Feudal-Aristocratic Drag: Neo-Liberal Erotic Imaginaries of California as Counterrevolutionary Heterotopia in The Mask of Zorro

LJ Frazier and Deborah Cohen

Flirtatious repartee and sensuous swish of swords: gliding to and fro on soft horse stable hay, the upstart peasant, now-masked swordsman, adroitly slices away the feisty noble-maiden’s chemise. Featured in trailers, this became an iconic scene from The Mask of Zorro (Martin Campbell, 1998, Steven Spielberg executive producer). Sizzling cross-class desire inflames aspirations for wealth, nobility, and power in a California of great estates, contested political control, and servile commoners.

California began the nineteenth century on the periphery of the Spanish Empire; in 1821, it was incorporated into a newly independent, but politically unstable Mexico, vacillating between monarchy and republic; and, then, in 1848, sold to the United States in the aftermath of a war of territorial conquest. This is the setting for The Mask of Zorro. One of many revisions of Mark of Zorro (1920, one of the first United Artists films), Mask foregrounds the intergenerational dynamics underlying the Zorro theme of rivalry between nobleman-turned-bandit and corrupt officials. The main protagonists in this rivalry are: the elder Zorro, landed gentleman Diego de la Vega, who avenges his own twenty-year imprisonment, shooting of wife Esperanza, and kidnapping of daughter Elena; don Rafael Montero, former Spanish governor, who carried out these acts, now aided by young U.S. southern mercenary, Captain Harrison Love; and Alejandro Murrieta, young orphaned thief of ambiguous ethnic parentage, whom Diego transforms into a gentleman-avenger to inherit the role of Zorro. This is a tale of aspirational nobility, dynastic power. Such aspirations set in California-between-empires fantastically epitomize the ideological space of the neoliberal 1990s: a cradle for a patronizing elite caste unfettered by state oversight.[1] 

To see this filmic neoliberal space in Mask, we recall Michel Foucault’s “heterotopias” –actual spaces that exist apart from, but always in relation to, the “real space of Society.” To illustrate: the horse stable (above) is a special kind of space within the class demarcations of the great-estate–unlike, say, a chicken coop or milk barn—wherein refined equestrian skills permit both an elite woman and a lower-class man to interact, triangulated via sensuous animals, in ways not sanctioned in other estate spaces, say, the dining hall. This is further illustrated in another stable scene wherein Elena (unknowingly) meets her long-lost father (Diego) posing as a servant. Moreover, while scholars have argued that film is intrinsically heterotopic; this particular film evokes quintessential Hollywood tropes to constitute California itself as a heterotopia, epitomizing late 20th century neoliberalism.[2]

 Mask’s visually-resplendent heterotopia presents something of a puzzle with respect to Jacques Ranciere’s assertion that representational politics impact possibilities for democratic spaces, namely, a plentitude of forms that correlates with plurality: what, then, are the representational practices of the unraveling of democratic formations under the guise of noblesse oblige? Historicizing its 1990s lens, we see Mask’s explicit counterrevolutionary politics.

Mapping Kingly Enterprise as Counterrevolutionary Heterotopia

Mask overlays three instantiations of heterotopia: first, within the storyline, we have visually-constituted heterotopias—specifically, maps and painterly images from a prop portrait to shots that themselves index particular nineteenth-century European/American genres and iconic paintings; second, the use of cinematic clichés to index classic films and genres that points to the ways that film as a medium is a heterotopia and this film as a synecdoche for Hollywood; and third, in ideological content, Mask offers a political imaginary of a stateless transnational California under the domain of a benevolent, racialized creole elite. Clintonian neoliberalism required such feudal fantasies which draw on elements of nineteenth-century California, what Foucault calls “slices of time,” and other available California tropes in a racialized erotic economy of images extolling counterrevolutionary transformation.

The counterrevolutionary heft of the film comes from its layering of heterotopias: neoliberal California as heterotopia, film itself as heterotopia, and particular aspects within the film as heterotopias. The counterrevolutionary lens refracts through nineteenth-century revolutions; the very shift from Empire to Nation that destabilized elite alliances and left unsettled the political form that new polities would take: republican or monarchical. We extrapolate the dimensions of gender and sexuality in Benedict Anderson’s insights about the cultural work involved in political struggles of the nineteenth century, to understand what was at stake during the 1990s heyday of neoliberalism.

Shot during the apex of neoliberalism–and President Clinton’s rhetoric of shared prosperity in unsustainable and lopsided economic growth—Mask’s heterotopia is a space of capitalist “feudal-aristocratic drag” (Anderson, 153): bucolic landed estates where creole (of European descent) settler-elite employ and protect dark-skinned subordinates, largely coded as indigenous and mestizo through language and dress. The story and the cinematic language through which it is told might be cliché. Nonetheless—indeed, because of these clichés—it maps the collective desires of those who prospered handsomely and those who aspired to wealth in the 1990s economic boom.

While Foucault suggests that some heterotopias may preserve transformative possibilities, our reading of Mask posits a counterrevolutionary transformation. [3] It disarms its viewer through tongue-in-check humor, mobilizing cinematic formulas that reference prior Zorro films (especially but not only the sword-fighting), action films (Campbell, having directed a Bond film, here offers Bond-esque closing credits: billowing plumes of slow-motion flame set to a pop song), and Westerns (for example, Shane, in the use of the young Alejandro and Joaquin’s witnessing of Zorro’s heroics at the outset of the film, and broadly, in the use of desert landscapes). This filmic indexing underscores the cinematic work of the film as a heterotopia. That is, although this retelling of the Zorro legend is fantastical and enjoyable, it is not merely escapist pleasure. Rather, the film reflects and contributes to a counterrevolutionary neoliberal project: dismantling a state nominally proactive in its defense of the (albeit limited) redistribution (away from the wealthy) of resources necessary for basic conditions of daily life; unregulated minimally-taxed private economic schemes; and the accumulation of wealth and conspicuous consumption by a small class of people whose incomes exceeded thousand-fold those of the majority of workers.

Within the film, neoliberal heterotopia is rendered visually in maps as props that overtly configure polity spatially, as well as through the staging of painterly images—in particular, landscapes, portraits, and counterrevolutionary framings of revolutionary iconography. Whereas political philosopher Jacque Ranciere connects representationally-heterogeneous and political-liberatory spaces, the visually-rich range of images here indexes a political economy increasingly oriented around the rent-seeking interests of capitalist elites and others aspiring to wealth and power. Indeed, the heterotopias visually reference economic and political maneuvers  since the 1970s, that made possible President Reagan’s rolling back of the Keynesian state and gains made by anticolonial and antiracist movements, the groundwork for Clintonian neoliberalism. These 1990s counterrevolutionary maneuvers required counterrevolutionary heterotopias to shape a hospitable terrain for such drastic re-makings.

Two key maps establish heterotopic California. One is a gigantic rendering of pre-U.S.-Alta California (today’s California, marked in reddish brown), Baja California and the rest of Mexico (in green), and the United States (in yellow); labeled Mapa Reino California (map of the Kingdom of California), this cloth map of an ostensibly-empty capacious space covers an entire wall in the courtyard of don Rafael’s hacienda. The other is a portable topographical map; hand-drawn on leather, it designates the built environment, with road and waterways, local haciendas (with Spanish names), mountain ranges, with a compass indicating directions; also clearly marked is El Dorado, the gold mine shown in the film; hence its role as a treasure map of Alta California’s riches.

These maps appear in two critical sequences. In the first, the viewer is introduced to the wall map; in the second, a long set of scenes, both maps are used. The large map situates the nation as open and available, disconnected from a state political project; while the smaller treasure map designates riches rife for elite taking. California is made a terrain of conquest in service not of state-building, but of transnational market desires.

The first map scene is set in don Rafael’s courtyard. Various dons, dressed in their finest attire, are shown seated around a large King Arthur-style roundtable, their eyes trained on Rafael; Alejandro, who has just gained entrance to this group, stands apart. After some musings over why he has gathered them together, Montero announces, “I give you the Republic of California.” He motions to one of his henchmen, who releases a large cloth covering the courtyard wall, revealing the map. Montero tells the dons of his plan to buy California from Mexican president Santa Anna, who is then preoccupied with defending the country from an encroaching United States. When the dons suggest the infeasibility of such a plan—that they do not possess enough money to buy all of California—Montero informs them that this is no preposterous idea. They are to buy it, he tells them, with gold from Santa Anna’s own mine. One of the dons derides, “You are living in a dream, Montero.” And Rafael responds, “Then why don’t we all live in the same dream together?” Bars of gold are presented for the dons to see. They are stamped not with the Mexican seal, the actual owner of the mine, but with the seal of the Spanish crown. The camera then pans over to re-frame Rafael squarely in the center of the map. The discourse of the dream here culminates Alejandro’s successful effort earlier in this sequence of scenes to ingratiate himself (unbeknownst to Rafael, as a spy) into Rafael’s camp saying, “I am a man in search of a vision.” In prominently scripting this language of dream and vision (an imaginary world apart but in relation to), the film, in effect, testifies to the importance of heterotopias for political projects.

Map of the Kingdom of California. Rafael (Stuart Wilson) and his fellow noblemen aim to buy California from Mexico with Mexico’s own gold. Courtesy of Zorro Productions.

In this space of contending nation-states, the United States and Mexico, Montero seeks to privatize California; it is to become a commodity bought with its own flesh (gold garnered from the depths of the earth). Thus, this gold constitutes a key to mapping neoliberal heterotopia: consistent with the logic of finance capitalism, gold is perversely the ultimate fetish as currency, capital, and capitalist rent “naturally” available for exploitation.

This scene works because it invokes an imagined-real California past. Foucault notes that heterotopias often entail a sense of a slice of time. Indeed, here we find the use of a past not to make a historical claim, nor to create a nostalgic sense of the good old days, but rather to enrich a sense of a fantasy parallel possibility (not unlike and partaking in the Fantasy genre of Arthurian tales). Set in a California prior to the Gold Rush (1849), the U.S.-Mexico War (1846-48), and the post-war purchase by the United States of nearly a third of northern Mexico (including California) for the bargain basement price of fifteen million dollars, the map-as-prop constitutes this place as largely open, unpopulated, and culturally Spanish with a significant indigenous population coded in the film through the presence of non-Spanish speaking people, such as Elena’s nursemaid, wearing indigenous clothing and a small mestizo population who we see mostly as grunt soldiers (Lie, 492).[4] In this sense, the concept of heterotopias is particularly useful for understanding the ideological work of the film’s setting: to conjure not an ideal past to which we should return, but rather an allegory of where neo-liberalism can take us.

Treasure map of California mine and surrounding territory. Courtesy of Zorro Productions.

Not surprisingly, the historical context invoked is more complex, a complexity which impacted the very political debates of 1990s California into which the film implicitly enters. In addition to the eleven Spanish families who in 1781 established Los Angeles, Spaniards founded missions throughout the region (1769-1820): seats of local power established to convert indigenous people to Catholicism, while protecting the already converted from attacks by groups unwilling to submit to Spanish dominance. While Mexico’s 1821 independence ousted the Spanish, war left now-Mexican California at the periphery of a state weak, fractious, and distant. Mexico’s state changed in form, from part of a colonial/imperial state to (theoretically) sovereign nation-state. Benedict Anderson attributes the work of this transformation to “creole pioneers,” who differed from those of Mother country’s original settlers not by race or ethnicity or language, but by place of birth. He sees in the Americas the great historical shift that made the nation-state the paradigm for political formation—a weakened empire. This weakened empire, he argues, enabled these so-called pioneers to seize the political opening and create both the political form of the nation and the very political philosophical justification—Liberalism (laissez-faire governance, market-facilitating infrastructure)—that would best accommodate emerging industrial capitalism. The role of creole-settlers of the Spanish post-colonial world (of which California was a part) in establishing the form-philosophy duo is confirmed in Doris Sommers’ analysis of nineteenth-century novels as “family romance.” According to Sommer, these pioneers ideologically married the interests of the landed gentry (represented in these novels by the plantation owner’s daughter) with those of the emerging financial- and trade-oriented elite (often represented as an upstart, self-made suitor).[5]

Also left in Spain’s wake was a particular racial hierarchy that situated indigenous peasants on the bottom, Spanish and creole-settlers (those of Spanish descent born in the Americas) at the top, and mestizos (the progeny of Spanish and Indian pairings) in the middle. Indians were largely dismissed, while mestizos would later have the possibility of tenuous incorporation into the post-revolutionary Mexican nation. With the U.S.-Mexico War and the subsequent integration of California into the United States, this social hierarchy would come into conflict with a U.S. white (free)/black (slave)/Indian (past) racial system. This happened, especially, during the Gold Rush, when Native Americans, Mexicans, Mexican Americans, and people from the eastern United States as well as Russia, Chile, and China flooded the region, changing San Francisco into a boomtown; other towns were rapidly chartered and California’s first constitutional convention soon held. By the late 1840s, then, the region catapulted from agrarian backwater to international economic hotbed, destination of mass migration, and the ultimate site of U.S. Manifest Destiny.

When Mask was produced (late 1990s), California, once again, found itself at the center of profound economic and social reconfigurations, this time critical to the constellation of the neoliberal state: sustained and increasing immigration, especially from Latin America and the global south; outmigration of capital and capitalists; and attacks on—and the unraveling of—the former model government bureaucracy and the educational system. Some reconfigurations were exacerbated by the federal government’s reorientation toward supposedly free trade and personal responsibility, announced in the passage in 1994 of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and welfare reform. The latter removed thousands of U.S. citizens from the welfare rolls, made support contingent on certain behaviors, and funneled these former welfare-supported (majority) women into low wage jobs (with an attendant and broader downward wage pressure). NAFTA devastated factory workers and professionals in the United States; it also ravaged small farmers in Mexico, making migration to the United States, and California specifically, the logical option. In turn, California reacted to this mass influx of immigrants and disruptive economic landscape by passing Proposition 187, turning teachers, police officers, healthcare workers, and clergy into unofficial arms of a state, to find and criminalize unauthorized immigrants. Proposition 187 was eventually found unconstitutional, and California is today the nation’s most ethnically diverse state and around 40 percent Latinx. These changes led to the re-emergence of an assimilationist nationalism and anti-immigrant sentiment—some U.S.-born Latinxs, like their non-Latinx compatriots, favored harsh sanctions (Newton 2000). Unfolding at the highpoint of Clintonian neoliberalism, these virulent anti-immigrant movements occurred in relation to a successful sexual counterrevolution (Herzog 2008). We see in this convergence the alliance between sexual counterrevolution and the neoliberal political economy’s increasing investment in a multiculturalism where particular, eroticized incarnations of ethnic difference took on market currency. Tapping into an imagined past understood as real and connecting it to an imagined present enables Mask to work as an allegory for neoliberalism and neoliberal relations, and California to constitute a heterotopia.

Re-making this imagined past real relies on sounds and images of “the West,” ones borrowed from Hollywood Westerns and swashbucklers: the crisp sound of drums and guitars of flamenco music, the sound of boots across a wooden floor, the swoosh of the sword, the quick repeated taps of a flamenco dancer; the long shot of a crowd of peasants as they stand awaiting the execution of those pulled randomly from the crowd, tight shots of tussles between soldiers and peasants struggling against this arbitrary power, the close-ups of peasants shouting for the captives’ freedom, the Spanish flag being ripped from its pole, dirt kicked up as men on horseback ride in, an aerial view of the blindfolded peasants roped to poles, and don Rafael standing on the balcony looking down monarchically at the yelling crowd. Mask’s introductory captions, opening scenes of struggle and discord, and panoramic views confirm California as territorially expansive, open, and ruled by an illegitimate leader, don Rafael Montero, who governs through violence and arbitrary power. Gestured through the cinematic use of “the West,” California is made an available uninhabited space—a frontier, of sorts—full of dust, small shacks, mountains, open stretches of land, and blue slightly clouded skies. This West, like the Westerns it references, is peopled with dark, mestizo peasants, largely poor, humble, and leaderless. They tread lightly on a landscape where local strongmen or soldiers arbitrarily interfere on behalf of a faraway power. That is, these people and this place were open, virgin, and un-stated at the start. Spielberg relies on these quick shots to mark California as both without a legitimate leader and in need of a benevolent patriarch; it becomes recognizable as “the West”—that is, the United States—while the movie still marks it as Mexican territory.

In a second, long set of scenes, the climax of the film, both map-props –the treasure map of El Dorado and the political map of California– figure prominently. The sequence opens with Alejandro’s return to don Rafael’s hacienda, this time dressed as Zorro; he comes in search of the treasure map to the gold mine to which the dons and he, then blindfolded, had earlier been escorted. Hidden from view on the ceiling, Alejandro extends his sword to spear the treasure map from Rafael’s desk as he and his American henchman Capitan Love turn their backs in worried discussion of Zorro’s intentions. Alejandro then presents himself as Zorro and fends off Love, Montero, and Montero’s soldiers, as the fighting moves from the corridor to the courtyard. At one point in this swordfight sequence, he jumps up on Montero’s roundtable for a fighting advantage. Culminating the duel, Alejandro cuts loose the large map of California, releasing it from its mounts on the wall with flicks of his sword. The giant map floats down, enveloping the attacking soldiers and Montero, allowing Alejandro to escape. Maps, as images of (un)marked landscapes, figure as neoliberal heterotopias—they are indications of the nation under conquest, productively disconnected from any state political project.

Kingship, here condensed in the figure of Rafael Montero, lends itself to a heterotopic political imaginary because the elision of the noble body and the territory constitutes a place protected from historical temporality and everyday political contests: “The king is dead, long live the king.” Containing Rafael’s and Love’s ambitions under the giant map while Alejandro eluded capture, suggests a defanged nobility disciplined for the renewed monarchical market project—the nation is only the body of the king; no state interference needed, even as the new benevolent patriarch, now embodied by Alejandro as Zorro (whitened and gentrified in his training process) is ready to take his place. In this neoliberal heterotopia, the monarchical fantasy is not in question, only who has rightful claim to that throne and its privatized territory.

No industry glorified this fantasy of accumulation (or worried about the concomitant radical injustices it wrought) more than Hollywood. Indeed, in the “fantasy of free trade” (Dean 2009), Clintonian neoliberal “communicative capitalism” found particularly fertile soil in California’s entertainment industry. The free-trade expansionary moment brought about a revision in the Hollywood enterprise. While studios had historically marketed to other places films created for U.S. audiences, industry moguls now understood the need to make movies not just or even primarily for domestic consumption. To do this, films needed to incorporate themes and characters attractive to the rapidly expanding global markets (Jones, 13). This market re-envisioning grew out of a recognition that neoliberal policies had created a new transnational elite with the ready cash to consume their products. Not only did this elite lavishly enjoy the boom, they could now imagine themselves as and be transnational jetsetters. Moreover; elites reveled in seeing themselves reflected in the admiring, envious gaze of the wider populace (think Paris Hilton), the chimera of upward mobility through get-rich-quick schemes (think lotteries and casinos), television makeovers and celebrity benevolence (think Oprah and reality-TV stars), real estate, and other financial houses-of-cards (think Madoff).

Appealing to growing overseas audiences, in particular Latin America, necessitated re-conceiving race in movies. The Mask was part of a Hollywood neoliberal enterprise to refigure Hispanicity by promoting a market multiculturalism that whitens the category of Latino (Lie 2001). With Europeans cast elite Hispanic Californians, promotional interviews remade Spanish Antonio Banderas into a (white) Latino subject. In the 1990s, the U.S. government debuted demographic categories of “white Hispanic” and “non-Hispanic” white; creeping into U.S. popular culture at the same moment was the use of Latino as a designation for all Latin Americans (even in Latin America). Thus, for those seen as “white,” “Latino” offered an ethnic, as opposed to racial marker. This compounded the racialized erotics of promoting Banderas as a “Latin lover,” a long established designation for the (usually Anglo) men who played Zorro.

The Zorro franchise is very closely identified with Hollywood and its history—not only was The Mark of Zorro the fourth film made by United Artists, but the Zorro franchise has served as a century-long vehicle for romantic male stars (Williamson, 4).[6] In addition, Hollywood has often served as a synecdoche for California: massive highway system, housing and technology expansion, and huge influx of immigrants from Latin America identify it as both the future of the United States and the emblem, positive and negative, of neoliberalism. The map-props used in Mask re-instantiate an imagined Spanish California as a vast place of harmonious relations, even as they tie this imaginary to a neoliberal project.

Maps, as Benedict Anderson asserts, “profoundly shaped the way that the colonial state imagined its dominion—the nature of the human beings it ruled, the geography of its domain, and the legitimacy of its ancestry” as “institutions of power” upon which post-colonial nationalisms modeled themselves (64). Nationalist “dreams of racism” had their roots in class distinctions:, “[c]olonial racism was a major element in that conception of ‘Empire’ which attempted to weld dynastic legitimacy and national community” (150). Our reading of Mask suggests what happens when a postcolonial society embraces neoliberalism’s globalizations that require, like colonialism did before it, transnational elite class allegiances: neoliberal market-oriented mappings of heterotopias rely on a racialized visual grammar to instantiate the national demography, geography, and the legitimacy of the ruler.

Neoliberal Fantasy and Images of Counterrevolutionary Heterotopia

To further specify the political imaginary through which Zorro’s California served as a heterotopia for 1990s neoliberalism, we turn here to Anderson’s insights on the colonial genealogy of nationalism: in migrating to the colonies, Europeans of many levels could refashion themselves and approximate aristocratic lifestyles. This approximation—or the putting-on of a class disguise—creates a “tropical Gothic” where capitalism became a “feudal-aristocratic drag” with “dreams of rac[ial]” certainty of superiority vis-à-vis locals  that allowed a fondness for patria. In patriotic love of Empire or Nation, “what the eye is to the lover,” language is to a patriot (154). Anderson’s drag does not imply camp in the sense of a self-referential excessive costuming, but rather a kind of costuming to transform identity. The dubbing of this feudal styling underscores the artifice of newly elite colonials applying the style of an earlier era widely seen as the precursor of European capitalist imperialism. Refashioning themselves as, in their minds, quintessential aristocrats—that is, feudal lords—cemented elite allegiance to Empire and, later, to Nation. In emulating a by-then-nostalgic vision of European feudal lords and landscapes, colonial elites asserted an imperial and later transnational ideal-type of racialized class mode.

De la Vega estate. Courtesy of Zorro Productions.

Capitalism’s “feudal-aristocratic” (i.e.class) “drag” thrived in the 1990s, a moment when, ideologically-speaking, Free-Marketers subordinated the needs of Nation to those of Market. This class drag is not camp, but one positing the possibility of class transformation. Indeed, the gleeful camp of Zorro’s costume—mask, close-fitting black clothes, whip, sword, and all—might distract from earnest work of feudal-aristocratic drag, which required a thoroughly visual erotics in imagining neoliberal heterotopias. This visual language nostalgically evokes a creolized European nineteenth-century high-art-aesthetic: a set of inter-related movements in painting, mimetic or realist in approach, romantic in themes, and experimental with techniques maximizing optical perception and luminosity. This aesthetic was, perhaps, less Anderson’s “tropical gothic” than one celebrating the foundation of bucolic estates, noble lineages, and a feudal social order under the oversight of benevolent nobility. Indeed, Clintonian neoliberalism broke from its Reagan/Bush-1 predecessor by insisting that the economic expansion of the 1990s should expand prosperity for new, previously marginalized sectors.

Exploring visual aesthetics of heterotopias—implied but not elaborated in Foucault’s garden and mirror examples —we offer three key moments (among several) in the film where viewers are offered a painterly image: First, a bucolic landscape of Liberal/Neoliberal California under the care of a fiercely protective creole nobility; Second, a scene constituting the focus of all erotic drives, whose dynastic quality in its mode of feudal-aristocratic drag; and, third, one that transcends historical temporality. This fantasy content is aptly paralleled in mass media nostalgia for a (high art) media whose heyday was pre-cinematic. Neoliberal feudal fantasies are rendered through shots cinematically recreating classic painterly images and genres. Examining each moment reveals that together these painterly images instantiate feudal-aristocratic heterotopia as an aesthetic overlay for the film’s action.

The first image occurs in the opening action sequence, where the elder Zorro (Diego de la Vega) disrupts execution in the densely-packed plaza of several peasants and penetrates the governor’s palace to thwart his nemesis’ attempt to abscond with California treasure; it then moves to the scene of don Diego’s private life as landed gentleman. The transition between the masked public hero and the private patriarch/nobleman is marked with a wide-frame shot sustained for several frames. The pink and coral evening light lends an intensely colorful luminescence to a landscape scene that centers the de la Vega estate. To the left, the manor house overlooks a bay with ships and to the right, outbuildings and a vineyard cradled in a half-circle of coastal mountains; directly to the bottom half of the screen are a waterfall and lush forests. The waterfall is a classic Zorro-film characteristic as the masked bandit often hides in a cave just behind it, a lair connected by a stairway to the mansion above. The significance of the cave is cued by the only two motions in this sequence: the falling water and the downward arch of a crying seagull. The seagull’s call punctuates the scoring of strings sustaining a high C sharp. The style of the image is much like that of early JM Turner nineteenth-century romantic landscapes of estates with intense colors and shimmering light (for example, Pope’s Villa at Twickenham, oil on canvas, 1808). While these commissioned bucolic pieces lack the narrative drama and concern with cruelty and injustice of his stormy shipwreck paintings, they share the use of light to generate particular kinds of atmosphere. Similarly, in Mask, both the image (of Diego’s estate) and a later one of barracks at sunset just before Alejandro creates havoc by stealing a spectacular horse evening light suggests a kind of temporary visual calm.

J.M. Turner, Pope’s Villa at Twickenham. Oil on canvas, 1808.

In many romantic landscape paintings of large estates, both labor and politics are absented. Geographer Don Mitchell traces the history of California landscapes depicting paternalist protection of the bucolic to contain the dangers of non-elites: rural smallholders and workers, industrial workers, native communities; erasure produces California as modern yet idyllic natural space, because, for this to happen, all signs of the state’s literal production—that is, its non-natural condition—must be hidden. Douglas Brinkley also examines this production of place, exploring Teddy Roosevelt’s creation of a national park system at height of immigration and industrialization in the name of democratic liberty materialized in pristine nature even as, according to Karl Jacoby, the creation of parks curtailed food-ways of rural populations. Projects, state and national in scope, mobilized landscape as an ideological frame that demanded containment of non-elites. Nineteenth-century U.S. painters, such as Albert Bierstadt, favored panoramas to evidence the truth of Manifest Destiny, the resonant 1820s idea that the United States should bridge coasts. Zorro’s idyllic California of this opening sequence captures these costly political formations between empire and nation-state.

If California landscape has worked through dispossession, the cinematic use of a painterly invoking of romantic capitalism suggests a politics of representation in which privileging of the oil painting’s flatness, to borrow Ranciere’s insight, suggests a timeless aesthetic ideal. Feudal-aristocratic drag thrives in nostalgic visual aesthetics.

Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo, Il quarto stato (The Fourth Estate). Oil on poplar, 1901.

A second key painterly shot is not a still transition, but rather, culminates the climatic sequence of the film. It is a filmic rendition of Italian painter Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo’s famous (1901, oil on poplar) neo-impressionist painting, “Il quarto stato,” (the fourth estate, or, the proletariat); this image was famously used during the opening credits of Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1900 (1976 Italy/France/Germany), an important film in collectivist socialist cinema. In the painting, striking workers, men and women, are advancing forward (from assumed darkness) into the light, with two male farmers and a woman with baby in the forefront with clearly delineated and interacting figures following. Not the nuclear family, this is a revolutionary collectivity united in class cohesion and struggle. Like in Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire, where he states that history happens twice, the first time as tragedy and the second as farce, Mask perversely appropriates this revolutionarily socialist image to anoint a neoliberal monarchical counterrevolutionary allegory. The image, restaged a la 1990s, shows a mass of inarticulate brown people—the film calls them “slaves”—just freed from captivity in an illicit gold mine, being led out of the dust from the exploding mine not by fellow workers, but by the new Zorro, Alejandro, and the creole (“princess”) Elena, both fiercely benevolent patrons rescuing children from a certain explosive entombment. Since the previous shot showed Elena and Alejandro breaking open the “slaves” cells, this subsequent scene does not need to do the work of advancing the plot, but rather securely encapsulated the counterrevolutionary framing of these events.  As the aesthetic resolution of the capitalist greed instantiated in the treasure map-prop, this neoliberal scene shows a responsible elite protecting those in their care. No mention is made of seizing the means of production–the gold mine–for public good; all we understand is that crude exploitation for personal greed has been foiled.

As the people faintly emerge from the plumes of smoke and dust, we hear composer James Horner’s symphonic score of low strings; then as the figures take shape, the strings make an extended crescendo and are then echoed in brass. These bars make it clear that this is an epic moment. This long shot takes its time in developing from opaque white smoke to Alejandro carrying a child and Elena guiding another; they move into depth of field with the mass of bodies following behind still slightly out of focus. Interestingly, this is a 2-shot within a group shot since only Alejandro’s and Elena’s faces can be seen; and even the children’s faces are averted, visually delimiting the protagonists of the scene. The new creole nuclear family is featured both through these shots, camera focus, and costuming. The tones of the costume and the dusty backdrop are all creams, browns, and blacks, giving the overall shot a sepia, vintage tint. Alejandro stands out in his black Zorro outfit and Elena is the most visually striking with her white v-neck blouse showing plenty of pale neck and chest skin. The faces of the so-called slaves, children and adults, cannot be distinguished not because they are just out of focus but also because of the narrow palette of the scene. In no uncertain terms, the film visually produces phenotypic difference, a racialized social order of a white benevolent elite leading brown humble, even abject, masses.

Alejandro and Elena leading the “slaves” out of the mine. Courtesy of Zorro Productions.

Curiously enough, by the end of the sequence of frames, the exception to imperceptibility through this visually-produced racial-class difference is an indigenous-marked woman standing to the left of Elena. Both her face and stocky build are discernible compared to the rest of the freed “slaves.” She represents, quite possibly, the biological mother of the escorted children, reassuring the audience that a racialized social order will be secured not through the rupturing of stratification, but through its benevolent reform. Any threat of cross-class revolution leading to a miscegenated family is further neutralized both by foregrounding intra-elite warring (for sexual access to the creole princess and for access to non-elite labor and allegiance) and in the film’s subsequent resolution. The 4th estate scene ends with a blinding-white iris and bleeds into a once-again all-white screen, where the dying Diego joins Elena’s and Alejandro’s hands and commands that there must always be a Zorro. In this sequence of scenes, proper, racially-contained reproduction—the productive comingling of Elena and a now whitened and elite Alejandro—is assured as the native, non-elite subjects are absented in favor of the white, creole (birthed on California soil) baby—a prince—born into a legitimate patriarchal noble family. The ongoing mass appeal of this feudal-aristocratic drag marks the success of the neoliberal counterrevolution, a nuanced counterrevolutionary project savvy in building heterotopic spaces to imagine and enact its political revision.

The final painterly shot that interests us is one at the end of the film. The shot forms a portrait of Elena posed in the doorway of the nursery, watching now-husband Alejandro tell chivalrous Zorro tales to baby Joaquín. She is silhouetted by the arches of the hacienda’s outdoor hallway, through which we glimpse their lush estate, a now fully patriarchal redux of the opening estate landscape shot. In this medium shot, Elena is on the left of the screen and the audience is looking at her from over Alejandro’s shoulder on the lower right; out of the depth of frame, the upper right of the screen is filled by the parallel arches of the exterior manor corridor leading off to estate gardens, a sunset shown in the distance. Elena’s costume exactly mirrors the colors of the sky, with orange embroidery on sheer beige shoulders and sleeves, and a deep blue bodice and skirt. Her sleeves and Alejandro’s shirt are the same colors as the stone walls lit by the orange fire of torches. The audience’s perspective overlaps that of the baby prince, the lord and lady of the manor are thus organically part of the built and natural environment. In this two-shot, we are visually assured that this is a long-term, procreative union as the sunset comes to them. Indeed, this redoing of the opening scene is not unusual. As Simmon claims for Westerns, “the narratives seek to reestablish the tableau idyll of the first shot by the time they arrive at their last shot” as they carry “further [an] aura of loss and melancholy.” This, then, is how they enact their “allegorical imperative” (Simmon, 18).

Elena (Catherine Zeta-Jones) at the estate house. Courtesy of Zorro Productions.

The score further asserts that this is a quintessentially domestic scene. Harmonious in melody carried by wind instruments, the music still pulses with percussive flamenco guitar rhythm suggesting ongoing libidinal drive echoed in subsequent spoken dialogue whereby they declare their love for one another. When Elena states that she’ll “dream” of Zorro, we are reminded of the tension in these layered heterotopias: between feudal-aristocratic drag, Alejandro’s class transformation and securing of the dynastic lineage; and camp, the playful donning of the Zorro gear and pursuit of further adventures. These adventures do not require enactment in other forms of political space; the monarchy is the political body.

Edmund Blaire Leighton, Stitching the Standard. Oil on canvas, 1911.

This portrait is very much like English pre-Raphaelite paintings–for example, Stitching the Standard (oil on canvas, 1911) among other historic genre oil paintings by Edmund Blair Leighton–in which he poses medieval women against stone buildings and elaborate gardens. The noblewoman’s domestic duty is also one of militant loyalty as she leans against a stone parapet overlooking the estate’s fields at sunset. Pre-Raphaelites often nostalgically mobilized such medieval themes depicted mimetically. A most iconic image of this school of painting further layers this nostalgia by harkening back to medieval imaginings of the Arthurian dark ages, as in William Morris’ The Defense of Guenevere (oil on canvas, 1858), where the heroine is presented as the archetypical pre-Raphaelite women: long dark hair, slender, long-limbed, and pensive. Such maidens grace Fantasy films since the 1980s from Excalibur to The Lord of the Rings. Thus, as with the previous image, this one nostalgically indexes both high European art and prior appropriations of painterly images as cinematic clichés.

This end of film vision of Elena in the estate is bookended by a quite similar image early in the film of her mother, Esperanza, seated in front of their manor house, awaiting her husband’s return from Zorro adventures. Akin to shot of Elena, in the first frame, we view the bay at sunset over her shoulder, then the camera switches its angle to center her in front of the manor house; her body constitutes the link between the panoramic California landscape and feudal estate as the legitimate instantiation of power. These bookending mother-daughter shots use dusk lighting to intensify the color palette; both merge the body of the wife with that of the patrimonial estate, in part, by extending the colors of the landscape lighting to the costuming: dusk, in Esperanza’s golden dress, and sunset, in the pinkish orange embroidery and deep blue of Elena’s gown.

Esperanza (Julietta Rosen) in front of the De la Vega manor house. Courtesy of Zorro Productions.

The use of romantic portraiture links patriarchy and patrimony, the feudal landscape and the body of the wife, a linking made all the more apparent by a key film prop: the portrait of Esperanza. This portrait first brings the viewer intimately into Zorro’s private life as don Diego, and next into Rafael’s hacienda, this time misrepresented to daughter Elena as Rafael’s lost wife. Painterly images capture the idealized white creole-settler woman whose body, as the font of feudal patrimony, is the libidinal focus; these thoroughly domesticated images of nobility derive further erotic appeal from their connection to passionate scenes.

The channeling of creole erotic desire into dynastic reproduction restores the pastoral to an aristocratic landscape now populated with dynastic fruits. Moreover, attention to this channeling of desire restores the pastoral to the visual dimensions of heterotopic erotics, reminding us that these erotics are racialized through representational practices. Thus, painterly images visually punctuate the narrative with neoliberal heterotopias that exceed the drives of narrative to appeal to a feudal-aristocratic aesthetic enduring beyond, outside, despite, and instead of actual history. 

In The Mask of Zorro, we see that heterotopias both generate and resonate with eroticized visual economies, beginning with the relationship between heterotopias and everyday spaces; that is, heterotopias are a priori eroticized, racialized through particular representational practices. As we have argued here, this Hollywood blockbuster constitutes a neoliberal heterotopia in and of itself. This heterotopic effect is magnified both by the self-referentialism of this Zorro (re)interpretation as an iconic film—indeed, the film is replete with references to prior Zorro renditions —and by its setting in California, connecting a mythologized past of an open western frontier directly to this (post)modern neoliberal space cast as the U.S. future. The film overlays a (fantastical) California origin moment with the neoliberal context, thus re-imagining both past and present through heterotopias within the heterotopias: the narrative role played by depictions of political spaces, namely, maps as key props, and the use of lush (European-esque) painterly shots to punctuate the narrative arc with a nostalgic aesthetics.

Heterotopic aesthetics undergird the narrative’s counterrevolutionary political thrust: California of the early nineteenth century (best) epitomizes the ideal late twentieth-century neoliberal space: a site of white (creole) oligarchic socio-economic privilege and libidinal gratification unfettered by the state. Transnational capitalists, too, eschew the fetters of acting within the confines of any particular political space. If Ranciere’s heterotopy implies that representationally-rich spaces might signal emancipatory potentiality, then our foray into questions around this Hollywood blockbuster’s multiple and erotic aesthetics of political heterotopias that mark the giddy culmination of the neoliberal counterrevolution forces us to think carefully about equating representational heterogeneity with liberatory political spaces (45).

[1]  “Neoliberal” references justifications for dismantling the New Deal state (roughly 1933-1989, reorienting state priorities toward the global Market.

[2] Adrián Pérez Melgosa, “Opening the Cabaret America Gallery,” contends that film is a heterotopia and shows how a film can reflect and negotiate political conundrums, in his case the workings of race and intra-American hemispheric politics at the beginning of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor Policy.

[3] Foucault’s post-sixties theorization of place, space, and politics counters classic theorizations of a revolutionary utopia—an ideal future place—with heterotopias–actually existing places that stand in contrast to ‘real’ ones, that reflect, alter, and comment upon so-called real spaces. See Christophe Bruchansky’s incisive analysis of Disney as heterotopia. By way of an example, he offers the honeymoon trip, suggesting more broadly that spaces of sexual initiation often are heterotopias, for they are marked as apart from, but condense, real domestic space. Film (industrial commodity and cultural imaginary), is arguably the quintessential heterotopic space; like Foucault’s example of the mirror, it exists, even as it is understood to have an attenuated relationship to non-filmic places. The political impact of a heterotopia depends on its embodiment of alternative power formations (Surin). Historicizing variations in heterotopias, then, is critical to seeing the contours of political geographies of place within heterotopic filmic spaces, including the status of counterrevolutionary transformation.

[4] Leonard Pitt, cited in Lie.

[5] For more on romance and Latin Americanism, see Adrián Pérez Melgosa, “Cinematic Contact Zones.”

[6] This, though many Zorro movies are either non-Hollywood products or Hollywood collaborations with overseas studios.

Work cited:

Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities (London: Verso, 1991).

Douglas Brinkley, The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America (New York: Harper Perennial, reprint 2010).

Christophe Bruchansky, “The Heterotopia of Disney World,” Philosophy Now 77: Sept/Oct 2012; http://philosophynow.org/issues/77/The_Heterotopia_of_Disney_World (accessed Sept 27, 2012).

Jodi Dean Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies: Communicative Capitalism and Left Politics (Durham: Duke University Press, 2009).

Michel Foucault, “Of Other Spaces, Heterotopias” (1967); http://foucault.info/documents/heteroTopia/foucault.heteroTopia.en.html (accessed Oct 9, 2010).

Dagmar Herzog Sex in Crisis: The New Sexual Revolution and the Future of American Politics (New York: Basic Books, 2008).

Dorothy B. Jones “Hollywood War Films, 1942-1944,” Hollywood Quarterly 1: 1945: 1-19.

Nadia Lie, “Free trade in images? Zorro as cultural signifier in the contemporary global/local systemNepantla: Views from South 2001: 2: 3: 489-508.

Karl Marx, The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (New York: Wildside Press, 2008).

Adrián Pérez Melgosa, “Cinematic Contact Zones: Hemispheric Romances in Film and the Construction and Reconstruction of Latin Americanism,” Social Text  28: 3: 104: 2010: 119-150.

Adrián Pérez Melgosa “Opening the Cabaret America Allegory: Hemispheric Politics, Performance, and Utopia in Flying Down to Rio,” American Quarterly 64: 2: June 2012: 249-275.

Lina Y. Newton, “Why Some Latinos Supported Proposition 187: Testing Economic Threat and Cultural Identity Hypotheses,” Social Science Quarterly 81: 1: 2000: 180-193. 

Jacques Ranciere, The Future of the Image tr. Gregory Elliot (London: Verso Press, 2007).

Jacques Rancière, The Hatred of Democracy, trans. Steve Corcoran (London: Verso, 2006).

Scott Simmon, The Invention of the Western Film (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

Doris Sommer, Foundational Fictions, The National Romances of Latin America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993).

Kenneth Surin, Freedom Not Yet: Liberation and the Next World Order (Durham: Duke University Press, 2009).Catherine Williamson “‘Draped Crusaders’: Disrobing Gender in The Mark of Zorro,” Cinema Journal 36: 2: Winter 1997: 3-16.


LJ Frazier works on political cultures of the Americas and Europe through transnational and global analytics. Trained in Anthropology and History, her interest in the intersection of cultural studies theories of power, subjectivity, and ideology with questions of political economy has resulted in publications on gender and sexuality, nation-state formation, and empire, human rights, mental health policies, memory, activism, and feminist ethnography: authoring Desired States: Gender, Sexuality & Political Culture (Rutgers),  Salt in the Sand: Memory, Violence and the Nation-State (Duke) and co-editing Gender’s Place: Feminist Anthropologies of Latin America (Palgrave) and (with D. Cohen) Gender and Sexuality in 1968 (Palgrave).

Deborah Cohen, Associate Professor of History/Director of Latina/Latino Studies at University of Missouri-St. Louis, brings questions of race, gender, imperialism, and labor to bear on nation-state formation and other political projects. Her first book, Braceros (University of North Carolina, 2011; paperback, 2013) reveals the paradoxes of modernist political economies and the predicaments of transnational subjects in the United States and Mexico; whereas her new project, “Loyalty and Betrayal,” examines how transnational migration reshaped the pressures and pleasures of affective ties of family, race, ethnicity, and people-ness. She and Frazier are co-authoring three books: on ’68 in Mexico; a global ’68 history; and one that uses Zorro films to map shifting imaginaries of political projects, economic orders, and notions of social justice.


Tracing L.A.’s Cruising Culture

Alex Espinoza

In Queer Space: Architecture and Same Sex Desire, Aaron Betsky writes, “The queerest space of all is the void, and AIDS has made us live in that emptiness, that absence, that loss…. It is not a queer space any of us would want to inhabit, but many have been forced to make it their own.”[1] In many ways, Danny Jauregui’s work goes beyond just inhabiting the void, that queer space separate from society. It is about identifying it, reclaiming it, and giving it a permanent spatial location in the decades following the crisis.  People cruised within communities, within neighborhoods, at local parks, bars, and shops. A single location can be so many places at once.

“I wanted to show that these locations once existed here,” he says.

The photos used in the artist Danny Jauregui’s project document a history that generations of young gay men might not be familiar with. Chronicling these sites then became a way for Jauregui to recover and graft the memory of gay cruising into the larger sphere of American identity and assemblage. The images are a stark reminder of the transient nature of cruising, allowing for a uniquely queer identity to integrate itself into the very tapestry of the history of Los Angeles.

I wanted to show that these locations once existed here.

I met Jauregui on an overcast mid-May morning at La Monarca Bakery on Cesar Chavez Boulevard in Boyle Heights. Danny is a charming and affable man almost a decade younger than me. He’s made a name for himself as an artist whose work encompasses many different media including photography, drawing, and sculpture. The son of immigrants from the state of Jalisco, Mexico, he grew up in South Central L.A. before his family moved to Whittier. Like me, Danny is an artist and academic; he teaches art and photography at Whittier College. Like me, he’s Latino. Like me, he is gay and in a long and stable relationship with a partner. Like me, he spent the past academic year chairing his department. Over sips of piping hot coffee, we commiserate over the challenges—and, yes, the rewards—of serving as heads of our respective units. We share a great deal in common, and I find it comforting to be sitting down and having an enlightening conversation about art and activism and the pressures of academic life with someone so similar to me.

“My brother was a trouble maker when we were growing up,” he says. “My parents decided to pour all their energies into making sure I wasn’t. They indulged my curiosity. If I was into something, they got it for me. When I was interested in art, my father went out and bought me colored pencils and a sketchbook.”

Danny’s work first came to my attention when I ran across an article featuring him and a project he had undertaken to map the cruising sites and locations around the city using Bob Damron’s Address Book as guidepost. When I ask what led him to put the two together, he smiles.

“I was living in Silverlake with my partner during the whole Proposition 8 battle,” he explains.

“Prop 8,” as it was more commonly known, was a statewide ballot aimed at eliminating same-sex marriage in California. The measure eventually passed, with 52.3%[2] of the population voting not to protect the rights of gay couples to marry. The “No on 8” campaign had rented out a building where a local gay bathhouse once stood. When Danny discovered this, it became the impetus for his work. It was such an ironic thing, he recalls, that the headquarters of a grassroots effort to secure the right for same-sex couples to marry had its office in what was once a place where men flocked to meet and have sex in public. In the 70s we’d gained our sexual liberation. We were free to have sex with whomever, whenever, and (pretty much) wherever we wanted. But 80s and 90s brought AIDS, cutting short the party, forcing so many to rethink such “hedonistic” lifestyle choices. Now, in the aftermath of so much loss, many who remained craved marriage and monogamy—grand symbols of heteronormativity.  For his part, Danny also embarked on a project that resulted in a map-based documentary of Damron’s Address Book. In doing so, Danny’s work investigated the spatial memory of gay cruising sites, of connection and intimacy that once played out in these locations—spaces no longer in use for that purpose, but also not completely erased either. They exist as reminders of an era of sexual liberation both before and during the AIDS crisis.

Danny explained that his work aims to preserve and document these sites as places of community building, where gay men once upon a time forged bonds and created a sense of shared belonging through the most intimate and secretive of acts. “I’m interested to know then if cruising is the result of a closeted culture?” he says. “Or another means of maintaining the integrity of a subculture that is uniquely our own.”


A good friend once told me that the only time he ever felt truly alive was when he was out cruising. At the time he carried what he jokingly called a “roadside hazard kit” in his car that contained towels, condoms, bottles of lube, poppers, and a few worn out porno magazines (back before porn could be streamed on a smartphone).

“I’d spend hours driving around in my car,” he recalled, with a reverence that was almost spiritual. “I’d get lost in the whole ritual of it.”

Once he watched as cops arrested a man in a park bathroom. But that never stopped him. It worked to heighten the arousal, he said. It provided a thrill that he felt was otherwise missing in his life. His preferred spot to cruise was Griffith Park.

Author John Rechy situates Griffith Park in several of his novels like City of Night and Numbers. In the latter, handsome and charismatic Johnny Rio has come to Los Angeles after years in Texas. Faced with the certain reality that his age is catching up to him, Johnny returns to his former haunt, a place of past conquests, for ten days of sex before his beauty and looks fade away forever. Upon reaching the park, Rechy writes: “[It] is much vaster than Johnny expected. It sprawls over several thousand acres—threatening to spill out into Los Angeles, Hollywood, Glendale, invading even the sky; its various roads spiral up hills high above the city.”[3]

Here, the space of cruising sprawls, opens up, invades, and ruptures the larger environs. It interrupts the space contained by artificial impediments. The writer, like singer George Michael, arrested in a Beverly Hills park bathroom, brazenly calls attention to the location as a site of sexual exchanges that exist within the larger mesh of American culture. But this is a site that operates outside the boundary, a site that challenges greater notions of exchange and connection. He writes, “The branches of so many trees droop so thickly here that the sun filters through only in tiny shifting sequin points and jagged patches.

Perhaps Johnny’s fading good looks, his various exploits, and his frenzied attempts to recapture the glory days of his cruising jaunts could be seen as a commentary on the threats posed on this rare and little-known ecosystem. And like many delicate ecosystems, perhaps Rechy is making a commentary on the fading phenomenon surrounding such places as married couples with kids and dogs push in and the vast clearings that pocket the park, canopied by trees, go from being prime cruising spots to places for cyclists and joggers.

A 1997 L.A. Times article titled “Neighbors Tackle Gay Cruising” tells of neighbors, both newly arrived and longstanding, getting sick and tired of the cruising scene in the areas around Griffith Park. “In the enduring subculture of men cruising for sex with other men, a few pleasant residential blocks of Griffith Park Boulevard had become hot. A nearby sex club had drawn crowds, as did the boulevard’s mention in gay guides”[4] the article reported. The crackdown led to undercover police stings and road signs that read





Back in 2011 the Los Angeles city council unanimously voted to have the signs removed claiming them to be pointless and offensive. And though this might initially seem like a progressive and bold step on behalf of residents, one that looks to embrace the long history of homosexuality and gay cruising in the community, it’s actually not. The establishments that once attracted such activities have all packed up, replaced by pressed juice bars and yoga studios. “Today, residents say those type of clubs have closed and the neighborhood has changed. They believe the signs ‘stigmatize’ and embarrass the neighborhood,”[5] one website stated.


Begun by visual artist Carlos Motta and writer and dramaturge Joshua Lubin-Levy, Petit Mort: Recollections of a Queer Public is a visual art project that charts the experiences of gay men cruising around New York City. Each account presents detailed drawings by men and brief accounts of their experiences. Deeply personal and culturally significant, these accounts draw strong links between gay subculture and public spaces. Extending beyond the engaged sexual encounters, their project reinforced the idea of cruising as not just a frivolous act, but one with deep political roots, recognizing the foundation of resistant and sexual liberation in the gay community by giving permanence and legitimacy to these spaces in their art. The culture of gay cruising is threatened by gentrification, laws that limit such behaviors, and an overall stigma associated with sex in public. As the makeup of neighborhoods change, the secret cruising goldmines that once existed are slowly being converted or threatened with extinction.

In Los Angeles, Pershing Square was the central locus of gay cruising and hustling in the decades prior to the crisis. A central location in what was known as “The Run” from the 1920s to the 1960s, Pershing Square was the anchor around which gay men could cruise and visit friendly locales like the bathrooms at the Central Library and the Subway Terminal Building, and bars like the one in the Biltmore Hotel.[6]

Many of these places have since vanished and, though remnants of the physical locations might remain—the restroom of a local park, a building that once housed one of the most popular sex clubs in Silverlake, a seedy adult bookstore now fallen into disrepair over the years—they are but subtle traces of what used to be. Finding new cruising hotspots is a little easier now with smartphones equipped with geolocation features, websites, and apps. As these new modes of communication become more ubiquitous, the line between privacy and intimacy also blurs. And given the rise of gentrification in certain regions of Los Angeles as well as other metropolitan cities, the factors that threaten the subculture of cruising come not only from AIDS and other STDs, but also from a long string of new pressures.



[1] Aaron Betsky, Queer Space: Architecture and Same Sex Desire (New York: William Morrow, 1997), 182.

[2] Chris Cillizza and Sean Sullivan, “How Proposition 8 passed in California — and why it wouldn’t today,” Washington Post, 26 March 2013, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2013/03/26/how-proposition-8-passed-in-california-and-why-it-wouldnt-today/?utm_term=.8173a8b9956a.

[3] John Rechy, Numbers (New York: Grove Press, 1994), 111.

[4] Bettina Boxall, “Neighbors Tackle Gay Cruising,” Los Angeles Times,, 27 August 1997, http://articles.latimes.com/1997/aug/27/news/ls-26163.

[5] Mekahlo Medina, “No More Gay Cruising Signs in Silver Lake,” NBC Los Angeles, 9 September 2011, https://www.nbclosangeles.com/news/local/No-More-Gay-Cruising-Signs-in-Silver-Lake-129528048.html.

[6] Bianca Barragan, “Mapping Los Angeles’s groundbreaking role in LGBT history,” Curbed Los Angeles, 9 February 2017, https://la.curbed.com/maps/mapping-los-angeless-groundbreaking-role-in-lgbt-history.


Alex Espinoza earned his MFA in Fiction from UC Irvine and holds the Tomás Rivera Endowed Chair in Creative Writing at UC Riverside. He’s the author of the novels Still Water Saints and The Five Acts of Diego León, both from Random House. His newest book is Cruising: An Intimate History of a Radical Pastime (Unnamed Press, June 2019). He has written for the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times Magazine, Virginia Quarterly Review, and NPR’s All Things Considered. The recipient of a fellowship in prose from the NEA and an American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation, he lives and teaches in Los Angeles and is completing a new novel. www.alexespinoza.com

Copyright: © 2019 Unnamed Media. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.


Military Industrial Sexuality

Ryan Reft

In March 1992 the nineteen-year Navy veteran and founder of the Veterans Council for American Rights and Equality (C.A.R.E), Chuck Schoen penned an open letter in the Redwood/Sacramento branch’s newsletter to the then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell, protesting the military’s ban on homosexuals. While he thanked Powell for rejecting sexual orientation as a security risk, he lamented Powell’s continued stance opposing gay men and women in the military. He informed Powell, “We know how to separate our professional life from our sexual life. We have proven this during the past fifty years, by our honorable service.” Due to an investigator’s discovery of his homosexuality during a security clearance investigation, Schoen had been forced to resign in 1963 or else face a dishonorable discharge. Schoen believed security clearances unfairly targeted gay service members. “[T]housands of investigators spent millions of man hours and millions of dollars ruthlessly seeking out harmless homosexuals,” he wrote Powell. “Even with all their expertise and money, they had only about one percent success rate. All during this time they thought we were the spies. What a costly error based only on conjecture and hatred.”[1]

That same month, then head of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and future Secretary of Defense Robert Gates responded to a letter from the William and Mary Gay Alumni Association (WMGAA). President Michael Pemberton and Thomas P. Rowan had congratulated Gates upon his appointment to the directorship of the CIA in December while also raising concerns about the agency’s ability to ensure “equal opportunities for all current and prospective employees.” Gates thanked them for their letter and assured Pemberton and Rowan that the “[a]gency does not reject, disqualify, or assign people, or make any other personal decision on the basis of sexual orientation.” He went on to note that, “Indeed, CIA has homosexuals in its workforce.”[2]

Though the overlapping dates of these correspondences might be coincidental, the motivations behind each were not. Since President Eisenhower’s issuance of Executive Order 10450 in 1953, which banned homosexuals from government employment and labeled them a threat to national security, along with the military’s history of purging gay and lesbian service personnel homosexuals struggled to gain equal rights in the government and the military. Both letters preceded real government reform in this area. The Pentagon enacted the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy in 1993 and two years later President Clinton issued Executive Order 12968, which stated for the first time in an executive order that sexual orientation could not be grounds for denial of a security clearance. Yet gay men and women both within and without the government had long protested what they saw as unequal treatment, including security investigations that delved unfairly into the sexual lives of service personnel and employees. The advances witnessed in 1995, and to a far lesser extent 1993, stemmed from such efforts over the course of four decades, not least among them was the case of Otis Francis Tabler, a Rancho Palos Verdes resident and missiles systems analyst working within the expanding military industrial complex of Southern California.

“In a precedent setting action, the Industrial Security Clearance Review Office (ISCRO) of the Department of Defense today withdrew its appeal… finding issuance of a Secret-level security clearance to Otis Francis Tabler, Jr., an open, self declared Homosexual, to be ‘clearly consistent with the national interest,’” announced the Mattachine Society of Washington D.C. (MSW) in August 1975.[3] Tabler challenged both the federal government’s security clearance system and California state law banning sodomy and “perversion,” thereby opening up new job opportunities for homosexuals in the state’s booming defense industry while also contributing to the fight to eliminate unconstitutional legislation.[4]

Though Tabler’s case unfolded at the Federal Building on Wilshire Boulevard, its success existed as a confluence of factors, individuals, and geography that stretched over the course of two decades. It took the advocacy and activism of Washington D.C.’s foremost gay activist, Frank Kameny, a World War II veteran who for years fought discrimination against homosexuals in government hiring. At the same time, the establishment of the original Los Angeles Mattachine Society by Harry Hay in 1951 enabled Kameny and other activists across the country to establish their own local versions from which to operate while Southern California’s expanding defense industry offered employment and opportunity to carry out new struggles against discrimination. Kameny would cut his teeth in such struggles as leader of the MSW and would bring this experience to bear on behalf of Tabler in the early 1970s.

While often seen as the most conservative of American institutions, the military, the vast defense industry that supports it, and veterans themselves have operated, intentionally and unintentionally, in conjunction to advance the rights of ethnic, racial, and sexual minorities.

During the 1970s, Los Angeles’s vibrant gay liberation movement inspired Tabler and gradually shaped public opinion toward a more favorable view of homosexuality and, by 1976, a repeal of the state legislation Tabler had challenged. Finally, Kameny and Tabler’s fight to open up the security clearance process for gay men and women preceded the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy by nearly two decades and helped to lay the ground work for President Bill Clinton’s 1995 Executive Order 12968. Over forty years later, Tabler’s battle demonstrates how the intersection of the military, California, and the nation’s capital led to the expansion of opportunity and rights for gay men and women across the nation. While often seen as the most conservative of American institutions, the military, the vast defense industry that supports it, and veterans themselves have operated, intentionally and unintentionally, in conjunction to advance the rights of ethnic, racial, and sexual minorities.

A Military State, World War II, and California

World War II radically reshaped California. First, it led to a boom in population and a demand for greater infrastructure in nearly every area of urban life from water systems to road construction. Single women, Blacks and Latinos all flocked to cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco to work in defense factories. Men of all races joined the military as a means to demonstrate their sense of patriotism. Minorities tired of dealing with discrimination and second-class citizenship used service as a means to demand equality from a nation demanding that they sacrifice for the war despite existing inequalities.

Women too contributed to the war effort in countless ways. Some by working in the numerous factories that dotted the Los Angeles, Orange County, San Francisco, and San Diego landscapes, while others served in the Women’s Army Core (WACS) or Women Accepted for Voluntary Service (WAVS, the women’s branch of the Naval Reserve). Women’s experiences in the war would lay the groundwork for the feminist movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

The war also created the space and opportunity for gay men and women to realize their own sexuality and build community in the process.  The stress of military training, the common purpose of working toward victory in the war and the crucible of combat encouraged camaraderie and trust. For those attracted to the same sex, working, sleeping, and relaxing with one another in gender segregated military environs proved an imperfect yet opportune chance at romance and community.[5]

At the same time, the military cracked down on homosexuality. As Daniel Hurewitz specifies in his 2007 work Bohemian Los Angeles and the Making of Modern Politics, “The war mobilization laid the groundwork for a national effort to eliminate homosexuals from public life.” Hurewitz further states, “During the war, itself, a host of psychologists and psychiatrists had convinced military leaders that they could help limit the number of soldiers suffering from psychological ailments as a result of the fighting.” Looking to prevent gay men and women from serving, officials questioned recruits about their sex lives as they tried to “weed out” those the military believed to be sexually active labeling them, “mentally unfit.”[6] These kinds of categorizations went far to frame homosexuality as a psychological malady rather than a sexual preference. As demonstrated, the military took the issue of homosexuality seriously, often issuing verbal warnings about Los Angeles’ gay permissiveness. “We were solemnly told that all queers in California wore red neckties and hung out at the corner of Hollywood and Vine, a myth we all accepted,” noted one former Marine and World War II veteran. Such warnings probably helped to pique the interest of closeted service personnel, suggests historian Allan Berube.[7]


Though the armed services targeted men mostly, in the late 1940s and 1950s, after the war, women also came under scrutiny. In the early Cold War military, notes historian Margot Canaday, “the state did not ignore, conflate, or subsume lesbianism, but was instead focused upon it.” Despite women making up less than one percent of the military during this period, the military’s anti-homosexual agenda targeted women in a particular way. “Military officials maintained that homosexuality among women was more disruptive to morale and discipline then homosexuality in men, and they attributed a far higher rate of homosexual activity to female than male personnel,” she concludes.[8]

Simultaneously, the Los Angeles Police Department increased their surveillance of homosexual activity. State law had long considered sodomy a felony, but in 1915 California legislators adopted legislation outlawing fellatio after authorities arrested thirty-one men for engaging in oral sex following a 1914 Long Beach raid.[9] Predictably, officials used such laws largely to regulate homosexual activity rather than that of heterosexuals. Even worse, gay men especially could not count on city police officers for basic protection. “Gay men could not escape the knowledge that the LAPD regarded them not only as laughable, but as ultimate criminals,” note Faderman and Timmons. Despite, or perhaps due to, a growing gay community of men and women, the LAPD viewed lesbians and homosexual men with the utmost hostility.[10]

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the LAPD raided gay bars, surveilled known cruising sites and attempted to entrap gay men and women, all in an effort to persecute patrons. The city attempted to shut down various magazines seen as homosexually-oriented including ONE, Physique Pictorial, and Adam, only to be rebuffed on appeals by the courts all while vendors across the town sold Playboy magazines without incident. No matter how many legal defeats the city endured, it continued to prosecute. “Los Angeles officials expressed their overt intent to continue the persecution of queer texts through obscenity charges,” noted Whitney Strub.[11]

Cinemas too struggled under the thumb of authorities. Venues such as the Coronet (La Cienga Blvd in West Hollywood), the Lyric (Huntington Park) and Vista Theater (Silver Lake) served as gathering places for gay Angelenos. Such venues frequently screened art films with “queer undertones,” writes Strub. In particular, the Coronet played Kenneth Anger’s “Fireworks” in 1957, arguably one of the most provocative queer films of the period. The LAPD filed obscenity charges soon after. In the end, the Lyric and Vista Theaters all endured legal challenges similar to that of the Coronet, which ultimately resulted in closure, even when they emerged victorious on judicial grounds. Yet, when the film Deep Throat achieved national popularity, it too flashed across Los Angeles movie screens and authorities did nothing to prevent it, which further illustrates these pervasive double standards.[12]

Gay panic even served to influence debates regarding the role of outdoor leisure in Los Angeles. The city’s beaches endured accusations of homosexual infiltration. During the 1940s a number of establishments began catering to a homosexual clientele thereby enabling the growth of a notable gay public sphere along a stretch of Santa Monica beachfront between Hollister and Strand. Known as “Crystal Beach” among locals, the area became subject to police surveillance in the early 1950s when a number of gay bars and taverns opened for business. “Now more visible, the perceived threat posed by the gay beach going community was heightened by the Cold War,” writes historian Elsa Devienne, “a time when any challenge to the heterosexual nuclear family model was perceived as a direct attack on American values.” During the campaign for municipal elections in 1955, candidates openly accused the Santa Monica beaches of “fostering and protecting homosexuals.”[13]

Gay panic even served to influence debates regarding the role of outdoor leisure in Los Angeles. The city’s beaches endured accusations of homosexual infiltration. During the 1940s a number of establishments began catering to a homosexual clientele thereby enabling the growth of a notable gay public sphere along a stretch of Santa Monica beachfront between Hollister and Strand.

In the face of such hostility, Harry Hay and others formed the Mattachine Society in 1951 in what was then known as Edendale,—Silver Lake today. Emerging from a milieu populated by bohemians, communists, and homosexuals who shared ideas, strategies, and beliefs, Hay constructed what would become the homophile movement and the Los Angeles Mattachine emerged as its first real organization. It enabled gay men and women to form a community and present a collective identity to a hostile questioning public. “What Mattachine offered was a different kind of camaraderie: non-sexual family camaraderie… that was well organized and increasingly more defined,” argues Hurewitz. “This was camaraderie about sexual desires that was not constituted by those desires… it was new and transformative; it was how a communal identity—a shared self perception—was constructed.”[14]

Government purges contributed to Hay’s motivation notably in the influence that federal policies cast over private sector employment. Having worked for large aircraft manufactures dependent on government contractors for work, Hay realized the chilling effect such policies might impose. Hay’s own supervisors had encouraged him to pursue systems engineering. But Hay, fearing that his support of the Communist Party threatened his ability to receive a security clearance, declined.[15]

In the decade that followed World War II, half of Southern California’s economic growth depended on defense contracts. This dependency meant Hay and others like him faced dismissal from current employment and dramatically fewer job opportunities. At the same time, the Korean War delivered a surge in government spending, particularly in the area of research.[16] Though many defense industry jobs at the outset of the war remained blue collar, the expansion of atomic weaponry, the increased influence of the Air Force, and technologically advanced weapons systems placed a greater emphasis on a college-educated workforce. Hay organized the Mattachine Society, in part as a means to organize Southern California homosexuals in response to wide spread societal discrimination, including impending governmental purges.[17]

Unfortunately, the L.A. Mattachine struggled with internal divisions and Hay would be ousted from leadership within a few years of its establishment. Still, it persisted and inspired the growth of Mattachines across the U.S. and perhaps most importantly the creation in 1961 of the MSW under the leadership of Frank Kameny. Though later eclipsed by organizations in San Francisco and New York, the MSW would be “the leader in the homosexual rights movement.” In its efforts to battle workplace discrimination during the 1960s, the MSW “took the entire gay movement in a new direction,” argues David K. Johnson. To paraphrase John D. Emilio: Kameny spearheaded the new militancy in the homophile movement.[18] Indeed, a decade before Otis Tabler’s hearing, Kameny and the MSW cast a national influence by protesting the Civil Service Commission’s (CSC) hiring practices or organizing Remembrance Day protests outside Philadelphia’s Freedom Hall as a means of recognizing homosexuality in the public sphere. After the famed Stonewall Uprising of 1969, Remembrance Days migrated north to New York where it transformed into the Christopher Street Gay Liberation Day and would become known as the Gay Rights or Gay Pride Parade. Ultimately, Kameny’s influence would reach California but only after gutting out legal in battles in the nation’s capital.

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During the Red Scare of the 1950s, communism and homosexuality became intertwined as threats to national security. A major congressional inquiry in 1950 explored the “Employment of Homosexuals and Other Sex Perverts” in government and ten years later institutions like the State Department “divided security risks into ‘homosexuals’ and ‘nonhomosexuals’, with the former outnumbering the latter two to one,” noted Johnson. “Throughout the 1950s and 1960s the term ‘security risk’ in fact functioned largely as a euphemism for homosexual.”

In the government’s civil service commission and elsewhere, gay men and women who refused to resign were drummed out on charges of “immoral conduct,” a clause that dated back to the 1800s but most often found usage as a means to target homosexuals. Thousands of employees lost their jobs due to their sexual orientation. New York Post columnist Max Lerner described the policy as a witch-hunt, derisively labeling it the “panic on the Potomac” while senators endorsing the action referred to it the “purge of the perverts.”[19]

Few understood the effects of the policy than WWII veteran, Frank Kameny, who in 1957 was fired from his job in the Army Map Service for being a homosexual. Kameny filed a petition to the Court of Appeals District of Columbia Circuit Court protesting his firing on discriminatory grounds. It eventually reached the Supreme Court, but the justices refused to hear the case. He would not relent.

Lilli Vincenz, who had been discharged (ironically, honorably) from the Army WAC in 1963 for lesbianism, joined the MSW soon after and described the organization’s single-minded focus under Kameny’s leadership. “The Mattachine Society of Washington is not a social group—but rather an ascetic one,” she wrote to a friend in 1965. “The CAUSE is all and don’t you dare speak of trivial matters like an occasional social get-together.”[20]

By 1961, Kameny had re-established the MSW and used it as a platform to achieve equality in government hiring for homosexuals. From 1961 through the 1970s, Kameny criticized the government’s “war on gays and lesbians” at every opportunity, even picketing the White House and Civil Service Commission Headquarters among other Washington institutions over their policies in 1965.

Aware of Cold War rhetoric depicting homosexuality as subversion and a security threat, MSW members and picketers went to great lengths to demonstrate that while they were homosexuals they deserved the same rights accorded their fellow Americans. They identified as “homosexual citizens,” thereby arguing that one need not reject their sexuality in order to claim the rights of national membership.[21]According to the lone newspaper that covered the April picketing of the White House, ten protesters carried signs that said, “We want Federal employment, Honorable Discharges and Security Clearances,” and “Gov. Wallace Met With Colored Citizens, But Our Government Won’t Meet With US.”[22]

Participants were keenly aware of the risks. Jack Nichols and Elijah Clarke stayed up late the night before making picket signs only to have a roommate warn them about potential violence. “You guys are crazy. People are going to attack you,” he told Nichols and Clarke. Another protester, Gail Green, admitted the biggest fear among protesters was loss of employment. Nichols prevented his partner Clarke from attending since Clarke worked for the Joint Chiefs of Staff and would likely be fired. Two other participants wore sunglasses in an effort to conceal their identities. [23]

Vincenz, who would appear on the cover of the October 1965 issue of The Ladder picketing the Civil Service Commission, concurred that many of them were “between careers” or could “afford to do it.” Next to her wedding day, “that was the most important day of my life… It was a defining moment for all of us. It was very empowering.”[24] They picketed six times that summer, three times at the White House, once each at the State Department, CSC, and Pentagon. Initially the protests received paltry media coverage. However, by the end of the summer, due to the protests, Kameny and the MSW had developed an effective media strategy that would boost participation and increase coverage of their efforts in outlets such as Reuters and Confidential. Looking back, Kameny claimed the summer of 1965 established a “mindset for public displays of dissent by gay people” which would later make Stonewall possible.[25]

That same year, a legal victory in the U.S. District Court of Appeals forced the CSC to define closeted homosexuals as acceptable employees.[26] Still, Kameny and others remained understandably unsatisfied and California would serve as another key testing ground to push sexual equality further.

Unlike Hay, whose approach to gay rights was rooted in Marxism leading to organizational anarchy, Kameny framed his fight in the context of Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and the protests of suffragists like National Woman’s Party leader Alice Paul.

Southern California

After World War II, due to its room for expansion, diverse geography, and mild weather, California drew increased military spending. Historian Richard White concluded, “[i]t was as if someone had tilted the country: people, money and soldiers all spilled west.”[27] Los Angeles and Orange County drew new installations and defense industries, the latter particularly in aerospace. By the early 1960s, forty-three percent of manufacturing employment in the two counties was tied to government aerospace contracts. This process persisted into the 1970s, by which time L.A. and the surrounding region “had come to rely to an extraordinary degree upon the related industries of defense aircraft space and electronics,” notes historian Roger Lotchin.[28] Even today, the presence of the military and private defense industries contributes significantly to Orange County’s ranking as the nation’s largest suburban employment center.[29] Simultaneously, the city’s gay population expanded to an estimated 140,000 gay men and women in metropolitan L.A., which was a number that would only expand over the ensuing decades.[30] Government expansion corresponded with demographic growth, by the mid-1950s 250,000 Californians labored as federal workers, which led many to describe the Golden State as a “second U.S. capital.”


Ironically, U.S. military action contributed to the development of the Mattachine Society. If Harry Hay had refused to enter the “the new discipline of systems engineering” largely because he feared denial of a security clearance due to his communist affiliations and homosexual lifestyle, that did not mean he couldn’t use the burgeoning conflict as a means to recruit for the Mattachine Society. During the summer of 1950, Hay and others canvassed city beaches asking beachgoers to sign a petition protesting the Korean War. Hay believed most people would refuse to sign on to such a radical statement, but it would allow him to introduce a more moderate proposal: the formation of a gay organization. “Then we’d get into the gay purges in U.S. government agencies of the year before and what a fraud that was,” he noted. Ironically, most people signed the petition, but eschewed the idea of a gay rights society. Still, as Johnson notes, by Autumn he had the germ of what would become the Mattachine Society, and it all began on Los Angeles beaches with a discussion of the U.S. military industrial complex.[31]

Unlike Hay, Otis Francis Tabler did pursue systems engineering. Born in 1942 in Hampton, Virginia, Tabler eventually moved to Philadelphia where he graduated in 1963 from the University of Pennsylvania with an Bachelor’s degree in engineering. He moved to Denver where he worked for General Electrics and Martin-Marietta Company until later decamping for Los Angeles in the late 1960s for a position with Logicon, located in San Pedro.

From 1966-1969 Tabler studied missile defense systems at Logicon as a computer scientist, from which position he was granted a Secret security clearance. However, during the first background investigation that led to his clearance, he neither concealed nor highlighted his homosexuality. He briefly left Logicon for employment with another company where he did not return to the San Pedro company until 1971‑ at which point he sought a new clearance. During the new investigation, Tabler openly apprised investigators of his sexuality, telling them “I am an overt, practicing homosexual who prefers to obtain a clearance without concealing his personal life from the investigative process.”[32]

Tabler released an Interoffice Correspondence relating his personal history to his superiors and co-workers. The packet included a psychological evaluation by a former U.S. Air Force psychologist that upheld Tabler’s trustworthiness and reliability.[33] Based on their testimony at his hearing, Tabler’s peers agreed with the report. According to his coworkers and supervisors, Tabler demonstrated considerable skill in carrying out his responsibilities, but due to his inability to secure the necessary security clearance, his talents were not being adequately utilized and the company was forced to let him go as a result. His former supervisor, U.S. Air Force Captain Larry Wayne Kern believed Tabler to be honest, trustworthy, and reliable and said that Tabler had “a specific and unique contribution to make in the field.”[34]

While Tabler mounted his defense, the push for equality of sexual orientation had begun to coalesce to a greater degree than in previous decades. By the 1970s, the gay liberation movement had become a dominant force, one undoubtedly shaped by other social movements of the day. For example, in Los Angeles, Morris Kight founded the city’s chapter of the Gay Liberation Front in 1969.[35]

During the 1960s, anti-Vietnam war militancy exhibited by the New Left, the “counterculture,” and Chicano, feminist, and Black Power advocates inspired gay activists as well. On 12 May 1966, L.A. residents witnessed their first gay parade in history, the “First National Homophile Protest” to end the ban on gays in the military. The protest snaked along a twenty-mile route that stretched from Downtown Los Angeles to Hollywood. Participants carried signs that cajoled onlookers to “Write LBJ Today” and pointed out the fact that  “Ten Percent of all GI’s are Homosexual.” The National Conference of Homophile Organizations had planned demonstrations in five cities across the county, but only Los Angeles held a parade. Unfortunately for organizers, the media paid little attention. The Los Angeles Times declined to cover the demonstration unless reports of injuries surfaced.[36]

Agreement within the gay community regarding efforts like that of Tabler was not universal. Not all members of the Gay Liberation Movement believed that gay men and women should be pursuing employment in fields such as the military or defense industry. The ideology of movements that leaned left of center or in some cases fully left, combined with the residue of the Vietnam War, created an internal debate among activists. Why would an ostensibly liberal, politically aware gay man or woman want to work for a warmongering United States government or the various agencies that were seen as (at best) complicit in domestic and foreign policies that victimized minorities and the poor?

Not all members of the Gay Liberation Movement believed that gay men and women should be pursuing employment in fields such as the military or defense industry.

Others like Richard Gayer, a colleague of Kameny’s and a lawyer who represented numerous gay men and women in security clearance cases, believed such efforts served a larger purpose. Gayer had brought his own case regarding discrimination over security clearances earlier in the 1970s, and also sought Kameny’s aid. He explained the importance of such a struggle years later: “There are some among us who argue that because no one should work for agencies as questionable as the CIA, we shouldn’t litigate anti-Gay discrimination by them,” he wrote. “If the government says that Gays are not to be trusted with sensitive information and are otherwise unreliable, then we are likely to be excluded from any employment (private or governmental) that involves such information or requires reliability and dependability.” Whether or not one supported the military industrial complex was beside the point. Anti-gay governmental policies begat anti-gay policies society-wide, he argued. For Gayer, Tabler and others, it came down to a simple fact: “Gay people, like any other class of citizens, should be free to choose their careers without fear of discrimination as they advance their chosen fields.” The inability to do such reverberated throughout society in ways that further circumscribed life for homosexuals.[37]

During the 1970s, newly aggressive gay organizations and activists began to dominate the movement, such as PRIDE and the Gay Liberation Front Los Angeles (GLFLA), formed to push for a place in the public sphere for gays.[38] “As you may know, Gay Liberation Front Los Angeles has become the center of military resistance for the gay community,” GLFLA leader Mark Lareau wrote Kameny in 1971.[39] The GLFLA viewed Kameny as uniquely skilled in battling discrimination against homosexuals in the military and government, sending him dozens of letters from G.I.s; some from military personnel trying to escape service due to homophobia in the armed services and others attempting to hold on to the career they had built in the military now under threat due to their homosexuality. In other ways, the city’s gay community began to assert itself more openly even opening the Gay Community Services Center in 1971. The intersection of the Vietnam War and the city’s vibrant gay liberation movement made Los Angeles a hotbed of activism.

Swept up in this fervor, Tabler too became politically active, at one point joining forces with GLFLA leader and founder Morris Kight to challenge the state’s anti-sodomy and fellatio legislation. Tabler, along with five others, formed the “Felons Six,” a group that “confessed” to engaging in “oral copulation of each other.” When authorities refused to prosecute them, Kight made a citizen’s arrest in front of the L.A. Press Club and brought them to authorities. Law enforcement continued to refuse to prosecute the group, thereby demonstrating California laws governing the private sexual activity of adults to be baseless. Kight testified on Tabler’s behalf at his clearance hearing and explained that the point of the demonstration was to “create a court test case with which to challenge and hopefully strike down Sections 286 and 288A of the California penal code,” which made anal and oral sex illegal. Since the city’s attorney general declined to pursue the case, the problem remained that as long as the law persisted it could be used against homosexuals in certain circumstances as in the case of Otis Tabler’s security clearance investigation and other gay men and women seeking similar clearances.[40]

With a growing political awareness and having been denied a security clearance earlier in 1973, which resulted in job loss, Tabler appealed the decision and forced an open hearing with the Western Division Field Office of the Department of Defense, the first of its kind in U.S. history. The hearing held over four days in late July and early August of 1974, roughly two months after the “Felons Six” demonstration, at the Federal Building on Wilshire Boulevard revealed a clearance process, at least in relation to homosexuality, beset with contradictions that reflected broader societal biases of the day. Government counsel James E. Stauffer told the Los Angeles Times that “as long as these type of activities are determined to be criminal according to statues and high decisions,” the security clearance program had no choice but to conduct investigations accordingly. [41]

The testimony of witnesses at Tabler’s hearing demonstrated that the government’s enforcement of sodomy and perversion laws proved both selective and discriminatory. Logicon security officer Helga Angela Kuczora testified that Tabler notified her early on of his sexuality, which to her mind demonstrated his insusceptibility to blackmail. She noted that everyone else at Logicon knew about Tabler’s sexuality due to the fact that the presence of an open homosexual in a company of three hundred employees amounted to a “small Watergate.” Kuczora further critiqued the clearance process pointing out “a heterosexual is never questioned as to his sexual preferences.” She herself had engaged in sexual acts outlawed by the state but nonetheless held a Top Secret clearance. “I think the main thing here being that why [a] homosexual’s sexual activities and not a heterosexual’s activities are questioned.” Christian Julia Robinson, who had known Tabler for eight years and even carried on a sexual relationship with him at one time drew similar conclusions noting she had engaged in sodomy and oral sex with Tabler but still had qualified for a Secret clearance.[42]

Even a government investigator testified that officials only inquired about an individual’s sexual history when they were a suspected or an admitted homosexual. Michael Roussel Dupre, a special investigator who had conducted the review of Tabler’s case admitted that he perceived Tabler as “responsible, discreet, loyal, and trustworthy “ and insusceptible to blackmail. He acknowledged that in his experience heterosexuals were almost never investigated for “consensual sexual acts,” but when an allegation of homosexuality was leveled and substantiated that “yes, the holders of security clearances who are homosexuals have their clearance taken away from them.” [43]

Tabler testified on his own behalf. When the government’s lawyers inquired about his sexual history notably any prevalence of one-night stands, Kameny objected, pointing out the same would not be asked of heterosexuals. Tabler told Government Examiner Richard Farr that while he believed in a strong, sound, well administered clearance system, the one he encountered had been perverted by “a very, very mentally disturbed homophobic attitude on the part of the Industrial Security Clearance Review Office and extending all the way up through and into a number of people on Capitol Hill….” In regard to state sodomy laws, Tabler viewed them as “merely words written on statue books. I believe that they do not exist.”[44]

Tabler’s mother added emotional tenor to an already contentious hearing. She made an impassioned plea telling the government that her son was a loyal American and that as the widow of a disabled U.S. Air Force veteran, she loved her country, “But I’m horrified to find out that the Defense Department does not honor the Constitution of the United States.” She then broke down in tears.[45]

The government could not reasonably claim that Tabler represented a blackmail risk. He was an open homosexual. His mother knew, as did all his coworkers; over twenty affidavits from colleagues attesting to this fact were submitted into evidence.[46] Tabler even sent letters confessing to his sexuality and violation of state sodomy laws to the Los Angeles County Sheriff and District Attorney.[47]

Though not a lawyer, Kameny represented Tabler and employed an unorthodox and unconventional approach. His opening statement lasted over ninety minutes. He called the security clearance program bigoted, politically corrupt, and vile. He accused the Department of Defense (DOD) and federal government of conducting a war on gays that both waged “relentlessly, remorselessly and mercilessly.” The homosexual community did not want to fight, but “if they want a war they will get it,” he told the government examiner.[48]

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The case drew welcome publicity. One of the most difficult aspects of the early gay liberation movement related to the mainstream media’s tendency to ignore protests, particularly those of the GLFLA.[49] Tabler and Kameny went out of their way to force the case into the public sphere despite attempts by the DOD to avoid an open hearing. Drawing on his experiences from the 1960s, Kameny successfully attracted local and national media attention. Articles before and after the hearing appeared in numerous outlets including the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, the Washington Star, The New York Times, The Palos Verdes Peninsula News, and Newsweek, among others. Radio and television also covered the hearing including Radio-News West, KNBC, and KTTV. KTTV broadcast the closing statements of the hearing and the case even garnered attention overseas in London’s Gay News.[50]

Though many of the articles featured headlines such as, “Homosexual in Fight to Regain U.S. Clearance,” or “Homosexual Gets Security Clearance,” in a letter to LGBT activist Barbara Gittings, Kameny expressed great satisfaction with the end result. Describing the hearing as “the much publicized California case,” Kameny believed that the “de-facto change in [DOD] policies” represented a real victory. He wrote Gittings, “[T]he war which I started formally about 1959, and which you and I fought together in its more formal stages starting about 1965 has now ended with victory.” Having won triumphs at the CSC and DOD, Kameny believe that two of the three “Federal Government battles going on since time immemorial” had been resolved, leaving the Armed Services as the last hold out. Then again, Kameny’s exuberance obscured the fact that the State Department and intelligence services remained very much resistant and would continue to be so into the 1990s. Still Kameney was correct; the ruling represented significant progress.[51]


At the same time, organizations like the Gay Community Alliance (GCA) formed to encourage Los Angeles homosexuals to “register, vote, and think of themselves as a political force.” The GCA drafted voter slates and campaigned for gay friendly candidates. In 1973, one year after Harvey Milk had become the first openly gay individual in the state to be elected to office, in San Francisco, Burt Pines won election to become city attorney. Though not homosexual, Pines’s victory was due in great part due to his courting of the gay vote. Pines immediately pushed through reforms that more or less ended city prosecution of gay bars and promised that the LAPD would hire qualified homosexual officers.[52] In 1975, Assemblyman Willie Brown wrote the Consenting Adults bill, which passed, repealing “all laws against homosexual acts.”[53] While the LAPD remained hostile under the leadership of Chief Ed Davis, even continuing to conduct the occasional raid, open hostility to the city’s homosexual population had begun to recede. Granted, obstacles remained, like 1978’s anti-gay Proposition 6, but much had improved. Nationally, however, by 1975 only eleven states had decriminalized adult consensual sexual activity between same sex partners. Government officials acknowledged that members of the LGBT community in states with such laws still on the books made approval of clearances for such individuals deemed “more difficult.”[54] The 1986 Supreme Court ruling in Bowers v. Hardwick, in which by a 5-4 vote the court upheld a Georgia anti-sodomy law, demonstrated how deeply embedded such notions were within American society and jurisprudence.[55]

For Tabler, good news followed, although once again not without a fight. On 17 December 1974, government Examiner Richard S. Farr, who had supervised the hearing, ruled in Tabler’s favor, judging him worthy of a security clearance. However, the Department of Defense appealed the decision and even attempted to disqualify Kameny as his counsel. Still, almost exactly a year to the day, the DOD reversed course and dropped its appeal notifying both Kameny and Tabler that it had changed its policies regarding homosexuals.[56]

Tabler became the first openly homosexual person to gain a security clearance. In contrast to his more celebratory remarks to Gittings months earlier Kameny acknowledged in the Mattachine newsletter that much work was left to be done, since now it needed to be determined that such policies would be followed. In addition, the FBI. and CIA conducted their investigations and continued to discriminate against homosexuals.[57] Nonetheless by the 1990s, homosexuals would even be welcomed into the CIA as noted by none other than former C.I.A. Director and Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates who in response to correspondence from the William and Mary Gay and Lesbian Alliance argued the CIA. did not discriminate and in fact “has homosexuals in its workforce.”[58] Undoubtedly, Otis Francis Tabler’s fight contributed to such developments.

Often the military and its related private defense contractors are seen as inherently conservative institutions. Historians like Lisa McGirr have documented how the growth of the defense industry in Orange County contributed directly to the establishment of the New Right and modern conservatism.[59] Yet, as demonstrated, for all its moral ambiguities, the military industrial complex has also provided a space for resistance and the assertion of rights and community for gay men and women across the U.S. but especially in California.

“Sexual orientation is unrelated to moral character. Both patriots and traitors are drawn from the class American citizen and not specifically from the class heterosexual or the class homosexual.[60]

Tabler’s case and others eventually forced the government to evaluate its assumptions regarding gay and lesbian employees. During the 1985 Senate hearings, FBI and CIA officials stuck to their narrative regarding the susceptibility of LGBT employees to blackmail yet could not muster a single example. In 1991, a government commissioned studied found that of one hundred seventeen documented cases of espionage only six involved gay men or women, and none of those half dozen had committed espionage due to blackmail. The report’s author came to the following comprehensible conclusion: “Sexual orientation is unrelated to moral character. Both patriots and traitors are drawn from the class American citizen and not specifically from the class heterosexual or the class homosexual.[60] In the end, all it took was passionate efforts from a thirty-one-year-old systems analyst in California and a militant World War II veteran in Washington D.C., but the moral arc of the U.S. government finally began to bend toward justice after decades of protest fueled by the aims of reaching a state of love, respect, and acceptance.

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[1] Chuck Schoen, “General Colin Powell Makes Rash a Rash Statement Based Only on Conjecture,” The Newsletter Veterans Council for American Rights and Equality, March 1992, Service Academies Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Alumni Records, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress; Craig Anderson, “Discharged veteran, 65, still battles for gay military rights,” The Press Democrat, 11 March 1991, Service Academies Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Alumni Records, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

[2] Robert Gates to Michael A. Pemberton and Thomas P. Rowan, 6 March 1992, Folder 3, Box 42, Frank Kameny Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[3] Mattachine Society of Washington D.C., “Homosexual wins final award of security clearance,” Press Release, 4 August 1975, Folder 9, Box 158, Frank Kameny Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[4] Kathy Burke, “Homosexual in Fight to Regain U.S. Clearance,” Los Angeles Times, 4 August 1974.

[5] John D’Emilio, Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983); Alan Berube, Coming Out under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women in World War II (New York: Free Press, 2000).

[6] Daniel Hurewitz, Bohemian Los Angeles and the Making of Modern Politics (Oakland: University of California Press, 2007), 232.

[7] Berube, Coming Out under Fire, 123.

[8] Margot Canaday, The Straight State: Sexuality and Citizenship in Twentieth-Century America (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009), 175.

[9] Lillian Faderman and Stuart Timmons, Gay L.A.: A History of Sexual Outlaws, Power Politics, and Lipstick Lesbians (New York: Basic Books, 2006), 30.

[10] Faderman and Timmons, Gay L.A., 84.

[11] Whitney Strub, “The Clearly Obscene and the Queerly Obscene: Heternormativity and Obscenity in Cold War Los Angeles,” American Quarterly 60 (2008): 381-382.

[12] Strub, “The Clearly Obscene and the Queerly Obscene,” 382, 383, 387, 389.

[13] Elsa Devienne, “Urban Renewal by the Sea: Reinventing the Beach for the Suburban Age in Postwar Los Angeles,” Journal of Urban History, 29 March 2018, accessed 15 May 2018, https://doi.org/10.1177/0096144217753379.

[14] Hurewitz, Bohemian L.A., 254.

[15] Stuart Timmons, The Trouble with Harry Hay: Founder of the Modern Gay Movement, (Boston: Alyson Publications, 1990), 117-118, 130-31. During World War II, Hay worked on developing a pilotless aircraft at Interstate Aircraft in Los Angeles. He soon moved on to Avion Aircraft where his supervisor made efforts to convince Hay to enroll in Cal Tech to study systems engineering, but his inability to get a security clearance due to his communist affiliations resulted in a career of lower level manufacturing work such as his position at a downtown firm following the war, Leahy Manufacturing.

[16] Margaret O’Mara, Cities of Knowledge: Cold War Science and the Search for the Next Silicon Valley (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005), 202.

[17] David K. Johnson, The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), 170-71.

[18] David K. Johnson, “‘Homosexual Citizens’: Washington’s Gay Community Confronts the Civil Service,” Washington History 6 (1994/1995): 62; David K. Johnson, The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), 174, 184.

[19] Johnson, The Lavender Scare, 106-7.

[20] Lilli Vincenz to Sister Mary Agnes, 13 October 1965, Folder Personal Correspondence 1965, Box 3, Lilli Vincenz papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[21] Johnson, The Lavender Scare, 200-201.

[22] “10 oppose Gov’t on homosexuals,” Washington Afro American, 20 April 1965, Folder 4, Box 15, Lilli Vincenz papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[23] Brian Moylan, “Pivotal Protest”, The Washington Blade, 8 April 2005, Folder 4, Box 15, Lilli Vincenz papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Johnson, The Lavender Scare, 206-207.

[27] Richard White, “It’s Your Misfortune and None of My Own”: A New History of the American West (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1993), 496.

[28] Roger W. Lotchin, Fortress California, 1910-1961: From Warfare to Welfare (Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1992), 65.

[29] Thomas Hill, “The Securitization of Security: Reorganization of Land, Military, and State in the Pentagon’s Backyard,” Journal of Urban History 41 (2015): 76.

[30] Faderman and Timmons, Gay L.A., 145.

[31] Johnson, The Lavender Scare, 170-171. Several U.S. governmental agencies had begun purging homosexual employees years before the 1953 executive order.

[32] Otis Francis Tabler, Interoffice Correspondence: Request for your support in maintaining my right to hold an Industrial Security Clearance, 4 August 1973, Folder 4, Box 149, Frank Kameny Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress. The underlined portion of the letter was written by Tabler.

[33] Ibid.; Franklin Drucker M.D., Re: Otis Frank Tabler, 14 November 1972, Folder 4, Box 149, Frank Kameny Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[34] Larry Wayne Kern, testimony, Otis Francis Tabler Jr. v. OSD 73-86, 30 July 1974, Folder 1, Box 35, Frank Kameny Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[35] Faderman and Timmons, Gay L.A., 165.

[36] Ibid., 153-154.

[37] Richard Gayer, Press Release “The Green vs. CIA Settlement–A New Way to Gay Equality,” 25 October 1984, Box 40, Folder 8, Frank Kameny Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[38] Faderman and Timmons, Gay L.A., 170-72.

[39] Gary M. Lareau to Frank Kameny, 11 March 1971, Frank Kameny Papers, Folder 3, Box 92, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[40] Faderman and Timmons, Gay L.A., 180; Morris Kight, testimony, Otis Francis Tabler Jr. v. OSD 73-86, 30 July 1974, Frank Kameny Papers, Folder 1, Box 35, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[41] “Pentagon Opens Security Review,” The New York Times, 4 August 1974; Kathy Burke, “Homosexual in Fight to Regain Clearance,” Los Angeles Times, 4 August 1974.

[42] Christian Julia Robinson, testimony, 31 July 1974, Frank Kameny Papers, Folder 2, Box 149, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[43] Kathy Burke, “Homosexual in Fight to Regain Clearance,” Los Angeles Times, 4 August 1974; Michael Roussel Dupre, testimony, Otis Francis Tabler Jr. v. OSD 73-86, 31 July 1974, Folder 4, Box 149, Frank Kameny Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress; Helga Angela Kuczora, testimony, Otis Francis Tabler Jr. v. OSD 73-86, 31 July 1974, 198-99, Folder 1, Box 35, Frank Kameny Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress; Christine Julia Robinson, testimony, Otis Francis Tabler Jr. v. OSD 73-86, 31 July 1974, 360, Folder 1, Box 35, Frank Kameny Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[44] Otis Francis Tabler, testimony, Otis Francis Tabler Jr. v. OSD 73-86, 30 July 1974, 476, Folder 1, Box 35, Frank Kameny Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[45] Mary Aull Tabler, testimony, Otis Francis Tabler Jr. v. OSD 73-86, 30 July 1974, 46-50, Folder 1, Box 35, Frank Kameny Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, 166-67.

[46] Ronald Den Hartwick, Affidavit, 28 June 1974, Folder 4, Box 149, Frank Kameny Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress; Frank Terrio Cummings, Affidavit, 28 June 1974, Folder 4, Box 149, Frank Kameny Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress; Wray Davison Bentley, Jr., Affidavit, 28 June 1974, Folder 4, Box 149, Frank Kameny Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress. These are three examples from over twenty submitted.

[47] Otis Francis Tabler to Sheriff Peter J. Pitchess, 17 December 1973, Folder 4, Box 149, Frank Kameny Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress; Otis Francis Tabler to Honorable Joseph J. Busch, District Attorney, County of Los Angeles, Folder 4, Box 149, Frank Kameny Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[48] Frank Kameny, opening statement, i, 30 July 1974, 46-50, Folder 1, Box 35, Frank Kameny Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[49] Faderman and Timmons, Gay L.A., 177.

[50] Kathy Burke, “Homosexual in Fight to Regain U.S. Clearance,” Los Angeles Times, 4 August 1974; “Pentagon Opens Security Review,” The New York Times, 4 August 1974; “Homosexual Gets Security Clearance”, Washington Post, 2 February 1975; “Gay Liberation,” Newsweek, 3 February 1975; Vernon A. Guidry, Jr., “Pentagon Easing Gay Curbs,” Washington Star, 15 August 1975; Frank Kameny to Gay News, 4 March 1975, Folder 14, Box 34, Frank Kameny Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress; Otis Francis Tabler Jr. v. OSD 73-86, 30 July 1974, Folder 1, Box 35, Frank Kameny Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[51] Frank Kameny to Barbara Gittings, 31 July 1975, Folder 1, Box 4, Frank Kameny Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[52] Faderman and Timmons, Gay L.A., 215.

[53] Ibid., 180.

[54] Vernon A. Guidry, “Pentagon Easing Gay Curbs,” Washington Star, 15 August 1975.

[55] Michael J. Graetz and Linda Greenhouse, The Burger Court and the Rise of the Judicial Right (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2016), 208-211.

[56] Mattachine Society of Washington D.C., “Homosexual wins final award of security clearance,” Press Release, 4 August 1975, Folder 9, Box 158, Frank Kameny Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[57] Ibid.

[58] Robert M. Gates, Letter to William and Mary Gay and Lesbian Alliance, 6 March 1992, Folder 3, Box 42, Frank Kameny Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[59] Lisa McGirr, Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New Right (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002).

[60] Paul M. Rosa, “Gays and the Security Myth,” Washington Post, 10 July 1998; Theodore R. Sarbin, “Homosexuality and Personnel Security” (Monterey, CA: Defense Personnel Security Research and Education Center, 1991), 25, 30, 32.


Ryan Reft is a historian of the modern U.S. in the Manuscript Division at the Library of Congress. He is a contributor to and co-editor of the forthcoming anthology East of East: The Making of El Monte, 1700-2017 and writes regularly for KCET. His work has appeared in the Journal of Urban History, Souls, California History, and Southern California Quarterly among other publications and anthologies.

Copyright: © 2018 Ryan Reft. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.


Gender|Sex|Sexuality & California

Boom California seeks proposals for a series of essays on the theme, “Gender, Sex, Sexuality & California: part of the problem & solution.”

We expect this to consist of a range of features related to California’s contributions to these issues, both positive and negative. This includes historical, social, cultural, ethical, medical, psychological, technological, theological, and other features widely represented in interesting ways. Boom’s focus remains the question and contribution of the world in California and California in the world, but we especially invite unique takes on California’s contribution to these matters, including what California may have made possible (or impossible) in light of its particular ordered ways of being.

Issues for exploration may consist of freedom and exploitation, agency and consent culture, the contribution of legislation, criminalization, ‘coming out,’ the Hollywood ‘casting couch,’ Silicon Valley ‘bro’ culture, new and unique liberative movements, as well as the stereotypes propagated by California’s culture-making factory with the very actors, directors, or other figures’ personal lives standing inconsistent with images portrayed in public and through popular media.

Of interest is feminism’s various waves, masculinity, transgenderedness, plastic surgery, STDs, stigma, and class. Of consideration may also be California’s definition of the family, abuse, and California’s contribution to the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, and to various forms of establishing and reinforcing new and old social, religious, racial, and other norms. Further considerations may relate to sexuality and sports, LGBT ‘safe-spaces,’ California ‘cruising’ culture, Proposition 8 and the definition and purpose of ‘marriage,’ sex and California religion/s, prison sexuality, AI innovations, along with California’s own contribution to the development of queer theory (Foucault, Butler, etc.), sexuality and the California environment, among other subjects of inquiry under the broad topic above as related to California.   

We invite 100-word proposals for short (800–2,000 words) and long form (5,000-10,000 words) essays as well as proposals of significant books for review, or possible art or other creative forms of media, exhibits, events, etc. These short proposals should be submitted directly to boom@ucpress.edu by Sunday 15 July, with a deadline of 1 October for final submission of the completed piece for the review process. We anticipate a fast turnaround and to publish this series toward the end of 2018 or the beginning of 2019.




Ayahuasca-naut: A Zen Student’s Experiment with Shamanic Medicine


Nick Shindo Street

A hallucinogenic brew called ayahuasca is having a heyday in the United States. Rolling Stone, Fusion, VICE and other trend-spotting news outlets have posted stories about spiritual adventurers tripping on the stuff during private rituals in hipster outposts like Brooklyn and Berkeley as well as remote jungle settings in Central and South America.

The thick, earthy tea is concocted from a complementary pair of plants that grow in the rain forests of the Western Hemisphere. Depending on whom you ask, ayahuasca—called “the mother” by devotees—opens the doors of perception, provides a window onto the soul, lures naïve Westerners into the heart of darkness or crams a decade of psychotherapy into a few hours.

The legal status of ayahuasca is ambiguous in the United States, though it has been used in shamanic rituals for centuries.

Why is this ayahuasca’s moment? A recent piece in The New Yorker[1] framed the popularity of ayahuasca as yet another wellness fetish in the current “Age of Kale.” That breezily dismissive conclusion doesn’t account for the uptick in ritual use of the brew among people who aren’t chasing the latest Burning Man-inspired fad. For example, in a segment of its special digital series on mental health care, CBS News[2] examined the buzz—and controversy—around Veterans for Entheogenic Therapy (VET). VET organizes retreats where ayahuasca is used to treat service members suffering from depression, addiction and post-traumatic stress disorder.

That focus on physical and emotional experience, particularly the experience of trauma and the search for healing, highlights an important but underreported trend: Though millions of Americans, particularly young adults in big coastal cities, are dropping out of organized religion, many of those dropouts are still looking for experiences of self-transcendence. That can mean volunteering at a homeless shelter, learning meditation or simply cultivating a sense of “something bigger than myself.” For some religious “nones”—those who check “none of the above” on religious identification surveys—self-transcendence also entails the ritual use of ayahuasca. And nowhere are these broad developments more apparent than California, which for decades has served as an engine for both counterculture and religious disaffiliation in the United States.

A “none” whom I’ll call Brianna unexpectedly introduced me to one of California’s ayahuasca subcultures during an interview about Brianna’s involvement with a secularized form of Buddhist meditation.

Brianna and I agreed to meet on a shady patio outside a coffee shop at the Farmers Market on Fairfax—it was midafternoon on a warm weekday in Los Angeles. Brianna, a financial consultant, had told me she would be coming from a workout, and that I should look for a woman in her late 20s with long, auburn hair wearing a gray tank-top and running tights.

I was instantly envious of Brianna’s arms. She had the guns of someone who manages a handstand with aplomb, who can lob a medicine ball into next Tuesday.

Not surprisingly, self-discipline and a no-nonsense approach to life quickly emerged as two of Brianna’s strongest character traits.

“I started out very skeptical,” Brianna said of her initial experience with a university-based research center that has become a leader in teaching meditation practices that have been stripped of their religious trappings. “It’s kind of like, you know, this is for hippies, and I’m not a hippie.”

Brianna said that as she deepened her level of participation in the mindfulness program and cultivated her own regular meditation practice, she noticed changes in herself that she liked.

“It’s definitely an effective tool,” she said. “Being able to distance yourself in a healthy way from emotions or experiences, you don’t have to rationalize everything. You just experience it and move on.”

Brianna, a Southern California native, grew up nominally Catholic and still believes in what she calls “a higher power.” But rather than identifying that power as the God of traditional Christianity, she said she equates it with the sense of awe she feels when she is in nature or when she contemplates the infinite vastness of the night sky.

As we began to wrap things up, I asked Brianna whether there was anything important about her story that we’d not covered. “Yes,” she replied. Then she told me that over the past year and a half, she had participated in three ayahuasca rituals.

“I was super skeptical about that too,” she said. “But now I’m a believer.”

Unlike members of the 1960s counterculture who used psychedelics to “tune in and drop out,” many of today’s religious “nones” are both squarely in the mainstream of American professional life and willing to experiment with spiritual technologies that are more typically associated with the cultural fringe. Erik Davis, a scholar of contemporary American esoteric spirituality and author of Visionary State: A Journey Through California’s Spiritual Landscapes,[3] has observed this paradoxical trend first-hand: “In my work,” Davis said, “I’ve encountered people from a science background or secular background who are concerned about losing their reason, but who are also happy to see that there’s a way to engage the weird stuff,” like psychedelics.

Davis added that the willingness of more-or-less secular seekers like Brianna to scratch their spiritual itches by using ayahuasca “blows my mind.”

“Even in the psychedelic world,” Davis said, “ayahuasca is fucking hardcore. Its visionary dimension is robust and bizarre. But psychedelics are very plastic, and your intention helps to shape the experience.”

In keeping with her pragmatic approach to both mindfulness and shamanic medicine, Brianna said that while all three ayahuasca rituals were useful for her, her most recent experience was life altering: “It was one of the best experiences in my entire life. Perhaps the best.”

She described lying on a meditation mat in a state between consciousness and unconsciousness while the shaman chanted, drummed and made his way around the room to administer healings to Brianna and the other participants. During the last ritual she attended, she said experienced “pure joy” for several hours.

I asked Brianna whether she thought ayahuasca was compatible with the discipline and insights she’s developed through her meditation.

“They’re definitely complementary,” she said. “The idea is that ayahuasca, the plant, she gives you what you need at the time. She can be harsh sometimes or she can be very loving. I’ve only had good experiences so far.”


On a Wednesday night a few weeks later, I sat on a small pallet of bedding that I’d made for myself and swayed gently as the shaman’s chanting shifted into a languid, sweetly melancholy register.

The room was dimly lit—the only sources of illumination were a small candle and cool, silver-white streetlight seeping through sheets of creamy parchment that our host had used to cover the big windows in the living room of his house on L.A.’s Westside. There were eight other participants, along with the shaman and his attendant. The shaman—about six feet tall with short, shaggily cropped dark hair—was a Frenchman who had traveled to the Peruvian Amazon to find a cure for his heroin addiction. He spent the next ten years in the jungle as an apprentice to an indigenous medicine man.

His attendant was a fifty-something psychotherapist whose pale shawl and shoulder-length gray-blonde hair gave her a ghostly appearance as she moved around the room to check on us and administer healings.

Our little nests of blankets and pillows outlined the perimeter of the space, creating a semicircle in front of the darkly patterned rugs and tapestries that demarked the shaman’s altar. Close at hand, the shaman had a large green bottle of ayahuasca, a small octagonal drum, a wooden whistle and a feather-duster-sized bundle of papery leaves that evoked the sound of birds flapping through a forest when he shook it.

Smoke from mapacho, the Amazonian tobacco that often grows near the ayahuasca vine, hung in the air.

