Purple Magazine
— Los Angeles issue #30

jim heimann

los angeles
noir
jim heimann

interview by EMILIEN CRESPO
photos from Dark City: The Real Los Angeles Noir by Jim Heimann, courtesy of TASCHEN

Jim Heimann is one of the most prominent archivist of Southern California, writing about everything from surfing culture to LA noir [Dark City, his most recent book, was published by Taschen]. A born-and-raised Angeleno, he has been going to the flea markets every week for the past four decades at 5:30 AM and has come back empty-handed only twice. He obsessively sorts the newspapers, pictures, and printed matter he collects and reassembles them into fascinating compilations.

EMILIEN CRESPO — Is Los Angeles a difficult city to understand?
JIM HEIMANN — It’s really hard for people to get to know because it is just so fragmented. There are way too many things very spread out, making it really hard to get an idea. It is hard to develop community, hard to meet people — all those things — because of the size of it. Granted, greater New York has a population that’s a bit more but almost equal to greater Los Angeles, but it’s very, very small compared with Los Angeles. Not to forget the interactions with the other counties because it’s now seamless from Santa Barbara to San Diego. We are talking about 300 miles of coastline that has been developed and is now linked together through various communities and homes, and everybody interacts because everybody keeps moving farther out because of the housing situation.

EMILIEN CRESPO — Another aspect of Los Angeles is confidential. People can feel private, undercover. You don’t see signs — nothing is obvious.
JIM HEIMANN — Not obvious at all. It’s just like my house. From the front, it’s the public view, and then there’s the private view…

EMILIEN CRESPO — Another world!
JIM HEIMANN — Exactly. I can paint my walls blue and yellow and turquoise and red, but I would never do that in the front, so it’s deceptive. When you drive through Beverly Hills, what do you see? A wall of green — vegetation. You don’t see anything behind it, so you don’t know what’s going on behind there. And there are houses, not only in Beverly Hills, but also in the Anaheim Hills and Palos Verdes — these huge estates — and everybody always focuses on Hollywood and Beverly Hills and Bel Air and Malibu, but you get into the San Gabriel Valley, in the foothills, and there are amazing houses in La Cañada and Sierra Madre. And huge, gorgeous estates in Palos Verdes, but no one really travels into those areas.

EMILIEN CRESPO — And what about the LA population?
JIM HEIMANN — You have all the different nationalities. You’ve got Little Ethiopia, Little Armenia, Thai Town, Little Tokyo, Koreatown, Chinatown, and all these different ethnicities having little clusters of cultural and food places. It’s a yin and a yang, and always has been.

EMILIEN CRESPO — Do you love LA by the way?
JIM HEIMANN — I love LA, and I hate LA at the same time because there’s so much good stuff, but also a lot of bad stuff. Especially after 1970-1980. There was a real huge shift in this city.

EMILIEN CRESPO — What happened?
JIM HEIMANN — The population got too big, and real estate developers started to manipulate what was going on in the city. This is not a new thing, but it happened in a much more aggressive manner. And then you had a very large immigrant population coming in from Mexico, which changed the fabric of the city. Finally, there were also some political changes. At the time, property taxes were keeping the freeways clean, maintaining parks, allowing free admission to museums. So, when they voted that down, there was no more money to keep the freeways clean, and parks closed, and then they started charging admission to museums. That was probably around 1978 or so. That was a big civic shift in terms of how this city was constructed, how it looked, and how it operated.

EMILIEN CRESPO — Before, it was much more open and friendly?
JIM HEIMANN — Yeah. Personally, when I was growing up, the ’60s were the highlight of Southern California. With my age group, baby boomers, everything was focused on us. So, in the ’60s, everything was for the teenagers in LA: surfing, teenage fairs, music. Everything was there.

EMILIEN CRESPO — Were you born here?
JIM HEIMANN — Yeah, right by the airport. My mother was born here, too.

EMILIEN CRESPO — How would you define the positive mythology of LA? The sun? The surf?
JIM HEIMANN — I think it’s all of these things, and the fact that LA always changes. It’s in constant flux — it doesn’t stay static. There’s always something new.

