We have Edwin Mims, long-forgotten teacher, author and head of the English Department at Vanderbilt University, to thank for what may be the most famous quip about Los Angeles.
Mims, who died in 1959 at the age of 87, was a frequent summer lecturer at USC and about the summer of 1938, he apparently gave birth to one of the most frequently repeated lines about Los Angeles, calling it “12 suburbs in search of a city.”
I mention Mims and his bon mot because of David Kipen’s book “Dear Los Angeles,” an anthology of observations in diaries and letters about the city from 1542 to 2018.
If I have learned anything in studying Los Angeles for several decades, it’s to control my expectations about books on L.A. From the earliest reviews, “Dear Los Angeles” never seemed like a book I would ever buy, but it also seemed like a book I should at least examine. “Dear Los Angeles” was so popular among patrons of the Los Angeles Public Library that I waited a fair amount of time in the queue before a copy arrived a my local branch.
In selection and organization, “Dear Los Angeles” is a curio cabinet of smart sayings, observations, bits of autobiography and random vignettes, organized from Jan. 1 to Dec. 31. Reading it from front to back makes as much sense as looking for a narrative in the World Almanac or a plot in the Guinness Book of World Records.
And the sources? Raymond Chandler, whose letters are brilliant gems, gets three lackluster, rather whiny quotes. Los Angeles Times columnist Harry Carr gets one quote, Lee Shippey gets two, Jack Smith gets one, and Paul Coates, Matt Weinstock, Tim Turner and Al Martinez get nothing at all. Jonathan Gold gets one quote and another that seems to have vanished into the Bermuda Triangle. Gen. Harrison Gray Otis or Otis Chandler? Don’t ask.
Alexei Sayle drives to LAX and Carolyn Kellogg sits on the lawn in front of Doheny and writes “I kind of have to pee.” Anais Nin writes how to pronounce her name, Susan Sontag gets a driving lesson and goes to a movie. Theodor Adorno spends $5 on yellow pajamas with little colored flowers. Joan Rivers watches C-SPAN and finds that “my distinguished colleague” means “that dim-witted asshole.” Some entries read like Facebook posts. Profound, it is not.
Mims enduring observation, which has been inflated to 50 or more suburbs in search of a city, doesn’t appear in “Dear Los Angeles.” Perhaps it’s because we don’t know when he said it or even that he did – nobody seems to have attributed the quote to him until I found it in a Lee Shippey column in researching this piece. There is no center, as such, in “Dear Los Angeles.” Just lots of little pieces of broken tile that never form a mosaic.
“Dear Los Angeles” proves, if inadvertently, my belief that Los Angeles is too big to ever fit between the covers of a book. At best, it is a bit like David Ulin’s “Writing Los Angeles” or one of the other compendiums of writing about the city that serve as a gateway to more reading.