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French Art Lovers Find a Rescue Mission in the Clark Library

November 25, 1995|BEVERLY BEYETTE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Welcome to "one of the greatest secrets of Los Angeles," said Peter Reill. Scanning the gathering, he asked who had been here before. Only two hands were raised--and one belonged to a ringer.

We were in the gilded grand salon of the William Andrews Clark Memorial Library in the West Adams area, where Friends of French Art were having a pique-nique with the dashing Frenchman they'd lured here to make the Clark's sadly neglected gardens a bit more belle .

Friends founder Elin Vanderlip--a Francophile from Portuguese Bend who annually tours France for the well-heeled group's restoration of imperiled objets d'art in French chateaux, museums and churches--had recently been told by one of her patrons of a treasure closer to home: The Clark.

Vanderlip called it "this jewel that nobody knows about."

So who was Clark and what is this place all about? And why isn't it on everyone's must-see list?

The story begins in the early 1880s, when 5-year-old William Andrews Clark Jr. arrived in Los Angeles from Paris, where his parents spent much of the year, to enroll in an aunt's kindergarten.

"Will" was a child of privilege, a son of a Montana pioneer and mining king who became that state's first U.S. Senator. As an adult, young Clark, a non-practicing lawyer, would divide his time between France, Montana and Los Angeles, where in 1910 he bought a large piece of land at then-chic Adams Avenue and Cimarron Street.

He built a home and began buying adjacent properties until he acquired a full city block. An avid reader and book collector, he wanted a safe and proper library to house his rare books; in 1924, he hired architect Robert Farquhar to design the ornate brick building that stands today.

Clark's life was not a happy one--he was twice widowed and his only child, a son, was killed in an airplane accident. But giving and sharing gave him pleasure, and his largess was legendary. Music was one passion and in 1919 he founded the Los Angeles Philharmonic, supporting it himself for years. At his library he welcomed the talented and celebrated--Jascha Heifetz, Leopold Stokowski, Gregor Piatigorsky, Fritz Kreisler, Ernestine Schumann-Heink. . . . Clark was 57 when he died in 1934 and, as he'd arranged, his library went to an upstart little school, the University of California, Southern Branch (now known as UCLA). Neighbor USC might have been the obvious choice, but Clark wanted this to be public.

For just under $800,000, Clark made his library an ornate French-Italianate mansion with frescoes by Allyn Cox (whose murals grace the U.S. Capitol), carved oak ceilings and marble by the yard. For another $700,000 or so, he filled it with 18,000 precious books and manuscripts.

Peter Reill, director of UCLA's Center for 17th and 18th Century Studies and of the Clark, explained, "He wanted to collect [all] the great names," especially in British literature, "but a guy down the street in Pasadena [Henry Huntington] had a little more money and was collecting in the same area." So, Clark narrowed his vision to late 17th- and early 18th-Century writers, including John Dryden, and to a modern favorite, Oscar Wilde. "These were the two stars around which this collection was built."

The collection also includes Shakespeare folios, fine editions of Milton, Chaucer and Dickens, Moliere and Zola, Whitman, Hawthorne and Poe. (In 1923, Clark paid $9,500 for a first edition of "Tamerlane.")

The Clark has the world's largest collection of works by and about Wilde, among them signed manuscripts. This being the 100-year anniversary of Wilde's two-year imprisonment at Reading Gaol for homosexual acts, Wilde scholars have been flocking to the Clark to learn more about the legendary wit who could "resist everything except temptation."

"Clark read most of his books," Reill said--except his Montana collection (he already knew all about Montana) and his 250 editions of the Book of Mormon.

Unlike the Huntington, which is open only to credentialed scholars, the Clark welcomes all who ring the bell to enter and enjoy, but the 90,000 books and 14,000 manuscripts--from cookbooks to political tracts--can't be checked out. Clark hoped his library would become "one of the cultural centers of Los Angeles life," an urban oasis where people would stroll through the gardens and smell the flowers.

*

There's been one snag, Reill said: "We just don't have any money."

UCLA has cut back. An endowment fund left by Clark and grants make annual book purchases possible; UCLA pays for staffing and maintenance. But there is only one gardener to tend the once-grand five acres. Boards prop up a cracked urn. A gazebo stands forgotten in a corner. Another area is a wasteland save for a spindly lime tree planted by a former librarian fond of gin and tonics. The roots of a huge banyan tree have lifted a walkway.

Enter Friends of French Art.

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