A Very Vintage Roadtrip: LA

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I can’t believe how this year has flown by. I realise this is perhaps the most unoriginal way to begin a blog post or in fact any conversation but that doesn’t negate the truth of the statement. It’s April already. April! I feel like only yesterday I was feasting on Quality Streets and watching the EastEnders Christmas special and now here we are with some wally in a fashion mag warning me that I need to get my summer body ready. I’m not sure where I left mine, I think it may be in the cupboard under the stairs or maybe went out with the recycling last week. I suppose it’s lucky I find that whole mentality poisonous and that my back up (i.e. ‘normal’, every day, and year round) body will have to do, as it has for the last thirty years. Anyway tangent. This is all setting up the point of this post which is to bring you the final instalment of my Portland to LA road trip. Buckle up, grab and snack and have a read.

After leaving the wacky wonder of Hearst Castle I spent the night in San Luis Obispo home of the fabulously kitsch, Madonna Inn. Then it was on to Santa Barbara, which is every American dream come true. Wide pretty streets, quaint shops and perfect climate. I spent a very happy 24 hours in the place, walking the pier, buying retro sweets and eating a phenomenal French Dip sandwich, before pushing on to LA proper. After swinging by Santa Monica to pick up my mother who had flown over to send a few days at the Shangri la, we got stuck in the infamous LA freeway traffic before making it to our apartment situated just off of Hollywood Boulevard.

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There is so much to see and do in LA that I could be here until Christmas going into everything deeply. I mean, where do you begin when writing about vintage Hollywood? The mythology, the legends and the gossip that swirls around the town is enough to cover (and has) thousands of books. So I thought I would write about one of the highlights of my time in the City of Angels – a visit to the Hollywood Museum. Housed in the old Max Factor headquarters on Hollywood Boulevard the Hollywood Museum contains four floors of costumes and artefacts from the studios and films of the golden era right up to the present day, including the costumes from The Danish Girl and Trumbo (excellent, I watched it on the plane).

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Situated as it is in the heart of tourist town, I assumed that the $15 entrance fee would feel a bit of a con once I got inside, but no, it was great. So the mannequins look a bit naff and some of the things on display are a touch dubious (the shields supposedly from Alexander were in fact from Troy, I know this due to my multitude of Hollywood contacts being the celebrated movie mogul I am).

The basement floor covers all things horror related (bar the aforementioned Troy/Alexander weaponry – not too sure how that fits in with the theme, unless the museum is profoundly moved by the plight of massacred Babylonians). I stood aside a life size Vampira mannequin kitted out in her trademark stripper witch ensemble, slit to the navel and clinging to her thighs like sentient tar tentacles. The gloomy surroundings and Perspex display cases made photographing the items neigh on impossible but you’ll have to believe me when I say that the place felt like the London Dungeon meets Planet Hollywood, good hammy fun for all the family.

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The Ground floor houses the original four colour coordinated dressing rooms, originally designed to correspond to Factor’s ‘Color Harmony’ ethos. It was getting your colours done way ahead of the 80s trend. The four dressing rooms were designed specifically for Blonde, Brunette, Brownette and Redheads. There wasn’t a dedicated room for those with black hair and a kickass silver Malvern streak but hey ho. On that note, there wasn’t a room for anyone who didn’t happen to be Caucasian either, clear evidence (if further ever evidence were needed) of ubiquitous nature of what was considered beauty in the classic movie machine.

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Within each room were cabinets of artefacts including Lucille Balls’ cosmetics and Marilyn’s make up case. I’ve seen something purporting to be Marilyn’s make up case in Ripley’s Believe It or Not in Piccadilly so either one is a fake or she had multiples (let’s be optimistically naïve and hope it’s the latter). While one of the museum’s by-lines is that it is the building in which Marilyn became a blonde, it should be noted that not all of the artefacts within the bountiful display cases can be attributed to Marilyn. Many are just cosmetics from the era with little or no providence. This doesn’t detract from the atmosphere of the place, but just a heads up that beyond a couple of outfits and the makeup case the rest of the Blonde room is largely uncontextual filler pieces.

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The upper levels are wall to wall costumes so varied it makes me wonder who is masterminding the procurement of these pieces and can I get their little black book. They must have some pretty decent contacts at the studios to get costumes for films that hadn’t even been released when I visited. Overall it is beyond worth visiting. The entrance fee could easily be double for the bang you get for your buck.

