The Westside’s hidden literary history is written in its lost architecture
By Colin Newton
In May of 1943, a recently hired Hollywood screenwriter described his Santa Monica apartment to a friend with a typically acid-washed tongue. “Living space here is virtually impossible to obtain and it was a choice between this sort of place and one of those ghastly pseudo-elegant pseudo-modern Shangri- La sort of apartments which Santa Monica is peppered with,” he wrote in a letter. “I chose the cheaper and less offensive sort… But it is in view of the ocean—well, with a little craning of the neck.”
The writer was Tennessee Williams, who had just gone to work for MGM, and the apartment was a boardinghouse located at 1647 Ocean Ave.
Williams’ experience in Hollywood was not a comfortable one, with the writer bitterly noting the slow, spiritual death of individual artists in the movie business. Of course, he did himself few favors with his patron company, complaining that his first assignment was to write a “celluloid brassiere” for actress Lana Turner and describing the studio’s child star Margaret O’Brien as “a smaller more loathsome edition of Shirley Temple.”
Williams was quickly removed from the regular writing staff, but his Los Angeles adventures continued while he waited out his contract. Williams wandered Downtown and the Westside, crashed on a scooter on Wilshire Boulevard — Audrey Wood, Williams’ agent, warned him in a letter: “I remember traffic vividly out your way”— and wrote from his apartment, merging a short story with a play into a spec script titled “The Gentleman Caller.”
“I feel this could be made into a very moving and beautiful screen play [sic]—much better than the stage version could be,” he wrote to Wood. “Only it would have to run unusually long, about as long I should think as ‘Gone With the Wind.’”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, MGM didn’t bite, and Williams took the project back East, where it would debut a year later under the name “The Glass Menagerie.” The play would be Williams’ artistic breakthrough and, ultimately, an American classic of psychological stage drama.
There is no landmark to “The Glass Menagerie” in Santa Monica. The building where Williams put together the play has long since disappeared to development. Today, the property is part of Tongva Park. However, it is just one of a few pieces of Westside literary history that have been swallowed by time.
Perhaps the Westside’s most famous literary resident was Ray Bradbury. In the spring of 1942, a year before Williams was settling into Santa Monica, Bradbury moved into a rented house at 670 Venice Blvd. One corner of the garage became his home office and the only place he would write. He turned his typewriter toward outer space and crafted the stories that would make up the sci-fi classic “The Martian Chronicles.”
His terrestrial neighbors included a brick powerhouse substation, which converted industrial strength electricity to residential levels, and an active jailhouse.
“Venice obviously has undergone significant changes in the decades since,” said Ken Bernstein, principle city planner for the LA Office of Historic Resources. “In the 1940s and into the 1950s, it was a place that was a lower cost neighborhood.”
Lower cost translated into an affordable spot for writers and artists to congregate, Bernstein said. “Venice was very much a bohemian, countercultural bastion during the 1950s,” he said. “I think they just found it a hospitable cultural environment as well.”
Bradbury would take advantage of the burgeoning bohemian atmosphere, living on Venice Boulevard — although moving a few blocks closer to the beach in 1947 — until the end of the decade. In 1950, the same year “The Martian Chronicles” was published, he left Venice.
The 670 property stayed in town a while longer, until it was demolished and replaced with a New York-style art gallery. The gallery opened in 2010, held a Bradbury-themed exhibit in 2012 and closed in 2013.
The Cheviot Hills property where Bradbury lived from the 1960s until his death in 2012 suffered a similar fate when it was torn down by the new owner, resulting in a public outcry.
Properties in Los Angeles can be designated Historic-Cultural Monuments, which gives them a protected status. Properties can be nominated for the designation by anyone, and they are often nominated by the owners themselves, Bernstein said. However, there are not as many Historic-Cultural Monuments on the Westside as there are in other parts of Los Angeles.
“Land values are so high and many might envision a land development in their future,” he said.
Of course, not every piece of Westside literary history has vanished. The house where Christopher Isherwood wrote his landmark novel “A Single Man” still privately observes the Santa Monica Canyon from its Ocean Avenue vantage point.
And sometimes, rather than vanish, literary history generates spontaneously. William Faulkner was rumored to have lived on an El Greco Street in Santa Monica — no such street seems to have existed in the city.
Another writer whose Westside presence was slightly overstated was Raymond Chandler. Loren Latker, operator of the Raymond Chandler fan website Shamus Town (www.shamustown.com), started investigating the crime writer’s many Los Angeles area homes and quickly noticed something amiss. Chandler lore had it that the writer lived at 723 Stewart St. in Santa Monica in the early 1920s when he was an executive at the Dabney Oil Syndicate.
“I went there looking around, and the addresses are wrong,” Latker said. “It’s not possible that he lived on Stewart in Santa Monica.”
Old maps of the area backed him up. Stewart did not cross Wilshire, where the 723 address would have been, Latker said. Chandler most likely lived on a Stewart Street in downtown Los Angeles, which was later renamed Witmer, he said. That would be near the Mayfair Hotel, an infamous Chandler haunt where the writer would check in, get drunk, call his office and threaten to kill himself.
Of course, Chandler still lived in Santa Monica a decade later, as well as twice in the Pacific Palisades, once in Brentwood and at more than 30 other locations throughout Los Angeles and Southern California. While on the Westside in the late ‘30s and early ‘40s, he worked on short stories that he would develop into the pulp fiction novels “The Big Sleep,” “Farewell My Lovely” and “The High Window,” all featuring the hard-boiled hero Phillip Marlowe, whose clipped narration is synonymous with detective fiction and Los Angeles literature. Marlowe was a reflection of his city and its neighborhoods, sometimes bitter, sometimes beautiful and often obscure.
“You can see that Chandler was influenced by the courts and the places that he lived,” Latker says. The atmosphere of Westside streets like San Vicente, where Chandler lived for a couple of months at the end of 1940, can be felt in the books, even if they aren’t named. Curiously, Santa Monica, a frequent location in the novels, was renamed Bay City.
“There has never been an indication why he changed it. It’s just something that he did,” Latker said. “Maybe he just wanted to disguise everything and add mystery to it. After all, he was writing mysteries.”
The literary disguises haven’t stopped readers from trying to figure out what’s architectually what, and a kind of cult has evolved around trying to determine the various locations in Chandler country, Latker said.
One reader asked Latker about the identity of a particularly memorable building from the short story “Bay City Blues” — a physician’s building described as having wings. With a little detective work, they turned up a structure on Wilshire and 7th in Santa Monica that had a wing-like design, a feature from before air conditioning.
“They’d look like a squared W — a wing, a space, a wing,” Latker said. “Instead of making a solid building, they made this W-shape so you could get ventilation.”
The building is still standing, although it’s part of a new Westside tradition. It’s been developed into a hotel.
If you squint a little, you can sometimes still see the old city, though there are other — perhaps more durable — ways to access the past. Ray Bradbury put his Venice experience, complete with shallow canals and skeletal beachside roller coasters, into the slightly surreal detective novel “Death Is a Lonely Business.” In the short story “The Mattress by the Tomato Patch,” Tennessee Williams described an apartment where, from behind his typewriter, he could see a beach house belonging to Marion Davies. (That house has been recast as the focal point of the Annenberg Community Beach House compound, itself built in the worn footprint of Davies’ and her lover William Randolph Hearst’s Gold Coast mansion.)
At the very least, houses built in the style of Southern Gothic, Palm Tree Gothic and Martian Gothic are still inhabitable on paper.