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Posts Tagged ‘Los Angeles’

Bordellos of the Southland: An Interview with Liz Goldwyn

October 7, 2015 | by

In the foreword to Liz Goldwyn’s Sporting Guide, Los Angeles, 1897, the author waxes poetic on her discursive trawl through illicit Victoriana: “There are moments when the boundaries between dimensions blur. Time is elastic, and you can slip right through, finding the ground you stand upon dissolving, coming back into focus centuries ago … These are the stories of my hometown and the inhabitants I came to know through dusty archives, in hallucinations and dreams.” It seems appropriate that Goldwyn, a vintage collector and designer, editor for French Vogue, and the author and director of Pretty Things: The Last Generation of American Burlesque Queens, would emulate the profligate, fin de siècle style of Baudelaire, Huysmans, and Proust in a portrait of the late-nineteenth-century demimonde. But her selection of setting may come as a bit of a shock: after all, in the popular imagination, the city of Los Angeles was little more than a sleepy, frontier town before a ragtag group of East Coast filmmakers—including Goldwyn’s own grandfather, Polish businessman and movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn—arrived to establish the movie industry.

Goldwyn’s profile of Southland cribs, bordellos, and opium dens explodes that myth with a heady combination of picaresque fiction and Benjaminian psychogeography. Deploying the lost genre of the sporting guide—a then-popular directory of bordellos and cathouses published in most major cities and traded privately among the upper and haute bourgeois classes—Goldwyn assembles a cast of madams, prostitutes, orphans, and drug-dealers reminiscent of those in Zola’sLes Rougon-Macquartseries. Her Sporting Guide reveals a pre-Hollywood Los Angeles dreamscape, in which streetwalkers, politicians, and industrialists rubbed shoulders (among other things) with the uninhibited libidos of the Gilded Age.

On the eve of her trip to the East Coast for a series of readings, Goldwyn spoke to me about her fascination with Los Angeles, the marginal histories of courtesans and prostitutes, and the emotional pleasures of the archive. Read More »

I Was Dreambox

June 1, 2015 | by

Wearing a sandwich board for Richard Kraft’s “100 Walkers.”

Photo: Helen Kim

Photo: Helen Kim

On a warm, Saturday afternoon in mid-April, I stood among ninety-nine others in grid formation in a West Hollywood parking lot, beneath a radiant red-and-gold Shepard Fairey mural. We wore all black—pants, blazers, and bowler hats. Each of us also bore a sandwich board with an image or phrase on the front and a different one on the back: a photograph of the ocean or the stars; a detail from an illustrated children’s book; a picture of a fiery, comet-tailed rocket; a portrait of a dissident, activist, or athlete; a close-up of a single human eye or a snarling dog; a snippet of a Dutch floral still life; a rendering of hands clasped in prayer or holding a lit match. The texts, in slender caps against vibrant emerald, violet, tangerine, or magenta, issued hopeful declarations (THE FUTURE IS FEMALE) and unfortunate truths (THE PEOPLE ADORE AUTHORITY!), cartoonish sound effects (EEEEEEK), commands (ABANDON SHIP!), questions (AM I MY BROTHER’S KEEPER?), warnings (BEWARE OF THE RABBLE), and urgent, private reminders (I MUST TELL THE FLOWERS I MUST TELL THE TREES).

We stood in position for several minutes, a curious and dazzling assembly, a tenuous poem, a solemn, slyly subversive army. Then, one by one, we were dismissed according to our designated start phrases—body parts in Cockney slang. From head to toe, the corps dispersed. I answered to Dreambox and left through the lot’s south gate. My five-mile route took me along the glare of Sunset Boulevard and down jacaranda-shaded, bougainvilla-draped residential streets. As directed by the orchestrator of “100 Walkers,” Richard Kraft, I faced forward, kept a steady pace and neutral expression, and stayed silent. Read More »

The Guillotine Messes with Your Head, and Other News

May 27, 2015 | by


Unknown printmaker, Les formes acerbes, 1810.

  • You probably haven’t been worrying about John Ashbery, but if you have, don’t—he’s still got it. His new collection, Breezeway, expands the range and influence of what might be called his trash magic; reading his poems “is sometimes unnerving, as though somebody had given you your own garbage back as a gift, cheerfully wrapped. Ashbery is nearly eighty-eight; more than ever, his style is a net for the weirdest linguistic flotsam.”
  • The photographer Mary Ellen Mark is dead at seventy-five. She was known for the intimacy of her photographs and for her unflinching choice of subjects: prostitutes, homeless teenagers, mental patients, and heroin addicts. But her earlier goals were more modest: “She had two main ambitions in high school … to become the head cheerleader and to be popular with boys. She succeeded at both.”
  • Nothing begets insanity like a bloody revolution—and so the French Revolution seems to have left a preponderance of madness in its wake. The journals of Philippe Pinel, a contemporary French physician, remark on the era’s various delusions, such as “that of the clockmaker, convinced that he had already been guillotined. Somehow the verdict had been reversed, but his head had become confused with others in the basket and he had been given back someone else’s … Pinel staged an intervention, this time by a fellow patient who cheerfully pointed out the absurdity of his delusion. The clockmaker ‘retired confused amid the peals of laughter all around him and never again spoke of his change of head.’”
  • This is graduation season, wedding season—and Father’s Day is just around the corner. You need gifts that bespeak of your intense thoughtfulness and generosity. Here’s one: a gold locket containing a strand of Mozart’s hair. Estimated value: twelve thousand euros.
  • Reminder: Los Angeles is a complicated place. “Growing up in L.A. taught me that beautiful people get away with practically anything: it is an aesthetocracy. To be beautiful is to transcend, to move through the world frictionlessly, as consistently pleasant as the weather: temperate, no clouds, photo ready … It is possible to become so healthy that you become sick … It’s a paradoxical lifestyle, self-improvement as an ethos. It demands one remain just shy of perfect, leaving some room to improve.”