At the start of the ritual, the shaman told us that his singing—a combination of North and South American indigenous languages as well as a shamanic version of speaking in tongues—was meant to shape the flow of energy in the room rather than convey any sort of meaning. While he was explaining this, I was clinging to a small plastic bucket. Ayahuasca often causes intense vomiting, and in a few minutes I was retching with such gusto that, at one point, the shaman stopped chanting and said, “Nick, you need to get control of your mind.”

After the purging came the visions. In the kind of half-conscious state that Brianna had described in recounting her experience, I became vividly aware of the toxic mixture of shame and self-loathing that I’d marinated in as a closeted gay kid growing up in Alabama during the 1970s and ’80s. At one point I even glimpsed myself as a fetus, absorbing metaphysical poison through the umbilicus while I was still in my mother’s womb.

“Fuck that,” I said, banishing dark, smoky tentacles of shame that were trying to wrap themselves around me.

Dramatic insights like that are common during long meditation retreats. I’ve been a Zen practitioner for fifteen years, ordained as a priest in 2007 and soon thereafter moved into a small Buddhist temple.

Zazen (Zen meditation) and the shamanic use of ayahuasca are both spiritual technologies designed to help seekers cultivate a state of awareness freed from the distortions of reality caused by tightly held beliefs, concepts, and other habits of mind.

Carefully managed rituals traditionally surround both practices. These lattices of sound, spectacle, and movement act as a psychological container for the powerful emotional energies—awe, wonder, fear and anger, for example—that are often uncorked in the process.

A couple of times over the course of the ayahuasca ritual, the visions and physical sensations I was experiencing became almost too much to bear—for example, at one point I watched my body become transparent. At another, I felt myself melting into a liquid form. Seeing the sweater at the foot of my bed writhe like an earthworm was also disconcerting. Some prior instructions from my Zen teacher (“no matter what happens, just relax and float downstream”) helped me navigate most of those intense experiences and waves of feeling.

Toward the end of the ritual, a bout of paranoia sent me crawling (I couldn’t walk) out of the circle and onto a poolside patio. After several veteran ayahuasca-nauts failed to coax me back inside—their voices seemed out of sync with their mouths when they spoke, which didn’t help my anxiety—the shaman himself intervened: “You’re safe here,” he said as he held me by the shoulders, “and everyone here loves you.”

That did the trick. I was embarrassed by the group’s exuberance when I finally rejoined the circle. The room was suffused with golden light, and I wept in response to the intense love that I felt as the ritual reached a crescendo and began to wind down.“You have to remember that you’re always looking into your own mind,” my Zen teacher told me when I recounted my experiences to him the next day. “It’s your fear or your joy. And fear and joy are just more thinking. Don’t grab onto them and just go back to your practice—that’s staying in the circle!”

These insights into psyche and the numinous are by no means unique to Zen or the ritual use of ayahuasca. In my work as a journalist covering religion, I’ve interviewed many people who have had similar experiences during Pentecostal prayer, yogic breathing, and other spiritual practices.

Some of these paths intersect or even overlap. For example, there’s a connection between the kind of spiritual yearning that often attracts people to Zen as well as ayahuasca—specifically, the desire to see reality as it is, not filtered or refracted through the lenses of belief and cultural conditioning.

That’s why ayahuasca is the spiritual doorway of choice for many seekers in the age of religious “nones.” While some young adults are leaving organized religion to pursue decidedly unspiritual materialistic goals, many other “nones” are looking for firsthand experiences of absolute reality, which they feel the doctrines of traditional religion have obscured.

In the case of Brianna and other religious “nones,” the intention that guides their spiritual seeking is to connect with the sublime or divine in a purely experiential way that casts aside rigid ethical formulas and speculative theologies.

“I know that there’s some higher power,” Brianna said. “But do I think we have to follow any specific rules, and is there an afterlife? Like, no.”

Brianna added that the goal of life is the happiness that comes from being a good person—someone who works to create productive lives for herself and others. That hopeful formulation impressed me as good medicine for heartsick times.

“I suspect this kind of seeking is happening everywhere,” Erik Davis said, “even if California is the most obvious example. Through technology and media, we’re all kind of California now.”


  • Special thanks to Alex and Allyson Grey of the Chapel of Sacred Mirrors (http://cosm.org/) for the kind use of their art, and also to Mark McCloud.

[1] Ariel Levy, “The Drug of Choice for the Age of Kale,” The New Yorker, 12 September 2016.

[2] Roman Feeser, “State of Mind Episode 2: Hidden Battles,” CBS News, 10 May 2017.

[3] Erik Davis, The Visionary State: A Journey Through California’s Spiritual Landscape (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2006).


Nick Shindo Street is the senior writer with the Center for Religion and Civic Culture at the University of Southern California. His reporting on religious movements, politics, sexuality, popular culture and news media has appeared in Religion & Politics, Nieman Reports, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, Al Jazeera America, Global Post, Religion Dispatches, The Jewish Journal and Patheos.

Copyright: © 2017 Nick Shindo Street. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/



Michel Foucault in Death Valley: A Boom interview with Simeon Wade

Simeon Wade
Heather Dundas

Editor’s Note: Michel Foucault (born Paul-Michel Foucault in 1926) was one of the central thinkers of the latter half of the twentieth century. Neither a traditional philosopher nor a trained historian, Foucault examined the intersection of truth and history through the specific historical dynamics of power.

In France, Foucault was a major figure in structuralist thinking of the 1960s and in the years that followed. However, in the United States, especially in popular culture, Foucault is often thought of as an inciter of the “French theory” movement that swept through American universities in the 1970s and 1980s. Often controversial, Foucault’s analyses of the uses of power in society, as well as his concerns with sexuality, bodies, and norms have been pivotal in the development of contemporary feminist and queer theory.

One early follower of Foucault’s thinking was Simeon Wade, assistant professor of history at Claremont Graduate School. A native of Texas, Wade moved to California in 1972 after earning his Ph.D. in the intellectual history of Western civilization from Harvard in 1970. In 1975, Foucault was invited to California to teach a seminar at the University of California, Berkeley. Following a lecture, Wade and his partner, musician Michael Stoneman, invited Foucault to accompany them on a road trip to Death Valley. After some persuasion, Foucault agreed. The memorable trip occurred two weeks later. This interview was conducted by Heather Dundas on 27 May 2017, and has been edited for length, clarity, and historical accuracy.

Foucault and Stoneman in Death Valley

Foucault and Michael Stoneman in Death Valley.

: What can you tell us about the above photo?

Simeon Wade: I snapped the above photo with my Leica camera, June 1975. The photograph features the Panamint Mountains, the salt flats of Death Valley, and the frozen dunes at Zabriskie Point. In the foreground, two figures: Michel Foucault, in the white turtleneck, his priestly attire, and Michael Stoneman, who was my life partner.

Boom: How did you end up in Death Valley with Michel Foucault?

Simeon Wade: I was performing an experiment. I wanted to see [how] one of the greatest minds in history would be affected by an experience he had never had before: imbibing a suitable dose of clinical LSD in a desert setting of great magnificence, and then adding to that various kinds of entertainment. We were in Death Valley for two days and one night. And this is one of the spots we visited during this trip.

Boom: What can you say about this photograph? Were Foucault and Stoneman already tripping when it was taken? And wasn’t it incredibly hot, Death Valley in June?

Wade: Yes. We rose to the occasion, as it were, in an area called Artist’s Palette. And yes, it was very hot. But in the evening, it cooled off, and you can see Foucault in his turtleneck in the cool air. We went to Zabriskie Point to see Venus appear. Michael placed speakers all around us, as no one else was there, and we listened to Elisabeth Schwarzkopf sing Richard Strauss’s, Four Last Songs. I saw tears in Foucault’s eyes. We went into one of the hollows and laid on our backs, like James Turrell’s volcano,[1] and watched Venus come forth and the stars come out later. We stayed at Zabriskie Point for about ten hours. Michael also played Charles Ives’s, Three Places in New England, and Stockhausen’s Kontakte, along with some Chopin…. Foucault had a deep appreciation of music; one of his friends from college was Pierre Boulez.[2]

Boom: That’s quite a playlist. But why LSD?

Wade: The revelation of St. John on the Isle of Patmos is said by some to have been inspired by the Amanita muscaria mushroom. LSD is a chemical equivalent to the hallucinogenic potency of these mushrooms. So many great inventions that made civilization possible took place in societies that used magic mushrooms in their religious rituals.[3] So I thought, if this is true, if the chemical compound has such power, then what is this going to do to the great mind of Foucault?


Foucault and Michael Stoneman, Death Valley.

: But why go so far for this experience? Why drive five hours from Claremont to Death Valley?

Wade: The major reason was that Michael and I had had so many wonderful trips in the desert. Death Valley, many times, and also Mojave, Joshua Tree. If you take clinical LSD and you’re in a place like Death Valley, you can hear harmonic progressions just like in Chopin; it is the most glorious music you’ve ever heard, and it teaches you that there’s more.

Boom: Until recently the very 1970s idea of, as you put it in your manuscript,[4] a “magic elixir” to expand consciousness, was so out of fashion as to be ludicrous. But current research has called this quick dismissal of the psychedelic experience into question.[5]

Wade: And about time! [During these trips] I saw the firmament as it truly is, in all of its glorious colors and forms, and I also heard the echoes from the big bang, which sounds like a chorus of angels, which is what the ancients thought it was.

Boom: So you wanted to give Foucault LSD so he could access this “glorious music”?

Wade: Not only that. It was 1975, of course, and The Order of Things had been published for nearly a decade (published in 1966 in French). The Order of Things treats man’s finitude, his inevitable death, as well as the death of humanity, arguing that the whole humanism of the renaissance is no longer viable. To the point of saying that the face of man has been effaced.

Boom: There’s the famous passage at the end of The Order of Things, postulating a world without the power structures of the Enlightenment: “If those arrangements were to disappear… then one can certainly wager that man would be erased, like a face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea.”[6]

Wade: I thought, if I give Foucault clinical LSD, I’m sure he will realize that he is premature in obliterating our humanity and the mind as we know it now, because he’ll see that there are forms of knowledge other than science, and because of the theme of death in his thinking up to that point. The tremendous emphasis of finitude, finitude, finitude reduces our hope.

Boom: So you took Foucault to Death Valley for a kind of rebirth, in a sense?

Wade: Exactly. It was a transcendental experience for Foucault. He wrote us a few months later that it was the greatest experience of his life, and that it profoundly changed his life and his work.

Foucault and Stoneman Death Valley 2

Foucault and Stoneman, Death Valley.

: At the time of this trip, Foucault had just published the first volume of his projected six-volume work, History of Sexuality. He’d also published an outline of the rest of the work, and apparently already had finished writing several volumes of it. So when did this post-Death Valley change become evident in his work?

Wade: Immediately. He wrote us that he had thrown volumes two and three of his History of Sexuality into the fire and that he had to start all over again. Whether that was just a way of speaking, I don’t know, but he did destroy at least some version of them and then wrote them again before his premature death in 1984. The titles of these last two books are emblematic of the impact this experience had on him: The Uses of Pleasure and The Care of the Self, with no mention of finitude. Everything after this experience in 1975 is the new Foucault, neo-Foucault. Suddenly he was making statements that shocked the French intelligentsia.[7]

Boom: Such as?

Wade: Statements more confidently out in the open, like that he finally realized who the real Columbus of politics was: Jeremy Bentham. Jeremy Bentham had been up to around this time a very respected figure, and Foucault had begun to find him an intellectual villain. And Foucault denies Marx and Engels, and says we should just look at Marx as an excellent journalist, not a theorist. And all of the things Foucault had been inching toward were bolstered after the Death Valley trip. Foucault from 1975 to 1984 was a new being.[8]

Boom: You’ve mentioned that some people disagreed with your experiment and thought you were reckless with Foucault’s welfare.

Wade: Many academicians were very negative on this point, saying that this was tampering with a great person’s mind. I shouldn’t tamper with his mind. But Foucault was well aware of what was involved, and we were with him the entire time.

Boom: Did you think about the repercussions this experience would have on your career?

Wade: In retrospect, I should have.[9]

Boom: Was this a one-off experience? Did you ever see Foucault again?

Wade: Yes, Foucault visited us again. Shortly after his second visit, which was two weeks after this, where we stayed up in the mountains—it was a mountain experience.

Boom: Also with music and LSD?

Wade: No LSD, but everything else. After he left the second time, I sat down and wrote an account of the experience, called Death Valley Trip. It’s never been published. Foucault read it. We had a robust correspondence. And then we spent a fantastic time with him again in 1981, when he was at a conference at the University of Southern California.

Boom: Did you save Foucault’s letters?

Wade: Yes, about twenty of them. The last one was written in 1984. He asked if he could come live with us in Silverlake, as he was suffering from a terminal illness. I think he wanted to die like Huxley.[10] I said yes, of course. Unfortunately, before he was ready to travel, the trap door of history caught him by surprise.[11]

Foucault and Simeon Wade, Claremont, after the Death Valley experience.

Simeon Wade and Foucault, Claremont, after the Death Valley experience.


  • The Editor wishes to thank Stuart Elden, Professor of Political Theory and Geography, Politics and International Studies, University of Warwick, and author of Foucault’s Last Decade and Foucault: The Birth of Power (Polity Press) for clarifying a number of factual matters in this interview. Thanks also to Jonathan Simon.

[1] James Turrell, Roden Crater, http://www.rodencrater.com.

[2] Editor’s note: According to Stuart Elden, “Foucault was much closer to Jean Barraqué, with whom he had a friendship and for a while a relationship. Barraqué was another significant modernist composer and this may be who is meant [here]” (email correspondence, 29 August 2017).

[3] “…such as the Sumerians, who invented everything, including writing, and the Essenes, who invented Christianity.” Wade’s thinking aligns with John Allegro’s theories presented in The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross (London: Hodder & Stoughton, Ltd., 1970). Most scholars rejected Allegro’s book immediately. However, the book was reissued in 2008 with an addendum by Professor Carl Ruck of Boston University outlining the continuing mushroom controversy.

[4] Simeon Wade, Michel Foucault in Death Valley, unpublished manuscript.

[5] The recent explosion of research into LSD and its effects is too vast for this article to document, yet some notable publications include Robin L. Carhart-Harris et al., “Neural correlates of the LSD experience revealed by multimodal neuroimaging,” PNAS 113 (2016): 4853-4858; Stephen Ross et al., “Rapid and sustained symptom reduction following psilocybin treatment for anxiety and depression in patients with life-threatening cancer: a randomized controlled trial,” Journal of Psychopharmacology 30 (2016): 1165–1180; Felix Mueller et al., “Acute effects of lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) on amygdala activity during processing of fearful stimuli in healthy subjects,” Translational Psychiatry (April 2017), http://www.nature.com/tp/journal/v7/n4/full/tp201754a.html?foxtrotcallback=true.

[6] Michel Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (New York: Vintage Books, 1994), 387.

[7] Editor’s note: The actual published vols. 2 and 3 were written to an entirely different plan than the original one, and several years later with completely different material content. So the claim that he destroyed and then rewrote is contestable. Furthermore, the original plan for vol. 2 was a discussion of Christianity, which was rewritten and yet was also reconfigured later down the publishing pipeline to be vol. 4 of the project. According to Stuart Elden, this volume is projected for publication in French in 2018 by Gallimard.

[8] Foucault discusses the change in his thinking and writing in interviews conducted in 1984, at the very end of his life. See “The Ethics of the Concern for Self,” “An Aesthetics of Existence,” “The Concern for Truth,” and “The Return of Morality,” all reprinted in Foucault Live: Collected Interviews, 1961-1984 (Sylvère Lotringer, ed. Semiotext(e), 1989, 1996). Editor’s note: Surveiller et punir: Naissance de la prison was published February 1975 in French, and therefore with the Death Valley trip being June 1975 it is impossible for this later event to have influenced Foucault’s reading of Bentham, &c., as the critiques are laid out in Surveiller et punir, the English translation of which, under the title, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, was not published until 1977. The Editor wishes to thank Stuart Elden for clarification on this point.

[9] Simeon Wade left Claremont Graduate School in 1977. After adjunct teaching as an instructor of history and art history at several universities, he obtained a nursing license and spent the balance of his working life as a psychiatric R.N. at Los Angeles County Psychiatric Hospital and Psychiatric R.N. Supervisor at Ventura County Hospital.

[10] The novelist Aldous Huxley asked his wife to inject him with LSD as he died on 22 November 1963. http://www.lettersofnote.com/2010/03/most-beautiful-death.html

[11] Michel Foucault died in Paris, 25 June 1984 at the age of 57. Simeon Wade and Michael Stoneman remained close until Stoneman’s death in 1998. Wade for many years lived in Oxnard, California, where he wrote and played the piano. Wade died 3 October 2017.


Heather Dundas is a candidate for the Ph.D. in Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Southern California. Her website is www.heatherdundas.com.

Copyright: © 2017 Heather Dundas. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/



The Sinatras of Capitalism

Julia Ingalls

On the porch that evening in August 2004, still wearing his plastic ID bracelet from the ER, my father laughed. The mental blowout, which doctors diagnosed as transient global amnesia, was his memorable way of retiring. I couldn’t blame him. He’d clocked sixty years on earth, most of it spent dodging shrapnel of one kind or another. As an infant, he sustained second degree burns when the windows of his house blew out from an explosion at Hercules’ powder factory, knocking over a pot of boiling water onto his high-chair. As an adult, he stayed inside his military-issue roadgrader to avoid being picked off by the Viet Cong. He’d been married twice, raised two kids, and been involved in enough lawsuits to have estranged his sister and chastened his cheating former business partner. He’d had enough of the unceasing flood of methheads and manipulators and emotionally retarded that made up our customer base.

Maybe there was a time when it made sense for the next generation to carry forward the old processes, but I didn’t perceive a future in this. With its dipping tanks and fin-pressing machines and toxic chemicals, my family’s automotive aftermarket company seemed less like a living entity and more like one of those historical recreation villages populated by actors with child-garnishments and prison records. However, as the newly appointed twenty-four year old operational manager of our family business, this was now officially my problem. My parents had been running this business for eleven years. Neither one wanted to continue doing so, but the mechanism for not running it while still making a living had yet to manifest. It didn’t matter if manufacturing in the U.S. was waning, or if globalization had skyrocketed the price of raw materials we used regularly like sheets of copper and brass; my family’s well-being depended on me figuring out how to make this business profitable again. A dopey business broker had been bringing potential buyers to the office like a hawk wrangler, giving them a hasty glance at our financials before urging them to fly free. And they kept flying free.

As a recent college graduate who wanted to be a writer, the world of business was not my first choice. I loved studying people for their humanity, not for how they could benefit the bottom line. But that was a position of privilege; the new reality of managing a company for the sake of my family would require me to put aside my love of literature and use my powers of observation to study some very ugly business indeed.

• • •

Over New Year’s Eve weekend in December 2016, my friend Paul, an architect, his boyfriend Jose, a buyer for a major retailer, and I, an essayist, were lounging poolside in a rented house in Palm Springs. The thing I’ve always loved about Paul is that while he is capable of clearly interpreting reality, he does so without judgment: he relates to each person he meets as if that person has value, even if that value isn’t necessarily one he shares. He understands, for example, that without a brick-layer, brick will not be laid. If the brick-layer is having a problem, Paul needs to understand how to solve it, not simply blow it off as being a menial labor concern.

We were trying to enjoy ourselves in the waning weeks of the Obama administration, before the swearing-in of reality TV fascism. The result of the election, which was being blamed on working class voters, seemed simplified to me. Or rather, it seemed to be the result of exploiting an invisible class breakdown between those who preferred to work with their hands versus those who preferred to work with their minds. As we switched from mimosas to wine, Paul spoke about relating to different sets of people he encountered in his work; everyone from the clients to government officials to on-site construction workers.

I met Paul in 2007 when we were both working for Frank Gehry. I had started work at the architect’s office shortly after successfully restructuring the pricing architecture of my parents’ business. Initially, to save money at the business, I had laid off the most recent hire, a phlegmatic receptionist. It wasn’t her fault that she had to be let go, but she was the most expendable of an already tight crew of ten. I offered to write her the best recommendation letter known to humanity, and then I took on her job of answering the phone in addition to what I was already doing, which included the books, handling HR issues, managing sales and production, and negotiating pricing with vendors. The business needed to turn a profit. But how? All the fat had been cut.


I had learned, after some intensive late nights of studying our manufacturing process in detail, just how vital each member of the crew was. Every person had a highly specialized skill, and it had taken years for them to learn how to do things like bend metal beautifully, or solder without leaving embarrassing stains and spurts all over the finished product. As much as a novel is heavily dependent upon its characters more than some abstract notion of plot, the business depended on its workforce more than some corporate formula for success. Although technically people could be replaced, the time and energy spent in retraining someone else would simply be money out of pocket. I was not a slash and burn operator; I had to find a way to keep the essential staff while making the company make more money.

Finally, I realized the problem was the solution. As I discovered later, it went against a primary principle taught at Harvard Business School, which was that businesses needed to offer a high volume loss-leader product that would draw in a larger customer base to the core business, but here’s why it worked: we were selling a luxury product. Nobody needs a handcrafted radiator for their 1912 Model T the way they need a pair of pants or a bottle of milk. We were selling a tangible item, but we were also selling an experience, a taste of the good life. By definition, luxury isn’t cheap.

And yet wealth, despite what rich people tell you, has very little to do with money. Wealth is a state of mind; money is the intoxicant that often makes reaching this state possible. But true wealth, in its varying forms, is not about Scrooge McDucking your way through an unending vault of officially-stamped lucre. To be wealthy is to be infallible: and for this reason, it is bound less with numbers and more with perception.

As an example, you can be wealthy on a street corner in Southern California, simply because it is Southern California. Pay a hefty Malibu mortgage or squat in some unpermitted lean-to in a Culver City backyard and you’re still waking up to daily splendor. The ocean lolls around like an untapped 401(k); the palm trees languidly bend like house cats. It’s a perpetual waking dream, a sun-dappled sanctuary 500 square miles in size. Why bother with unpleasant emotions when every available surface is bursting with beauty? This is the lazy wealth of abundant natural resources, and it used to extend in slightly less photogenic form across the whole of the United States.

This lazy wealth was a kind of ignorance that stemmed from a hard-won luck, which is to say we economically excelled in World War II and felt like we would collectively never have to work again. We would become the operational managers of the world, occasionally ordering the clean-up of a spill of communism in some third-world aisle.

It helped that during the twentieth century, China was doing its somnambulist empire thing: it would twitch occasionally in its sleep, but for the most part it kept everyone in the world entertained with its communist mumblings and dream-logic insistence on One Time Zone. Now and then, it also ran over dissidents with tanks. However, during the first decade of the twenty-first century, China finally stirred awake and began to heavily invest in industry. They partnered with a variety of European and American firms, intent on providing manufactured goods at a much cheaper price. The deal was, they would give us the cheap goods as long as we provided the instructions on how to make them. Raw materials like copper, zinc, and steel correspondingly shot up in price as China began manufacturing everything in the world.

Which meant if you were a soup-to-nuts manufacturer who had never had to compete with the demand for supplies of a billion-person workforce, your pricing architecture was quietly experiencing massive dry-rot.

For this reason, my family’s business model, the one that had paid mortgages and helped send children to school and funded a lifestyle that could be described as upper middle class, was no longer working. It wasn’t because of shitty management or untrustworthy employees or even the pressures of the newly environmentally regulatory government. It was simply a casualty of the times, a charming but outmoded curmudgeon in the reality of a fiercely competitive globalized economy.


With all that in mind, I decided to increase the end user price of our basic radiators from $425 to $850 with a mass-mailed letter and the knuckle-whitened hand of a Russian roulette player. There was a gasp, there were a few phone calls, and then… the number of orders stayed about the same, but our bottom line slipped effortlessly from the red into the black.

By December 2005, there was that sense of renewal that comes after the end of a long illness. By February 2006, the dopey business broker was gone, replaced by an ad on Craigslist and a sharp-eyed former food executive who was tired of drinking expensive sake with corporate fools and their hookers in Tokyo bars. He was looking for a nice, quiet business in scenic San Luis Obispo county where he could bring his dog to work. And, after replacing all the insulation of the pricing infrastructure, I delivered this ex-exec exactly what he was looking for: a small but genuinely profitable business that overlooked a cow pasture.

• • •

When I moved to L.A. to pursue writing and needed a job to support myself, winding up at Frank Gehry’s was an unexpected delight. FOGA even had Bagel Fridays, a luxury my parents could never afford at their business. Yet other than the fact that Bono and Jeremy Irons were in the Outlook contacts, the vibe was the same. Management (of which I was frequently exposed to by virtue of being an executive assistant) and labor (who I hung out with after work at various bars and cramped Venice apartments) didn’t trust each other. Each felt the other had a superior deal. From management’s perspective, they were providing a guaranteed paycheck to a bunch of whining, candy-assed employees who only had to do their jobs. To labor, the dictates of their bosses seemed to drop out of the sky with a randomness and ferocity that was alienating.

Both parties had a point. But what surprised me was that nobody on either side ever felt comfortable airing their true grievances to each other. Privately, it reinforced my childhood dream to become a writer, where I was neither the evil overlord of an aftermarket automotive company nor on the bottom rung on the Pritzker Prize ladder. But this essential divide still troubles me. Nearly a decade later, after publishing dozens of pieces I’m proud of and many that now simply bemuse me, I wonder that we are so quick to adapt to these roles, the notion of employee/employer. What would it take to recognize each other as being equally valuable, to stop seeing each other as being so starkly divided in the workplace?

I suppose the strong memory of my parent’s business persists because I’ve reached a level in my profession where I regularly encounter V.S. Naipaul knock-offs (that is, the writers who after four years of their degree, from Oxford or wherever, can start to write and needed no other profession) and it took me a long time to stop feeling a little dirty around them, as if my need to figure out how to support my entire family and a staff of 10 was somehow shameful. There are brilliant people out there who have never worked at an assembly line and never will, and I admire their talent, even if many of them came with trust-funds or connections.

Running the business wasn’t exactly art, I admit, although it was highly conceptual. The demands of having to become analytical at the expense of my emotions fractured a part of me I didn’t know could be broken until it was. It took nearly every damn minute in between then and now to become whole again, to become a person who could value pure feeling the way artists are supposed to value feeling. But the thing I can’t stand in those who have never had to sacrifice themselves for others is their lack of compassion.

