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Laurel Canyon Suite: Gods, Myths, and Fires

Laurel Canyon is a landform, a subdivision, and a myth. Predictably for Los Angeles, it’s a myth of perfection sought merely by putting yourself in a nearly perfect place – a wonderland – except (even as you reach it) wonderland transforms into something more complicated and darker.

Strings to a lyre. The myth also involves sex and murder. But there are gods in the story and glory of a kind near the end. In one version, the myth begins with a girl – pretty, well-connected, high strung (they would have said; today, that she had gender issues). This version ends with a divine musician and a laurel tree. But the myth doesn’t end there, or, rather, the story has neither a beginning nor an end, only further renditions – sometimes melancholy and bluesy, sometimes raucous and lowdown, sometimes elegant and lingering – making the myth even more dreamlike, harder to place.

Think of the myth as an album on the theme of longing; just as predictably for Los Angeles, desire for undying beauty and youth.

The girl is Daphne, a nymph (already the same old Hollywood story) uninterested in men (her aversion is unexplained). Prince Leucippus falls in love her. Daphne is young, comely, and standoffish; maybe it wasn’t love but the prince’s urgency to possess thst moved him. Leucippus cross-dresses in a shift and hair ribbon in order to linger with Daphne and her virgin girl friends – Leucippus being as friendly with Daphne as he can in drag. (Unbelievable, but the point of the story is erotic complication, not low comedy.) They girls decide to go swimming one day; “she” being a “he” means Leucippus can’t strip. Daphne demands to know why. He backs off. The girls get the picture. He’s exposed. They kill him.

They bring down Leucippus, pierced “with their javelins and daggers,” [1] the first of other tragic ends in this story. Then the gods Apollo and Eros [2] are arguing over reason versus desire and which is more potent. To prove his point, Eros pierces Apollo with the gold arrow of desire, Daphne with an arrow of disdainful lead. (But why this divine intervention? She had made her choice of what not to love with Leucippus’ murder.)

Besotted Apollo pursues Daphne. He must; not even a god can solve the problem of desire. Daphne flees his unwanted advances. She prays to Mother Earth for escape, for something other than the bitter ordinariness of being another footnote in the many conquests of a hero. And in her headlong flight from the god, at the moment when swift Apollo’s outstretched arm encircles Daphne’s waist and Apollo’s hand – a musician’s hand with a lyre player’s slim fingers – lifts to cup her breast, Daphne’s plea is answered. She metamorphoses into a laurel tree [3]. Feet, waist, arms, and hair are roots, trunk, limbs, and leaves.

Agreeable although denied (this is even more unbelievable), Apollo plucks from Daphne’s evergreen boughs and plaits for himself a crowning wreath – the laurel wreath that Olympic winners will wear, that modern poets laureate symbolically hang from their even more symbolic lyres. These are the laurels of victory that celebrities in their triumphs will be given as they stand above the cheering crowd gathered at the edge of the stage.

Remembering the source of their laurels, a few hero/musician/gods know that the prize they most desired has eluded them, that it will always elude them.

Charles Harper and his orchard, 1898
Home of Charles Harper, 1898. Harper built his home at the mouth of Laurel Canyon in what was then called the Cahuenga Valley. A Civil War veteran who had made his fortune in the hardware business in Los Angeles, Harper retired in 1895 and moved to his 480-acre canyon estate. Photo courtesy of the USC Libraries – California Historical Society Collection.

Natural risks. Laurus nobilis – Daphne changed into a “noble laurel” in Ovid’s version of the myth. The similar tree indigenous to the canyons of Los Angeles is Umbellularia californica, also called the California bay laurel. Like a lot of things in myths and in Los Angeles, our laurel is a substitute – standing in for rescued, disdainful Daphne, for the savory leaf flavoring a bouillabaisse, for the plaited crown of a hero. With larger leaves and more bitter, the California bay laurel doesn’t make it on the brows of victors. There’s even some question if our tree is poisonous.

