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 Loretta Ayeroff. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Loretta Ayeroff. Show all posts

Monday, August 27, 2012


I regularly say that LA is a tough town for tourists, especially European tourists.  They’re used to going to Paris or Amsterdam or even New York, and when they’re there they do a lot of walking, expect to do a lot of walking, moving more or less effortlessly, from hotel to art gallery to restaurant to park, and so on, supplemented by public transport if necessary.  This is the holiday experience.  And then they come to LA where none of this applies.

That’s why so many LA tourists end up in Santa Monica or Venice, where walking is a reasonable thing to do, and a perfectly good way of getting around.  Santa Monica has 3rd Street Promenade, Venice has its Ocean Front Walk, sometimes called the boardwalk though it’s a long time since there were any boards there, with its hippies, panhandlers, incense-sellers, body builders, street performers, and artists.  (I was tempted to put that in inverted commas  - “artists” – but hell, who am I to be a snot?)

Actually, the Venice ocean front was the scene of one of my more excruciating walking experiences.  Back in the day, my then girlfriend and I, on a two week break from London, came to Venice and rented one of those four wheeled tandems, and we set off from the rental store at the south end of the boardwalk, and pedaled a couple of miles north - at which point we had a flat tire.

Even at the time, and many times since, I thought we should just have stayed on the tandem, ridden the damn thing back to the rental place, and if we’d shredded the tire and destroyed the wheel, well SFW?  But they had my credit cards details and we’d no doubt have got stung with a punitive charge, so we did what was probably the best thing.  We WALKED the tandem all the two couple miles back to the rental store.  This would have been a little annoying in most circumstances, but essentially no big deal.  However on the ocean front in Venice, there seemed to be a million people, all of them staring at us, all of them deeply fascinated, the best of them saying, “Oh, bummer, man.”   But others saying, “What happened, man?” as if there might be some metaphysical explanation, others saying we should make sure to get a refund (I’d already thought of that, oddly enough), and several who claimed sufficient bicycle repair skills that they could fix it there and then if we pulled over and gave them a little time.  We declined.  It was, I think, the longest two miles I’ve ever walked, by no means the most arduous, but as I say, the most excruciating.

Well, as an Angelino, I have now learned pretty much never to go to Venice, but I was summoned there recently by Loretta Ayeroff, she of California Ruins fame, because she was participating in the Hammer Museum’s Venice Beach Biennial (that’s a geographical art pun). The idea was that “real” artists (inverted commas acceptable here, I think) would show their work alongside the boardwalk artists.  So Loretta had a small exhibition space, actually a rectangle of tarmac next to the beach.  This picture is by Sol Terringer:

Loretta had lived in Venice in the 1970s, and had taken pictures there including a set of people walking – she was now offering prints at $35 a pop - an unbelievably good price for a signed, numbered photograph by any photographer and absolutely amazing for an Ayeroff.  However, business was both stressful and bad.  I’m tempted to say she “couldn’t give them away,” but she did at least give one away – to me.  It looks like this:

I love this picture.  It shows people walking and of one person being (as it were) walked. Loretta says she thinks the two guys are Vietnam vets, which sounds perfectly likely.  I also found myself reminded of Midnight Cowboy – Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman, one messed up guy looking after some even more messed up guy. 

You know, of course, that Hoffman put a stone in his shoe so he was forced to limp and didn’t have to “act” it – some seem to think this is another example of Hoffman’s vanity and absurdity but it actually sounds pretty reasonable to me.

Anyway, in order to people interested in her wares, Loretta started running a competition to see if anybody could recognize exactly where the photographs were taken.  I was happy enough to join in.  I didn’t for a moment expect to find the one story building on the left; that was surely long gone. But I did have vague hopes of spotting the large nondescript black on the right. I schlepped up and down looking at buildings, looking at change and decay, and indeed at some rebuilding and refurbishment, and I was damned if I could see anything that reasonably looked like that setting.  I tried to talk myself into believing I could see some resemblance here and there, but in all honesty I found nothing.

By then I’d had enough, I decided to walk back, go say farewell to Loretta and leave, but I arrived at her show area, and she’d obviously been exhausted by the zoo that was Venice and there was no sign of her.  Something quite symbolic there I think.

Loads more Ayeroff here:

Monday, June 4, 2012


Last week I went for a walk in Runyon Canyon Park – what used to be the Huntington Hartford Estate, a name that means less to most people than I think it should. George Huntington Hartford (he never used that first name), was one of those great, tragic American heirs who lost a fortune and himself.  

His family owned the A and P grocery chain.  He was nine when his father died, at which point his trust fund was worth $1.5 million a year, and when his uncle died, admittedly a few decades later, he became worth half a billion dollars or so, which he proceeded to lose.  Mostly it went on bad business deals, but he undoubtedly had an extravagant amount of fun along the way, as a writer, publisher, art collector, producer of movies and stage plays, including a theater production of Jane Eyre starring Errol Flynn, at a time when Flynn was some years past his peak.

