Historical Figures Tell the Story of L.A., One Letter and Diary Entry at a Time

In the new book Dear Los Angeles, our contributor David Kipen weaves letters, diary entries, and blog posts from the mid-18th century to the 21st into a stunning narrative. Here are a few of them. Illustrations by Kirsten Ulve.


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Los Angeles city hall under construction in 1927.



I have not yet seen a gold mine! Few emigrants can say this. Nearly all rush to the mines on their first coming, as if there were no other pursuit worthy of attention. From this mania, however, they are fast recovering. Thus hope is reviving for this part of the country. A great revolution is silently going on. Frontier judge Benjamin Hayesdiary entry


At around four, the doorbell rang. It was two neatly dressed Americans about thirty years of age. They said, “There is something we want to ask Aoki.”… I called Sachiko and told her, “Go get Father from Mr. Onodera’s place.” Sachiko said, “Okay.” And…she took off…so I…ran down the front stone steps, caught up with her and in rapid Japanese told her, “They are FBI. Father is going to be investigated, so keep that in mind.” She said, “What?” And the little girl’s face that was always shining white with health suddenly went pale and turned blue, and with tears in her eyes, she took off running! After a short while, my husband came home; …we sat at a table facing the two Americans. The two Americans rose slightly and said, “This is who we are.” And they opened their coat and showed us their FBI badges and let loose their first arrow of questions. —Aoki Hisa, journal entry

Albert EDIT bkg1.6.1931

Here in Pasadena it is like Paradise. Always sunshine and clear air, gardens with palms and pepper trees and friendly people who smile at one and ask for autographs. —Albert Einstein (left), diary entry


This morning two Californian officers, accompanied by Tortoria Pico, who marched with us from San Luis Obispo, came to the mission to treat for peace. A consultation was held, and terms were suggested, and, as I understand, partly agreed upon, but not concluded. —Edwin Bryant, journal entry

FScott EDIT bkg1.20.1938

Oh, Joe, can’t producers ever be wrong? I’m a good writer—honest. —F. Scott Fitzgerald (right), letter to a director 


I have just consumed a stack of wheats & a mug of mocha in this place [the Brown Derby restaurant]. The weather is very hot: yesterday went out in a motor boat from Balboa harbour. Have lectured 3 times & addressed several classes; have driven a Ford and got stuck in a snow drift. The trees are full of oranges. —T. S. Eliot, letter


marilyn monroe  


The notable hour of the day was sunset on the Palos Verdes Hills: not a gorgeous sunset,—but exquisite in rose and grey of water, clouds and hills. I realized how much one misses living in an ugly, squat, city like Glendale, surrounded by boxlike abominations in brick,—or worse, stucco and cardboard pretensions. —Photographer Edward Weston, diary entry 


I had dinner last night with the Attorney-General of the United States, Robert Kennedy, and I asked him what his department was going to do about Civil Rights and some other issues. He is very intelligent, and besides all that, he’s got a terrific sense of humor.… He was the guest of honor and when they asked him who he wanted to meet, he wanted to meet me. So, I went to the dinner and I sat next to him, and he isn’t a bad dancer either. —Marilyn Monroe (pictured above), letter to her stepson


It is beginning to look like television may soon kill not only the theater and the movies but radio, books, magazines, newspapers, and finally articulate speech and all the processes of ratiocination. Talk of the barbarian invasions—the fifth century was nothing to the twentieth. —Aldous Huxley, letter to Anita Loos


“Here anyone going on foot will be arrested immediately” was what we jokingly said on arrival in Los Angeles, where there are no pedestrians. In fact, one day I try to go by foot for a stretch through Culver City, and after a few blocks a policeman on a motorbike comes alongside and stops me. —Writer Italo Calvino, diary entry


john lennon los angeles
John Lennon, May Pang, and Harry Nilsson



I do not yet know all the possibilities of Hollywood, because it’s a place where you never see anyone… We live…in Hollywood which, it seems, is not very elegant at all.… The most expensive villas are in Santa Monica.… At…the intersection of Laurel Canyon and Sunset Boulevard, is Schwab’s Drug Store. One finds everything there.… They sell cigarettes, bras, newspapers, fountain pens, lingerie, sweets, dishes, wine, and alcohol.… In the old part of Los Angeles, one can see some far from ordinary characters. —Jean Renoir from Letters


I have sampled the waters here briefly, and have reason to believe I shall be able to earn a living.… Many of our old friends have given up writing entirely, and turned to other lines of work. —Screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, letter to a fellow blacklistee 


