Book Review

Book Review: The Lure of a Land by the Sea

By Greta Cobar

Long-time Venice historian Delores Hanney did it again: published yet another wonderful Venice memoir, made up of over thirty “vignettes,” as she calls them. With grandiose vocabulary and in what could be called poetic prose, she tells funny and insightful stories from the times of Abbot Kinney’s arrival in Venice all the way to more recent events that long-timers might remember.

Venice is “the spot just before one falls off the edge,” according to Hanney, and her latest book, The Lure of a Land by the Sea, illustrates Venice characters and stories that most definitely have not just an edge, but an importance and a relevance that break through the geographical boundaries of what we call Venice.

The book starts, appropriately, with the beginning of our community, which established the way we do things by letting a coin toss decide where Venice of America was going to materialize. It could have been in Ocean Park, you know. “Abbot Kinney was a dreamer, and Venice-of-America was his most vivid dream,” writes Hanney. She goes on to give details of Kinneyland, such as the philosophy movement it was based upon,  which was meant to foster a sense of contentment, cohesiveness and belonging, “inviting surrender to a felicitous lifestyle.”

“To see Venice is to live!”, Kinney is quoted as exclaiming after he rearranged the marshland with a lagoon, canals, imported gondolas, singing gondoliers, even Italian pigeons.

Ever wondered who introduced Mardi Gras to the Venice scene? Read The Lure of a Land by the Sea to find out about Arthur Reese, “the first black businessman in Venice,” who was originally from Louisiana and for who “it would have been unnatural” not to come to Venice. The book beautifully describes his journey from shining shoes to cleaning houses, to winning the first prize in the Tournament of Roses, to assuming the operation of the Venice Boat and Canoe Company. And yes, he is credited with bringing Mardi Gras all the way from Louisiana to Venice. Read that vignette for inspiration!

It was August 1, 1905, in Venice, California, that octogenarians Susan B. Anthony and Caroline Severance were speaking about woman suffrage to the 3600 audience members that filled the local auditorium. “Nothing is impossible to organized womanhood,” Severance is quoted as saying. Indeed, on October 10, 1911 California became the sixth state in the nation in which women could vote, nine years before women’s voting rights would go national. Hanney proudly states in her book that “as the centennial anniversary of women’s suffrage in California is celebrated, these days more women than men are casting ballots.”

From inspirational stories of nation-wide relevance to funny anecdotes that might make you start laughing out loud as you are quietly reading, go on to the next chapter, “lions & tigers & bears, oh my!” to Al G. Barnes Circus and Wild Animal Zoo coming to Venice and “those times when elephants or camels escaped to thunder about on the pier and the streets.” From that story go on to the next, this time not about animals running wild among the humans, but about a well-known celebrity swimming with a certain dolphin every Sunday for nearly a year, “happily as a pair of sea otter sisters.”

Wanna know about the beginning of Harley motorcycle’s presence in Venice? In The Lure of a Land by the Sea, Hanney divulges how a 300-mile racing track was built in our 3-mile long community, and how Otto Walker claimed Harley’s first national win at that very race.

No, it’s not all happy stories, and December 18, 1929 was not a happy day for Venice. Oil was discovered offshore and within two years 450 wells were erected, “uglifying the once lovely shoreline, fouling sand and surf and the toes that might touch them with despicable tar-y blobs,” Hanney writes. To make matters worse, the money did not stay in Venice, but was redirected to fund a fishing pier somewhere else. Read the book to find out where.

After laughing out loud to being saddened, the reader of The Lure of a Land by the Sea might find himself shedding a tear while reading about President Franklin D. Roosevelt signing Executive Order 9066, which committed 110,000 men, women and children of Japanese descent to various internment camps. “The Japanese Venetians were ordered to gather, with only what they could carry, on April 25, 1942, at Venice and Lincoln Boulevards where they waited with quiet dignity in a long, long line before being hauled off by the busload to Manzanar, 230 miles northeast of L.A., high in the Sierra Mountains,” Hanney writes. Not coincidentally, just as we now have Suzy Williams as our beloved Songbird of Venice, so back then they had Mary Kageyama as Songbird of Manzanar.

“the beat of a bongo, the howl of a poet” is the title of the vignette about the Venice Beat Movement, which Hanney describes as “free of the inhibiting bondage of the conventional worldview … under the influence of this substance or that.” You might know about Larry Lipton and Stuart Perkoff, both of whom played a significant part in the Beat Movement, but did you know that there were not one, but two gathering spots called “Venice West”? Hanney gives details and locations for both.

The Lure of a Land by the Sea also tells the story of our Venice Poet Laureate Philomene Long, and how she jumped the covent wall of St. Joseph’s of Carondelet in Los Angeles to be “spirited off – in the dark of night – in a get-away car driven by sister Pegarty.” Hanney goes on to explain that leaving the covent did not represent an abandonment of spirituality, or even a rejection of Catholicism, and goes on to reveal Philomene’s new self-identification.

Nowadays one might think that surfing is inherent to Venice. However, as Hanney discloses in her book, the first surfer here was actually brought from Hawaii as a lure to potential buyers. He came here with his 200-pound, eight-foot-long wooden board of his own design.

Although many may have followed, the first Venice snake charmer was Carroll Shelby himself, who opened his Cobra manufacturing plant right here in Venice. His official mascot was a live cobra, which somehow escaped for a few days, and Shelby took drastic action upon its return. Read the book to find out what, and why Shelby moved out of Venice when his business went from a startup of nothing in 1962 to a $16 million company in ’65.

Hanney’s vignettes abound, entertain, inform and mesmerize. In “painting the town” she writes about Rip Cronk, who “came upon a mural-painter-seeking ad placed by SPARC” upon his arrival in Venice. The first mural he painted in Venice was Venice on the Halfshell and it was located in the old Venice Pavilion. According to The Lure of a Land by the Sea, Venice’s oldest mural is Edward Biberman’s 1941 “Story of Venice,” which all of us enjoyed looking at when visiting what used to be our historical post office. After the building’s recent sale into private ownership, the public’s access to its beloved mural was cut off. Hanney’s quote of Cronk as saying that “the community mural de-alienates and delineates the individual in society” is relevant to Venice residents’ current efforts to maintain the Biberman mural available for public view.

Hanney’s book tells so many more stories, divulges so many other secrets, and sheds light on so much history. To get the full details, get yourself a copy at Small World Books or Beyond Baroque.