San Marino, CA: The Long Leg
The prohibitions against everything might be a legacy of the wealthy founders. The town was originally a Gabrielino Indian village that became part of a Spanish mission eventually included in a land grant that became the ranch of J. de Barth Shorb. In 1903, the Shorb Estate was purchased by Edward Huntington, nephew of one of the Central Pacific railway's "Big Four" owners, Collis Huntington. Edward took his $12 million inheritance from Collis and moved to Los Angeles to develop train lines that brought suburban sprawl to the region. In 1913, Huntington and his two neighbors with huge ranches, D.B. Wilson and George S. Patton Sr. (yes, THAT George S. Patton), incorporated as the city of San Marino.
It was Shorb who had named his ranch "San Marino," after his grandfather's plantation in Maryland, which in turn had been named for Italy's Republic of San Marino, a similarly isolated town. A fourth-century Dalmatian stone-cutter named Marino fled his home during a Turkish invasion and took refuge on Monte Titano along the Adriatic Sea where the local Monastery canonized him as San Marino.
I had called the San Marino (California) Historical Society assuming that one of the reclusive residents would be running it and I could get at least one interview. Paul, the man who answered, said that the historical society was history: defunct. Perhaps it had been outlawed. After I explained that I was there to write about San Marino, he offered to give me a personal tour of San Marino.
Paul lived in a white two-story house with dark wood clapboard siding and a pool out back. I parked on the street in front, worried that I was somehow breaking one of the town's many laws. I noticed that he kept his cars in the garage--as required. But Paul appeared in the front door and assured me I was OK.
Formerly the town's mayor, he was an energetic barrel-chested older man with apple cheeks and eyes like a faithful dog. He wore blue laceless shoes, tan khakis, a half-buttoned shirt, and a white baseball cap with the San Marino Titans football logo on it.
He invited me into a wood-lined den with floral wallpaper, and then down into the low-ceilinged basement, where World War II posters adorned the wooden walls. Pointing to one that invoked a racist stereotype, Paul said, "Nobody paid attention to that back then. This basement has seen a lot of history. We held city meetings here." He held his hands up by his shoulders as if surrendering. "If these walls could talk," he said.
"That continued the tradition of holding meetings in the basement, because the first mayor, Patton, held them in his basement. We're strong on traditions around here. We're making history by staying the same," he joshed and raised his eyebrows.
"Did you have another job besides mayor?" I asked.
"I have a family engineering business," he explained, "that my son is now president of. But I help. I'm still on the board. My dad was MIT; he got a job to build the first Southern Cal Edison Steam Plant in 1920 out here in California. So he was sent out to do that, and he got married. And I was born out here in Long Beach in '28. And then in 1930, the crash hit, the Depression, and he lost his job. We still have a letter saying, 'Dear Charlie, we wish we had the train fare to ship you back here to Boston, but we can't; we haven't got any money.' So he started his own business, which we still have. There wasn't anything else to do except to start your own company. It turned out to be a good thing. San Marino was a good place to live. People liked to live here so they could ride the street car into Los Angeles. It was the era of one-car families. And the wife of the family could walk to these areas on Huntington Drive (it was always a business district) and get all the goods they needed."
Paul pulled out of a file cabinet a series of articles hailing San Marino as "the strictest city in the country." "Churches," he crowed, "were illegal 'til 1940. Whatever it is, it's not legal. We had a German newspaper come over about a year ago to talk to us 'cause they say, 'We've heard that you folks are stricter than we are in Germany. Nobody's stricter than we are in Germany.'"
"Then, when this Kathy Fiscus thing hit fifty years (three or four years ago it was fifty years afterwards), I got calls from South Africa, Czechoslovakia, London, reminding us it was fifty years, and this is where it happened. Her mother, who's still alive, and her sister were here. The field where it happened is right down the street. It's the upper field of the high school. I'll show you."
He told me about the resident who brought the world to San Marino as he drove me out to the high school where a plaque read, "a little girl who brought the world together--for a moment."
