Cafe Au L.A.
By LIONEL ROLFE email@example.com
My old friend from the coffeehouse days, Walden (Monty) Muns, despite a certain
wildness, had a good, solid head on his shoulders. He wished he made his living
as a poet, but he made a fairly comfortable living for years as a real estate
title officer. He also pursued poetry, arranging his life so he could live on
the western slope of the Sierra and write. In an earlier age he was a
coffeehouse entrepreneur. Now, sad to tell, he is no longer with us, and his
death cut like a terribly swift sword to the bohemian continuum.
But I digress. Like I said, sometimes he went off the deep end. In my mind he
was morbidly attracted to some of the most pretentious stuff around. For
example, there was the period in the early eighties he was carrying on about punks, new wavers and others as if they
were the rightful heirs of our radical coffeehouse traditions.
Muns was particularly enthusiastic about Al's Bar in downtown Los Angeles. We
went there with him and he was right. It looked like a real coffeehouse but the
conversations inside didn't convince me of that. Maybe I am just a coffeehouse
I wanted talk of revolution; there was no revolution there. There wasn't even
talk of existential reality. Only pretense.
In fairness to punks, I decided to investigate some of the dives Muns was always
The coffeehouses of the punk era looked right, but didn't feel right.
About the same time, Nigey, my estranged wife, and I got involved in the Onyx
cafe in the Silver Lake/Los Feliz area. Over the years it became the granddaddy
of the coffeehouses that began springing up in the eighties. And it lasted well
into the nineties. We held a poetry reading there that went on for twelve hours,
and Matt Groenig came up to us and begged us to let him hang his pictures on the
wall. He was to become a rich man as the creator of Bart Simpson, but we just
knew him as a genial shlub around the office of the Reader. Oh, and Nigey had
introduced him to Frank Zappa. Zappa was the musical idol of both.
If Al's struck me as inauthentic, there was something authentic about the Onyx.
It had revolutionary art on the walls, although I was a bit put off by the
number of screenplays as opposed to novels and essays being written inside. I
got involved enough with the scene, for reasons I won't go into here, that
writer/poet/performer Henry Rollins knocked on my door at five in the morning on
a couple of different occasions. I bellowed something appropriate at him.
Rollins struck me as inauthentic and a poseur of the Al's Bar variety. But hey,
that's just an impression based, in part, on the fact the guy woke me up early
in the morning.
The Onyx was considerably better than coffeehouses where the topic of
conversation was not revolution but real estate deals. This was before Starbucks
announced to the world that the multinationals had truly taken over, and we might as well lie down and die
because they had won.
Al's Bar and other places around town had all the requisite peeling paint and
tired old couches. Al's put me in a reverie until the sullen, moronic punk
"music" started up. Then my reveries were short circuited and I went
home sad and depleted. I had just been assaulted by a wall of noise.
But hey, Al's was a hell of a lot better than a Starbucks, or maybe it was
simply on the road to coffeehouse as multinational product. Starbucks was like some sort of horrendous
joke on the very idea of a coffeehouse. The joke became no laughing matter when I went to
London in the year 2000 in the town where coffeehouses were invented. The coffeehouses all
seemed to be Starbucks. The reason is pure capitalism; rents are high in the theater and Soho
districts. To survive coffeehouses have become businesses; but then they are no
longer the true gathering places, underground collectives, subversive gathering places, providing
epiphanies for their patrons.
I've recently been making pilgrimages to London, in part because my mother who
lived there was approaching 80, and I wanted to be able to see her as often as I
could. She died this June. If truth be told, I'm feeling fairly antique myself
since I'm pushing 60 years on this sweet planet. In the process, I have fallen
in love with London. I've been married to Los Angeles, but London is my alluring
I truly stood by in awe looking at the London Eye from the Royal Festival Hall.
The Eye is an incredibly beautiful ferris wheel that looks a lot like a giant
futuristic bicycle wheel in the sky. But it makes a virtue of slowness. It moves
so slowly it doesn't have to stop for passengers to get on or passengers to get
off. An magnificent view of London spreads out before you, for the Eye is
considerably taller than Big Ben or St. Paul's Cathedral; meant to become a
landmark in the same way that the Eiffel Tower was built as an enduring
landmark for the 1889 Paris Exhibition.
