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The return of the prophet

March 16, 2008|Susan Salter Reynolds | Times Staff Writer.

A writer's ideas are his legacy. After he dies, it's up to executors, heirs, lawyers, agents and colleagues to keep them alive -- and perhaps especially up to us, the readers, to thread those ideas through the weave of history, the passage of time, our own lives. Writers are the most potent of ghosts. Their spirits lodge in our quotidian decisions; we turn to them in times of change and times of terror. When their wisdom is unavailable, our choices get harder.

Aldous Huxley -- born in England in 1894, visionary author of 11 novels (most famously "Brave New World," in 1932), seven short-story collections, seven books of poetry, three plays, two books for children and countless essays -- is there for us when we need him most. All his life, Huxley concerned himself with the most pressing issues facing humanity: environmental degradation, capitalist greed, totalitarian oppression, scarcity of resources, war, human cruelty and human potential. After his death -- on Nov. 22, 1963, the day JFK died -- his widow, Laura, tried to keep his memory and his work alive, but a perfect storm of factors -- personalities, family politics -- kept most of the work from getting the wide distribution and range of media it deserved.

In the last two years, all this has changed. With his estate finally in some kind of order, a movie of "Brave New World" is in the works, produced by George DiCaprio and starring his son, Leonardo, directed by Ridley Scott with a screenplay by Andrew Nicholls. The respected New York agent Georges Borchardt is shepherding new editions of his books and selling foreign rights to a world market hungry for Huxley's work (especially those countries of the former Soviet bloc). We are, it is safe to say, on the eve of a Huxley revival.

Huxley was deliciously educated, prolific and prescient -- heir himself to a great torrent of ideas. His paternal grandfather was the biologist Thomas Henry Huxley, defender of Charles Darwin when he needed it most. His mother was the niece of poet Matthew Arnold. Aldous was a member of the elite, educated at Eton and Oxford (Balliol). But he left the cocoon to become a true citizen of the world, keenly aware of its beauty and folly and fascinated by humankind's self-destructive impulses. In 1937, five years after the publication of "Brave New World," Huxley came to live in Southern California, like so many others for a combination of practical and spiritual reasons: the light (his eyesight was flawed from age 16), the desert air (his lungs were testy) and something unknowable as well. He lived in the Hollywood Hills -- with time spent at Llano in the Mojave Desert -- until his death. And what a beautiful death it was, as recorded in Laura Huxley's book "This Timeless Moment." More like a culmination ceremony, complete with LSD.

The house on Mulholland Drive, where both Aldous and Laura died (she late last year, at 96), is redolent of ideas, laughter and literature. Huge arched windows frame olive trees. Windows on the north face the Hollywood sign. Closets reveal stacks of translations of Huxley's work. A safe holds tapes made in the days before his death. A room with windows on three sides (the "space room") contains Laura's inversion machine; one imagines such visitors as Daniel Berrigan hanging upside down. ("Did Laura ever hang you?" old friends ask each other.) Bedrooms with sleeping porches still contain the books, paintings and photographs Aldous and Laura enjoyed.

Piero Ferrucci, Laura's nephew and one of three executors of the Laura and Aldous Huxley estate, is here from Italy to go through the alarming number of photographs and documents. He remembers Huxley walking around the grounds, looking, with his absurdly long legs, like a praying mantis. There is a photo of Piero as a baby; there is a photo of psychotherapist Roberto Assagioli (with whom both Piero and Laura studied) and Allen Ginsberg; there is a group photo with Linus Pauling, Richard Neutra, Christopher Isherwood, Gerald Heard, Aldous and his brother Julian on the terrace; there is a box containing an unpublished manuscript by Aldous.

Huxley arrived in Los Angeles with his first wife, Maria, who died of cancer in 1955; early friends included Charlie Chaplin, Greta Garbo, Anita Loos and the astronomer Edwin Hubble. That first house, also in the Hollywood Hills, burned down in 1961, along with Huxley's letters from Bertrand Russell, D.H. Lawrence and others; running from the blaze, Laura and Aldous carried only her old violin and the manuscript of Huxley's last novel, "Island." By then, a new crop of unique intellectuals, fascinated by the human species and the planet -- John C. Lilly, Buckminster Fuller, Alan Watts and R.D. Laing, to name a few -- had found lively discussion in the Huxley home.

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