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Guide Tracks Notorious Sites and Names--From Manson to Monroe

November 29, 2000|JONATHAN KIRSCH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

If you and your visiting friends and relations have already seen the Getty and the Golden Gate Bridge, you'll find some unexpected, if sometimes unsettling, tourist attractions in "California Babylon: A Guide to Sites of Scandal, Mayhem and Celluloid in the Golden State" by Kristan Lawson and Anneli Rufus (St. Martin's Griffin, $15.95, 286 pages). With entries ranging from the Aimee Semple McPherson Disappearance Site to the World's Oldest Functioning Lightbulb, "California Babylon" is a guidebook that includes all the weird and wacky stuff that the Automobile Club left out.

"This is where trends are set, cults go crazy, stars are born," the authors explain. "So much goes down here that sometimes the earth below cannot contain itself and shudders, sending houses crashing down and cars careening."

Inspired by such apocalyptic expectations and fired with curiosity for the scandalous and the sinister and the just-plain-weird, Lawson and Rufus invite us to go in search of the oddities that give California its reputation around the world as a place of both wonder and horror. Forget about such ersatz attractions as Sea World and Disneyland and Universal Studio Tours--"California Babylon" is the real thing.

"We crave details," the authors insist. "Exactly where was Patty Hearst kidnapped? Where did the Manson Family hatch its plans? Where did they film 'Vertigo,' 'The Graduate,' 'Chinatown' and 'Pulp Fiction'? Where did Hugh Grant hire Divine Brown?"

Much of what catches the eye of these two sensation-seekers focuses on death and celebrity and, very often, both at once. We are invited to visit the Diane Linkletter Plunge House in West Hollywood, the Margaux Hemingway Suicide Studio in Santa Monica, and the Marilyn Monroe Death House in Brentwood. But not every point of interest is quite so bloody. Marilyn Monroe fans, for example, can also make a pilgrimage to the corner of Wood Street and Del Monte Avenue in Castroville, "the Artichoke Capital of the World," where local growers recruited the as-yet-unknown starlet to serve as the Artichoke Queen in 1948--and where, today, Monroe is still celebrated at a gay hangout called Norma Jean's Club, open only on Saturday nights.

"California Babylon" is also tinged with an acute sense of social justice and a certain political edginess. Thus, for example, the book includes the site near downtown Oroville where Ishi, "the last wild Indian in America," was cornered by local butchers and later placed into the custody of the anthropologist, Alfred Kroeber, who made him famous. Three of the internment camps where Japanese Americans were locked up during World War II are listed--one of them, in San Bruno, is now a shopping center. And we are told how to find the stretch of road in Lakeview Terrace where Rodney King was beaten by police officers, and the intersection in South-Central Los Angeles where truck driver Reginald Denny was beaten by an angry mob after those police officers were acquitted.

The entry for Mission San Juan Bautista in Central California is a good example of what "California Babylon" does so well, revealing all the hidden secrets of what might seem to be an unremarkable tourist attraction. Near the mission, we are told, we can visit the livery stables that figure so poignantly in "Vertigo." The 1797 mission itself, we are told, "is the real deal, complete with a refectory, distinctive religious art and a cemetery packed with dead Native Americans." We won't see the vertiginous bell tower that was the setting for the crucial death scene--the tower "was added to the film via trick photography." But, in an aside to "Donner Party fans," the authors tip us to the fact that the mission gift shop is an old house that once sheltered "a family recently rescued from that frosty hungry nightmare."

"California Babylon" is a kick to read, but it really belongs in the glove compartment, where it will be available for quick reference on a local excursion or a long road trip. If you find yourself in Hawthorne, for example, you can grab a Coke at the hamburger stand where Brian Wilson was inspired to write "Fun, Fun, Fun," and if you're heading up Highway 1 near Point Reyes, you can stand at the epicenter of 1906 San Francisco earthquake.

Still, I am sending my copy to a friend in New York, a sober historian and starry-eyed movie fan. I suspect that he will take secret pleasure in planning a visit to Patrick's Roadhouse, where he will discover, as I did, that it's an unmarked shack-like structure in the Pacific Palisades where, according to "California Babylon," he might spot Tom Cruise or Nicole Kidman, Sylvester Stallone or Julia Roberts, "tackling breakfast or a burger."

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