For over a century the hills between Hollywood and Downtown have been filled with artists and bohemians. East Hollywood, Echo Park, and especially Silver Lake attracted musicians, movie stars, and activists long before Moby opened his vegan restaurant or Jake Gyllenhaal and Chris Pine ran into each other at LAMill. Two new and incredibly well-researched books from Michael Locke and Vincent Brook, Silver Lake Bohemia and Silver Lake Chronicles, shed light on the long and illustrious history of what Forbes magazine dubbed “America’s Hippest Hipster Neighborhood.” Trust fund babies, loft parties, and Kenneth Anger are not new to Silver Lake. Check out some of the area’s original hipsters.
Aline Barnsdall The oil heiress left her Midwest home energized by experimental theater and feminist politics and thought it would be fun to open her own art space in East Hollywood. She hired Frank Lloyd Wright to build the complex, which included a lavish mansion on 36 acres for her and her young daughter, but conflicts with the architect ended the project before it was complete. Today you can tour the Hollyhock House, and in the summer they have Friday night wine tasting and outdoor movies. When Barnsdall tired of Los Angeles, she gave her art collection to LACMA, donated the home for parkland, and moved to Colorado. The FBI labeled her part of the city’s “lunatic fringe.” Locke and Brook, in their first book, call her the “prime stage-setter for Silver Lake Bohemia.”
RM Schindler and Richard Neutra These Austrian architects met in school and were lured to Los Angeles by Frank Lloyd Wright. They built dozens of homes in Silver Lake and formed a mutual admiration society and a large circle of friends in the world of film, art, and dance. Schindler designed a loft for Peter Yates and Frances Mullen that hosted concerts on the roof. The duo shared a house together in West Hollywood, but the experimental living situation eroded and Neutra talked a Dutch philanthropist into funding his new home on Silver Lake Boulevard. The pair changed the definition of California architecture. Neutra was the “verbose go-getter” and Schindler the “articulate hippie,” according to Locke and Brook.
Ricardo Flores Magón In his ’20s, Ricardo Flores Magón lived the bohemian café life, but he soon became a Mexican political activist. Exiled in L.A. during the Mexican revolution, Magon wrote his manifesto, formed a new political party, and even issued currency with his face on it. Magón and his brothers lived just off Silver Lake Boulevard where he staged plays and concerts and published an anarchist newspaper. He died in U.S. federal prison.
Anais Nin Anais Nin was the most famous literary artist in the neighborhood, primarily known for her sexy diaries and young boyfriends. She wore capes, made an experimental art film with Kenneth Anger, and thought each copy of her book should come with a tab of LSD. The 1990 film Henry & June is about the affair she had with the writer Henry Miller… and his wife.
Harry Hay Harry Hay made music with John Cage, did sex research with Alfred Kinsey, and taught classes on Marxism and folk music by his friends Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. Hay also co-founded the first gay rights organization in the United States. The Mattachine Society met at his home and included his boyfriend Rudi Gernreich, proponent of “anti-fashion” and designer of the topless bathing suit.
Gregory Ain The architect Gregory Ain spent time at a utopian desert commune as a child and was influenced by his socialist parents. He was inspired by a Schindler lecture at UCLA called “space architecture” and enrolled in a modern art school in Hollywood where he met Richard Neutra. He designed 25 houses for “known communists” in the neighborhood including Harry Hay. Aim was the chief engineer on the Eames plywood chairs and sometimes held client meetings while standing on his head in a yoga pose.
Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle Roscoe Arbuckle was shy and awkward in his hometown in Kansas, but that didn’t stop him from becoming a singer and touring in vaudeville. He rose to celebrity when filmmakers showcased his large size and acrobatic ability in a series of silent comedies, and he moved to Silver Lake early in his career. At the height of his fame, Arbuckle and some friends drove to San Francisco for a boozy Labor Day weekend and a young lady died in his hotel room. Arbuckle was tried for her rape and murder, and, though acquitted, was ordered off the screen by a censorship board. Once Hollywood’s highest paid star, he spent the rest of his life performing in nightclubs and directing films under the name “Will B. Good.”
Mako Iwamatsu After years of acting on TV, Mako Iwamatsu was frustrated by the stereotypical film roles he was offered. The former architecture student staged Rashomon in a church basement just off Sunset Boulevard and launched the nation’s first Asian-American theater organization. Mako was nominated for an Academy Award for his role in The Sand Pebbles and performed generations of cartoon voices. His theater, East West Players, continues to thrive in Downtown Los Angeles.
Aimee Semple McPherson Sister Aimee was a teenage party girl when she met a handsome minister and devoted her life to preaching. She gave sermons from the backseat of her convertible and developed a flashy style that made her a religious superstar. She launched a radio station, a magazine, and tapped into L.A.’s entertainment scene to create a spectacular service with live animals and lavish costumes that attracted a celebrity following. In 1926 she disappeared in Mexico for a month (probably with her radio engineer) and was thought to have drowned, but she miraculously reappeared with stories about supposed kidnappers and “white slavery.”
Julian Eltinge America’s first drag superstar performed in saloons as a teenager, performed opposite Rudolph Valentino in vaudeville, and would dramatically remove his wig at a key moment in the show making the crowds go wild. The king of England asked for a command performance, and then gifted Eltinge a pet bulldog. In Los Angeles he built a lavish pink villa and launched a publication called Julian Eltinge’s Magazine and Beauty Hints. “I’m not gay,” said the performer who distributed publicity photos of him chopping wood, smoking cigars, and boxing. “I just like pearls.”
James Eads How There was once a Schindler-designed house in Silver Lake with an unlocked door and a bedroom for the homeless. The house belonged to James How. The philanthropist inherited a massive family fortune, but gave most of it away. He studied medicine and theology before riding the rails and writing about the hobo life. How funded classes on philosophy, literature, and how to avoid being arrested for vagrancy and started a newspaper, Hobo News, which contained poems, essays, and articles about the joys of outdoor living. At age 50 he married his 29-year-old Scandinavian secretary and asked Schindler to design a home with room for the less fortunate. It sold this summer for $2.5 million.