Issue: Issue Winter 2000/2001

Commemorating Hollywood's Cultural Luminaries

I come from a family that read historic markers on highways while on summer vacations. Later, I often had occasion to note commemorative markers in various cities. For example, it seemed that almost every street in Aix-en-Provence (the sister city of Baton Rouge), where I was an exchange professor, had a plaque commemorating cultural figures who had lived in the city and not just Paul Cezanne and Emilé Zola who are Aix’s most famous artistic inhabitants. In New York City, there is a plaque on a building above the West 57th Street subway station at Eighth Avenue, indicating that the great Hungarian composer, Bela Bartok, had died there in 1945.

What needs to be noted is the long-standing tradition in many places around the world of commemorating historical and cultural figures who are part of a community’s heritage. Hollywood could be an excellent addition to the roster of communities that commemorate their cultural luminaries.

Commemorations are typically related to the history of the geographical area with which a person is associated. Moreover, exceptional importance does not necessarily mean national significance; rather, commemoration is a measure of a figure’s importance within the appropriate community context. Cultural commemoration could be associated with figures whose works are important for reflecting a community’s cultural identity: its beliefs, customs and artistic accomplishments.

Hollywood could be an excellent addition
to the roster of communities that
commemorate their cultural luminaries

In general, the culture to be celebrated should reflect the aesthetic values of the community historically as well as represent the full range of cultural expressions.

While living in the Los Feliz area when teaching at Claremont-McKenna College in the late 1970s, I became aware of how many cultural figures had lived in Hollywood. For example, F. Scott Fitzgerald was living at 1403 N. Laurel Avenue when he died in 1940, while working on The Last Tycoon. Similarly, Nathaniel West, the author of the great Hollywood novel, Days of the Locust and Miss Lonelyhearts, lived on N. Ivar Street and was a friend of Fitzgerald. By a bizarre coincidence, West died in an automobile accident on the same weekend in December, 1940, as his friend Scott Fitzgerald.

Hollywood has been home to a number of other celebrated writers including Raymond Chandler, who created the sense of Hollywood noir in his detective novels and the British expatriate, Aldous Huxley, and the avant-gardist, Charles Bukowski. Christopher Isherwood, is most famous for living in Santa Monica, but his recently published memoirs of the years 1945-51 document several residences in Hollywood. The National Book Award winner, Paul Monette, lived on N. Kings Road in West Hollywood. Will and Aurian Durant wrote the multi-volume History of Civilization at their villa in The Oaks.

A number of refugees from Hitler’s tyranny such as Bertolt Brecht made their home in the Hollywood area as was documented in the 1998 exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum for Art of Exiles and Emigres. These included Man Ray, 1245 Vine Street and Franz and Alma Werfel, 6800 Los Tilos Road in Hollywood; Rudolf Schindler, 835 N.Kings Road and Igor Stravinsky, 1260 N. Wetherly Drive in West Hollywood. In sum, Hollywood has not only been home to movie stars and film moguls, but to numerous cultural luminaries as well.

Cultural commemorations would be markers placed on buildings/residences associated with significant cultural figures who made their home in the Hollywood area at some point in their lives. Certainly, criteria would have to be established for the artistic endeavors to be included: writers, poets, painters, sculptors, composers, musicians, choreographers, dancers, to name some cultural creators. A difficult question would be what distinction, if any, should be drawn between the “entertainment industry” and “high culture.” Fitzgerald and West, for examples, can be considered scenarists as well as authors. On another point, commemorative designations are usually only granted to the deceased. The historic signage on Hollywood Boulevard that was recently inaugurated by the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce provides a helpful precedent. In the last analysis, a cultural commemoration is about celebrating a community’s past and building a sense of how it would like to define its future. Commemorating cultural luminaries is not just about recognizing the famous (although fame is not a disqualification); rather, the process should provide recognition of a wide variety of aesthetic contributions from a broad spectrum of Hollywood’s cultural communities.

Certainly, there is no need for any defensiveness concerning the cultural condition of Los Angeles. On the other hand there is a persistent stereotype, even among Angelenos, that Hollywood is simply synonymous with popular culture. The L.A. County Museum exhibition, “Made in California,” should dispel many stereotypes concerning the culture and image of Los Angeles. Cultural commemorations would also constitute a strong affirmation of the varied cultural history of the Hollywood area. If Hollywood is rightly known for its cavalcade of stars along Hollywood Boulevard, it might be also well known as an area where the streets celebrate the community’s cultural luminaries.