Cameron Crowe: how Pamela Littky photographed Los Angeles's bohemian dream

'A building that whispers secrets': the Villa Bonita was built in the film industry's first heyday in the Twenties. 
'A building that whispers secrets': the Villa Bonita was built in the film industry's first heyday in the Twenties.  Credit: Photograph by Pamela Littky

Built by Cecil B DeMille and photographed by Pamela Littky for her new book, The Villa Bonita, this apartment block tells you all you need to know about LA, says Cameron Crowe

I was born in the desert resort city of Palm Springs, California, where tumbleweeds were the size of tractors and the only crystal-blue body of water nearby was a sun-faded mural on the library wall. It was a cool place. Actually, it was never a cool place. It was beyond hot. Life had the egg-white colour of an ageing Polaroid. 

These were the in-between years for Palm Springs. Once the getaway spot for Elvis and Frank Sinatra, the Hollywood crowd had long since moved on and left it mostly to retirees and golden-age vacationers. Everybody was just passing through. There were virtually no kids my age. Community was a concept I read about in books. 

My dream was to find some mythical bohemian community of writers and artists and musicians, a world populated by muses of all kinds, with maybe a forest or a river nearby. Green was the idea. Someplace green. Moving to Los Angeles for work at a young age, I ended up living in a 13-unit condo instead. Not too much green. I looked for a sign of community, but there was little to be had. There seemed to be an unwritten LA rule – stay in your own world unless otherwise summoned. 

Apartment 2c: Barbara, left, a retired teacher, has lived at the Villa Bonita for 17 years Credit: Photograph by Pamela Littky

There was an actress, a comedian, a shadowy businessman, a caretaker, a television writer who wore only baby-blue coloured blazers, and a busy psychiatrist who practised out of his apartment. I’d see him at the mailbox, and he’d offer his standard line, always with a big smile: “So what’s so great about you?” 

When the big earthquake hit, we were all in the courtyard together, in pyjamas and T-shirts. Mostly we were all loners, but on that day, with ruptured gas lines leaking and sirens blaring, it was crisis that brought us together. I loved it. Finally. Community.

And then, just as quickly, that sense of togetherness disappeared. The caretaker died of a heart attack, and the paramedics carried her stretcher past our doors. We watched like a presidential procession. Another occupant moved in, a young man from Arkansas. His name was Lowell. 

Apartment 1A: Judith, a model, lives with Travis, an aspiring rapper, and two dogs. When they moved in, they threw a party for everyone Credit: Photograph by Pamela Littky

Lowell violated the unwritten rule of LA dwelling. He began knocking on all our doors. Lowell would politely and forcefully wipe his hand on the side of his pants, and then offer it for a firm handshake.“Do you have a moment?” he would ask, with a salesman’s confidence, though he was only selling himself. 

“Ugh... I’m a little busy.” 

“I’m Lowell, from Arkansas, and I’m your new neighbour,” he explained, wiping and grasping. “I’m a kick-boxer, sport of the future, and I’d like to show you my sport sometime and even invite you to see me fight.” I asked him for a rain check. I was too busy. “That’s fine!” The more you turned him down, the more his good nature increased. “I’ll be back! By the way, I’m fighting a very tough Hispanic dude this Sunday at the Olympic Auditorium. He’s very good, but I’m going to decimate him, and I’d love for you to be there!” 

I rebuffed his sunny but aggressive efforts at community, mostly because accepting the invitation appeared to involve hours of conversation about kick-boxing, a sport that didn’t appear headed for any real spot in my soul. Besides, I was having a hard time creating the lead male character in my script. 

Paul, a landscape designer, has lived in apartment 5a since 1988, when you could see riot fires in the distance, prostitutes round the corner and murder at the front door. Credit: Photograph by Pamela Littky

By Sunday night, of course, I found myself obsessively wondering about Lowell’s bout with the tough Hispanic. There was no report on the radio. No internet to announce a result. Monday morning I was awakened by the sound of heavy clanging below my bedroom. Boom. Boom. Ba-Boom. I went down to the basement parking lot to find Lowell, kicking at a bag hanging from the ceiling pipes. He looked different. I drew closer. “I almost won!” he announced triumphantly. He was a shade of black-and-blue I’d never seen before. Actually, he was purple. “Next time, I’m gonna win.” 

We became friends. I spent hours watching kick-boxing with him. He won a few times, but mostly he lost. And when I finally turned my screenplay in, the male lead was a kick-boxer named Lloyd. Such are the unexpected gifts of close-quarter living. 

Then Lowell moved back to Arkansas, became a motivational speaker, and died of cancer at a ridiculously young age. I found later that he had maintained a meaningful relationship with everybody at our condo enclave, until his last ineffable day of life. 

Apartment 6D: Karissa nd Tyson, both film students, grew up around the corner in Tulare but only met once they'd moved to LA Credit: Photograph by Pamela Littky

I thought of Lowell a lot as I got lost in the gorgeous detail of Pamela Littky’s photographic account of life within a very singular Hollywood apartment house, the Villa Bonita, built in 1929 by Frank Webster for Cecil B DeMille, his cast and his crew, then later home to Errol Flynn and Francis Ford Coppola. 

I’d often driven past the Villa Bonita. It’s impossible not to admire its vine-covered beauty and old-school tinseltown mystery. It’s the kind of building that whispers secrets. Littky, like my friend Lowell, began knocking on doors. Sure enough, those doors opened, tenants invited her into their lives. 

Littky and her soulful camera found a relationship with everybody in the Villa Bonita, from the recently arrived, to the rapper and the model, to the actor in the Penthouse with his set-chair in his living room, to the longest-running occupant, a former teacher with her cigarette still burning in the ashtray. 

After the last image, you’ll already start to miss them. Littky has captured that great and elusive elixir, community.

Text edited from the foreword by Cameron Crowe of The Villa Bonita by Pamela Littky, (Kehrer Verlag, September 2016)

 

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