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Lawrence Lipton and Venice, California’s Claim to Beat Fame

Exterior of Venice West, a beat generation coffee house | Austin Anton from the Lawrence Lipton papers, USC Libraries
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“Get out your riot guns citizens, call out the militia. The poets are coming! Sound all the atomic sirens. The painters are making holy vessels out of the garbage cans of Venice West. I hear America singing!”Lawrence Lipton

The original cool cat was none other than Gertrude Stein. This was according to Lawrence Lipton — poet, informal professor and den father of “Venice West,” the mythical bohemian, beat generation enclave that flourished on the SoCal beach in the 1950s and early ‘60s. “Lipton, the Boswell of the Beats, insists it is evident that she liberated language and literature from a diplomatic code of Geneva, and also gave birth to the concentrated art of improvisation,” KNX journalist (and astrologer) Sydney Omarr reported in 1959, “the seed out of which was born jazz music —  thus providing double insurance that the world was to be safe for future barbarians.”

But more importantly, Stein had been the den mother of the legendary “lost generation” of Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Pound, who had upended the literary world from their Paris perch in the 1920s. In many ways, it seems that Lipton, who coined the term “Venice West,” was trying to recreate his idol’s role as the benevolent older overlord of a group of revolutionary young artists. Although Lipton claimed that “we regard publicity with loathing,” all questions regarding the Venice West scene were to be sent to Lipton at his home on 20 Park Avenue. This led critics to dub him “the merchant of Venice.”

 Lawrence Lipton in his home with his ever-at-the-ready reel-to-reel tape recorder. | Lawrence Lipton papers, USC Libraries
Lawrence Lipton in his home with his ever-at-the-ready reel-to-reel tape recorder. | Lawrence Lipton papers, USC Libraries

Lawrence Lipton had been longing for a counterculture identity for most of his life. He was born in Lodz, Poland in 1898. He was a child when his family had immigrated to America and settled in Chicago. According to Lipton, his father’s early death  thrust him into the role of bread winner for his family, "compelled to work for a living from then on; forced to fight a running battle against time for my education (time stolen from sleep, from play, from work — and consequently from food very often), and lacking the kind of life continuity and integrated personality that gives a man a firm sense of purpose and direction." 

Lipton would work as a journalist, jazz composer, PR man and graphic artist. In the 1920s, he was part of the vibrant Chicago literary scene, which included successful authors Sherwood Anderson, Harriet Monroe and Edgar Lee Masters. He was married multiple times, including to the fascinating writer Craig Rice, who wrote popular mysteries and screenplays. He also had a son, James, who would later become the beloved host of “Inside the Actors Studio.”

In the 1940s, Lipton wrote two novels, “The Laugh is Bitter” and “In Secret Battle.” By the mid-1950s he had settled in Venice Beach with his fourth wife, Nettie, and turned to poetry, publishing the collection “Rainbow at Midnight” in 1955. He began to experiment with spoken poetry as an interactive vocal and collaborative art, with jazz playing while he read his works. He also became enthralled with the poor young artists who called dilapidated, inexpensive Venice home.

 In 1959, his book “The Holy Barbarians” — a celebration and canonization of the “Venice West” scene — became the biggest hit of his career. It painted a vivid portrait of a dusty failure of American capitalism brought back to life by revolutionary youth. Its first lines read:

IT IS SUNDAY IN VENICE. NOT THE VENICE OF THE PIAZZA SAN MARCO and memories of the Doges. Venice, California, the Venice of St. Mark’s Hotel where the arched colonnades are of plaster, scaling off now and cracked by only a few decades of time, earthquake and decay. This is Venice by the Pacific, dreamed up by a man named Kinney at the turn of the century, a nineteenth-century Man of Vision, a vision as trite as a penny postal card… The luxury hotels along the beach-front promenade, too costly to tear down … stand like old derelicts…In their dim lobbies sit the pensioned-aged playing cards and waiting for the mailman to bring the next little brown envelope. Pension Row. Slum by the sea.
Painters John Altoon (left) and Tony Lanreau with coffeehouse waitress Maggie Ryan at the Altoon studio in Los Angeles. A photo from "The Holy Barbarians." | Lawrence Lipton papers, USC Libraries
Painters John Altoon (left) and Tony Lanreau with coffeehouse waitress Maggie Ryan at the Altoon studio in Los Angeles. A photo from "The Holy Barbarians." | Lawrence Lipton papers, USC Libraries

The term “beat” had been coined in “On the Road” by Jack Kerouac, and Lipton staked his claim for the beat generation’s headquarters to be Venice. According to him, this slum of “night blooming jasmine among the garbage cans” was the perfect place for the dissatisfied youth to form a new society. He writes

To this area of Los Angeles, as to similar areas of other large cities, have come the rebellious, the nonconformist, the bohemian, the deviant among the youth. An unrentable store, with its show windows curtained or painted opaque, becomes a studio. A loft behind a lunchroom or over a liquor store becomes an ideal “pad” where you can keep your hi-fi going full volume at all hours of the night with no neighbors to complain.