The Department of Agriculture posts a toxicity warning prominently in its profile of U. californica. Other sources, mostly from the 19th century, make claims for our laurel’s medicinal properties. Tea from laurel berries will treat dysentery. A boiled poultice of laurel leaves and olive oil will heal wounds. Crushed, the leaves cure headaches or maybe they cause them. It’s not clear [4]. And our tree has another power, as lethal as wildfire. The California bay laurel nurtures the pathogen that causes Sudden Oak Death.

Our laurel – heady with too much perfume and risk – isn’t what you’d wish it to be, although it looks as if it might, but only if your glance is distracted, only if you stand in the glare of klieg lights, only if you’re speeding up a foothill road, hoping that the city in the darkness below will reveal itself, that Los Angeles will stop escaping your grasp, stop turning into something else, something that may be lethal or not, healing or not. It’s never very clear.

Umbellularia Californica
Umbellularia Californica. U californica (California bay laurel) may or may not be toxic, although medicinal uses were claimed for its highly aromatic leaves and its berries. Used under a Wikicommons license

Story continues below

Clefts through a world. The Santa Monica Mountains begin (but mountains, like myths, don’t begin; we’re always in the middle) … the mountains rise (then) in a jumble of geologic blocks thrust up like titanic pistons, first as islands edged by submarine trenches and then on shore as a granite wedge that arrows east as its body is pleated into a row of neat north-south canyons, their ridges dissected by lesser arroyos like veins in a leaf, like the folds of skirt falling from around a woman’s waist.

The Santa Monica Mountains are moving north and west as the Pacific and North American plates rub past each other, rotating as they have for millennia, and still rising over the coastal plain. Erosion plays counterpoint to their continued uplift. Rains blowing from the south made streams to cut long-legged canyons. Their waters pooled in basins or turned subterranean and reappeared as springs.

The canyons from Topanga to Cahuenga were a whole world once. And when the heat of early autumn burned the grasses of the plain at their mouths golden brown, there remained dark places above, cool and wet beneath the laurels.

At the easternmost wedge of mountain, just before it narrows to a point and hooks slightly, the contours soften; the canyons splay a little more. “Subdued” is the word used in Bulletin 158 of the Department of Natural Resources of the California State Division of Mines to describe, for example, Laurel Canyon. Subdued, but only partly.

Just as inflamed Apollo found no release from unobtainable Daphne and just as Prince Leucippus discovered that there are risks in cavorting in nature, Laurel Canyon isn’t exactly what you might most desire. Laurel Canyon has burned throughout its history and will again. It has trembled in earthquakes and will again. In flood years, mudslides from the hillsides have gagged the canyon’s mouth. They may again.

Laurel Canyon scenery
Laurel Canyon scenery. The Sunday edition of the Los Angeles Herald for March 14, 1909 illustrated the charms of Laurel Canyon’s Bungalow Land, including this rustic bridge (above) and the tourists (below) gathered in front of the new Bungalow Inn. Photographs courtesy of Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library (above) and California State Library (below)
Bungalow Inn
Bungalow Inn. The Bungalow Inn offered light meals for visitors to Laurel Canyon. The rambling inn (with a bowling alley in the basement) was later sold to the silent-era cowboy star Tom Mix. Frank Zappa was another notable resident before the building, like so much in Laurel Canyon, burned. Photograph courtesy of California State Library

Myths of other gods. Dancing and singing, said the Tongva people [5], the gods created the mountains and the canyons, the deer and the geese, the oaks and the laurels, the willows and the marsh reeds (bent into domed shelters, plaited into baskets). To improve this world of canyon and valley, the gods gave the Tongva mastery of fire. Their deliberate fires cultivated the oak trees, killed the seedlings of competing trees, and opened the ground for hunting and for gathering acorns near the stream that cut through Laurel Canyon.

The Tongva and fire completed the work of gods, because the gods had made the hot, dry winds to stoke the flames in the flue-like canyon. They had made the seed heads of its native flowers to burst only after flames had touched them, sowing another season of growth. They had made the chaparral on the canyon hillsides to live by burning.

