Monday, November 30, 2009

Michele Zack Is One Of Us ... The Tattler Reviews "Southern California Story - Seeking The Better Life In Sierra Madre"

There is a wonderful gift awaiting you this Christmas. Though, if you're like me and not very good at waiting, you will want to get your copy of Southern California Story - Seeking The Better Life In Sierra Madre just as soon as you possibly can. And while the book isn't actually out until some time later this week, here's a Sir Eric street tip for you. They do have copies in stock for a book signing at Vroman's Books on Colorado Boulevard in Pasadena. And if you ask nicely they'll sell you one. But you won't find it at the Vroman's location nearest to us. Trust me, I went to both.

If you're looking to come to grips with this wonderful, if complex, town that we live in, you can do no better than read Michele Zack's amazing book. Published in conjunction with the generous members of the Sierra Madre Historical Preservation Society (the Historical part being founded on April 21, 1931), it is a stunning review of Sierra Madre from the time our species first appeared in California up until some (but not all) of our recent imbroglios. It is a richly illustrated over-sized book you will be proud to show the relatives from back east when they ask why you never returned to New Jersey. And the lasting impression you'll come away with is that we fortunate few living here are the heirs of a remarkable legacy, something that needs to be protected and nurtured at all costs. A bittersweet realization when you consider the threat Sierra Madre is under now from those insensible souls who would ruinously exploit our collective inheritance for narrow personal gain.

So who is Michele Zack you might ask? According to biographical info found on the internet, she is an Altadena resident of some note, a writer and historian with a curriculum vitae that includes everything from the Pasadena Weekly to the Far Eastern Economic Review. Good enough for any writer, I'd think. But what really brought her to the attention of that hardy band of folks who have chosen to spend their lives pressed up against foothills once known to the world as the Sierra Madres, she wrote an acclaimed book about Altadena that went on to win some important awards. Here is how Kevin Starr, California State Librarian and author of the America and the California Dream series, describes it:

"Altadena: Between Wilderness and City is urban history at its best. In each aspect of her story - whether it be people, politics, architecture, water, environment, social development, or the fair housing crisis - Michelle Zack pays her subject the tribute of extensive research, vigorous narrative, and the fullest possible honesty. Not only does Michele Zack tell the lively story of Altadena in an encompassing and vibrant way, she places that story in its most complete regional and national context. If we had only this one history to guide us, we could significantly recreate the history of Southern California in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as a mecca for millions seeking a better life in the Southland."

Now Michele Zack has done the same for Sierra Madre. And trust me dear friends, this is both an important event and a generous act. One that couldn't have come at a better time.

Zack tells some fascinating stories about the big personalities that founded this town. Of particular interest is the business relationship between the two gentleman credited with jump starting the place, Nathaniel Carter and Elijah J. "Lucky" Baldwin. Carter, whose name now graces both Carter Avenue and the One Carter Estates fiasco, was a successful sewing machine salesman from the Massachusetts town of Dracut who, suffering from tuberculosis at a time when people regularly perished from the disease, fled west at his doctor's advice and ended up here. Once in sunny California he regained his health and, master salesman that he was, turned this story of miraculous recovery into a pitch that made him a wealthy man. Traveling back east over and over again, he proclaimed to all who would listen the wonders that could happen for similarly afflicted souls should they leave the cold forbidding east to "take the California cure."

Apparently Lucky Baldwin wasn't very lucky at all. Repeated business debacles are what led to his becoming known as Lucky, yet somehow he managed to hold on to the vast tracts of land that were his fortune. And a key to his business survival at the time of Sierra Madre's emergence was the likes of Nathaniel Carter. Unable to sell land during the depression of the 1870s, the only business he could profit by was the selling of small plots of land courtesy of Mr. Carter and his California Cure. And apparently those lots fetched top dollar prices. Another key to Lucky Baldwin's survival as a land baron was not paying his debts or employees until he was taken to court and forced to do so by a judge. A practice still used by certain local humbugs.