"That's where she fell into a hundred-foot abandoned water well: dropped down, three years old, just playing. For two days, they worked to get her out. Every fire department and everything in the whole area was involved. In the meantime, television had got a hold of it. It became known all over the country on television; the first television news story really ever. And Stan Chambers, he's one of our long-time TV announcers, he got famous for it. They drew a parallel shaft, and got her out, but she had died. The family physician said she had probably died within two hours of falling in the well."
"Kathy's father David was up in Sacramento pushing to get a bill passed that all abandoned water wells would have to be capped. He had no idea that one of his own wells was sitting here uncapped. That was his well [she fell in]. And, nobody, nobody could believe the irony in that."
He turned to the main high school building. "They have a thousand kids at this high school."
"In a town of 13,000?" I flinched.
"Well," Paul explained, "a lot of people move here just because of the schools. San Marino public schools are subsidized by the residents. Lately, with all the Chinese kids here (we're about 40 percent Chinese, but they're good people), they don't grow very big, so that cuts our football numbers in half. They don't play football. And they don't play baseball, strangely enough."
Turning to the pool, he chuckled, "We have the only el-shaped swimming pool of any high school in the state. Perhaps any high school anywhere. So all of the other schools say, 'Hey, San Marino has an advantage; they've got a screwball pool, and we can't figure it out.' The swimming pool is el-shaped because there was no other place to put it except around this old adobe. This belonged to an Englishman the Mexicans all called Miguel Blanco. We call him Michael White."
He drove me to Lacy Park, named not for lacey trees but for resident Mrs. Lacy, who was niece of Arthur Sullivan (of "Gilbert and"), and whose brother Frederick was a Hollywood director who used San Marino as a filming location for the Tarzan series. The park stood where once Wilson's Lake had attracted settlers. A city Web site said that San Marino currently held no surface water. Maybe it was illegal.
Paul pointed to a chain-link baseball backstop. "That baseball field and the kids' playground here were so hotly contested," he chuckled, "you'd think we were asking to put in a brothel." We pulled up to the Old Mill, the only horizontal mill in California. The building had been redone in original style, using tarred and fired logs plus oxblood paint. A very old photo on the walls showed a woman painting in front of the mill, watched by a man. "He went on to carve Mount Rushmore," Paul informed me.
After the park, Paul meandered through the streets, proud of the homes and meticulous grounds keeping. "We try to keep the architecture kinda, you know, historic. We are particularly vigilant against 'mansionization.' That's called breaking up a lot. That's tantamount to murder."
For lunch, we stopped on the main drag at San Marino Grill and Coffee Shop, one of the few diners in town that could be in a Hopper painting. The narrow Roman brick storefront had a single bay window topped by tiny half-curtains. "San Marino Grill Coffee Shop" was spelled out in red plastic letters that had faded to salmon on a red and yellow awning now paled to pink and white.
Inside, the smell of french-fries wafted from the back, where the wall behind the grill was quilted in pristine aluminum. Red Naugahyde seats lined the counter, and booths lined the walls. The waitresses' uniforms were black with gray pinstripes and included very short mini-skirts. On the wall was the San Marino Tribune article from 1980, announcing "Walter" celebrates 25th Anniversary.
"Walter" was the diner's owner, and Paul introduced me and explained my visit. Walter had striking blue eyes and wispy white hair. He smiled feebly, and I noticed a dark mole on his lip. I asked Walter if he was from San Marino, and he replied that he was from Croatia (where the town's namesake Marino had been born). Like the original Marino, Walter fled because of war.
"I left Croatia," Walter explained, "to avoid the Communists. I had a choice between the Communists and Germany. Communists chose Russia. I chose Germany," he added defiantly, "and I would do it all again. At that time, we had no other choices. After I fled Croatia, I was in Austria then Italy for six years, moving constantly. And I moved a lot more before I settled in San Marino."
I asked if he felt that the people in the United States were isolated.
