From THE MODERN REVIEW,
VOL. 1, Issue 3, Spring 2006, p. 57-62
Some parents move east for the sake of their children’s
education. Mine moved west so my father could play golf. He
played golf three days a week at the legendary Hillcrest Country
Club, a golf club created by Jews who were excluded, by virtue
of their Jewishness, from L.A.’s other clubs. My father was one
of the original 495 members. Membership included oil rights,
which largely paid the members’ dues.
At Hillcrest he hung out, visited, lunched with (I don’t think he actually golfed with them --did they actually play?) the Jewish comedians of the day -- the Marx Brothers, the Ritz Brothers, Jack Benny, George Burns, George Jessel. Why were the Jewish stars almost all comedians? Was it OK to be Jewish if you were a studio head or a comedian (you might have to change your name) but not if you were a so-called serious actor -- Piper Laurie, Kirk Douglas, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Lauren Bacall, Shelley Winters? Were those the only examples? We didn’t know then that those actors were Jewish, any more than we knew that Rock Hudson was gay or that Jeff Chandler was a cross dresser (see Esther Williams’ memoir). Those truths were hidden, un-known, like the tornadoes that visited Pasadena and downtown LA, which Mike Davis, in his book, The Ecology of Fear, says the city fathers conspired to keep secret. How did they manage to keep tornadoes secret? They did though. We had no idea.
“With an average of two or three tornadoes a year, the incidence of twisters in the LA basin is slightly higher than in Oklahoma.” (1)
My father was a great raconteur and loved to mimic, in his nonspecific European accent, the American and particularly the Southern accents he had, as a recent immigrant, just encountered. As a result, the comedians called him “Tex”. His real name was Sylvain, which the locals pronounced “Sylvan,” as though he existed, appropriately enough, in a sylvan glade.
“The key experience behind Adorno’s critique of mass society was his miserable exile in southern California.” (2)
My sejour, my sojourn, in Beverly Hills coincided with what Alice Jardine calls “the first American fifties”, 1945 to 1955, the period that has been theorized as the genesis of the postmodern era. She says the greatest danger for women was perceived as ambition; and for men, conformity. I agree. She identifies that period’s burning question as how did this country get from Hiroshima and Nagasaki to Disneyland in ten years, via the Alger Hiss case, the Rosenberg event, McCarthyism, and the Korean War. Wow! Good question. I was only dimly aware of those events. All I remember is, precisely, visiting Disneyland the year it opened, 1955. In the seventies, in New York, my husband and I became friends with Alger Hiss, who was still being trailed by the FBI.
“If you have fallen on hard times, you will have better hard times in California...you can live here in more comfortable straitened circumstances than anywhere else.” (3)
I was a fulltime resident of Beverly Hills from the age of three to the age of eighteen, that is, from 1941 to 1956. I attended the El Rodeo School from the 1st to the 8th grades, and graduated from Beverly Hills High School in 1956. It was a joke or it was no joke. A police car patrolled the streets every half hour, but there was no crime. Or if there was, we were unaware of it, it was invisible, like the tornadoes, the gays, the cross dressers & the Jewish movie stars. Oil revenues supported the schools -- there was an oil well on the Beverly Hills High School property -- as they paid the members’ dues at the Hillcrest Country Club. Those who walked were suspect. The police used to stop my grandparents, who lived in New York and visited us in the summers, and who had the European habit of an after-dinner stroll, to ask where they lived, and could they supply a local address.
A kind of preternatural calm, a calm beyond calm, held sway. As Luis Bunuel, who lived there during the war, said, “It was a joy to walk the streets of Beverly Hills . . . to luxuriate in that sense of order and security, to enjoy that American amiability.” (4) Only a surrealist would notice. This is the Beverly Hills of my childhood. To grow up there as a (Jewish) refugee from the war in Europe was to be (come) a (child) surrealist. Or an absurdist.
The air was soft, sun-kissed like the oranges.
It was a skin thing.
I do remember fog, blinding fog,
. . . the artificial sunlight of luxurious torpor . . . (5)
we were (all) blinded by the sunlight.
Beverly Hills -- its immaculate houses, wall-to-wall carpeting tended by live-in maids, manicured lawns nourished by underground sprinkler systems (we turned them on at dusk), flowerbeds cared for by Japanese gardeners (ours was Belgian). The water was imported (we never asked), the flamingoes on the front lawns (not ours) were plaster, the flowers were real. In the back garden there was a barbeque and a swimming pool. The streets were safe.
It was restful, expansive, serene. Beautiful sunny days, dazzling blue skies, dappled shadows . . . . Me and my shadow, all alone and feeling blue. . . . .
To this day, I am moved by leafy shadows, wherever I see them. . . .the light of unearned nostalgia... . .a dreamless, seamless whole . . . . (6)
A kind of eternal quiet prevailed. There were no electric leaf-blowers or lawnmowers, no honking horns or traffic jams. There were no boom boxes or loud music. Even the weather seemed calm in those days. The neighbors were silent. We didn’t know them, we didn’t even know what they looked like. I never wondered. Not that the lots were so big, but they were private, bounded by ever-green trees and shrubbery. People got into their cars and drove away. We didn’t see their faces. There were no joggers on the streets or even pedestrians on the sidewalks. There were no children at play. They played in their own generous back-yards.
My questions about meaning bumped up against this perfection.
I came as a refugee from the war in Europe so I knew from my nightmares that there was another reality. But here there was no fear except in me. Here, one beautiful sunny day followed the next. There was no knowledge of disruption, disaster and death. The contrast with my nightmares confused and disoriented me.
There was barely any awareness of war among my schoolmates. They learned no geography or history. They didn’t know if Europe was in Belgium, or Belgium in Antwerp (“Anne-twerp!” they yelled, gleefully). In my house there were affidavits and anxiety. My parents were frantically trying to save people. I didn’t realize you had to put up separate sums of money for each refugee you sponsored:
One chief way in which the emigres came into contact with the locals was through the scramble for affidavits. Their desperate efforts to save relatives and friends still trapped behind Nazi lines were immeasurably complicated by a U.S. government requirement that every entering refugee had to be sponsored by some individual who could submit an affidavit and accompanying financial statement guaranteeing economic support of the refugee for a period, if necessary, of up to five years. The same collateral funds could not be used twice, so there emerged a feverish quest to fiind new sponsors, usually Americans, who would be willing to post the required bond on behalf of people they didn’t even know. (7)
But when the war was over my parents said, nothing happened.
On Jewish holidays my friends and I went to the beach. This provoked some resentment amongst the Christian children who had to show up at school. My performance of Beethoven’s Funeral March at a piano recital produced helpless giggles from my friends. The future seemed predictable. Children lived for the day, or at most, the next day. “Life is a bowl of cherries” they said, echoing the 1931 song. Compare that to the New Yorker’s “shit happens.”
In the end,
A lost world was replaced with one in which nothing seemed to happen.
That was my parents’ version of our war,
And it seemed that nothing did.
1. Mike Davis, The Ecology of Fear
2. James Miller, Lingua Franca, Dec/Jan 2000
3. Alfred Polgar, German refugee satirist, quoted in Fred Grunfeld, Prophets Without Honor, McGraw-Hill, 1980, p. 178.
4. Luis Bunuel, My Last Sigh, Knopf, 1983, p. 195
5. Senator J. William Fulbright quoted in The Fifties, Blanche Wiesen Cook and Gerald Markowitz,1996.
6. Lawrence Weschler, “L.A. Light” The New Yorker
7. Lawrence Weschler in Exiles &Emigres ed. Stephanie Barron, Abrams, 1997, p. 346
- Anne-Marie Levine