There are some places on earth that just make you smile. California is one of those places and, having just returned, I am happy to report that it is still there. Despite dire predictions of its imminent demise due to earthquakes, fires, floods, and Jerry Brown, everything is still pretty much as it’s always been, especially in Southern California: the jacaranda are blooming, the surf is crashing, and the traffic is barely moving. The sun shines even when it doesn’t because, as Joan Didion famously put it, “The future always looks good in the golden land because no one remembers the past.”
Actually, California exists in the never-ending, ever-expanding present, which is probably why I like it so much. I, too, feel “present” when I’m there. The state’s long and varied history, from early Native Americans through European and Spanish explorers, up to being a Mexican territory and then US statehood in 1830, stretches seamlessly into today’s sprawling, bustling beauty of urban development and breathtaking natural landscapes. The state’s official motto is “Eureka,” a Gold Rush exclamation meaning “I have found it.” Evidently, a lot of people have.
At just about 40 million, California is the most populous state in the union, and one of the world’s most diverse concentrated populations. No one race or ethnic group constitutes a majority, 27 percent of residents are foreign born, and more immigrants settle in California than anywhere else in the country. In short, the American Dream is alive and well there. Even as its roots are deeply buried in the discovery of gold, the production of fame, and the lure of technology, the future is always NOW in California, and it’s always exciting.
This recent trip was with my husband, not my mother, and it began in San Diego, a beautiful city that defies every stereotype of a Navy-base border town. We spent a wonderful day in Balboa Park, home to museums, galleries, botanical gardens and the famous San Diego Zoo. Initially constructed for the 1915-16 Panama-California Exposition to commemorate the opening of the Panama Canal, the buildings in the Spanish Renaissance style are situated along the broad El Prado walkway (where you’ll also find a fabulous restaurant by that name).
No trains for us this time; rather, we rented a car and drove up the Coast, making a stop in tony La Jolla, for an elegant dinner surfside in The Marine Room (since 1941), and a visit to peaceful Mission San Juan Capistrano (1776), where mud nests in the stone ruins await the return of the swallows from Argentina on St. Joseph’s Day. The mood is calm and gracious this far south, but the atmosphere changes decidedly as you move into Orange County. Multi-lane avenues and intricate freeways connect Pacific piers and volleyball-crazed beach towns with the manicured suburbs situated in Santa Ana Canyon. Tall palms wave over all like flags on a racetrack. This is the Southern California everybody recognizes: “Gentlemen start your engines.”
We stopped in Long Beach to “up our glamour quotient” by staying on the Queen Mary. She was launched in 1936 as the grandest ocean liner ever built, and was considered the “only civilized way to travel” by European royalty and Hollywood movie stars, whose photos are all over the ship. One-way trans-Atlantic passage in a first-class stateroom, which was our room accommodation, was $1056 in the 1930s — enough money then to purchase a house! Few people realize that for five years during WWII, The Queen Mary performed as a troopship and transported more than 800,000 Allied troops. She was retired in 1967 and remains permanently moored in Long Beach as a hotel and tourist attraction.
Having hobnobbed with the ghosts of the greats on the ship, we were ready for prime time players by the time we hit LA. First stop: Paramount Pictures, founded in1914, is the only major motion-picture studio still operating in Hollywood. This the studio that has garnered numerous best picture Oscars, including for “Titanic” and “The Godfather,” the studio that created such stars as Gloria Swanson, Rudolph Valentino, Gary Cooper and Bob Hope, the studio that took over Desilu Productions and the beloved Lucy, and the studio that still today produces major motion pictures and currently popular television shows such as “This Is Us.” Paramount is not only a historic landmark, but a defining symbol for all things Hollywood, including our movie star president Ronald Reagan. You walk through the iron “wishing gates,” and you understand the hopes and aspirations of all those casting-call extras who waited outside hoping to be chosen, all those golden dreamers who were drawn to Hollywood — all those who still are.
I had to revisit Hollywood Boulevard, the Walk of Fame, Grauman’s Chinese Theatre (1927) and the historic Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel (1926) where my Mother and I stayed 60 years ago. The whole strip is a bit seedy now, full of souvenir shops and throngs of tourists, but the sidewalk is still studded with stars and the notable handprints/footprints in cement in front of the Chinese Theatre remain mostly intact. Maps to the homes of celebrities in Beverly Hills (updated!) are still sold on the street corners, and bald guys smoking cigars and driving Bentley convertibles still cruise down Rodeo Drive. It’s all there, still — the real and the imagined, the past and the future, the sublime and the ridiculous — now and then and forever.
And it all makes me smile.