Dear Pam, I apologize for being so rude and thank you for not hitting me. P.S. Harry Nilsson feels the same way. —John Lennon (pictured above), letter to Pam Grier


If possible, I’d like to stay at the Sheraton because I’m treated well there and they do a good job screening off well-wishers, strangers who claim to be my best friend, kooks who want to assassinate me, and assorted and sundry sycophants who want me to buy oil wells, interest in super markets. —Rod Serling, letter


I’m really scared about Disneyland.… So much I don’t know and trying to design and not being sure I’m on the right track. —Landscape architect Ruth Shellhorn, diary entry


martin luther king jr assassination



Just before six, I heard that King has died. Oh fuck them all. How blood-horny this’ll make the killers on both sides. —Christopher Isherwood, letter

richard burton4.2.1970

I did nothing all day except stare at the ocean and…memorize… irregular Spanish verbs. I am well over half way through and, given a little peace in L.A. I will have… finished it by the time we return…. Another worry is that I have temporarily lost all sexual urge which is very frustrating for E. Presumably the…result of total abstinence…after thirty years of steady…drinking is taking its time to re-assess itself. When it does come back it will be a vast explosion. If it does come back which it had better had. —Richard Burton (left), diary entry


We are in Los Angeles where we found a charming house in a blooming canyon full of good butterflies. We live very quietly.… The screenplay [of Lolita] will keep me busy till August or September when we shall sail again for Europe. I feel happy and relaxed in lovely and serene Los Angeles, and wish…you could visit us here. —Vladimir Nabokov, letter to Edmund Wilson

Aaron EDITbkg4.5.1982

And so my L.A. adventure begins. I looked at an apartment in Mid-Wilshire—Serrano—I like the area. It’s urban. I spent the whole day on the buses and walking around. Bringing all the energy and excitement of San Francisco to this crazy and dispersed city. Hollywood, Fairfax, Wilshire, Downtown, Ventura Blvd. All on the bus. It’s all accessible. Sometimes it’s a bit frustrating. But it’s because one is spoiled by the automobile in this town. —CICLAVIA Creator Aaron Paley (right), diary entry 


The geographical constriction of L.A. We all live far away from each other and I do not drive. Taxis are inordinately expensive. It takes an afternoon to get to Hollywood to buy paper and a typewriter ribbon. —Anaïs Nin (pictured below), diary entry

anais nin



I never loved any place in my life as I do this and if anything happens that I don’t make a go of it I believe that it would about break my heart. —Edgar Rice Burroughs, diary entry


simone rodia watts towers


5.8.1903 I have been passing through a veritable garden of the earth yesterday and to-day, here in the southern half of California, and it has been made such by the honesty and wisdom of your people, and by the way in which you have preserved your waters and utilized them. I ask that you simply keep on as you have begun, and that you let the rest of the nation follow suit. We must preserve the forests to preserve the waters, which are themselves preserved by the forests, if we wish to make this country as a whole blossom as you have made this part of California blossom. —President Theodore Roosevelt, speech


I have a private office in the MGM administration building with desk, typewriter, phone and two easy chairs and a view over a pretty flower garden and the foothills of the San Bernardino Mountains. I came West in grand style. I had a compartment as far as Chicago and from there on, a lower berth on the Super Chief. It was a lovely trip and I rested and enjoyed it. —Tennessee Williams, letter to his parents


I finally offered my resignation. In typical Hollywood fashion it was rejected, and I was fired two days later. —Lassie creator Eric Knight, letter to a friend


If [Simon] Rodia [the creator of the Watts Towers, pictured above] had set out to pick a place in which to build a huge work of art and avoid having it recognized, he could hardly have picked a better place than Los Angeles. —Calvin Trillin, The New Yorker 


ambassador hotel



The Ambassador, a venerable hotel…on Wilshire Boulevard, was the Kennedy headquarters.… It was about eighteen minutes after midnight, a few of us strolled over to the swinging doors that gave on to the pantry.… There was suddenly a banging repetition of a sound…not at all like shots, like somebody dropping a rack of trays. Half a dozen of us were startled enough to charge through the door, and it had just happened.… The only light was the blue light.… It was a howling jungle of cries and obscenities and flying limbs and two enormous men, Roosevelt Grier the football player and Rafer Johnson…the Olympic champion, piling on to a pair of blue jeans. There was a head on the floor, streaming blood, and somebody put a…hat under it and the blood trickled down like chocolate sauce on an iced cake.… The button-eyes image of Ethel Kennedy turned to cinders. She was slapping a young man and he was saying, “Listen lady, I am hurt too” and down on the greasy floor was a huddle of clothes and staring out of it the face of Bobby Kennedy.… A… woman…suddenly bounded to a table and beat it and howled like a wolf, “Stinking country, no no no no.” —Alistair Cooke, BBC’s Letters from America

