Archives for February 2016

Some Walls Are Built as Bridges: San Jose State University Celebrates John Steinbeck and Civil Rights

Image of John Steinbeck award wall at San Jose State University

Some walls separate. Others connect. Admirers at San Jose State University have built a handsome wall to commemorate John Steinbeck’s enduring connection with social justice and civil rights, a tie that is celebrated in the John Steinbeck “In the souls of people” Award, given 15 times since 1996 to artists, actors, writers, and activists whose work involves social change. The award ceremony is always a happy occasion, and the February 24 event honoring civil rights leader Ruby Bridges, the brave little schoolgirl described in Travels with Charley, was no exception.

The John Steinbeck award ceremony is always a happy occasion, and the February 24 event honoring Ruby Bridges, the brave little schoolgirl described in Travels with Charley, was no exception.

The Steinbeck award commemorative wall was created by the San Jose University Student Union and is located in the busy student activity building where most award events are held. Explains Nick Taylor, director of the Martha Heasley Cox Center for Steinbeck Studies at San Jose State University, “The wall consists of a series of disks tracing the timeline of the Steinbeck Award, with background on the rationale for each selection and a few details about each ceremony.” The California civil rights leader Dolores Huerta, an advocate for farm workers’ rights, is a past recipient. Bruce Springsteen received the first award in 1996.

Image of February 24, 2016 John Steinbeck award event announcement

Jim Kent, a member of the John Steinbeck center’s advisory board, traveled to San Jose from Denver for the February 24 event. “As a fan of Travels with Charley,” he said, “I was thrilled to meet the young lady Steinbeck observed as she braved white hecklers during the integration of the New Orleans elementary school where she was the first black student, back in 1960.” A social ecologist who uses Steinbeck in his work empowering citizens to control their own environments, Kent was helping to write federal legislation for Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty when the Civil Rights Act of 1965—which owed much to writers like John Steinbeck—passed Congress. “Ruby Bridges was the perfect choice for this year’s award,” he added. “Like Steinbeck, she is a master storyteller. She attracted a capacity crowd made up of all ages and races, and her elegance inspired five standing ovations. There’s clearly a hunger for continued engagement with civil rights in our time. This was proof.”

Notes from a Broken Nation: Carmel, California’s Michael Katakis Shatters the Myth of American Exceptionalism

Cover image from "A Thousand Shards of Glass," by Michael Katakis

Good news from Down Under. A Thousand Shards of Glass, a collection of essays, letters, and journal entries by the travel writer-photographer Michael Katakis, has been published in paperback and eBook by The Author People, an Australian outfit with a pioneering approach to book publishing. Founded in 2015 by Lou Johnson and Tom Galletta, the firm is dedicated to connecting authors with their audiences, wherever they may be around the world.

The most recent collection of essays, letters, and journal entries by the travel writer-photographer Michael Katakis has been published in paperback and eBook by The Author People, an Australian outfit with a pioneering approach to book publishing.

I first read A Thousand Shards of Glass in 2014, the year Simon & Schuster released a hardback edition of the book in Australia and the United Kingdom while ignoring its intended market—the United States. Since then, I’ve met Michael Katakis in Carmel, California, his part-time home, and I admire his perceptiveness as a thinker, writer, and photographer. Like John Steinbeck and Ernest Hemingway, he’s an American author with a distinctive point of view, writing for a country described by Gore Vidal as “the United States of Amnesia.”

Image of Michael Katakis

Steinbeck, Hemingway, and Vidal come up frequently in conversation with Katakis, an imposing figure with a similar intensity. In his talk, as in his career, his range of knowledge and engagement is impressive. He’s the manager of Hemingway’s literary estate, and an expert on the author. He knows much (but, diplomatically, says little) about Carmel, California, a place Steinbeck once characterized as a haven for hacks. During a chance meeting with Vidal in Los Angeles when Katakis was a warm-up singer for the Herb Alpert band, the young musician felt his life change, and he became a photographer and writer with a Vidalian urge to explore, and to question.

Katakis’s famous photo of Maya Lin, the artist of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, became contentious when he challenged an act of censorship by the National Portrait Gallery and asked for the picture’s return.

His famous photo of Maya Lin, the artist of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, became contentious when he challenged an act of censorship by the National Portrait Gallery and asked for the picture’s return. His books include Photographs and Words with Dr. Kris Harden, co-authored with his late wife, a beloved anthropologist and ideal life-mate. Traveller: Observations from an American in Exile, published in 2009, has a foreword by Michael Palin, a fellow traveler and friend.

