Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Old School, L.A.--Style

You might think being an editor for a book publisher, having all those manuscripts to read, and subsequent reports to be written about them, would be sufficient activity for someone who then rushed home to spend time with his own short stories. Think away. It wasn't sufficient, and so, when Art Kunkin came by the office one day to suggest that I do reviews for him, yet another series of connecting lines between the dots was set in motion.

Kunkin, ruffled, bearded, given to outbursts of purple vests and wildly patterned shirts, was editor of The Los Angeles Free Press, an energetic weekly whose primary audience was those of us who lived on the margins. The legendary San Franciscan columnist, Herb Caen, called some of us--not me--beatniks. We were also known as protesters, malcontents, socially disadvantaged, and Democrats, the latter being the most damning designation of all because at the time, it was not easy being a Democrat. Republicans didn't want us to go out with their daughters, and their daughters wanted us to get a real job.

One of the Freep (Free Press) columns I read with some care was called The Wasp, the title a homage to Ambrose Bierce, its prose suitably scathing toward all those who believed they knew enough to get by in this world of such racial, social, and financial imbalance. He who called himself The Wasp was a short, nearly pudgy man who wore thrift store glasses and often wrote clad in a faux-Indian blanket bathrobe. He had some time ago written a book called The Holy Barbarians, an attempt to get down on paper the spirit, meaning,and intent of the Beatnik and the Beat concept.

The Wasp was not without humor and although much of it was ironic in nature, he was not above telling me, after we'd met the first time, to give him a buzz, some time. He also had a son of whom he spoke dismissively as pompous and self-serving, adding that the son probably inherited both qualities from him. He was Lawrence Lipton, his son now the principal force behind the Bravo TV series, At the Actor's Studio.

Lipton--Lawrence, not James--was impressed that I knew the work of John Fante, which meant that my wearing suits and ties and largely being a Democrat were not a sign of terminal illness. He was impressed that I knew he'd collaborated with a former wife on twenty mystery novels, published under the pseudonym of Craig Rice. The fact that I was on the staff of a magazine along with Henry Miller and could actually authorize reviews and essays that paid in cash rather than the Free Press payment plan, which was often a chit for a pizza or a car wash, added to my panache. One of the bigger complements he ever paid me was, "For a guy who wears neckties, you take a hell of a lot of chances."

This was going to be a reflection of how my fondness for John Fante impressed Larry Lipton and Henry Miller, which it did, because they both used the same word about him, seminal. This was going to be about how the L.A. of that time, often overlooked by those who saw the legions of talent roaming the streets of New York, had a stunning group as well, including Charles Bukowski, of course Raymond Chandler, Ray Bradbury, John Sanford, Theodore Sturgeon, and one Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald, along with a cadre of men and women who put up with the shennanigans at the motion picture studios.

But it has spoken, morphed, if you will, to being about that nearly pudgy man who often wrote in his bathrobe, and one of those remarkable works of art that has fallen between the cracks.

In time, Lipton trusted me to the point of offering me a look at what he thought to be his magnum opus, The Erotic Revolution, a book about the effects of sexual activity on the human race and the further effects its on-going repression had on society and the art it produced In its pages, he urged the repeal of all laws regulating pre-marital sex. Make marriage optional; repeal all laws making homosexuality illegal; repeal all the so-called unnatural laws regarding the sex act. Make contraceptives legal everywhere and free to low-income groups. Make all abortions legal and free to those unable to pay.

Once, wearing a suit and tie, I sat across the desk from the then Rush Limbaugh of the TV screen, Joe Pyne, who started the program by demanding to know how I could offer a platform to a dirty old man and sexual pervert, by whom he meant Larry Lipton. Different suit, different tie; I did a radio appearance with Bob Grant, who was still in L.A. and more of a friend than was Joe Pyne. Isn't this--publishing Lipton's book--something of a low-water mark for you? he asked on KABC Talk Radio.

Somehow one of us--it might have been the stunningly wonderful publicist Irwin "Promotion-in-Motion" Zucker--secured a reading for Lipton in UCLA's fabled Royce Hall.
Owl-like, blinking against the lights focused on the lectern, Lipton stepped forth to greet the filled hall. Standing along the rear wall were a number of professors I'd studied with as an undergraduate. "It used to be," Lipton intoned, "that a university was not only a place of learning but a place of sanctuary. Men and women, poets, theorists, and writers with unpopular ideas could apply for and be granted sanctuary from oppressive regimes and punitive laws. Will you grant me sanctuary?"

There was a long moment of embarrassed silence. Then came the most un-Zen-like sound in the world: two hands clapping. Timid at first, the clapping grew in tempo and intensity. To my great relief, I discovered they were mine.

When Lipton died, his widow, Nettie, sold his manuscripts and papers to the university where I am now employed. I wrote to the custodian, thrilled by the acquisition, describing my relationship with him, and offering to help identify and classify, for which I received a note thanking me for my interest in the archival process and wondering if I'd like to make a donation to the library.

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