January 16, 2015

“There are so many memories.” An interview with Sam Weller, Bradbury’s authorized biographer, about the author’s now-demolished home



Sam Weller & Ray Bradbury. (via samweller.net)

Over the past several months, Sam Weller has written a series of moving posts on his personal website about Ray Bradbury‘s Los Angeles home, which was recently demolished. Weller spent a great deal of time in the home interviewing Bradbury. Weller is the author of Bradbury’s authorized biography, The Bradbury Chronicles and the editor of Shadow Show: All New Stories in Celebration of Ray Bradbury, both of which were published by William Morrow; Weller has also published two collections of interviews with the author with Melville HouseListen to the Echoes and Ray Bradbury: The Last Interview. Weller is the associate chair of the Department of Creative Writing at Columbia College Chicago; he blogs at www.listentotheechoes.com.

How did you first learn that Ray Bradbury’s house was going to be demolished? What was your reaction?

I suspected it might be a teardown. Other houses in Ray’s longtime neighborhood of Cheviot Hills had been demolished. A few years ago, the house next door to the Bradbury residence was knocked down to make-way for a super-sized monstrosity. Much of the neighborhood is under siege by mansionization. Ray and his wife Maggie couldn’t understand why people didn’t respect the historical value of their sweeping old Los Angeles neighborhood. So I suspected this fate could well come to the Bradbury house, but I held out hope that its significance to imaginative literature might save it from the developers.

Do you know if the demolition was avoidable?

Well, the Bradbury estate could have held out and sold it to someone who would have rehabbed the house into the modern era but kept the shell of the grand old stucco monument relatively intact. I respect and love Ray’s daughters and it’s not my business. But Ray also taught me to speak up and speak loudly and I wish there had been a better outcome. I know the four Bradbury girls are sad to see their childhood home razed. I can’t imagine they knew for certain what the buyer’s intentions were, by they could have asked. I do not fault the buyer, architect Thom Mayne, for this. He is thinking of the future as Ray did. But, like Ray, I have a sentimental side and it’s heartbreaking to see the old yellow house face such an unfitting fate.

Was there anything particularly notable about the home, besides the fact that Bradbury lived there?

It was a humble home. It was built in the late 30s and was really a fine example of old L.A. architecture nestled into the surrounding neighborhood with subtlety and grace. That house fit there. Stan Laurel lived in the neighborhood for a time; Ray’s friend, the old starlet Laraine Day lived a few blocks away. Barbara Billingsley—affectionately known for her role as “June Clever,” lived nearby. It’s a beautiful, understated old money neighborhood with lots of palm trees and sidewalks and pretty flower gardens. Ray used to love riding his bike around the rolling streets. He buried his beloved cat in the backyard when she died a few years ago. She appeared in a few television interviews with him. He wrote an essay about her in my latest book, Ray Bradbury: The Last Interview. Now there’s a bulldozer and a port-o-potty near her grave. It’s nauseating.

You were fortunate enough to get to spend a considerable amount of time with Bradbury in his home. Do any particular memories stick out?

There are so many memories. So many. I have a deep affection for that house and a real emotional connection to it. Ray and I used to visit late at night and he would send me down to the kitchen—the house was sort of a split-level affair—and I would pour us both a glass of wine. We would visit in his den and drink very late into the night. It was just the two of us. Talking and laughing. He would leave the back door open and the cool Southern California night air would come rolling in. Those very quiet moments I miss the most. Of course, rummaging through the files of his basement office was always exhilarating. He saved almost everything. It was pretty disorganized down there so looking for old manuscripts or letters was always an Easter egg hunt.Many Los Angeles homes do not have basements and this one had a storied one. I always called Ray’s basement office a “laboratory of the imagination.”

I once wrote a short story titled “The Shadows Behind the Trees” in the side office off the den. It was magical to write in the same space that he had created in for decades. I felt like I was touching the electricity. He loved the story as it was very much in the tradition of his own early work and when he died, I dedicated it to him and gave it away as free ereader download on my blog. Ray was in the hospital for his 84th birthday and I stayed in the house alone one night. I was very aware of the history all around me. He lived in that house for nearly 54 years. He wrote in it; raised his daughters in it; great dignitaries and celebrities visited him there. Every one from Mayor Tom Bradley to Rod Serling to Rod Steiger to Harry Nilsson stopped by over the years. Ray also began letting go of life in that house. This is no small thing. He loved life completely. Metaphors for immortality are woven throughout his entire body of work. He accepted his weakening condition with great dignity in his final years.

How do you think Bradbury’s legacy should be honored and remembered? Should there be a museum? If so, is there a particular place you’d like to see a museum?

Steinbeck has a center. Charles Shultz has a museum. The houses of Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Eudora Welty, Carson McCullers, Edgar Allan Poe and many others have been preserved, restored, and turned into museums. Bradbury should absolutely have a museum to honor him. His contributions to the canon—the way he shaped the literature of the fantastic—is irrefutable and absolute. Ray Bradbury was our mythologist. He wanted his house to be a museum. “Just keep everything where it is,” he often said to others and me. But from what I understand, the zoning in his neighborhood wouldn’t allow for it. It’s a very quiet residential area and you can’t have hordes of fans coming around all the time. It’s silly that the zoning will allow for houses that are more the size of a corporate office building in Dubai and not a museum, but C’est la vie.

