Saturday, January 20, 2007

Bohemian Los Angeles

I used to live in Silverlake district in Los Angeles in the 1970s. That was when I started writing poetry seriously. I got an M.A. in psychology, and quit that to start working as a minimum wage typesetter in the San Fernando Valley and then got a better typesetting job at Aldus Type on LaBrea near Wilshire. Aldus did very good work in typesetting for advertising.

I don't remember how but I met Lillian Marks of Plantin Press. I knew she ran one of the three finest print shops in Los Angeles: Plantin Press in Silverlake; Grant Dahlstrom in Pasadena; and Ward Ritchie. I asked Dahlstrom for a job but he said he didn't hire women. I asked Lillian Marks for a job (her husband Saul had died but she kept on the print shop) and for a brief time she gave me a job hand setting type for her. She was very kind, took me to Dawson's bookstore for an event where the fine printers, friends for years since the 1930s, gathered for events. She also took me to a fine printer's club meeting where we sat around a round table having a fine dinner. I admired Marks, Dahlstrom, and Ritchie for their brilliant book work, knew they were the best printers in Los Angeles from the 1930s through the 1970s, and thought they were traditionalists, carrying on the traditions of Renaissance fine printing into our age.

What I loved most was the Plantin print shop: the most elegant, organized workshop I've ever been in with huge hand presses and a cold type machine press. The shop used both hand and machine presses, different from other fine print shops which only used hand presses carrying on pre-industrial traditions. Instead Saul & Lillian Marks named their press about the great Renaisance typographer Plantin and, I thought, carried on beautiful type and book design into the machine era, using an aesthetic that was pre-20th century.

Besides her kindness and encouragement, Lillian Marks taught me how to work. Before working with Lillian, I would procrastinate and then work for hours at a time without meals. She taught me how not to proscratinate and how to start working at 8:30, take a short coffee break, a lunch break, and a late afternoon break--working slowly and steadily throughout the day. Also, after I'd handset a book title, Lillian would make a proof of it, then suggest corrections, so I'd handset another one. We'd do this until she finally felt she got it right.

All I've had to say is a long introduction to "Bohemian Los Angeles," a new book by Daniel Hurewitz, whowrites about Edendale (Silverlake and Echo Park) part of Los Angeles, showing three kinds of bohemian groups who lived there from 1920-1953: gays, artists, and political radicals who are mostly Communists. What affected me the most was chapter 2 about the artists of Edendale. Of course, I was interested to see mention of people I knew--printer Grant Dahlstrom--and also lovely descriptions of printers clubs, but what affected me is that Hurewitz analyzes all the artists and their book arts friends as modernists, bringing a shift in art from that of external appearances to "externalizing a complete personal world .... Since his [sic] work is untraditional in its methods and imagery, his comprenhending audience is often limited to a few friends and 'intiates'" (98). Hurewitz analyzes the modernists visual artists of 1920s and 1930s L.A.: the post-surrealist school of Grace Clements, Lorser Feitelson, and Helen Lundeberg--as well abstractionist Stanton Macdonald-Wright.

Further, young artists such as printmaker Paul Landacre and sculptor Gordon Newell as well as printer Ward Ritchie and librian Lawrence Powell were all inspired by Robinson Jeffers' poetry which "demonstrated how the natural enviornment could offer an artistic vehicle for emotional expression" (102). In fact, Hurewitz shows that California modernists artists as well as poets were inspired by the natural landscape much more the East Cost modernists and poets who were enamored of the machine and the city: Jeffers' looks to the Big Sur nature while Hart Crane writes about the Brooklyn Bridge.

In that same chapter Hurewitz also discusses the political radicalism of Edendale artists of the 1930s, mentioning both Lester Horton, whose dance company I studied with as a young child, who made the most political, multi-cultural modern dance in the country from the 1930s-1950 (Alvin Ailey was one of his students) as well as Mexican muralist Siquieros who briefly worked in Los Angelesin 1932, making three murals working with young LA artists and inspring them. The Edendale artists also headed and worked in the mural departments of the WPA during the 1930s.

Hurewitz brilliantly shows how these young artists creating both modern art and as well as artistic and literary Los Angeles. Lawrence Powell, friend of the fine printers, was the head of the UCLA library, instrumental in creating it into a brilliant university collection. These artists and book people had to create the very arts institutions as LA lacked such intstitutions as well as being the radical innovators of their times. Hurewitz helped me see Lillian Marks, Dahlstrom, Ward Ritchie as modernists, helping me revision my 1970s past. Yes, these wonderful printers carried on Renaissance printing traditions of fine printing but they carried them into the era of machines and artistic modernism of mid-20th century California.

But the artists are only one chapter in the book. He modurewitz is a gay historian, and he focuses on both the gay cultural scene and the culture of the Communist Party whose many activists lived in Edendale. His first chapter is on Julian Eltinge, a successful female impersanator in vaudville who sang in falsetto and who settled in Edendale in the 1910s. Hurewitz argues that Eltinge refused to identify with fairies while his mainsteam mostly heterosexual vaudville audience say his work as refined.

The main argument of the book is first Edendale's modernist artists and then its Communist Party activists both insisted the interior life as important in arts and in politics--and both modernists and Communists affected gay history. The modernist artists broke with Victorian or vaudeville arts of surfaces to express intertior psychic states. Hurewitz tells how the Communist Party actvists fought for minoirtiy rights in Los Angeles, insisting that opressed minorities had cultures and that racial oppression negatively impacted psyches. The last chapter is how Harry Hay--Edendale resident, 30s Communist activist, and actor involved in 30s modernist arts--took all these elements in creating the Mattachine Society, the first homosexual rights organization in the United States.

Hay argued in those early meetings of the Mattachine Society that just as blacks, Mexican-Americans had a common culture, so did homosexuals. Also, Hay inherited from modernists the idea that interior life for homosexuals including sexual life "was indeed a fundamental--if not the fundamental piece of who they were" (269). Further, the interior life led directly to a politics and political groups which demanded civil rights.

Thus Hurewtiz believes these three kinds of bohemians in Los Angeles created the identity politics of the 1970s, but they created it decades earlier up in the hills of Edendale. Rather than a cultural wasteland from 1920-1950, the Los Angeles of "Bohemian Los Angeles" has vital arts and politics that would affect the larger culture of the United States throughout the 20th century. Hurewitz has written a thought-provoking and fascinating book.

One last note. Throughout their marriage Lillian Marks worked in the print shop along with her husband Saul, but during the 1930s Hurewitz says the printers' social clubs were men only. By the 1970s the printers' club had opened up to include women, so when Lillian took me to the printers' club fine dinner we sat and ate with both men and women.


Lyle Daggett said...

Great post, really enjoyed reading this. Especially fascinating about the active role typesetters havevplayed in the literary/artistic/political world of L.A.

I'm sure that's true about typesetters in many other places too, though one doesn't hear about it much. Meridel LeSueur said a couple of times that the first printing of the Communist Manifesto in the United States was done in a barn near Mankato, Minnesota (not sure when, but 19th century), just as an example off the top of my head.

Devon Atkins said...

This is (you are) my wild card. I have just begun my hunt for a novella I read in the 1970s that was written in that period of time, or earlier. It was a little like Tales of the City; but it was all Los Angeles.

The main character, a young woman, lived in an apartment building with Jacaranda Trees in the gardne or courtyard.

THe book was very trendy and entertaining; I love it, and would like to find it again.

Ask yourself, and then, maybe pass on the question to another who might know of it, please.

Devon Atkins
Vashon Island, WA