As Paul, surrounded by the foaming waters of the hot tub, spoke about understanding how to relate to a variety of people in order to accomplish a goal, I felt sadness that the country, and the larger world, had become so immune to compassion. We were going to allow a small cabal of oligarchs to divide us because we were too angry to admit that we all needed each other, that each service we provided was valuable in its own way. Superiority in work, like superiority in life, almost always causes more problems than it solves. But the worst sin is insularity; refusing to reach out to others, to not consider someone else’s life as having as much meaning and worth as your own, is ultimately the downfall of every single civilization. In a way, we knew at the end of 2016 that the country had hired someone to be its Hater in Chief. And why? Because a certain segment of the population wanted their jobs back?

I don’t think it’s as much about the literal jobs as it is about the sense of collective purpose. Telling any group of people that they just have to suck it up and abandon their existence is never going to be a hot sell. But appreciating their skills—in this case, the willingness to do hard, manual work, day in and day out—and understanding how to apply those skills to a newly engineered economic model is. We need to invest in new infrastructure in our cities, and there’s no reason why we can’t pay people a living wage to do it. Everyone benefits from this model, and everyone’s skills are used. It’s about remaking America into a collective vision, not a nation of wounded halves.

I mourn this jilted wedding of economy and ecology on a daily basis. Once the world’s biggest company and the center of American manufacturing, General Motors spent the final decades of the 20th century withering away into obsolescence. Their leadership had refused to acknowledge that competing on a global scale required a complete shift in thinking. Instead of manufacturing gas-guzzling behemoths, we should have been producing electric cars to reflect the consumer desire for energy-efficient, environmentally-friendly vehicles. In 2007, this old way of thinking would finally hit the wall when GM and most of the major American financial institutions finally had to declare bankruptcy or go out of business. But like the Sinatras of capitalism, they did it their way, right up until the end.

A decade later California leads the globally-burgeoning electric car business.[1] The state stands against its own national government on the U.S.’ withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord, while elected officials in cities like Los Angeles attempt to protect the rights of all of their citizens, whether documented or not. California’s ongoing tabula rasa approach to challenges, made literal by the periodic earthquakes that scrape away the unreinforced leavings of history, has made it an important player in a world of constant harmonic shifts and tempo changes. California’s ideas and products tour the world while many elsewhere in this country remain isolated in a shrinking bubble.

Which is why the United States of America must always exist primarily in myth: It was a kind of rough-hewn utopia that never really was as great as it claimed, but never as far-fetched as others accused. Americans felt invincible, powerful, and acted like the leaders of the free world. And then seemingly overnight, our lazy wealth had gone.




  • All photos taken by Sydney Santana.

[1] Michael J. Dunne, “Chinese Electric Vehicle Makers Swarm Into California, Chasing Tesla,” Forbes, 5 May 2016, https://www.forbes.com/sites/michaeldunne/2016/05/05/inspired-by-teslas-triumphs-chinas-electric-vehicle-makers-swarm-into-california/#f6edfe1b0e03.


Julia Ingalls is primarily an essayist. Her work has appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Salon, Dwell, Guernica, Los Angeles Review of Books, L.A. Weekly, among other publications.

Copyright: © 2017 Julia Ingalls. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/



The Deserts of Los Angeles: Two Topologies

Gary Reger

“Night falls quickly in Los Angeles,” observes the narrator of Alison Lurie’s The Nowhere City (1965), “as in the desert which it once was.”[1] “The desert” looms over much fiction set in Los Angeles, from Raymond Chandler’s detective novels to Bret Easton Ellis’s decadent rich of Less Than Zero (1985) or the quasi-future city of Steve Erickson’s Amnesiascope (1996). The desert figures powerfully too in non-fictional treatments of the city, like Carey McWilliams, Southern California: An Island on the Land (1946)[2] or Mike Davis, City of Quartz (1990). These invocations of the desert might strike a positivist geographer as strange. The Los Angeles basin is not arid enough to count as a real desert. The greater Los Angeles region lies nestled in the clasp of mountains: the Santa Monicas north and west, beyond which lurks the little paradise of Santa Barbara; the San Gabriels, just north of the city, which link up, across Cajon Pass, with the towering San Bernardinos, culminating at their east end in the 11,503-foot peak of San Gorgonio; to the southeast, the basin-and-rangy ridges of the Santa Anas; and, beyond the Perris valley, the San Jacintos sheltering Palm Springs, with the Santa Rosas to their south. Beyond those mountains—north of the San Bernardinos, east of the San Jacintos—the great Mojave and Colorado deserts roll across an arid countryside all the way to Las Vegas, and beyond.

Cultural snobbery aside, Los Angeles is no desert.[3] By the standard definition of geographers, deserts receive annual rainfall under ten inches (c. 254 mm); Los Angeles’ average yearly accumulation of about 14.77 inches (c. 375.2 mm) situates the city safely out of the arid fold. Of course, interannual variation is considerable; across the 139 years for which records exist, Los Angeles has experienced a desert-level shortage 39 times, or about 1 year in 3.5. Anton Wagner insisted many years ago that microvariations abound; although the semi-arid steppe climate of the Köppen-Geiger BS classification predominates, topographical variation, coastal influences, and the sea all conspire to impose different climatic regimes across the broad LA basin.[4] Sober observers have known that Los Angeles isn’t desert. Los Angeles occupies, Carey McWilliams observed, “this fortunate coast walled off from the desert by the great arch of mountains….”[5] But the pull of the image is powerful, and fiction need not be bound by the strictures of the geographer. For many writers LA is a desert, not only metaphorically, but also in physical fact. LA as desert clearly has had deep meaning, literal or metaphoric or both, for writers seeking to evoke something of the feel of the city.[6] The desert carries multiple, sometimes opposing valences, both derived in western thinking from tropes in the Hebrew Bible. It is on the one hand a space of austere purification, where sins are atoned and the purified can see the face—or at least, hindquarters—of God, and on the other a vile, useless wasteland; other tropes come out of, or are related to, these two oppositions.


These two valences, I suggest, may explain, in part, the pull of the desert in writing about LA. On the one hand, the desert out east or north, the Mojave of Huxley’s Antelope Valley home or movie stars’ Palm Springs, may represent an escape from LA to something “realer” or “purer” (and see already the contrast between corrupt Hollywood and revivifying country in The Girl from Hollywood by Edgar Rice Burroughs [1923], although his rural setting is the mountains, not the desert[7]). Clay of Less Than Zero may be seeking something like this when he turns in memory to family time in Palm Springs (though in fact his family there is as corrupt and nihilistic as his life in Beverly Hills, as in Norman Mailer’s The Deer Park [1955]). On the other hand, seen as plopped down in a desert, LA can be figured merely as the gaudy disguise of a desert wasteland, ready to reassert its hideous uselessness and, in fact, unable to foster anything genuine (“nothing means anything here,” is the refrain of The Nowhere City)—watered by stolen moisture, it is but an urban Imperial Valley, a faked landscape.[8]

These two topologies stand in dialectical opposition to each other. They demand from a writer a representational choice: is the relation of Los Angeles to the desert one of geographic distance and distinction, such that they occupy two different spaces that only come into conjunction through the movement of characters (whether physically or mentally) or the invasion of the space of Los Angeles by the desert itself or its representatives (the Santa Ana winds, in particular); or is the relation one of superposition, of a Los Angeles on a desert, a unique ecological and ideological phenomenon such that its intrusion into LA may come at any moment, in any place, here but not here, or indeed may shape the whole personality of the city by an invidious but invisible and irresistible presence below the surface? In what follows I would like to explore the play of these tropes, and others, in some fiction set in Los Angeles. Obviously far too much has been written about the city to treat even a modicum of this fiction,[9] and the themes I hope to elucidate hardly exhaust the ways the desert has been used in stories about LA. (I have left film and television completely aside.) But I hope that even such an incomplete, fragmented, and selective exploration may contribute to how we understand the ways the presence of the desert has shaped writers’ conceptualizations about this complex, alluring, frightening city.

 The desert in the American imaginary

Broadly speaking, American ideas about desert space derive from tropes deeply embedded in the Bible. These tropes do not form a coherent picture of desert space; rather, they facilitate a multiplicity of attitudes, some contradictory. In brief, biblical tropes frame the desert first as a blasted, dangerous place, abode of demons and death, abandoned by God. But the biblical desert also figures as a space where one can meet God, like Moses; the desert can be a visionary place. The biblical desert can also be a ground of testing and purification, a necessary preliminary to entrée to the Promised Land; or it can be a refuge, a safety zone for people escaping persecution or simply seeking a godly life. Finally, the desert can be a landscape of redemption: both for fallen people and as a ground that, with care and God’s help, can be made into—or returned to a preexisting—paradisiacal state, a garden in the desert. This cache of tropes served Americans to help make sense of the deserts they encountered as they moved into the arid West. To them was added, in the early twentieth century, by reaction, an insistence on desert beauty: a view that fed into the environmental movement around wilderness preservation.[10]

 First topology—the desert out there

The first topology is the desert out there: beyond Los Angeles, to the east and north, the desert one must cross and endure to reach the Promised Land, and to which one may escape or be exiled, whether to find a place of purity and cleanliness opposed to the corruption that has overtaken the Promised Land, or to serve out a punishment and (hopefully) find redemption. This desert sends its demonic emissaries into the city, borne especially on the Santa Ana winds.[11]

One important and complex role the “desert out there” plays is as a barrier or escape hatch. This theme links to the biblical tale of the Israelites’ passage through the Sinai Desert to the Promised Land, an analogy so blatantly apt to the travails of overland immigrants who suffered the Mojave and Colorado Deserts to reach California that it became a cliché. Desert as barrier or boundary pairs nicely with the Pacific to the west, thanks especially to the long trope of ocean as desert. So in 1897 Frank Norris bracketed San Francisco as between: “to the west the waste of the Pacific, to the east the wastes of the desert.” As another put it, “[t]he blinding blue desert of the Pacific….” Remember (“Mem”) Steddon, heroine of the 1922 Souls for Sale, takes a madcap drive with another actor along the coast highway, north of Hollywood, “‘on the rim of the world’ with desert on one side and the whole Pacific sea on the other.” Rose, the main character of Kate Braverman’s Lithium for Medea (1979), meditates on the boundaries of LA, desert and sea; Cynthia Kadohata’s In the Heart of the Valley of Love (1992) begins with a lapidary reference to “the black desert, beyond reach of Los Angeles.” The “long haul across the deserts” prevents good theatrical companies from playing Los Angeles, and passage over the desert—by airplane—brings F. Scott Fitzgerald’s last tycoon out of the rest of the country and into the inimitable LA.[12]


For a Forty-Niner like William Manly, whose exploits in escaping Death Valley in 1849 and then returning to rescue immigrants stranded there were immortalized in his autobiography, those deserts were a challenge and a test, but they can also serve LA as a protective barrier or a release valve, a safety hatch. The hero of Steve Erikson’s Amnesiascope longs for a thousand-mile wide Mojave to keep crazy eastern evangelicals out of his city. Later, he escapes Los Angeles through that same desert, which, he hopes, will reclaim as its own during his desert passage the “evil spirits” that have bedeviled him. Rose of Lithium for Medea finds in the desert beyond Los Angeles her refuge, her escape, a desert theme found much earlier in John Fante’s Ask the Dust. Indeed, for Mem of Souls for Sale crossing the desert west to east marks a return from the unreality of Los Angeles, that “terrifying city” (yet, simultaneously, “a restoring fountain of health and hope and ambition”), to a realer, and certainly duller, world; indeed, departing, “[s]he had a little of the feeling Eve must have had as she made her last walk down the quickest paths of Eden toward the gate that would not open again.” Mem’s train is even figured as the serpent. The two days it spends passing through the desert—a space which, Mem admits, “had its charms” and stands for the world she has left: a long, level vista of “dead platitudinous levels [that] made going easier,” for “[p]latitudes were labor saving and you went faster and safer over them.”[13] This desert is simply a metaphor for the life Mem left behind, stultifying and ambitionless, cramped, ruled by a rigid father, for the fountain of hope and happiness she found in her Hollywood successes.

In John Gregory Dunne’s True Confessions (1977), Desmond Spellacy is exiled to the desert in Twenty-Nine Palms outside Los Angeles in permanent penance-making after he’s caught up in scandal. Priest and advisor to the Cardinal of Los Angeles, Des had a long relationship with Jack Armstrong, one-time pimp and later corrupt contractor who did most of the building work for the Church. In an act of revenge by Des’s dishonest policeman brother Tommy, Armstrong is framed for the gruesome murder of Lois Fazenda, the “Virgin Tramp”—based on the actual “Black Dahlia” murder of 1947.[14] In Dunne’s dark vision, everything and everyone in Los Angeles is both corrupt and not what they seem: police detectives work as bagmen, nice girls service their bosses in back rooms, upstanding married barbers like to shave prostitutes’ pubes—and kill them.

The desert by Twenty-Nine Palms doesn’t know this corruption. To a parish priest trying to fix his car, Tommy conveys the trick of adding pepper to a defective carburetor learned in the used-car business. Parishioners’ problems run to dysfunctional bowels and young nuns vocationally confused; Des’s housekeeper avers “she had never been in a man’s room alone”—unlike virtually every other woman in True Confessions. (Tommy’s wife, Mary Margaret, is chaste, but she’s also insane.) For Des, the twenty-eight years he spends in desert exile (a little joke on the name of his desert town) provide an opportunity to reflect on his sins, to recognize the role played in his life and career by his lust for power and control—sins far worse than those of the flesh, as Des’s former confessor had known. The Egyptian desert fathers knew this too—they struggled against sexual desire, but were perfectly aware that, as sins go, it was hardly in a league with pride, power, and arrogance. It is living in the desert that helps Des not merely to see his own sinfulness—he has already been thinking about it throughout the novel—but to confront it and, as it were, make peace with it. This would have been impossible in Los Angeles; the contrast between the desert out there and the city could not be greater.[15]

The desert’s proximity, in other words, offers some writers about Los Angeles a convenient locale for the performance of contrition for sins committed in, and often abetted by, the city. In deploying the desert in this way, writers are playing right into that powerful trope of “the desert” in western imagination, the desert as a locus for punishment and expiation. It seems not excessive to propose that the degradation of Los Angeles, depicted in so much of the fiction set in the city as worse by orders of magnitude than that of other cities, should be counterbalanced by a harsh environment suited, in this conceptualization, only to wear away the accumulated filth of the sinful soul. Polar opposites on the moral and environmental meter stand shoulder to shoulder, ready on the one hand to foster husband killers, daughter rapists, and all manner of unspeakable human atrocity,[16] and on the other to redeem, through suffering and deprivation, the souls so befouled.


Another powerful contrast between desert and city plays out in John Fante’s Ask the Dust (1939). Here the articulation between desert and city runs through the figure of Camilla, the object of Arturo Bandini’s lust, envy, anger, despair. Her sometime boyfriend Sammy, a would-be writer whose stories Bandini trashes, lives out in the Mojave Desert 150 miles from Bandini’s Bunker Hill hotel. Camilla moves back and forth between Sammy’s desert shack and Bandini’s dark urban landscape, but she is, in fundamental ways, in her sexuality, her shamelessness, linked to the desert, not unlike another desert woman, Barbara Worth of Harold Bell Wright’s The Winning of Barbara Worth (1911). The ironies in Ask the Dust are more subtle than in Dunne’s novel, for Camilla’s behavior violates—apparently—rules of “civilized” behavior—she sleeps around, she smokes pot, she returns to an abusive boyfriend—but in many respects she is a more genuine person, truer to herself, than Bandini and his city. In the end she abandons herself to the desert, walking off into the Mojave and vanishing over a ridge; her body is never found, and Ask the Dust ends with the startling image of Bandini inscribing a copy of his first book to her and heaving it out into the desert—an admission at once of love, loss, and defeat.

This external desert can, of course, invade Los Angeles, too. In Aldous Huxley’s Ape and Essence (1948) its desert dunes blanket the concrete of the city streets, like Sahara sand concealing the monuments of ancient Egypt; indeed, in this post-apocalyptic LA, the desert has spread everywhere. In The Day of the Locust (1939) Nathaniel West’s narrator Tod Hackett, gawking at a speaker at the “Tabernacle of the Third Coming,” muses that he “was probably just in from one of those colonies in the desert near Soboba Hot Springs where he had been conning over his soul on a diet of raw fruits and nuts…. The message he had brought to the city was one that an illiterate anchorite might have given decadent Rome.”[17]

 The howling Santa Anas

Perhaps no dangerous desert intrusion into Los Angeles has resonated more with many of its writers than the Santa Ana winds, emblem of “the terrible hot season from June to September when a fiery wind blows from the desert and the sky turns blood red.”[18] An early version of their impact appears in On the Lot and Off, the last novel of George Chester and his wife Lilian Chester, published in 1924:

Shrieking and moaning, the wind swept in from the desert to take its eerie part in the life of Hollywood, to wield its mysterious influence on the fourth or fifth or whatever largest industry in the United States. It was one of those summer days rare to the Pacific coast, but poignant, when through the yellow sunlight there sift vague phantom shapes of impalpable dust which bite the skin and smart the eyes, and are the prickling forerunners of a three-day withering heat from out of the very heart of the vast shadeless inferno up yonder in the waste places. It was such a day as lowers the vitality and depresses the spirit and sets the nerves on edge, and when vitality ebbs and depression reigns and nerves are aquiver, both men and women do things which they might otherwise not have done; so no one knows what tremendous extent of folly and of tragedy might be chargeable to this same shrill, shrieking, moaning, sobbing wind from the deadly desert.[19]

The Santa Ana winds act more or less as a deus ex machina, for they effect the dénoument of the plot by driving several characters to actions they might otherwise have abjured, even sometimes against their own best interests.

On the Lot and Off has a potboiler of a plot, but the central thrust is just the efforts of the protagonist Izzy Iskowitz to gain control of his own motion picture studio. For this to happen, many unpredictable, evidently impossible things must occur, and it’s the Santa Ana winds that do the trick. So, for instance, the winds cause the owner of the Producer and Distributors Trust Company to place his wholly incompetent son Tennyson in charge of the bank at the very moment that the financially toppling Sam Black of Luna Pictures is begging for an extension on his loan:

but at that moment an exotic gust of wind from right out of the blistering pit of the dust whistled around the corner and between the classic gates and through the leaded-glass windows of Sam Black’s office, and smote him hip and thigh and blue-tipped nose with such an excruciatingly shivering blast that he yelled into the phone—insulting Tennyson and sealing his fate.

Later, in a crucial move in his plans, Izzy gets his boss David Schusshel to buy Luna, and again the wind is key: “On a cooler, less enervating day, David might have withstood…. But outside howled the desert wind, and through the screens there blew a steady stream of hot, enervating air, and David’s resistance was low; and he fell.” And Prudence Joy, the actress Izzy loved but could not marry, in thrall to a no-good husband and desperately in need of money, swallows her pride and begs Izzy for advice, sitting in his office “perfectly motionless while that gale from the desert shrieked and moaned and shrilled its mournful dirge outside, while the stinging heat which came from it seemed to dry up the very life in her.” The winds are determinative—except for Izzy, who’s immune to their effects.[20]


The Chesters don’t call their “desert wind” specifically the Santa Ana, but that’s clearly what they meant. In any case, these winds then howl through much subsequent LA fiction, especially what evolves into the noir detective story in the hands of Cain, Chandler, and others. Chandler’s own most famous description of the Santa Anas, which appeared in 1939 in the story “Red Wind,” has taken on an emblematic role, thanks in part to Joan Didion’s citation of it in her essay “Los Angeles Notebook.” Two years later Earl Stanley Gardiner, writing under the pseudonym A.A. Fair, cooked up an even more “extraordinary two pages” on the winds:

In the spring and late fall southern California has peculiarly violent desert windstorms known as “santanas,” sometimes called “Santa Anas.” For hours before such winds start, the sky will be clear and dustless. The air will be warm, listless, devoid of life. The details of objects can be seen with startling clarity. Silk or rayon garments will crackle with static electricity.

Then suddenly a blast of wind comes sweeping down from the east and north, a hot, dry wind which churns particles of dust so fine they filter between dry lips, grit against the surfaces of teeth. As a rule, those storms blow for three days and three nights. Those sections which are protected from the wind itself nevertheless feel the dehydrating effects of the dry, hot air. People’s nerves get raw. They are listless and irritable. Perspiration is sucked up by the dry air so the hot skin becomes gritty with dust.


One look at the star-studded sky, and I knew a santana was coming. Stars blazed down with such steady brilliance the heavens seemed filled to overflowing. The air out of doors seemed as close as it was in the study—warm, dry, devitalizing air that made one’s nerves stand on edge.


When I had finished the third chapter, the wind struck. It struck with the force of a solid wall. The house swayed with the force of that first terrific gust. All over the place I could hear doors slamming, could hear people running, and the sound of closing windows….

My nerves are always on edge during those windstorms.[21]

The effect of the Santa Anas—both the physical impact of dusty, obscured vision, a “dryness [that] is fairly stinging, like a slightly sour amphetamine,” and the psychological disorientation they bring—match well the mood of noir; “the evil,” Norman Klein notes, “is still in the atmosphere.”[22]

In Frederick Kohner’s Gidget (1957), it is “one of those icky desert winds we call the Santa Ana” that sparks “real drama” in the plot, “that very important element labeled by [Gidget’s high-school English] teacher Glicksberg as the ‘clincher’ or climax.” Gidget has earned herself a back-handed invitation to a luau on the Malibu beach, despite warnings that it would be an “orgy” (a word she has to look up in the dictionary). During the party “a creepy wind was blowing… like something coming right out of a furnace.” This Santa Ana, rushing down from the mountains and the desert and out to sea, turns back on the land and whips sparks carelessly spread by the revelers onto the sagebrush beyond the highway, fanning up a great roaring brush fire. The desert-spawned fire serves as a blatant metaphor for Gidget’s own raging but misdirected sexuality, for in the confusion, as police and fire trucks swoop down to contain the blaze and enlist the help of the partying surfers whose drunken carelessness caused the fire, Gidget cannot get home and ends up seeking shelter in the Kahoona’s beach hut. On his return he insists that it will be impossible for her to pass the cordon of police cars and fire trucks before morning; she can, he offers, sleep in his bed, while he takes the chair. Gidget, out of a mix of guilt—after all, he’s exhausted, having just spent several hours battling the flames while she dozed in his hut—and desire, voices a daring invitation: “‘Maybe you’re not comfortable in that chair. There is room enough in the bed for both of us here.’” He accepts, and Gidget reckons “this was the moment I had been waiting for. Now it would happen. He would make me a woman.” Instead, like the sudden rains that had just doused the brushfire, the Kahoona douses Gidget: “‘[W]hen it happens between you and a man it must be beautiful…. And it must be all for love, Franzie.’” (He uses her real name—a marker that this is serious.) “‘The time must be ripe. When the time is ripe—you’ll know. You’ll be trembling the way you tremble now—but it’ll be right. This isn’t.’” The desert brings a whirlwind of endangered virtue; luckily, a good patriarchal figure is there to protect Gidget from herself.[23]


In one of the “tales” called “Sirocco” in Eve Babitz’s collection Slow Days, Fast Company, her narrator[24] repudiates the trope of the evil Santa Ana winds. “From earliest childhood,” she insists, “I have rejoiced over the Santa Ana winds…. Every time I feel one coming, I put on my dancing spirits.” As with Gidget, the Santa Anas spell for Babitz’s narrator a potent sexual compulsion—but unlike with Gidget, there’s no “grown up man” around to hit the brakes. The narrator recounts two experiences, both connected with her “just friend” William, both involving other women, both prompted by the Santa Anas, however much she “hate[s] blaming things on the weather.”

The first, narrated with a certain coyness, revolves around an Italian named Isabella Farfalla, “bored with the ancient decadence that her own country provided” who, “like the Santa Anas” “was a devastating force… it was her nature to interject chaos at the very time things had about ossified.” At the opening of a new club Isabella and the narrator engage in some heavy petting:

“You two really looked beautiful,” William sighed about me and Isabella, “kissing each other like that.”

“Well, at least we looked beautiful,” I said. “Now what do I do?”

“Maybe you really like women better,” he suggested. “Maybe that’s been it all along.”

“But what does one do with women?” I said, imagining at once exactly what one would do. “It was probably just the Santa Ana,” I said.

“You never kissed me like that,” he replied.

Her second experience came later, in October: “It was a Sunday and the Santa Ana had been afoot since the night before. It was so dry that the bougainvillea, picked, would embalm in the heat and last forever like Japanese paper flowers.” She gets a phone call from a friend, Day Tully, and invites her over; in the Santa Ana aridity Day’s “brown hair crackled from the lightning in the air.” The narrator suggests a walk to William’s; Day agrees, but cautions: “I hear this wind changes people into maniacs.” Indeed—soon after arrival at William’s and the consumption of “freezing-cold, green jigger glasses of vodka,” the narrator

was the first to pounce. What I wouldn’t do with Isabella, who knew what she was doing, I now smoothly instigated between Day and William and myself. Passion from boredom and vodka flashed through my veins, passion and fanned curiosity toppled us, Santa Ana-ed, down upon William’s bed. Only not William. I wouldn’t let William touch me, and we almost tore poor Day in half.

For Babitz’s narrator—or shall we drop the pretense and just call her “Eve”?—the Santa Ana madness brings happy release: “if we didn’t have the Santa Anas,” she concludes, “how straight we would all be.”[25]


In her celebration of the Santa Anas as a blatant catalyst for sexual experimentation Babitz plays a field she has mostly to herself. But the underlying trope remains the same; there’s no questioning of Day’s observation that the winds change folks into maniacs—they do indeed for Eve too, and fundamentally, she’s really no different from Gidget: both open themselves up to sexual experience under the influence of the winds, both indeed welcome the cover the Santa Ana mania grants to do something they have been wanting for a long time. And neither sees anything wrong with what they want—the swirling desert invitation to sexual adventure outside the bounds of marriage or heterosexual coupled conformity.

The Santa Ana winds, then, bring in the desert: a dangerous, unpredictable, socially destructive or disruptive force of nature. They are emblematic of the “dangerous desert” trope that sits at one of the two poles of desert imaginary discussed above. Corrosive, corrupting, disorienting, debilitating, the winds block thought, dissolve morals, wreak devastation; they are, so to speak, Satan and his desert demons embodied in a howling rush of air.