EMILIEN CRESPO — What’s the attraction of LA? How would you define the magnetism of the LA mythology?
JIM HEIMANN — Oh, a lot of things that they have perpetuated for years: sunshine and sports and the free informality of the lifestyle. For the whole of the 20th century, it’s been something that everybody was looking for. Plus, it’s always a place to reinvent yourself, and there’s always that la-la-land myth: you can come here and become Beyoncé or Kanye West or whatever. Those dreams of fame and fortune are still possible for a tiny, tiny number of people. You can build whatever you want here — that’s why architects love LA. That’s why Frank Lloyd Wright loved it. That’s why [Rudolph] Schindler loved it. That’s why in the 1920s Richard Neutra did, too. They all gravitated to LA because they could find people who would accept their modernist ideals and pay for them. They couldn’t find that in New York or in the rest of the United States, and they couldn’t find it in Europe. So, they just said: “Screw it. We’re coming here!”

EMILIEN CRESPO — For the past five years, there has been a real exodus from New York to LA.
JIM HEIMANN — There’s a big one from New York and a big one from Europe because even Albert Oehlen [the German artist] wants to spend six months out of the year here. André Butzer [the German painter] is also moving here. He bought a house in Altadena. He’s German, living just east of Berlin, and I asked him why would he move to Los Angeles — he has a great career there in this incredible Bauhaus compound of buildings. He says it’s a time for change, and LA just seems to be the place that you have to be right now if you are a successful artist. There’s a real magnet.

EMILIEN CRESPO — Same for Purple magazine!
JIM HEIMANN — Yes, a magnet for people in the arts because there’s so much stuff happening, and that’s another positive aspect of it.

EMILIEN CRESPO — How can you explain this sudden attraction? It was gradual, and now it’s booming. What is the reason? Why do people think LA is a paradise?
JIM HEIMANN — The art community got attracted by cheaper rent, for one thing. Plus, you have a massive area to experiment in, even though the Arts District in Downtown LA is not an artists’ district anymore. Anybody who was an artist left 10 years ago because they couldn’t afford it after the developers came in, and everything changed. I avoid it now, but it used to be the one place that I went to all the time and took people to.
Now, it’s become another tourist trap. It’s like Abbot Kinney [Boulevard] in Venice, which for me is the worst place in the world. I refuse to go there anymore, and I used to go there all the time. I loved
that place, and then it  shifted into this faux-hippie Rodeo Drive. It’s terrible. All the good places are gone. The Roosterfish was the old gay-bear bar that was there for years and had character.

EMILIEN CRESPO — But at the same time, Los Angeles is reinventing itself. You have a food revolution…
JIM HEIMANN — That has been going on since the ’80s!

EMILIEN CRESPO — There’s a lot of creativity with new spots, new people creating little bars, little coffee shops. This younger generation coming…
JIM HEIMANN — LA always reinvents itself. It’s not static. It’s not like a Madrid, where it’s been there for centuries.

EMILIEN CRESPO — Or Paris!
JIM HEIMANN — Yeah, where it just stays a certain way, and there’s nuances of things changing and so on, but not in the same way that it happens here. I think that’s very appealing to a lot of people — to know that people are always trying to do something new, and they have the ability to do that here. That you can open up a restaurant or do some kind of fashion statement or start a little business, or something. So, those possibilities are all here. I think, in general, California is so much different from the rest of the country because it’s a much more liberal place to live. So, you’ve had hippies and beatniks and all these movements that have started: Elon Musk, Silicon Valley. Why don’t you find that in the rest of the world? It’s because people come here because they know that there’s a climate that allows you to do that. You can leave the Midwest or Saudi Arabia or Tokyo or wherever, come here, completely shed your past personality and all the shit that you had, and be a completely new person, and start all over again. I think that is something that a lot of people do.

EMILIEN CRESPO — And now weed is legal.
JIM HEIMANN — Yeah, now there’re billboards for home delivery of marijuana. You can also surf in the morning and ski in the afternoon.

EMILIEN CRESPO — Let’s talk about LA noir — the dark side of Los Angeles. What is it, exactly? You recently wrote a book about it.
JIM HEIMANN — Yes, Dark City, and I think that LA has always been susceptible to corruption for the same reason that everybody comes here: to change and to make it. You also always have people who are going to want to make money off of those who are lost or don’t know what they’re doing. So, then you get into the kooks and the crazies and the evangelists, who made millions of dollars off of people. Because people can be lost! They don’t have a religion, so they find a religion that appeals to them. Then these people come here, and they know that they can fleece. And then there’s the people who come with phony health solutions so that if you’re not happy with your hair, we will give you another head of hair, or we will fill you with radium, or cure whatever disease. And then you have Scientologists…

EMILIEN CRESPO — And plastic surgery, DNA research.
JIM HEIMANN — All these things. You also have the police corruption, which has always been present here — since the city was founded. It has always been a wide-open city, and the police department goes through these periodic shifts of cleaning house, but it’s inevitable that they always come back, and there’s someone doing something that they shouldn’t be. Police corruption is the basis of Dark City.

