By Lynne Bronstein
I first found out about the existence of Venice, California from a novel.
Gavin Lambert’s Inside Daisy Clover, published in 1963 (and filmed in 1965 with Natalie Wood, Robert Redford and Ruth Gordon), was the saga of a teenage singing film star who rides the rough merry-go-round of Hollywood. But Daisy Clover was born, she tells us in the novel, in Hermosa Beach, and lives with her mentally unbalanced mother in a Playa Del Rey trailer park, in a building just off Santa Monica Pier, and in Venice.
The time period of the book is the early 1950s. At that time, Venice Pier still stood, as did Pacific Ocean Park. The Venice Peninsula was a place of oil wells. Venice and the Ocean Park area of Santa Monica were low-rent districts. There really was a trailer park on the Playa Del Rey bluffs. And there was a tram that traveled up and down the Ocean Front Walk.
Daisy, wild and fresh like her name, has a phrase for all of these beach towns: “cockeyed dump.” She’s a beach kid who fends for herself, eats hamburgers and hot dogs to avoid her mother’s constant servings of canned refried beans, and takes the tram to Venice Pier where she records songs in one of those record-your-voice booths that amusement parks used to have.
Daisy can’t say anything good about her life in the trailer park. At the beginning of the book, she notes that she sometimes goes outside and sits on the trailer steps “just as I came into the world. So far, I have been totally ignored. The conformity around here is depressing.” (My late friend Mary Lou Johnson, who lived in another local trailer park near Washington Boulevard, would have agreed with her).
By the second chapter, Daisy’s wacky mother, known as the Dealer because she obsessively plays solitaire, moves herself and her daughter to a couple of rooms “overlooking Muscle Beach, where body builders work out all day.” This was not the current Muscle Beach in Venice but the original Muscle Beach just south of Santa Monica Pier. “You might describe the neighborhood as slightly run-down,” Daisy says of her surroundings.
Alas, Daisy’s mother sits in bed smoking and causes the Paradise Hotel to burn down. So Daisy and Mom finally move to Venice.
“It’s a Spanish joint and must have been pretty fancy once. Inside there’s an open courtyard with balconies running all the way around each floor. We go up two flights of iron steps and past lines of washing to reach our apartment, which is one big room with three alcoves—not bad for $35 a month.” (The year was 1952).
Daisy gets a screen test after she submits one of her pier-booth vocal recordings to a movie studio talent contest. She is “discovered” for the movies but is informed that she will have to live with her (greedy and jealous) older sister and that her mother is to be committed to an asylum. After hearing this news, Daisy, depressed about her future, sits on a canal bridge over one of the dried-up canals in the Peninsula.
“It’s supposed to be exactly like a bridge in Venice, Italy, there’s quite a few of them around here because once upon a time some millionaire who must have been nuttier than the Dealer though I never heard they committed him, started building a complete imitation Venice Italy right where I’m sitting.”
Daisy thinks that Abbot Kinney’s idea of a replica of Venice never “caught on” and was never finished, so that “today it’s the creepiest, most beautiful ruin you ever did see.” She describes the oil field, empty, a suitable place for a person to feel depressed.
The rest of the book takes place in “Hollywood” wherever that may be—a movie studio in the Valley, residences in Beverly Hills and Malibu. But Daisy finds herself longing for the “cockeyed dumps,” returning to Venice Beach on her birthday to discover a colorful little beach-front café, a gay/lesbian hangout where people seem to like her for herself.
Later on, with her career in the waste basket, a sadder but wiser Daisy lives in New York’s East Village, finding the atmosphere reminiscent of the beach towns where she grew up.
One wonders what Daisy Clover would think of the changes that have happened to the beach front during the last 50 years. Condos raise their heads where the “beautiful ruin” stood in the oil field. The canals are now lined with expensive homes. Daisy Clover might see this as appropriate allegory for her own life – the funky but sincere neighborhood given a “makeover” and glamorization. The beauty of Daisy Clover herself is that she remains a feisty Venice brat all through the story. You can take the girl out of Venice but…….
All quotes are from Inside Daisy Clover,
by Gavin Lambert.