The 130 acres of canyon that became the Huntington Hartford Estate, were and indeed still are, just a couple of blocks north of Hollywood Boulevard.  Huntington Hartford bought them from John McCormick, the Irish tenor, who had built a mansion, guest houses and a terraced garden on the property.  It’s not clear whether Hartford ever really intended to live there.   He had Frank Lloyd Wright design him a Play Resort and Sports Club which would have looked as though three flying saucers had colonized the Hollywood Hills (an appealing enough idea), but a tidal wave of local opposition put an end to the plans, and although he kept the property (Errol Flynn stayed in one of the guest houses) by the end of the fifties he was ready to give the estate to the city, which promptly declined the offer. 

Furious, Hartford sold the estate at a cut price to one Jules Berman, a man who made his fortune by importing Kahlua, and who promptly demolished most of the buildings on the estate to make way for a more orthodox housing development.  No properties standing on the land meant no property taxes to pay, although some sources say that at least one of the guests house was still there at the end of the 1980s.  Berman couldn’t get his plans approved either, and in the end he too offered the land to the city, which this time accepted the gift.

I’d been in certain bits of the park before, had certainly appreciated the “beware of rattlesnake” signs, but I never thought that Runyon Canyon was my kind of walking territory.  Sure, it offers some interesting challenges, rugged, steep, bleakly hot at times summer, and in return it does give you some great views over Los Angeles, but most of the people don’t seem to go there for the walking.  They go there to jog, to run, to exercise, and all too many of them go there to display themselves, to preen, to show off their perfected bods, the men rather more exhibitionistically than the women.  I really don’t need that when I walk.

But this time I was walking there for a very good reason.  I’d had lunch with the wonderful photographer Loretta Ayeroff, who is a fan both of walking and ruins.  One of her series of photographs is titled Off Wilshire referring to the area of LA she lived at the time, when her daughter was newly born.  Every day she’d go for a walk around the neighborhood, baby strapped to her back, camera in hand, photographing quirky, undramatic, but very telling and sometimes mysterious details. 

She also did another great series in the 70s and early 80s titled California Ruins, extraordinary photographs of ruined places that included Alcatraz, some sinister military bunkers in Marin county, the Los Angeles’ Pan Pacific Auditorium before it burned down.  There were shots of gold mines, restaurants, the dinosaurs in Cabazon, and this particular image that I find incredibly and inscrutably moving.

         The title is "Huntingdon Hartford Estate," and since we'd had lunch on Sunset Boulevard it wasn’t going to be much of a stretch to walk up the hill, into Runyon Canyon, to try to find those steps again.  We went in the gate at the south east corner, not expecting much, not sure that we'd find them at all, and immediately, there they were, bang in front of us, the steps, the ones in the photograph.  They were so conspicuous, and so easy to find, that at first neither of us could quite believe it was the right place, and in a way we didn’t want to.  We had wanted it to be harder, more of a search, more of a quest. 

In one sense the steps hadn’t changed at all (I suppose the more low-lying and ground-hugging a structure is, the less likely it is to be ravaged by destructive forces whether natural or human), but everything around them was transformed.  Where there had been leafless, wintry trees there was now lush foliage, century plants, and huge gnarled cacti rising well above head height.  Here’s Loretta, in situ.

         We pressed on, not very far, until we saw something in the bushes, nothing very identifiable, perhaps the end of a wall, a chunk of fallen masonry, but definitely something.  We went through bushes and branches, and found a long low, raised concrete slab, a foundation, with a substantial fireplace and a chimney made of rough stone.  We assumed it must be the remains of one of the guest houses.  Had Errol Flynn slept here?

     The painting on the chimney seems strangely sophisticated in some ways, like a hastily conceived totem pole, less sophisticated in others.  Somebody had written “Beer” on the side in thin formless capitals, and beer had clearly been on the mind of many previous visitors.  There were cans strewn around, and fast food wrappers, and a couple of sleeping bags, though these didn’t look like they’d been used recently.   There were condoms too – unused, still in their faded yellow wrappers – the LifeStyles brand.  Beer, sleeping bags, condoms; the Hollywood lifestyle indeed.

         We pressed on up the hill, on our way to the ruined tennis court, and then to Inspiration Point, and we noticed that a group of half a dozen people had gathered and were looking at something very fascinating on the ground.  We joined them.  There, slithering across the dry dusty path, was a five-foot long snake.  Someone said “It’s a rattlesnake” but it quite obviously wasn’t – there was no rattle.  And eventually a consensus was reached that it was a fine rat snake, not the tamest or least snappy of creatures, but nothing that would kill you.  

What is a garden, or indeed a canyon, without a serpent?  What is an estate, or indeed a walk, without a ruin?

More details about Loretta Ayeroff and her work can be found here: