An Evening at Angels Flight

At the golden hour, Gordon Pattison gazes into the Angels Flight station house
At the golden hour, Gordon Pattison gazes into the Angels Flight station house

Last evening, we met on Bunker Hill, old friends coming together for an old friend, Angels Flight. As the sun set, the orange and black station house along with the cars, Olivet and Sinai, were bathed in its soft, orange glow. As the evening darkened, Angels Flight’s arches and cars were lit by the low amber light of dozens of incandescent bulbs. It was a magical time, and for a moment, I was transported back to the time when I lived on Bunker Hill in its old Victorian neighborhood in the 1940’s – 1960’s. That neighborhood has been gone for more than 50 years now, and Angels Flight is all we have to remind us of it.

As I looked out over the city from the top of Angels Flight, the twinkling lights of Grand Central Market came on, beckoning to us longingly. The Market stays open until 10:00 pm now, and it was filled with people enjoying its attractions. I thought, how nice it would be to board Angels Flight to go down there as I did years ago, have a bite to eat and join the people who looked to be having such a good time. They seemed miles away, though, at the bottom of long, daunting flights of stairs. That’s exactly why Col. Eddy built Angels Flight 115 years ago, to join Bunker Hill and Downtown. What foresight! What a wonderful service to fill a civic need! And for decades, Angels Flight filled that need happily, faithfully, asking for little in return.

But sadly, Angels Flight is not running. For two years now, Angels Flight has sat quietly, waiting patiently for Los Angeles to come back to it. While Angelenos go busily about their lives, Angels Flight sits forlorn and vulnerable, largely ignored by the community it once served and we hope will serve again.

Richard Schave and Gordon Pattison scrub graffiti off Olivet
Richard Schave and Gordon Pattison scrub graffiti off Olivet

Angels Flight is not a nostalgic anachronism. It was and remains an important civic asset. Not just for its historic significance, but as an important piece of public transportation, carrying people from the heights of Bunker Hill to greater Downtown and back again.

When we came together at Angels Flight last evening, we came to pay attention to an old friend and to bear witness to its plight. We cleaned away graffiti that had thoughtlessly desecrated it. We had a 3-D scan done on Angels Flight so that anyone can board it online and take a vicarious ride. Angels Flight has served our city well and can again. But it needs our support and loving attention, or one day we will drive by and wonder why it’s not there anymore. Then all we will have are photographs and memories. It’s a lot more fun to actually ride it.

Two New Mann Images — Final Days of the Flight!

Hillzapoppin‘ in the OBH!  A couple swanky new color images emerged from the greater Mann grotto and the good people at the archives wanted to share them with you.  Ain’t they the best?

AF1

This image is later than the other Manns (Menn?) we’ve seen.  (Given the specific progress made on the Union Bank tower, I’d peg this photo at September 1966).  By comparison, here’s one of late-50s vintage you’ve seen before:

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The Community Redevelopment Agency got their wreckers and worked from top to bottom; started with the Elks in the autum of 1962, then hit the Hulburt (middle) and finished the Ferguson on Hill in ’63.

With Angels Flight’s Western Wall removed, you then see these two characters in images of the Flight, but they were chewed up pretty quickly.

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But back to our original Mann photo up top.  To the east of the flight on the other side of the tunnel, the Royal Liquor’s still there, and so’s the McCoy house above.

Royal Liquor–AKA St. Helena Sanitarium–always amuses because before Los Angeles became last refuge for the hunted and the tortured, it was just a sunny place to go for salubrious living:

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Now let’s cross the intersection, down Hill a bit…

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…turn to see that Olivet and Sinai have passed each other.  The Hill Crest and the Sunshine, of whom we’ve spoken quite a bit recently, gone, again, the CRA working down from Olive to Clay, the HillCrest lost in the autumn of 1961 and the Sunshine goes ca. 1965.  There’s the McCoy House and St. Helena, although now the latter, known as My Hotel for some time, became the Vista Hotel between 1942 and ’47 (and the actual full name of its corner booze boutique, despite what the neon read, was Royal Gold Liquors).  Vaguely visible looming behind in the mist, the Belmont.

The former front door of the Ferguson Café apparently a swell place to park your faded yellow jalopy.  In September of 1966.  Now, not so much.

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Hey, at least the light pole and fireplug are still there.

Thanks to George Mann’s son Brad Smith, and daughter-in-law Dianne Woods, for allowing us to reprint these copyrighted photographs and tell George’s story. To see George’s photos of theater marquees, visit http://www.flickr.com/photos/brad_smith

For a representative selection of photographs from his archive, or to license images for reproduction or other use, see http://www.akg-images.co.uk/_customer/london/mailout/1004/georgemann/

St. Helena/Vegetarian Café, USC Digital Archives; Ems & Casa Alta, personal collection

Two New Mann Images — Final Days of the Flight!

Hillzapoppin‘ in the OBH!  A couple swanky new color images emerged from the greater Mann grotto and the good people at the archives wanted to share them with you.  Ain’t they the best?

AF1

This image is later than the other Manns (Menn?) we’ve seen.  (Given the specific progress made on the Union Bank tower, I’d peg this photo at September 1966).  By comparison, here’s one of late-50s vintage you’ve seen before:

AF2

The Community Redevelopment Agency got their wreckers and worked from top to bottom; started with the Elks in the autum of 1962, then hit the Hulburt (middle) and finished the Ferguson on Hill in ’63.

With Angels Flight’s Western Wall removed, you then see these two characters in images of the Flight, but they were chewed up pretty quickly.

theseguys

But back to our original Mann photo up top.  To the east of the flight on the other side of the tunnel, the Royal Liquor’s still there, and so’s the McCoy house above.  

Royal Liquor–AKA St. Helena Sanitarium–always amuses because before Los Angeles became last refuge for the hunted and the tortured, it was just a sunny place to go for salubrious living:

weggie

Now let’s cross the intersection, down Hill a bit…

afotherside

…turn to see that Olivet and Sinai have passed each other.  The Hill Crest and the Sunshine, of whom we’ve spoken quite a bit recently, gone, again, the CRA working down from Olive to Clay, the HillCrest lost in the autumn of 1961 and the Sunshine goes ca. 1965.  There’s the McCoy House and St. Helena, although now the latter, known as My Hotel for some time, became the Vista Hotel between 1942 and ’47 (and the actual full name of its corner booze boutique, despite what the neon read, was Royal Gold Liquors).  Vaguely visible looming behind in the mist, the Belmont.

The former front door of the Ferguson Café apparently a swell place to park your faded yellow jalopy.  In September of 1966.  Now, not so much.

nowwee

Hey, at least the light pole and fireplug are still there. 

Thanks to George Mann’s son Brad Smith, and daughter-in-law Dianne Woods, for allowing us to reprint these copyrighted photographs and tell George’s story. To see George’s photos of theater marquees, visit http://www.flickr.com/photos/brad_smith

For a representative selection of photographs from his archive, or to license images for reproduction or other use, see http://www.akg-images.co.uk/_customer/london/mailout/1004/georgemann/

St. Helena/Vegetarian Café, USC Digital Archives; Ems & Casa Alta, personal collection 

Sunshine and Noir

The recent release of George Mann’s 50-year-old color photographs to this site is one of the most remarkable troves of Bunker Hill ephemera we’ve seen in decades. The accompanying photo, for instance, shows just how dilapidated the neighborhood around Angels Flight on Third Street had become by November 1962, when Mann made his final pilgrimage to the doomed neighborhood. The wrecking ball has already claimed the Hill Crest Hotel at the top of the hill on Olive Street, and the Astoria Hotel is a hulking shell of a firetrap just waiting for a match. Standing near the center of the photo is the Sunshine Apartments, looking empty and haunted, but who knows whether a few derelict souls are still inside, refusing to leave until the bulldozers come growling down the hillside?

Bunker Hill’s Sunshine Apartments at 421 West Third Street has been gone now for over forty-five years, but it’s still one of the most familiar unknown houses in Los Angeles. Perched on a ten-feet-high retaining wall above a narrow alley called Clay Street, it sprawled halfway up a steep hill adjacent to a stairway, its only access, opposite Angels Flight. The Sunshine was the sort of multilevel dwelling that novelist John Fante described in Ask the Dust (1939): “It was built on a hillside in reverse, there on the crest of Bunker Hill, built against the decline of the hill, so that the main floor was on the level with the street but the tenth floor was downstairs ten levels.” The only difference is that the Sunshine was only four stories tall and its front, not its sides, conformed to Third Street’s slant, so that the first floor was only half as wide as the second floor.

 

Constructed on vacant property around 1905 to accommodate downtown Los Angeles’s growing need for cheap housing, the Sunshine looked like a huge clapboard farmhouse, with a stack of three unadorned verandas and a couple of Queen Anne touches around the front entrance, which was on the third floor. Midwestern migrants probably found the place comfortably familiar. Inside, a labyrinth of odd-angled hallways, step-downs and staircases connected the Sunshine’s many small apartments.

 

Though it made its film debut as one of Angels Flight’s neighbors in a 1920 comedy called All Jazzed Up, the Sunshine didn’t get its first close-up until 1932, when director James Whale cast it as the home of two downtown working girls (Mae Clark and Una Merkel) in The Impatient Maiden, his follow-up to Frankenstein. Because sound cameras in those days were large and unwieldy, he used a smaller silent camera to shoot the movie’s opening scene on the Third Street steps, as the actresses came out of the Sunshine Apartments and walked up the concrete steps to the Angels Flight station on Olive Street. (The dialogue and traffic sounds were dubbed in later.) Whale shot another scene on the front steps near Clay Street and in the rear of the apartments, where a second set of concrete stairs from Clay to Olive ran between the Sunshine and the much larger Astoria Hotel.

 

But what turned the Sunshine Apartments into a fairly steady (if nameless) character actor was film noir, the mostly post-World War II crime genre that, in its focus on documentary realism, introduced the use of smaller, combat-tested cameras and gritty urban locations to Hollywood cinema. And since—by the mid-1940s—Bunker Hill was a run-down neighborhood of crumbling Victorian mansions, rambling flophouses, and mean, vertiginous streets, it became the perfect setting for film noir’s fascination with the dark side of American prosperity. Despite the Sunshine Apartments’ sunny moniker and relative youth (less than fifty years old), it did a great job portraying a shabby boarding house for desperate and worn-down people.

 

In Paramount’s Night Has a Thousand Eyes (1948), the Sunshine offered low-rent anonymity to a con man (Edward G. Robinson) hiding from his past. Director John Farrow pointedly established its location with an amazing 180-degree shot—taken from Clay Street—that followed one of the Angels Flight cars up from Hill Street, and panned across the top of the hill to catch Robinson’s character hurrying down the concrete steps and up onto the third-floor porch and into the boarding house’s front door. Another shot showed John Lund and Gail Russell approaching the Sunshine’s wooden porch steps from below.

 

That same year, in Universal Pictures’ Criss Cross, director Robert Siodmak used the Sunshine as a rendezvous spot for criminals plotting an armored car robbery. Whereas the protagonists’ apartments in the earlier films were obviously studio creations, some of Criss Cross’s seedy flophouse interiors were shot on location. Granted, a couple of shots that showed either Burt Lancaster or Yvonne DeCarlo standing next to a bay window, with the Angels Flight trolleys moving in the background distance, were done on a sound stage. The footage of the incline railway cars passing each other above Clay Street was taken from the Sunshine (most likely from the third-floor porch, judging from the angle), but the building itself didn’t have any bay windows facing Angels Flight, so the scenes had to have been process shots. On the other hand, the maze of dingy hallways—whose atmosphere one character mockingly dismissed as “Picturesque, ain’t it?”—most likely belonged to the Sunshine Apartments.

 

In another Paramount film, Turning Point (1952), as crusading reporter William Holden and gal pal Alexis Smith ride up Angels Flight, the camera riding with them turns to look across to the Sunshine, where a witness is hiding. But when they walk down the steps from the funicular’s Olive Street station toward the house, they have to duck into a doorway of a nearby building to avoid several thugs standing guard on the Sunshine’s porch.

 

In the low-budget Angel’s Flight (1965), among the last of Bunker Hill’s noirs, Indus Arthur played a stripper and “Bunker Hill serial killer” avenging an early rape by slashing the throats of men who put the moves on her. The scene of that rape, we eventually discover, had been at her one-time home in the Sunshine Apartments.

 

The building also showed up briefly in Act of Violence (MGM, 1949), Joseph Losey’s M (Columbia, 1951), and the cheap Lon Chaney Jr. horror film The Indestructible Man (1956), among others. Documentary filmmaker Edmund Penney introduced his lyrical fifteen-minute film, Angel’s Flight Railway (shot in the early 1960s and again in 1969; released in 1997) by looking across Third Street through the ornate woodwork of the Sunshine’s doorway.

 

The Sunshine Apartments finally had its appointment with the bulldozer around 1965, after Los Angeles’s Community Redevelopment Agency had already torn down many of the other buildings around it. By the time the CRA carted away Angels Flight and the last two surviving houses on Bunker Hill Avenue four years later, the nearly century-old neighborhood of Bunker Hill had ceased to exist.

 

Yet today the Sunshine Apartments survives in old movies, in countless photo- and postcard-tableaux of Angels Flight, and as the most prominent background feature—painted green—in Millard Sheets’ vibrant 1931 oil painting, Angel’s Flight, which is not only one of the most famous works on permanent display at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, but also the logo of the OnBunkerHill.org website.

 

I welcome any further information you may have about the Sunshine Apartments, or any corrections to this blog entry. Even better, I’d love to hear from someone who actually lived or spent time there.

 

For more photos of the Sunshine Apartments, check out www.americanfilmnoir.com/page18.html and www.forum.skyscraperpage.com/showthread.php?p=4855115.

 

Thanks to George Mann’s son Brad Smith, and daughter-in-law Dianne Woods, for allowing us to reprint his copyrighted photograph.

For a representative selection of photographs from his archive, or to license images for reproduction or other use, see http://www.akg-images.co.uk/_customer/london/mailout/1004/georgemann/

The Kellogg/Palace/Casa Alta—317 South Olive

washingtonaxe

May 22, 1930

William J. Stone, 38, was a Bostonian broker who’d moved to Los Angeles and into the Casa Alta Hotel and Apartments, 317 South Olive. In what may have partly been a case of Don’t Argue with a Janitor, or partly No-One Likes a Broker in 1930, Stone managed to get into a regrettable debate with the Casa Alta janitor, one Walter Dixon.

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The argument climaxed in Dixon taking a hatchet to Stone’s head and chasing him from the building. Stone wound up in Georgia Street Receiving Hospital with severe skull lacerations, but lived to broker—or, not—another day, and Dixon landed in the stir on suspicion of ADW.

palace

Here’s everything you didn’t know you needed to know about 317 S. Olive, aka The Kellogg, aka the Palace, aka the Casa Alta.

First of all, there are few photos of the place. Pity the poor Palace. It was too large and utilitarian to merit the lens of a Reagh or Hylen. Sure, everybody shot its neighbor, the Ems, and in nearly every Ems image, there’s the Great Wall of Alta looming in the background:

Ems1909

(Don’t look at the Ems. Look at the building behind it. We’ll talk about the Ems next week, I promise.)

WalkerEvansEms1960

Moreover, whenever one stood on the corner of Third and Olive, the temptation was apparently too great to turn one’s back on the Kellogg/Palace/Casa Alta and shoot the upper terminal of Angels Flight.

Before the advent of 317, it was 315 S. Olive, which was ground zero for the Burning Bushers.

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Then came the seven-story, 84-apartment Kellogg. It opens in April, 1908.

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Almost immediately it becomes the Palace Hotel and Apartments; the image at the top of this post, where it’s proudly emblazoned Palace Hotel, is from a card postmarked 1910.

Looking up Olive, ca. 1915: the most prominent, in ascending order, the Auditorium, the Trenton, the Fremont, and at top, the Palace:

lookingupyourolive

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In 1926 the owner puts it out to lease—it is snatched up and becomes the Casa Alta (they have cleverly renamed this rather tall house "tall house," but in Spanish!).

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The 1929 City Directory:

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Here’s what we glean from this 1939 census report: the Casa, faced in brick, has 72 apartments (ok, so the Sanborn Map says 84) in its seven floors, and no business units. There’s no basement. It was built in 1906, though that doesn’t exactly jive with its April 08 opening date. A nice two-room unit will set you back $27.50 ($406.55 USD 2007), still pretty cheap, but the Hill had begun its downturn even by 1939. Slouching toward shabby though it may have been, nevertheless, that rent was for a furnished apartment, and included heat, water, and electricity.

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The 1956 City Directory:

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…quite a few folk in the 72 apartments had ‘phones. Two basement apartments, an office, eighteen tenants had the device. For Bunker Hill, that might have been some sort of record.

By 1965, there were fewer.

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And that’s the last time it appears in the directories.

Here it is as one of the lone survivors, in its final days, ca. 1967. Angels Flight hangs on until 1969.

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The Palace of Casa Kellogg, and its events of eventful eventfulness:

blinkyIn 1914, the Palace Hotel was where fancy ladies with big diamonds lived. Therefore, of course, sharps and cons knew where to prey. But Lillian Walker was ingrained with common sense and uncommon suspicions. Despite the big car with its monogrammed door, from which stepped the elegantly dressed man and woman who came to her apartment, despite their discourse about rare gems they’d purchased in the orient, and their winter home in Santa Barbara, Mrs. Walker just doesn’t trust people who blink rapidly when they talk. The man, who called himself Mullins, eagerly wrote her a fat check for a big diamond, but Mrs. Walker, seeing his blinky eye, said no. She took a $25 check for a small gem, and agreed to meet later to discuss further sales. She immediately verified her suspicions—the checks were false, and Lillian called the authorities—but the grifters got wise to the ambush set for them, and evaded being captured in the Palace.

andthentheresmaude1916 – you may remember the Percy Tugwell case, in which the proprietor of Hotel Clayton (a literal stone’s throw east at 310 Clay), Florence Cheney, testified. Florence Cheney’s daughter, Margaret Emery, had her deposition taken at her Palace Hotel sickbed.

Margaret testified that Maude Kennedy had been in a fine and jovial mood until very shortly before her death, lending weight to the argument that she committed suicide (Tugwell eventually served ten years in Quentin for manslaughter).

palacesuicideChristmas Day, 1918, Katherine Lewis quarreled with her husband Lester Lewis. She had been despondent ever since having departed Richmond, VA for Los Angeles; the best course of action, decided Katherine, was to eat bichloride of mercury tablets in their Palace apartment. The physicians at Receiving Hospital fixed her up just enough to try another Christmas.

