Vulpes Libris

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.

Renate Benedict – A Life Less Ordinary.

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.

Cover detail 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 pRenateeople 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.

M:  Really?

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.

renate-and-friendM:  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 firstwedding 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.

mailboxes

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.

—o—

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.

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34 comments on “Renate Benedict – A Life Less Ordinary.

  1. Pingback: Mountain Drive. « Vulpes Libris

  2. Lisa
    April 23, 2009

    Wow, wonderful interview. I’m finding all of this very inspiring and uplifting. Thank you so much, Renate, for sharing all of this with us. Really fascinating peek into another time and way of life.

    Also, those images are fabulous. Renate is very queenly, particularly in the horse picture, so it’s no surprise that she was Queen of the Naked Wine Stomp, 1955. What a claim to fame!

    A remarkable and enchanting story. Brilliant!

  3. Tom Vowler
    April 23, 2009

    I wonder if naked wine stomps will catch on in Plymouth…

  4. Lisa
    April 23, 2009

    I’m not sure Plymouth has the weather for it. But you never know.

  5. Patobrien
    April 23, 2009

    What a fabulous interview with a really great lady! I knew Mtn Dr many years ago. I visited a college friend up there in the 70′s. I was saddened to learn of the devastation caused by the latest fire. It was a beautiful place with amazing views.

  6. Thad
    April 23, 2009

    REALLY great interview. I know those dunes. They’re crawling with quads and the like now. Its an SVRA. Its a crying shame, specially when you read articles like this about how it was. Thnx ladies!

  7. Kevin P. Rice
    April 23, 2009

    Neat!

    I drive through Santa Barbara several times a week. I’d be happy to take a photograph of the mailboxes and the fountain (and tile) next time through (which will be Tuesday). Send me an email where I can send it.

    There’s no reason to go crying about the dunes still being enjoyed by many for camping and recreation with friends and family. The SVRA is less than 10% of the dunes, and places like Moi Mel are not part of the campground. Lots of homeless people still live in the dunes to this day. Regulations and attorneys are what have changed life to be more complicated.

    Contact me through my website: http://slorider.com/

    -Kevin

  8. kkazanecki
    April 24, 2009

    Wow!! The authentic voice of Mtn Drive from one of the originals! This is so cool and different from the sententious cr*p we get these days. Got to side with Thad a bit about the dunes. The noise and smell from those dam things spreads for miles but I spose we can’t turn back the clock even if we may want to. Do I get barred for saying I’m a bit sorry that we don’t get to see the full length photo in the tub?

  9. Moira
    April 24, 2009

    I’ve emailed you Kevin. Thank you very much for the offer. We’ll put the photos up when you send them.

    Do I detect two opposing factions forming here? I had to look up SVRA … it stands for State Vehicular Recreation Area – which I assume is somewhere it’s legal to off-road with quad bikes, dirt track bikes and the like?

    kkazanecki – Of course you don’t get barred. It’s a perfectly natural regret. :mrgreen:

  10. Kevin P. Rice
    April 24, 2009

    Dear Moira,

    I attempted to return your email, but the address was blocked or incorrect. Contact me at kriceslo@gmail.com and I will re-send.

    kkazanecki– I understand the sentiment that some feel, but you’d have to turn back the clock long before the Dunites arrived to 1905 to predate vehicles at Pismo Dunes. While I very much enjoy the physical sport and thrill, just as much enjoyment comes from seeing so much more of nature than is possible in a day otherwise. But don’t stereotype me. I have solo hiked 100-miles on a ten day trip in the Sierra Nevadas. Again, I enjoy nature just as much as you. I welcome sharing the few trails that we can enjoy with you, and I hope everyone can find some room in their heart to accommodate different strokes.

    That’s the last I will say as subject could easily detract from Moira’s wonderful post. Please feel free to email me privately if you’d like more O.T. discussion though. God bless!

    Kevin

    P.S.– I second the motion for the other photo. What a hottie!

  11. kkazanecki
    April 25, 2009

    I don’t think we’re really talking from different sides here Kevin. A lot of my buddies are ATV freaks and great conservationists and I know you guys do great work with the beach cleanups. I just wish the world hadn’t gotten so noisy. But you’re right. That was then this is now and this was a great post. I know a few posers who should read it. Arty-farty posers!