Then there was the Tate Modern, built in an old Bankside Power Plant on --
you guessed it -- the south side of the Thames for the Millennium. Not only
is this magnificent structure home to one of the world's finest collections of
modern art, the Underground's Jubilee line added a number of stops so it
could serve the Tate Modern, thereby opening up service in a part of the city
that has never been properly served by the train. The Jubilee extension also
goes out to the Millennium Dome in Greenwich.
The London Underground is well more than a century old -- as close to 200 years
old as she is to a 100 years old -- and she definitely needs a facelift. But I'm
not sure if I liked the new design for the station nearest the Tate Modern,
which was cool and gray and too unadorned for my taste. I think our stations on
the new Los Angeles subway are better -- more the lighting of the Sun and the
It's telling that we welcomed the new Millennium with a pitiful performance from
our then very pitiful mayor, Richard Riordan, now contemplating a run for
governor. A comparison of mayors says everything. We have a mayor who represents
the corporate way of looking at everything, which is to say we are sinking in a
pit of the most mediocre and unimaginative. We'll talk about London's mayor in a
Although I lived in London for several months in the early seventies, and had
made four trips back before and after the Millennium, it was on my last trip
that I got a sense of another reason I might have liked London, in addition to
the fact that people read books and newspapers on the train, and newspaper
circulation is actually climbing.
Angelenos talk about multiculturalism, but it seems to work better there. In the
early seventies in London I lived in a neighborhood that was Jamaican and
I asked my cousin, my aunt's adopted son, Mykal Morgan, about British
multiculturalism. He is the offspring of a Nigerian doctor and a British woman
and neither parent wanted the child.
Instead of a troubled youngster, which was what he was when I first met him, he
was a teacher of computers and psychology in a university, with a lot of
thought-provoking, well worked out ideas about the nature of human and computer
I asked him if the Web would become totally dominated by big corporations soon,
the way broadcast and print journalism is now. Not for thirty years or so, he
said. He thought the Web would remain a people's tool. But he could see
possibilities of technological control in thirty or forty years that sounded
I asked him more about London as a multicultural society. He remembers fighting
the beliefs of neighborhood skinheads and understands racism. He knows that it
still exists toward Pakistanis and Middle Easterners as well as Africans and
blacks. Jews are tolerated.
But in the United States, blacks are always slated to be treated worse than any
group, because slavery and the mentality that went with it has been at the base
of the country's economic and social infrastructure from the beginning. The
slave trade from Africa to the United States certainly involved the British, and
the slave ships even made port in England.
But the most virulent and deepest racism found its greatest expression in the
country that actually had an economic system based not only on their
exploitation, but ownership of their minds and bodies.
Some British blacks came from Africa, but more came from Jamaica in the fifties
to work on the Underground. Many Jamaicans worked hard to assimilate -- and
there's even been a fair amount of intermarriage. Of course Jamaicans more
recently arrived have kept their accents and ways, but most blacks on the streets who have been around a while
speak in those same lilting tones associated with only the truly
Of course there are racists in London. I had seen what look like skinheads to me
-- although I'm told skinheads were more prominent in an earlier period -- after
a soccer game on the train, and they are scary -- the stuff of which
fascism is made. I saw a pathetic little lady walking along Finchley Road,
painting graffiti on the walls of shops, saying something to the effect
"The White Way is the Right Way." How can you explain that the town in
which racism was invented, as a method of attempting to colonize the world, now
lives a more successful multicultural life than Los Angeles ever did?
Late on a Saturday evening, I saw only teenagers on the underground, paired off
for dates. But I also saw a Jamaican drummer at the bottom of a huge escalator,
I think it was at Oxford Circus and a several skinheads standing around him,
taunting him, but mostly good-naturedly, because you could tell they liked the
music he was creating.
"Hey, come here," one yelled at a friend. "Look at this."
And he didn't mean that with any threat, he just thought the guy was great on
And amidst this multiculturalism, you will still see an Anglo-Saxon driving his
lorry to a job in Islington, happily listening to chamber music as loud as a
The palpable sense of being in a real city -- a member of the city -- and not
just one of its alienated denizens, is the first thing that struck me about
London this time.