EMILIEN CRESPO — The 1992 riots also happened because of the police.
JIM HEIMANN — Of course, the police brutality, and people were fed up with it. But that still exists today. You don’t necessarily see it, but it’s here, too. They will keep saying, “We have a great outreach to the black and Hispanic communities,” but it’s bullshit. And of course, you have drugs and prostitution, and then you have slavery with Chinese immigrants in the San Gabriel Valley.
In a house like this, they would have 40 women making clothes illegally. And you never see it. There’s also the sweatshops, even with Mexican immigrants, that don’t get raided often, but it still happens.

EMILIEN CRESPO — It’s very strange because the average mentality seems very cool in California, not violent.
JIM HEIMANN — Well, I don’t know. [Laughs] There’s a lot of violent people here. Just watch the news every morning! L.A. is also the birth city of some dangerous gangs, whose influence now extends across the US and into Central America. Central LA is considered as the most dangerous part of LA. South LA seems to have the most issues, and it’s where poverty is most concentrated. West LA is of course safer. Silver Lake and Echo Park used to be dangerous and now are gentrified.

EMILIEN CRESPO — But you can easily break into houses. Everything is quite open, and people are relaxed. It’s not like you’re in the suburbs north of Paris, where you can’t really get out of your car.
JIM HEIMANN — Oh, there are places you can’t do that here! I’ll drive you through some of those places! [Laughs] LA is definitely not a crime-free area — you have to be very conscious of your surroundings.

EMILIEN CRESPO — LA has a dark side, and that’s interesting, too.
JIM HEIMANN — There’s also politicians and developers. Antonio Villaraigosa [mayor of Los Angeles from 2005 to 2013] failed in his run for governor, but he talked about how much he did for LA. Well, what he did was take money out of developers’ pockets and change the zoning variances so they could build whatever they wanted, and then there’s no responsibility for the infrastructure of the city. So, you’ll have a place that was two houses with maybe six people, and now you take those two houses down and put up an apartment building for 75 people. And that’s now 150 people with cars. But then, they did nothing as far as mitigating the streets — widening or doing anything. If you’re going to allow people to do that, then let the developers pay for widening the streets and the infrastructure. Our current mayor is in the same position. These mayors want money in their pockets because they want to be re-elected. The first developer to shove money in their pockets and say: “I’ve got that property over there, Sunset and Vine, and we’re thinking of taking down that building and want to put up a high-rise. Can you see what you can do as far as allowing more to go in there?” Of course, they get more, and then everybody complains, so they drop it down from 35 to 25 stories and create low-income housing for 10 people. Five years later, they raise the rent and
get them out of there. [Laughs]

EMILIEN CRESPO — LA noir is not just the past. It’s not just Raymond Chandler, or the film Chinatown.
JIM HEIMANN — Someone could write a book on LA noir and the 21st century, and find plenty of material for that! I focused on the 1920s through the 1950s because it’s kind of romanticized and certainly glamorized. The writers who are really central to Dark City — Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, Nathanael West — what they did then, someone could do today. They were reflecting what was going on in their particular time in Southern California. It’s all enhanced by the movie industry and people who had a lot of money, like the Dohenys. Chandler uses one of the Dohenys as one of his characters. He also talks about gambling ships off the coast of Southern California, which were there in the ’30s because you couldn’t gamble in California, so you had to go to Tijuana. Or you had to go three miles off the coast on little boats. They’d take you from Santa Monica Pier to a great, big ugly thing that they showed as looking like the Queen Mary, and then you got out there, and it was just some beat-up tanker to gamble on. Chandler writes about that. James Cain writes about Mildred Pierce living in Glendale; she’s making pies, and her husband leaves her, etc. Then this story gets made into a movie with Joan Crawford, and she gets the Academy Award. These dark stories were very interesting to me. What I really wanted to do was find the real stories behind the fiction, and when Nathanael West talks about Hollywood in The Day of the Locust, it’s all just there: this little person who was living in a writer’s apartment just up the street from Hollywood Boulevard. The apartment is still there where he wrote the book, and he had gonorrhea at the time. All the characters who lived in that apartment, he integrated them into his novel. There was a midget guy who was kind of crazy, but he was based on the newspaper guy at Hollywood and Vine. I found a picture of him. Then he talks about the crazy religions like the one created by Aimee Semple McPherson [founder of the Foursquare Church]. He describes walking in the hills and seeing all these crazy houses that look like mosques in English Tudor style, and little Spanish Rancheros, and all this.