From time to time, the Tongva burned their willow and reed shelters at the mouth of Laurel Canyon and plaited new shelters. In their season, Tongva boys became men hallucinating on a decoction of the jimsonweed that grew wild there. Girls became women, dancing and singing in their circle in turn. In wet years, hunters pushed off in reed canoes to cross the marshy cienégas to hunt and trap. In drought years, the famished dead were burned with what little they had. Afterwards, the dead were said to become stars [6].

There must be more stories than these, stories as full and confounding as the myths told of Apollo, Daphne, and Prince Leucippus, but all we have are a few 19th-century transcriptions of Tongva stories made by Anglo listeners. There are even a few wax cylinder recordings of Tongva voices. We have an incomplete dictionary and some grammar. We have, as it were, a solitary torn page from a literature that flourished for a thousand or more years.

The Tongva world was gone so quickly that its shamans had no time to add honey bees [7] to the inventory of their jimsonweed dreams or discover which preparation of laurel leaves and berries would ease the smallpox and measles that accompanied the Spanish into the Tongva world. The shamans had no time before they and their visions were swallowed up by Fr. Junípero Serra’s missions in the 1770s; no time before disease, forced labor, and liquor burned through the Tongva after the missions were secularized in the 1820s.

When Americans in the 1850s crossed the plain below Laurel Canyon, they saw cattle on a thousand hillsides [8]. They saw in spring the thick stalks of mustard plants, successful invaders too, vivid with yellow flowers and rising chest high to a man riding on horseback [9]. The fields of wild mustard stretched to the horizon, and the riders saw no one living there [10].

Trackless Trolley
Trackless Trolley. The “trackless trolley” (begun in September 1910) carried potential buyers to the Bungalow Land subdivision. The trolley ran along Laurel Canyon Road and connected Sunset Boulevard to the Bungalow Inn and the start of Lookout Mountain Road. More adventurous travelers could continue up road for a breathtaking view of Hollywood from the Lookout Maintain Inn. Photograph courtesy of Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library
Road to Nowhere, 1910
Road to Nowhere, 1910. The Los Angeles Herald mocked County Supervisor S. T. Eldridge for diverting county highway repair funds to build a new road that deadended at his Laurel Canyon development. Interestingly for so early a date, the aggrieved county taxpayer is depicted as a motorist in a futuristic looking automobile.

Subdivided mythologies. One version of the myth we tell ourselves about Los Angeles – and call history – conventionally begins with that man on horseback riding through a landscape assembled by forces he doesn’t understand and shaped by the actions of native men and women he mistakenly believes are gone.

In his isolation, that man on horseback believes he sees nature as it is, as golden as mustard flowers. He believes that no one before him has thought to improve this place. He believes that it will yield to him whenever he puts his hand to it. Not one story clings to him, he believes, that he cannot revise again and again. And he thinks that he has been made new out of his willful forgetting.

That man on horseback cutting through the tall mustard stalks is replaced in a few years by another man in a buckboard on a rutted country road (it will become Sunset Boulevard) to be replaced by other men stringing electrical wires to power a “trackless trolley” up a newly made gravel road that branched off Sunset before it deadended in a rustic subdivision in Laurel Canyon. The subdivision was called Bungalow Land.

“The Laurel Canyon Land Company,” reported the Los Angeles Herald in 1909, “has erected a bungalow inn and a number of small bungalows for rental purposes, affording the visitors an opportunity to enjoy the mountain environments for an indefinite time, as they may desire. Numerous side roads and trails have been constructed, affording magnificent viewpoints for those who take the mountain climb.” The Los Angeles Examiner enthused that “the many pretty curves along the way … will make it one of the most famous drives of Southern California.” County Supervisor S. Tuston Eldridge thought so, too. He built a summer home along the canyon road, the Examiner reported. The house was said to be “elegant in the extreme.”