 

We’re all aware that every so often, people sometimes just up and go missing. Dr. Harold E. Roy was a prominent New York dentist whose crushed canoe was found in the Hudson River (it was assumed he was torn asunder by a paddle steamer); his widow moved to Los Angeles and into the Palace Apartments. Then, a year later, in February 1922, a lowly workman at the Kansas City Union Station realized, hey, I’m a dead New York dentist. Where’s my wife? deadayearHe tracks her down through her family and shows up on the Palace doorstep, and she has to give back $10,000 ($122,730 USD2007) to Bankers Life Insurance Company.

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The Palace Hotel/Casa Alta was also the center of political activity for rebel rousers from Riga. Through the late 20s the papers were peppered with small notices about, for example, the precise method of sending packages to Latvia, and if you had further questions, contact the Latvian Consulate—317 S. Olive.

defied!Now, Ethel M. Rising had a thing or two to say about marrying into Baltic bliss. She divorced her husband, H. R. Rising, left him in the Casa Alta, and the State awarded her $50 a month from H. R. to support their two daughters. But with that dictate Mr. Rising did not comply. Ethel complained to the City Prosecutor, who hauled Rising into court, October 2, 1928. There declared Rising: “I have been appointed Vice-Consul for Latvia and your courts have no jurisdiction over me.” The court conferred with the District Attorney and Rising was, in fact, correct. One can only imagine he threw back his head and added a hearty Latvian bwa-ha-ha-ha!

wershallovercomeNovember 4, 1929. George McRoy, 31, was spraying the Casa Alta with insecticide—and nearly went to exterminator Elysium, but ended up at Georgia Street Receiving.

norelief“I’ve been taking it on the chin for five years. My chin won’t stand it any longer—” and, after penning that short note, and adding three $1 bills for his daughter in Vancouver, sixty-five year-old relief client Frank W. Blumie climbed to the top of the Casa Alta, December 1, 1935, and leapt to his death.

evictedChristmas cards to Mrs. Cecilia MacKinnon Moore are being marked returned to sender this holiday season. After being told by the Casa Alta landlord to vacate her quarters, she made her way on December 23, 1947 to the famous intersection of Hollywood and Vine and to the top of the Equitable Building, from where she made her own impression on Hollywood.

Two items were found in her pocketbook—a letter asking that her nephew be notified, and her eviction notice.

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thompsonandblackWhat was the relationship between Mrs. Beatrice Imogene Thompson, 23, and Sylvester Black, 34?

We may never know. All we know is that she was recently reconciled with her estranged husband, Willid Thompson. After two years she had returned to him, and for the past two weeks she and he were in domestic bliss at 317 S. Olive. That was, until, April 16, 1948.

Beatrice and Black knew each other from their place of employ, she a waitress, he a cook, at a downtown restaurant.

hamicideThe pair boarded an LA Transit Lines car at 11th and Broadway, and for a while argued in low tones. She was against the window, sobbing, and muttering “Leave me alone, please leave me alone.” When she rose to leave at 4th and Broadway, Black pushed her back in the seat and shot her four times. Also on the car was James F. Patrick, Special Officer, Metro Division, who pulled his piece and handcuffed Black at gunpoint, during which Black pleaded “Shoot me, please shoot me.”

The Thompson killing by Black, who was black, gets surprisingly little press. Perhaps the concept that this interracial killing was presaged by an interracial love affair meant that propriety demanded ignorance.

 

explodotheboilerAs mentioned above, the Kellogg/Palace/Casa Alta had its relationship with the Central/Clayton/Lorraine via the mother/daughter team in the 1916 Percy Tugwell trial. The two hotels also have cranky boilers. The Central tried to blow itself up in November 1953; the year before, in November 1952, the Casa Alta boiler felt the hands of Frank Dauterman, 43, tinkering within its works. So the boiler blew itself up, failing to kill Dauterman or take down the Alta, but sending Dauterman to Georgia Street with second and third degree burns to his head, chest and arms.

fatalistic

 

A month later, December 20, 1952, residents heard screams from the apartment of Willie Kohl, 79. His apartment was aflame; he was found on the floor near the bed, and died en route to Georgia Street.

Kohl’s conflagration is the Casa Alta’s final appearance in the Times. The remaining tenants are relocated in the late 60s and it soon becomes a tall pile of brick.

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And atop the old site, the 1990 Omni Hotel, in which one can sense a vague hint of the old Alta. Vaguely.

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Washington hatchet from here; bloody hatchet from Hatchet; Palace postcard, author; 1910 Ems, Los Angeles Public Library; 1960 Ems, Metropolitan Museum of Art; view up Olive, USC Libraries Digital Archives; census card, USC Libraries Digital Archives; Casa Alta with Angels Flight, Los Angeles Public Library. Bottom image you remember from Subject: Narcotics.

Odd Incarnations: The Bunker Hill of Towne’s Ask the Dust

fromthetrailerBunker Hill of old is gone, never to be again. Until we concoct some Disneyesque Colonial Williamsburgian simulacrum, complete with sullen teenagers hired to pose as grimy grifters, we’ll never be able to amble down Third toward Hill and catch Angels Flight up to battenboard and gingerbread. (Imagine, the collapse of the Vanderbilt will be repeated at two, four, and six! Visit the souvenir stand outside the Elmar! We gotta get Eco on board. Dang, too bad Baudrillard just died.)

But the Hill did rise again, for one brief moment, when Robert “Chinatown” Towne said full speed ahead, we’re building this thing. We’ve got Ask the Dust to film. And with all that devalued Rand, what did they build down in a Capetown rugby field? A presumptuous pastiche. A goofy Golem. A dopey doppelgänger.

Bear in mind this post is less a criticism than an investigation, because it’s not so much they got it wrong as they got it weird.

AtDWhat is this Asking of Dust, you ask? Fine, a little background. It’s the 1930s, and while the world was awash in novels of the mannered drawing-room variety, aspiring writer John Fante was banging out gritty realism, as best he could, considering that at every turn he’d find the “mechanism of [his] new typewriter glutted with sand.” This is the titular dust, the tiny brown grains that’d blow in from the Mojave, that’d get in his hair and ears and find its way into the bedsheets of his little room at the Alta Loma, his Bunker Hill flop.