We have also had residents of some fame and even notoriety. Gutzon Borglum, you'll be glad to know, was an artist of renown in the 1890s. He was also a sculptor at Mount Rushmore (he carved Abe), and the creator of monuments still seen at Gettysburg National Military Park. A complex man, he was both an admirer of President Lincoln and fundraiser for a sculpted tribute to the Confederacy at Georgia's Stone Mountain. Something which serves today as a rallying point for those who haven't quite reconciled themselves with the South's defeat in the Civil War.

Another resident of note was Anais Nin. A controversial writer of great importance to both lovers of books and anyone who took an advanced literature course in college, here is how she is described by the blog writer's best friend, Wikipedia:

"Nin is hailed by many critics as one of the finest writers of female erotica. She was one of the first women to explore fully the realm of erotic writing, and certainly the first prominent woman in modern Europe to write erotica ... Nin was a friend, and in some cases lover, of many leading literary figures, including Henry Miller, Antonin Artaud, Edmund Wilson, Gore Vidal, James Agee, and Lawrence Durrell. Her passionate love affair and friendship with Miller strongly influenced her as a woman and an author."

And where did this chanteuse of the exotic live? At 341 Sturtevant Drive. Which is in the Canyon, of course. Where else would she live? But apparently the marriage to her Sierra Madre husband, Rupert Pole, described by Zack as being an "impossibly handsome and shy forest ranger," was not the only one. Mrs. Rupert Pole would at times leave for New York where she was known as Mrs. Hugh Guiler. An arrangement that lasted until her death in 1977.

(As an aside, isn't this something the Chamber of Commerce should be taking advantage of? I mean, there is no doubt that Santa Claus and the Wistaria Vine are big attractions and bring business to town. But here we have a direct connection to one of the most important literary figures of the 20th century, and nobody seems to see any potential in it. Maybe they just aren't big on reading?)

A lot of our friends and acquaintances are mentioned in this book as well. Carolyn Brown's work in creating the Sierra Madre Mountain Conservancy, the first of its kind in the San Gabriel Valley, is justifiably lauded. Tommie Ann Miller describes her connection to Sierra Madre's ceramics industry, in particular noted pottery makers the McCarty Brothers. David Darbyshire's role in helping to develop Sierra Madre's art colony reputation is mentioned as well. George Maurer gets a big spread in this book, and his accomplishments as a Sierra Madre volunteer are carefully detailed. Of particular note is the role he played in helping Sierra Madre get its first ambulance. Michael Sizer's troubles with draconian marijuana law enforcement is detailed, along with his imprisonment. Aggressive policing being a tradition back then as well. Michael later achieved redemption by becoming Citizen of the Year in 1993. And Doug Hayes, whose picture in this book shows a grinning long haired dude standing next to a chopper (perhaps it was some kind of an Easy Rider influence?), apparently first came to town while on a serendipitous motorcycle trip, and never left. Something that helps illustrate Sierra Madre's rich countercultural vibe in the 1960s and '70s.

In one of the final chapters of this book, Whither To, Sierra Madre?, Michele Zack touches upon some of the concerns we face today. And while she is cautious not to come down too firmly on any specific side of our more contentious recent challenges (she basically punts on the entire Measure V struggle), her instincts are obviously - and firmly - preservationist. And in this chapter she details the struggles that have taken place over the years to keep Sierra Madre what it is now, an independent town where quality of life issues coupled with a reverence for deeply ingrained traditions still hold sway. Here is one paragraph in particular that highlights that theme:

"It is hard to imagine a past in which Sierra Madre boosters lobbied fiercely for a state highway that would have run across this land north of the Passionist Monastery and along the foothills. Equally unimaginable today is that in the 1920s most Sierra Madreans hoped the University of California would open its new southern campus in Upper Hastings Ranch (and considered annexing this land) - and that they craved business development that would create 'a smaller version of Los Angeles.' Perhaps 2009 is a good time to take a step back and marvel that such visions did not materialize."