In the center of this seaside counterculture community, Lipton firmly places himself as big daddy. The book, with its leering take on young beat women’s sexual lives and the abuse they suffer at the hands of their “artist” boyfriends, can be disturbing for the modern reader. In the book and interviews, he paints a picture of a cheaper, grungier, more accepting, purer and more serious artist commune than what he believed existed in Greenwich Village or San Francisco. According to Sydney Omarr:

… Lawrence Lipton was to describe Venice and outlying areas of Los Angeles as a haven for Beats, doing so in his book the “Holy Barbarians,” and thus dubbing the beatnik a holy Barbarian, and claiming that Venice -or Venice West as he prefers it- was the newest in American Bohemia, and that the others were old and thus less desirable.  That centers in New York's Greenwich Village, in San Francisco's North Beach, in areas in Chicago and Portland and Seattle and New Mexico- that these were now outdated, becoming more and more square, and that the place of the true beat was Venice- in his words that “horizontal jerry-built slum by the sea.”

In numerous interviews and lectures, Lipton touted Venice as the place where the “misfits of the world” congregated. He claimed that most Venice residents’ values  clearly aligned with his own. According to Lipton, “holy barbarians” or “beats” were engaged in a war with the “social lie.” 

“The social lie is anything that any man or woman in our society does for his living, says for his safety, or asserts under coercion, but she knows to be false and untrue — a lie, in short,” he explained. “The persons who are strong enough and frank enough to disaffiliate themselves from the values of the society, and will do no work that is antisocial, will say nothing in person and private or in public that they do not believe to be true — these people are not living the social lie. “

The center of Lipton’s Venice West was the Gas House (1501 Ocean Walk), a performance venue and club owned by lawyer Al Matthews.  It was run by beat legend Eric Nord, who hired Lipton to be the “director of entertainment.”

“We’re gathered around the table here at the Gas House on the oceanfront in Venice West,” Lipton intoned in a 1959 radio interview. “The Gas House is a workshop for artists, poets, musicians, painters, sculptors and normally admits the general public on certain specified evenings for what the police department here has called entertainment. We like to think of it as transforming the audience, or bringing something like the message of art as a form of salvation.”

Exterior of Venice West, a beat generation coffee house. Published in "The Holy Barbarians." | Austin Anton from the Lawrence Lipton papers, USC Libraries
Exterior of Venice West, a beat generation coffee house, published in "The Holy Barbarians" | Austin Anton, from the Lawrence Lipton papers, USC Libraries

At the Gas House, Lipton staged legendary jazz and poetry nights — usually taking the stage himself, often reciting poems extolling the virtues of Venice in a bombastic, “voice of god” style:

Upbeat, downbeat, offbeat, heartbeat buried in a time capsule blasted into orbit around Venus our queen of love, honored on every launching pad of Venice West. Look down Walt Whitman, I wear my hat as I please.

He also held intellectual public discussions with folks like film critic Pauline Kael (who told him one of his questions was “unimportant”) and held jazzy poetry readings in his living room with literary lights like Langston Hughes. As the public face of Venice West, he became a veritable god to many young beats. One 16-year-old named Warren Taylor recalled the first time he found Lipton in all his glory at the Gas House:

Of course, he knew that I was a square because he never saw me before. But he didn't treat me as if I was somebody…who was a pure square or anything like that …He just welcomed me with open arms.
Lawrence Lipton giving a talk | Lou Edwards, from the Lawrence Lipton papers, USC Libraries
Lawrence Lipton giving a talk | Lou Edwards, from the Lawrence Lipton papers, USC Libraries

Lipton also spent a lot of time analyzing the young adults who made up the majority of the beat scene in Venice West. He talked to everyone — from journalists to the UCLA Psychology Department, explaining the “holy barbarians” values — which sounded just like his own.  As one beat told him, the “square world” went about their evil ways, while the beats were enjoying their lives. “We were digging America. We were digging Jazz. We were loving and living, and we had turned our backs completely upon them.”

Listen to some recordings from Lipton, archived at the USC Libraries:

KCET Digital · Lawrence Lipton Recordings
Any form of compromise was a betrayal of Lipton’s — and therefore Venice beat —values. As Lipton asked in one poem, “for the man who thinks for himself, why trade a headache for an upset stomach?” He believed in the “the job of creating one's own values without the matrix of an accepted consensus.” For Lipton, the emergence of the beats was a sign of hope, of a new society free of any dreaded hang-ups. "When the barbarians appear on the frontier of a civilization,” he explained, “it is a sign of a crisis in that civilization. If the barbarians come, not with weapons of war but with songs and ikons of peace, it is a sign that the crisis is one of a spiritual nature." 

After the natural dimming of the beat scene in the early 1960s, Lipton turned his attention to the sexual revolution. He penned the column “Radio Free America” for the Los Angeles Free Press, wrote the book “The Erotic Revolution,” and continued his counterculture ways. Lipton died in Los Angeles in 1975. To paraphrase one of his poems, “Aloha…goodbye…later man later.”

With support from the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) under the Recordings at Risk grant program, the USC Libraries digitized a selection of recordings from the Lawrence Lipton papers.

Top Image: Exterior of Venice West, a beat generation coffee house, published in "The Holy Barbarians" | Austin Anton, from the Lawrence Lipton papers, USC Libraries

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