Ask the Dust is Bunker Hill. And AtD’s protagonist Arturo Bandini is our displaced dago everyman, there at the Alta Loma, built on the hillside in reverse: he climbs out the window and scales the incline to the top of the Hill and walks “down Olive Street past a dirty yellow apartment house still wet like a blotter from last night’s fog.” Via Fante/Bandini’s description, the Hill takes on all necessary romance and despair:

I went up to my room, up the dusty stairs of Bunker Hill, past the soot-covered frame buildings along that dark street, sand and oil and grease choking the futile palm trees standing like dying prisoners, chained to a little plot of ground with black pavement hiding their feet. Dust and old buildings and old people sitting at windows, old people tottering out of doors, old people moving painfully along the dark street.

(In actuality, Fante wrote Ask the Dust in a [recently-demolished] pad on Berendo. But he had lived at the Alta Vista, seen here…

theAltaVista

….and whose plot is now here:)

theyellowofcowardice

Anyway. Robert Towne reads the 1939-published Ask the Dust in 1971 while doing research for Chinatown. Towne decides then and there to make a picture out of the novel; it takes him a while to do so. Come 2006, voila, Ask the Dust.

I won’t comment on the performances or the diegetic structure of this oft-maligned film. While the reviewers cobbled cranky critiques, none cast aspersions on this piece of celluloid for any abuse of architectural accuracy. I would, however, were I to have an appropriate forum to do so. This being barely it, we’re off to the races.

Towne beat his brains out making this movie, befriending Fante, writing the script on spec (unheard of for a man of his stature), jumping through every archetypally ugly financing hoop and unearthing some undiscovered ones in the process. But yes, this labor of love paid off, because I was there opening day, ignoring the performances and diegetic structure to sit gape-mouthed at—what else? Bunker Hill. And sit in wonder and disbelief I did, mostly at the sheer strange world into which I’d been injected: Bunker Hill was dementedly askew. Therefore I was dementedly askew. Well, Mr. D.A., I hear you say, if you’re so All That, you try to make period picture.

TreasureIslandI may only know the bare minimum about making period pictures, but at least it’s something. Ten years ago, Richard and I—Kim’s Richard, builder of this blog—were the art department for “indie” film Treasure Island. Treasure Island was shot on film and set in 1945—and who on earth has ever made a serious period feature with no budget? We built sets in a makeshift soundstage, shot at locations with cajoled props in a manner that would make Ed Wood blush, and shut down City streets (necessary when staging a riot). That’s how you make a big, sprawling period picture (which went on to win the top honors at Sundance, the “Special Jury Prize for Distinctive Vision in Filmaking,” aka the coveted “What the Hell was That?! Award”) for less than the latte budget of Beverly Hills Chihuahua: make sure you have neither money nor expertise. But I’m not here to impugn the excesses of studio excrescence. I’m just pointing out that we did more with less. We were historically accurate. To an annoying degree.

Ask the Dust, less so. Oh, it looks great, but it’s Bunker Hill Bizarro. Batman once pointed out to the Mystery gang that the Joker did first-rate counterfeiting, save for one thing: President Lincoln never wore a turtleneck sweater. Suffice it to say, Bunker Hill’s neck will never get cold.

Consider. Towne was in development on this project for thirty years. During that time he could have learned the difference between the Second and Third Street tunnels. Or spent an hour finding someone who did. Look, no-one is here to talk smack about Ask the Dust Production Designer Dennis Gassner. Many have gone into production design to be Dennis Gassner. And the production looks terrific—but there are those among us will forever be at a loss to understand what the hell it was that Towne/Gassner & his team/whoever’s responsible was doing.


Ask the Dust
—it’s not that it’s full of rampant anachronism (if The Sting is set in the 30s, why are they listening to 1890s Scott Joplin, and have 1970s hair?), nor does it feel just altogether wrong & parachronistic (Ha! Ha! Harlem Nights!)—no, it’s anatopistic, which is a ten-dollar word meaning strange as all get out. Instead of mere chronological anomaly, we have full-bore objet-out-of-place, for example, a tunnel that’s moved over. (I’m just talking about the giant corporeal set they built. The actual CGI they dropped on top of it is a monument to chronological anomaly. We’ll get to that.)

Let’s talk tunnels. The designers read the script, and it says Angels Flight, Third Street. Ok. Art Department gets to work. Now then:

This is the Third Street tunnel:
TSS

This is the Second Street tunnel:
SST

This is what they elected to build:

SST2000
Hence:
FancifulBH

Got it? It’s the Second Street tunnel with Angels Flight next to it. And other Third Street whatnot atop. Some of it, anyhow.

This is no mere clickety-clack of computer, or making of matte painting (do people still do those?), this was built:

tunnelofyore

1924 looked just like 2004…

sstunderconstruction

Yes, I find this peternaturally exciting, but then, I need to get out more. In any event:

fancifulsmaller

 

 

 

 

Let’s again turn our attention to AtD‘s world of Third and Hill, 1933.

 

3HCrock

Here then is your standard pre-June 1908 Crocker Mansion shot. There’s the Crock, the observation tower, no Elks gate of course. Down from the Crocker there’s the Nelson House and the Ferguson house. On the east side of the street, in descending order, the Hillcrest, the Sunshine Apartments, the McCoy House, and the St. Helena Sanitarium.

elksahoyWhat I find really intriguing in Ask the Dust’s interpretation is the inclusion of the six-bay arched entry to Angels Flight, up top on Olive Street (you can see four of the open bays because the two on the left were closed in for the ticket booth). This pavilion would naturally butt up against the Hillcrest, but because the tunnel below is now so wide, there exists this odd empty area. The six-bay pavilion up top also thrusts us into an all the more peculiar place within the time-space continuum; it only existed between 1910 and 1914. While the Crocker Mansion existed before 1908. And the here-absent Observation Tower was not removed until 1938, five years after the Ask the Dust shot was “taken.”

So why use the Second Street tunnel and not the Third? I have a possible explanation for this. Here is a passage from the book:

I took the steps down Angel’s Flight to Hill Street: a hundred and forty steps, with tight fists, frightened of no man, but scared of the Third Street Tunnel, scared to walk through it—claustrophobia.

So there you have it. They couldn’t build the Third Street tunnel because Bandini’s character was scared of…so they built the…OK, so there was a time when everyone was coked out of their skulls and something like that could have occured. But nowadays there’s oversight, and bottom lines, and so on. Right?