Obviously when we discuss the consequences of SB 375 and those in town who would support the dismantling of a traditional Sierra Madre in favor of the mixed-used condo monstrosities that have done so much harm to the increasingly generic downtowns of Pasadena and Monrovia, we're talking about a struggle that has gone on for years. The players and their rationales for eminent destruction might change, but the core values we live by stay the same.

And then there is this:

"As the first decade of the new century draws to a close, the evening scene along Sierra Madre Boulevard or North Baldwin is one of small town charm set against an awesome mountain backdrop. Over time, people by the millions have come to Southern California seeking health, beauty, and personal redemption - and a good few found it here. While challenges, imperfections, and unfinished business will always be around to annoy the human beings who insist on taking these problems on, at this moment they are drowned in foothill scents of sagebrush mingled with more domesticated rosemary and oregano. Background sounds of diners, laughter, and music create a life-filled cacophony. Neighbors out for a stroll, the cry of a baby, words hanging in the air: indeed it looks, smells, and sounds like the better life in Sierra Madre tonight."

Michele Zack will be signing Southern California - Seeking The Better Life In Sierra Madre at Vroman's Books 695 E Colorado in Pasadena Wednesday, 12/2 at 7 pm. If you want to pick up your copy in town, Sierra Madre Books will be getting their allotment on 12/4. You might want to pre-order with them because of the expected demand. Books can also be ordered through the Sierra Madre Historical Preservation Society site, linked to in the second paragraph. And there will also be a book launch party at the Sierra Madre Library this Sunday, December 6, from 2 to 5 pm. That's where I'm going to get my copy autographed.

One more thing. A lot of the information found in this book was culled from the excellent newspapers Sierra Madre once claimed as its own. The history of the Sierra Madre News is particularly fascinating. Will somebody years from now be able to mine that kind of quality information from the papers we have today? Sadly, I think not. And unless it is a sociological study on the decline of Sierra Madre's print media, the information found would be hopelessly inaccurate and without value. The latest edition of the Mountain Views "News" leads off with a headline story about a winning lottery ticket. And further down the front page an article about this very book reveals the following:

The coffee table book, written by Michelle (sic) Zack of Altadena, covers the first 100 years of the city and includes photographs from 1907 to present.

This book actually covers the history of Sierra Madre from the dawn of time, and has photos dating from as far back as the 1850s. And why would this book cover the first 100 years of Sierra Madre yet only have photos from the most recent? It's not just that the publisher of the SMN didn't read a book she was attempting to write about, she apparently didn't even bother to crack the cover. With the stewardship of this city's newspaper of record having fallen into the hands of someone so poorly equipped to perform even the most rudimentary functions of journalism, we have lost something valuable. Both for today and how we will be seen in the future.


  1. Thank you for your fine book review, Sir Eric.

    I will be buying a copy of this book and I'm sure the Tattler readers will as well.

    This may well be the most important column you have written, Sir Eric.
    It truly explains what we are all fighting for or against.

    Thanks Michele Zack! I look forward to meeting you and reading your book.

  2. Isn't the term "coffee table book" a bit demeaning? Of course,
    I don't want to comment too much here before I read it. Only
    Susan Henderson seems capable of that one.

  3. Thank you again for bring our attention to this book.How appropriate at this time when our small community is under seige from those whose greed wish to transform our Village.Perhaps this can remind us of how lucky we are to live here and how much we have to lose if we are unable to come together and preserve what remains.

  4. I have an autographed copy. Got it yesterday at the donors signing. I wish the book had been written in a style that was easier to read. Our younger residents (school aged) would have been able to enjoy it.

    The photos should serve as a reminder to everyone of the beauty the city once had. The top of Baldwin was once such a beautiful place. It is sad to see what we have lost.

  5. The city has lost a lot due to the poor management and duplicity of people we trusted. But there is still so much to preserve. We simply must do that.