There's engagement that we just don't have in L.A. A friend who lived on a boat
on a canal took me to various Soho spots, including The French Pub on Dean
Street, I think it was. It was a haunt of French resistance fighters and
Dylan Thomas used to hang out in the corner closest to Piccadilly Circus. When
we got back to her boat, a group of blokes -- her neighbor boat people, were
drinking some beer on the wharf they all tied up to. We also went to an
after-hours jazz club because, believe it or not, London still makes the pubs
close down at eleven o'clock. The result is that membership clubs are
L.A. talks a good game about becoming the nation's next Ellis Island and its
major media brandish fairly ridiculous style books demanding the desexing of
their councilmen and councilwomen into council persons, and spokesmen and
spokeswomen into spokespersons.
Los Angeles has become more dysfunctional than I ever remember seeing it. For a
number of years its mayor was a buffoon millionaire, a good Catholic who managed
to get built a big Catholic Church right in the middle of the Civic Center. The
guy reminds me of Yeltsin, an uncouth drunken boar.
Needless to say, Mayor Riordan is no liberation theologist, anymore than the
pope is. The city's schools, newspaper, police department, medical and
transportation systems are dysfunctional, and he wouldn't know the difference.
I was an L.A. advocate for many years, writing such books as "Literary
L.A.," "In Search of Literary L.A.," "Fat Man on the Left:
Four Decades in the Underground" and co-authored "Bread and Hyacinths:
The Rise and Fall of Utopian Los Angeles." I also wrote an e-book,
"Death and Redemption in Los Angeles and L.A." (deadendstreet.com).
All these books were meant to tell Los Angeles it has a real history, but the
powers that be have insisted on burying it.
The city has a great potential, but the powers that be want to determine its
nature for their convenience, and not try to make Los Angeles a place human
beings could really be proud of. For now I'd have to say the obvious: London is
far superior to Los Angeles. Just compare Richard Riordan and Ken Livingstone,
also known not entirely affectionately as "red Livingstone" because of
his Old Labour socialist background. No chance anyone would ever say
"red" Richard Riordan, unless they were describing his nose. Oh hell,
forget I ever said that. I don't know if Riordan's nose is red in the way that
W.C. Fields' was. But I know we should be red-faced for having put up with the
lout these many years.
However it was a little disillusioning being in London in one sense. The notion
that Starbucks were allowed all over did not speak well for the City Fathers of
present day London.
Coffeehouses, to work, have to pull a group of people together around an idea,
or a focus. At the Xanadu in Los Angeles in the sixties, Kubla Kahan did not a
stately pleasure dome decree as he did in Coleridge's work written in Highgate.
But it was a real coffeehouse. Not only did we all consider ourselves
revolutionary, in whatever way we chose, we all loved intelligent music --
classical, jazz and folk. The folks who used to be in the coffeehouses had a
literate and even journalistic tradition, which was true to the roots of
bohemianism. We all loved books and writers and conversation -- we were, like
Mort Sahl, voracious readers, and sometimes writers.
I think Monty Muns was yearning for the real thing because he didn't want to
believe that all the young minds had been scrambled by television and Reagan,
those two great forces of evil. Muns had kept up the tradition since his days as
a journalist and coffeehouse entrepreneur. He spent a great deal of the time
living on the western slope of the Sierra writing poetry. And writing a book
about the coffeehouse tradition of the fifties and sixties which he knew very
well, in San Francisco and Los Angeles.
Coffeehouses as bohemian meeting places dated back two or three centuries to
London. The scene began in London in the early 1700s when men of enterprise
abandoned taverns and hastened to strange, dark places called coffeehouses,
where "pretty wenches" served a sooty drink from Turkey called kaufy.
Most Londoners found the drink unpatriotic, seditious and downright smelly to
boot. Which, of course, is what the denizens of the new coffeehouses wanted. The
most famous coffeehouse was Lloyd's, which became a great name in insurance.
Modern journalism and other human endeavors developed in other coffeehouses.
Later on, in Paris, the great bohemian coffeehouses came into being in the
eighteen thirties and eighteen forties.
Balzac was one of their ardent patrons. In the 1870s, San Francisco's
"Monkey Block" (which today is Montgomery Street in the financial
district) was where the action was.
Monty was ten years older than I, so he remembered the fifties beatnik
coffeehouse days in the shabby environs of Venice far better than I do. I did
hang around some of the legendary places, like Venice West and the Gas House,
but I was merely a naive teenager who was attracted by the dense, sticky
atmosphere of lust, sin and gratification which I had hoped would serve as a
jumping-off place for my first genuine real-life sexual encounter. In other
words, I was still a virgin.