    And amen to “hottie”!

  12. Jie Friedmann
    April 26, 2009

    God this brought back memories of my college days! It was great to hear how Mtn Drive was in the early years. Someone needs to write a book to catch memories like these before its too late. I know the Chiacos book and I agree that it would have been much better with a different emphasis. Live long and prosper Renate! Great to know one of the pioneers is still going strong and telling her stories!

  13. David Marx
    April 26, 2009

    Aunt Rehlein it always is interesting to find out new things about my family. I never got the full story on Mountain Drive and I think I will take Alexandria for a visit. A great picture of Jay and please write more about your experience so I can share the family experience with my daughter. I wonder if my mother visited Mountain Drive or the dunes?

  14. seanmcb
    April 28, 2009

    Thank you so very much for this. I’d heard of Mountain Drive but never really knew much about it before. I didn’t know that those big fires in California in the autumn had affected so many people. You only heard about the celebs and I frankly didn’t care much. How sad that so much history was destroyed and so little was said about it outside the area. I’ve never heard of the Dunites though. Must check them out and Norm Hammond. Great interview both ladies. More please! Sean.

  15. paul sand
    April 28, 2009

    I never actually lived up there on Mountain Dr. I lived above the Merry Go Round on the Santa Monica Pier. I was kind of willingly kidnapped and found myself up on the mountain and delivered to the Castle, was handed a calking gun to help seal up all the cracks while the Castle was being built. The swimming pool was built first so we could throw ourselves in to cool off. Going up for my visits to Mountain Drive was always deliciously deadly for me because falling wonderfully and hopelessly in love would just happen. I’d drive back to L.A. or work in NY or study in Paris then come back for another visit to Mountain Dr. BAM I’d fall madly in love all over again.. I was Best Man at Renata and Toms wedding. A totally happy party. I never saw drugs, wine yes.
    Glorious, delicious events and memories. Great health, Heavenly secrets. Love stories.
    Perhaps a book SHOULD be put together, then we could all be invited to write a chapter or few.
    Until then,
    paul sand

  16. Renata Benedict
    April 28, 2009

    Darling Paul, it’s just like a shot in the arm to read your totally delicious comment, and between you and me Baby, you still are the best man! Isn’t this just great to all meet over Mt. Dr. that way we are making it come alive again, which seems to be what people are wanting. so thank you and thank Moira for making it all happen, Bravo Moira! Love to all these wonderful people who have left comments,We’ll talk soon!

  17. Hal Schenck
    April 29, 2009

    I found this piece by accident. great piece and great site. I used to know Mtn Drive in the late 70′s when I was a kid and visited with a friends family up there. Bobby Hydes memory was revered but I think it had moved a long way on from what he intended. I remember the Castle, at least I remember thinking it was a stupid name for it because it didn’t look like one! That’s kids for you!. All gone now though? What a shame. I’ll be interested to see those photos if Kevin Rice gets back to you with them, and I’d like to hear more like this too.

  18. Kevin P. Rice
    April 29, 2009

    PHOTOS OF MOUNTAIN DRIVE

    I took these yesterday and posted them on my web site for all:

    http://slorider.com/photos?subpage=misc/MtnDrSantaBarbara

    The mailboxes were moved to the opposite side of the street, next to the wonderful fountain; surely a result of the fire. A photo of the original mailbox location shows new landscaping work.

    I provide a few photos of burned out structures. I could track down the “castle” (or any other requests) if someone gave me details.

    Mountain Drive is very narrow and winding with old rock walls in some curves. Other than new homes, it is very easy to imagine older times.

    As a firefighter in the L.A. area, I was on-duty during the “Tea” Fire, but ended up working on the “Sesnon” Fire in Pacoima. After visiting Mountain Drive, and knowing about Santa Barbara’s fire history and “Sundowner” winds, it became clear that Mountain Drive was a horrible fire hazard. Many lessons have been learned and thick vegetation will likely not be allowed to mix with structures there any longer.

    As is inscribed on the fountain: CHEERS!

  19. Moira
    April 29, 2009

    These are tremendous, Kevin. Thank you so much!

    It’s heartening to see how nature, at least, is re-establishing itself … but I’m amazed (and delighted) that the fountain survived the fire so incredibly well.

