Wild Kingdom: An Unexpected Symbiosis in Beachwood Canyon

August 30, 2012 § 7 Comments

A Forebearer of the Coyote Discussed in This Post, May 2007/Hope Anderson Productions

Since I moved to Beachwood Canyon nearly seven years ago, coyotes have been a constant in my life. A neighboring property has a den that produces several pups a year; they make regular appearances on the public stairs, sidewalks and street, harming no one but occasionally stopping traffic. Although most of my property is fenced, I own two small parcels outside the fence. The coyotes use them for hunting and egress; occasionally, I’ll see one curled up, fast asleep, on the chaise longue that was there when I moved in.

It didn’t take me long to realize the coyotes do Canyon residents an invaluable service by hunting tree rats (R. rattus, also known as roof rats or black rats) that make their habitat in trees, ivy and scrub. The rodents are unstoppable climbers, leapers, burrowers and swimmers, and are able to squeeze through any half-inch gap. In Beachwood, their numbers used to be kept down by foxes, but those disappeared long ago, leaving only coyotes to do the necessary culling. Without coyotes, we would certainly be overrun by pests–not only tree rats but squirrels (both ground and tree varieties) and moles.

Sadly, having a fence means unwittingly providing sanctuary for tree rats, which come in to escape the coyotes outside. Over the years, I’ve had to use bait boxes and traps to keep them from infesting the property–including, at various times, the crawl spaces of my house–but even so I’ve never been able to grow vegetables (other than arugula, which they apparently can’t stand).

In light of my travails, I’m grateful to coyotes for being nature’s exterminators. Almost nightly, I hear them hunting above my house, starting about 1am and continuing intermittently through the night. That’s what I thought was happening early Sunday morning, when I was awakened before dawn by yapping, snarling, and something that sounded like a kazoo. This strange cacophony of coyote noises sounded closer than usual, but I was too tired to investigate. It wasn’t until I finally got up and looked outside that I realized what had happened. A small, mangy coyote lay on the cushioned bench below my bedroom window, basking in the sun. He had done what I thought was impossible: scaled a six-foot chain link fence that runs along one side of my property and come inside to hunt. As surprised as I was, I immediately realized he done me the favor of clearing the garden of pests, just ahead of my calling the exterminator.

When I shouted, he took off, apparently leaving the way he came. This was a relief; I didn’t relish the idea going out there to let him out the gate like a dog. But aside from the time it took to scrub the bench and the deck (where he’d left a souvenir pile of scat), his visit cost me nothing. His hunting, on the other hand, has saved me $35 a month in exterminator fees. Now that the garden free of pests, I’ll be planting a few vegetables–and wondering when the coyote will return.

Deliver Us From Lollygagging: The Glacial Pace of Tourist Traffic on Beachwood Drive

August 20, 2012 § Leave a comment

Beachwood Drive at Glen Alder, with Speed Limit Posted/8-19-12/Hope Anderson Productions

An exponential rise in visitors to the Hollywood Sign has brought not only picture-taking throngs in the middle of traffic but the daily phenomenon of cars traveling well below the posted speed limit on Beachwood Drive. On the mile-long stretch between Franklin Avenue and the Hollywoodland Gates, the posted speed limit is 30. Yet the average tourist–status verified by out-of-state plates, rental car stickers and a penchant for running stop signs and not using turn signals–takes it upon himself to drive at a leisurely 20 mph, the better to take in the view.

While this might not sound like a serious problem, it is huge for those of us who live in the Canyon and have schedules to keep. Once we get stuck behind crawling tourist traffic, we are trapped for a mile. Drivers are completely unable to pass north of Graciosa, where Beachwood Drive is a narrow, two-lane ribbon. South of Graciosa, where the road is considerably wider, passing is possible but fraught with hazard. Sudden stops and swerves are common tourist driving tactics, as is road rage: How dare you pass us! seems to be the general attitude, as if no one should have anything better to do than chug up and down Beachwood Drive at 2/3 the legal speed. (I’m neglecting the fact that some tourists go even slower than 20 mph. 15 mph is common.)

The mile-long stretch between Franklin Avenue and the Gates has no stop lights and only two stop signs. At the posted speed of 30 mph, it took me 1 1/2 minutes to drive it at 6:45pm today. Yet it often takes five times as long, an inexcusable length of time for such a short distance. Getting stuck behind tourist traffic on Beachwood Drive is getting more common–and more frustrating–every day.

If you’re reading this and contemplating a visit to the Hollywood Sign, please drive at the posted speed. If you need to take a photo, please pull over, signalling first, and let the driver behind you pass. I’m thanking you in advance, not just for myself but for everyone concerned.

Happy 100th Birthday, Julia!

