Sunday, July 24, 2022

Los Angeles. A Rhapsody

Aldous Huxley (1894–1963)
From Writing Los Angeles: A Literary Anthology

Elks Temple, Los Angeles, c. 1925. (Los Angeles Public Library Digital Collections)
“Across an open space there suddenly loomed up a large white building, magically shining against the intensified blackness of the sky behind. (Just finished, sir, The Temple of the Elks.) From its summit the beams of half a dozen searchlights waved to heaven.” —From “Los Angeles. A Rhapsody”
“We have been in America five days,” Aldous Huxley wrote in a letter sent from the Grand Canyon in May 1926. “I have seen its two most remarkable natural phenomena—the canyon and Charlie Chaplin.”

The previous September, Huxley and his wife, Maria, began a trip around the world, leaving their six-year-old son with her parents in Belgium and traveling by ship from Italy to India and on to southeast Asia, the Philippines, and Japan before arriving in San Francisco in early May. They spent three days in Los Angeles before crossing America by train and taking an ocean liner from New York to London. The eleven-month trip was the subject of Huxley’s next book, the travel journal Jesting Pilate: An Intellectual Holiday, which included several satirical pieces—most notably an un-rhapsodic rhapsody on Los Angeles (presented in full below), which British scholar Jerome Meckier has called “required reading” for fans of Huxley’s most famous novel. The city portrayed in the essay, says Meckier, “repeatedly manifests itself as the prototype for the Americanized London of Brave New World.”

During his short visit to Hollywood, Huxley met up with the poet Robert Nichols, a good friend from England, who was then trying to make a go of it in the film industry. The two of them toured the city with Chaplin in tow. Huxley was both fascinated and appalled. “Such comedy, oddness, vitality, vulgarity: it would be worth spending a month here,” he wrote; his cynicism and scorn would dominate his essay about the city. “His view of American civilization in general, and Hollywood in particular, are what might be expected, in one sense, of an upper middle class literary Englishman in 1926,” writes Nicholas Murray in his biography of Huxley. “He was sniffy about the roaring materialism of the Jazz Age and about the products of Hollywood.”

On the train to Chicago, he followed up his brief visit with a letter to Nichols: “How delightful it was to see you again, my dear Bob, after all these years—and how still more delightful to think that you will soon be returning to civilization. Hollywood is altogether too antipodean to be lived in; it gives you no chance of escape.” Huxley was especially disdainful of the film industry. Earlier, he had sent from Java to the editors of Vanity Fair a dispatch that expressed concern about the impressions Hollywood conveyed to people in other countries. “Such is the white man’s world as revealed by the films. . . . A world without subtlety, without the smallest intellectual interests, innocent of art, letters, philosophy, science. . . . A world where men and women have instincts, desires and emotions, but no thoughts.” The corporate control over the creation of movies also disturbed him: “I shall stick to an art in which I can do all the work by myself, sitting alone,” he wrote to Nichol from India, “without having to entrust my soul to a crowd of swindlers, vulgarians and mountebanks. If one could make films oneself, I’d be all for the movies. But as it is—no.”

Yet, twelve years later, Huxley began what Murray calls a “radically different phase” of his career, “characterized by his gradual transformation from witty jester into a determined seeker of peace, both for himself and for mankind.” At the same time, despite his caustic essay about Los Angeles and his strong opinions regarding the movie business, Huxley surrendered to the allure of Hollywood. During Huxley’s second tour of America in 1937, Jake Zeitlin, a Los Angeles book dealer, wrote to him about the possibility of representing his books to the studios. Huxley gave him permission to do so, then added:
About the possibility of my working in Hollywood—it is probable that I shall be staying in California for a time after the New Year. (Before that date, I expect to be lecturing up and down the country.) I might perhaps make that stay an occasion for doing work for the films, if something satisfactory could be found. Will you, as you suggest, make tactful enquiries, without, please, in any way committing me definitely?
Zeitlin quickly set up an initial meeting between Huxley and studio executives, but it didn’t go well. “The best they could do in Hollywood was to ask me to adapt The Forsyte Saga for the screen: but even the lure of enormous lucre could not reconcile me to remaining closeted for months with the ghost of the late poor John Galsworthy.” A year later, after returning from his lecture tour, Huxley accepted MGM’s offer to write the screenplay for a biographical film about Madame Curie that would be directed by George Cukor and would star Greta Garbo, the Huxleys’ new friend in Hollywood. Even though Huxley’s script was rejected and the movie was later reconceived with a different crew and cast, he earned $15,000—an exorbitant amount in 1938. He fared even better with another project: working with veteran screenwriter Jane Murtin, he adapted Pride and Prejudice for the 1940 version starring Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier.

