One month of Trumpf …


I ended the first month of Trump the way I started it: by rallying downtown with a group of like-minded Los Angelenos who don’t believe Trump has any business in the office he occupies and needs to vacate it as soon as possible. There were lots of chants and signs, both witty and moving. My favorite of the funny signs was “IKEA makes better Fake Cabinets,” and the runner-up “Build a wall around Donald Trump and I’ll pay for it. ”

The occasion for today’s rally – there’s an anti-Trump rally every day somewhere, sometimes lots of somewheres – was President’s Day and the theme was “Not My President.” He’s sure not mine. Trump isn’t even a President, really. When he’s asked questions about national policy, he answers with stories about himself. He signs things without reading them.  He pretty much goes where he wants to …. New York, Melbourne, Florida, Mar-a-Lago … which isn’t usually the White House. Although Trump does enjoy spending time in the Oval Office. He likes looking at the pictures.

On the way into the rally, I met a man named Mike. He is a Latino American, a Los Angeles native, and a self-proclaimed “Mexican for Trump.” He was at the southwest corner of City Hall, brandishing a sign announcing his support of Trump and yelling stuff, although Mike has a light voice and no one behind him or in the passing cars could clearly hear what he said. They could read the sign, though, and see his red Make American Great Again cap, and people were pissed. As I was passing Mike, a short Latina in her forties was yelling at him – red-faced – cursing Mike in Spanish. At least I think she was cursing him. I’m pretty sure “Chinga tu Madre” is not a compliment.

I felt like cursing Mike, too, and almost did. But he has a mild manner and I didn’t feel angry (or betrayed as I suspect the Latina felt betrayed). I just felt confused. What happened to Mike? What the hell happens to all Trump supporters, who are voting against their own interests? Who are getting conned?

I stopped and asked Mike why he liked Trump. He said it wasn’t about Trump personally, he liked his policies. He said Trump would create jobs. I told him he wouldn’t create jobs and told him why I thought that was true. I asked MIke if he was a Christian and if his religion was a factor in his support. MIke said he was a Christian but not much of one and I said, good, Trump isn’t either. Mike laughed. Then went on to say that Islam was a dangerous religion and killed people and that was the thing that most concerned him, why we had to keep them all out. Even the ones who helped us fight wars in Iraq and Afghanistan who will die if they can’t leave? I asked Mike. He said no, we should let them in. On a case by case basis. I asked him about Putin. Mike said he hated him. And the connection with Trump bothered him, but you can’t believe everything you read. I asked Mike what his number one reason for supporting Trump was and he said borders. He wants a wall between himself and the country from whence his parents immigrated, illegally, years ago. And he seemed to think all the homeless people downtown were somehow the result of lax immigration. I told Mike that more than 70% of L.A.’s homeless were black or white and that the percentage of Latinos was small and far less than their percentage in the general population. Mike hadn’t known that.

I asked him his name, told him mine, shook hands, and turned to leave. Mike thanked me for talking to him and said he respected me and my views. I said okay, man, have a good one. I didn’t respect his views, so I couldn’t say that, but I should have told Mike I respected him. It was small of me not to give him that. He’s a nice man – polite in the face of outrage – and it takes cohones to stand alone on that corner with his sign.

Can’t Imagine Why Local Fox …


lowballed the crowd estimate for the L.A. Women’s March, but there were a hell of a lot more than “a hundred thousand” people in downtown today to say “He’s not my President.” Dodger Stadium holds 53,000, guys.

I say we could have easily filled Dodger Stadium ten times over. And a network estimate, later in the day, put the Los Angeles crowd at 750,000.

This is just getting started, folks. Let’s not give that piece of shit a single day of peace.

P.S. That’s me in the photograph, standing next to the woman in the pink hat.

We Loved the Earth but Could Not Stay

James “Jim” Harrison (December 11, 1937 – March 26, 2016) – Writer

“We loved the earth but could not stay” – a folk saying, the epigraph to Dalva.

I met Jim Harrison in 1994, when he was on a book tour for Julip, his short novel about a woman who sets out to get her brother released from jail. Oddly, Harrison (who had a reputation as a bit of a misogynist and a man’s man in the mold of Hemingway et al) was at his finest when writing not just about women but from a woman’s point of view. In my opinion, his greatest novel is Dalva (1988) – narrated by a middle-aged woman who longs for the son she gave up for adoption – and the best of his later works is its sequel, The Road Home (1998).  I remember being excited by his most famous and commercially successful novel, Legends of the Fall (1979), then losing patience and giving up halfway through. I don’t remember why, although I plan to reread it – finish it this time – as my celebration of its creator’s life. I feel certain the impatience I felt was my own fault and not Harrison’s and I think one reason I never returned to Legends of the Fall is the hammy hyperbolic movie made from it starring Brad Pitt and Anthony Hopkins both sporting really long hair. I quit on it halfway through as well but have no plans to revisit.