"I don't think so," he answered. "Americans are more close to each other than European people. Europeans: if you are born poor, you more likely will die poor. In America, you can be born poor, die very rich. So, here it's a lot better. In Europe, educated people do not associate with not-educated people. That's wrong. Here it's different. American people, they're more friendly and more helping each other than Europeans."
"San Marino," he continued, "is a very close community, a bedroom community. And I like it. I bought the restaurant thinking that I would spend one year working at The San Marino Grill, and I've been here thirty-seven years and a half. My wife and I have had three homes in San Marino. But I talked with my wife and we are not moving anywhere else. We settle here."
After lunch, Paul drove me back to my car. "[General] Patton," he said driving past one house, "although he was born here, went to a private school in Pasadena. He had a problem of dyslectia [sic] if you can imagine. I don't know how he got through West Point. I should have bought the house. It was $135,000, which at that time was a fortune. It sold recently for $3.8 million. We all have a few of those things that we let get away."
Afterward, I had to part ways with Paul. I would miss his company. On the way back to Paul's house and my car, we passed again the high school and its markers to Kathy Fiscus. Paul waved at a new building going up on the campus. "My wife and I are sponsoring a memorial art pavilion in the new high school for our daughter. Our daughter was majoring in art at Wellesley College, and she died in a car crash her senior year." He got quiet for the first time all day, and I could think of nothing appropriate to say. It must have been tougher on him than I had known to give me a tour of the town famous for Kathy Fiscus, another daughter lost before her prime.
The Hopper here, The Long Leg, hung in the town's only current art pavilion, the Huntington Library and Museum. The museum was housed in a large Beaux Arts mansion built by Huntington. At the age of 60, he retired from business and devoted himself to collecting art, books, and maps. He married his uncle's widow, one of the most important art collectors of her generation, and lived for a few years at the San Marino estate then sold off more than half of the land, which was soon parceled into the neighborhoods Paul had just driven me through. He turned the estate into a museum that opened to the public after his death.
Walking around the Huntington's world-famous gardens, it was easy to forget I was still within the city of San Marino. There was water here: The Huntington's lily pond and Japanese garden ponds.
Indoor highlights included a 1410 manuscript of Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, a Gutenberg Bible, and Thomas Gainsborough's masterpiece The Blue Boy. The museum also had a renowned map collection, including a 7.5-centimeter seventeenth-century globe that showed California as an island.
Jessica, who showed me the painting and files, had clear green eyes and a long thin face. She greeted me in sharply cut, figure-hugging gray suit and informed me that she was newly minted that day as a curator. I congratulated her. Then the museum's newest curator went to see the painting with me.
The Long Leg shows a boat sailing beneath a high bright sun, tilting on a rich cerulean sea as it passes a lighthouse on the shore behind it. The wet band of sand on the distant shore tells us the tide is going out. The boat takes a tack that sailors call "the long leg," and this was "the long leg" of my journey, the farthest town away from my hometown, at the geographic edge of the country.
A note in the files explained: "The path that [a boat] must take to get out of the harbour consists of a series of short and long tacks, or legs, and-–with a head wind and a head tide-–such a long leg can be slow and discouraging." This was painted during the Depression, in 1935, and may represent the long slow journey of recovery that the country was on. To remove the symbolism, the long leg would also be the obvious one to paint because it would give the painter the longest amount of time in which to see the subject.
Jo described the painting as "Provincetown in distance. Sea dark blue, with long diagonal pattern made by strips of light, (water uneffected [sic] by squall darkening the rest of it.) … Sails very taut, hard as marble in still breeze." The Long Leg was painted during Hopper's first summer in the studio at South Truro on Cape Cod, his first sailing picture in six years.
I already had learned that the chances were slim of finding anyone from San Marino in San Marino, much less in front of the Hopper painting. One article I read noted that, though hardly any of LA's many celebrities lived in San Marino, "Residents are as hard to spot as movie stars." So I asked Jessica about the painting.