As for such obligatory coffeehouse art forms as reading abstract poetry,
mouthing existential platitudes, and painting on masonite boards, I didn't
understand them. But the lewd, pulsating rhythm of the jazz was different and
exciting. I marveled at the way the women doted on the singsong words of the
male jazz poets, for their sonorous drones rarely made sense to me -- although
when rap music came along I couldn't help but notice the similarities.
One of the most noticeable thing about the coffeehouses of the fifties and
sixties was the mingling of blacks and whites. That provided something exciting
and different, and of course this was the beginning of the great Civil Rights
movements which culminated with the voter drives in the South -- fueled by
people from the northern and western coffeehouses.
I met Monty at the old Xanadu on Melrose Avenue (next to the then Ukrainian
Cultural Center); a whole new flourishing scene in the early sixties. Muns
served coffee, sandwiches and wit. I was only nineteen and still a virgin of the
mind as well as the spirit and body.
Despite my backwardness, however, those were exciting times. By the end of the
fifties, there were fifty coffeehouses operating in Los Angeles, all in a
modified beatnik mode. They had wonderful names like the Unicorn, I TAFANI,
The New Balladeer, The Blue Grotto, the Bridge, The Epicurean, Deja-Vu,
Wampeter, Cafe Frankenstein, The Coffeehouse, The Garret -- to name just a few of them.
The Xanadu was my shrine. And of all the coffeehouses of that period, I believe
it was the most influential. Chess and conversation appeared to be the chief
activities there while at the Epicurean ping-pong held sway. When
"ping-pong diplomacy" first opened up negotiations between China and
the United States, a couple of the regular ping-pong players from the Epicurean
led the first American team to China. Another Xanadu regular, musician and
writer Bonnie White, daughter of the well-known jazz vocalist Kitty White, ran a
coffeehouse called the Bridge in the late sixties, long after the Xanadu had
closed. It was at The Bridge that poet Charles Bukowski gave his first poetry
reading. Other California poets who read at The Bridge included Harold Norse and
Still, I always felt the most comfortable around the Xanadu, and not just
because it was next to Los Angeles City College, where I was attending classes.
I had been part of coffeehouse clienteles that had shifted their allegiance to
the Xanadu, having moved from such places as Pogo's Swamp, just across the
street, and the Viteloni, up on Hyperion Avenue northeast of the campus. The
"Vit" had had its share of famous folks coming in -- Cisco Houston,
who had been right up there with Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, showed up pretty
regularly. In retrospect, I think I was initially drawn to the Xanadu by its book-lined walls. The Xanadu
had once been the London Book Shop, and the combination of sofas and assorted
other soft chairs gave the place the seedy air of a private club that had known
When you sat and conversed or played chess, you could always pull a book from the wall to bolster an argument. Pogo's Swamp, across the street,
was owned by Levi Kingston, then a young black draft resister, now a community activist. I remember Pogo's Swamp as being
painted all black, although to this day Kingston insists my memory has failed me.
To my mind, the Xanadu deserves the most historical recognition of all the coffeehouses. For it was only out of the Xanadu that the Los Angeles
Free Press was born. Not only did the "Freep" first publish such
writers as Charles Bukowski, who was to become quite an important American and Los Angeles writer, but by the end of the sixties, it had spawned a
whole underground press movement across the country.
It was not just coincidence that so many of the Xanadu regulars were working journalists -- including Muns. Gene Vier would putt-putt up in
his battered old black Volkswagen, sometimes bringing along his fellow Times rim rats -- copy editors -- and great political conversations
would ensue. Then there was Ridgley Cummings, columnist and City Hall reporter who inadvertently played a kingpin role in helping Sam Yorty
get elected mayor. Sam was one of the worst of a long line of scoundrels who had inhabited the post. Ridgley became a close, dear friend of mine;
he looked like what he had been -- a Liberty ship captain during World War II. After some years roaming the seas, he became a tramp -- a
Ridgley became "Gridley Kuminski" in the Free Press, writing about
City Hall politics with a lot more savvy than other reporters did in the Times or the Herald. He used a pseudonym in the Freep because the
newspapers that paid his salary did not want to see his byline in the disreputable Freep. Ridgley made good money but supported a dozen
children from several marriages.