We trotted on to the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel for lunch, where the first Oscars were held in 1929. The great and the good of Hollywood visited the Roosevelt regularly, including Marilyn herself, who lived at the hotel for two years and whose first magazine shoot was staged by the pool, presumably after getting her hair done at Max Factor’s around the corner. For anyone interested in Marilyn’s life at the hotel, here is an interesting piece about how she cooked meals in the hotel rooms she was fond of staying in. I find it sweet to think of her walking home from acting classes and picking up some lamb chops from the market to cook in her tiny oven with so much weird future ahead.

Roosevelt.0Marilyn on the driving board of the Roosevelt pool.

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Across the street from the Roosevelt is Graumans’ Chinese Theatre with the famous handprints of Hollywood royalty, which Marilyn would get to add to herself with Jayne Russel in 1953 during promotion for Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. That is the thing I noticed most about LA, everything is on top of itself. In the same way that your own home town is full of memories and hangouts, so is LA but there the people hanging out are starlets and singers and the history is palpable because these goofy kids, full of innocence and hope, skipping home from drama class and grabbing a fudge sundae, actually made it.

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A Very Vintage Roadtrip: Hearst Castle

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One of the most liberating aspects of taking a road trip alone is being able to entirely dictate your schedule. Driving down the PCH from San Francisco, about an hour outside of San Luis Obispo I saw a sign telling me that seals where about. Seals you say? *Screeching handbrake turn down a gravel track*. And hark! There were indeed seals. Tons of the flabby things, baking like gargantuan slugs in the Californian heat. Apparently they were elephant seals, I found this out by earwigging the volunteer guide whose responsibility it was to answer silly people’s questions. One thing I’ll say for elephant seals, they sure are smelly. And noisy. They enjoy lying around on beaches, getting into fights and shagging prodigiously. They bear a striking resemblance to British tourists on the Costa Brava.

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After leaving the seals (Latin name: Sealus Holidayus Makeus Britannia) I pootled along for about five minutes before seeing a sign for Hearst Castle. Xanadu you say? *Screeching handbrake turn up a distinguished looking driveway*. I had heard about Hearst Castle of course. I knew William Randolph and his egotistical albatross of a dwelling was the inspiration for Citizen Kane and I knew that those old walls sure had seen some sights. However I never thought that I would actually be able to go there! I assumed it had been knocked down years ago, or that it was a private residence shrouded behind colossal walls topped with security cameras. I didn’t imagine that there would be a visitor’s centre and an audio tour of the place. Shows what I know, fool that I am.

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I have to say I was a touch surprised that I couldn’t actually see the castle from the road. I had read that it was pretty big, so where the hell was it? Then I looked up the acres of rocky Californian hillside stretching out as far as the eye could see away from the San Simeon coast and noticed a small white speck perched between some trees. Surely not? But yes surely so dear reader. The castle sits miles away from the sea along twisty turning road up which busloads of curious tourists are ferried daily. George Hearst, William’s father originally bought the land for raising cattle and the young William Randolph along with his mother would traverse the rocky terrain on horseback to the campsite at the summit, whereupon the family would spend several months ranching. In 1915, Hearst, now in his fifties, inherited his father’s vast fortune he decided to build a small ranch-style dwelling on the original site because he was sick of roughing it. He drafted in architect Julia Morgan and between them they set forth on a building project which would rumble on for the next thirty years. The first job was to build a road to the summit. Upon first arriving at the site Morgan refused to travel by horse because she was terrified of them, so the horses where strapped to her car and she was dragged up the hillside.
From afar the building looks impressive. But upon closer inspection you can see unfinished edges, mantles and lintels that don’t match and building materials swapped out mid-course. Much of the building is constructed of reinforced concrete with a decorative façade placed on top (all of the metaphors about the jazz age, Hollywood and the man himself are too obvious!) Hearst was a man of changeable tastes. Very little appears to have been thought through and basically he just liked to bloody well build stuff. Two floors, became three, became four. Bedrooms were added, split and divided again depending on whim. Doors, windows, wings, were all moved, altered or abandoned intermittently. All in all the place feels like a bit of a mess. A nice mess to be sure, but still a hotchpotch. The fruits of a man with limited concentration and unlimited wealth.

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Hearst was enamoured with European art and architecture and the ‘ranch’, formally christened La Cuesta Encantada by Hearst but nicked named ‘The Ranch at San Simeon’, was built in the Spanish revival style, with Baroque influences. The interior was furnished with the works Hearst had loved when seen in situ as a younger man during a holiday with his mother as he set about buying up half the antiquities on the continent by way of art dealers in New York, including ceilings, floors, paintings, velum covered lamps, books, pottery and furniture. What he couldn’t buy, he faked. If only one Florentine door circa 1600 was available, he would have another commissioned so that the pair could sit aside a canopied bed, giving the room symmetry.
While the white exterior of the ranch shines out against the azure blue and lush green of the surrounding landscape, the interior feels oppressive with dark wood and gilt encrusting the narrow stone hallways and low ceilings. Thick antique rugs pad the floors and ominously heavy artworks drip from the walls. All in all it feels contradictory, a observation I mentioned to a guide who in turn pointed out that it made sense when considering the Spanish heritage of the Californian coast. While this is certainly true in part, this explanation only takes us so far as it seems that Hearst’s own tastes dictated the decoration more than any deep rooted cultural affiliation to the area’s history.