Huxley confessed feelings of guilt to Anita Loos (author of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes) about making so much money while his “family and friends are starving and being bombed in England,” and she told him bluntly that he should just take the money and use it to help them. (“The trouble with Aldous is that he is a genius who just once in a while isn’t very smart,” she said at the time.) One of their neighbors, the novelist Christopher Isherwood, later recalled that the Huxleys did in fact use most of the MGM proceeds to send money and supplies to friends and relatives in Europe.

Just as Huxley’s attitudes toward the film industry softened, so too did his opinions about the United States. “I am greatly enjoying America, which, I now realize, I simply hadn’t seen before this occasion,” he wrote to the artist Eva Hermann the year he began working in Hollywood. “What an extraordinary, queer, fascinating country!” To the art critic Clive Bell (Virginia Woolf’s brother-in-law), Huxley wrote, “Some day you should come and explore this very strange country. . . . You would find a great deal to astonish, interest and amuse you in the various parts of the country. I had no idea, till this summer, of the depths of its strangeness.”

While he never quite lost his disdain for studio executives and the quality of the films they greenlighted, he soon formed lasting friendships in a close-knit circle that included Chaplin, Garbo, Loos, Isherwood, Harpo Marx, Edwin and Grace Hubble, Helen Hayes, Igor Stravinsky, Thomas Mann, Bertrand Russell, and Paulette Goddard; Orson Welles and Lillian Gish showed up to the surprise 45th birthday party at his home. Huxley had originally planned to stay in Los Angeles for only a short while, maybe even a year or two, but he ended up living there until his death a quarter century later.

Notes: Among the cultural references in Huxley’s essay: At the age of seven, Jackie Coogan starred with Charlie Chaplin in The Kid; he became one of the most prominent child actors of the decade and, in 1924, went on a charity tour across American and Europe, raising more than $1 million to aid Greek, Armenian, and Assyrian orphans whose parents were killed during World War I and the Turkish War of Independence. (In the 1960s he became famous all over again as Uncle Fenster on the TV series The Addams Family.) Gilda Gray was a dancer who popularized the “shimmy” when she performed in the annual Ziegfeld Follies during the 1920s. Sennett Bathing Beauties were women who performed in bathing outfits in comedy shorts and promotional events produced by Mack Sennett. Ethel Levey was an American vaudeville and stage performer. Jenny Golder was an Australian singer who performed in Paris music halls and became extraordinarily popular with American tourists.

Among the literary references: The French expression au-dessus de la mêlée means “above the crowd” or “above the fray.” The two-line Latin excerpt is from the poem “Nux,” an elegy apocryphally attributed to Ovid, in which a walnut tree complains about those who attack it for nuts and inhibit its future fecundity. J. H. Mozley’s translation in The Art of Love and Other Poems (1929) reads: “Now she that would seem beautiful harms her womb, and rare in these days is she who would be a parent.” The phrase “promise of pneumatic bliss” is from T. S. Eliot’s poem, “Whispers of Immortality.” Pantagruel is one of two giants featured in the sixteenth-century adventure story The Life of Gargantua and of Pantagruel by François Rabelais. Pantagruelism has come to refer to a style of cynical, often stoic humor.

Before Huxley wrote “Los Angeles," he read Agnes Repplier’s essay, “On a Certain Condescension in Americans,” in the May 1926 issue of The Atlantic Monthly. The penultimate paragraph in Huxley’s satire incorporates four of the many nationalistic quotes or speeches discussed and criticized in Repplier’s article. The first excerpt (“only one first-class civilization”) is from an August 1923 editorial in Ladies’ Home Journal. Walter Hines Page, U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom from 1913 to 1918, made his disparaging remarks about Europe in December 1917. The unattributed quote about “American idealism” is from Rice Institute professor Lindsey Blayney’s “American Ideals and Traditions,” the lead article in the May 1922 issue of North American Review. Thomas Nixon Carver was an American economist who taught at Harvard University; his quote is from the 1925 book, The Present Economic Revolution in the United States.

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Daylight had come to the common folk of Hollywood, the bright California daylight. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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