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Sunset Magazine: The Bible of Western Living

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While Sunset Magazine may have its roots in Northern California, it gained a reputation through its colorful reporting of sunny Southern California. The magazine had a thriving branch office in Los Angeles for about 40 years, starting in the 1940s, with a plucky band of writers and photographers, crafting ideas of what to grow, what to cook, and where to hike and picnic in Southern California.

The history of Sunset Magazine folds into the larger history of the West as one of many periodicals that shaped the cultural mores of Western living. For its centennial, historian Kevin Starr wrote, "Sunset has been both a symbol and symptom of the West." There is a wonderful online resource housed at Stanford University Library on Sunset Magazine's 100-year history. While you can search for "Los Angeles" titles published in Sunset's main edition, there is little documentation for how Sunset Magazine reporters and photographers folded into the fabric of Los Angeles. Here, we begin to narrow Sunset Magazine's western scope to view Los Angeles through its lens.

A disclaimer: @LAhistory is a mother-daughter effort. The mother wrote on Los Angeles for Sunset Magazine for 20 years, bringing her young daughter on many later assignments. This series attempts to centralize the many anecdotal stories shared among Sunset's old guard, illustrating their memories with unpublished photos and Sunset ephemera stored in drafty basements and dusty garages. Tear sheets of old LA stories, saved by sentimental writers, reveal stories not documented in Sunset's official centennial bibliography.

Early Sunset Magazine

Sunset Magazine was named after this line of the Southern Pacific railroad.

Articles about Los Angeles have always been an important part of Sunset's reporting from the first issue published by Southern Pacific Company in 1898 in San Francisco. Named for the Sunset Limited rail line between New Orleans and Los Angeles, the magazine chiefly promoted travel on the SP. The first issue noted that "Los Angeles has not yet lost its character of the rendezvous for California winter tourist travel and its beautiful flower-embowered streets and parks have been alive with happy Easterners..."

Several early Sunset Magazines are online. These early issues featured Western personalities including Los Angeles residents such as rancher Harriet W.R. Strong (known both as The Walnut Queen and The Pampas Woman) and Harrison Gray Otis ("A Militant Editor-General"). About Otis, the writer added, "Beneath his gruff exterior, this iron man hides sentiment and tenderness."
In 1914, the Southern Pacific sold the magazine to a team of staff members who aimed to transform Sunset from a promotional tool to literary magazine, on par with the Atlantic Monthly. Jack London had already written for the magazine and would become an important contributor to the new format]. Los Angeles authors George Wharton James, Charles Frances Saunders, and Charles Lummis also contributed to Sunset.

Unable to transform Sunset into a successful literary magazine, Woodhead, Field and Company sold the magazine for $60,000 to Laurence W. Lane, an advertising man with Meredith Publishing (Better Homes and Gardens). Just over 60 years later in 1990, Lane's sons sold the flourishing publishing enterprise to Time Warner for $225 million.

Bible of Western Living

Prior to the Lane ownership, the magazine encouraged Easterners to explore the West. Lane changed the audience focus to Westerners themselves, creating the "Bible of Western Living" - full of how-to articles on home design, gardening, food, and travel. In a pioneering move for magazine publishing, he divided the territory into three zones -- Northwest, Central, and Southwest. Sunset articles could now target readers directly in each zone. A Los Angeles editor was appointed for Southern California, which combined with Arizona to be the Southwest edition.

The first Los Angeles editor worked out of her home in Ventura, while a salesman sold ads from an office in the Clark Hotel in downtown Los Angeles. Later, Sunset would house their offices along Wilshire Boulevard: in 1952, offices were located at 3440 Wilshire; in 1962 at 1541 Wilshire; in 1976 to across the Bullocks Wilshire at 3055 Wilshire.

Sunset Magazine paid close attention to the gardening needs of its readers. In 1958 at the Los Angeles County Arboretum, Sunset opened its Home Demonstration Gardens. Sunset recruited its science editor from Caltech - Dr. F. W. Went gave gardening advice from a scientific perspective in the 1940s. In the 1960s, the magazine formed a large panel of Southern California garden experts who met once a month in the Los Angeles office to discuss in detail the garden articles planned for forthcoming issues.