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Of course beyond the building itself it is the activities that took place there that matter most. That’s where the history is at. You can keep the Italian masters, I wanted to see Marion Davies’ bedroom, which of course was situated across the hall from Hearst’s, despite him having some pretty stuffy views about unmarried couples sharing bedrooms, walking that ever thin line of hypocrisy oft prevalent in the personal lives of the rich and famous in the early part of the 20th century.

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Everyone went to the Ranch. Invitations were highly sought-after and reserved for the most notable folks of the day; Winston Churchill, Charlie Chaplin, Calvin Coolridge, Garbo, Crawford and Gable. Carry Grant stayed in every room in the house, and there are between 24 and 56 depending on who you ask, so you can see how much of a regular visitor he was. They would come for long weekends, parties and Christmas celebrations. The fancy dress soirées were apparently legendary, with Hearst sending out for racks of costumes to be shipped in from LA for the celebrations.

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Hearst spent more time at the ranch than any of his other houses. He was in love with the landscape and the view (to the extent that all of the cables for the hydroelectric generators where run underground so as not to disturb the hillside). I couldn’t help but think however that it would be a very isolated place, and somewhere that would get very boring very quickly, particularly for Marion, with all of her Hollywood friends heading back to LA when the party was over, both literally and figuratively. Not to get too poetic about stuff but I imagined that the collection of exotic and beautiful animals, including polar bears and zebras that were housed on the estate would have conveyed some extra resonance to Hearst’s best gal. Every movement would have had to be orchestrated, even a visit to the seashore, despite it being the focal point of the estate, would have taken twenty minutes to reach by car. You couldn’t go anywhere without everyone knowing about it. Standing in the dipping sun, between the great expanse of the Pacific and the colossal structure behind me, the words ‘gilded cage’ echoed in my head.

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A Very Vintage Roadtrip: San Francisco

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I rolled in to San Francisco very late on a Saturday night following the aforementioned 7 hour drive down the coast. The sky was so dark and the traffic so gridlocked that I’m still not sure whether I drove over the Golden Gate Bridge or not. I realise that sounds ridiculous but honestly, it’s dark as funk when the whole city is surrounded by water and THERE IS MORE THAN ONE BRIDGE ONTO THE ISLAND!? Who knew?

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Anyways, I finally found my apartment which was essentially a large self storage style unit decked out like an industrial Versailles, and not at all as unpleasant as I just managed to make it sound. I do love Air Bnb but I don’t think I’ll ever grow accustomed to having some random’s wedding dress hanging in the wardrobe next to my pj’s. No, before you ask I didn’t try it on. It was too small anyway.

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I woke up on Valentine’s morning to a blissfully bright and warm Sunday and hot footed it to Haight Ashby. This was the nucleus from where much of the counter culture movement emerged in the 1960s. The low rents of the neighbourhood’s crumbling Victorian properties appealed to artists, musicians and drifters and for a few short years Haight Ashby, or simply The Haight became a burning core of drug inspired creativity in the midst of a buttoned up and fearful America. As with most organically occurring, unfathomable and intangible eras in popular culture the scene morphed as word spread and more and more people flocked to the region to experience the sweet nectar of the flower power movement, and within a few years the candle had flickered and died. Walking the streets I couldn’t help but be reminded of Hunter S. Thompson’s favourite and famous monologue from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which I think warrants a full reading, because it’s just so good and words like these never get old:

Strange memories on this nervous night in Las Vegas. Five years later? Six? It seems like a lifetime, or at least a Main Era—the kind of peak that never comes again. San Francisco in the middle sixties was a very special time and place to be a part of. Maybe it meant something. Maybe not, in the long run… but no explanation, no mix of words or music or memories can touch that sense of knowing that you were there and alive in that corner of time and the world. Whatever it meant.…

History is hard to know, because of all the hired bullshit, but even without being sure of “history” it seems entirely reasonable to think that every now and then the energy of a whole generation comes to a head in a long fine flash, for reasons that nobody really understands at the time—and which never explain, in retrospect, what actually happened.