All these people, including the Free Press's founder, Art Kunkin, were regulars at the Xanadu. And one of the favorite topics of conversation
was about the need for "a good newspaper in Los Angeles." When Kunkin hired me as a staff writer for the Free Press in 1970, we talked about
the old days, for Kunkin was proud of the publishing empire he was building then.
The difference between Kunkin and everyone else at the Xanadu in the early sixties was that Kunkin actually went out and started the paper
the rest of us just talked about. Kunkin then adopted as his editorial guru Larry Lipton, who wrote a rather turgid and shrill column right
from the first issue called "Radio Free America." Lipton had written "The Holy Barbarians," a bestseller about beatnik life in its Venice
heyday. After Kunkin hired me, I had to go take counter-culture lessons from Lipton, because he and Kunkin had detected a certain lack of fervor
in my prose. I needed that weekly paycheck, so I went. Mostly, Lipton had the bad taste not to talk about me, however, but more about
himself. I apparently showed the proper humility. The job continued for quite a few months, and mostly the paycheck was good.
The Xanadu closed in 1963, and many of the old crowd went to the Fifth Estate at 8226 W. Sunset Blvd., in whose basement Art Kunkin began the
Free Press in 1964. The owner of the Fifth Estate, Al Mitchell, offered Kunkin space for the newspaper because he saw the
publication as the beginning of the a long proposed Fifth Estate coffeehouse newsletter.
But Kunkin actually issued his first number for Pacifica Radio station KPFK's Renaissance Pleasure Faire.
The Free Press went along, not doing anything sensational, until the Sunset Strip demonstrations in 1966, which Mitchell organized because
the cops were constantly harassing the Fifth Estate. The demonstration against police violence occurred in front of Pandora's Box, a music club
at Crescent Heights and Sunset Boulevard, next door to the site of the old Garden of Allah Hotel. The demonstration became a riot and suddenly
the generational conflict of the sixties had exploded.
"There were so many kids around," Kunkin explained, "They'd bring
their knapsacks to the office, take a bundle of papers, and go make some money." As many as one out of every four cars on the strip would stop
and pay a dime for the Free Press.
Soon the old newspaper was no longer an intellectual coffeehouse publication. It developed a reputation as a hippie weekly, with a paid
circulation of nearly one hundred thousand people. Soon underground papers were springing up in cities and towns across the country. The
underground press, which had had its beginnings in those fervent conversations back at the Xanadu had become a national reality.
Before the Free Press was born, the folks at the Xanadu all had a strong media focus. One of
the earliest pieces in the Freep was by Les Claypool Jr., whose radio show did an unsung
amount toward linking folk music to that stormy decade. Claypool had a nightly show on KRHM.
Claypool's show was where the folkies of the burgeoning coffeehouse scene tuned in to listen
and congregate. Claypool kept up a socially conscious Mort Sahl stream-of-consciousness rap,
including countless folk songs, of which he had a magnificent collection, but he also had
improvised guerrilla radio theater, whose targets always included then-governor Ronald Reagan and the Vietnam war.
Claypool's show was actually quite influential. For example, he introduced Woody Guthrie's two
best disciples to the L.A. airwaves, including the most talented disciple, Phil Ochs. Claypool
was also chiefly responsible for introducing a young strummer named Bob Dylan to Los Angeles
who was then just a nobody with a social conscience.
When Claypool wasn't on the air, he was on over at the Xanadu. He and Muns were close friends;
in fact, much of the guerrilla theater done on the show was sketched and spoken by Claypool and
Muns at the Xanadu. When the Xanadu finally closed, some of the old regulars spent as much
time up at Claypool's house, at the top of Echo Park Avenue, as they did at the Fifth Estate.
Claypool lived there with his wife Anne, in one of the same group of redwood cabins at the top
of the street where bookman Jake Zeitlin had lived in the twenties (a tale we will tell in a
The redwood bungalows still remain in a glen of trees and ivy. Muns lived across the way from
Claypool. True bohemian bacchanals took place in that "Bohemian Grove"-- hedonistic affairs full
of sexual outrages. At the crest of Echo Park Avenue, the old style of bohemianism, such as
had been practiced on the beaches of Carmel and on the Russian River nearly a century ago, was
combined with sixties civil-rights activism, antiwar beliefs and sexual revolution.
