From the LA Files: Where We Grow up

“I sometimes wish you girls hadn’t lived in West L.A. It was just too fast.”

My eldest sister at home, Malibu Colony, Fall 1962.

My mother often said this to me when we talked about our life in Los Angeles. She usually said this after having been shaken up by some mishap or indiscretion concerning one of her three teenage daughters: my older sister’s multiple expulsions from private and public schools in La Jolla and Pacific Palisades (and not because of grades); my middle sister’s sensational academic failures and bizarre turns in prep school and at Pepperdine; or, my first, and then second car accident within four months of each other–and in two new cars.

Indeed, she may have unwittingly been referring to the absence of humility in our 1970s and 1980s Los Angeles life. She and my father, hardly social climbers, were nonetheless stewards of LA’s chic non-Hollywood old guard—members of those first Southern California families, I suppose, who farmed and defined LA’s social scene, carrying it over carefully from the 50’s to the 60s, and maintaining it as they always had, in lock step –but apart—from the Hollywood set.

Still, my mother liked evolving. If anything, her chic style was open-minded. She not only enjoyed changing fashions, and style trends, she also led the way, her great body and sensational California girl-legs a boon to her efforts. A former Ms. La Jolla, her fashion instincts were noteworthy even at 16. She cut her hair off right after being crowned Queen of the Rough Water Swim in the mid-fifties. For teenage girls, the short crop cut was a first, but soon became the norm.

Mother (wearing Donald Brooks) and the author at home in Rustic Canyon. Santa Monica, California, 1968.

Her style sense carried over from one thing to the next. She was an astute, if dedicated, shopper. In what was a much less flashy Beverly Hills back then, she would have her hair done at Saks Fifth Avenue on Wilshire Boulevard before the store opened at 10 am. (I would often run around the store’s dark halls, if I happened to be with her.) She then spent her days being fitted by seamstresses at Saks, I. Magnin, Bonwit Tellar and Elizabeth Arden in original dresses from then-unknown designers like Bill Blass and Donald Brooks. Her casual “clogs” were the funkiest pair of Kelly Green patent leather Charles Jordan platforms. She bought unusual accessories, tortoise shell and gold plated belts by Gucci and Christian Dior, and clutches by an obscure artist named Judith Leiber.

She channeled her keen buying sense to interior design, again purchasing superior antiques at cost, investing wisely in artworks by unknown French painters, and she was an “early adapter” of textiles, always ushering in the next big fabric trend. We had green lattice and Ikat years before it caught on, and mother was clever at unearthing the unusual Brunschwig or bold Clarence House pattern. She could find things, and it became her preoccupation. She spent money when spending was not an important reflection of status. For my mother, however, it might well have been a vocation.

Inside our home, her musical tastes were impeccable, and so too was her self-taught ability to cook. Half Irish and half Italian, she started as a new bride around 1962, practicing in the kitchen of my parent’s rented house in Malibu Colony. She relied on wise friends and neighbors to show her the ways of giving dinner small parties, which they all alternately hosted every weekend along the quiet coast. The Colony in those days was considered a distant and less-appealing outpost, especially for guys like my father who worked early mornings and long weeks as a stock broker on Spring Street in downtown LA. My father adored coming home on Friday, shutting the wagon in the garage, and walking to Hughes Market for whatever they needed for the rest of the weekend.

We had one of the first Cuisinarts. The food, always French, always Julia and James Beard; the music, always Bill Evans, Dave Brubeck, and Blossom Dearie; the parties, big or small, with delicious fare were always elegant, and always going late, whether in our big ocean front manse, or, later, in our cottage in Santa Monica Canyon.

My sisters and I like those memories. Our mother had flair. So, that was the good indulgence we got from her—an appreciation for a deeper beauty, a certain mood. And that hasn’t gone away.

But I wonder if we were ever taught to focus.

To this day, I stand by my having flair. I need it, in fact. Yet, I suffer, as per my mother’s hindsight, from having grown up indulged—and unsupervised—in Los Angeles, but, worse, from having parents who also, perhaps, got swept up in Southern California life from the late sixties to the late eighties, while ignoring the social and economic changes happening in front of them–changes that were slowly eclipsing the Los Angeles they so loved.

My parents flourished, and then they fell long and hard. They became, like most, self-absorbed humans beings (aren’t we all?) who inadvertently missed the mark–due to their own human struggles– on teaching their daughters a few basic rules of self-discipline, focus, and the meaning of courtesy. Children of the most polite generation, my parents lost touch with how to pass along the basic behaviors to which they themselves adhered all their lives, forgetting to teach their children not to cross the line, to mind themselves, to use discretion, and, to protect themselves.

Yes, LA was their town, but, as it changed—and as they aged—the cultural differences were dramatic. They grew up, after all, as teenagers in a more civilized era in the 1950s, an era humbled by two wars, and then charmed by the economic prosperity of a unique and unifying postwar mindset that blanketed the entire nation for a decade. So, when they married in the early 1960s, aligned by similar politics and a love of animals, they were blindsided, not so much by LA’s population surge, the nation’s changing moral sensibility, the drug revolution, or shifts in attitude, as much as the loss of a certain simplicity and ease of life. Indeed, times had to change, and today all we do is battle uglier and more grave social, political and economic wars than ever.

That wasn’t the problem, anyway.

The problem was more personal—and something they could have managed. It had to do with how their children were interpreting a more modern, wild and kind-of warped Los Angeles—particularly among the so-called privileged families. We children of the 1970s, simply put, were like the screw-off generation of West Los Angeles, and 180-degrees different than our parents.

Where my father would make regular pilgrimages from Pasadena (where he grew up) to San Onofre and various surfing points west for the pure joy of riding waves from dawn to dusk, my own peers were notoriously seedier about it. The notion of my father or any of his friends dying randomly out on a swell seems ludicrous, while a young man I knew fell facedown on his board in the mid-1980s – a heart attack after too much cocaine that morning.

Dad lost his shirt financially (but not his humor), and mother grew bitter. Years later, she would sell many of those antiques and French paintings to live. Their society had vanished—friends moved to LA’s well-known sister cities like Montecito, Palm Desert and Sun Valley. Or, some, like my parents, divorced, and the rest died young.

West Los Angeles today is a canvas of one stately neighborhood after the next, all of them unbalanced in terms of caste. It seems every family, in every house, on every block is rich. The proverbial writing is on the wall: you have to have money to live near an ocean palisade. Gone are the middle and working-class families. There are no cheap rentals on the beach in Malibu Colony. If you have money, you don’t drive a beat up Mercury wagon; and, private prep schools, with yearly tuitions as high as those of USC and Stanford, will make every effort not to expel kids for pot, provided their parents make large enough donations. It was years later that my parents realized that Los Angeles, as joyous as it was when it opened its arms to my family in the beginning, was too fast for any of us.# # #