Back to 1994, where I am standing in a ridiculously long line at Dutton’s Brentwood – a holy place now gone, as are all the Dutton’s bookstores in Los Angeles, nearly all the bookstores period – holding my newly purchased copy of Julip for Harrison to sign. I didn’t care about autographs, I just wanted to see Harrison up close, thank him for Dalva, ask him a question.

Most of the people in line with me only care about autographs. They have shopping bags full of first-edition Jim Harrisons for Jim Harrison to sign, which would increase the value of Brand Harrison’s literary offerings in a collectible market gone mad because of the internet. The next year will see the start of e-Bay, but rare book dealers and their like are already publishing their inventories on line and all types of collecting have started to globalize and create cottage industries. Those industries, in turn, have spawned a new class of  bare-bones “entrepreneurs” who are(for the most part) making a marginal profit at a low investment. And a generous sampling of which are now crowded into the front room of Dutton’s Brentwood.  Vocal, grasping, in a hurry to get nowhere fast are this new breed,  collectors of books with no interest in reading books and exhibiting little evidence of ever having done so. They resemble the crowds of fans at movie premieres and Broadway stage doors, but devoid of purpose: fans with no  sense of fandom. Un-fans. In the future, bookstores will limit the number of books signed and insist that at least one of them be purchased at their store, but this effusion of ignorant ugliness is still quite new and as yet unchecked, barely understood.

Seated behind a table at the head of the ponderous, sweaty snake – signing away and looking none too happy about it – is the author, our hero, Jim Harrison. His clothes are rumpled, his hair unkempt, his one blind eye staring off into space, and – even from a distance – he looks to me as if he’s been drinking. Possibly a lot. I alternate between taking peeks at him and trying to read Julip, which is good. But reading requires me to block out the obnoxious chatter all around me, emanating from the gaggle of shopping-baggers who all seem to know each other (not as friends, more in the manner of friendly competitors) as they trade notes on what they’d gotten for the new autographed Stephen King or brag about the Philip Roth first they picked up for a buck at a library sale. I hate them all and the only person in the crowd who mildly piques my interest is an Ichabod Crane fellow with stringy blond hair and a backpack who is standing two places ahead of me. The collectors in advance of and directly behind Ichabod Crane are giving him a wide berth and, before too long, I catch a whiff of why: he hasn’t bathed in awhile and this fact, combined with the backpack and his soiled army-surplus attire, leads me to surmise that he is homeless.  Probably a homeless vet.

A short time later, Ichabod Crane arrives at the signing table, where he fishes inside the backpack, comes out with a beat-up paperback copy of Legends of the Fall, and hands it to Jim Harrison. Crane is mumbling and I can’t hear what he’s saying, but I see Harrison’s face break into a smile and hear what he says back: “Finally, a reader!” There are a few more exchanges and then Harrison is inviting Crane behind the table, where he finds him another chair. Then he produces a bottle of whiskey and pours drinks for them both and they proceed to talk through two whiskeys for what must be twenty minutes. Quietly, intently, heads close together; if the man’s odor bothers Harrison he shows no sign. Meanwhile, the pretend book lovers all around me grow restive, begin complaining bitterly amongst themselves. Someone toward the back yells, “Hurry up.” Harrison ignores him and continues to talk to his reader, then – something agreed upon, some conclusion reached – their conversation is over. Harrison signs the man’s paperback and I see him press something between its pages, a phone number perhaps but more likely money, then they embrace and Crane is gone, out the back way. I never see his face.

I’m writing a play … and I need to stay in it, inside its world … which is why I haven’t written here for a time. But I saw that Jim Harrison had died and I wanted to remember him. I have another story … of the conversation we had when it came my turn in line … featuring the Jack Nicholson Endowment Fund. But that can wait for another day. Jim Harrison will be missed and I hope his best reader is somewhere safe and warm.

Scene in L.A. (Drive-thru Polio Clinic)

“Could you patent the sun?” – Dr. Jonas Salk

polio drive-thru jonas salk

Only in L.A. – where people live in their cars – was it possible to get vaccinated against polio at a drive-thru clinic circa 1960. I have no idea whether patrons could order fries and a shake with that, but I’m certain the clinic saved lives.  And the vaccine itself was free.

