I dreamed I married Paul Drake. Yes, Paul Drake, the dashing, blonde, poker-playing, convertible-driving, well-dressed, wisecracking, private eye from Perry Mason and we lived in a high-rise in noirish, 1950’s Los Angeles. We met after I hired him although what precise problem I wanted the Drake Detective Agency to solve for me disappeared immediately upon the ringing of the 5:45 am alarm. I only remember the feeling that the dream gave me, one of taking part in my own period murder mystery in a black and white world with myriad shades of gray in between, where nothing was as it seemed but everything certainly seemed better than it did after I awoke.
It is said that the soul of the City of Angels has been fought over by representatives of both the dark alleys and the sunshine-filled beaches as far back as the heyday of gangster Mickey Cohen and crusading police officer Bill Parker, but nineteen fifties Los Angeles was an interesting place for reasons other than the moral dichotomy personified by its nationally-known protagonists.
While mid-century LA was no longer the hardboiled city of Raymond Chandler heroes, it had forged a new identity, as the final destination for happiness, the Golden West of many people’s dreams. When literary characters from the Joads to Sal Paradise climbed into their cars, their destination was California; movies and television followed suit, so it wasn’t long before real people did, too, creating a migration of ex-servicemen and their families seeking jobs in the emerging aerospace industry and the healthy, outdoor lifestyle.
Nineteen fifties California seems so much better than its twenty-first century sibling. Certainly it was far less crowded than it is now; neighborhoods were smaller in scale, filled with single-family homes rather than the ugly, low-slung, stucco apartment buildings that replaced them. Half of Malibu could have been purchased for the cost of one current oceanfront villa. Cars were fewer and were the size of small boats while orange groves still covered much of the land.
Life was more orderly and far more stylish. Women wore pencil skirts from Bullock’s Wilshire and ate at chophouses like Musso and Frank’s. Middle-class families went for burgers at Tommy’s then to a movie at the Gilmore Drive-In near the Farmers’ Market in Fairfax then drove home to their subdivisions on nearly empty freeways while the lower-classes still rode Angel’s Flight to the top of Bunker Hill.
Time moved more slowly, probably because there was no Internet or 24 hour news cycles, so things took as long as they took, and no one felt the compulsion to create events for public consumption. The personal touch mattered; when a customer contacted a business, a person answered the telephone or responded to the letter. With no cell phones or Facebook, people were not in constant communication with one another, making their attention spans longer. Commercials on television shows were shorter. My parents new hi-fidelity record player revolutionized the sound of my father’s opera recordings. The coolest technological thing I remember seeing was the telephone in Paul Drake’s Thunderbird which he could use only after the mobile operator came on the line and connected him to Perry or Della.
I realize that I sound like a Luddite but I have always looked backward for beauty and inspiration. Our houses are from the ‘twenties and are furnished with family heirlooms. My favorite styles of clothing date from the nineteen forties. I watch old murder mysteries and dramas on TCM. I refuse to have plastic containers in my kitchen, preferring the Corning glass and Pyrex of my grandmother’s time. Even my favorite authors have been dead for decades. Oh, I haven’t completely abandoned my own generation’s toys and tools: our life has Kindles and iPads and iPhones. We stream movies and text one another when we are delayed on the now-crowded freeways. But I think I dreamed I married Paul Drake not only because William Hopper, the actor playing him, was so handsome – even though he was – or just because I long to be the protagonist of my own drama – although I probably do – but because I value fewer and simpler things. I find them only in my dreams.