  6. Yes, Concerned, there still is so much to preserve, let's keep our focus on that!
    Sarah makes a thoughtful comment. Very true.

  7. Any mention in the book of those people who saved Sierra Madre from the bulldozer? I mean, of course, the Dunns, Zimmerman, Watts, and SMRRD?

  8. I can't wait to get my copy. This sounds like something that will unite Sierra Madre.

  9. There should be, 9:24, although she may not have wanted to get specific about politics.
    I gather from the review by Sir Eric, that the message is exactly what SMRRD was responding to with their battle with the negative forces and all their big money.

    We owe a lot to the Dunns and SMRRD and of course former Mayor Kurt Zimmerman and Mayor Pro-tem Don Watts. We owe them our votes in April, that's for sure.

  10. 9:51. How can you not get specific about politics when you are discussing the history of Sierra Madre?

    Also, I think George Maurer should be lauded for his volunteer efforts. At the same time, however, he is deserving of criticism for his support of the DSP and the destruction it would have undoubtedly wrought. Let's remember that the draft of the DSP called for the construction of up to 325 condos in the downtown.

    George also attempted to prevent the seating of the 06 Counsel at its first meeting.

    Finally, George is one of Joe Mosca's biggest supporters.

  11. Ms. Zack writes:

    It is hard to imagine a past in which Sierra Madre boosters lobbied fiercely for a state highway that would have run across this land north of the Passionist Monastery and along the foothills. Equally unimaginable today is that in the 1920s most Sierra Madreans hoped the University of California would open its new southern campus in Upper Hastings Ranch (and considered annexing this land) - and that they craved business development that would create a smaller version of Los Angeles.

    Ms. Zack, I respectfully, beg to differ.

    Recently, a John Buchanan-led City Council approved a settlement allowing for the destruction of the hillsides and the building of homes at One Carter.

    If that wasn't bad enough, Buchanan and his DIRT allies pushed for the approval of a downtown specific plan that would "create that smaller version of Los Angeles, which Ms. Zack decries.

    Sadly, the forces of over-development are still alive and well in Sierra madre.

  12. I've edited the article to reflect some of the concerns being left here, which I agree with. The post know goes from "she basically punts" to "she basically punts on the entire Measure V struggle."

    That said, there is so much good in this book that I'd hate to see everything written off because of this - albeit it rather glaring - omission.

  13. Sir Eric, is there any mention that noted sculptor Gutzon Borglum's dogs were poisoned by neighbors?

  14. It sounds like a great book for what it covers.
    It is not a history of recent politics.
    If it were, it's not just Measure V that is missing.
    There would have to be a chapter called Dorn Platz.
    The author clearly had topics to cover in depth, and topics to avoid.

  15. I agree, 11:10. Read it for the interesting local history that it is. If you want politics, you have to read the Tattler!

  16. Don't get me wrong. I love SM and will gladly purchase a copy or two of Ms. Zack's "history." That being said, Sierra Madre's residents made history in 07 when they voted for the slow growth initiative Measure V.

    Ms Zack's omission of that historical event --especially, in a book published in conjunction with a preservationist society -- is inexcusable.

  17. Henderson's remarks are predictable. Maybe she read the Altadena book and figured 'close enough'. There's a lot of 'close enough' in her writing. I noticed that the Dickens Village was heavily promoted, but does anybody know if there were any papers out before the day? I didn't see any.

  18. Big Black Cowboy HatNovember 30, 2009 at 11:59 AM

    I didn't see any Susie News papers around Saturday. The paper always says Sarturday, but is never seen earlier than Sunday.

  19. Still read the papers, but not that oneNovember 30, 2009 at 12:06 PM

    11:49, wouldn't be the first time people have paid H.S. Henderson for advertising that came out too late.

  20. I'll withold judgment on the book until I actually read it.

    However, it appears from the summary of the book in Sir Eric's article that Ms. Zack rarely misses an opportunity to tell a really interesting story about SM. That being the case, her omission of the events leading up to Measure V is mysterious.