But go back to the Ask the Dust image. The (pre-1933) Ferguson home down on the street by Angels Flight is sort of correct, though its gable faced at an angle to the street. And where is the entry arch to Angels Flight, pre-1910 or post? The buildings on the other side of the street are entirely fanciful…vaguely correct in their massing, but that’s about it. The Hillcrest never had bay windows. The McCoy house wasn’t double gabled—and the Sunshine Apts are gone, presumably so that the Sanitarium could be shoved up the hill.

In theory Gassner made a conscious aesthetic decision to go with the Crocker because it played better visually. Or there was an unpaid intern who saw a stack of postcards and slapped this together.

whatthe
tookabath

 

 

(Someone apparently saw an image of the Bath Block, once on the SW corner of Fifth and Hill.)

 

 

 

walkin

It doesn’t seem to bother Bandini much that he lives in a counterfactual alternate time universe. (Also, the Confederacy won, and because of that we have gills. Perhaps, rather than being doomed to an episode of Sliders, Bandini’s existence in this new world of speculative fiction where the Crocker survives is more akin to Delenda Est, and isn’t, therefore, you know, that bad?)
cominhome
notonhillWhat’s also interesting is that Bandini doesn’t actually live on Bunker Hill. The Alta Loma slopes down to Hill Street, in the middle of the 300 block—to the right of the St. Paul neon.

Back in the day, in the 300 block, that St. Paul Hotel was the site of the Western Mutual Life Bldng, the Alta Loma where the Hotel Columbia stood.

lookdownthird

A shot from the Graf:

viewfromthegrafzep

The entrance to the tunnel is on the right; the Alta Loma, bottom center.

Let us note too that while they built this:
gatesofhell

gateindistance

It gets barely a nod in the film. (Probably because while they constructed a working PE Red Car that got lots of camera time, there were no Olivet or Sinai.) Nevertheless, it’s all the more effective when we’re not hit over the head with the thing.

 

 

 

 

I don’t even want to discuss the unexplainable “flying in” opening credits—which, of course, is exactly what I’m going to do. So we’re flying in, and Bunker Hill has all of, oh, nine structures, and Bandini’s Alta Loma on Third is one of them, which we recognize as 512 West Second Street, once just above the Second Street tunnel:

flyingin1

flyingincloser

almostthere

altawho

I could go on and on (haven’t even deconstructed Third Street) but think I’ve made my point: weird, and enjoyably so. It’s not that the sets were treif out of lack of effort. They had the opportunity to rebuild Bunker Hill from the Ground Up, something never attempted before and will likely never happen again (until I’m given thirty-six acres and a drunken bank president), and I commend them for doing most impressive work:

impressive

(The first rule of any period LA picture: when in doubt, stick City Hall in there.)

hello

cityhallvigilant
Yes, impressive, impressive work. Now consider, if all had been perfect, what would I have had to write about?

fromthefutureguy

 

 

I should point out as well that the costuming was first-rate (Albert Wolsky won the Oscar for Bugsy).

 

 

Bet when you got up this morning you weren’t wondering whether you’d see Arturo Bandini with his Discman today.

 

 

 

 

 

For more on Fante and Bunker Hill, ask a teacher or librarian. Or better yet, get on the bus.

Speaking of CGI, what’s next on deck? Again starring our City Hall, CGI removing modernity like debridement.changy
Yes, Changeling. Which yeah, I’ll see in the theater, but won’t be as good as Choke, because it’s about a woman yelling “Give me back my son!” and also because they shot it in San Bernardino and San Dimas.

changebackalready

I get so tired of hearing about you can’t shoot old LA because there’s no old LA left in which to shoot (yes, I know they’re not actually just sloppy and lazy; it’s just a disingenuous way to get around verbalizing that it’s cheaper to shoot in fill-in-the-blank). But give me a camera and some crazy people and twelve dollars I’ll make you the best damn Bunker Hill movie yet.

2nd St. tunnel 1923, TICOR/Pierce Collection, University of Southern California; Alta Vista, Bath Block, 215 W 2nd, 2nd St tunnel 1960, Arnold Hylen Collection, California History Section, California State Library; I especially want to thank Jon, Lead Fabricator for AtD’s Art Department and his collection of images without which this post wouldn’t have been nearly as complete; Bandini and his Discman, and the Third and Hill mock up, come from here; the shot of the set from above is from here; super special thanks to the good people at Viacom/Paramount Motion Picture Group for not sending their thugs and/or lawyers after me, because they are I’m sure very nice people. Oh, I also stole screen grabs from that GE/Vivendi "Changeling" thingy. I am so headed for an earthen dam.

Suicide Writ Large at Clay Central

blammo

Before the Community Redevelopment Association swung its scythe across Bunker Hill, one building tried to do itself in. This structure was by all evidence a living, cursed thing, and like the House of Usher disappearing into the tarn, it acted to remove itself from this world. Shades of the Overlook Hotel—someone or something used the old exploding boiler trick to force this assembly of apartments from its supramortal coil.

I speak of the Hotel Central, aka the Clayton Apartments, aka the Lorraine Hotel. Change the names all you want, there’s something wrong at 310 Clay Street. Kim’s numerous posts about the place attest to that.

gagschool
The spot was a trouble magnet even before the hotel’s erection. Back when 310 was a double dwelling, it attracted kerchief-weilding lady-gagging burglars.

By 1910 the Hotel Lorraine stands on the site and Jerome Hite elects to shoot his wife in the neck.

Come 1914, proprietor-of-the-place Claude Mathewson—gets, what, tired of watching the walls bleed? listening to the screaming faces jutting from the washbasin mirror?—elects to pop two new holes into his lovely wife and one into his own head.

Shortly after, in that room where try as one might the blood just never quite washes out, a real estate titan is taken down for sordidness.

goodstart
A year later, the establishment, now named the Clayton, has become a veritable den of iniquity. The new proprietor is a Mrs. Florence Cheney. According to her, the property is owned by Leon Levy, “about whom no one concerned could give any information.”

goodstart

wellpassoverthat
Mrs. Cheney shows up again as a witness in the 1916 Percy Tugwell trial; Percy robbed and murdered Senator’s-daughter Maud Kennedy, and while Mrs. Cheney asserted that Maud may have committed suicide because she was being threatened by boxer Louis “Cyclone Thompson” Astosky, her character and thus credibility were attacked mercilessly.

Leon Levy decides to get out of the 310 Clay business after changing its name again to the Hotel Central.