Southern California editors relied heavily on freelance photographers. Among them was garden and travel photographer William Aplin. Descended from a Ventura pioneer family, Bill Aplin took over 40,000 plant and garden photos from 1940-1980 for Sunset (and later for Ortho's series on gardening). His archive provides a glimpse to private gardens and landscapes seldom, if ever, seen. The Oviatt Library now houses the archive of a Sunset photographer specializing in architecture: Richard Fish. Other photographers included Maynard Parker, Joseph and David Muench, Don Normark, Co Rentmeester (later Life Magazine), Craig Aurness (later National Geographic), Jerry Fredrick (now Ironman magazine), among many others.

Freelance writers contributed many articles in the beginning of the Lane ownership, but eventually the magazine became entirely staff written. Published articles now spoke with an authoritative Sunset voice without an individual byline. Some writers were better than others - some were almost poetic, like this December 1962 suggestion to ride the last of the street cars downtown to see the elaborate Christmas windows of the four department stores:

"The Yellow Car of the Los Angeles Railway could only clang but it did have open sections at front and rear; Generally you headed for the front, because you would rather watch the motorman than the conductor, and as the trolley wires sparked and crackled at the Vernon Avenue junction and the "5" car began to bank away from Crenshaw for the curve onto Leimart Boulevard, you could lean out into the brisk air and see both Mount Wilson's silver dome and Baldy's frosted top above the palms. The speedy trains of the big Red Cars are gone, and now the word is out that the five remaining Yellow Car lines will succumb to the bus fad by March 31, so this is the last holiday season for the trolley... That may not seem very important to you now, but it will mean something to your children..."
Sunset hikers test trail high in the San Gabriels for indepth article on the mountains, photograph by Walter Houk
Sunset hikers test trail high in the San Gabriels for indepth article on the mountains, photograph by Walter Houk

In the mid-1960s, new editor Walter Houk was transferred back to his roots in Los Angeles from the Menlo Park office. Upon his arrival, he "decorated" his office - not with handsome Sunset Magazine cover posters as one might expect, but with cut out maps from the pages of his Thomas Bros. It took two map books and a month to mount this puzzle, page-by- page, but it provided the new editor a unique detailed look at the city of Los Angeles.

Over the next 13 years the magazine featured fresh and groundbreaking reporting on Los Angeles. Unlike today's trends, Sunset drew a strict line that divided the advertising and editorial staffs. Articles included in-depth hiking guides to the San Gabriel Mountains (with a detailed map), an exhaustive guide to 105 miles of Los Angeles beaches, and perhaps most ambitious of all, 250 things to see and do in Los Angeles. Houk mentored a number of younger writers from the Menlo Park office who went on to major writing assignments and responsibilities in the home office and to other magazines.

Increasing Suburban Subscribers

The Los Angeles office was under constant pressure to increase circulation in Southern California to reassure regional advertisers. In 1961, marketers walked door-to-door in Arcadia conducting interviews with subscribers and non-subscribers about why they did or didn't read the magazine. A five-day editorial conference followed up these interviews, during which the Northern California editors lived the "Sunset life" in Los Angeles. They picnicked in Fern Dell, inspected Sunset's new demonstration gardens at the Los Angeles Arboretum, dined on Sunset recipes at the home of Western food specialist Helen Evans Brown, and visited master plantsman Jacques Hahn in his Arcadia garden.

Sunsect Magazine parody by New West
Sunsect Magazine parody by New West

It's worth noting that Arcadia was the middle-class demographic Sunset sought. It inspired Clay Felker's New West magazine editors to publish a 5-page parody, called Sunsect, in its February 11, 1980 issue, which came complete with a table of contents with a list of absurd article titles: "Vacuum woes? Slanted floors let gravity do the work," "Mule trips into East Los Angeles--a guide," "Shrimp boats float on sea of cheese," "A whole trout baked in a meat loaf," "Boost Fido's equity with a doghouse deck," "Tulips so big they eat meat," "Back yard too small for palms, try palmettos," and "Rough tough tubers survive verbal abuse."

Years later, Jerry DiVecchio, assistant food editor, succeeded Houk as Southwest Editor. She immersed herself and her staff in the Los Angeles culinary life, with picnics on the beach and lunches at Ma Maison, where DiVecchio taught cooking classes alongside Wolfgang Puck.

These are just a handful of the stories shared among those who worked in Sunset Magazine's Los Angeles office. The next two essays will feature specific stories under Sunset's sections of food, gardening, travel and home design. Like Walter Houk's pasting of loose pages of a Thomas Bros map to a wall, we hope to piece together these fragments of memories, photos and ephemera to reveal an equally compelling look at Sunset Magazine's Los Angeles.

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