A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Part of Bohemian Week.
The first I knew about the bohemian community of Mountain Drive was when regular VL guest Jay Benedict emailed me in November of last year to say that he’d just seen his old childhood home going up in flames on the television. Some intensive Googling eventually revealed Elias Chiacos’s book (reviewed this morning). When I sent the cover to Jay and asked him about the book, he came straight back with “That’s my mother on the cover … Queen of the Naked Wine Stomp, 1955!”
Now, that’s what’s known as a conversation stopper.
When I read the book, it left me with a couple of niggling questions, and Renate (who now lives in France) was the obvious person to answer them … except that we sort of went off beam a bit … just now and then.
M: I didn’t actually mean to leap straight in with this question, but being English and therefore prurient, I need to know. It was a Naked Wine Stomp, but on the front cover, and indeed, in a full-length photograph inside, you are plainly wearing a rather decorous little apron and a diaphanous something-or-other …
R: Quite right. It was a pale green silk apron and my mother made it. But it didn’t stay on very long! You see, when you were crowned Queen of the Wine Stomp, you were carried down to the grape tub like a queen ..
M: What, like Cleopatra?
R: That’s it! And I just didn’t want to be naked then. The apron came off very shortly after that photograph was taken. I do have a full-length photograph of me in the grape tub, completely naked, if you’d like to see it …
M: Well … it might attract some undesirable attention to the site, so … maybe not. But, let’s face it, if you HAD been naked in that photo – it probably wouldn’t have been on the front cover, would it? I somehow doubt your Mother ever imagined the apron would be used in quite that way, though.
R: I’m sure she she didn’t … and no, it wouldn’t have been on the front cover – not in America!
M: Now … let’s go back a little in time to before you arrived at Mountain Drive. You were a thorough-going bohemian even then, weren’t you? Living in the sand dunes at Oceano?
R: Yes. Pismo Beach, near St Luis Obispo. Back in the ’30s and early ’40s there had been a whole colony of people there … intellectuals, poets, painters and just bums … all living in shacks built from driftwood, amongst the dunes. Oliver Andrews, who was the son of Floppy Hyde …
M: Of Mountain Drive?
R: Yes … he was her son by her first marriage … Oliver showed me the way to the shack that Elwood Decker had lived in. It made a huge impression on me. I and my first husband (Jay’s father) were in awful, mundane jobs at the time – so we quit everything, and with nothing except a battered old car, three baby chickens, a wind-up gramophone and a bible arrived at Oceano … where I managed to find Elwood’s shack again.
M: In all those sand dunes?
R: Yes! Have you heard of Norm Hammond at all?
M: No – I don’t think so.
R: He wrote a book about the dunes and the colony there … it’s called The Dunites. He’s writing a follow-up, which I’m providing some of the information for. There had been amazing people living in those dunes … the grandson of a US president, Peter Churchill …
M: One of THE Churchills? As in Winston?
R: That’s right. They were all gone by the time we got there, of course … we were completely alone in the dunes. We proved that you could live without money … and electricity. There was no electricity or water down there you know.
M: Electricity I understand how you can live without … but water? What on earth did you do for water?
R: To begin with, we used bottled … but then the most amazing thing happened. I was out in the scrub and brush and I found a sort of wooden hatch in the ground. It was a well! We never drank the water from it … but we used it for everything else.
M: That IS amazing. And what did you do for food?
R: Back then, you could just take all the clams and fish from the ocean that you wanted. The sealife along that coast was abundant.
M: I’m sure it isn’t any more …
R: No, I’m afraid not. We did have a little money – about $5.00 a week paid to Ed because he’d served time as a GI in the war … and we used that to buy fruit. Our light came from candles, of course. Jay was conceived in those sand dunes, you know …
M: That could explain quite a lot … So – how did you get from the dunes to Mountain Drive?
R: Oliver took me up there, and I fell in love with it. I decided to move up there, and my husband came with me … just as he followed me to the dunes – but it was never really his ‘thing’. We bought a plot from Bobby and Floppy. At that time there were just three houses up there … Bobby and Floppy’s, Gavin’s (their son) and one other – another family member.
Bobby and Floppy’s house was amazing. It was filled with Italian antiques.
R: His father was an antique dealer and artist. There were olive trees around the swimming pool, and statues of Greek gods. And the swimming pool was constructed using empty wine bottles to let the sunlight through. Just beautiful.
M: It sounds absolutely gorgeous. So you were the first outsiders, so to speak? The very first incomers?
R: That’s right. Bobby bulldozed a flat plot for us and then showed us how to build the foundations and make adobe bricks from the resulting pile of earth. Adobe is a wonderful building material, you know … cool in summer and warm in winter.We made and laid about 10 to 12 bricks a day. You didn’t need mortar … they were just loose-laid, in a staggered pattern, one on top of each other.