"The boat, lighthouse, and hills are beautifully rendered," she gushed, "but those are the only three objects in the landscape. Compared to his other compositions, the objects are more grouped in the middle. And what's this?" she asked, pointing to what looked like a pencil line from the sail through the cabin to the water line. When she asked if I had seen similar lines on his other canvases, I realized that I had. I was still finding new things in Hopper's paintings on my long leg and one of my last.
After I left the Huntington, I went back downtown. I felt like I had been shown the condoned city, but I wanted to see the underbelly (such as it was) in this town where everything was prohibited. Huntington Drive was originally divided by Huntington's P&E railroad tracks, but was now a parkway lined with the town's businesses and the Chinese Club of San Marino. Someone had mentioned that San Marino may very well be the first suburban Chinatown. One store was "The Andover Shop." I laughed seeing on this long leg of my journey an outlet so far from its home in Andover, Massachusetts, where I had seen the original store three years earlier and thousands of miles away.
I tried to find people to interview, but a woman working at the business strip's Starbucks told me, "I don't think anyone lives in San Marino." In a car culture like L.A., people I found here were driving through because everybody just drives through neighborhoods. They can't walk.
At Fresh Gourmet, a modest storefront deli and café in a strip mall near the end of the business district, the cook, owner, counter girl, and a patron all sat in a semi-circle around one of the dining tables. I asked if they could tell me where the local coffee shop was, and they said, "We're it! There isn't another one in town except for the San Marino Grill, which is already closed for the day."
I told them the reason for my visit and asked, "Do most people here know the Huntington?"
They all nodded. "Mm-hmm," Norma, the owner, said. "I should sell tickets to all the people who stop here to ask me for directions." She was a matronly, fiftyish, Hispanic woman with a large round face and short, disheveled gray hair that swayed as she spoke.
They all nodded again when I asked if most of the locals would know the Hopper painting. "Are people here isolated like in that painting?"
"Isolation," Norma answered first, "in a good sense. It helps you know your neighbor. Like that lighthouse [in the painting] is there to direct all those lost souls out there at sea."
"Right, tranquility," said Christine, the cashier, who sported diamond flower earrings and a diamond stud in her pierced nose. Her eyes were nearly black above a hawk-like nose. "You know what's great? Since I've been working here, I've seen so many people come in here. They're like, 'Oh hi Christina' It makes me feel good that they remembered me."
"People here are isolated," Lillian, the customer, answered with a furrowed brow, "because they like it that way. I mean, it's their choice."
Norma had finally formulated her thoughts. "The people in San Marino have more stuff. They have more money than you and I can think of. But as far as the community, there's a lot of great people here. We know one another, and I think that's a lost art. There's a little small-town mentality here. Which I love 'cause I came from a small town. And I think that San Marino wants to stay that way. I'm not saying they're closing the doors to other people. But it wants to have that small-town mentality. I can go to the hardware store, and they know my name. I can go to the pharmacy, they know my name. But of course I've also extended myself that way. I don't just want to be the local place where they come to eat. I want to be the local place where we care for one another. They accepted us with open arms. Customers have become our friends. Kids'll swing by here and all of a sudden they forgot their money. I'll say, 'Go ahead and have it. Go home and come back and bring [the money] back.' Families have people die, and we feel the loss like they do. I had a customer who came in last night and lost his wife. And we were crying on each other's shoulders."
"If we don't succeed?" she concluded. "If tomorrow we have to close? I made some great friends."
San Marino, CA: The Long LegSan Marino, Pasadena's neighbor outside of Los Angeles, looked like a town you might see in a Hopper painting. The houses were all built before the 1950s, and no one was visible on the streets, sidewalks, or lawns. It made me wonder if there was not a law against being seen in public. There was a law against everything else. San Marino was described as "the strictest city in America." "If you have to ask," said the former mayor, "it's probably illegal here." The city's handout for new residents, Do's and Don'ts, was subtitled "Mostly Don'ts." All Hopper subjects are outlawed: no theaters, hotels, or apartments, no industry, and no nighttime business hours so no Nighthawks.