The Birth of California Bohemianism

Royal Reuben Rosamond wrote an article for The West Coast Magazine titled ‘The Awakening of Ventura. My grandfather mentions the Chautauqua meetings once again. Was he a believer in the Human Be-ins of his day? These Be-in events involved camping, meeting at a central tent, or in the case of Ashland Oregon, meeting in a huge dome. At these cultural gatherings there was music, plays, poetry reading, and lectures. Today, cultural hounds get together on the internet. The Back to the Earth Movement, is dead. Long live Cybor Space.

“The unlimited opportunities for pleasure and recreation on the beach affords are being taken advantage of. A Chautauqua has been formed.”

“The assemblies have been and will continue to be repesented by California people of the highest social standing, the very apothosis of culture and refinement.”

In interviewing my aunt Lillian for my autobiography, she told me she would fall asleep to the sound of her father, and Erle Stanley Gardner, typing away in the Rosamond home in Ventura by the Sea. Lillian claims her father taught Erle how to write and type. I discovered some evidence this may have been the case when I went to my sister’s house and found several issues of West Coast Magazine, and ‘The West Coast Magazine’. In the later is an article by the art critic, Williard Huntington Wright, where he sets the standards for American Bohemianism in his article ‘Respectability versus Art’ written in 1909. Having lived in Paris, one wonders. Is this article one of the first to Brand the American Artist with a European philosophy?

Willard would author detective novels under the name S.S. Van Dine, and create the character Philo Vance. Willard wrote an article on the development of the Detective Novel, and was a great influence on the Black Mask group. My mother told me Royal Reuben Rosamond used to sail to Anacapa Island and camp with his friend Dashiell Hammett. Royal titled his poem his “art” which tells me he conversed with fellow artists and writers who contributed to these West Coast magazines. H. L. Menken believed Twain’s Huckleberry Fynn was a litterary art form, and Otto Rayburn compared Royal’s writing to Huckleberry Fynn. Willard’s brother, was a an artist who lived in Paris and established a well known art form that survives this day. Willard was an editor for H.L. ‘The Smart Set’. Hollywood, and a Star, was still to be born.

Willard begins his article, by presenting a truth that has not faded from history, but is as fresh as the day it was born – way back when!

“Our national disease is bigotry; our national weakness, sentimentality; our national obsession is respectibility.”

Surely I have recited Willard’s Anthen many times in my blogs in regards to the Christian-right’s attack upon the arts, claiming they are the upholders of Family Values, while the Left promotes depraved, liberal, beatnik ideas. Are we looking at the Genesis of the opposition to going to Church come Sunday, and practicing the fine art of looking down your nose at those who are not like you? Willard returns the snub!

“Artists have reached a state of depravity of late where they even wear badges, join fraternal orders, buy houses on the installment plan, and ride in taxi cabs.” is Willard’s long stilled retort.

“They have eschewed the indecencies of life; and when one meets an artist nowadays, one cannot distinguish him from a stock broker, but he acts like one. I have been told that some of our modern artists go to church.”

Perhaps Willard is speaking of the Gentrification of California Bohemianism in regards to the Chautauqua and my grandfather, who got married and had four daughters, thus, being Hippie-like was no longer possible. This was the fate of the Hippie Era, being, young women wanted children because they are hard wired that way, and that meant choosing a man that was a Good Provider, and thus, more respectable in the working community.

Jon Presco

Copyright 2011

Willard Huntington Wright
(S. S. Van Dine)

Willard Huntington Wright began his career in California writing book reviews for the Los Angeles Times. In 1911 he moved to New York and was soon named editor of the monthly magazine The Smart Set. Also an important art critic, he championed the modernist trends of the day in Modern Painting (1915) and The Future of Painting (1923). A nervous breakdown during the mid-1920s sparked a new phase in his literary career. Confined to his bed for two years, he sought relaxation in fiction and became a master of the detective novel, which he wrote under the pseudonym S. S. Van Dine.

Wright journeyed to Paris in 1913, on his way to see the exhibition of Synchromist paintings in Munich presented by his brother, Stanton MacDonald-Wright, and Morgan Russell. His article, “Impressionism to Synchromism,” published in New York in December of that year, did much to promote this type of abstraction. Although MacDonald-Wright’s portrait of his literary sibling is unlike any of his Synchromist works, it does reveal the artist’s interest in the style of French painter Paul C‚zanne.

S. S. van Dine was born Willard Huntington Wright on October 15, 1887. His parents operated hotels and he and his brothers were hotel children. In 1900 the Wrights’ moved to Santa Monica and when finances improved to Lost Angeles to be part-owner of the Astoria, a hotel in downtown Los Angeles. Willard’s younger brother Stanton became a renowned painter and Willard decided to become a writer because he was better at that than his younger brother. At sixteen, in the fall of 1903, Willard started his college career fist at St. Vincent’s College and then Harvard by 1906. Kicked out of Harvard Willard got married to Katherine, the daughter of a newspaper publisher. Back in L.A. Willard looked for something to do and after a few false starts, he became a journalist for the Los Angeles Times. For the Times Willard began reviewing books, the best job for an aspiring writer. Lying about his “Harvard education” and his time in Europe studying art and literature, Willard became a rising star in literary circles.