Image of Maya Lin by Michael Katakis

Like Vidal, Katakis thinks that the myth of American exceptionalism is not only foolish, but dangerous. Like Vidal, he favors living abroad and seeing Americans as others see us: self-involved but unreflective; self-righteous, but also hypocritical; militantly religious and religiously militant; obsessed by money and addicted to oil; shrewd in deal-making, yes, but easily duped by flag-pin politicians.

Like The Grapes of Wrath, Katakis’s book telegraphs its message through the metaphor contained in its title.

Like a Hemingway novel that anchors the ideas expressed in experience, A Thousand Shards of Glass consists of a series of episodes—9/11, Kris’s death, meeting Gore Vidal—described in short sentences and simple words to convey their meaning. Like The Grapes of Wrath, Katakis’s book telegraphs its message through the metaphor contained in its title. As the author explained it to an Australian interviewer in 2014, “In order to understand America one must realize that it is not a country, it’s a store where everything is for sale, every principle, ethic and friend.” The job of a serious writer, then—like that of the photojournalist—is to reveal the face under the makeup, the reality behind the myth.

Image of John Steinbeck

Katakis’s picture of America, like Steinbeck’s, isn’t always pretty. Kris, diagnosed with a brain tumor in the prime of life, becomes a tragic victim of the pre-Obama American health care horror show. Vidal is first encountered on a TV set decades earlier, talking with Eugene McCarthy about America’s disastrous involvement in Vietnam. Since then the US has doubled down, a nation of true believers where (to paraphrase Christopher Hitchens) religion ruins everything and (Vidal again) history teaches nothing. Clint Eastwood, the former mayor of Carmel, California, insults an empty chair at the 2012 Republican convention, an embarrassment Katakis recalls when he passes Eastwood in a hospital hallway.

Like a Hemingway novel that anchors the ideas expressed in experience, A Thousand Shards of Glass consists of a series of episodes described in short sentences and simple words to convey their meaning.

Bush’s phony Iraq war is fought in the name of Americans by 1% of the population living at the opposite end of the economic spectrum from Wall Street’s 1%. Hitchens, a guiding light to Katakis, loses his luster after 9/11, buying into Bush’s war in the Middle East for reasons Katakis ascribes to Hitchens’s upbringing as the son of a World War II vet. Katakis’s journal entry on 9/11 begins “. . . today hard terrorism hit soft terrorism.” Another, written four years later, describes Bush’s Rasputin, Karl Rove, dancing at a White House Correspondents’ dinner to the delight of reporters who are still high on the Bush & Company cool aid. Eventually, even the Beltway woke up and smelled the coffee, but Karl Rove’s victory dance is a useful reminder of how madness overtook America before Iraq imploded and sobriety set in.

Image of Ernest Hemingway

Which raises the challenge posed by the book: do Americans never learn? Katakis explores the problem of American amnesia with people he meets in London, Paris, and Italy; like Hemingway and Vidal, he has perfect pitch in conversation, and he records what others say us with an infallible ear. His diagnosis of America’s mania for guns is framed by a fraught encounter with a woman from Eastern Europe, in London, following the Newton, Connecticut school shooting. “I think we Americans are afraid of each other, of everything,” he explains, despite “the fictional narrative of America that we have been selling for some time now.”

Quoting Hemingway, Katakis compares the global dominance of America’s ‘consumer corporate state’ with Britain’s East India Company two centuries ago—an undertaking of naked power wearing the fig leaf of moral righteousness.

Savoring Paris as Hemingway did decades earlier, he celebrates “the poetry of living” encountered abroad, the daily joie de vivre Americans have lost in “our obsession with our devices.” Quoting Hemingway, he compares the global dominance of America’s “consumer corporate state” with Britain’s East India Company two centuries ago—an undertaking of naked power wearing the fig leaf of righteousness. He and Kris move to Europe to protest Bush’s war, and to enjoy the poetry of living now lost in America, “the land of lists.” Their idyllic life abroad is interrupted by her father’s death; her diagnosis prevents their return. Numbed by her death, Katakis writes, “I have come to know that most Americans are sleepwalking.”