 The second topology—“underneath it all” [26]

The second topology clashes with a beloved trope about Los Angeles: that it is a paradise, an Eden set in a bedizened landscape; as such, the city becomes a sort of “Ellis Island of beauty” where people flock to join the American dream. This is the LA of the promotional literature churned out by the ream by California boosters in the nineteenth century (and in the recent series of California tourism ads starring celebrities) in which Los Angeles figured not as desert but an Edenic landscape, a paradise on Earth: “if not the original Eden, then a simulacrum that excelled the model.” Berthold Brecht, writing in his journal during his sojourn in LA, saw through the falsity, or so he thought—through the glittery surface of palm trees and hydrangeas, Art Deco office buildings and iconic hamburger stands, Hollywood back lots and ribbons of freeway: “as for culture: it decays unbelievably fast (like California’s artificial flora, planted on desert ground, when not watered),” for “all this greenery is wrested from the desert by irrigation systems, scratch the surface a little and the desert shows through.” Or, as Eve Babitz remarked, a propos a graffito, “In Los Angeles it’s hard to tell if you’re dealing with the real true illusion or the false one.”[27] This works, of course, because of an environmental trope about Los Angeles itself: that it sits in an arena of bountiful good health, beneficent climate, and easy living. Many years ago Carey McWilliams encapsulated this trope in a few lapidary pages of Southern California he called “The Folklore of Climatology.” Boosters like Samuel Stoney, writing in 1889, believed they’d “found a Paradise on Earth” where “lungers”—sufferers of tuberculosis—found relief, flowers and fruits proliferated, and the only fear possible enervation from living in paradise.[28]

This trope developed early in the city’s history. A proleptic Los Angeles as paradise appears already in Horace Bell’s 1881 memoir Reminiscences of a Ranger: Early Times in Southern California, retrojected deep into the Spanish past. He imagines a trio of Spanish soldiers perched on a hill, enchanted by the scene below:

The plains and rolling hills had discarded their mantle of green and donned their sere robes of summer. Gazing toward the sun, which had now marked the first segment in the circle of its journey, plains, hills, forests, lakes, rivers, valleys, and towering mountains in a splendid panorama met their wondering vision. To the rear of where the three warriors sat… lay in silent beauty the shimmering waters of a beautiful lake sheltered from the rude blasts of the ocean by a rampart of kind and protecting hills. To the left for leagues could be traced the serpentine windings of the river…. Obliquely to their rear and looking southward to the sea the waters of the Porciuncula [River, later the Los Angeles River] swept by like a silver stripe in a ribbon of green, shaded by the umbrageous white-armed sycamore and the more verdant cottonwood, under whose protecting shades gamboled countless herds of deer and antelope, while still beyond are to be seen rocky islands in the ocean posted like knights in armor guarding the portals of Paradise.

One of the soldiers, shaking off his bedazzlement at “this vision of beauty,” thanks his commanding sergeant for “shar[ing] with us this foresight of Paradise.” It is, of course, the site of the future Los Angeles, chosen by “our Blessed Lady, the Angel Queen” herself.[29]

Standing in fervent opposition to this happy talk is what J.U. Peters has called “The Los Angeles Anti-Myth,” well represented by Dunne’s True Confessions. This Los Angeles of corruption, violence, fornication, debasement, and falsity Peters traces to the city’s decenteredness, its agglutination of suburbs, a “spatial disorder” that “suggests a deeper spatial implication: the jarring and dehumanizing shock of sudden displacement which the characters in many novels undergo.”[30] Indeed—but another contributor to this condition surely is also the “false tinsel” that lurks below: “Los Angeles was a desert to begin with….” and remains part of “this western desert.”[31] Remarkably similar language in novel after novel evokes the desert qualities of the Los Angeles scene: its “hot sun” in True Confessions or the “hot dry air” of Less Than Zero; the “parched and arid heat of Los Angeles” in See’s Golden Days, a “heat like a flat pan in the High Desert.” In Huxley’s After Many a Summer Dies the Swan the Englishman Jeremy Pordage first perceives LA as “mountains—ridge after ridge as far as the eye could reach, a desiccated Scotland, empty under the blue desert sky.” Ross MacDonald’s cynical Lew Archer sees LA simply as “an urban wilderness in the desert.” And when an economic recession grips the film industry, “[t]he garden of Los Angeles had reverted to the desert.”[32] Not, be it noted, a desert, but the desert: the desert that had always been lurking there.


The Los Angeles desert frames Gavin Lambert’s 1954 novel The Slide Area from the first pages. Introducing his Los Angeles, Lambert’s narrator—a Hollywood script writer—stresses the city’s “impression of unreality”, reinforced by the “neurotic” “behavior of the air.” In fact “nothing belongs except the desert soil…. Because the earth is desert, its surface always has that terrible dusty brilliance.” The city rests on “land dried and crusted into desert… a quagmire under a hot sun”; it is, he insists, “difficult to settle in a comfortable unfinished desert” where “buildings lie around like nomads’ tents in the desert” and a motel stands “solitary in the desert of its parking lot.” Lambert isn’t completely consistent in seeing LA as built on a desert, for sometimes he remarks on the role of the “gritty mountains” in separating the city from “the dry Mojave desert” and he starts and ends his tale with electrical storms “near Palm Springs… out over the desert.” The predominant theme, though, is certainly Los Angeles as desert, and the desert fact of the city, its aridity, original emptiness, sterility, shape the stunted lives of the novel’s characters. The link is explicit in Lambert’s description of his friend Mark’s beach house after he has left for the South Pacific: it presents “[a] little desert of emptiness and stillness that people seem instinctively to avoid.”[33]

This theme is especially prominent in See’s Golden Days. The protagonist Edith Langley grows up “in the parched and arid heart of Los Angeles.” Returning after a sojourn in New York, she imagines LA as a plant in the desert, its extension from downtown “a thin stem, the Santa Monica freeway, heading due west and putting out greenery, places in this western desert where you’d love to live—if things went right.” Desert vegetation is tough, thorny, resistant to drought and abuse, but likewise not easy to approach—perhaps, in contrast to Edith’s initial impression, not so easy to live with. The house she buys on her return is tucked deep up Topanga Canyon, the “Old Canyon,” which “[s]ome people say… is the desert part”—although, in fact, “Los Angeles was a desert to begin with….” Yucca grow, taller than Edith’s daughters; there are rattlesnakes, neighbors warn, and Edith later watches two boys wrangle over possession of a three-foot long snake—but surely no rattler—that had unwisely slunk into the neighborhood market. The Canyon bakes in 120 degree heat, and, like all southwestern deserts, is subject both to flood and fire. The desert of LA impinges even on Edith’s wardrobe, as she switches from flannel shirts to silk blouses, “raw silk” being, she supposes, “the flannel of the desert.”[34] In other words, the desert does not simply frame See’s LA, offering a counterpoint out east, or north, over the passes, to serve as a locus for redemption or despair; the desert is LA, and living in the city becomes, for See’s protagonists, an adaptation to a desert world. In ways both blatant and subtle, the desert compels her characters to react to it—be it by shedding flannels for silk (the same projected persona, a different skin) or, eventually, by adapting to a nuclear-devastated landscape, a final act of desertification performed on a desert wasteland.[35]

While the deserts of Los Angeles barely inflect Aldous Huxley’s first LA novel, in his second novel written in California and set in Los Angeles, Ape and Essence (1948), the desert does not merely serve as a setting, but plays a central role in both plot and message. Two screenwriters, Bob Briggs and Huxley’s narrator, discover a rejected script in the slush pile submitted by a certain William Tallis. Intrigued, they travel out to see the author, a recluse living “on the southwest fringe of the Mojave desert.” Huxley draws a contrast between the “tough ascetic lives of the desert” and the cottonwoods and willows along irrigation ditches, “clinging precariously… to another, easier, more voluptuous mode of being.” Huxley’s desert outside LA immediately invokes the tension between the city itself, which can only exist by importation of water and thus promotes a morally corrupt way of life (already evident in the scripts Bob and his partner paw through), and an ascetic, and so purer, desert life—a framing that evokes also the role of the desert in Dunne’s True Confessions. Then, as Bob and the narrator approach Tallis’s house:

Out there, on the floor of the desert, there had been a noiseless, but almost explosive transformation. The clouds had shifted and the sun was now shining on the nearest of those abrupt and jagged buttes, which rose so inexplicably, like islands, out of the enormous plain. A moment before they had been black and dead. Now suddenly they had come to life between a shadowed foreground and a background of cloudy darkness. They shone as if with their own incandescence.

I touched Bob’s arm and pointed.

“Now do you understand why Tallis chooses to live at the end of this road?”[36]

Tallis’s script imagines a Los Angeles in 2108 after a nuclear war has devastated the United States. LA, “the great Metrollopis [sic] is a ghost town… what was once the world’s largest oasis is now its greatest agglomeration of ruins in a wasteland…. Dunes of sand have drifted across the concrete.” The plot of Tellis’s movie revolves around the arrival in Southern California of an expedition from New Zealand that includes a botanist named Poole. Captured by the gang that rules the ruined city, he meets a young woman named Loola; they fall in love, but strict eugenics rules imposed by the gang forbid their relationship. Eventually Poole and Loola escape into the desert, across the San Gabriel Mountains, headed north for a supposed paradise where love is free and children can be conceived; to do so, they seek refuge and invisibility in the “enormous expanse of the Mojave desert,” the desert beyond the desert of Los Angeles.[37]


Thus the desert plays a multiplicity of roles in Ape and Essence: it is at once the “desert underneath,” the ecological reality of Los Angeles concealed—only temporarily, and always precariously—by an overlay of water and fakery; it is that ecological reality not created but simply revealed by the nuclear bombs that stripped away the “false tinsel”; it is a more genuine ecology “out there,” where Tallis lives and through which Poole and Loola escape; it is refuge.

Perhaps we are invited to imagine a better LA had its desert never been gussified with Hollywood falsity, or perhaps the desertified Los Angeles tyrannized by the Archimandrite and his acolytes is what it deserves. In any case, the “natural” desert is clearly the better place, even if it is tough and unforgiving. Poole and Loola, in the end, must serve an apprenticeship of suffering and purgation during their desert trek north, sore feet, little food, and thirty miles and more of painful walking. It is the desert as test, another desert sojourn to reach the Promised Land—California, love, happiness, children. Ape and Essence, then, may stand for a type—prefigured almost presciently in Philip Wylie’s 1943 short story “The Paradise Crater,” which government officials feared represented a leak in the Manhattan Project—scenarios of the Los Angeleno apocalypse, especially those predicated on nuclear annihilation, which evoke a return of the repressed when the LA underlying them has been figured as masked desert.[38]

In After the Bomb (1985) young Philip Singer, his brother, and his brother’s girlfriend Cara survive a thermonuclear blast over LA because they happened to be lounging in an old bomb shelter in the brothers’ back yard. The book tells the story of Philip’s efforts to save his badly burned mother while moving through a ruined, post-nuclear landscape. The desert of After the Bomb bears, however, two valences, opposite and ironic. On the one hand, that Santa Ana which launches the plot adumbrates the desert-like destruction of the hydrogen bomb to come; on the other, it, and the desertification of the bomb itself, strip away the falsity of Los Angeles: Philip’s apparently omni-competent brother Matt proves hopeless, clueless, and almost useless, while Matt’s girlfriend Cara, whom Philip had hoped to snag for himself before his brother lured her away, now sees who’s really reliable in an emergency. In the end Matt’s redeemed, more or less; whether Cara will switch brothers remains undisclosed. But fundamentally it’s the falsity of the LA world that’s worn Philip down in his ordinary life that’s stripped away by desert wind and desertifying bomb—LA both invaded and revealed.[39]

The fundamental falsity of the desert materializes—deceptively—in its mirages, and Los Angeles is all mirage. So when Paul, a protagonist of Lurie’s The Nowhere City, drives through an LA cityscape “for once swept clear of smog by the desert winds”—the Santa Anas, as Lurie’s allusion to the season makes clear—“[t]he city shimmered in the dry, warm air, every detail sharp, but all colors bleached out by the intensity of the light, like a mirage.” Paul fears lest this mirage “wasn’t the harmless decorative sort, but one of those false visions that hover just above the horizon of the desert, luring travelers on to exhaustion and despair.”[40] So too people: in Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely (1940) “Helen Grayle”—in fact Velma Vanelto—started life as a sexually promiscuous chorus girl, but after eight years has succeeded—it seems—in burying her sordid past. The reinvented Helen is a “true product of Los Angeles, a city of resplendent surfaces”; she is “a figment, inspired by a culture that glorifies illusion….”[41] That is to say Helen is a mirage: that deceptive, fatal emanation of the desert, a confection of shimmering air with no more tangible reality than a passing breeze. This image suits perfectly Hollywood, that emblem of Los Angeles in so much fiction, whose primary function (that is, aside from coining profits for its studios) is simply to deliver a gullible public confected falsity as if it were something real.

Some final ruminations and unanswered questions

The whole congeries of desert imagery and Los Angeles fiction was captured succinctly in an essay by Charles Crow, who, evoking Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays, writes of

the desert, that vast and troubling presence which most Angelenos would like to ignore. The paradox of Los Angeles, geographically, is that it is both a seacoast and a desert city…. [T]he ecology of the city is so fragile that it cannot hope to survive very long; at some point that aqueducts that are its arteries will fail… and the city will disappear…. The desert, lurking in the east, is the city’s doom. Out of the desert blow the Santa Ana winds, drying the hillsides and spreading the brush fires…. Deserts have always been places of prophecy and truth-seeking, and the message of this desert, “the hard empty white core of the world,” is annihilation, nothingness… [a place where] a man walked into the desert seeking God and was killed by a rattlesnake.[42]

Which is not to say, of course, that the man in question failed to find God; he may just not have found the God he thought he was looking for.[43]

Desert redemption, desert evil, the desert out there, desert demons borne into town on the Santa Anas—desert barrier, the desert below, the desert remade in nuclear annihilation, desert truth, desert falsity, abhorrence, fascination, attraction—so many deserts shape the city, in its fiction; without the desert, indeed, there is no fictional Los Angeles. Before we conclude, however, it behooves us to consider, briefly, some non-fictional treatments of Los Angeles, for the desert tropes—whether “out there” or “below”—seem often less prominent in such works. A certain tension between Los Angeles as desert and not-desert features in Mike Davis’s two dense and remarkable books about the city. The earlier City of Quartz (1990) starts with a tour of the desert ruins of the utopian community of Llano del Rio, which he calls explicitly “desert”; here and there in the book the notion recurs, although without much emphasis, yet with implicit approval. Everything has changed in Ecology of Fear (1999), which begins with a stark rejection of the desert trope as a self-serving notion designed to justify the continuing theft of water from the Colorado River and the Owens Valley. Instead, the Los Angeles region is seen as a Mediterranean climate—although, again, Davis sometimes reverts to the possibility of desert resurfacing or desert invasion, as when he notes that the last 150 years have been “anomalously mild, and therefore atypical”; the desert, we are warned, encroached on what is now Los Angeles during the “epic drought periods” of the Middle Ages. This Mediterranean trope—which we also touched on above in a passage from Harold Bell’s book—is abundantly clear in the booster literature of the later nineteenth and earlier twentieth centuries, in which Southern California in general is a land of abundant good health, sunshine, and pleasure. Much of this literature figured Southern California as “our Mediterranean”—a view captured explicitly in the title of Peter Charles Remondino’s 1892 encomium, The Mediterranean Shores of America: Southern California: Its Climatic, Physical, and Meteorological Conditions.[44]


Of course, Davis is right in Ecology of Fear, as were the old-time boosters: Los Angeles sits not in a desert but in a Köppen-Geiger BS climate, a steppe, as we noted at the start of this essay, and as Glen M. MacDonald argued cogently in a recent contribution to Boom.[45] Why, then, have the desert tropes of “out there” or “underneath” exercised such a magnetism on so many writers of fiction about LA? I have no definite answer to the question, which would require a much longer discussion than can be accommodated in a few words at the end of this essay. It does seem to me, however, that at least three drivers may be at work.

First, there is moral coding. Since LA is so often figured as corrupt, decadent, and unnatural, the desert, whether a space “out there” or a hidden underbelly to the city, can be figured as a moral opposite. The long-standing trope of desert redemption and purity, seen perhaps most blatantly in True Confessions of all the books studied here, can then serve as a space of purgation and moral repair. This moral opposition, however, can work in another way too: the desert can come into or rise up from underneath the city and sweep away its corruption, sterilizing an urbanscape subject to vile putrefaction. So Ape and Essence, much of the “LA holocaust” literature, Golden Days, and even Watkins’s recent Gold Fame Citrus.

Not unrelated, perhaps, is the sense of the desert as an escape hatch—a refuge, a place to escape the city, to find a more genuine life, or at least a chance to start over. This driver seems connected with a very powerful sense of the West in general as a place to “start over,” where you can shed old identities and baggage and become a new person; and certainly this notion is fundamentally intertwined with the myth of California itself, as a Promised Land where the new covenant can be struck.[46]

And then there is the simple distaste for Los Angeles as a city—a kind of revulsion that seems to infect an extraordinarily large proportion of literature about the city. Reyner Banham observed some decades ago that Los Angeles “gets attention, but it’s like the attention that Sodom and Gomorrah have received, primarily a reflection of other people’s bad consciences…”, abused by the “pedestrian litterateur who finds the place ‘a stinking sewer’ and stays only long enough to collect material for a hate-novel.” It would be easy to draw up a lengthy catalogue. For such writers there may be no better fate for Los Angeles than desertified obliteration; for, even a desert, repulsive as it may be, is still better than Los Angeles.[47]

This is all rather speculative and certainly incomplete. I have begged other important questions, too. Desert spaces (and the West more generally) have figured often in the American imaginary as emplaced on our continent for the express purpose of “white redemption”: the white male, emasculated or in danger of emasculation thanks to his exposure in urban space to dangerous “others,” especially the racially or ethnically different (not to mention women), may find his hope of recovery of his masculinity by lighting out for the desert, whose harshness tests, refines, and redeems him, themes well explored by Richard Slotkin and David Teague. The “whiteness” of this narrative trope brings up another unexplored question: the degree to which the whole framing of LA and the desert is entirely, or mostly, a white and/or upper-middle class preoccupation. Finally, there is the matter of “nature.” The desert trope carries an implicit dichotomy between urban LA as “not nature” and the desert as “nature.” But of course this whole construction—of the “wild,” the “natural” in opposition to the human “artificial”—has been thoroughly challenged by scholars as diverse in their interests as Roderick Nash, William Cronon, and for Los Angeles itself Jenny Price, in her now-classic essay “Thirteen Ways of Seeing Nature in L.A.” In other words, much of the literature I’ve examined here (and no doubt much I have missed) rests and depends on an opposition itself a confected dualism—not unlike the dichotomy of “desert out there” and “desert underneath” that I have suggested form the two topologies of the desert in LA.[48]



  • All photographs taken by and used with permission of Matt Gush (www.mattgush.com). All rights reserved.

[1] Alison Lurie, The Nowhere City (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1997), 12. On The Nowhere City in particular and Lurie’s fiction in general, see Julie Newman¸ Alison Lurie: A Critical Study (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2000); Susan Watkins, “‘Women and Wives Mustn’t Go Near It’: Academia, Language, and Gender in the Novels of Alison Lurie,” Revista Canaria de Estudios Ingeles 48 (2004): 129-146; Patrick O’Donnell, “Postwar Los Angeles: Suburban Eden and the Fall into History,” in The Cambridge Companion to the Literature of Los Angeles, ed. Kevin R. McNamara (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 65-67. Kevin Starr, Golden Dreams: California in an Age of Abundance, 1950-1963 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 173, praised The Nowhere City as “the best fictive portrait to capture Los Angeles as it made the transition to supercity.”

[2] In a recent essay, Eric Avila claims Southern California “reads like a subtle case for ecological determinism” (“Essaying Los Angeles,” in McNamara [ed.], Cambridge Companion to the Literature of Los Angeles, 178), but McWilliams insisted on the mistake of seeing Southern California as wholly determined by its ecology; the cult of climate was, for him, “folklore” (Carey McWilliams, Southern California: An Island on the Land [Salt Lake City: Peregrine Books, 2010], 96-112): although McWilliams admits that the climate there does indeed change people, he also insists that “the miraculous qualities of the climate were invented, not by the cynical residents of the region, but by the early tourist” (98).

[3] Although some working from smaller circumferences insist in continuing to call it one: most recently Vanessa Friedman, “Dior in the Desert,” The New York Times, 12 May 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/12/fashion/dior-cruise-2018-maria-grazia-chiuri.html?smid=tw-nytfashion&smtyp=cur&_r=0 (accessed 20 May 2017).

[4] From data at http://www.laalmanac.com/weather/we13.htm (accessed  19 May  2017). Anton Wagner, Los Angeles: Werden, Leben und Gestalt der Zweimillionenstadt in Südkalifornie (Leipzig: Bibliographisches Institut, 1936), 23, gives 379.7 mm as the annual average. On the European settlement-era ecosystems of the Los Angeles Basin, see Paula M. Schiffman, “The Los Angeles Prairie,” in Land of Sunshine: An Environmental History of Los Angeles, eds. William Deverell and Greg Hise (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2005), 38-51. D. J. Waldie, Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1996), 140, rightly writes, “[T]he Los Angeles plain is semiarid. It’s not exactly a desert.” Of course, with climate change, all bets are off.

[5] McWilliams, Southern California, 110 (originally 1946). See David Fine, “Introduction,” in Los Angeles in Fiction, ed. David Fine (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1984), 17, characterizing Los Angeles as “a city almost literally carved out of a desert,” paraphrasing (I suppose) Richard Lehan, “The Los Angeles Novel and the Idea of the West,” in Los Angeles in Fiction, 30, for whom “Los Angeles was crafted out of the desert.”

[6] In this essay I leave aside largely the literature treating Los Angeles as an eco-disaster—greedily gulping water from the Owens valley, degrading the sere landscape with acres of cheap, ugly houses, inviting deserved eco-obliteration or sheer decay (say, the now clichéd city of the film Blade Runner) or the eco-collapse of Claire Vaye Watkins’s Gold Fame Citrus (2015) or the milder but sadder critique of Waldie’s Holy Land. I do examine some of the literature of nuclear annihilation where such disaster evokes or uncovers desert LA.

[7] And see Edgar Rice Burroughs’s The Moon Maid (1919), in which Earth’s salvation from Martian domination entails, among other things, the obliteration of Los Angeles; Michael Orth, “Utopia in the Pulps: The Apocalyptic Pastoralism of Edgar Rice Burroughs,” Extrapolation 27 (1986): 226.

[8] See many of Joan Didion’s essays in Slouching Towards Bethlehem (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008), The White Album (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1979), and Play It As It Lays (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005).

[9] Indeed: sixty years ago Carolyn See catalogued already 500 books set in Hollywood alone and read 300 of them for her dissertation “The Hollywood Novel: An Historical and Critical Study,”  unpublished dissertation (University of California, Los Angeles, 1963), a study more often cited, I suspect, than read (p. 1 for the numbers; 485-516, for the bibliography).

[10] For a thorough discussion of the Hebrew biblical tropes, see Laura Feldt, “Wilderness and the Hebrew Bible Religion—Fertility, Apostasy and Religious Transformation in the Pentatuch,” in Religion and Society: Wilderness in Mythology and Religion: Approaching Religion: Spacialities, Cosmologies, and Ideas of Wild Nature, eds. Laura Feldt, Gustavo Benavides, and Kocku von Stuckard (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2012), 55-94; see also Gary Reger, “Making the Desert American,” Cultural History 2 (2013): 167-174, and Diana K. Davis, The Arid Lands. History, Power, Knowledge (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2016), 23-47.

[11] So, perhaps, the winds were even responsible for the Watts Riots: Eve Babitz, Eve’s Hollywood (New York: New York Review of Books, 2015), 143-144.

[12] Frank Norris quoted in David Fine, Imagining Los Angeles: A City in Fiction (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2000), 3; Rupert Hughes, Souls for Sale (New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1978), 183 (“blinding blue”), 314 (madcap ride; originally published 1922); Kate Braverman, Lithium for Medea [A Novel] (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2002), 83; Cynthia Kadohata, In the Heart of the Valley of Love (Berkeley: UC Press, 1997), 1; Hughes, Souls for Sale, 340 (William R. Gowen, “Hoo-ray! ri! ro! row! roo! rah! Rupert Hughes and his ‘Dozen’,” Newsboy [November-December 1995]:13-16, offers a brief biography; Hughes served with the US Army Mexican Border Service in 1916 [p. 14], perhaps a source for some of the desert images in Souls for Sale?); F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Love of the Last Tycoon, ed. Matthew J. Bruccoli (New York: Scribner, 2003), 18. See, “Hollywood Novel,” 58-61, alludes to the sense that crossing “the great desert” (58) “often functions as a rite de passage” (57), but without developing the analogy to desert purgation in the exodus to the Promised Land; she quotes Dorothy Hughes, Dread Journey (New York: Duell, Sloan, and Pearce, 1945), 138, on the three-day trip through a “wasteland.” See does, however, argue that the trip west marks “a period of penance” which “divests [the traveler] of his past and all its appurtenances”; he “metaphorically dies and is born again in the long eerie train trip across the Great West to Hollywood….” In an ironic twist, the Promised Land into which such travelers are reborn is not a land of milk and honey but the locus of “sins… so rarified and vile that in his old life he has perhaps never even heard of them…” (58).

[13] Steve Erikson, Amnesiascope: A Novel (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1996), 80, 217; Braverman, Lithium, 358-362; Hughes, Souls for Sale, 372-375. William L. Manly, Death Valley in ’49: The Autobiography of a Pioneer (Crabtree: The Narrative Press, 2001), 141, for a classic evocation of the desert as worthless space.

[14] George Pelecanos, “Introduction,” in John Gregory Dunne, True Confessions (New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2006), v. See Kevin Starr, Embattled Dreams: California in War and Peace, 1940-1950 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 213-222, for a brief discussion. There have been multiple book-length studies of the case; the most recent is John Gilmore, Severed: The True Story of the Black Dahlia Murder (Los Angeles: Amok Books, 2015).

