outside her house on Franklin Avenue in Hollywood.  She just doesn’t look like a woman who does a lot of walking. 

But she also lived in New York for long periods of her life, and most people in New York are forced to be walkers one way or another.  Her book The Year of Magical Thinking contains a few references to walking in the city in general and Central Park in particular, and she mentions at one point that she stops wearing sandals because they catch in the pavement and starts wearing Puma sneakers instead.  I had never tried to image what these Didion sandals actually looked like, but if I had done I’d have assumed they might be at best “sensible.”  

But now I read in Blue Nights, “I had lived my entire life to date without seriously believing that I would age.  I had no doubt that I would continue to wear the red suede sandals with four-inch heels that I had always preferred.”  If any pictures of these preferred sandals exist I, alas, have never seen them.

Did Joan Didion really walk the streets of Manhattan wearing red suede sandals with four-inch heels?  Or is that further evidence that she didn’t really do much walking at all?  Maybe she just posed around in them.  There are very few women who can walk happily in four inch heels, though Bettie Page was one of them.

In the documentary, someone points out, and footage proves the point, that Bettie Page could walk every bit as easily in high heels as out of them.  There was no wobbling or teetering for Bettie, though there was no shortage of strutting.  True, in the movies she didn’t walk very far, often confined to a very small stage or set, but you felt she could have covered huge distances should the need have arisen.

It may have had something to do with her hips.  They were extremely broad in relation to her waist and maybe that gave her added stability.  She also looks as though she had very strong legs. And she was initially discovered while walking on the beach at Coney Island, though whether in heels, I don’t know.

Joan Didion, to all appearances, does not have broad hips or strong legs, though she has always been light - eighty pounds for most of her life - a little less now, or so she reports in Blue Nights.  I’m told that being light makes walking in heels much easier too.

Bettie Page ended her modeling career abruptly in 1959.  There were good reasons: a Senate Committee was investigating the world of S&M and bondage photographs, she was getting older  - mid 30s - though it seems she’d always lied about her age anyway, and whether cause or effect, she also became a devout Christian.  She “disappeared” and had a hard life that included periods of madness and incarceration.   But she could never leave the pin-up world behind her, or rather it would not leave her, and in the end – with some help from Hugh Hefner – she decided to embrace her cult status, though (with a few late exceptions) she chose not to be photographed.

It was Joan Didion who wrote, in A Book Of Common Prayer, "You have to pick the places you don't walk away from."