The novel “trackless trolley” ascending Laurel Canyon was on “a road to nowhere,” the editors of the Herald later complained. The “nowhere” was a collection of intersecting ridges and folds that the Laurel Canyon Land Company subdivided into house lots to sell as profitably as possible to enchanted tourists who would ride the trolley up the canyon, expecting to marvel at the views of Hollywood, Los Angeles, and the Pacific from Lookout Mountain. The tourists got a sales pitch for Bungalow Land before they got to the view [11].

The road the tourists took, the Herald pointed out [12], was paid for by diverting $30,000 in highway repair funds [13] to build a road that went only to the Bungalow Land subdivision. The Herald accused Supervisor Eldridge of engineering the diversion.

Eldridge and Charles Spencer Mann, it turned out, were partners in the Laurel Canyon Land Company. They had thought it a good idea to get Eldridge elected to the Board of Supervisors in 1906 to build roads, one in particular in 1908 to lots that Eldridge and Mann had for sale in Bungalow Land, even if the county’s new road went nowhere except to what Eldridge and Mann pitched as a better paradise, better than the one that Los Angeles had already failed to be.

The Bungalow Land developers converted dirt into desire but, true to the story, left some desires unfulfilled, as Apollo found when Daphne turned into a laurel tree.

Lookout Mountain Inn
Lookout Mountain Inn. “Lookout Mountain … is reached by the Laurel Canyon electric cars and a most charming automobile ride from Laurel Canyon station to the mountain's peak.” The inn, with spectacular views of the city below and the ocean beyond, burned in a wildfire in 1918. Photograph courtesy of James H. Osborne Photograph Collection, CSU Dominguez Hills
Shady Nook in Laurel Canyon
Shady Nook in Laurel Canyon. The property on the right in this tinted postcard was owned by Harry Houdini. The building on the left (at the corner of Laurel Canyon Boulevard and Lookout Mountain Avenue) was owned by cowboy star Tom Mix. Photograph courtesy of Real Photo Postcard Collection, California State Library

Scenes in Wonderland. Mann, with the unapologetic patronage of Supervisor Eldridge, subdivided the cleft of Laurel Canyon as it steps up to the ridges that divide Hollywood from the San Fernando Valley [14]. He made the same prodigiously hopeful pitch that other salesmen did for rest of the city in its 20th century springtime. The climate of the canyon was even more perfect than the already perfect climate of Los Angeles. The air was purer. Nature was closer at hand, but well above winter floods and the summer fog. “Out of sight and sound of the city, yet near to it,” the advertisements promised, “always healthful, always delightful, always natural,” which were the original promises of our version of the myth, that Los Angeles had domesticated both city and wilderness [15]. Mann named part of it Wonderland Park.

Mann made a fetish of what Laurel Canyon buyers should want and who could want it. “Extreme care is taken in choosing purchasers; only the desirable welcomed,” claimed one advertisement. Only “people of a high plane of living, of thought, and of conduct” were permitted to buy, according to another. “A person disorderly or vicious is seldom found among Bungalow Land crowds of visitors,” remarked one ad (without resolving what “seldom” implied). In Bungalow Land, an ad in the Los Angeles Times in 1909 promised, “liquor and race restrictions (insure) good conduct and desirable people for all time to come.” Perfection required policing; desire needed taming.

Mann eventually left the canyon to develop Crestline in the San Bernardino Mountains. Supervisor Eldridge, tied to other scandals, was defeated for reelection in 1910. There was some poetic justice in his loss to Sidney A. Butler. Butler was chairman of the county’s Good Roads Advisory Committee. The “trackless trolley” stopped running in 1915, worn out by the steep grade of Eldridge’s road. But the real estate ads continued to promise that owning a piece of Laurel Canyon was entry into a world apart, above the desperate flats of Hollywood, soon to be covered in gas stations, apartment blocks, and the rest of ordinary Los Angeles [16] under its extraordinary sun.

In transforming Laurel Canyon, its developers imagined they had improved it. They laid out a few estate-size lots along the canyon road, setting up excavated hillsides to fail in future winters, the ornamental trees to burn in future autumns. The ordinary well-to-do and people in the movies bought the big lots [17], the eloquent views, and the need to be above their neighbors. In the narrower folds behind the estates, where the promise was subdivided more cheaply, workmen roughly graded hillsides into fractions of an acre, cutting out slim lots and fronting them with a network of roadways only a Model-T wide.