Which brings us – on this MLK holiday – to the subject of altruism. Which is a noun. And which is defined as “the belief in or practice of disinterested and selfless concern for the well-being of others.” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was familiar with the concept. And I suppose you can argue that his civil-rights work on behalf of others wasn’t entirely disinterested, since he was fighting for his own civil rights as well. But King had expanded his moral charter  in the 1960s to include opposition to the war in Vietnam. And on the day he was murdered, he was fighting for garbage collectors in Memphis, putting his life on the line so that they could have a living wage. And dignity.


Dr. Jonas Salk spent seven years developing a polio vaccine, which was donated to the world in 1955 and which has saved countless lives and limbs. Including any number saved because the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis didn’t waste time applying for a patent or trying to figure out the best ways to profit from saving lives. When asked in a TV interview who owned the vaccine, Salk replied, “Well, the people, I would say. There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?” 

You will sometimes read in rightwing journals that lawyers for the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis looked into the possibility of a patent (with the implication that they would have made money from it if they could), but Dr. Salk had already provided the vaccine to pharmaceutical companies and the idea of a patent was merely to protect against inferior imitations that others might try to profit from. Decades before Salk, Dr. William Roentgen had also refused to patent the sun – or, in his case, X-rays – and altruistically donated his new medical technology to the world.

Paul Ryan & Friends (inspired by their patron saint, Ayn Rand) will tell you altruism is for suckers. Or that it’s just a different form of selfishness, since giving to others and helping humankind provides the giver with pleasure. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather hang around folks being “selfish” by helping their neighbors or fighting for people’s rights or curing disease than hang around a bunch of GOP pols getting their jollies by cutting food stamps, gutting public education, trying to privatize Social Security, or making a big show of voting down the Affordable Care Act for the one-millionth time.

I wish there was a vaccine against Ryan & Friends. And a drive-thru clinic where Americans could get it. I’d be willing to pay – a lot – for that one. And you can hold the fries and shake.

“You look like Donna Reed …”

Donna Reed (January 27, 1921 – January 14, 1986)


I was at a wedding reception in the early 1980s – I think it was at a country club in Westlake Village – and I was sweaty and winded from an hour of dancing (to some disco dreck) and drunk, although no more than usual for a night out – not bad wedding drunk – and my one good suit was in decent repair. I needed to sit down for a minute and caught sight of the bride, Pat, still in her wedding gown, seated at a table on the fringes of the reception with an older woman in an expensive-looking black and brown dress. I’d barely spoken to Pat since the ceremony (I considered her a friend by now, but I had met her through Joe, the groom, who was one of my oldest and best friends at the time, although not for much longer) so I sat across the table from her.

I exchanged a few wedding-day pleasantries with Pat, told her how beautiful she looked, how great the ceremony had been, I might have even predicted a long and happy life with Joe although I didn’t believe it … I gave their marriage a year, two at the most, and so did most everyone else who knew Joe. But, all the time I was talking to Pat, I was stealing glances at the woman beside her, who had to be twice my age (I was about 30 at the time) and who, well – I can’t think of a better word – dazzled me. I had already noticed her dress, which was lovely and rich, she was petite and self-composed, she had perfect brown hair, a beautiful barely-lined cameo of a face.

“You look like Donna Reed,” I finally said to her. “I am,” Donna Reed replied. I had forgotten – if I ever knew – that she was like a godmother to Pat, a part of her life since childhood, although I have no memory now of how or why. Pat smoothed over my faux pas with a proper introduction and I shook Donna Reed’s gloved hand.

I think I had enough sense – and tenuous sobriety – not to gush, make hee-haw jokes, wonder what it was like to work with Stewart and Sinatra and Monty Clift, ask her if she kept in touch with Shelley Fabares. (And, of course, she had kept in touch, Donna Reed was an Iowa farm girl who never lost her small-town warmth and decency and was a second mother to a lot of people, apparently, famous or not.) I’m fairly certain, however, that we just talked about Pat and how they knew each other and about the wedding and, then, in virtually my only instance of good sense that night, I realized I’d interrupted a private moment and went back to the dance floor.

I remember thinking, as I walked away, that this is why I came to Los Angeles – one of the reasons – because you can go to a wedding and end up talking to Donna Reed.

Donna Reed – as Mary Hatch – was the only reason for George Bailey to stay in Bedford Falls at the Savings & Loan (instead of packing off to Paris) and I think I knew that even when I was eight or however old I was when I first saw It’s a Wonderful Life (1947). And it was Mary Bailey who people thought they were watching when they tuned in “The Donna Reed Show” (1958 – 1966). Fifties America liked Donna Reed in good-girl roles, despite the fact she had won an Oscar playing a nightclub “hostess” (Hays Code for prostitute) in 1953’s From Here to Eternity. She was never allowed to repeat that adventure.