August 15, 2012 § Leave a comment

Julia Child

Today is the centennial of Julia Child’s birth (she died in 2004), an event that has been marked by many chefs and food writers. In honor of the woman who did more than anyone to coax Americans away from frozen TV dinners and back to real food, and real cooking, I’m linking my 2009 post about her:


Although a French chef in the grand tradition–she trained at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris–Julia Child was anything but a snob. She loved Chinese food, which she first encountered as an OSS officer in China. (I’m pretty sure she liked Japanese food as well; on one of her shows she mentioned she only liked tuna if it was raw.) And she liked Mexican food: in the final years of her life, after moving to Montecito, she championed La Superica, helping to transform that local taco joint into a road trip destination.

As important as any of her recipes was the can-do attitude she passed on to her readers and viewers. “Never apologize, never explain,” she said about the inevitable failures involved in cooking for others. If only it were as easy as she made it sound.

Happy Birthday, Julia. I wish you were here to celebrate it.

No Laughing Matter: Heatstroke Fells Young Hikers Near the Hollywood Sign Today

August 14, 2012 § Leave a comment

When I heard sirens coming up Beachwood Drive this afternoon, I wondered if another fire had started near the Hollywood Sign. As it turns out, a busload of New Jersey teenagers–who for some reason were “dropped off” by their leader–had started hiking toward the Sign carrying little or no water, and probably no hats. When several collapsed from heat exposure, emergency vehicles were called to the scene. I’d love to know how much this wrong-headed experiment cost us taxpayers, and whether the supervisor of these kids can be prosecuted for endangering their safety.

Every time I think of heatstroke, I remember the September 2010 death of the film editor Sally Menke in Bronson Canyon. She collapsed while hiking with her dog in 113 degree heat; her body was found hours later, in a ravine below the trail to the Hollywood Sign. Being cinematically inclined, I also think of the wedding scene in “Out of Africa,” where Karen Blixen (Meryl Streep) first encounters Felicity (Suzanna Hamilton), a Kenya-born tomboy modeled after the aviator Beryl Markham:

Felicity: I do like your dress. Not much of a hat, though.
Karen: It’s meant to be stunning.
Felicity: We die of heatstroke here.

We die of heatstroke here, too. As it happens, the climate of East Africa is very much like that of Southern California, with similarly strong sunlight. But while people in Africa are aware of the dangers of heat and know how to protect themselves, most Americans are woefully unprepared. No one should hike in temperatures exceeding 90 degrees, or go without a hat and adequate water supply even in lower temperatures. With another month or more of hot weather to go, it’s up to all of us to use our heads.

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Meeting Peter Green, Great-Nephew of Peter the Hermit

August 13, 2012 § 5 Comments

Peter Green (l) and his son-in-law, Jeff Smith/Hope Anderson Productions

One of the pleasant ancillaries of my documentary research into Beachwood Canyon’s history was meeting Peg Entwistle’s brother Milt and niece Lauretta Slike. Together they filled in the many gaps in her biography, separating fact from fiction through family photographs, memorabilia and–most of all–Milt’s memories. Because of her family, the mythical Peg Entwistle fell away, leaving a real person who seemed strikingly contemporary in her ambitions and struggles.

Last Saturday I had another such experience in meeting Peter Green, a St. Louis-based writer and architect whose great-uncle was Peter Howard, a.k.a. Peter the Hermit. (More on PTH can be found by searching under his name on this blog.) Although Peter Green met Peter the Hermit only once–an experience he recounts in a response to one of my pieces–he remembered the location of his great-uncle’s last home. The rented rooms where the Hermit lived his impoverished final years were in a house that still stands at 2151 Ivar Avenue, in the Hollywood Dell.

One thing I had missed about Peter the Hermit–until Peter Green began imitating his accent–was that, though a Chicago native, he was born in County Limerick, Ireland. His decision to imitate a Biblical character no doubt owed much to an Irish Catholic religiosity which, according to Peter the Hermit’s obituary, dominated his later years. As his landlady, a Mrs. Pippins, recalled, “All he did, all day long, was talk religion, pray and read the Bible aloud to himself.”

Peter the Hermit died a few months before his 91st birthday, having outlived the Silents and Talkies that provided much of his income during his early decades in Hollywood, as well as his 50-year impersonator’s gig. If there was an upside to his no longer being able to ply the Hollywood tourist trade, it was that Peter’s last years took place in the late 1960’s, a particularly seedy time on Hollywood Boulevard. The summer after his death brought the Tate-LaBianca murders, the murders of two UCLA students in a Black Panther power struggle, and a growing atmosphere of fear and distrust across Los Angeles. By then, one imagines, Peter the Hermit was wandering the boulevards of a far better place.