Bobby believed in sharing everything … his pool, excess produce from the garden and fruit trees … We used to go down to Carpentaria Beach with the family and pull a dozen or more lobsters straight out of the ocean. A little wine, some fruit … I thought – “It doesn’t get any better than this …”. We said “Thank you” of course. We really appreciated everything he did for us … and didn’t take it for granted, the way a lot of people would today.
M: (Who was whimpering slightly by this time …) That sounds completely idyllic.
R: It was. Very simple, and uncomplicated and probably the happiest I’ve ever been. We were all people who didn’t quite fit into any strict categories. We were marginal people, but not quite off the page. Have you ever read “Six more at Sixty”?
M: No. I know of it though … Bobby and Floppy fostered six Mexican children who had been left with an elderly relative in Santa Barbara. Bobby was sixty years old at the time – and wrote a book about it? It was an amazing thing to do at that age
R: That’s right. It was an amazing thing to do … and very typical of Bobby. They were aged between about 5 and 12. I’m mentioned in the book .. just in passing, now and then …
M: Can we talk about Tom White a little? The man who – when asked why he built so many houses, replied “I have an edifice complex” He eventually became your second husband, after Ed decided that life at Mountain Drive really wasn’t for him. Tom built what was generally acknowledged as being the most spectacular house on Mountain Drive – known as The Castle – didn’t he?
R: He did. When I first knew him, he’d built a studio, right up on one of the highest points of the mountain. When Ed and I were building our own place Tom – who was in the Navy – let us live in his studio while he was away. It was so beautiful up there. Sometimes, you could look out towards the ocean and all you could see was a thick layer of cloud … the whole area was under the clouds, except you. Once … Tom’s brother David – who was an accomplished violinist – walked up the mountain, through a cloud layer, and he was playing a piece of Sibelius on the violin …
M: How wonderful …
R: It was. I have so many lovely memories of Mountain Drive like that. Tom helped me finish building my own house, then he built The Castle … lower down the mountain, on the Drive. It became famous for its parties … but the very first celebration there was for our wedding, on the 24th of December 1956.
(The photo on the right, never before published, shows – from foreground left to right – Tom White, Bobby Hyde, Renate, Jay (aged 5) and Oliver Andrews – all at the wedding celebration at The Castle. In case you were wondering, Renate tells me that Jay was, in fact, dancing …)
M: When I read Elias Chiacos’ book, I had very mixed feelings about parts of it and a really important question. So let’s start with the question – I really couldn’t have brought myself to drink that famous wine. What did it actually TASTE like?
R: Pretty nasty. Much too acid for my taste. But we were all very clean before we got in that tub … I was the third Wine Queen … and every Queen had that particular year’s wine named after her. Mine was Rehlein Red.
M: Wait a minute … Rehlein?
R: I was known as Rehlein then. It’s a family name, actually … My real name is Renate (although I call myself Renata in France, otherwise they pronounce it wrong!). Up by the postboxes … you know the postboxes?
M: Yes … the famous postboxes … I took a virtual walk up Mountain Drive (as it was before the fire) on Google Street View the other night …
R: Well, there’s a fountain across the road from them, and if you look at the fountain, the third tile from the left at the top is mine! The Wine Queens all got their own memorial tiles in the fountain.
M: I must go and have a closer look. (For anyone interested, the postboxes are at the intersection of East Mountain Drive and Hyde). Going back to the book … I said in the review that I found parts of it … irritating. I’m not sure whether it was an unfortunate impression given by the book, or just me being all uptight and Calvinistic, or what really happened once Bobby Hyde’s influence started – inevitably – to fade over the years. It struck me that there was something slightly smug and ‘aren’t we the clever ones’ about Mountain Drive in the latter years – what my mother would probably call ‘arty-farty’. Am I just being horribly English and judgmental?
R: No. I wouldn’t have said it first … but since you have (and it’s interesting you picked that up from the book) I agree. It began to lose its way in the 1960s … As more people came in, with their own reasons for being there … I think it lost something … its original innocence perhaps …
M: Bobby sounded like an amazing man.
R: He was. His philosophy was ‘Work with what you have’.
M: And that’s pretty hard to argue with … especially these days.
Well, it’s been absolutely wonderful talking to you, Renate. You have some extraordinary memories … Thank you for sharing them with us.
R: Thank you for allowing me to reminisce – and of course there is so much more … That message Bobby Hyde taught me – “Work with what you have” – has never left me and I’ve used it all my life. The richness is lying at your feet … just be aware.
Photo credits: The two black and white portraits and the wedding party photograph are from Renate’s own collection, and the great photograph of the Mountain Drive mailboxes is by Ann Warren – musiquegirl on Flickr – and reproduced with her kind permission.