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VERY FIRST PERSON

For a Budding Artist and Novelist, Postwar Los Angeles Was a Magic Place

April 26, 1998|WILLIAM WHARTON | William Wharton is the author of "Birdy," "Dad," "A Midnight Clear," all made into feature films, and other novels. He is currently working on "Worth Trying," a sequel to "Birdy."

My first experience in California was when I came home from World War II. My parents had moved from Philadelphia, my birthplace, to Venice in 1943. I had been planning to go with them, but the day they were leaving the letter arrived telling me to report for military service.

My memory of that first day in Los Angeles was getting off the red streetcar running down the center of Venice Boulevard, my heavy duffel bag slung on my back and an envelope with my parents' return address clenched in my teeth. I was all of 20 years old.

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My parents, recent arrivals, had no phone. The local draft board helped me track them down. I was still physically weak after a considerable stay in a military hospital recovering from inner ear damage I suffered when an artillery shell landed between me and two German prisoners I was taking to safety.

As a disabled, decorated infantry veteran, I could, if I had the grades, go to any university of my choice in America. I would be on Public Law 16, a program for disabled veterans even more generous than the GI Bill. It would pay all tuition, books and material costs as well as my $160-per-month disability pension while I was in school. It seemed the chance of a lifetime. It was.

After being received with joy by my parents, I enrolled at UCLA. I didn't even know what the acronym stood for. Despite family resistance, I enrolled as an art major.

After three years, I graduated. I then started trying to sell my paintings to galleries along La Cienega Boulevard and sending them to various art shows. Not one of the students with whom I graduated could sell enough to make a living. We'd literally painted ourselves into a corner. I finally accepted a position teaching art with the Los Angeles city schools.

Through my sister I met and fell in love with a young friend of hers. She and I were eager to get on with our lives and so were married at the first St. Mark's Church in Venice. After we were married, they tore the church down. This was my first experience with the California propensity for change.

My wife and I bought a shack (so described by the Realtor) in Topanga Canyon. It cost $2,150, of which we had $500. (At that time, one could buy a house in the San Fernando Valley on the GI Bill for less than $10,000, with a government-backed loan at 4%. The houses were small, as alike as peas in a pod, but adequate.) We borrowed $1,650 at 4%, which we paid off within a year or two.

I began trying to teach my students at a new junior high school in Canoga Park, way out in the west suburbs. I wanted them to know that art was fun and each of them was a potential artist. I was also honing my own aesthetic.

Public transport at that time was practically nonexistent in Los Angeles, so my wife, then my fiancee, and I bought a car. We saw it sitting on a lawn in Santa Monica under a For Sale sign. It was a 1939 Bantam Austin convertible with no top to convert. It was painted red, yellow and black. The four-cylinder engine had little power, at least not enough to take two people over the Topanga summit to the Valley. I bought, repaired and learned to drive a 5-year-old 250-CC AJ motorcycle. For three years I guided and tilted this machine every morning over the serpentine Topanga hills to the school. This was much to the dismay of the principal and the delight of my pupils.

Riding the hills of Topanga was an enlightening experience. I began to feel the magic of a desert close to the ocean, with coastal mountains between. My wife and I were wooed by the charm of the piers in Santa Monica, Ocean Park and Malibu. These, along with the beautiful beaches, captivated us. We fished from them, danced on them.

We were beginning to enjoy the special magic of Southern California. In the early mornings, my wife and I would climb up in the hills of Topanga to watch the sunrise. There would be the scent of sage and sorrel. It was such a restoring way to start our days. We were even getting accustomed to sunsets in the west.

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Everything in our California lives seemed possible, that is, everything except selling paintings. Most of my fellow students at UCLA dropped off into advertising, films, TV and other allied areas to use their skills and talents, or, like me, into teaching.

My wife, amazingly, as an actress in a high school play at St. Monica's, had won a contract with Paramount Studios. John Farrow, the film director probably best known as Mia's father, and Maureen O'Sullivan, his wife, whom he shared with Tarzan in films, were responsible for this miracle. None of this seemed real to us, but they paid her more than her father and mine combined were earning at regular jobs.

For us, it was all part of our dreamlike California experience. I admit to having enjoyed a perverse pleasure at driving the little black, yellow and red Bantam Austin through the Paramount gates and parking it with the sleek autos of directors, actors and producers.

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