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Canyons of change

Bohemian Los Angeles and the Making of Modern Politics Daniel Hurewitz University of California Press: 368 pp., $29.95

January 21, 2007|Jenny Burman | Jenny Burman writes "Chicken Corner," a blog on Echo Park for LAObserved.

THE best stories always seem to come at us sideways, while we are looking for something else. Thus, Daniel Hurewitz writes in his introduction to "Bohemian Los Angeles and the Making of Modern Politics," "I did not set out to find Julian Eltinge. Instead, I stumbled across him while on a search for another man.... Harry Hay." In the early 1950s, Hay was a founder of the Mattachine Society, the first significant gay-rights organization in the United States. Hay and Eltinge both chose the hills of Edendale as their home, but the two did not cross paths.

Eltinge was a superstar in the first decades of the 20th century. He was a silent film and vaudeville performer, and the fact that he is virtually forgotten is one of the most fascinating things about him now. Eltinge's act, in which he dressed, sang and spoke as a woman, was hugely popular with mainstream straight men and women. And though he engaged in sexual relations with men, it was a nonissue with his public. Astonishingly, his decision to perform exclusively as a woman was not considered a statement of sexual preference because, Hurewitz writes, the notion of selfhood as a political essence, gay or straight, did not exist.

We've come a long way. And, in his engaging, original book, Hurewitz maps the steps that carried us from selfhood as a purely private matter to identity politics, the politicization of emotions. Hurewitz views the progression through a prism of radical politics, gay awareness and the art world as each existed and interacted in Edendale, the section of Los Angeles that "Bohemian Los Angeles" describes as a secondary project.

Edendale has a mythic sound to it, the ring of something that belongs to the past. Indeed, the name -- which referred to a district comprising what we now know as Silver Lake and Echo Park -- has fallen out of our collective memory. Today, it is preserved mainly as the name of both a post office on Glendale Boulevard and a bar and grill that opened in 2002 on Rowena Avenue.

Wooded and hilly, with some of the steepest streets in California, Edendale in the 1910s was the location of the first movie studios. Mack Sennett's studios, Essanay Films, Pathe and nearly 70 other companies operated in the area. They soon moved west, but in their wake came a bohemian-progressive scene of exceptional vigor and influence. Woody Guthrie lived in Edendale; so did printmaker Paul Landacre, legendary bookseller Jake Zeitlin, writer Carey McWilliams, composer John Cage and thousands of other artists and activists. The result, Hurewitz notes, was "a movement wherein a new ideology of identity was constructed and elaborated around organized and mobilized constituencies."

The thinking may have been homegrown, but the effects were felt beyond the canyons of the neighborhood. "Although Edendale operated as an engine of change," Hurewitz continues, "the ideas generated and sustained there sparked powerful reactions from the city at large."

These "reactions" included severe beatings by the police at political demonstrations and raids at gatherings of homosexuals, not to mention an increasingly paranoid political climate during the years between the wars. The residents of Edendale may have been positively energized in their shared isolation, but in other parts of the city things were hot. The 1938 recall of Mayor Frank Shaw was spurred by "moralizers" who campaigned against an administration that was said to tolerate vice. The police began to target homosexuals, establishing a Sex Bureau, with elaborate sting operations. Union activity was often met with violence.

Eltinge provides Hurewitz with a glimmering point of departure. But as Hurewitz tells it, Eltinge himself was undone by the darker side of the new consciousness that had evolved. Eventually, he was persecuted by the law (with apologies from the president of the Police Commission, who declared he was a fan), prohibited from wearing a gown and wig onstage. He lost his money. He tried to revive his career in New York but didn't make it.

Hay began the Mattachine Society in the 1950s. In its early days, secrecy was vital. Drapes were drawn. New members were driven in circles before being taken to a meeting, to make them unable to lead the police back to the location should they turn out to be informants.

Hurewitz's writing about Hay, in particular, is passionate. He shows how a man of deep yearning and intelligence helped redirect the course of American cultural politics. Canny and driven, Hay found a way to stand up to power, although in the end, he was nearly destroyed by his onetime allies.

In considering the mind-set of the city in the years between the 1910s and the 1950s -- the period covered by this book -- Hurewitz argues that hysterical fear of Communist infiltration fed a general fear of homosexuality as morally corrupt and dangerous. The same kind of mass muddle led to the disaster of Japanese American internment during World War II.

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