Image of Gore Vidal

Like Vidal and Hitchens, Katakis is hard not to quote, and A Thousand Shards of Glass contains equally memorable sentences in abundance. So does a conversation with Katakis, as I learned over lunch in Carmel, California late last year, when I asked him if he thought the Bernie Sanders insurgency showed that Americans are finally waking up. He said yes, repeating the comment, quoted earlier, that he made to the Australian interviewer about America’s self-illusion in 2014. When his wife died he lost the “true north” in his life, but he’s getting his bearings again, and a note of hope for an awakening has emerged in his writing.

Cover image from "Why Orwell Matters," by Christopher Hitchens

Fans of Hemingway, Steinbeck, Orwell, Vidal, and Hitchens—the bright constellation in Katakis’s dark sky—will delight in his references and allusions to their writing in A Thousand Shard of Glass. Bernie Sanders supporters will discover that, on almost every issue, Katakis was there first, before the presidential campaign brought American exceptionalism into question on problems of foreign and domestic policy. In response to my followup question about presidential politics before writing this review, Katakis said this:

I have often wondered what it means to be moral or how to live an ethical life in accelerated and morally ambiguous times which have seemingly allowed for rationalizations of thoughts and conduct by individuals and institutions, that just a short time ago, would have been considered unacceptable and injurious to the common good. Marcus Aurelius wrote that “the soul becomes dyed with the color of it’s thoughts,” suggesting one of the steps toward morality was the self control of our darker selves. Gore Vidal wrote that ‘we’ Americans, ” learn nothing because we remember nothing.” That is painfully demonstrated by any objective observer watching the 2016 Republican presidential primary. We have lost our way. If we remembered our own history, we would hear in the voice of Donald Trump, and his supporters, the voices of Father Coughlin and Senator Joseph McCarthy. They would hear the fear mongering and the insults that have been the tried and true tactic of scoundrels who have never offered anything but a scorched earth.  But we Americans, in our ignorance and conceit, do not know our history and, as a collective, are not a good people. To those dark voices among us I can think of no more eloquent response than that of Mr. Joseph Welch to Senator Joseph McCarthy on June 9, 1954: “You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”

John Steinbeck invited his readers to participate in his fiction. Overhearing Gore Vidal changed Michael Katakis, helping him to become a writer. Participate in the result of that inspiration by reading A  Thousand Shards of Glass. You’ll change, too.

Santa Clara, California Drops The Ball on John Steinbeck And Dorothea Lange

Composite image of John Steinbeck's portrait and Dorothea Lange's "Migrant Mother"

John Steinbeck knew Dorothea Lange, the iconic Depression-Era photographer who documented the plight of itinerant farm workers like Steinbeck’s Joads, and Lange’s images illustrated the cover of Their Blood Is Strong, the collection of columns Steinbeck wrote about migrants in the run-up to The Grapes of Wrath. Eighty years later, Lange and Steinbeck have come together again in an unlikely place—the art collection on display at Levi’s Stadium, the $1 billion facility built recently in Santa Clara, California for the San Francisco 49ers football team. The irony of exhibiting Steinbeck’s portrait and Lange’s “Migrant Mothers” on the walls of a publicly subsidized sports palace seems lost upon the team’s owners and Santa Clara’s mayor, who resigned on February 9, hours after the 2016 Super Bowl was played at Levi’s Stadium.

Image of Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, California

The journalist Gabriel Thompson, a Steinbeck Fellow at San Jose State University, writes eloquently about the history of community organizing, and about today’s low-wage economy. An email he sent last week noted the jarring juxtaposition of Steinbeck and Lange with big-money sports on the walls of Levi’s Stadium, and it provided a link to the investigative piece he wrote for Slate about working as a food server during the Super Bowl. “The portrait hangs directly across from the office of the food service contractor that operates at Levi’s,” he said, adding that Lange’s “Migrant Mother” (originally titled “Pea Pickers”) is also on display. He included a link to a stadium PR story that makes this pitch for buying a box seat:

Gather 19 of your closest friends and rent a suite that gives you and your crew premium parking right next to the stadium, entry to Michael Mina’s Tailgate, upscale catering with an in-suite food and beverage credit, and access to the Trophy Club, where you’ll receive a complimentary glass of champagne and appetizers upon arrival. The suites are outfitted with comfy leather theater-style seats, Internet access and plenty of flat screen monitors to ensure you don’t miss any of the action. Prices vary by game but expect to shell out between $20,000 and $40,000 for the ultimate in VIP hospitality.