In 1909 Willard became a contributor for The West Coast Magazine, a California literary magazine. Willard became friends with H. L. Mencken who, in 1912, hired Willard as editor-in-chief for The Smart Set. with the move to New York City, while his wife and daughter stayed in California, Willard lived the good life. Through The Smart Set Willard challenged the morality of the times, but by 1914 he was out of a job. In 1915 his first book Modern Painting: Its Tendency and Meaning was published but it didn’t sale, although it did help him to become an art reviewer. In 1917 Willard wrote the book Misinforming the Nation which was a critique of errors and prejudices of The Encyclopedia Britannica.

By 1919 Willard was back in California doing a weekly column about artistic events for The San Francisco Bulletin. But it didn’t pan out and Willard returned to New York City where he did a variety of jobs as an art reviewer. Reading a variety of mystery novels Willard wrote his first Philo Vance novel The Benson Murder Case which was published under the name “S. S. Van Dine” to separate himself from the light entertainment. Max Perkins, an editor for Scribners, accepted the manuscript and in 1926 the novel was published. Philo Vance was a hit with the public and Willard was finally a success. There was soon more Philo Vance novels and in 1928 William Powell played Philo in a Paramount movie that also starred Louise Brooks. The second Philo Vance was Basil Rathbone in The Bishop Murder Case (1930). Willard had a good lifestyle but by 1937 the fashion of detective fiction had changed and Willard’s style of writing was no longer wanted by Scribners. His last book was the Winter Murder Case. On April 11, 1938 Willard died. By the 1960s both Willard and Philo Vance were pretty much forgotten by the readers of detective fiction. A good biography that recreates the times of Willard Huntington Wright.

Stanton MacDonald-Wright (July 8, 1890 – August 22, 1973), was a U.S. abstract painter. One of his significant achievements was co-founding the Synchromist movement in 1913.

MacDonald-Wright was born in Charlottesville, Virginia and moved to Santa Monica, California at age ten. He soon moved to Paris to study at the Sorbonne, Académie Julian, École des Beaux-Arts and the Académie Colarossi. While there he and Morgan Russell developed synchromism, an art movement which aimed to create emotion with color. In 1915, during World War I, he left the Parisian art world for New York, and after for southern California, to which he brought the ‘gospel’ of modern art, and established the first exposition of modern art in Los Angeles.
The artist exhibited in New York City, then returned to Los Angeles, California in 1919. He was a major force in the Los Angeles art scene for the next several decades. He was the director of the Southern California division of the federal Works Project Administration from 1935 to 1942, and personally completed several major civic art projects, including the murals in Santa Monica City Hall.
After World War II, MacDonald-Wright became interested in Japanese art and Japanese culture, which led to the renewal of synchromism in his work. He taught art for decades at UCLA and also had studios in Kyoto, Japan and Florence, Italy.
MacDonald-Wright died in 1973 at the age of 83.

  The origin of the detective novel need not concern us greatly. Like all species of popular art, its beginnings are probably obscure and confused. Enthusiastic critics have pointed to certain tales in the Old Testament (such as Daniel’s cross-examination of the elders in the story of Susanna) as examples of early crime-detection. But if we were to extend our search into antiquity we would probably find few ancient literatures that would not supply us with evidence of a sort. Persian sources are particularly rich in stories that might be drawn into the detectival category. The Turkish and the Sanscrit likewise furnish material for the ancient-origin theory. And, of course, the Arabian The Thousand Nights and a Night offers numerous exhibits of criminological fiction. Herodotus, five centuries B.C., recounted what might be termed a detective tale in the story of King Rhampsinitus’s treasure-house — a story of a skilfully planned theft, the falsifying of clues (no less an act than decapitation), the setting of traps for the criminal, the clever eluding of these snares, and — what should delight the modern romanticist — a “happy ending” when the scalawag wins the hand of the princess. This ancient Greek tale, by the way, might also be regarded as the inspiration for the common modern device of having a crime committed in a locked and sealed room. But even the story of Rhampsinitus was not solely Egyptian: Charles Johnston, of the Royal Asiatic Society, has variously traced it, both in its general plot and its details, to the Thibetan, the Italian, and the Indian. And we may find it, in its essentials, retold in modern English and staring at us, in gaudy wrappers, from the shelves of our favorite bookstore. Another tale of Herodotus to which might be traced the prevalent cipher-message device of the nineteenth-century detective-story writer is the one which relates of the code pricked by Histiaios on the bald head of his slave in order to convey a secret message to Aristagoras. Chaucer has retold, in “The Tale of the Nun’s Priest,” a story from Cicero’s De Divinatione; and the Gesta Romanorum has long been a mine of suggestions for the modern writer of crime-mystery fiction.

For Mencken, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was the finest work of American literature. Much of that book relates how gullible and ignorant country “boobs” (as Mencken referred to them) are swindled by confidence men like the (deliberately) pathetic “Duke” and “Dauphin” roustabouts with whom Huck and Jim travel down the Mississippi River. These scam-artists swindle by posing as enlightened speakers on temperance (to obtain the funds to get roaring drunk), as pious “saved” men seeking funds for far off evangelistic missions (to pirates on the high seas, no less), and as learned doctors of phrenology (who can barely spell). Mencken read the novel as a story of America’s hilarious dark side, a place where democracy, as defined by Mencken, is “…the worship of Jackals by Jackasses.”

About Royal Rosamond Press

I am an artist, a writer, and a theologian.
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