My central memory of that time seems to hang on one or five or maybe forty nights—or very early mornings—when I left the Fillmore half-crazy and, instead of going home, aimed the big 650 Lightning across the Bay Bridge at a hundred miles an hour wearing L. L. Bean shorts and a Butte sheepherder’s jacket… booming through the Treasure Island tunnel at the lights of Oakland and Berkeley and Richmond, not quite sure which turn-off to take when I got to the other end (always stalling at the toll-gate, too twisted to find neutral while I fumbled for change)… but being absolutely certain that no matter which way I went I would come to a place where people were just as high and wild as I was: No doubt at all about that…

There was madness in any direction, at any hour. If not across the Bay, then up the Golden Gate or down 101 to Los Altos or La Honda.… You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning.…

And that, I think, was the handle—that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting—on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave.…

So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.

 

‘Scuse me, just got something in my throat.

The Haight Ashby area quickly turned to a skid row of sorts in the 70s and 80s before experiencing something of a revival in recent years as bijoux coffee shops and vintage stores attempt to bring back a sanitised and Instagram compatible version of the areas glory years. I stopped at (I kid you not) Counter Culture Coffee for an overpriced latte and headed into a mahoosive vintage store that seemed to have been there since Joplin was walking the sidewalk as did the take-no-BS owner, who roundly admonished a young couple for bringing their toddler into her store, proclaiming ‘this is no place for kids, keep them outside!’ I hastily bought a small black and blue piano shawl and beat a quick retreat before receiving similar treatment for bringing my ridiculous coffee into her place.

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From Haight I walked down to the Golden Gate Park which is as lovely a sight on a warm Spring day as I have ever seen. The mellow harmonious atmosphere was amplified by the scores of couples engaging in romantical Valentine’s activities, like bike riding or joining the free tango demonstration that takes place in the park every Sunday, accompanied by wafts of jazz that float through the lush trees and rich grassy banks.

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I carried on walking to the Golden Gate Bridge which I had assumed you could just wander right up to, like the Steel Bridge in Portland or London Bridge. As I neared the Presidio region I saw more and more people kitted out in hiking gear which should have been sometihng of a sign. Half an hour of up hill trekking later and it occurred to me that my ballet pumps and circle skirt weren’t the best match for such terrain and I probably should have done some research about all of this. It also suddenly made sense why there was so much public nudity going on in 60s San Francisco, that place gets hot, even in February. I passed a sign informing me that the Bridge was another mile away along a rough sea cliff path so I decided to snap some photos from where I was and then Uber my way back to Lombard Street. The long Presidents Day Weekend had made the park a honeypot for carloads of families who as I skipped merrily downhill back towards town, sweated and huffed in a nose to nose traffic queue to get into the car park.

My feelings of smugness were soon levelled off however as fifteen minutes later my own taxi got caught up in the chaos of Lombard Street and it’s 8 famous bends. I stupidly assumed that it was just a quaint wee street, where one or two people might be snapping pics of the gimikcy hairpins, which put you in mind of a claustrophobic accordion. In fact it’s a major tourist spot where a traffic officer who clearly hates his life, the street and everyone on it screams incessantly at dozy out-of-towners from Illinois as they almost get mowed down by idiot drivers who for reasons known only to God and themselves thought it was a good idea to navigate their people carrier full of hot, bored teenage offspring down the ridiculous street. I didn’t get a good picture of the street, I tried to, but nearly got taken out by an RV from Michigan in the process. Just Google it.

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I carried on through Chinatown to the main shopping district around Union Square and promptly spent far too much money in Barney’s on make up and even more on some delicious sushi. Then totally exhausted headed back to my pleasant storage unit for the night. San Francsico had been good to me. I could see why so many rom-coms are set in the city, it’s picturesque in the extreme. The buildings are varied and unfailingly painted in pretty pastels or clean white with blue and violet flowers decorating their window boxes. It seems a wonderful place to raise a family, in fact I saw the most perfect family I think I’ve ever seen in my life playing in the park avec a golden retriever called Max (Max! I mean come on! It’s like they actually live in a Nora Ephron film). It was lovely, all of it was lovely. If you become immune to the crippling levels of homelessness as everyone else seemed to be, it was all very lovely. But some little itch in my psyche that I couldn’t scratch knew I’d never live somewhere like it. I’d never have a husband with white teeth and a dog called Max and we wouldn’t go jogging on a Sunday with our kids in a double buggy. I like looking at those lives, with my nose pressed up to the glass like a visitor at the zoo of life. I like to view the specimens and imagine what they think and feel and see them getting fed. But ultimately I walk past the compound and move on to the strange, unusual and sometimes ugly creature on the other side of the park.

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