Some of my growing years were spent in Raymond Chandler’s Bay City. I lived in an old hotel on the boardwalk at 1910 Ocean Front Walk in Santa Monica. The structure -- and it’s a mighty one -- was built as a luxury hotel in the late 1920s, during Prohibition. But it was built before the crash of 1929, so make that large-L “Luxury.” It was designed to be a pretty tony place, and it was. In the late 1960s and early 1970s when I was there the hotel had fallen on hard times -- albeit hard times with a killer view -- but it wasn’t difficult to imagine what it had been.
The building was beautifully proportioned and appointed, in a way that only times of extreme excess can create. Marble this, and mosaic that and ballrooms and even a room beneath the earth that was called, simply, “the rotunda.” When you walked through to the other side, you passed under the boardwalk and were standing on the beach. That room was round, though, so the name fit well enough. As I write this, I can hear childish voices echoing off the rounded walls; hear the slap, slap, slap of a dozen small bare feet as we headed out, pulled by the sun. Would adventure lie in that direction? It might, you know. It very well might. The ghosts of youth melting into the ghosts of an era long gone. A splendid memory, somehow. One to build upon. And I guess I have.
Because the hotel was built during Prohibition, there would have been illegal goings on there at the time of its construction and earliest use. I did not know that when I lived there. Not for sure. I know that now.
The time of the building’s design and construction was a hairy, lawless one in L.A.’s history. The city was not without law, of course. But the police of the time were famously corrupt and certainly, in the moment in which I’ve chosen to set the Kitty Pangborn stories, it would often have been difficult to tell the good guys from the not-so-bad.
But the hotel. My childhood. The echoes of high voices and sand-covered feet.
We knew that rumrunners and gangsters had been taken into consideration during the design of the building. We knew this because, well, because adults said so. But also there were tunnels that ran behind walls and connected floor to floor. Not everywhere, of course, no. But in enough places that the group of us who were children together in this period made it our business to devote as much available time as possible to discovering all the hidden corridors and where they began and where they ended up. It was an activity that could have engaged us endlessly, I suspect. There would be weeks and months where we’d discover nothing at all and then we’d gain access to an area where we had previously not been given passage and something would turn up. I remember spending a lot of time tapping on walls and imagining. It seems to me that, in a way, I still do.
We spent time considering what purpose the various hidey-holes we found might have served. We came to conclusions -- most of them probably wrong. But it was entertaining to give consideration to these things: to think about what might have been happening beyond the rosewood paneling; to think about what dramas might have played out in these very rooms, all those years before.
Other images from that time -- and connected to that place -- have left strong impressions. The demise of Pacific Ocean Park (though we always referred to it as Pee-Oh-Pee). Playing under it and the Santa Monica pier with my friends. (Can you imagine anyone letting their kids do a thing like that now? Unsupervised?) Muscle Beach and the boardwalk in the 1960s and early 1970s, while those things were more shoddy than they had been; less posh than they would become.
There was a park next to the building and just above the boardwalk and we spent countless hours there, the park’s hilly edges becoming cliffs and mountains in our minds. We called it Cactus Park, but it’s actually called Crescent Bay Park. I don’t know if I’ve remembered it wrong or if the name has since been changed but, whatever it was called, we had strict instructions not to touch any needles we might find in the park or talk to anyone whose sleep we might disturb.
It was a different time.
There were occasional expeditions to the mall, which was what the Promenade was then called and before the actual mall -- Santa Monica Place -- was built. That was in the time that the mall-that-would-become the Third Street Promenade was new and hopeful. Before it got grotty. Before it got hopeful again. L.A. has always been a city of change and rebirth.
These odd things I remember fondly: running along the beach careful to avoid patches of oil from early coastal spills, as well as the jellyfish that had died because of those oil spills. I don’t know if stepping on a jellyfish would actually hurt you. I doubt it. But it seemed to us a potential fate worse than death. Grunion runs: silvery buckets of them right outside our front door. The river: oh! The magic of the L.A. River where it headed into the sea! We spent hours playing at that lip. Though it could not have been the river, just our own little neighborhood tributary of it, I shudder to think of that now. Playing there. Unpleasant things sometimes floated past us towards the sea. We’d close our eyes.
When I sat down to write the first Kitty Pangborn novel, none of this was on my mind. I was not thinking about my childhood. I was not thinking about secret hallways and hidden rooms and concrete rivers. But I suspect some of that stuff colored my psyche, in any case. How could it not? We’re impressionable when we’re children, and make no mistake: some of what we build then, we’re building for ourselves. We end up dragging it around.
Did I dream the first Kitty Pangborn mystery there, with those old-school LA gangsters -- gangsters in spats -- haunting the hallways? It’s possible I did though, if so, I have no recollection of it. Here’s what I do know: you can not live that sort of life without having it touch you somehow. You can not immerse yourself in the culture of those who have been reduced to ghosts without having it color your own reality. Every time I sit down with Kitty and drink heavily of her world the time I spent -- that childhood time -- running wildly through the corridors of that hotel haunt me. They make it real. Or all more real. And then I try to share that reality -- that surreal reality -- with you.
Note: this piece appeared in the Los Angeles summer 2009 edition of Mystery Readers Journal. It’s reprinted here with permission.