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JACK SMITH

From Out of the Westways Came Writing

April 16, 1991|JACK SMITH

Frances Ring, editor of Westways magazine in the 1970s, has written a memoir of her working friendships with the gifted Western writers she lured to its pages in that golden era--"A Western Harvest" (John Daniel & Co.)

Rising above its origins as a Southland motorists' handbook, Ring's Westways became a literary showcase for such luminaries as Wallace Stegner, Carey McWilliams, M. F. K. Fisher, Norman Corwin, Robert Nathan, William Saroyan and Anais Nin.

Each chapter recalls Ring's difficulties and rewards in dealing with one of these celebrated authors and includes an article each wrote for the magazine at her request.

She quotes a poignant note sent her by novelist and poet Robert Nathan, nearing 80, in rejecting her first invitation: "You're very kind to ask me to write for Westways . . . but to tell the truth, I am too old. I cannot think of anything to say about Los Angeles that would be of interest or concern to anyone. . . ."

Ring kept after him by phone. Finally he invited her to tea. He was depressed. "He said he was disturbed by the hatred that causes so much violence in our time. He likened our times to the Dark Ages. Bands of men and women roamed the streets with intent to harm. Once they grabbed a purse and ran. Now they grab a purse, shoot and run. . . . He did not want to write in anger--and he was angry."

Ring reminded him that his work had always focused on the bright side of reality. Almost two years later he wrote a piece for her and followed it with a series of poems.

Persuading the French-born Anais Nin to write about Los Angeles was a tour de force. Nin was a darling of the avant garde in Paris and New York; she had come to Los Angeles in 1949 to live in a Frank Lloyd Wright house in Silver Lake. Her sensuous, erotic, introspective writing had been rejected by conventional publishers. As an impoverished young woman in Paris she had written pornography for an anonymous buyer for $1 a page.

Ring persuaded Nin to write a piece for the new Westways Women series. It was called "Magic in Los Angeles." Nin wrote that she had come to Los Angeles seeking health and the sun.

"But I stayed because I found an atmosphere propitious for work. The social life is more relaxed. There are less pressures. Friends live far away from each other and if you need isolation and serenity and uninterrupted work you can have it.

"A new style of life unknown to the East developed here. It was a style of harmony with nature."

Here she could satisfy her "need for seclusion, for space, for intimacy with sea or mountain, with naturalness of dress and informality.

"Los Angeles has a way of hiding the more intimate, the more charming and personal aspects of the unique style of life it has developed. Having an open mind to innovation, experiments, new styles of thought and life, Los Angeles became sensitive to the caricatures made of it by hasty visitors. . . . Superficial visitors never discovered its hidden beauty. . . .

"Here in Los Angeles we had an old Italian mason who, utilizing broken tiles, bottles and pottery, erected the Watts Towers, which reflect childhood memories of mosaics, plazas, campaniles, church belfries. When the city threatened to tear down the towers as unsafe, the sculptures were hotly defended by artists who know that the most unsafe thing of all is tearing down people's dreams. . . ."

She conceded that there is a movie-set Hollywood, recalling the story that "veterans in a hospital, when asked whether they preferred the visit of an actor who, though famous for his war roles, had never been to the front, or an authentic war hero, chose the actor."

But she adds: "The atmosphere which made Paris such a center of creative life for centuries was the sense of freedom which encouraged experiments, innovation and individualism. It exists here. . . ."

Anais Nin died of cancer in 1977. She was 74. As she had requested, her ashes were scattered over the Pacific. In one of her diaries she had written: "The secret of a full life is to live and relate to others as if they may not be there tomorrow."

Robert Nathan died in 1985. He was 91. When I turned 60 I wrote that I was now a sexto and suggested that people in their 70s be called septos , people in their 80s octos and people in their 90s nonos .

Nathan wrote me: "I'm not at all pleased to see myself as an octo , which sounds like a small, furry, spidery animal clambering up and down trees. And I shall hate even more to be called a nono or no no --with all that it implies."

Maybe he was right about Los Angeles. Maybe we are in a new dark age.

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