Image of Mission Santa Clara in Santa Clara, California

John Steinbeck, a critic of conspicuous consumption, celebrated common men and women in his writing. During college he worked for the Spreckels sugar company, which operated ranches in the rich agricultural area between King City and Santa Clara, California, south of San Francisco. Later, Santa Clara’s fragrant orchards gave way to development; today the city of 110,000 is home to tech giants including Intel, along with Santa Clara University, where a center for business ethics fronts a quiet entrance plaza anchored by the Mission Santa Clara church. Levi’s Stadium is across town, on land provided by the city not far from Intel and Mission College, a public institution. A local referendum to stop the San Francisco 49ers project failed, following a massive media and mail campaign and heavy lobbying by city leaders. According to news sources, controversy surrounding lost soccer fields—and suspicious side deals—continues to dog Santa Clara officials who went to bat for the project.

Image of Ma and Tom Joad from The Grapes of Wrath

Steinbeck would recognize the present problem with Santa Clara. He wasn’t much of a sports fan, or civic booster, and his father became treasurer of Monterey County after the incumbent embezzled public funds. Today, Santa Clara residents are scratching their heads over the sudden resignation of their mayor, a former code-enforcement officer—an act, according to San Jose Mercury News columnist Scott Herhold, that disqualifies the ex-mayor from further office, “including secretary of his homeowners’ association.” According to the paper, the three women on the seven-member Santa Clara city council are asking hard questions about Levi’s Stadium, and the Hispanic city manager is complaining about racial discrimination.

Photographic image of John Steinbeck at work

Steinbeck would also recognize the unintentional irony—and the awful syntax—in another assertion, pulled from the PR piece quoted earlier, about the costly amenities at Levi’s Stadium:

Being that this stadium is located in the most-cultured half of California, an emphasis on art is a given. Spread throughout the elite Citrix Owners Club, the Brocade Club, BNY Mellon Club East and West and SAP Tower of suites, this collection, curated by Sports and The Arts specifically for Levi’s Stadium, is comprised of over 200 pieces of original artwork and 500 photographs that celebrate the history of the San Francisco 49ers as well as California’s stunning landscape. You’ll find charcoal sketches of notable figures such as John Steinbeck and Jack Kerouac as well as timeless psychedelics of the storied Fillmore made famous by Bill Graham. However, the portraits stadium-goers still pose next to the most are those of Joe Montana throwing to Jerry Rice and current quarterback Colin Kaepernick on the run.

Image of Mission Santa Clara sign in Santa Clara, California

When the city of Salinas wanted to name a school or library for John Steinbeck, he suggested choosing a bowling alley (or whorehouse) instead. For followers of the Levi’s Stadium story from Salinas and Monterey, there’s an upside to Santa Clara’s cluelessness about Steinbeck: Cannery Row may be tacky, and the National Steinbeck Center needs money, but neither place violates the spirit of John Steinbeck and Dorothea Lange like the San Francisco 49ers’ opulent new home in Santa Clara, California, where Steinbeck and Lange hang within view of noshing VIPs, high above ordinary football fans who can’t afford a five-figure seat.

Photo of Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California by Michael Fiola (Reuters).

John Steinbeck’s Monterey, California: The Way It Was

Image of John Steinbeck and Monterey, California

I was surprised when my friends Matt and Vivian told me about a silk opera cape that John Steinbeck wore long ago to a posh cocktail party in Pebble Beach. I didn’t doubt them (I knew them too well for that), but really—an opera cape with a red lining? It happened when they were visiting me at home during the time I lived in Monterey, California. Vivian noticed a book by Steinbeck on my writing table.

“Oh, we know him,” Vivian said, explaining how she and her husband Matt had catered the Pebble Beach affair, and how John sat alone in the corner at the party wearing a cape. “Anyone who wanted his attention had to go to him,” she added. “I thought he was being a snob. But when the party wound down he got up and spoke.”

Steinbeck said, “I’ve seen your side of the hill,” recalled Vivian. “Now who wants to see how the rest of the world lives?”

“And so off we went to Steinbeck’s house in Pacific Grove,” Vivian added, “where he showed us how to drink wine out of a gallon jug you propped on your shoulder.”