Frank EDIT bkg6.27.1921

Well—[Hollyhock House] stands. Your home. It is yours for what it has cost you. It is mine for what it has cost me.… Faithfully yours, maimed as it is. —Frank Lloyd Wright (right), letter to Aline Barnsdall 


First day of jury duty. I had heard they were calling panels for the Menendez… trial, but I didn’t…believe it because I thought that case had been settled a long time ago.… I knew…that Lyle and Erik Menendez were the Beverly Hills teenagers who had shotgunned their parents to death in their home.… When Erik Menendez walked into the courtroom, my blood went cold. —Hazel Thornton, diary entry



Independence Day. Altman party in Malibu. Dress code; red, white and blue. Buy US Flag stickers and plaster my clothes, hair and face with them, and trek up the coast looking like a stamped parcel.… Their condo is on the Pacific Ocean. I don’t mean NEAR, but ON the Gaspar EDIT bkgbeach. The living room is dominated by the sound and sight of the pounding surf immediately beyond the wall-to-wall windows. Katherine is the coolest, keenest hostess…makes everyone feel hugely welcome, every…arrangement seem effortless, unfussed. She has been married to Bob for thirty years, and they kind of “top ’n’ tail” one another with an outward show of EASE.… Food, candles, dancing, singing and…no matter how I try to write this it will be a mere cornball to what it was like to be there. —Actor Richard E. Grant, diary entry


We proceeded for four hours on a good road, with…two very steep hills. We halted in a very large valley where there was much pasture and water. Here we had to construct a bridge to cross the gully. I consider this a good place for a mission. —Explorer Gaspar De Portola (left), diary entry 


1932 olympics los angeles
1932 Olympic Games



Lunch at the Farmers’ Market with the [Stravinskys], Christopher Isherwood, and the Huxleys, the latter cooing to each other today like newlyweds, or oldlyweds making up after a spat. Owing to its extensive variety of salads, seeds… nuts, health foods, exotic fruit…the restaurant is a Huxleyan haunt. Most of the other tables are held down by drugstore cowboys, movie stars, Central European refugees.… All are vegetarians, for the Will Rogers EDIT bkgnonce, and all nibble at their greens like pasturing cows.… —Conductor Robert Craft, diary entry


You folks all over the United States that thought these Olympic Games was just some real estate racket of Los Angeles and didn’t come, you have been badly fooled. You have missed the greatest show from every angle that was ever held in America.… And say don’t worry about the Japanese flying over here in case of war, those birds will swim over. —Will Rogers (right), column 



The day after the [9/11] attacks, I was driving near my house when another driver abruptly pulled out of his driveway directly in front of me. I did not respond as I normally do, with cursing and…hand gesturing. I simply braked, sighed and let him take the lead. At the next intersection, we pulled up to the stop sign.… “I’m sorry,” he mouthed. I nodded, mouthed “OK,” and drove off, wondering about…the alien that suddenly inhabited my body. —Journalist Ellen Alperstein, blog post


Hollywood Bowl in 1925
The Hollywood Bowl in 1925



It is a hard job, this cross-country driving. We got into the traffic at Hollywood last night and it is frightful. —Laura Ingalls Wilder, letter to Almanzo Wilder 


I think I have had all about all of Hollywood I can stand.… I think I will finish this present job and return home.… My books have never sold…; the labor…of my life, even if I have a few things yet to add to it, will never make a living for me. —William Faulkner, letter to his agent


charles bukowski
Charles Bukowski (see December)



Seeing a few ducks alight at a little lake, almost like a running stream, I went after them, and found some hundreds of gadwalls, and bald-pates, and in half an hour had sufficient for all our company.… As we stood looking at all this, from a hill higher than the one on which we were, swooped a California vulture, coming towards us until, at about fifty yards, having satisfied his curiosity, though not mine, he rose in majestic circles high above us, and with a sudden dash took a straight line, somewhat inclining downwards, towards the mountains across the valley and was lost to sight. —John W. Audubon, journal entry


I am going crazy and can’t stand the post office job any longer. I have one of two choices—stay in the post office and go crazy (I have been there eleven years) or stay out here and play at writer and starve. I’ve decided to starve. —Charles Bukowski, letter to his editor 



I requested two songs from KROQ tonight: “Changes” by Bowie, “Ever Fallen in Love” by the Fine Young Cannibals. The first because I haven’t heard it in a while, and the second because they’ll probably play it anyway. I’m still waiting.… I wish KROQ would play something I requested. It would give me a reason to go to bed. It’s after midnight. —Journalist Carolyn Kellogg, diary entry

From Dear Los Angeles, edited by David Kipen. Copyright © 2018 by the author and reprinted by permission of Modern Library.


