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Uprooted from a garden of love

Michel Martenay fights for his own life, unable to care for the Laguna Beach plot that honors AIDS victims.

September 07, 2008|Susannah Rosenblatt | Times Staff Writer

The small patch of flowers serves as a reminder. It commemorates lives lost and souls remembered. The ashes of 50 or so are scattered or buried there.

But the freshly turned topsoil and budding sweet alyssum in the modest garden on the Laguna Beach bluff are deceiving: The gardener is missing.

Michel Martenay nurtured this little spot for more than 20 years, tugging weeds and planting perennials on his own time with his own money. He installed stone cherubs and lined the dirt with heart-shaped rocks gathered from the beach below.

Now, the man who cultivated this memorial to those struck down by ailments such as AIDS, which ravaged the city's once-vibrant gay community some two decades ago, is himself battling the disease.

"Every time I cry, because I would like to take care of it again, see my garden," Martenay says, his so-blue eyes brimming, his head in his hands. Instead, he spends most days in an Anaheim hospice. The 25 pills he's supposed to swallow every morning make him sick; he sheds pounds from his hollowed-out frame. Unable to work, he worries about money but tries to stay positive about the future.

He spends his days feeding the songbirds and chasing cats and pigeons from a birdbath in the hospice courtyard. The fuchsia bougainvillea climbing the iron fence is no substitute for his Garden of Peace and Love.

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Finding his calling

The native Parisian first visited Laguna Beach more than 25 years ago. He'd broken up with a boyfriend. A neighbor had suggested the pretty city hugged by canyons and waves. He was smitten.

Martenay walked everywhere, through town, along the sand. He stumbled upon a forlorn tangle of weeds, rubbish and beer bottles where he was told the ashes of two strangers were buried.

"This garden, nobody take care," says Martenay in his thick French accent, puffing on the Marlboro Lights he loves. "I feel sorry for them." Thirty-nine trash bags later, he'd found his calling.

"People ask me why I do that. I say, because there is two guys buried there," Martenay says. "I do that with my heart."

A landscaper by trade, Martenay would visit the garden in the mornings and evenings, bringing all kinds and colors of donated and purchased flowers.

For several years he led a Christmas Eve candlelight vigil, honoring the memory of the dead. It drew crowds: "The people was coming crying, laughing, smoking joints." A heartbroken man bought a cherub statue to honor his dead lover. The garden became a touchstone for those who had lost loved ones, particularly to AIDS.

Next door to the former home of the storied gay nightclub the Boom Boom Room, the garden blossomed at the center of Laguna's gay culture.

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A treasured spot

Former Laguna Beach Mayor Robert Gentry recalls when AIDS first hit the city in the 1980s: "Everybody was scared to death. People were wearing masks." He was ushered into businesses' back rooms when he discussed the disease.

"Laguna Beach is different today because of HIV," said Gentry, who was mayor from 1982 to 1994. During that time, he lost his partner to AIDS. Laguna "lost dozens and dozens of community leaders and activists and upstanding citizens, and that changed the city."

Los Angeles City Councilman Bill Rosendahl, who also lost a longtime partner to AIDS, considers the garden a "sacred spot." He met his late partner on that very block and used to spend weekends in Laguna's historic gay core.

The Garden of Peace and Love, as Martenay dubbed it, "had great significance to many of us who've been through the AIDS epidemic," Rosendahl said. "I would go there and pray literally in my meditative way, and remember people who have passed on.

"I'll never overcome it," he said of his loss, one that's shared by many others. "It will always be in my heart forever -- the pain and suffering we went through as a people."

The city recognized how meaningful the patch of blooms had become to the community, gay and straight. People would stop there to reflect, leave mementos, or scatter or bury the ashes of those they'd lost. The city's HIV committee provided access to a city water line to sustain the garden after the Boom would no longer allow use of its water supply.

"Michel was doing the city a favor," said Jim Spreine, a former Laguna Beach police chief who chaired the committee. "You know he does this because he loves his fellow man."

Martenay became a fixture, always puttering on that seaside bluff, talking to homeless people wandering by or rich couples meandering down the hill. He was a social maven, a tour guide, a devoted groundskeeper.

Eventually, a plaque went up at the garden honoring those afflicted by AIDS. But the gardener says the spot is for everyone, "poor, rich, whatever." With flowers always blooming and constant visitors, Martenay says, those resting there are never alone.

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Community effort

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