I started researching this post on April 8th; it was snowing. Twenty days later, we’ve had some warm weather, but the arrival of spring continues to be fairly sluggish, so you can file this installment of Pixels under “I just want to look at summery pictures.” If, like me, you’re also mentally exhausted from another demanding week and feeling that everything is getting just a little “too real,” then you probably want some element of magic and fantasy to your visual getaway.
Warm? Outside of reality? Magical and fantastical? Okay got it.
Los Angeles, California. In the past.
Enter the Los Angeles Public Library’s Photo Collections. Unfortunately there’s no curated browse feature that just lets you look at pictures of California beaches in the 1950’s. And it’s a pretty austere interface considering the content. But the content… the content…
Naturally my first search was “beach,” but that wasn’t quite right, guessing from the first page of results. Here’s result #2 for that search:
Okay so this particular result was lacking not only in the setting, but also the date. Not quite the glamorous 50s beach pictures I had in mind.
(However, if you look at the record for this image, you can see how thorough their cataloging is; one of the subject headings for this image is Radiators California East Los Angeles! You know, if you’re interested in California radiators.)
Searching “Beaches” provided a much better set of results: 191 pages of them!
Clearly we’ll need to delve into this a bit in order to find some escapist beachy images.
Some of the initial results show some more recent images of Venice Beach:
See the cats in the window of the van?! Honestly, not related to what I want as such, but holy smokes, you have to look at the subject heading Cats California Los Angeles. The captions might be as amazing as the pictures themselves.
I love that cat birth announcements were news in 1963.
I digress… Back to pictures of Venice Beach. On about page 4, I decided it was time for a new search with delimited dates. So I searched “Beaches” with the dates between 1950 and 1960.
That’s a pretty good start!
Although, to be honest, the rest of the pictures are mostly aerial views, although there are some toward the end that are cool.
Arguably, the site lacks a certain user-friendliness. Linking to searches brings up an “expired session” page, as will opening too many tabs at once. So, I’ll provide a (sad) visual of the searches that produced the best results.
Keyword offensiveness levels: low.
Keyword offensiveness levels: medium.
Keyword offensiveness levels: high. So high. But, hey, if you want mid-century LA at its most glamorous, that’s where it’s at.
But still pretty much offensive.
I suppose we can infer from the over-representation of photos dating to the pre-1970s with “Bathing Suit” as a keyword that subject headings and cataloging have certain become more enlightened.
On the whole, this database is just really fun. If you’re looking for something specific, well, it might take a while. Just for fun, I keyword-searched the queen of mid-century glamor herself, Marilyn Monroe, and the first 11 pages of results are just interior and exterior photos of the Los Angeles County Hall of Justice from after it was damaged in an earthquake in the 1990s. Apparently Ms. Monroe’s autopsy was performed there (as was that of her reported paramour, JFK). Out of 24 pages of results, there isn’t a picture of Marilyn until page 14. It’s a little frustrating that the results aren’t sorted by relevance but by date, beginning with the newest. And it’s extra morbid in Marilyn’s case because there are pictures of her crypt and a body bag being wheeled out of her house before there are any pictures of the woman herself. Yeesh. Undated photos or even photos where the last digit of the date is unknown (e.g. 198-?) end up at the bottom of the results list.
Frustrating as the database may be for all of its little quirks, it’s certainly fun to browse and you’ll inevitably learn something new. For example, I searched the name of another glamorous actress, this time from the early history of film, “It”-girl Clara Bow. While there were no pictures of the actress herself, I found out instead about the salacious Wright murder scandal from 1937.
Here’s what it says under historical notes:
Paul Wright, an aviation company executive, and his friend, John Kimmel, attended a private club meeting on the evening of November 9, 1937. After the meeting they went out for a nightcap at Clara Bow‘s “It Cafe” in Hollywood. It was getting very late so Paul suggested that John accompany him home, ostensibly to provide back-up when his wife Evelyn questioned him about where, and with whom, he had spent the evening. It was after 2 a.m. when they pulled up to Paul’s hilltop home in Glendale. Once inside Paul said he felt fatigued and went to the bedroom for a nap–leaving Evelyn to entertain John. Paul later recalled the events of that night, “I was awakened by some sort of sound–like a piano. It started me out of my sleep. I went to the living room door and saw that the lights were still on. Johnny was sitting at the piano. I could just see his head. He was looking downward. I couldn’t see Evelyn and I wondered where she was.” It didn’t take him long to figure out where his wife was. At that moment everything inside of Paul exploded in what he later described as a “white flame.” He got his gun and shot John and Evelyn to death. Paul was put on trial for the slayings. His attorney, Jerry Giesler, had conceived of a creative defense for his client. He said that Paul’s WWI service (during which he was gassed), a post-war tuberculosis attack, and a voluntary vasectomy combined to make him emotionally unstable–capable of more violent reactions to shock than normal men. At the time of his arrest Paul had confessed to the murders, but when he got to trial his story changed and his memory conveniently began to fail him. How would the jury view his shifting story? The jury of eight men and four women listened to the x-rated testimony and contemplated Giesler’s vasectomy defense. In the end, they found Paul Wright guilty on two counts of manslaughter. But there was a twist–the jury also found that he had been insane at the time of the murders so he was not guilty. When the Lunacy Commission examined Wright they concurred with the jury that Paul Wright was no longer insane. He was freed and would never serve a single day in prison.
That’s a pretty shocking tale. Apparently (according to another photo of the murder scene), Wright had originally said the two were simply “in each other’s arms.” Those Hollywood lawyers and their wild defenses, I tell ya. No real respect for the law! And it’s just as bad today! Also I need to tell those pesky kids to get off my lawn. *Shakes fist and mutters*
Incidentally, Jerry Giesler was also Marilyn Monroe’s divorce attorney when she and Joe DiMaggio split up, and he defended Lana Turner during the Johnny Stompanado murder case. Later, his son was all mixed up in various legal ordeals, including a drunk driving accident that injured Edward G. Robinson Jr. and another that was described in the archive as “he assertedly [sic.] tried to ‘buy’ a cab ride with a .38 caliber revolver.” Those rich kids think they can get away with anything.
Maybe they can today, but not in 1936. Back in those days, folk couldn’t get away with shenanigans like immodesty and immorality. Especially if one happened to be a woman. Or at the beach.
The whole “the past was better!” old person act aside, there is something sort of compelling about these old photos. Some of the ones from the 30s are so high-def that you can kind of imagine yourself or your friends in them. The past can often seem hazy and distant, and what is handed down to the present is often just a caricature. We think of the 20s and its tommy guns, gangsters, prohibition, flappers, the Great Gatsby, and martinis. But these pictures sure make it seem like wasn’t really all that different from today.
This is basically me every time I get home to my dogs. Minus the finger waves.
Ah the 20s. If you want to see just how awesome and independent women seem to have been in 1920s LA, I recommend searching “women” with the dates delimited to 1920-1929.
I hope all these fun, sunny California pictures have helped you feel a little warmer. It won’t be long until those dreams of summer are a reality! And maybe if you’re very lucky, those dreams of California will come true too.