Charles Bukowski: From pp. 132, 294, 353 from Screams from the Balcony: Selected Letters, 1960–1970 by Charles Bukowski, edited by Seamus Cooney, copyright © 1993 by Charles Bukowski. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers.

Edgar Rice Burroughs: All quotes from Edgar Rice Burroughs © 1975, 2017 Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc. All rights reserved. Trademarks TARZAN® and Edgar Rice Burroughs® owned by Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc. and used by permission.

Italo Calvino: From Hermit in Paris: Autobiographical Writings by Italo Calvino, translated from the Italian by Martin McLaughlin, copyright © 2003 by the Estate of Italo Calvino. English translation copyright © 2003 by Jonathan Cape. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

Albert Einstein: From A Lone Traveler: Einstein in California, by William M. Kramer and Margaret Leslie Davis (Los Angeles: Skirball Cultural Center, 2004).

William Faulkner: From eleven letters from Selected Letters of William Faulkner by William Faulkner, edited by Joseph Blotner, copyright © 1977 by Jill Faulkner Summers. Reprinted by permission of Random House, an imprint and division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.

Aldous Huxley: From The Selected Letters of Aldous Huxley edited with an introduction by James Sexton, copyright © 2007 by James Sexton (Chicago, IL: Ivan R. Dee, Publishers, 2007). Reprinted by permission of Rowman & Littlefield. All rights reserved.

Christopher Isherwood: From the three volumes of his Diaries (New York: Harper, 1996, 2010, 2012); and The Animals: Love Letters Between Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux). All edited and introduced by Katherine Bucknell.

Carolyn Kellogg: Excerpts from personal journals from 1986–1987. Reprinted by permission.

Marilyn Monroe:  From Marilyn Monroe Day by Day: A Timeline of People, Places and Events by Carl Rollyson, copyright © 2014 by Rowman & Littlefield. Reprinted by permission of Rowman & Littlefield.

Vladimir Nabokov: From Dear Bunny, Dear Volodya: The Nabokov-Wilson Letters 1940–1971 by Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov and Edmund Wilson, letters of Vladimir Nabokov copyright © 1979 by Vera Nabokov, executrix of The Estate of Vladimir Nabokov; additional letters copyright © 2001 by Dmitri Nabokov. Reprinted by permission of University of California Press via Copyright Clearance Center.

Anaïs Nin: From The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Volume Six, 1955–1966 by Anaïs Nin, copyright © 1966, 1976 by Anaïs Nin. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

Aaron Paley: From Aaron Paley’s personal diaries. Reprinted by permission.

Gaspar de Portola: From The Official Account of the Portolá Expedition of 1769–1770, edited by Frederick J. Teggart (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1909).

Ruth Shellhorn:  From the Ruth Patricia Shellhorn Papers (Collection 1757) UCLA Library Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, University of California, Los Angeles. Reprinted by permission.

Igor Stravinsky and Robert Craft: From RETROSPECTIVES AND CONCLUSIONS by Igor Stravinsky, copyright © 1969 by Igor Stravinsky and Robert Craft. Copyright © 1965, 1966, 1967, 1968, 1969 by Igor Stravinsky. Copyright © 1966, 1968, 1969 by Robert Craft. Used by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.

Hazel Thornton: Excerpts from Hung Jury: The Diary of a Menendez Juror. Reprinted by permission.

Calvin Trillin: Much of the story of the Watts Towers comes down to us via variations on his May 29, 1965, New Yorker “Reporter at Large” feature. Quoted from that article.

Dalton Trumbo: Excerpts from Additional Dialogue: Letters of Dalton Trumbo 1942–1962 by Dalton Trumbo. Reprinted by permission.

Edward Weston: From Edward Weston’s Daybooks. Reprinted by permission of Weston Photography.

Laura Ingalls Wilder: From The Selected Letters of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Laura Ingalls Wilder and William Anderson, copyright © 2016 by William Anderson; letters copyright © 2016 by Little House Heritage Trust. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers.

Frank Lloyd Wright: From What They Say About the Angels (Pasadena, Calif.: Val Trefz Press, 1942).

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