The spiky-haired Kent has brought in scholars to speak about censorship and the history of sex, among them Berkeley professor Mel Gordon, who discussed his book on the sex life of Weimar Berlin, "Voluptuous Panic." "But we've had trouble getting the academics to come to Hustler," Kent says. Similarly, when he asked the Democratic and Republican parties to send representatives to discuss censorship around the 2000 election, both balked.
While it's not an issue for the Hustler series, some events reek of academic mustiness: Lectures at the universities and museums can be positively deadly to those outside the field of specialty.
"I love intellectual life," says Frances Anderton, a KCRW-FM (89.9) producer and host who moved to town from London in 1991. "But I prefer it in a spontaneous, organic way, like debating ideas over drinks." Some formal events in Los Angeles, she says, "can feel a bit earnest, like medicine. They're 'good for you.' "
Spoken Interludes, a monthly series at the Tempest Supper Club in West Hollywood that's built around dinner, cocktails and authors reading briefly from works-in-progress, aims to be intellectually serious but without the ponderous feel of a lecture. A recent Sunday found novelist Yxta Maya Murray, Hollywood mail-room chronicler David Rensin and three others sharing a stage. "The difference with these salons," says author Carolyn See, "is that you can drink. You dress up, you eat and you flirt like it's a party. The authors have like seven minutes: It's snappy and beautifully put together."
Perhaps the most unpredictable series in town is LACMA's Institute for Art and Cultures. Paul Holdengraber, the institute's impresario, dropped out of academic life after working as a young comparative literature professor at the University of Miami and tiny, elite Williams College in Williamstown, Mass.
These days, he favors less cozy gatherings. Some take on the tone of intellectual duals, as when conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen and opera director Peter Sellars sparred over the merits of Stravinsky. He's also offered forums to painters R.B. Kitaj and David Hockney, author Susan Sontag and Museum of Jurassic Technology founder David Wilson. He keeps the debate heated and the room on the small side because he thinks intimacy is important.
Holdengraber is an excitable guy, incapable of getting through an evening without quoting Oscar Wilde or playing a Weimar cabaret song if it relates to the night's topic. Detractors call him glib and trendy. But when the evenings work, they're like early "Saturday Night Live," messy even when they're brilliant.
ANDREA Grossman and a corps of friends and family run the Writers Bloc series. Her taste is less rarefied than Holdengraber's. While intellectuals and high-art types in town often talk about making peace with pop culture, she's been able to thrive at the intersection of Hollywood and the literary world.
Grossman has hosted English novelist Martin Amis interviewing detective writer Elmore Leonard and brings Dave Barry and Carl Hiaasen through repeatedly. Some of her evenings, which are held at the Writers Guild, the Museum of Tolerance and other Westside venues, draw "black-leather-jacket Hollywood types," as she puts it, as do her occasional screenings.
But Writers Bloc hardly avoids serious topics: One event collected literary and film people including Wim Wenders together to discuss Kafka and read from his work. Earlier this year, she paired "Guns, Germs, and Steel" author Jared Diamond with radio commentator Warren Olney. The science writer began by wondering what might have happened if Native Americans had sailed across the water and stomped Renaissance Europe: "Why aren't the last remaining Europeans living in the Alps and the Pyrenees?"
See calls Writers Bloc her favorite local series. "Already people are playing poker with $15 stakes," she says of the ticket price. "So you get people who are devotees; they know more about the author than the author does."
There's an art to all of this, of course. To Jack Miles, a Getty advisor and writer who has been on both sides of the long table, radio veteran Olney is the model host for intellectual events. "He's like a man on the street, but a smart man on the street," says Miles, recently part of an Olney-hosted panel whose title, "God: Problem or Solution?" has the interviewer's characteristic crispness. "And he invites, by his manner, answers that are not sound bites but not too wandering. I find I'm more likely to be coherent and not so verbose."