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Crazy Salad: Some Things About Nora Ephron’s Career

August 8, 2012 § Leave a comment

Nora Ephron 1941-2012/Photo copyright Illona Lieberman

Nora Ephron’s death in late June came as a surprise not only to those who didn’t know her but apparently to many of her friends, as she had decided (in a very old-fashioned but canny way–more on that later) to keep her cancer a secret. As the news sank in, I felt very sad to think that Ephron, who seemed perennially youthful, would no longer enliven whatever subject was at hand with her wit, and found it hard to imagine anyone taking her place as an essayist and commentator. In the many tributes to Ephron that were published in the following weeks, there was appropriately high praise for her body of work as a journalist, essayist, screenwriter and director, but one quote in particular, from 2004, stood out. About her collected essays from the 70s (most of them written for Esquire, where she was the first woman columnist) the Washington Post critic Jonathan Yardley wrote:

At the time Epron started movie work, I thought that Hollywood’s gain was journalism’s loss, and a rereading of all three of her collections leaves me even more firmly convinced of that. Journalism today has too many self-important, humorless, money-grubbing bigfeet, most of whom are far less interested in the story than in the storyteller. Ephron, as a columnist charged with expressing her own opinions, managed to strike the right balance between story and self.

I first discovered Ephron through her Esquire essays, which are collected in three volumes: Wallflower at the Orgy, Crazy Salad and Scribble Scribble. Though she wrote about a wide range of subjects–feminism, food, breasts, Pat Loud, her mother’s mink coat, and Julie Nixon Eisenhower, and that’s just in Crazy Salad–she approached each in an incisive, original manner. Like an older, funnier, cleverer friend, she had a knack of zeroing in on her subjects and saying, in the pithiest possible way, the perfect thing:

I’m not sure you can make a generalization on this basis, which is the basis of twice, but here goes: whenever I get married, I start buying Gourmet magazine. I think of it as my own personal bride’s disease.

There is something very moving about Julie Nixon Eisenhower–but it is not Julie Nixon Eisenhower. It is the idea of Julie Nixon Eisenhower, essence of daughter, a better daughter than any of us will ever be; it is almost as if she is the only woman in American over the age of twenty who still thinks her father is exactly what she thought he was when she was six.

It is generally agreed…that the entire civic scandal of Richard Collin and the mysterious spaghetti sauce recipe could only have happened in New Orleans…and for fairly obvious reasons. For one thing, New Orleans is one of the two most ingrown, self-obsessed little cities in the United States. (The other is San Francisco.)

Ephron’s importance as an essayist is proven by her imitators, who are legion. In the New York Times alone, the long shadow of her influence stretches, with varying degrees of success, from the Op-Ed pages (Maureen Dowd, Frank Bruni) to the Style Section, where it touches everything, even the execrable Modern Love column.

If she had written nothing but essays, Nora Ephron would have left a powerful legacy, but she forged on, becoming a successful screenwriter in her forties with “Silkwood,” and “When Harry Met Sally.” With the latter she single-handedly revived the romantic comedy, for better or worse, spawning countless paler imitations. Screenwriting made her famous in a Hollywood way, which is to say hugely so, and paved the way for an even more improbable (given her sex and age) third act: her leap into directing. As a director, Ephron made eight films in seventeen years, including successes like “Sleepless in Seattle,” “You’ve Got Mail,” and “Julie and Julia,” and failures like “Bewitched,” and “This is My Life.” Which brings me back to Yardley’s lament: Ephron’s career in film, though probably vastly more satisfying (and certainly more lucrative) than journalism, didn’t really showcase her strengths.

While her screenplays are technically adept, the comedies tend toward the derivative (“When Harry Met Sally” contains echoes of Heartburn, her only novel, which she also adapted for the screen, while “You’ve Got Mail” is an updated version of “The Shop Around the Corner”). As a director, Ephron turned out films that were competent and generally well-acted but not visually memorable, which is a problem in a visual medium. The fact that she approached fimmaking through words rather than images manifests itself not only through her workmanlike shot selection but also glaring errors such as the repeated shots of Meryl Streep’s high-heeled platform pumps in “Julie and Julia.” As most people know, Julia Child was extremely tall (6’2″) while Streep (5’6″ or 5’7″) is not. Showing Streep in the kind of shoes Child didn’t need and never wore, instead of framing the shots from her ankles up, was not an incidental matter: it was a directorial mistake that broke the spell of Streep’s superb performance.

Happily, Ephron took up essay writing again in the last years of her life, publishing two collections, the excellent I Feel Bad About My Neck (2006) and its seemingly hastily written follow-up I Remember Nothing (2010). The essays showed she had lost nothing of her old skill. Although the subjects were more personal than those of the Esquire era, the observations were no less keen:

Most everyone wears black–except for anchorwomen, United States senators, and residents of Texas, and I feel really bad for them. I mean, black makes your life so much simpler. Everything matches black, especially black.

Another good thing about divorce is that it makes clear something that marriage obscures, which is that you’re on your own.

Every so often I read a book about age, and whoever’s writing it says it’s great to be old. It’s great to be wise and sage and mellow; it’s great to be at the point where you understand just what matters in life….What can they be thinking? Don’t they have necks?

It’s clear in re-reading these essays that Ephron, in her increasing preoccupation with old age, sickness and death, was saying goodbye. As for why she kept her cancer a secret, it probably had more to do with a desire to keep working in film than a need for privacy. At the time of her death, she was working on a TV series and several other projects; news of a serious illness would have stopped them from going forward. By then an old Hollywood pro, Ephron knew the score.

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