  21. I agree with poster 12:29.

    I hope in the next edition of her history that Ms. Zack discusses how a movie star and his newspaper publisher wife, a former prosecutor and "Super Lawyer," a well-known architect, a succesful handicapper, a "knight," who blogs in his spare time, and the author of more than a dozen books joined forces to save Sierra Madre from those bulldozers.

    Now, that would be an interesting story!!!!!!!!

  22. An interesting observation:
    When you compare the list of people that were against the Measure V and the main supporters of the book, it is not surprising that Measure V was not mentioned in the book.

  23. Given the importance of Measure V's success against big money outsiders and the way the small-town spirit of Sierra Madre prevailed, you can bet that the book that covers the second century celebration will absolutely point to the success of this small group of dedicated individuals. Remember-Measure V passed in April 2007, they year of the centenial. Probably the book was written, and the long process of photo organization and editing and off to the printers was well underway.

  24. I think we're overthinking this. If you were writing a big expensive $45 history book and wanted to sell it to everyone, would you focus people on a recent and highly divisive controversy? Or would you duck it and say something vague? This book is a victory for people who want to preserve this town. It will create a lot of good feelings and hopefully awaken awareness for what exactly we have here.

  25. Poster 2:59, Do you really think the book was already written and off to the printers in April 2007 (i.e. more than 30 mos. ago)? I doubt it.

    I think there was a decision, as poster 3:12 surmises, to avoid a divisive issue to sell more books.

    I for one am disappointed that the author would write -- "2009 is a good time to take a step back and marvel that such visions [of mega-development] did not materialize" -- without mentioning the successful efforts of SMRRD and its founders to preserve the town.

    If her book is meant as an ode to the small town, she should give credit to those who saved it from the wrecking ball in April 2007.

  26. To omit the contributions of SMRRD gives credence to the nonsense spouted by Council Members Buchanan and Mosca and the editors of the Star News that everybody in Sierra Madre is a "preservationist."

    I wish the author had discussed the Measure V campaign so that people who read her book and live outside Sierra Madre realize how the pro-development interests almost prevailed in 2007.

  27. I would enjoy seeing the Chamber of Commerce leading the good burghers of Sierra Madre in a Salute to Anais Nin day. The contrast would be amusing, to say the least.

  28. "History goes to the victor."

    This book was sponsored by Dirts that wanted to have their history put in writing. You can bet that if the DSP had been pushed through, her last chapter would have lauded Bart Doyle, Rob Stockly, Enid Joffe, Judy Web-Martin, etc.

    Interesting how she writes about George Mauer helping to start the Ambulance Service, because George had nothing to do with it. Sierra Madre's first ambulance was purchased with funds raised by a man named Sam Tesoro. Of course, he's dead, and as they say, "history goes to the victor."

  29. Joe Mosca fooled me once - not the second time aroundNovember 30, 2009 at 5:31 PM

    how much you want to bet that John B and Joey will show up at the book signing as preservationists?

  30. Reader - that is an interesting idea. Maybe Bill Coburn and Enid Joffe could read to us all from Delta of Venus?

  31. 5:31 ...Johnny B and The Moscateer have the uncanny ability to take on the color of whatever it is they are standing in front of.

  32. Gee, I guess this book is a piece of crap if it doesnt see fit to print what you would like to see. YOU WRITE THE NEXT BOOK THEN, AND YOU CAN PUT IN IT WHATEVER YOU WANT!!!! GOOD GOD!

  33. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  34. Poor Ben needs to find someone to talk to besides his dog.

  35. Since we're revealing the darkest secrets of Sierra Madre this evening, here's something I know. Ben's dog doesn't listen.

  36. Hey Maderans, publishers laud orgs at their peril, they flip sometimes. Credit was given and the names are known locally. Congrats on book, sounds nice.