Its native cultivators dispossessed and scattered, Laurel Canyon returned to an older rhythm of burning. And when the canyon burned, as the Tongva gods intended, the crowded houses down those narrow lanes could not be reached in time by fire engines.

Since the turn of the 20th century, large parts of the canyon have been taken by flames – in 1904 (destroying several homes), in 1918 (consuming the Lookout Mountain Inn and adjacent bungalows), and in 1921 (destroying more homes). Lesser fires burned in the dry months of 1935, 1941, 1949, and 1956.

A disastrous fire in 1959 destroyed more than 30 canyon homes. Another fire in 1979 took 23 homes, most before the L.A. Fire Department had a chance to lay its first hose line. The department’s report explained: “The topography of the fire area is comprised of steep hills, heavy brush, very winding narrow streets with single ingress and egress, and a heavy concentration of older structures built in close proximity to each other on top of ridges.”

In Los Angeles, the image of beauty and perfection is always paired with loss.

After the Fire, 1959
After the Fire, 1959. Fire swept through Laurel Canyon on July 10, 1959, destroying more than 30 homes, including those belonging to Steve McQueen and Charles Coburn. Most residents had only enough time to gather a few belongings before fleeing on foot. Photograph courtesy of Valley Times Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

Burned out. Up in the canyon, the houses on the wayward, dead-end streets were often owner-built, originally for weekend use. A few were just knocked together – an idiosyncratic jumble of shapes and compromises with the slant of the hillside, the builder’s finances, and the drift of time, and perfect for renting or selling to people whose “plane of living, of thought, and of conduct” often started with the unconventional and sometimes ended in abuse and violence [18].

By the 1960s, the unconventional people in those houses were having visions – often chemically induced – as they sang and danced. The canyon was the subject of some of their songs: John Mayall’s “Laurel Canyon Home,” Jackie DeShannon’s “Laurel Canyon,” Van Dyke Parks’ “Laurel Canyon Boulevard,” and Joni Mitchell’s “Ladies of the Canyons,” The spirit of the canyon – its world apart – influenced others. “From the mid-1960s to the early 1970s, some of the most melodic, atmospheric, and subtly political American popular music was written by residents of, or those associated with, Laurel Canyon,” wrote Lisa Robinson in Vanity Fair in 2015.

The myth of desire pauses, in one rendition, with the corpse of Leucippus, with fierce girls, with desire for one of them, and with a lyre-playing god self-crowned with laurel leaves. Other kinds of gods appear when Laurel Canyon was briefly a scene, and Jimi Hendrix, James Taylor, Cass Elliot, Mary-Ann Faithful, Jeff Beck, David Crosby, Graham Nash, Jim Morrison, Frank Zappa, Dusty Springfield, Neil Young, and Michelle Phillips hallucinated lyrics under laurels that may or may not be toxic. And then, like the shamans’ dreams, like the man on horseback, like the schemes of subdividers, the Laurel Canyon scene was gone.

“Scenes aren't meant to last,” record producer David Geffen told Vanity Fair. “They sparkle with activity, flourish, then burn out. The California music scene of the late 1960s and early 1970s fell apart because of drugs, money, success, Altamont, money, drugs, burnout, and new musical trends.”

Like Laurel Canyon itself, it was never really clear what would satisfy – if only briefly – desire for the unobtainable.

Los Angeles from Grandview Drive, 1951
Los Angeles from Grandview Drive, 1951. Seen from the hills above Laurel Canyon Boulevard, the street grid of mid-century Los Angeles glows. Photograph courtesy of Los Angeles Examiner Collection, USC Libraries

Notes

1.   According to the Greek travel writer Pausanias.

2.   Neatly combined in the iconic image of the young Jim Morrison as rock-and-roll god.

3.   “Apollo and Daphne” by Gian Lorenzo Bernini was commissioned by Cardinal Borghese in 1622 and is still located in the Galleria Borghese in the room for which it was commissioned. Apollo has just touched Daphne’s torso, and she is transforming into a laurel tree.