Things stay quiet at 310 Clay for the next couple decades or so…acts of ill fortune befall its residents elsewhere.
maceydayparade
centrallooms
In 1922, for example, Frank Macey, son of a wealthy Phoenix shoe dealer, dropped from sight for a week after staying in the Central. He ended up as a nameless bloody pulp in County Hospital, hovering in and out of consciousness, until at last identified as the prodigal Frank.

In 1923, Sander Serrano, 22 year-old graduate of USC, was playing pool at 155 East First when he was accused of jostling another player. For this he nearly lost his arm to his penknife-wielding opponent, who severed a slew of arteries and stabbed him in the throat.

A 1936 beer parlor fight at 121 South Main resulted in the stabbing of Hotel Central resident Walter Paine.

And so it goes, until the hotel could take no more, or had claimed enough souls, or something otherwise unknowable to mere man.

alamogordo
Mid-day, November 27, 1953. O. B. Reeder, a 73 year-old retired printer, was bent over a table preparing Christmas gifts for mailing. Houses of Hell hating the Christmas season and all, the boiler exploded in rage, sending Reeder’s door across the room and into his back. Directly across the hall, from where resident Gus Poulas’ guardian angel had guided him elsewhere, the room was completely wrecked, all tumbled furniture and great cakes of plaster torn from the walls.

The boiler room itself was obliterated into a mass of twisted metal and piles of timber and concrete wall blocks. Plaster from walls and ceilings was concussed to floors throughout the hotel. The windows and doors in the first three floors were cracked or blown out by the explosion, which attracted a large lunchtime crowd of spectators to the Hill Street section of the Grand Central Market. (The back of the hotel towered over a Hill St. parking lot:)
hillstblues
Making the incident all the eerier is owner/manager William Ogawa’s statement that while the boilers were under repair, he was certain that gas to the boiler room had been turned off when the boilers went out of order several days previous.

In any event, everything was rebuilt, doors rehung, windows reglazed. Less than a decade later the scythe swung and all that was 310 Clay was at the bottom of a landfill, the CRA accomplishing what the Lorraine/Clayton/Central couldn’t do itself.

But remember what I said about the spot being a trouble magnet even before the hotel’s erection? Is there some sort of Poltergeist-style burial-ground whatnot at work here? Flash forward a hundred years from our tale of the simple double residence.

310 Clay at lucky number 13:

13ghosts

The site of 310 on the Ghost Street that is Clay:
ghoststreet

On that very spot. February 1, 2001. What spanner of the underworld was tossed into the heavenly works of a newly-located Angels Flight?

This is the ground zero of Clay Street. Clay Street, the street that had to be destroyed. The street whose very name—clay—symbolizes (via Nebuchadnezzar’s dream) the division of an empire, and the end of a kingdom.

Hotel Cental photographs courtesy Arnold Hylen Collection, California History Section, California State Library

Newpaper images from the Los Angeles Times 

The Elks and Their Annex

crackerOf all the oft-pictured sites of Los Angeles, Angels Flight is certainly up there amongst them, as who doesn’t go for those Oldey-Timey images? There’s probably postcards and ceramic trivets and refrigerator magnets featuring Angels Flight from here to Toledo to Timbuktu, and people probably prefer a pre-1908, pre-Elks Club Building image of the Hill topped with the Crocker Mansion because, again, Oldey-Timey.

So what of the Elks Lodge, which supplanted the Crocker (having its 100th anniversary demolition party in a few weeks), that squarish building noted more for giving the world the Angels Flight gateway than for being, well, a squarish building?
xmarksthespot
There were in fact two BPOE buildings. The main building fronting Clay Street, at 60×90′, contained an auditorium, dance hall, dormitories and offices; the Annex above at 300 South Olive, on the site of the June ’08-demolished Crocker (where District Deputy Grand Exalted Ruler John Whichner placed Elks Lodge No. 99 roster, and copies of the September 2, 1908 newspapers in the cornerstone), was 54×64′, and full of reading and writing rooms, plus a billiard hall and card parlors—everything a fraternal organization needed.

At least for a little while. By 1925 the Elks had built much larger and schmantzier digs over by Westlake park.

300 South Olive wouldn’t go to waste, though, as the Elks’ brothers-in-fraternity, the Loyal Order of Moose, took over the buildings. They covered "BPOE" on the aforementioned Angels Flight archway and set about putting a lot of boxers to work. 1931:
rockmsockmrobots
And 1951:

JC

No, not that Jimmy Carter.

The Moose hung on, and kept the building til the end, despite it becoming the Royal Club:
royalty
Nice quoins.

In September of 1962 it was just one more structure on the business end of the CRA’s bulldozers:

hallfallsIn its small theater—now roofless and with one wall gone because the workmen’s hammer— tattered remnants of a once-fancy curtain hang over the stage.

An old-timer on the hill, Austin Blackburn, 59, of 529 W 3rd St, said the building was a lodge meeting place when he took up residence at the now-demolished Cumberland hotel, across the street at 243 S Olive, 35 years ago. “The Royal, and all the rest of the hill, was a wonderful place then,” he reminisced. “They used to put on free shows and boxing matches in the theater for the folks who lived here. Later it was a dance hall, and during World War II they made a hotel out of it. At one time boxers used to train in a small gymnasium there.”

demoworld

The question being, of course, what became of the cornerstone filled with 1908 newspapers and the Elks’ club roster?

Crocker Mansion image courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection

Annex image courtesy Arnold Hylen Collection, California History Section, California State Library

Newspaper images from the Los Angeles Times

The Crocker Mansion – 300 South Olive

Crocker Mansion

At the turn of the 20th Century, no building dominated Bunker Hill like the Crocker Mansion. Perched high at the corner of Third and Olive, the imposing 3-story Victorian structure overlooked the emerging metropolis for a mere 22 years. Though its reign over Bunker Hill was short, the Crocker Mansion remains an indelible part of early Los Angeles history.

Designed by architect John Hall and erected in 1886, the ornate residence was built by Mrs. Margaret E. Crocker at a cost of $45,000 (a little over a million in today’s dollars). Margaret was the widow of Edwin Bryant Crocker, a California Supreme Court Justice, who with his brother, Charles, amassed a fortune in the railroad industry. Following her husband’s death in 1875, Mrs. Crocker became a known social and civic leader who had donated the family’s impressive art collection to the city of Sacramento. At the time she commissioned the Los Angeles residence, Mrs. Crocker owned homes in Sacramento, Lake Tahoe, San Francisco and New York.