The Xanadu was one of the central city coffeehouses where the great civil rights
struggle was just beginning, both in Los Angeles and in the deep South. The Xanadu was "where it
was at" in terms of whites and blacks getting it together. Such great black blues singers as
Lightning Hopkins, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee hung around the Xanadu and its
related scenes, partly because of Carol Perry. Perry was more than a Xanadu regular; he was one of its
pillars. He was one of the best Scrabble players around, and had even written a book on the
subject. A black writer, Perry had accounted among his friends in New York the great jazz
musician Charlie "Bird" Parker. And that was no jive.
Perry had originally hung out at Pogo's Swamp. When the proprietor Levi Kingston began closing
down, Perry spent more and more time across the street at the Xanadu. Muns described him this
way: "Perry used to call himself the world's greatest Marxist dishwasher. He was Ed Perl's
kitchen man, a jack-of-all trades at the old Ash Grove. He had also once been a columnist for the
Daily Worker in New York. A charismatic guy who said he was born in Jamaica, although I always
figured he was born in Oakland in '31." Slipping into mock-heroic tones, Muns ranted on, "He was
a true Communist, he strode the world like a Colossus. He's become the patron of San Pablo.
I've heard he's been running a place in Berkley on San Pablo, called the Cabal, for years now.
Don't know if it's still there or not."
Brownie McGhee, Muns continues, "Was just one of the old black guys playing, who always came
in and played in the corner of the Xanadu. Except that he happened to be the world's
foremost blues guitar player. Been so judged, been to Europe. Yeah, and loved Scotch. Loved
that J&B Scotch. They'd sit in the corner away from the window, keeping the beat; truly jazzed
up. McGhee was a jived-up person. Always keeping the beat. He didn't use drugs. None of them did.
Just drank Scotch. Those were the pure old days, those were the days that were pure. They had a
"Muns," I'd say, "Why is J&B a natural
high while pot isn't. There both pretty organic and derived from vegetable sources."
He'd look at me funny.
Although Hopkins, McGhee and Terry used to get together often at the Xanadu, Muns says the
Xanadu was really only a staging point for where they did some of their best playing at Echo
Party parties they found out about through the Xanadu.
Or were specially invited to. Muns mentions the case of party giver Jane Borak, who ran
the jewelry concession at the Ash Grove. You could tell who she was by the fact that she sported
long African earrings. She had somehow obtained a house from a hard-up veteran of the Spanish
Civil War who was being foreclosed on for back taxes. Borak's Saturday night parties were
famous from about '59 to '64, he said. "Sometimes parties would break up the next
morning, sometimes they'd still be going through the next day. People like Judy Collins and Pete
Seeger came up and played. And if you gave them (Hopkins, McGhee and Terry) a bottle of J&B,
they would come and play straight through until the next morning."
Even though Art Kunkin was around for much of the Xanadu scene, he is less inclined than I am
to see the paper as an outgrowth of the coffeehouse movement. He sees it more as
something he did on his own; a lot of the old coffeehouse writers disdained his power at
first. Kunkin, who has turned from the Marxism he followed from the late forties to the
sixties, to alchemy, tantric sex and metaphysics in the eighties and nineties, says, "The reason
history touched me to found the Los Angeles Free Press and what it spawned in the sixties was
that I was supertuned to the mental direction of the nation, to the emotional desires of the
nation. I know that it wasn't Art Kunkin doing it, but before the forces emerged, I was
responsive to them. I was looking for those little molecular developments that make up
social change, and I was doing this with a sense of history."
In a long conversation I had about those days with Kunkin, he held out an old issue of the
Free Press and pointed at the cover of a dark, mysterious, half-portrait of "staffer' Norman
Where had Hartweg come from? A playwright who rented a room at the Fifth Estate, he had won
some acclaim as the author of "The Pit," Kunkin told me. He won even more notoriety later on as
a real-life character in Tom Wolfe's "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test," the saga of Ken
Kesey's Merry Pranksters on their trip across country in a bus painted in Day-Glo, Kunkin
But the tale that really best summed up the Zeitgeist of the Xanadu was the defeat of chess
player Ted Jester by Master Walden Muns, Kunkin insisted emphatically. "You can't write about
the coffeehouse scene without telling that," Kunkin said.
