David Kipen’s “Dear Los Angeles” offers an episodic firsthand history of the city

By Bliss Bowen

“Dear Los Angeles” compiles letters from some of the city’s most famous residents, including Marilyn Monroe

There’s a unique appeal to epistolary collections from times past, which at their best make history feel more human and real. The popularity of the Letters of Note blog testifies
to readers’ fascination with such exchanges.

David Kipen has tapped into that with “Dear Los Angeles: The City in Diaries and Letters, 1542 to 2018,” the astutely edited book he’ll discuss with
“I Read Your Book And…” series host Rex Weiner on Saturday at Beyond Baroque. A former director of literature at the National Endowment for the Arts, Kipen worked for seven years on the book, which is a genuine service to anyone interested in our unconventional labyrinth of cultural and geologic diversity.

In its 548 pages the occasional speech and blog get quoted too, along with an 1868 suicide note (in which then-Mayor of Los Angeles Damien Marchesseault apologizes to his wife for gambling away their money). It’s organized by day, so “January 1” is followed by entries from 1853, 1923, 1934, 1941 and 1985. Kipen describes what emerges from his discerning juxtaposition of quotes as “a pointillist history of Los Angeles,” albeit one with “more blind spots than a Camry with a busted mirror.”

For readers it’s akin to snatching bright conversational bits overlapping at a party whose guests time-traveled across centuries, their attitudes reflecting prejudices of their era. Sometimes comments connect; others echo in parallel streams. Topics range from flash floods, whale hunts, clueless contractors, meteor showers, celebrity and the quality of local sunlight to art, film, unions, parties, 9/11, political protest, sex, traffic and overdevelopment. (Certain concerns remain perennial.)

Some voices bear disturbing witness to history. Philip Dunne’s 1936 note resonates eerily: “American fascism will get nowhere without a dictator. Somewhere he exists; somewhere in the murky valleys of politics lurks the American Hitler. Soon or late, he will appear. Let us pray that when he comes, he will have the mark of the beast set on his brow, so we shall know him.” WWII internee Aoki Hisa writes of being interviewed at home alongside her husband by FBI agents, registering at the Alien Registration Office, and then, later in 1942: “We, who until war broke out, thought we would live in America for the rest of our lives, became labeled as the enemy.”

Various presidents, Octavia Butler, Cesar Chavez, Wanda Coleman, Albert Einstein, M.F.K. Fisher, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, Jonathan Gold, John Lennon, Steve Lopez, Ross MacDonald, Anais Nïn and Eleanor Roosevelt are among the familiar names cited. So is a jocular Ryan Reynolds: “People in L.A. are deathly afraid of gluten. I swear to God, you could rob a liquor store in this city with a bagel.”

L.A. inspires adoration (“Life is cloudless here in every sense,” per Kenneth Tynan in 1977) and snobbish loathing; Hart Crane dismissed it in 1928 as a “Pollyanna greasepaint pinkpoodle paradise.” Australian author and memoirist Clive James expressed conflicting impressions when writing in 1979 about visiting the home of successful screenwriters and essayists Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne:

“If two people so intelligent can live in Los Angeles on their own terms, then the place has become civilised in spite of itself. … Turning around, I could see the whole of the San Fernando Valley. It was all one sea of light. This is where the first space voyagers will come from. When our children leave the Earth and sail away into relative time, they will have the confidence of naivety. They will have forgotten what it is like not to get anything you want just by reaching out. In a way the Angelenos have already quit America.”

No, we haven’t quit America. But we’re still looking outward toward the horizon.

David Kipen discusses “Dear Los Angeles” with Rex Weiner at 4 p.m. Saturday (April 27) at Beyond Baroque, 681 Venice Blvd., Venice. Tickets are $10. Call (310) 822-3006 or visit beyondbaroque.org.