“LA is in my DNA”
That’s me! I thought when I saw the tag line being used by the recently renovated Museum of Natural History. I was born in Los Angeles, grew up visiting my grandparents there, and love any excuse to return.
As Allen and I descended from the grapevine into the San Fernando Valley, I felt my body sigh. An unconscious, existential release. The air is different here, the light familiar. This is where I am from.
Allen teases me when I relentlessly exclaim about passing a theater or restaurant or department store or museum that I remember from my childhood. My grandmother took me there. We went here when I was a kid. My grandfather lived not far from here. This is where ____ used to be.
Home. Home is San Francisco, where I have lived for well over forty years, more than two thirds of my life. But home is also LA, where I go to explore theater, museum exhibits, architecture, restaurants – and my roots.
On this latest trip our first stop was at Brent’s Deli in Northridge, a newly discovered restaurant that might just serve the best Jewish-style deli food on the West Coast. We devoured a late lunch, then ordered more deli items for dinner with our hostess in Studio City.
Our first full day was devoted to Pasadena: I’d never, in all my many visits to Southern California, ever toured the Gamble House. Knowing that Allen loved Arts & Crafts style architecture and furnishings, I researched the limited schedule of the Greene & Greene masterpiece. From there we had lunch at a trendy new spot recommended by our excellent docent, then to the Pasadena Museum of California Art, which I’d never heard of before I learned it was a venue for “An Opening of the Field: Jess, Robert Duncan, and Their Circle”. The San Francisco-centric show hadn’t even been on our radar when it was first exhibit in Sacramento, there were, surprisingly, no plans for a San Francisco venue, and now it was soon to close. We had perused the exhibition catalog but to be in the presence of the work by these artists, many of them gay, many of them former neighbors, was exhilarating. Well worth the trip. We wandered through the nearby USC Pacific Asia Museum, in a building built by Grace Nicholson in 1924. We wandered around downtown Pasadena, were given a tour of the magnificent 1907 Huntington Hotel, and had an early dinner in an establishment that had been the caretakers home for the Raymond Hotel, built in 1886. By the end of our day we were tired, but satiated with our fill of history and art and architecture.
The next morning we were off to an appointment at the library at the Museum of Natural History, where special arrangements had been made for me to look at copies of “Le Courrier Francais”. My mother had long insisted that my grandfather had written for and/or been an editor of the French-language weekly. I had searched everywhere for the paper, and as far as I could determine the holdings of the NHM were the only extant copies in the entire world. I had been denied access at a previous attempt some years previous, because the museum was undergoing major renovation and because the material was so fragile. But the current librarian recognized my name from our phone conversation and had generously offered this opportunity.
Their collection ran from 1933 to mid-1935, and since my grandfather left Paris in September 1933, stopping in New York, before arriving in Los Angeles, I started at the end of the run, which was fortunately on top. The tabloid size pages were brown and brittle. No matter how carefully Allen and I lifted them, they were impossible to turn without tiny specks of dry newsprint crumbling off. I shouldn’t be looking at these, I thought with a mix of appreciation and apprehension as I scanned each masthead and searched the bylines for my grandfather’s name.
There were articles, many without attribution, about all aspects of French culture, ship arrivals and departures, anything of possible interest to Southern California’s francophone expatriate community. Slowly a thought came to me, since my grandfather was on the lam, having kidnapped his daughter and avoided an appointment in New York with lawyers, he might well have used a pseudonym. Suddenly I realized I was on a wild goose chase. Perhaps I was in the wrong time period. Perhaps his name would not have appeared. I was glad to have finally seen the elusive publication, but even if the museum’s holdings had been more extensive there was little chance of finding my grandfather’s name. Just another dead end in a series of disappointments I’d encountered researching my family memoir.
Since we were there, we decided to explore the newly renovated museum. Brand-new exhibits like “Becoming L.A.” and one exploring Iberoamerican folk-art were offset by the natural history dioramas, seemingly unchanged from when I visited as a kid. It was in the sparkling new gift shop that I spotted the logo: “LA is in my DNA”. Chuckling with self-recognition I decided that I needed to own a piece of this red-on-black product development emblazoned on t-shirts, baseball caps, coffee mugs and refrigerator magnets.
Allen, as my designated shopper, helped me select a handsome canvas tote to take home, where it would proclaim loudly and proudly my origins. Even if wearing my Southern California baggage, literally on my shoulder, would be an anathema in the Bay Area.
From there we continued our exploration of LA: The amazing “Hollywood Costume” exhibit at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences’ new venue, at the MayCo on Fairfax and Wilshire where my grandmother frequently shopped. LACMA. Getty Villa. Grand Central Market. The Last Bookstore, Million Dollar Theater, El Capitan, Skirball Center…. Sites holding the DNA of Los Angeles’ glorious past and fascinating present. And mine.