Listening to the story, I felt sure Steinbeck was giving the Pebble Beach crowd a two-fingered salute that night long ago. But I was left wondering about the cape, which seemed out of character for the writer. Years later I read a letter from Steinbeck to his soon-to-be second wife, Gwendolyn Conger, describing how a group of kids in Pacific Grove appeared at a neighborhood party dressed in capes. He said he thought it might be amusing if he were to venture out wearing one, too. Eventually he did. Mystery solved.

Image of George Harrison

Celebrities Pass Through and Come Calling in Monterey

The more I think about my life surrounded by artists on Huckleberry Hill—a hill overlooking Pacific Grove and Monterey, California—the more I regret not asking more questions and listening to more stories about John Steinbeck during the 1930s and 40s. Years later, during my time there, celebrities who today would be followed by a gaggle of fans and reporters managed to live, work, and visit in peace. Famous writers in the region’s rich history included John Steinbeck, Robinson Jeffers, Dennis Murphy (the son of a childhood friend of Steinbeck’s), Eric Barker, and Hunter S. Thompson.

Image of Steve McQueen

Among the motion picture stars who came to town were Marlon Brando, Steve McQueen, Shirley Temple Black, Doris Day, Bing Crosby, Joan Fontaine, Clark Gable, Kim Novak, and Frank Sinatra. Singers, too: Bobby Dylan and Joan Baez. Artists galore: Bruce and Jean Ariss, Ephraim Doner, Liza Wurtzman, John Steinbeck’s portraitist Barbara Stevenson Graham, who painted under the nom de plume Judith Deim. The art collector Bill Pearson, who owned a gallery in New Monterey, plus a flock of colorful cartoonists: Eldon Dedini, Hank Ketcham, and Gus Arriola. Photographers, some famous—Ansel Adams Edward Weston, Imogen Cunningham—and others less well known: Morley Baer, John Livingston, Al Weber, Brett Cole, and Ruth Bernhard. Lesser literary lights called Monterey or Pacific Grove home as well: Ward Moore and Milton Mayer and Winston Elstob and Martin Flavin and Bob Bradford and Lester Gorn, to name a few.

Image of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor

For the most part, prominent residents and visiting celebrities alike were treated by the denizens of Pacific Grove and Monterey, California, as friends or neighbors or passers-by who deserved privacy, like everyone else. Alcohol was often in evidence, and it was tolerated, even in formerly-dry Pacific Grove. Before my time the poet Dylan Thomas had passed through, driven by a wealthy woman from Berkeley in a yellow convertible. I was there when Liz Taylor and Richard Burton drank and argued and threw martini glasses at one other in a local bar. The racing driver Augie Pabst drove a car into a downtown motel swimming pool. Harold Maine, the author, visited a friend and drank all the aftershave in the bathroom. At the pub I owned in Monterey, Kenneth Rexroth leaned over and whispered, for my ears only: “I write poetry to fuck girls.” During the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival virtually every important rock musician in America paraded through my doors. The great jazz monologist Lord Buckley (“The Naz”) crashed one of my parties and gave a fireside performance that lasted well past dawn.

Image of Janis Joplin and the Holding Company

When a very young Diana Ross came to my bar, the Bull’s Eye Tavern, with the Supremes, a pub patron helpfully pointed out that they might not be of drinking age. I just shrugged. I figured that if I got tagged for serving these minors, the publicity would be worth a fortune. When Janis Joplin and Big Brother and the Holding Company hit town, they parked their canary-yellow Ford Anglia outside the Bull’s Eye and came in to drink, play darts, and play music. (Better music than darts, as I recall.) To me, it was clear from the size and condition of the car they left at the curb why Janis sang “Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz?”

Image of Bing Crosy

Singers, Gangsters, and Royalty—All in Town for Fun

The Duke and Duchess of Windsor once stood six feet from me, gazing down at a flower garden I was constructing at a home in Pebble Beach. We exchanged smiles, as I was to do on a different occasion looking into the face of an aged and wrinkled Clark Gable. Bing Crosby saw me one afternoon and mistook me for his son. “Gary! What in the hell are you doing there?” he shouted in my direction. At the time I thought he had a vision problem, though it seems the problem may have had more to do with drink, as the man was rarely sober. He owned a house in the area that served as a party retreat for his boys. One day a young soldier from Fort Ord appeared at the Polygon Bookshop on Cannery Row. Leafing through a book of photos by Ansel Adams, he said wanted to be a photographer and would give his right arm to meet Adams. Winston Elstob, the writer who co-owned the Polygon with Jim Campbell, picked up the phone and dialed Ansel’s number. Within 30 minutes Adams arrived at the bookshop in his old blue Cadillac and spent an hour or more talking with the lad.