    By the way – huge respect to you and all the firefighters for the job they did.

    (By the way … Kevin asked me to say that his photo browser supplies both full-size images and 50% ones. For faster browsing, it’s probably better to click on the smaller size.)

  20. Carrinngton
    April 30, 2009

    Rehlein,
    What an amazing time. Having just learned of all this I am in awe.
    Those photos are fab!!
    You still “work with what you have’ and continue to create a brilliant home.
    Thank you for sharing your stories.
    Love Carrington

  21. Kevin P. Rice
    May 2, 2009
  22. Moira
    May 2, 2009

    Ah. A modern addition. Now I understand. Thank you Kevin … good detective work!

  23. Renata Benedict
    May 9, 2009

    Kevin, Yes I have gotten the photos, thank you! I’m thinking of you now with this new fire looming bright, Is this slorider.com , an actual address? I will write to you, Rehlein.

  24. Moira
    May 9, 2009

    Renate … I’m sending you Kevin’s email address.

    The film of the fire on the TV is awful … and those insane temperatures… !

  25. Kevin P. Rice
    May 10, 2009

    Anyone here is welcome to write me at: kriceslo@gmail.com

    It’s so nice talking to all of you!

    An interesting article in my local newspaper today talks about pre-Dunite “Theosophists” relationship with Oceano Dunes:

    “Patients were encouraged to take long walks in the Dunes and along the beaches.

    There, they could commune with the rhythmic forces of winds and tides.”

    Full article:
    http://www.sanluisobispo.com/news/local/story/713665.html

  26. Michelle Ciccati
    August 10, 2009

    Thank you for sharing and compiling all this history. Also, Kevin, the photos are great. I lived on Mountain Drive for almost five years before the Tea Fire burned down our tiny, beautiful home. We lived in one of the smaller “out buildings” zoned as a goat shed. It was an adobe built in 1973. We loved that little home. More importantly, and most loved, however, was and is our Mountain Drive community, which, by the way, is thriving. All the community events are still happening, some in the burned out shells of the structures… It’s beautiful. This years twelfth night was in the burned out brick home of our then King, Ross. If you notice the tiles in Kevins photos, they are still making them. Aly 2007 and Linda 2008. We have a friend, Tracy, who also lived on the mountain and is also compiling history to put together a book. She has all the more recent events documented. Please email me if your interested and I can hook you up with her. Thanks again.

  27. hrileena
    August 19, 2009

    You have a knack for conducting brilliant interviews, it seems.

  28. Renata Benedict
    August 21, 2009

    here it is nearly the end of August and we’re still communicating, actually I would like to come out to Calif. and take a walk in my old neighborhood and maybe even my little house is still partly there,
    I was so happy there, and I do so appreciate all the people who and left messages, thank you; Renata

  29. daniel hyde
    January 8, 2010

    There is magic in those hills … fond memories. Thanks for these insights.

    Daniel

  30. Elias Chiacos
    September 1, 2010

    How great to stumble on these old memories with Ms. Benedict and those of you who remember “The Drive.” The book “Mountain Drive” is out of print but I still have some copies under my bed. Email me if you are interested.
    All the Best, Elias Chiacos

  31. C.W.
    December 19, 2010

    I read Six More at Sixty and would love to know what became of the six children that the Hydes fostered.

  32. renata benedict
    January 23, 2011

    Now it is January 2010! I see that more people have left messages, it is so nice to see a bit of action and that Mt. Dr; is operating again, hard to believe. Maybe if God willing I can come back again and see it all myself, I can only encourage you all to write some comments; Have a good Year! Love from Rehlein

  33. Deborjha Gullattee
    March 21, 2011

    I so enjoyed reading this book. As a child, I lived on East Mountain Drive from 1955 to 1958 (I think I have the years right). My family is mentioned in Bobby’s book very briefly. We were the first Black people living there.

    I saw Bobby and Floppy as grandparents, truly. I smile as I remember Bobby teaching me how to play go, eating real yoghurt, polishing stones on Bobby’s wheel and running around like wild goats with Ruthie and Becky.

    Thank you for this. My mother is still living and I’m passing this book on to her.

  34. Dauteuil
    June 30, 2012

    coucou Renata, j’ai bien aimé. Vous êtes formidable, continuez comme cela… Bisous. Danielle.

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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