Crocker Mansion View from Olive

In 1887, the mansion became the center of a scandal when Alma Ashe, Margaret Crocker’s granddaughter, was kidnapped from the residence.

LA Times Headline

Two-year-old Alma was the daughter of Amy Crocker and playboy Robert Porter Ashe, who had previously scandalized the family in 1882 by eloping. Rumored to have married Miss Crocker for the family riches, Amy soon grew weary of her groom, who spent plenty of time and money at the racetrack. The marriage soon went south and in April 1887, Ashe marched into the Crocker Mansion and marched out with his daughter, who was being watched by relatives while her mother and grandmother were out of town. Ashe and the child holed up in the St. Elmo Hotel on Main Street for a couple of days until a judge formally ordered he hand the child over to the Crockers. Ashe claimed he was protecting his daughter from her unfit mother, while Amy claimed her husband was attempting to gain leverage over her by imprisoning the child. Ultimately, grandma took Alma to live in Europe until she was old enough to decide which parent she preferred to live with. The Ashe-Crocker union was officially dissolved a few months later, and Amy (later going by Aimee) would ignore the incident altogether in her 1936 memoir …And I’d Do it Again.

Crocker Mansion view from Clay

In 1891, the Crocker Mansion became a boarding house/hotel, though far ritzier than the faded Bunker Hill boarding rooms of the 1940s/50s. Though Mrs. Crocker was no longer residing there, she still maintained ownership of the stately structure that played host to many a member of society’s elite. Even as a commercial property, rooms were always advertised as located in the “Crocker Mansion.”

LA Times Headline

Construction on the Third Street tunnel began in 1900, and Mrs. Crocker filed a petition claiming that the mansion was endangered by the street tunnel which was “unsafe, improperly constructed and a veritable death trap.” According to the Los Angeles Times, “the walls of her house are settling, the foundations giving way and the plaster is falling off…Unless something is done, the building is liable to topple into a hole.” The house never did topple and was alive and well in 1902 when Angels Flight began operating and dropping riders off practically on the Crocker doorstep.

Crocker Mansion Before the Tunnel
Before and after the Third Street Tunnel
Crocker Mansion next to tunnel and Angels Flight

Margaret Crocker died in 1901 and possession of the mansion was assumed by her children, except for hell-cat Aimee who had been left out of the will. The mansion was sold in 1905 for $50,000 along with the land that ran 120 feet on Olive and 150 feet on Third, down to Clay Street. The Crocker Mansion subsequently closed its doors as a boarding house and plans were soon drawn up to renovate the residence for use as social quarters for the Elk’s, who were putting up a new building on the eastern portion of the property. When the frame of the “old” house was deemed too weak, the Crocker Mansion was scheduled for demolition, to be replaced by a reinforced concrete structure.

The Victorian building was razed in June 1908 and the cornerstone for the Elk’s Annex was laid the following September.

All photos courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection.

Van Vanishes

Van Blarcom

Location: 255 South Bunker Hill Avenue
Date: October 31, 1904

It was a week ago when newspaperman W.D. Van Blarcom, Jr., known as Van,  helped wife Emily, a Wyoming gal and a gifted china painter, onto the white, ascending Angels’ Flight carriage and made a most distressing speech: "I can’t be good; I want to be bad. I shall be bad. My brothers and sisters have always said that I was the black sheep in the family. Now I will prove to them that I am. Good-bye. Go home and wait for me."

She did as she was told and went back to their three-room apartment in the Alta Vista, but there has been no word from Van since and the lady is half mad with worry and regret. When visited by a reporter she was being closely watched by friends who feared she would make good on her threats of suicide.

Her story: "My life has become a blank. It is as if I had run against a stone wall. I shall commit suicide. If only he would come back—if only he would let me know why he went—if only I could go to him. And yet they say he has done this thing before. I have reported his disappearance to the police and they can get no trace of him. One minute I believe he has committed suicide and the next I believe there is a woman in the case. Yes—there must be a woman in the case. But in any event, there is nothing left for me. I shall take my life. About a week ago I was arranging some of his clothes in a closet, when a bundle of letters fell on the floor. One of them was from a woman in San Francisco, in which she wrote of a violent attachment for my husband, and added: ‘I suppose you are having a lovely time with you —.’ I am the blank! Think of it! We had a little tiff over this letter and in taking it away from me he tore my arm with his nails, see, here is the sore place yet. Then when I agreed to burn it up and he saw me do so he swore with uplifted hand an oath to his dead mother than nothing but death could separate us. That was just a week ago today. Last Monday he was very despondent and did not come home as promised, and I went down to the newspaper office where he was working and tried to cheer him up. Then I went to Secretary Stevens of the Elks lodge and had him telephone my husband and ask him what was the matter. ‘Everything is all right now; tell her to come over here at once,’ he answered. I went and that is when he took me to the foot of the Angels’ Flight and told me that he wanted to be bad. Finally he sad that he would come home at 3 o’clock in the morning, but he never came."

The couple married last Christmas in Salt Lake, three months after Van’s divorce (Emily was four years divorced from a Mr. Miner), and came to Los Angeles via Portland and San Francisco. They choose this town for the climate, which they hoped would aid Van’s lung ailment (he said he’d been shot through the chest while representing the Associated Press in Cuba during the war with Spain). He quickly got work on the Herald, but after ten days moved over to the Examiner, and was so employed at the time of his disappearance. Police doubt he’s killed himself, although friends say he spoke often of doing so, since his last act before vanishing was to pawn Emily’s $50 gold watch. But as he was an Elk, the brothers have taken up a collection to pay the passage of the destitute bride back to her friends in Utah. Where, by the by, he abandoned his last wife in just the same way he did this one.

Emily said that Van was related to Lincoln portraitist A.J. Conant and to the wealthy St. Louis Van Blarcoms—a branch with a blackish sheep of its own.

We hear no more of him until 1936, when an obituary appears for an old newspaperman of the right name, approximate age and career history, passing from arthritis in Bakersfield and leaving an unnamed widow, a son and a daughter. Was the widow Emily, or some later wife who was better able to salt this bounder’s wings?

*note: Angels’ Flight has its oft-missing possessive in the 1904 article in the Los Angeles Times from which this entry is adapted.