I'd call it the heart of Los Angeles – if it has one – that narrow strip of the world that runs across from La Cienega to the Golden State Freeway, and down from the Hollywood Hills to Interstate 10. An odd golden rectangle of sorts, within which all things two-dimensional in nature are eventually bound to occur. In New York, you can feel the connection, as though you were a functioning part in some kind of or-ganism with everything happening at once right there from bottom to top, and vice-versa.
L.A. is more like a spread-out Venice – canals criss-crossing and wandering around the flatness, gondolas in rush hour gridlock. Life tends to run downhill there, and who's to say when anything will happen. It's all about a strange kind of dis-connection – a sunny, ungrounded alternative reality. The only things easily understood are the things that are visible on the surface, it's just that sometimes, life makes you look underneath. This was going to be a day like that.
I'd gotten a rare call from Playboy Enterprises to do an illustration for the Playboy Jazz Festival, so I rolled over the Cahuenga Pass and on down to their old building in West Hollywood, where at one time, I hear, Hugh Hefner actually lived up in the penthouse, over-looking the glory days of "The Sunset Strip."
It was dim up in their offices, and sumptuous, like a prime rib res-taurant with a Tony Bennett soundtrack. No one seemed to be quite awake yet (it was just before noon at Playboy, after all) and so it fell upon a well-dressed underling to fetch me my assignment folder, and to direct me to my Art Director, who actually wasn't actually there. He was inexplicably working out of The Schindler House, an archi-tectural landmark nearby.
I was drifting on a bit of that Vegas-like up-all-night atmosphere, riding the elevator back down alone, when it stopped on a floor and the actor Robert Vaughan got on with me. I felt a queer, sudden schoolboyish surge, because here he was, "Napoleon Solo, The Man From U.N.C.L.E." – one of my favorite childhood TV heroes – in close quarters on an elevator at Playboy – my favorite childhood magazine (when I could lay my hands on a copy.) What a funny world.
He looked at me furtively, then instantly back away with the pain of recognition, and then stepped right up to the elevator door and stood just inches from it, looking straight ahead, glancing sideways si-multaneously avoiding me and keeping track of me. Without speaking, he very clearly said: "Don't speak."
He had the classic look of a screen actor – a short guy with a big face, big features, and he appeared, upon observation, to be a nice enough guy if he'd given it a chance, but it didn't seem like he would, or could. As though he were afraid. Afraid of what, I don't know. I certainly was no threat, smiling there like a stand-in. Maybe he saw me notice his platform shoes, which I'm very sorry to say I did.
Maybe he really wasn't the unassailable character he played on TV. Maybe he was really a very vulnerable guy, there with the hairspray and the lifts. I liked him, and was honored to be on the same elevator with him, but the moment the doors parted he quickly stepped out, like a racer out a gate, and there he went...The Man From U.N.C.L.E...The Magnificent Seven...safe again, at last.
I gurgled around the innercity suburb streets lined with fat palms and eucalyptus, like the jungle cruise at Disneyland, over Beverly and jogging on up Kings Road. It was a little hard to find the Schindler House at first, with it's back to the street like the best of those modern residential designs – Neutra, and the Eichler houses – like the house I lived in until I was eight. I gently pushed the door open and said hello into an empty room, when Rip Georges, the accomplished and respected designer and creative director poked his head in too. Why he was working there I never really knew, but he showed me around the classic modern residence, the home of the architect, elemental and open. It was like a mix of a cave and a beautiful japanese house, with every room facing the garden, and light angling in under the angled roof. Concrete walls like a Roman villa.
It felt a little bit like breathing to me, that house. A comfortable, anthropological aesthetic as close to the region's natural architecture as any would ever be. An intuition for not needing much that so many people had sought in those foothills – like my father, who'd tried for it in the houses I knew as a child, before he left the western world be-hind. It felt that familiar, and that empty.
We sat by a built-in desk and he gave me the low-down: They wanted a portrait of the Latin per-cussionist, Willie Bobo (famous for his cool version of the Jobim song,"Gingi"). Mr. Bobo had sadly died an early death just a few months before and the festival pro-gram would include a dedication to him, so perhaps it should be something colorful, something celebratory. The only problem was photographic reference. There wasn't any, and in those days, no internet images available at the push of a button; but they did have the address and phone number of Mr. Bobo's widow. She lived out in Highland Park, and she might have some photos I could borrow to work from. It was clearly part of my job to awkwardly call her, set up a meeting time, and get directions...
................................................................................continued in Part 2