Image of Joan Baez and Bob Dylan

Cannery Row was a Monterey magnet, then as now. One evening I dropped into a coffeehouse bar where Bobby Dylan and Joan Baez, along with Richard Farina and Joan’s sisters Pauline and Mimi, sat in a corner singing quietly, playing guitars, and plucking a dulcimer. Los Angeles, a day’s drive, was a draw for locals like me—and vice versa. While visiting friends there, I met a screenwriter named Lionel Oley. Liking what I had to say about life in Monterey, he immediately moved north to join the Monterey-Pacific Grove fun. I located a rental house for him around the corner from mine on Huckleberry Hill, and his boyhood friend Rod Steiger often visited. After returning to Los Angeles from one trip to Monterey, Steiger observed that it never rained in LA, then took off his trench coat and handed it to me.

Image of Rod Steiger

Lionel’s girlfriend moved up to Monterey as well, bringing with her a friend who was the mistress of the gangster Mickey Cohen. Mickey became a frequent caller, driving up from Los Angeles in his big bullet-proof car. The attractive business card he handed me identified him as the proprietor of a Los Angeles ice cream parlor. It was difficult going anywhere with Mickey because he would spend half an hour or more obsessively washing his hands, then go back inside to the bathroom to wash them again. Knowing his violent past, I was sure he was scrubbing away imaginary blood. One time, sitting in the back of Mickey’s car, the girlfriend rubbed her palm across the thick glass window and said, “I wish someone would start shooting so we could see if this damned stuff works.” Mickey shuddered visibly.

Image of Mickey Cohen

When Living in Monterey Was Like a Motion Picture

John Steinbeck’s Big Sur, down the coast from Pacific Grove and Monterey, California, was a powerful lure for writers and artists. The author Henry Miller, Big Sur’s genius loci, would sit on his sofa opening a large mailbag delivered to his mailbox at the foot of Partington, his wife Eve at his side, putting the letters with money into one pile and those without cash in another. The wonderful English poet Eric Barker lived nearby in a house on a cliff overlooking the ocean.

Image of Henry Miller and Eve
I was writing, too. One day a man named Roland—a friend of my friends, the artists Bruce and Jean Ariss—approached me at Big Sur’s legendary Deetjen’s inn holding a photograph album. Years earlier he had lived in Taos, New Mexico, near D.H. Lawrence and Lawrence’s wife Frieda. He asked if I would I help him write a book about the experience, showing me photos taken in the late 1920s that included one of Frieda mounted on a horse, looking quite large. I said yes, and we agreed to meet at my house on Huckleberry Hill the next day to get started.  Alas, poor Roland never arrived: he died of a heart attack that night.

Image of D.H. Lawrence wife wife Frieda

Motion picture people were attracted to the Monterey area for obvious reasons. During my time, a would-be actor named Ron Joy lived next door to my neighbor Lionel. Bucking the northbound trend, Ron headed south to Hollywood, where he failed as an actor but eventually achieved success as a movie magazine photographer. After getting engaged to Nancy Sinatra, he drove her up to Monterey in his little red MG roadster. If you’ve ever ridden 400 miles up and 400 miles down Highway 1 in the bucket seat of an MG, you, too, will understand why she stutters and looks so jumpy in her movies. I had a house party one night, and somehow Ingrid Bergman’s daughter Pia Lindstrom and a girlfriend from Sweden heard about it. They were staying at a Monterey motel and took a cab to my home, where they arrived unannounced and ended up spending the entire weekend. The Bull’s Eye Tavern prospered.

Image of Bull's Eye Tavern ad

After Playboy magazine published an item about the Bull’s Eye that said my pub was the only place to go in Monterey, George Harrison and Ringo Starr appeared one evening with an entourage that included Neil Aspinall, Mal Evans, and Derek Taylor. After I closed, I invited them all to my house, where George told me that the Beatles were history. “Listen again to ‘Here Comes the Sun,’” he confided. After returning to London, he made me an honorary member of the Apple Corps, and I still have the ceramic green apple broach George sent me to prove it.