    Please excuse ot question.
    Was there any kind of honeymoon with that newspaper publisher lady Henderson? Did you ever get her to show printers invoices?

  37. Gee....I'd be happy to write a history of Sierra Madre. Especially if the hysterical society was paying me the $3,000 a chapter they paid Zack.

  38. Here's my question, and it does have the conspiratorial in it as so many prefer. If Measure V was deliberately excised as some claim, why would the good members of the Historical & Preservation Society insist on this? Measure V seeming to me to be very preservationist in many ways.

  39. Just the Facts mamDecember 1, 2009 at 9:08 AM

    Another fine piece of reporting by the Tattler. I really enjoy reading the facts and Sir Erik has a way of bringing those out. Can't wait to get a copy of Seeking the Better Life in Sierra Madre. Looks like I may have found another Christmas gift. It sounds like this book is going to illustrate the things we are all trying to preserve here in town.
    It would be nice if we had a newspaper that was printing the facts and not someone's version of the facts.

  40. Poster 5:47. You're missing the point. The book purports to be a history of Sierra Madre and was published in conjunction with a preservationist society. That having been said, the book chooses to ignore an important historical event, which promoted the preservation of Sierra Madre -- the passage of Measure V. That's a glaring and inexplicable ommission.

  41. Does Zack say anything about the Santa Anita fire?

    I, for one, am proud of the way the City came together then and put out the fire without the loss of lives or homes.

  42. Does Ms Zack explain how Mr. Borglum left town after his dogs were poisoned? I love to hear about how Sierra Madre is viewed by those who are not here, but let's be honest, there's a kind of dark, creepy side to what should be a nice community. Sorry to be negative, but . . .

  43. Quick poll. How many of the people discussing this book here have actually read it?

  44. uuhhh..let me guess....0, typical!

  45. Hello, and thanks for the information on Ms. Zack's new book. It can also be found at our own Sierra Madre Books on Sierra Madre, in town.

  46. For the record, I would like it to be known that as the author I had complete independence in my scholarship and in all editorial decisions regarding Southern California Story: Seeking the Better Life in Sierra Madre. I would not have agreed to write a history under any other circumstances — and this was set in writing in my contract. To its credit, the Sierra Madre Historical Preservation Society fully honored my independence as an author, and in no instance suggested what should or should not be included. It was my own judgement (and the approach taken by most credible historians), not to engage in current political discussion other than in broad strokes, which I did when I wrote that arguments over preservation are at the core of what SM is as a community. To do otherwise would be to write something other than a history, because time and distance are needed for historical perspective. I hope that the many discussions about different views of SM's development over time contained in the book are helpful to those today working through what this city wants to be for its many various camps of citizens. This is hard, and very important work; if successful, no camp will be completely happy.

    (I did like what one poster said: write your own book if you don't like this one! Of course there is plenty left out, and more books are a great idea! I also had to laugh at another's presumption of how very well paid I was to research and write this book over 5 years, what a walk in the park! I can only suggest this poster dedicates such a chunk of his/her life to such a project before opining on the terrific remuneration received.

  47. Here is some info for those concerned about Zack's glaring ommissions in this book: Zack used her time "wisely" on the Altadena Town Council, just as she chose her topics "wisely" when she wrote this book. Zack used televised council meetings to promote her film and other projects (read the minutes on the Altadena Town Council website); and she supported a 4 and 5 story mega-development for seniors (Monte Cedro) in spite of the fact that an entire neighborhood was against it (documented in county planning commission records). Also, she helped form the Altadena Hillside Ordinance Committee which contained proposals to allow limited hillside development with no "teeth" to enforce, instead of banning hillsisde development altogether (google Altadena Hillside Ordinance for the proposals). Maybe Zack is trying to protect future funding of her projects?

  48. Zack's response is full of a bunch of lame excuses for omitting important facts and issues from her book. According to her, a "credible" historian does not provide any in-depth analysis of current issues. Not true; but, Zack has only a B.A. in history, so she's excused.


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