From Sand and Cactus

May 14, 2015 | by

Raymond Chandler the environmentalist.


The wise man, as Biblical lore has it, built his house on the rock, his foolish compatriot on the sand—guidance that mankind has ignored for millennia. In the late nineteenth century, the pioneers, or developers, or “boosters” who founded and promoted Los Angeles as a new “instant city” were among those to lay substantial foundations in what was essentially sand. Not on a desert, exactly—that myth’s been debunked—but perilously close to one, and on the shore of an undrinkable ocean.

Today, it’s not an excess of water—as in the scriptures and children’s song—that threatens Southern California, but a scarcity of it. The state is considering implementing desalination centers. As has been remarked in Europe, the city defines itself against its medieval origins; American metropolises define themselves against the wilderness. In John Fante’s 1939 LA novel, Ask the Dust, his alter ego, Arturo Bandini, revels in his adopted home’s mastery of nature: “This great city, these mighty pavements and proud buildings, they were the voice of my America. From sand and cactus we Americans had carved an empire.” Read More »

Intermittent Explosive Disorder: An Interview with Matt Sumell

February 17, 2015 | by


Matt Sumell

In Spring 2012, The Paris Review published Matt Sumell’s short story “Toast,” in which the narrator, Alby, humiliates his girlfriend so creatively, and so often, that she ends the relationship. “Over the next few years,” Alby says in a typical passage, “I changed from a mostly passive prick to a mostly aggressive one, sexing a lot of girls and I’m pretty sure contracting HPV in my throat.”

“Toast” appears in Making Nice, Sumell’s first book, a collection of linked stories all told from Alby’s perspective. He’s a thirty-year-old having a hell of a time navigating the world since his mother died from cancer. Sumell’s stories are pugnacious, figuratively and literally. In “Punching Jackie,” Alby spars with his sister; in “OK,” he pushes his one-legged father over the side of a boat. Even when he isn’t taking anyone to task, the stories are full of fighting words: bitterness at the world, anger with fate, and misunderstanding of circumstance. Alby is lost. His outlets for self-discovery and definition are few and far between. Making Nice is hilarious in its prose, but painful in its nakedness.

Sumell and I met up to talk fighting, writing, and being named Matt on a freezing January afternoon. We ended up in Chelsea, at Barcade, a bar lined with arcade games where the tater tots are shaped like Tetris pieces. When we walked through the door, Sumell took a quick survey of the room and jetted from my side, making a beeline directly to Punch Out!! Nothing could seem more apropos.

You just returned from a trip to Manila with your father, Albert, to whom your book is dedicated. Your main character is also named Alby—which doesn’t strike me as a coincidence. What’s your relationship with your dad?

Oh, we’re going straight there, are we? Well, the funny thing about my father having that name—I’m the first born, but my great-grandfather’s name is Alby, and my grandfather’s name is Alby, and my father’s name is Albert. Read More »

The Interview

January 16, 2015 | by

huffstutter LA

Illustration: Robert Huffstutter

You know those moments when you feel like you’ve mastered adulthood? When you think, Wow, this is it—I’m on assignment in a city across the country, interviewing somebody interesting, wearing sunglasses. Someone who saw me now would totally think I was a real grown-up! 

That was me yesterday, in California. 

Everything was going well. The tape recorder was working, the coffee was good, the café was chic and filled with beautiful people dressed in expensive rags. Our egg salad had sliced radish on it. 

In the way of such things, I had to use the bathroom. “May I use your bathroom?” I asked the owner, who was dressed in a striped French sailor’s shirt. 

“We have an employee bathroom you can use,” he said. “Make a left, go down the alley, and you’ll see a flight of stairs. The bathroom is at the top.”

Now, I don’t like using the employee bathroom any better than I should—in my experience they are generally depressing, even when they don’t involve “alleys”—but it was kind of them to give me access, and the café itself was so charmingly appointed, filled with wildflowers and expensive chocolate bars involving things like sunflower seeds and cheerful employees, that I figured this specimen would be better than the common run. Read More »