L.A. Expanded: Notes from the West Coast
A weekly column by Catherine Wagley
The Christmas arsonist began setting fires under cars in L.A. the day after his German mother’s extradition proceedings due to fraud allegations, including the charge she falsified the down payment for her breast implants. In a courtroom, he purportedly went on an “anti-American” tirade, then went out on a particularly anti-L.A. crime spree, targeting cars in a city that’s unusually dependent on them. He set fifty fires before being apprehended the day after New Year’s by a reserve deputy who is an Iranian immigrant. By Wednesday, news had circulated that the arsonist was wanted for a fire set in Germany as well, and he was put on suicide watch. “If this didn’t exist, someone would have created it in fiction,” said Denise Hamilton, a crime writer who, when interviewed on public radio, suggested twice that noir novelist Nathanael West might have written these very characters, given the chance.
I heard about the arsonist’s arrest while driving home from Palm Springs, after a New Year’s weekend that started with a perfect desert dinner in a mod strip mall and ended in the emergency room when a friend’s fall cut short a hike up the hill the Frey House is built on.
In a way, Palm Springs feels like an even more fitting setting for L.A. noir than L.A. itself, partly because it’s where L.A. goes to vacation and its modernist monuments feel especially exclusive and portentous because they’re set out in the desert, nearly 100 miles from the big city.
All we knew of the Frey house before climbing was that it was tucked into the hill, and was orange, delicately angular and equipped with tennis courts — which you see perfectly, if you venture off the Palm Springs Museum Trail at just the right spot. I found out later that the house, designed by the Zurich-born Albert Frey who apparently all but invented “desert modernism,” had been home to the architect up until his death in 1998, at age 95.
Maybe we would have seen slightly more of the house if my friend hadn’t slipped and fell against one of the craggy rocks, if her sunglasses hadn’t shattered, cutting her above and below her eye and causing perfectly red blood to flow down her face almost instantly. But somehow, now that the cuts have been stitched up and danger is passed, the image of her feeling her way down that especially steep incline with an injury you’d have to be blind to miss feels dangerously, glamorously treacherous in a Palm-Springs-appropriate way.
The day before the Frey hike led us to the emergency room, we drove to the Kaufmann house, built by Richard Neutra and commissioned by the same Kaufmann who commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater. The house glows in the sun, but doesn’t settle into its surroundings as deferentially as Frey’s desert modernism does. It “seems to absorb the mood of the surrounding desert,” wrote Edward Wyatt in the New York Times, which would have been more Kaufmann’s taste. The department store magnate preferred to take over the surroundings while acknowledging he was very much aware of the mood and flavor of what his houses commandeered.
There’s another house we tried to see twice but got lost each time: Frank Sinatra’s Twin Palms estate. I realized only later that it was this house that featured in the Joan Crawford film, The Damned Don’t Cry, though, apparently, Sinatra refused to let any of the cast inside, so interiors were shot in Hollywood. In the film, Crawford become entwined with a big time gangster who lives at Twin Palms. And this pairing of villain and modernism drew notice in one of the greatest documentary artworks ever made: Thom Anderson’s Los Angeles Plays Itself.
Anderson pegs The Damned Don’t Cry as the first in a long line of Hollywood denigrations of mid-century modernism. “Accidents happen, but some lies are malignant,” he says of this trend toward marrying iconic residences with everything villainous. “Don’t talk to me about self-respect,” says Crawford in the film where she becomes as corrupt as her gang boss boyfriend. “That’s something you tell yourself you got when you got nothing else.” Which of course, is the opposite of what these modernist houses were supposed to represent: an intense, informed and resourced version of self-respect that could resonated well into the future.