[15] Dunne, True Confessions, 340; see Des’s reflections on his fantasies about Mary Ginty, a parishioner whose husband went to prison: “He dreamed about her. That was all. He would awake in a state of arousal, his bedding wet from the nocturnal emission…. The impulses of the flesh were the darkest sins in Tommy’s canon. How wrong he was. Those impulses could be sublimated. Pride was a substitute. Power. The urge to manipulate. Vices that I have in abundance, Desmond Spellacy thought” (191). See, briefly but cogently, Michael Adams, “Sin and Guilt in the Fiction of John Gregory Dunne,” Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 25 (1984): 156. Timothy J. Meaghan, “Cops, Priests, and the Decline of Irish America: True Confessions (1981),” in Catholics in the Movies, ed. Colleen McDannell (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 245, sees Des’s exile as situating him in “the desert… the empty space where relationships can be constructed,” but Des’s desert space is not in fact empty: it is full of people and pre-existing relationships.

[16] Husband killer: Phyllis Nirdlinger in Cain 1992 (original 1936); daughter rapist: Noah Cross (John Huston) in Chinatown (1974).

[17] Aldous Huxley, Ape and Essence (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1992), 62, 123. Norman Klein, The History of Forgetting: Los Angeles and the Erasure of Memory (London: Verso, 2008), 98, suggestively remarks that in the film Blade Runner the city invades the desert, LA “smog finally destroying the desert climate itself.” Curiously, Hughes, Souls for Sale, 70 and 73, refers to a movie being made of Charles Kingsley’s novel Hypatia, whose climax comes with the vicious assassination of the pagan woman mathematician by an enraged crowd of monks in from the desert.

[18] Gavin Lambert, The Slide Area: Scenes of Hollywood Life (London: Serpent’s Tail, 1998), 56. Wagner, Los Angeles, 26, calls the Santa Anas “föhnartige Wüstenwinde,” which seems about right; also Didion, Slouching, 218-219. McWilliams, Southern California, 10-11: “desert winds.” On the causes of these winds, see Mimi Hughes and Alex Hall, “Local and Synoptic Mechanisms Causing Southern California’s Santa Ana Winds,” Climate Dynamics 34 (2010): 847-857, and Sebastien Conil and Alex Hall, “Local Regimes of Atmospheric Variability: A Case Study of Southern California,” Journal of Climate 19 (2006): 4308-4325.

[19] George Randolph Chester and Lilian Chester, On the Lot and Off (New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1924), 267. Briefly Chester’s life and career, Jenny E. Robb, “From the Periodical Archives: Winsor McCay, George Randolph Chester, and the Tale of the Jungle Imps,” Periodical Comics and Cartoons 17 (2007): 249-251. It should be noted that the Chesters’ book is saturated with the anti-Semitism so common in Hollywood novels.

[20] Chester and Chester, On the Lot, 285, 298-299, 275, 268; later, Meyer, Tennyson’s father, violates his own ethics by foreclosing on Luna: “it may have been the enervating wind from the desert” that did it (304).

[21] Raymond Chandler, Stories and Early Novels: Pulp Stories / The Big Sleep / Farewell, My Lovely / The High Window (New York: The Library of America, 1995), 368 (originally published 1938); Didion, Slouching, 218-219; “extraordinary two pages”: Klein, History of Forgetting, 239; A.A. Fair [Earl Stanley Gardner], Double or Quits (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1941), 21-23. Chandler’s famous passage reads: “There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge.” As so often with Chandler, a mocking, ironic deflation at the end.

[22] Klein, History of Forgetting, 239, 240. For Joan Didion (White Album, 172), those days when “the wind is coming up” presages the onset of a migraine.

[23] Frederick Kohner, Gidget (New York: Berkeley Books, 2001), 124, 110 (orgy), 109, 124 and 128, 140-142; Klein, History of Forgetting, 81-83, on LA as “the city burning.” Gidget’s agonized sexual meditations are pretty blatant: “As I was lying in the darkness I felt real alone and helpless like never before in all my fifteen years. There wasn’t enough woman in me yet, and the gidget in me didn’t know how to handle it. Will it always be like this, I thought unhappily, will I always be scared of it and scared of being scared?” (140). Ironically, the Kahoona’s refusal denies Gidget the “climax” she expected. See Ilana Nash, “‘Nowhere Else to Go’: Gidget and the Construction of Adolescent Femininity,” Feminist Media Studies 2 (2002): 348, on the implications of this passage, and in general on the Gidget phenomenon and the patriarchy; but Nash exaggerates when she claims that Gidget never turns to her mother “for support and camaraderie” (352); at least in the first book, Gidget’s mother is the one who divines immediately that her daughter’s problems stem from sexual desire (see their conversation at Kohner, Gidget, 58-60), and her mother sides with her against her father by okaying her date with Moondoggie (91). For a brief account of Kohner’s career, Gerhard Mack, “Frederick Kohner,” in Deutsche Exilliteratur seit 1933. Band I. Kalifornien. Teil I, eds. John M. Spalek and Joseph Strelka (Bern-Munich: Franke Verlag, 1976), 762-770; John M. Spalek, Joseph Strelka, and Sandra H. Hawrylchak (eds.), Deutsche Exilliteratur seit 1933. Band 2. Kalifornien. Teil 1 (Bern-Munich: Franke Verlag, 1976), 68-71, for a bibliography of Kohner’s work (to 1976). Kohner died in 1986. He does not figure in Erhard Bahr, Weimar on the Pacific: German Exile Culture in Los Angeles and the Crisis of Modernism (Berkeley: UC Press, 2007), the most recent study known to me of the German colony in 1930s and 1940s Los Angeles, which included Thomas and Heinrich Mann, Berthold Brecht, Theodor Adorno, and many others; another account in Kevin Starr, The Dream Endures: California Enters the 1940s (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 342-396 (Kohner and Gidget, very briefly, at 388-389); see also now Johannes Evelein, Literary Exiles from Nazi Germany (Rochester: Camden House, 2014) on German exile literature more generally. Didion White Album, 210-211, on a 1975 Santa Ana that blew “in off the Mojave for three weeks and set… 69,000 acres of Los Angeles County on fire” and another, in 1978, that fanned a brush fire and “[w]ithin two hours… had pushed this fire across 25,000 acres and thirteen miles to the coast, where it jumped the Pacific Coast Highway as a half-mile fire storm generating winds of 100 miles per hour and temperatures up to 2500 degrees Fahrenheit. Refugees huddled on Zuma Beach. Horses caught fire and were shot on the beach, birds exploded in the air. Houses did not explode but imploded, as in a nuclear strike” (White Album, 222-223).

[24] Eve Babitz, Slow Days, Fast Company: The World, the Flesh, and L.A. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1977), 71-83. “Tales” from the coyly ambiguous “Tales by Eve Babitz” on the title page: while categorized as “fiction,” it is hard to know whether Babitz’s narratives are invented at all, or just lightly disguised recountings of her own experiences.

[25] Babitz, Slow Days, 76 (italics in original); 74-75 (“just friends”); 76 (blaming weather); 79; 78 (long quotation, original italics—“it” because William wants the narrator but she’s refused to sleep with him; so like a man, to find relief in evidence that it’s not his own deficiencies that have turned a woman off); 80-81; 83.

[26] I steal my heading from the title of Traci Lords’ autobiography (Underneath It All [New York: Harper Entertainment, 2003]). Though exploration would take us much too far from Los Angeles and images of the desert, the same trope of “uncovering” the glitz to reveal something else, usually (but not always) sordid, vapid, arid, and sterile underneath, plays out in analogous ways in the pornography industry. Pornography itself relies literally on “uncovering,” by making visible bodies and sexual couplings, but is at the same time a false uncovering, in its meretricious depiction of sex and its urgent need to cover up the abuse, sexism, and violence that accompanies so much of its production. The San Fernando Valley was the epicenter of American pornographic filmmaking in the heydays of the 1970s and 1980s; with the spread of digital photography and cheap, high-quality cameras, the product has been democratized. Still, Laura Pulido, Laura Barraclough, and Wendy Cheng, A People’s Guide to Los Angeles (Berkeley: UC Press, 2012), 224, claim that “[a]ccording to one source, 90 percent of all legally distributed pornographic films are made in the San Fernando valley,” without, however, citing the “source.”

[27] Douglas C. Sackman, “A Garden of Worldly Delights,” in Land of Sunshine, 247, with further references to scholarship of boosterism at 329-330 n. 5; especially notable: Richard Orsi, “Selling the Golden State: A Study of Boosterism in Nineteenth-Century California,” unpublished dissertation (University of Wisconsin, 1973); Kevin Starr, Inventing the Dream: California through the Progressive Era (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), 128-175 and Americans and the California Dream, 1850-1914 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973), 365-414; William Deverell and Douglas Flamming, “Race, Rhetoric, and Regional Identity: Boosting Los Angeles, 1880-1930,” in Power and Place in the North American West, eds. Richard White and John Findlay (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1999), 117-143; and Mike Davis, Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster (New York: Vintage Books, 1999), 59-91. Bertolt Brecht, Arbeitsjournal. Zweiter Band, 1942 bis 1955, ed. Werner Hecht (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1973), 293, entry for 9 August 1941, and 733, entry for 20 March 1945. This theme comes out especially nicely in Liahna Babener, “Raymond Chandler’s City of Lies,” in Los Angeles in Fiction, 109-131. On Brecht in LA, see Bahr, Weimar on the Pacific, 69-147. Babitz, Slow Days, 8.

[28] See Starr, Inventing the Dream, 44-63, for an overview (Material Dreams: Southern California through the 1920s [New York: Oxford University Press, 1990], 90-119, on Los Angeles in particular), and Orsi, “Selling the Golden State,” for a detailed study of booster literature. Samuel Stoney, To the Golden Land: Sketches of a Trip to Southern California (London: Walter Scott, 1889), 30, quoted without attribution in McWilliams, Southern California, 98; floral magnificence, 105; enervation, 107.

[29] Horace Bell, Reminiscences of a Ranger: Early Times in Southern California (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1999), 55-57.

[30] J.U. Peters, “The Los Angeles Anti-Myth,” in Itinerary: Criticism. Essays on California Writers, ed. Charles L. Crow (Bowling Green: Bowling Green State University Press, 1978), 24; see also Babener, “Chandler’s,” 115, and “Chinatown, City of Blight,” in Los Angeles in Fiction, 243-244. Lambert, Slide Area, 18, calls Los Angeles “not a city, but a series of suburban approaches to a city that never materializes.” Edward Soja, My Los Angeles: From Urban Restructuring to Regional Urbanization (Berkeley: UC Press, 2014), 21-23, argues that this view of Los Angeles is now outdated.

[31] Mark Royden Winchell, “Fantasy Seen: Hollywood Fiction Since West,” in Los Angeles in Fiction, 148 with 166 n. 6; Carolyn See, Golden Days (Berkeley: UC Press, 1996), 121 and 6.

[32] Dunne, True Confessions, 203; Bret Easton Ellis, Less Than Zero (New York: Vintage Books, 1985), 67; See, Golden Days, 4 and 7; Aldous Huxley, After Many a Summer Dies the Swan (New York: Harper & Row, 1965), 8: The contrasts between “nature” and “urban artifice” that surface in a few passages (see 10, 60, for example) are never developed. The inspiration for Swan, “his Hollywood novel” (Peter Munro Jack, “A New Novel by Aldous Huxley,” New York Times Book Review [28 January 1940], 2), came from the antics of William Randolph Hearst and Marion Davies: Franz Baldanza, “Huxley and Hearst,” in Itinerary, 35-47. David King Dunaway, Huxley in Hollywood (New York: Harper & Row, 1989), 106-110, on the writing of Swan. J. Ross MacDonald, The Drowning Pool (New York: Knopf, 1950), 19; Hughes, Souls for Sale, 369. See, “Hollywood Novel,” 178-180, sees artificiality of setting as a fundamental structural feature of the Hollywood novel, though without mentioning the desert (but see also her more extended discussion of the role of climate at 388-402).

[33] Lambert, Slide Area, 15, 16-17, 35, 94, 15 and 211, 52.

[34] See, Golden Days, 4, 6, 9, 121, 10-11, 13. When Edith brings her business partner to be, Skip, home for the first time, her house, lights ablaze, looks “charmed, with golden light pouring from every window like a just-landed space ship” (21): a flying saucer touched down, appropriately, in the midst of the desert. On See’s fiction, see Davis, Ecology of Fear, 316-318; Fine, Imagining Los Angeles, 251-255; O’Donnell, “Postwar Los Angeles,” 70-72. In Dunne, True Confessions, 82, Tom complains of his wife Mary Margaret, good Catholic girl: “It could be a hundred degrees with a hot dry wind off the desert and still she would wear flannel” to bed.

[35] See had already foreshadowed this desert beneath in her dissertation, where she wrote of a “parched” geography, “the constant assumption” in the Hollywood fiction she studied “that Southern California is a desert,” indeed a space that, after rain, “as soon as the sun comes out… again turns into an incipient desert” (“Hollywood Novel,” 388, 398, 392).

[36] Huxley, Ape, 17-18. Kerwin Lee Klein, “Westward, Utopia: Robert V. Hine, Aldous Huxley, and the Future of California History,” Pacific Historical Review 70 (2001): 474, makes the important observation that Ape and Essence “aired Huxley’s nostalgia for his lost desert years….”

[37] Huxley, Ape, 62, 202.

[38] On nuclear devastation in Los Angeles’ fiction, see David Seed, “Los Angeles’ Science Fiction Futures,” in Cambridge Companion, 123-134; a brief survey of Los Angeles literature in Davis, Ecology of Fear, 311-318, with a focus on See, Golden Days. For “The Paradise Crater,” see P.D. Smith, The Doomsday Men. The Real Doctor Strangelove and the Dream of the Superweapon (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2007), 294. In The Nowhere City, Paul is awoken at 4 am one morning by terrific noise; “[h]e thought it was, first, a nightmare; then, an atomic war.” But it was just another instance of the constant re-invention of LA: a house being moved to make way for a freeway (Lurie, Nowhere City, 256). “For [Raymond] Chandler,” observes Liahna K. Babener in a trenchant essay, the “falsity is so prevalent that the truth, if it surfaces at all, is neither redeeming nor ameliorative” (“Chandler’s,” 111). If the underlying desert truth of Los Angeles in Ape and Essence be desert, then Babener’s observation becomes chillingly true.

[39] Gloria Miklowitz, After the Bomb (New York: Scholastic, Inc., 1985), 2. Note, of course, the patriarchal trope: “Who will rescue me,” is the real question in Cara’s mind, “when true danger looms?”

[40] Lurie, Nowhere City, 285.

[41] Babener, “Chandler’s,” 120-121. “Helen Grayle” summons up “Holy Grail”—the unattainable object of unending search—and Helen of Troy, destroyer of men through sexual allurement and, in the Odyssey, memory-erasing drugs; Chandler, Stories, 767-984.

[42] Charles L. Crow, “Home and Transcendence in Los Angeles,” in Los Angeles in Fiction, 194-195. The embedded quotation comes from Didion, Play It as It Lays, 162.

[43] As indeed Edward Abbey, writing of Datura meteloides, another desert hazard, remarked: “The correct dosage is said to be spiritually rewarding, but the problem is that a microgram too much may lead to convulsions, paralysis and death—also rewarding, perhaps, but usually considered premature” (Beyond the Wall: Essays from the Outside [New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1984], 88).

[44] Mike Davis, City of Quartz: Excavating the Future of Los Angeles (New York: Vintage Books, 1990), 3-14 (Llano del Rio); 50: “Yet not all Europeans were estranged by either the façade or the desert behind it” (an implicit endorsement, I think); 82-83. Davis, Ecology of Fear, 10-14, 17-18 (Mediterranean climate); 25, 23 (quotations); 202 (LA now bordered by deserts and mountains rather than farms). Peter Charles Remondino, The Mediterranean Shores of America: Southern California: Its Climatic, Physical, and Meteorological Conditions (Philadelphia: F.A. Davis Co., 1892). I am indebted to Boom’s anonymous reader for reminding me of the importance of this literature.

[45] Glen M. MacDonald, “The Myth of a Desert Metropolis,” Boom: A Journal of California 3 (Fall 2013): 86-94; see also https://boomcalifornia.com/2017/05/22/the-myth-of-a-desert-metropolis-los-angeles-was-not-built-in-a-desert-but-are-we-making-it-one/.

[46] See Patricia Nelson Limerick, Desert Passages: Encounters with the American Deserts (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1985).

[47] Reyner Banham, Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1971), 235 and 243; perhaps Banham had in mind something like The Flutter of an Eyelid, by Myron Brining (1933), or Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One (1948). Much the same judgment on Huxley’s After Many a Summer Dies the Swan in See, “Hollywood Novel,” (1963), 39, but of course Huxley never left.

[48] Richard Slotkin, Regeneration through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1973) and Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998); David W. Teague, The Southwest in American Literature and Art: The Rise of a Desert Aesthetic (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1997). Also useful: Catrin Gersdorf, The Poetics and Politics of the Desert: Landscape and the Construction of America (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2009). Roderick Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001); William Cronon, “The Trouble with Wilderness, or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature,” in Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature, ed. William Cronon (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1995), 69-90; Jenny Price, “Thirteen Ways of Seeing Nature in L.A.,” in Land of Sunshine, 220-244. I owe many thanks with this essay. A previous version was presented in Reno, Nevada, at the 2015 Annual Conference of the Western Literature Association; my fellow panelists, Joseph William Morton and Sarah Nolan, and our moderator, Tyler Austin Nickl, made this a memorable occasion and contributed many suggestions for improvements. Kate Bergren and Heather Dundas read a draft, offered excellent comments, and encouraged submission to Boom. The anonymous reviewer read the text with remarkable care and sensitivity, and made many suggestions (including bibliography) for strengthening my argument. Any remaining idiocies are mine.

Gary Reger is Professor of History and Classics at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. His work on the ancient Greek and Roman economy began with Regionalism and Change in the Economy of Independent Delos and continues with a project, based on case studies, surveying Greco-Roman economic history, for which he received an NEH grant for 2017-2018. His other main interest is the history of human interaction with deserts broadly conceived across time and space. He has published essays on the southwestern deserts in Extrapolation and Cultural History and has in press a study of Roman reaction to the Sahara Desert.

Copyright: © 2017 Gary Reger. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/


Proposition 47

by Marisa Arrona

Reimagining justice, opportunity, and healing

From Boom Summer 2016, Vol 6, No 2

Rochelle Solombrino was sixteen when she got her first DUI, the same age as her first suicide attempt. A year later, she nearly died from alcohol poisoning. When she was twenty-four, she almost died of a heroin overdose.

“I was on a suicide mission,” Solombrino, now forty-nine, says ruefully. “It wasn’t normal to think like that, but, back then, it was hard to understand what ‘normal’ was.”

She had her first drink at age six and was encouraged by an uncle to start smoking marijuana at a young age. Her stepfather sexually molested her.

She also knew she was gay, but because her family was conservative, and included an uncle who was a conservative pastor, she was scared to be true to herself. Alcohol and drugs were the only things she knew would numb her pain. By fourteen, she had tried not only marijuana but also PCP, LSD, and cocaine.

It should be little surprise, then, that Solombrino’s story includes a period of incarceration. After being arrested a number of times for nonviolent crimes such as petty theft, drug possession, and disorderly conduct driven by her addictions, she was sentenced to eighteen months in state prison. Solombrino became a victim of California’s misguided prioritization of incarceration over crime prevention programs like drug treatment.

“It never made any sense to me that people like myself who were convicted of nonviolent crimes were serving time in the same place as people serving twenty-five-to-life sentences for violent crimes,” she says.

Solombrino’s story is not unique.

Over a three-decade period from 1981 to 2011, the money California spent on prisons and on incarcerating people increased by more than 1,500 percent. During this time, the state also reduced the number of behavioral health treatment beds by nearly half. Meanwhile the recidivism rate skyrocketed to nearly 70 percent, meaning two out of three people released from prison committed new crimes landing them back in prison within three years.



At a fair in South Los Angeles, people get help applying to have their records changed.

Much of our criminal justice system has proceeded aggressively with the idea that locking up criminals for as long as possible is the most effective way of dealing with crime. But it has become increasingly clear over the years that this approach has failed.

No matter how tough we made the punishments, too many people have cycled in and out of our justice system, But we know now there are much better ways to improve public safety than locking up people like Solombrino in our jails and prisons where they not only don’t receive rehabilitation services but then, upon release, are prevented from successfully reentering society because of their criminal records. After decades of soaring prison costs and recidivism rates, it is imperative that California does whatever it takes to improve our approach to safety and justice.

We have learned a lot over the years about how to deter crime and change criminal behavior. While prison is the proper punishment for the most violent criminals, it often does more harm than good for people convicted of nonviolent offenses, increasing the chance they will keep committing crimes, perpetuating the cycle.

Many California voters believe this, which is why 60 percent of them in November 2014 approved Proposition 47, a measure that changed simple drug possession and five petty-theft crimes from felonies to misdemeanors. Polling done a year after the law went into effect shows that support for Prop. 47 has grown to 67 percent.1

In strong complementary ways, the law helped continue to address the severe overcrowding in the state prison system that the Supreme Court ruled in June 2011 was unconstitutional, and which led to a court-ordered population cap. In the eighteen months since the law went into effect, the population of the state’s overcrowded prison system has been reduced by more than 5,000 people.2 Similarly, California’s overcrowded county jails have also seen their populations reduced as a result of Prop. 47: a recent report by the Public Policy Institute of California found that in the first year after Prop. 47 was approved, jail populations decreased by about 9 percent.

The initiative has also saved the state and counties tens of millions of dollars—money mandated by the law’s language to be reallocated to community-based crime-prevention programs like drug and mental health treatment that help break the cycles of crime, risk prevention, education programs for at-risk schoolchildren, and trauma recovery services to help victims of crime. Now that Governor Jerry Brown’s Department of Finance has calculated the savings generated by Prop. 47 during the first full fiscal year the law has been on the books, the money will be put into the Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Fund and dispersed early next year to local jurisdictions by the Board of State and Community Corrections as part of a grant process.

To be sure, Prop. 47 did not decriminalize misdemeanors, nor did it take away law enforcement’s ability to hold defendants accountable. Law enforcement and the legal system can still arrest, detain, and jail for up to a year someone convicted of a misdemeanor—including the six crimes impacted by Prop. 47. If someone is convicted of multiple misdemeanors, that person can be sentenced to multiple years in jail.

Significantly, the law is also retroactive, meaning that anyone in California with a felony conviction on his or her criminal record for one of the six low-level crimes impacted by Prop. 47 can apply to the courts to have that felony reduced to a misdemeanor. It’s the largest opportunity in the history of the United States for people to change past felony convictions on their records—indeed, as many as one million Californians may be eligible.

In California today, nearly 5,000 restrictions are placed on people with felonies on their criminal records, and more than half of those restrictions are employment-related. Someone with a felony conviction on his or her record, no matter how old it is, cannot obtain a cosmetology license or receive college grants, for example. As a result, many people find it hard or impossible to secure and maintain employment, housing, financial aid to go back to school, and other factors that are key to achieving economic security and family stability.

Solombrino knows this well. Upon being released from prison, she was enrolled in a twelve-step program at Fred Brown Recovery Services in San Pedro, which helped significantly as she found her feet back in society. After successfully completing the program, she started working for Fred Brown, first as a sober-living manager at one of its residential homes and then as an office manager. Today she is the operations coordinator for the entire organization.

Having experienced sober living for seven years now, Solombrino is saving to buy her first home. Four years ago, she achieved a major milestone: getting her driver’s license back. She bought herself a used Jeep—her dream car.

But her criminal history became an issue last year when Fred Brown applied for a county contract. To qualify, no one on the organization’s staff could have a felony conviction on their record. Suddenly, despite all the work she’d done to turn herself around and get her life back on the right track, Solombrino was in danger of having all of it taken away.

But then, at a job fair, she met Prop. 47 advocates who told her about the chance she had to reduce her old felony convictions to misdemeanors. She confirmed that she was eligible and immediately filed an application for relief under Prop. 47. Hers was one of nearly 250,000 applications that have been filed to date.

“I was feeling completely defeated before Prop. 47,” Solombrino says. “Even though I’d done all of this positive stuff in my life, the county could’ve taken away my job even though I’d already paid my debt to society.”

The experience was reminiscent of one from years earlier, when Solombrino applied for Section 8 housing but was denied because of her criminal history.

“That was another defeat,” Solombrino says. “That was just another reason to get drunk.”

Increasingly, policymakers are recognizing the futility of sitting around and waiting for crime to happen and then going after the people who commit those crimes. They’re beginning to invest more into programs that seek to prevent crime from happening in the first place.

In Los Angeles County, for example, the Board of Supervisors has created a task force comprised of officials from the Probation and Sheriff’s departments, as well as other key county representatives. They were tasked with developing a plan for reaching out to as many people as possible in Los Angeles who are eligible to change an old felony on their record to a misdemeanor. County leaders are also working to create jobs and provide services to people once they have received Prop. 47 relief. They’re keeping tabs on the amount of money Prop. 47 saves the county, and they are engaging community members to help decide how that savings will be reinvested.

But in Los Angeles and jurisdictions across the state, more needs to be done.


Rochelle Solombrino


Proposition 47 requires new approaches, and everyone in the justice system needs to be committed to adapting to the change in state law.

Local justice agencies should be expanding best practices in diversion, targeted deterrence, supervised probation, treatment, collaborative courts and neighborhood problem solving, and other strategies that can help protect public safety without wasting costly state prison beds.

Prop. 47 is a historic opportunity to get smart about our justice resources. Adapting to reform is what Californians voted for, what they expect, and what needs to happen now. The old way of doing things busted our budgets and didn’t do anything to improve the health and safety of our communities. Returning to the ways of the past will only waste resources and fail to stop the cycle of crime. We can do better than we’ve done in the past, and Prop. 47 is beginning to show the way.

“I can positively say that although I began my road of recovery from active addiction the day I entered treatment at Fred Brown Recovery Services, it wasn’t until I embarked on Prop. 47 that I started to truly believe I wasn’t a bad person trying to get good, but a good person trying to get well,” Solombrino says. “I began to feel real hope that I could clear the wreckage of my past, redeem myself, and restore my future.”


1. The California Endowment, Californians Back Prop. 47; Want Investments in Prevention,November 2015 (available at www.calendow.org/survey-californians-back-prop-47-want-investments-in-prevention/).

2. State of California, Office of Governor Edmund G. Brown, California State Budget 2016–2017(available at www.ebudget.ca.gov/FullBudgetSummary.pdf), 44.