By Jim Smith
On June 5, I was peering through Chuck Bloomquist’s telescope in his front yard as a tiny black dot – actually the size of the Earth – slowly made its way across the yellow-gold caldron we call the Sun.
At the same time, a few miles away, a 91-year-old man who had taken us to Venus, Mars and other worlds in his books was breathing his last. He had traveled across universes solely by the power of his mind. Now he was giving us one more amazing tale by hopping on Venus as it flew across the Sun. Only Ray Bradbury would think of such an appropriate way to make his exit.
Ray Bradbury was a novelist who wrote like a poet. His powers of description could transport the reader to Mars, Venus or to Venice, circa 1947.
He will long be known to the world as the author of The Martian Chronicles, Fahrenheit 451, The Illustrated Man, Dandelion Wine, and Something Wicked This Way Comes, among other books of Science Fiction and Fantasy.
Venetians will ever be grateful for his masterful description of a decrepit Venice of the late 1940s in the novel, Death Is A Lonely Business. This is a Venice that nobody comes to visit and where the fog rolls in every day and it rains a lot in the autumn that he describes.
It rained a lot on Venus, too, at least in a short story Bradbury wrote in Venice (probably while it was raining):
The rain continued. It was a hard rain, a perpetual rain, a sweating and steaming rain; it was a mizzle, a downpour, a fountain, a whipping at the eyes, an undertow at the ankles; it was a rain to drown all rains and the memory of rains. It came by the pound and the ton, it hacked at the jungle and cut the trees like scissors and shaved the grass and tunneled the soil and molted the bushes. It shrank men’s hands into the hands of wrinkled apes; it rained a solid glassy rain, and it never stopped. –The Long Rain, 1950
That is how Ray Bradbury wrote. His powers of description were unmatched through 500 published works. He wrote every day, and still had time to carefully study the world around him. “If there were three of me, I could keep us all busy,” he once said.
In Venice, the young Bradbury was a self-described maniac, a true Venetian possessed by an enthusiasm for life.
“Venice is full of old people,” says Bradbury’s unnamed protagonist in Death Is A Lonely Business. They were old enough to have enjoyed the halcyon days earlier in the century when Venice was perhaps the most exciting place on the west coast. It is as if they had partied on the Titanic, but by the time Bradbury arrived they were clinging to rafts for dear life.
It is this atmosphere that is the foundation of Bradbury’s murder mystery where lonely people are put out of their misery by an unknown murderer. While this murderer was running rampant in Venice and in Bunker Hill, another community soon to be “renewed,” old Venice was experiencing its own death as Abbot Kinney’s Windward Pier and Amusement Park fell before an L.A. wrecking crew.
The Pier had been a center of Venice since its founding in 1905. Its rides, midway, movie theater and performance areas had set Venice apart from staid old Los Angeles.
The L.A. city fathers hated the libertine atmosphere of Venice and its Pier. When the Kinney Company filed routine paperwork after World War II for the renewal of its lease of the Pier (which Abbot Kinney had built), it was denied. The Kinney heirs had no clout downtown and could not save this part of Abbot Kinney’s dream. The destruction is portrayed in gruesome detail by Bradbury. Venice sank further into the fog.
This is the gloomy atmosphere that Orson Wells portrayed a couple of years later when he decided that Venice would make the perfect stand-in for Tijuana in the film, Touch of Evil.
It was also the perfect cover for the Beats, who were hiding out from 1950s mainstream America. It led Lawrence Lipton to call Venice, the “slum by the sea.” By the late ‘50s Venice had sunk even lower as more than half the great old buildings on Ocean Front Walk and Windward Avenue, including the imposing St. Mark’s Hotel, at Windward and Ocean Front Walk, were toppled by order of L.A. Code Enforcers.
I encountered what was left of this Venice when I arrived in 1968. An empty Boardwalk, cheap rooms, a pervading sense of poverty and decay. I loved it.
Bradbury had arrived in Venice with his family in 1942. They had taken up residence at 662 Venice Blvd. It was at this location that he began work on The Martian Chronicles, which is really a series of vignettes stuck together as a novel. Until recently, the family home had survived, and even sported a plaque announcing its literary greatness. In 2008, the historic home was bulldozed in a barbaric display of callousness to make room for an upscale art gallery.
Delores Hanney of the Venice Historical Society, who interviewed Bradbury, believes that at some point he moved into an apartment closer to the beach. In the novel – which is accurate in all other descriptions about Venice – the protagonist lived in a $30 a month room, across the street from a gas station and between the beach and the canals (A free Beachhead will be awarded the first person to identify this location.).
What else did Bradbury write while he lived in Venice? Probably a lot of short stories, like The Long Rain, which he attempted to sell to magazines. Some of them may have found their way into The Illustrated Man and other books. He was probably already thinking about Fahrenheit 451, which was published in 1953.
Bradbury left Venice in 1950 or ‘51. Venice of his day could accommodate a struggling writer, but having an author who was becoming a household name might have caused the stampede to the beach to start years earlier than it did.
Bradbury did not forget Venice. He returned frequently to bike or walk around his old home town. In later years, he spoke at the Abbot Kinney Venice Library under the auspices of the Venice Historical Society.
He wrote Death Is A Lonely Business in 1985. By then the circus wagons had been pulled out of the canals, the oil wells had given way to high-priced condos in the Peninsula, the Red Cars had stopped running, and those wonderful fogs had become infrequent.
Bradbury loved the Red Cars, and trains in general. He often took trains instead of flying. The man who traveled to other worlds in his imagination never learned how to drive a car. In low-income Venice of the 1940s, when he was growing up, it was a luxury most people could not afford. Besides, there was the wonderful Red Car system that would take you anywhere under the mountains. In Venice, then as now, one could quickly walk or bike anywhere.
In Death Is A Lonely Business, Bradbury’s alter ego says he wants to live forever. Ninety-one years is not forever, but it’s more than most people get. Even so, Ray Bradbury does have a shot at immortality through his books, which are as fresh and exciting as the day they were written.
For more about Ray Bradbury, see a 1963 film biography of Ray Bradbury, including shots of Venice: http://bit.ly/NJwFTq
A new short film based on Bradbury’s Kaleidoscope is currently making the rounds of theaters and film festivals. It was the Grand Prize Winner in the 2012 New Media Film Festival.
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