In Part Five of our survey of American eccentrics and their habitats we embrace Southern California. Frankly, there were those who cautioned the editors against including this region and its peoples, saying: "There is nothing eccentric about Lala land, insofar as it profits itself by intentional strangeness; therefore it should be excluded from your study." That typically concentric notion we have rejected, as can be seen, in favor of celebrating our Warm West, where a pellucid ocean lolls against the Bentleyed shore and hang gliders dot the blue overhead. Dr. Timothy Leary says, as we shall see, that California's eccentrics are future scouts for the national gene pool. Indeed. And have a nice day.
"Yes, it is true. Los Angeles is not only erratic,
not only erotic;
Los Angeles is crotchety, centrifugal, vertiginous,
esoteric and exotic." -- from "Don't Shoot Los Angeles," by Ogden Nash
"I swear the country's tilted. All the oddballs roll out here." -- Johnny Carson
High, high above the Pacific Ocean at Malibu, at a place so distant it would give an eagle vertigo, a single dust-covered Cadillac limousine is shuttling people down a winding road to a new-age gazebo perched on the edge of a cliff. Louis Beach Marvin III is giving a party.
The gaxebo is called Moonfire, and it's been years and years since Marvin, the vegetarian heir to the S & H Green Stamps fortune, who in those days wore trousers split up the seam, built the place with his own hands as the sanctum sanctorum of a religion he built the same way. Another house stands next to the gazebo now, kind of an Indian temple crossed with a redwood cabin with touches of Madame Pompa-dour's boudoir thrown in, and Marvin, whose pants are more conventional these days, is out of the religion business as well. His new interest is the University of Hollywood, a puckish, dada institution whose inaugural celebration he is playing host to.
"I first came here in 1957 and ruined the landscape, but sooner of later I'll get burned out and nature will take over again," says Marvin in Prusian accent of unknown origin. Meanwhile, there is always the university. "The university," he says, his bright eyes gleaming under a shock of red hair, "is going to be like riding on a spaceship without a destination."
Marvin's fellow passengers this day include a cross section of lost hippies and worried trendies, assorted nymphets and new-age narcissists, the great and the near great. Chuck Berry, the university's Governor of Music, sits under a table munching carrots. Paul Krassner, editor of The Realist and a full professor of heresy, watches as John Lily, the dolphin man, who is dressed in a white, zippered jumpsuit, argues about DNA with a man said to be up for a Nobel Prize. In one corner is someone who claims to have turned on Jean-Paul Sartre, in another Timothy Leary, who turned on everyone else.
Lunatics, you say, tightening your tie and heading for the door. Deviants, strays, cranks, in a word eccentrics. Maybe, but not really. Because here, in Southern California, this kind of behavior, while hardly the norm, is in some ways the pleasant equivalent of going native.
While in Texas everyone likes to think of himself as a cowboy, in this neck of the woods thinking of yourself as apart from the crowd is the way of the world. To quote an essay written by a local high school student, "In Los Angeles you never feel weird or out of place."
"Eccentrics? That's the old-fashioned word," says Timothy Leary, looking surprisingly preppy in a gray pullover sweater. "It means being singular, it means individuality, being yourself as opposed to being locked in and conformist. If you study salmon, for instance, you find that 7 to 10 percent of the gene pool head in a new direction. The eccentrics serve as the future scouts for the gene pool. As Tom Robbins said, it's our function to keep the stew stirring lest the scum rise to the top."
Overhead, Stefan, the university's professor of aerospace, is doing odd things in a hang glider as Leary talks about California's place in all this. "All the eccentrics in the world have come to this coast, it's the trembling membrane," he says, beaming. "It's the frontier, where things are loose. You can't be yourself in London or Prais, but you can here. For the last 4,000 years people have been heading West. This is the end. From here, we go into space."
As Leary gradly indicates, Southern California has been a mecca for the off-center for as long as anyone rembers. "I am told," a woman wrote in 1895, "that the millenium has already begun in Pasadena, and that even now there are more sanctified cranks to the acre than in any other town in America." Thirty years later anotehr woman noted that "Los Angeles is full of people with queer quirks. I haven't had a hairdresser who wasn't occult or psychic or something." And awfully similar comments are heard today.
"Historically, this city was built by the people who weren't satified at home, who wanted something different," says historian John Weaver, whose "Los Angeles: The Enormous Village," along with Carey McWilliams' "Southern California: An Island on the Land," is one of the standard works on the area. "The older brotehr took over the father's busines and stayed in Omaha or Chicago, and the misfits wandered out here. This was the end of the road. This was it."
Robert Carl Cohen, a filmaker who made a documentary called "Mondo Hollywood," which deals with the eccentricity phenomenon, mentions a pair of other reasons for the area's preeminence. "For one thing, the climate is very moderate, a Mediterranean climate. You don't have to fight nature too often, everything requires less energy," he says.
And making the weather just that much more attractive is the ineffable lure of the film industry. "People have always had meccas, destinations like Lourdes, the Holy Land, and now it's Hollywood," Cohen says. "Inside our brains the movies have implanted this area as a place where you can do all these special things you can't do in Oshkosh. It's Mount Olympus, but you can actually go there, you can buy a bus ticket to the place."
And once a flood like that starts, nothing can stop it. "Very early on the city got a reputation for eccentricity, and when you get a reputation it gathers a momentum of its own," says John Weaver. Tim Leary, for one, couldn't agree more. "The process is still going on," he says, exultant. "Today, at the Los Angeles airport, the most eccentric people from Brazil, from Iraq , are arriving They're not staying there, they're coming here!" And they probably always will.