EMILIEN CRESPO — Were you also inspired by Hollywood Babylon, the Kenneth Anger book? For the art world, he is the face of LA noir.
JIM HEIMANN — Yeah. I think he went a little overboard on some of those stories. There is a stretch a bit, I think.

EMILIEN CRESPO — Hollywood Babylon is a novel, in a way.
JIM HEIMANN — Yeah, and I think that he took a lot of stories, but you can’t really substantiate some of the stuff that he wrote. That being said, it could very well be!

EMILIEN CRESPO — So, your point is that Kenneth Anger is more noir than Hollywood Babylon itself.
JIM HEIMANN — Yeah, I think so. [Laughs] I’ve never met him. 

EMILIEN CRESPO — You talked a lot about power, corruption, the police, and the administration, but in Hollywood Babylon, Kenneth Anger talks about the depravity of the movie industry in the early days.
JIM HEIMANN — That’s all part of it, all the scandals and the drugs and prostitutes and murders and suicides. And a law came, the Hays Code, in 1930. It was basically: “Let’s clean up Hollywood, and if you don’t do it, we will have the government do it for you.” The government came in and started censoring stuff. The period just before, from 1920 to 1930, was very, very liberal in a lot of ways. It was a key era I tried to cover, with nudist
colonies and gay clubs — cross-dressing Marlene Dietrich would go there. There were a lot of sexually based movies, with a very strong rise in the gay community. Then 1930 comes, the cops come in, and everything stops. The gay community goes underground until after the war, and by the late ’40s, they come up a little bit, but they just go underground again until 1969-70, when the floodgates really open, and then you have a much more open
community.

EMILIEN CRESPO — Because the gay community in a way started here? San Francisco and the lifestyle?
JIM HEIMANN — Yeah, and a kind of a political stance, too. The Mattachine Society [an early LGBT organization] started here right after the war, and that was a reaction to the police always pushing them around, so they escaped in Silver Lake and Echo Park.

EMILIEN CRESPO — We saw Peter Shire, who’s from Echo Park, and he said his gay neighbors lived like married couples in the 1950s.
JIM HEIMANN — Yeah, Tom of Finland was from there. His office is still there — you can visit. Echo Park was a very interesting little area for all the bohemians and Communists, the free lifestyle. Peter Shire was a “red-diaper baby.” His parents were Communists.

EMILIEN CRESPO — Yeah, that’s funny. So, is there a film you would recommend for LA noir?
JIM HEIMANN — Chinatown is on the top of my list, and the second is L.A. Confidential. Those two were done well, respectfully. Chinatown is so hard to beat. Polanski nailed it; Robert Towne nailed it. They understood the period, and they replicated the clothes, hairstyles. Locations were all done like they should have been done. And L.A. Confidential was the same way. It fudged a little bit, but not that much. These are guys who were born and raised here. They knew the nuances. There have been other movies that just missed the opportunity and screwed it up by having contemporary hairstyles and the wrong fashion, and just didn’t get it right.

END

 

DETECTIVES HOVER OVER THE BODY OF ACTRESS CAROLE LANDIS, WHO, AFTER A ROLLER-COASTER LIFE OF DEPRESSION AND FAILED MARRIAGES, OVERDOSED ON SECONAL, 1948, COPYRIGHT JIM HEIMANN COLLECTION A BEVY OF HOOKERS COVER UP AFTER A VICE SQUAD RAID AT THE CAROLINA PINES RESTAURANT ON MELROSE AVENUE, CA, 1957, COPYRIGHT CLIFF WESSELMANN AND COURTESY OF GREGORY PAUL WILLIAMS, BL PRESS LLC/TASCHEN THE VICTIM OF A MAD BUTCHER, A SEX AND TORTURE VICTIM REVEALS HER AGGRESSOR’S HANDIWORK, CA, 1938, COPYRIGHT CLIFF WESSELMANN AND COURTESY OF GREGORY PAUL WILLIAMS, BL PRESS LLC/TASCHEN THE BLOODY EVIDENCE OF A MURDER SPREE AWAITS PROCESSING AT POLICE HEADQUARTERS, CA, 1930, COPYRIGHT CLIFF WESSELMANN AND COURTESY OF GREGORY PAUL WILLIAMS, BL PRESS LLC/TASCHEN

 

 

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Los Angeles issue #30

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