Pat’s and Joe’s marriage lasted a little more than a year. Pat’s father had decided to give them a fresh start by paying off all of Joe’s credit-card debt in exchange for his promises to cut up his cards and stop gambling. Joe didn’t cut up the cards, which he borrowed against to pay his new gambling debts. We were regulars together at race tracks and card clubs. Joe usually lost and I won enough to keep going for awhile. Keep wasting more time.

When Pat found the bills Joe hid, the balances were up above what her father had paid and their marriage over. I quit being friends with Joe when I quit gambling. And Donna Reed died of cancer on this date in 1986 – sadly, suddenly – at age 64. Not that long after I had met her – the one time – and been dazzled by her. She’s not someone you forget.

P.S. I changed the names of Pat and Joe to protect their privacy and to preserve my ability to turn what I experienced into fiction. (I’m only half-joking.) The woman who looked like Donna Reed was Donna Reed.

On the 1st Anniversary of a Great Writer’s Death

I saw Robert Stone walking past the Beverly Wilshire Hotel one sunny afternoon, on the same day – and a few minutes after – I had spotted Michael Caine reading a book in the hotel’s bookstore. I love Michael Caine, but seeing Robert Stone was both more surprising and the bigger thrill.robert stoneThis was in the 1980s, not sure when, but Stone was already sporting the longish receding hair and full beard that characterized his dust jacket photos of the last decades. He wore a faded blue denim shirt with one shirttail out and gave the impression of being large and lumbering, although this last may have been my imagination. Or time’s rewrite. I know Stone was smiling, recalling something pleasurable, perhaps, or just enjoying the day. Or maybe he was smiling because he’d received an option check on one of his novels for a movie that never got made (more often than not, the best possible scenario for a writer whose complexities don’t translate well to the screen).

I don’t believe it entered Robert Stone’s mind that he’d be recognized – his face bore none of the caution of movie stars in public places; the tall Mr. Caine, for instance, was hunched over his reading at the end of a row – and, because I didn’t want to interrupt Stone’s enjoyment in that moment or risk his displeasure, I didn’t try to stop him and thank him. To tell him how much his books had meant to me.

There were only three (possibly four) books by that time. A Hall of Mirrors (1966), which depicted an early Sixties New Orleans of racial and religious extremes that never quite cohered as a novel but introduced that voice – precise yet poetic with slightly druggy inflections, depressed but fighting against it, continually aspiring to hope. The next book Dog Soldiers (1974) is still his finest novel and, despite having only maybe 40 pages set in Vietnam, the best book by an American on the impact of that war. Stone’s novel about a thinly disguised Nicaragua in revolution, A Flag for Sunrise (1981), is a second straight masterpiece. And it’s possible by then that Stone had published Children of Light (1986), which also doesn’t entirely come together but which contains some of the best writing anyone has done about both schizophrenia (which Stone’s mother suffered from) and the schizophrenic nature of Hollywood at the end of the 1970s.

Stone went on to write seven more books, including the much-acclaimed Israel-based novel Damascus Gate (1998) and his terrific 2007 memoir, Prime Green: Remembering the Sixties … Stone was a friend of Ken Kesey and the other Merry Pranksters and put in his time “on the bus.” Among the serious writers of his generation, Stone may have written the most and had the widest range. His novels depict not only what it felt like to be an American during his lifetime but also the effect that we Americans have had on the world at large. A handful of his contemporaries have written as well, but none with his ambition. We lost a great one a year ago today, but the books survive. Here’s the first paragraph of Dog Soldiers:

THERE WAS ONLY ONE BENCH IN THE SHADE AND CONVERSE went for it, although it was already occupied. He inspected the stone surface for unpleasant substances, found none, and sat down. Beside him he placed the oversized briefcase he had been carrying; its handle shone with the sweat of his palm. He sat facing Tu Do Street resting one hand across the case and raising the other to his forehead to check the progress of his fever. It was Converse’s nature to worry about his health.

A Forgotten Playwright

Maxwell Anderson (December 15, 1888 – 1959)

A handful of Maxwell Anderson’s better plays – Anne of the Thousand Days (1948), Both Your Houses (1933), What Price Glory? (the WWI play that he cowrote with Laurence Stallings in 1924), and the two musicals that he collaborated on with Kurt Weill, Knickerbocker Holiday (1938) and Lost in the Stars (1949) – occasionally still get produced in the places where theater occasionally still gets produced.