But Ray was very clear to me what he wanted for his own legacy. The last time I saw him he insisted I look into purchasing his grandparents home at 619 W. Washington Street in Waukegan, Illinois. It is this house that he fictionalized in Dandelion Wine. If the proud yellow house on Cheviot Drive couldn’t be a museum, he wanted his grandparents home in Waukegan to be one. And I actually think there is another, perhaps even more obtainable museum option. The City of Waukegan has long owned the vacant Carnegie Library where Ray first fell in love with books, reading, and libraries. He based the library in Something Wicked This Way Comes on the Carnegie in Waukegan.

People have talked for years about restoring this library. It would be perfect for a Bradbury museum. Waukegan has been cultivating an arts corridor and a destination such as a Bradbury museum could and should fit prominently into this urban renewal. Instead, and it is noble, Waukegan is talking about erecting a statue to honor Ray, and that is very nice, but it doesn’t go far enough. And as long as I’m being candid, they have put together an advisory board to come up with ideas and not once have they reached out to me. I live 45 minutes away. I know exactly how Ray Bradbury wanted to be honored, yet the city has not called. This, coupled with the wrecking crew arriving at his L.A. house, has me feeling pretty frustrated and pissed. That’s why I’m speaking up.

Did Los Angeles inspire Bradbury’s thinking about architecture? Do you know if he had strong feelings about the subject before he moved to L.A.? Do you see any irony in the fact that the home was destroyed by a renowned architect?

Ray Bradbury wrote an entire collection of urban planning and renewal essays titled, Yestermorrow. He fostered a love for architecture while visiting the worlds’ fairs of 1933 and 1939, but Los Angeles really shaped his architectural philosophy. He loved Los Angeles. He cared about its future. He was a vocal advocate over the decades for a convenient, reliable and accessible public transportation system. He long pushed for a monorail system to help alleviate the gridlock on the L.A. freeways. He worked with architect Jon Jerde on the Glendale Galleria, as well as the Westside Pavilion (known to Tom Petty fans as a location in the video for “Free Fallin”).

Ray cared deeply about Hollywood film history and knew the city intimately despite the fact that he never drove a car. It always surprised me how well he knew what side streets to take and what short cuts to utilize to avoid traffic. He also knew L.A. history and often guided me on some pretty incredible tours. Ray admired architects very much. He was a friend with Frank Lloyd Wright’s son, they both advocated for an L.A. monorail. His favorite contemporary architect was Carlos Calatrava. I think he would be very pleased that an architect purchased his home, especially an architect of such significance as Thom Mayne. Ray would bristle and laugh at the “starchitect” portmanteau that is bandied about when discussing Mayne. Ray wasn’t interested in the concept of celebrity. So Ray would be happy on one level.

But he would also grab Mayne by the lapels for tearing his longtime home. He’d bunch up his fist, and then smile and say something like, “No more Legos for you!” Mayne’s plans to honor Ray in some way on the property is kind. It’s interesting that he wants to incorporate Brabury’s book titles somewhere on the property. Ray once phoned me at 1 in the morning to tell me that he wanted several book titles listed on his gravestone: The Martian Chronicles, The Illustrated Man, Fahrenheit 451, Dandelion Wine and Something Wicked This Way Comes. His daughters talked him out of this, I gather. They thought it odd to list his bibliography on this grave marker.

What kind of art did Bradbury hang on the walls of his home? Did he expand or renovate the house? How did the house exude Bradbury’s essence, in other words?

I have been blogging for the past few months about the house because I feared that it would be bought and razed. I wanted to document the way the house looked while he lived in it. You can see much of the artwork he had on display in my blog posts. Much of the art on display was original work from his books. When you walked in the front door, the first thing you saw to the left was the large cover painting to The Illustrated Man by Dean Ellis. There were several pieces by Ray’s friend and frequent collaborator Joseph Mugnaini. The Bradbury’s also had several striking originals by Disney background artist Eyvind Earle. Art was essential to Ray. He enjoyed it, but also used art as creative prompts for his own fictive visions.

Can you give us a sense of Bradbury’s connection to Los Angeles? What was his take on the city, his history with it?

Ray Bradbury arrived in Los Angeles in April 1934 with his family. He was a devotee of film and, on his first day he roller skated over to the gates of Paramount Pictures and encountered W.C. Fields. He chased Marlene Dietrich up the staircase of a beauty salon in order to get her autograph. He watched Shirley Temple put her hands in cement at Grumman’s Chinese Theater. He met Frances Gumm in a dance studio before she changed her name to Judy Garland.

Ray had a strong connection to the Latino community. He had a friend who lived in a tenement building on Figueroa Street in downtown L.A. Bradbury set up an office in this building when he was in his twenties. He wrote some of his great early stories there. Stories like “The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit” are based on the experiences and friendship with the Latino community.

L.A. was vital to Ray Bradbury’s identity. He wrote a trio of mystery noir novels all set in old Hollywood. I would say that the first one, Death is a Lonely Business is a minor Bradbury classic. L.A. was in Ray Bradbury’s DNA. After he graduated from high school in 1938, he had no money for college and, instead, educated himself in the downtown L.A. Public Library. He went there three nights a week for a decade and effectively earned a Liberal Arts Degree all on his very own. I was so pleased to have been a part of the street naming of Ray Bradbury Square in December 2012, outside the library. This was a proper and fitting way to honor this great Angelino. I only wish the house he lived in could have been spared the wrecking ball and, for years to come, far ahead into the future Ray Bradbury wrote about, young readers could drive by and see where this great American writer once lived and breathed and created for over half a remarkable century.

Alex Shephard is the director of digital media for Melville House, and a former bookseller.