“Dear Los Angeles: The City in Letters and Diaries, 1542-2018,” is garnering rave reviews in literary circles, and it’s easy to see why. This collection of excerpts selected from writings spanning more than half a millennia creates a vivid, colorful and eclectic portrait of L.A.
David Kipen, the editor, describes his book as “a collective self-portrait of Los Angeles when it thought nobody was looking. Joyous, creative, life-giving. Violent, stupid, inhospitable to strangers. Cerebral, melancholy. Funny.”
“Dear Los Angeles” is a journey through the L.A. year, but it doesn’t follow a linear path through time. Instead, Kiplin starts on January 1, and works his way through the calendar, while zigzagging through time.
January 1 starts with a letter from the Gold Rush, dated 1853, before skipping to a January 1, 1923 letter from Topanga’s own Sister Aimee Semple McPherson. January 2 begins with a military anecdote from 1948, then steps back a decade to an evening out on January 2, 1932: “Dinner in Santa Monica. Home in Rolls Royce. Jolly, futile, childish fun,” wrote novelist Dawn Powell.
January alone is crammed with quotes from F. Scott Fitzgerald writing to David O. Selznick about the film version of Gone with the Wind to General George Patton discussing his family life. Albert Einstein is here singing the praises of Pasadena; and a young John Cage rejoices that his mother will let him buy a flute.
Sooner or later, almost everyone who is anyone passes through Los Angeles, and Kipen has done a fantastic job researching and collecting choice quotes from a wide range of visitors and residents. The selections not only provide a perspective on L.A., they also reveal elements of the landscape that surrounds the city.
In 1929, author and journalist Lee Shippey described the Santa Monica Mountains: “We have seen tropical jungles which could not compare with the hillsides of the Malibu range, which are covered with chemise brush tall as a man and so thick that you couldn’t even shoot a gun through it more than 50 yards.”
Botanist William H. Brewer, visiting 70 years earlier, wrote about climbing to the top of a mountain ridge in what might have been Topanga. “In places fossil shells had been weathered out in immense numbers,” he wrote. “The ridge was strewn with them, as thick as any sea beach I had ever seen.”
Artist’s model and author Charis Wilson, writing in 1938, described the Great Flood of Los Angeles, something waterlogged residents in January of 2019 can easily relate to. “It’s a real flood,” she wrote. “And my worst sorrow is that we have no radio on hand and can’t [hear] all the minute to minute news…Santa Monica Canyon is flooded and Santa Monica cut off, as also Malibu Topango [sic] and Laurel and most of the canyon places.”
A 1942 entry from journalist and diarist Aoki Hisa is chilling. She described going with her husband to register at the Alien Registration Office. “There are Germans and Italians, but Japanese make up the majority,” she wrote. Her diaries, published in 2015, chronicle the harrowing experiences that followed that day: confinement at the Santa Anita Assembly Center and then at the Gila Relocation Center in Arizona.
Writer Thomas Mann, the same year, wrote to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, to protest German and Italian nationals being treated as “Aliens of Enemy Nationality.”
“We are referring to such persons who have fled their country and sought refuge in the United States because of totalitarian persecution…” he wrote.
“Dear Los Angeles” may have been designed to be dipped into, but it is surprisingly hard to put down. It’s a compelling, entertaining and engaging way to explore the Los Angeles experience. Highly recommended but be warned: this book has the potential to lead the reader down an almost unending number of rabbit holes in pursuit of more information about the writers it features, and the events they describe.