Image of Clint Eastwood

Carmel, south of Pacific Grove, has had its share of celebrities, too. The same week the Beatles came to my bar, Clint Eastwood—later the mayor of Carmel—walked into the Bull’s Eye with his friend, the golfer Ken Green. Even then, long before Dirty Harry, Clint was known to throw a punch at people with beards and long hair. “John,” he assured me, “I wouldn’t bust up your place. You’re a writer, and I respect that.” (Lucky me.) At a garden party in Carmel Highlands, the actor-screenwriter-producer John Nesbitt invited me to move to Los Angeles to work on his film series, The Passing Parade. Laughing, I said I wouldn’t give up a day in Monterey for a year in LA, even to work for him.

Image of Marilyn Monroe on location in Monterey, Calfornia

Because of its beauty and location, the Monterey-Pacific Grove-Carmel coast drew motion picture directors and stars almost from the beginning. When work was over, actors and writers sometimes stayed behind to live and play. During my years on Huckleberry Hill, it seemed that a picture was being shot every month somewhere between Monterey and Big Sur. If you were in the right place at the right time, there was a good chance of getting work as an extra, though a common complaint was that filming was one of the most boring jobs in the world. Shooting sometimes began before dawn and extended through the night. The tedious part for an extra was standing by as the director shot and re-shot the same scene—a little like Mickey Cohen, my gangster acquaintance, washing his hands while the rest of us waited.

Image of Frank Sinatra
Inadvertently, I almost appeared in a scene from a motion picture called Kings Go Forth when I happened to be in Martin’s Fruit Stand on the Carmel Valley Highway as the crew was shooting in an orchard behind the store. Frank Sinatra sauntered over, dressed in an army uniform for the scene, to buy an apple. Thinking back recently to my encounter with Ol’ Blue Eyes, I found a website that lists hundreds of films made around Monterey, California. My memory was further refreshed by the Monterey County Film Commisssion’s map showing where specific scenes were shot.

Image of William Saroyan

John Steinbeck, Bill Saroyan, and the Company They Kept

Like John Steinbeck, a handful of major writers, artists and actors of note lived in Monterey before they became famous. In Steinbeck’s era (and mine), the community offered kinship, support, and a quality of privacy that, for celebrities today, would require a wall and bodyguards to achieve. My home in Steinbeck’s old neighborhood and my pub downtown attracted an assortment of characters—famous, infamous, and struggling—not unlike Doc’s lab in Steinbeck’s day. We were all of us, in our own way, aiming for the top. Some succeeded and moved on, like Steinbeck. Others failed. I was among those who eventually left; though success spoiled Monterey for Steinbeck, my memories are mostly happy ones. If my friends Bruce and Jean Ariss were still alive, I’d talk with them about their friends Carol and John Steinbeck: about Ed Ricketts; about Steinbeck’s fellow California writer William Saroyan; about Burgess Meredith, Charlie Chaplin, and the composer John Cage, all friends of Steinbeck at one time or another. If I were rewriting the past and directing this particular picture, I’d get poor Roland to the Monterey hospital in time, and I’d add a scene for Roland to share his stories about D.H. and Frieda Lawrence in Taos—a place, like Monterey, where the stars shone brightly in a bygone era.

The Ace Hotel, Los Angeles: A New Poem by Roy Bentley

Image of Jesus Saves sign in downtown Los Angeles

Ace Hotel, Downtown LA Exterior, Jesus Saves Reverse

The reverse of lasting mystery is industrial steel and neon,
shadows crosshatched onto the Chase bank and Broadway,

above the drudgery of believing one god better than another.
From an aerial view, two red words shout across rooftop LA,

in English in all weather, day and night, which is an act of faith
in a realtor who hawked the hotel one unit at a time with always

a dozen wait-listed like first-come-first-serve rooms in Heaven.
Inside, the newest occupants watch Sugar Ray connect and snap

back Jake LaMotta’s head in Raging Bull, though Robert DeNiro
is LaMotta and this Sugar Ray is an actor who unhands the ropes

as blood drips to the canvas and onto his boxing shoes, the blood
that is a checklist of what we gather while asking, What fresh hell

is this? Everywhere else, it’s the unexpected rise of the girl who
could be any of us. You can’t elevate one above another forever

and expect anything but mistrust. Go on. Show me a better god.
I’ll show you a city and messaging constellating above a world

of brutalized actors. Show me the wide, wide shore of sorrow.
I’ll find a place out of the wind where the unlucky can pause

to knock down a wasp nest and grind it into sand-nothing,
porous death belling up as that which the angels unhand.

Photograph by Spencer Lowell.