4.   According to ethnologists, Native Americans crushed the fresh leaves of the California bay laurel and inhaled the volatile oils as pain relief for headaches and nasal congestion, though the volatile oils also have been found also to cause headaches. A tea made from the leaves was used for sore throats and colds. Leaves also were made into an infusion to relieve cramps from diarrhea, food poisoning, or gastroenteritis.

5.   In recent years, the indigenous people of Laurel Canyon and the Santa Monica plain have called themselves both the Tongva and Gabrieleños. Both names are included in their designation as a tribal entity. (Gabrieleño is sometimes spelled Gabrieliño.)

6.   It’s likely that a community of more than 200 Tongva-Gabrieleño lived at the junction of what are now Franklin and Coldwater canyons. “With a little imagination,” speculated Rick Seireeni of the Laurel Canyon Association, “we can picture a Tongva settlement with reed huts and a communal sweathouse near a little stream at the site of the Chevron station at Sunset and Laurel Canyon Boulevard.”

7.   Brenda Kellar, writing for the Los Angeles County Beekeepers Association (which originally organized in 1873), estimated that it took 200 years for honey bees to migrate – with and without human assistance – from the American east coast (beginning in 1622) to Southern California.

8.   In 1941, Robert Glass Cleland wrote of the decline of the Californios and the invention of an Americanized Los Angeles in “The Cattle on a Thousand Hills: Southern California, 1850–1880.”

9.   In 1828, Auguste Bernard Duhaut-Cilly, a French sea captain and trader, rode from the mission at San Diego and passed through a forest of mustard plants “whose tall stalks were higher than the rider’s’ head.”

10. Between 1850 and 1870, the Native American population of Los Angeles fell from 3,693 to 219

11. “Nearly every type of real estate development and its consequent Increase in value has been offered to you at one time or another— except mountain or canyon property. (I)t is another one of Los Angeles' opportunity offerings. Are you going to avail yourself of the chance this time – or wait again to tell the later-comer how much you ‘might have made’ and didn't? And don't forget that as he listens, Mr. Later-Comer has an opinion of you that he mentally reserves but would do you good if he gave it voice.” “Bungalow Land in Laurel Canyon,” and advertisement in the Los Angeles Herald, 16 May 1909, p 4.

12. “People Pay for Costly Road to Eldridge’s Land: Supervisor Revealed as Owner in Tract Most Benefited by ‘Road to Nowhere’,” Los Angeles Herald, 21 July 1910, p.1. A cartoon of Eldridge making his new road appeared on the editorials page.

13. The Herald had earlier estimated the roadwork cost $15,000. Widening the path through Laurel Canyon to make it passable by the “trackless trolley” was done by 500 unemployed men (in work gangs of 150) who had been given a week’s work by the county as relief after the financial “panic” of 1907-1908.

14. An unimproved lot, with the promise of piped-in spring water, cost less than $250 in 1908-1909.

15. The city’s hillsides have always been imagined (by buyers and sellers) as a place apart, not only for their beauty but also literally, because they are above, reaching for what Los Angeles promises but never fully delivers no matter how high you go.

16. The canyon neighborhood eventually became a part of the city. In 1921, C. W. Prollins, representing the Laurel Canyon Land Company, suggested that this area be annexed to Los Angeles because of a shortage of water. Annexation was completed in 1923.

17. Early Laurel Canyon residents included silent-era actors Wallace Reid, Tom Mix, Clara Bow, Richard Dix, Norman Kerry, and Bessie Love. Harry Houdini rented a house on the canyon road, but spent very little time in it before his death in 1926.

18. Google “Laurel Canyon history” to read the stories, some of them probably true. Some of the earliest newspaper references to the canyon are accounts in the 1870s and 1880s of suicide, an unexplained death, and actual murder.

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