“Everything is great!!! How is L.A.??” my grandmother Sheila texted me after I checked in to see how she was doing. Just a week earlier, at the end of June, I had taken flight from the East Coast, and now I found myself perched in the City of Angels for the summer. I went west to discover La La Land in the dark days before Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone tap-danced into our hearts. I had not parted from home without a good deal of separation anxiety. For all our purported cosmopolitanism, Princetonians are a parochial bunch. During the school year we exist within a bubble confined to the few blocks beyond FitzRandolph Gate; during the summer and after graduation, the boundaries of our province seem largely demarcated by the island of Manhattan. Missing out on a summer with my friends in the city was a bummer. The prospect of moving three thousand miles away from them after graduation was depressing. I began typing out my response: “weather is great and I like the city, can’t complain.”
But this faint praise did not do justice to how I felt, even in those early July days, about being in California. I continued: “being out here makes me feel very connected to you and Kevin.” At this point I should probably explain that I’ve always called my maternal grandparents by their first names, a holdover from my mother’s bohemian upbringing in San Francisco in the early ‘70s. I should also mention that my grandfather, Kevin Starr, was still alive then; that he still resided with my grandmother in SF, where his family had been for four generations; that at the age of 75, he was still flying down to Los Angeles, where he taught history at the University of Southern California. His seven-volume series Americans and the California Dream had made him the preeminent historian of his state.
Sheila, who has an endearing quality of suddenly escalating the emotional stakes of any conversation, responded with an unpunctuated text clearly dictated into her iPhone: “In the acknowledgments to his third book material dreams KEVIN describes us driving across Sunset Boulevard in twilight the neon lights just coming on and he says something to the effect will we ever be as happy as young as we were on that evening.” She followed this up with: “We had such a wonderful life in Los Angeles and we really loved it it’s over now we’re older and San Francisco is a good city to be old and retired in but Los Angeles was tremendously vibrant and welcoming to us.” So much for small talk.
Kevin passed away this January. To those interested in the remarkable facts of his life and career, I hope you will take the time to read one of his many obituaries on the internet. My purpose here is to celebrate him in a different way. All summer long I wanted to write a poem about California. Unfortunately, it was not until a month after Kevin’s death that the words would come. The fruits of that labor are included below. But first, I have included the passage Sheila alluded to in her text, which actually comes from the acknowledgments of the fourth book in Kevin’s series, Endangered Dreams: The Great Depression in California (1996). The deep love I have for my grandparents pales in comparison to the love they shared together over the course of a fifty three year marriage, a partnership devoted to the California Dream.
I am indebted to my wife of three decades, Sheila Gordon Starr, more than I can ever say. For the past ten years, in the midst of her own busy life, Sheila has found time to sack entire libraries, armed with citations I have provided her, to word process and edit endless drafts, and to offer grateful and acute criticism of points large and small in the evolving manuscript. Together, we worked on the three volumes now complete. Our researches were centered in San Francisco, Berkeley, Los Angeles, and most recently, Sacramento. Most often, Sheila worked alone, assembling new materials as I organized and drafted one or another of the thirty-six chapters extending through these three volumes. Sometimes, when our mutual schedules allowed, we had the pleasure of working together. The times we spent on this project in Los Angeles were among the happiest hours of my life. Roaming the stacks of the Doheny Library at USC in search of titles, or sweeping westward across the City of Angels on the Santa Monica freeway on a winter afternoon en route to an eight-hour session in the libraries of UCLA, we experienced a renewed sense of companionship, of marriage as an enterprise of mutual help, that came as an unexpected and welcome gift to us both. Returning on that same freeway toward midnight, with Los Angeles everywhere around us in an infinity of light, or following neon-lit, palm-lined Sunset Boulevard as it winds from UCLA toward the downtown, or, at yet other times, lingering over a late dinner at Musso & Frank in Hollywood, our references verified, our L.L. Bean tote bags bulging with research, we experienced a sense of wonder and delight in life and work and the City of Angels which will never leave us. Could anyone be so happy as I was in those times in that city in her company?
Sacramento, San Francisco, Los Angeles
March 1995 K.S.
My achy Dust Bowl soul withers
From heartland hardships and Atlantic anxieties.
Her voice is sonorous Santa Monica sunshine
That seems to say in soft susurrus
“Go west, young man.”
I linger in her sunset, until she,
Fades into the stars.
Then I dream of California:
With Spanish eyes I read the lines of her palms
Hug the curves of her coastline,
As the bungalows of Malibu
Flicker in montage through the window
Melancholy receding in the rearview.
There’s no Big Sad in Big Sur, where
Mountains plunge like necklines into the Pacific.
Marin at the magic hour,
The bay bathed in Golden Gate light
All that glitters is a rush—
I shudder at her touch.
And I awake
Before the fault lines in the vision quake
Before endangered dreams piled on the pyre
Blaze forth in wildfire.
Filled with continental ambition,
I forge ahead with Irish labor
To meet her at Promontory,
Where we, in celestial splendor,
Will write a dream to fill a library.
In Memoriam Kevin Owen Starr 1940-2017