Anderson’s name appears as screenwriter on some good movies as well, notably Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), Mitchell Leisen’s Death Takes a Holiday (1934), and Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man (1956). So it isn’t completely accurate to say he’s been forgotten.

Posterity has not been kind to Maxwell Anderson, however. He wrote a ton. And, during his career, he was produced everywhere and widely admired. His early blank verse play – Winterset (1935), loosely based on the Sacco & Vanzetti case – was one of the most successful plays of his own time and one of the most produced high school plays of mine. In the Sixties and Seventies, if your school wouldn’t let you put on Lawrence & Lee’s Inherit the Wind (because it, you know, teaches evolution), they might accede to Winterset, not knowing it was sort of a Commie play in which the names have been changed to protect the unfairly convicted.

For once, I’m gonna stick up for posterity. I have an intense dislike of Anderson’s last popular play, The Bad Seed (1954), which in both its stage and film incarnations preaches that bad children are born evil and it isn’t the fault of their selfish, neglectful, alcoholic parents. Either they’re bad seeds or it’s Satan’s fault, a theme pursued ever since in everything from Village of the Damned (1960) to The Exorcist  and The Omen series of films.

And I recently tried to reread Winterset and found it stilted throughout and (in more than one place) laughable (as in “out loud”). The problem is the blank verse, which spoils not only Winterset but his Tudor history plays and another acclaimed early drama, High Tor (1937). Anderson fancied himself a poet, but he’s no Shakespeare and should have left well enough alone.

It’s interesting to note that three of Maxwell Anderson’s best works were collaborations, where I’m guessing that the presence of a creative partner reined in his tendency toward pretension. And Anderson’s finest play by far – Both Your Houses (1933) – eschews blank verse and has some of the wittiest, smartest, most pointed dialogue since George Bernard Shaw.

both your houses

Both Your Houses is a political drama about an idealistic Congressman who comes to Washington hoping to do right by his constituents … only to find out how laws get passed (and why) in the place where capitalism meets government and nothing good ever gets done. Revival, anyone?

Hammett, Chandler, and …

Ross Macdonald (December 13, 1915 – 1983) – American Writer

newman harper

I fiddled around so long trying to think of what I wanted to say about Ross Macdonald that his birthday nearly passed. He is my third favorite “crime writer” … take a wild guess who numbers 1 and 2 are … and, as with Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, he deserves admiration purely as a writer not just as a writer of genre fiction.ross_macdonald

If you want to know what Southern California was like in the three decades after World War II, begin with Macdonald’s 18 Lew Archer private eye novels and his half dozen standalones. Macdonald covers more ground – geographically and socioeconomically – than any of his non-genre contemporaries. And he could flat-out write. Here’s a small sample from the first page of the first Lew Archer novel, The Moving Target (1949):

“The light-blue haze in the lower canyon was like a thin smoke from slowly burning money. Even the sea looked precious through it, a solid wedge held in the canyon’s mouth, bright blue and polished like a stone. Private property: color guaranteed fast; will not shrink egos. I had never seen the Pacific look so small.”

Although most of the main Hammett and Chandler novels have been transferred to the screen, Ross Macdonald has resisted adaptation. Only two major movies (both starring Paul Newman as the inexplicably renamed “Lew Harper”) have been made from Macdonald’s many books. The Moving Target became Harper (1966) directed by Jack Smight; and the second Archer novel, The Drowning Pool, was made into a film of the same name in 1975 directed by Stuart Rosenberg.

Born Kenneth Millar in Los Gatos, California, the great Ross Macdonald died of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease (at the age of 67) in 1983.

Here from Vienna, Fritz & Otto!

Born on This Date – December 5 – Fritz Lang and Otto Preminger


No, these birthday twins (Lang in 1890 and Preminger in 1905) were not a Viennese comedy duo, but they were Austria’s best exports since schnitzel. And two of the greatest film directors of all time.

They must have met in Hollywood – or even back in Vienna – at some point, but I have no idea when or how and it’s a good bet they weren’t the best of friends and didn’t celebrate their birthdays together. For one thing, that would be too much ego for one room.

Each of these guys deserves a book … and both have inspired several … so I’ll just post a still from my favorite films by each: Fritz Lang’s M (1931, starring the phenomenal Peter Lorre in the first serial killer movie and still the best) and Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder (1959, possibly the best courtroom drama ever and the first to realistically depict the motives of all the people involved in a trial).

I wish I could see both tonight – in a double bill at a great revival house – and sing “Alles Gute zum Geburtstag” while the final credits roll.