Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Beverly Hills Ballot-Box Ballyhoo

Growing up in the West Los Angeles subdivision known as Beverlywood, I developed a certain perspective on Beverly Hills.  (For the record, I was called Beverly long before I moved into the area, though I’m sure my parents were not ignorant of the name’s associations with ritzy SoCal enclaves.)  As an L.A. girl who lived just a few short blocks from the Beverly Hills border, I developed mixed emotions about the little city to the north. Yes, it was fun to stroll up Beverwil Drive and find myself among charming cafes and chic boutiques. I remember star-sightings over lunch at the Hamburger Hamlet and yummy ice cream cones at Wil Wright’s.

On the other hand, kids like me had to deal with the snobbery of our north-of-the-border peers. They told us in no uncertain terms that their public schools were much better than ours. I was informed that the A’s I earned at LA.’s Canfield Elementary School would be mere B’s and C’s in Beverly Hills, since their standards were so much higher. Those memories have shaped my feelings about Beverly Hills ever since.

Still, I liked seeing Donald O’Connor pushing his cart in the supermarket, Zsa Zsa Gabor nibbling on pastry at Blum’s, and Sammy Davis Jr. driving his Excalibur through the tree-lined streets of Beverly Hills. And I remember the day in 1960 the city celebrated the installation of an odd little sculpture at the intersection of Olympic Blvd. and Beverly Drive. This so-called Celluloid Monument honors Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Rudolph Valentino, Will Rogers, and other Hollywood personalities who fought  to preserve the autonomy of Beverly Hills when it was on the brink of being swallowed up by the city of Los Angeles.

One big issue at the time was the allocation of drinking water, always a major concern in dusty, drought-prone Southern California. Another, of course, was power politics. Nancie Clare’s engaging The Battle for Beverly Hills lays it all out for us, making clear why the survival of one small California city has lessons for us today. Her subtitle, “A City’s Independence and the Birth of Celebrity Politics,” points to the impact of Hollywood stardom—something brand-new when the annexation vote was taken back in 1923—on the general public. Clare’s book told me a lot about the evolution of Southern California as a result of the burgeoning film industry. In particular, it clued me in to the power wielded by Mary Pickford, a woman determined to make her own way, both artistically and financially. Pickford fought hard to preserve the new little city as a garden spot populated by the wealthy and the famous. It was she who enlisted noteworthy actor and director friends to go door to door, appealing to Beverly Hills residents to vote against being annexed by Los Angeles. (The nearby city of Hollywood had knuckled under to its much-bigger neighbor back in 1910.)

 Pickford’s posse—which also included cowboy star Tom Mix, funny-man Harold Lloyd, and Fred Niblo, director of the original Ben-Hur—liked the privacy that living in Beverly Hills afforded. Clare explains that matinee idol Conrad Nagel, another of Pickford’s eight campaigners,  would one day even “head up a movement to build a wall around Beverly Hills to keep the outer world at bay.” This talk of a wall can’t fail to remind us of other public figures with showbiz roots who have used their fame as a political stepping stone. There’s Ronald Reagan, of course, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, and a certain reality-show host who has parlayed his celebrity all the way to the White House. 

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