I was around when the event occurred, but I wanted to recreate accurately. So I went and
talked with Lair Mitchell (who is not to be confused with Fifth Estate proprietor Al
Mitchell). Lair Mitchell was managing the Xanadu then, along with Muns and Norman Bollerup.
(Another early contributor to the Freep, Mitchell, who died in 1989, was an artist and
writer of considerable originality in Hollywood.)
"We were always on the lookout for people with wit and race who could contribute to the
conversation," Mitchell told me. Then this gawky young man came in, and he could talk about
nothing but himself and what a brilliant chess player he was. His name was Ted Jester. You
ask, what's in a name? Out of a certain desperation we all came up with a plan at once.
Jester was asked if he had ever played chess with Master Muns. Jester allowed as to how he
hadn't even heard of Master Muns. Muns, it developed, had retired from the Game after
causing a friend to die of a heart attack because of losing one game too many to Muns.
Jester enthusiastically agreed to a match. Muns of course hadn't played a lick of chess in his
lifetime, but he was soon taught enough to move the pieces, or at least he could if he had
someone else's notations to follow.
Came the great night. Klieg lights were burning and "reporters" were dashing about
with note pads and cameras. Letters of telegrams of congratulations from chess enthusiasts from
as far away as the Soviet Union, welcoming the return of Master Muns, adorned the walls of
the Xanadu. When Jester walked in he was roundly ignored. Right behind him came Master Muns in a
trench coat and scarf. He was led to an imposing throne next to the oversize chess set in the
corner. A bevy of beautiful women danced attendance on him. Then between sips of coffee
and wine, he slowly and majestically moved his pieces. The reason Muns took his time moving the
pieces was that he had to read each move off a piece of cardboard held on a waiter's tray
behind Jester. The notations were worked out by three top-rate and ranked chess players, who
were following the game in the Xanadu's kitchen. At one point, Muns misread a cue and lost an
important piece, but inevitably he won the game.
Afterwards, however, people began feeling sorry for Jester, sunk in confusion and humiliation.
The "elder statesmen" of the Xanadu took him to coffee at the 24-hour Norms that was at Sunset
Boulevard and Vermont Avenue for years and years. They decided to tell him what had really
happened so that Jester would just laugh it off. By the time they got back to the coffeehouse,
Jester was saying that he had figured out the whole thing was a fake when he walked in the
door. The next morning he was quoted as saying that he had known it was a fake the morning of
the match. A week later, he said he had known from the beginning that Master Muns was a phony.
On the basis of his misadventure, however, Jester was accepted by the Xanadu's Illuminati,
and the whole story is remembered as one of the great bohemian high jinx of the Xanadu period.
Jester lived in a cave in Santa Barbara, and other times on the beach in Morro Bay. He
changed his name to Cyril Jasmine III. He told people that during the ensuing years he has been
writing a novel.
Lair Mitchell also described a number of other outrageous characters of the old Xanadu. "A
couple of them that I just have to mention," he said, "were Owsley Stanley III and George
Hunter. Stanley became especially famous as a manufacturer and distributor of LSD in San
Francisco. And both Stanley and Hunter were prime movers, along with Ken Kesey, in
the development of The Grateful Dead, the first psychedelic rock band."
Muns, also wanting to add some famous names to the story, mentions that Mort Sahl came in
occasionally, and Christopher Isherwood stopped by a few times, saying he especially liked the
"European" atmosphere. Perhaps he meant the books on the wall. (As previously mentioned, the
Xanadu had originally been a bookstore and the landlord, who liked the idea of a coffeehouse in
a bookstore, made that part of the deal.) Hoyt Axton hung around a lot, a gruff but
obviously talented guitar player, who was trying to impress an attractive girl named Victoria
Valentino, who later went on to become not only Axton's girlfriend, but also a Playboy centerfold
in 1963. Muns says that Axton made connections at the Xanadu that allowed him to go on to fame
and fortune. There were also other local literati around, such as poet Curtis Zahn and
writer Bard Dahl.
The most colorful, however, from Mun's point of view, may have been J.D. Jones, who roamed the
Xanadu dressed in a safari jacket and Bermuda shorts, whatever the weather, and made his
living not by writing poetry, which, of course, didn't pay, but also by selling pen-and-ink
drawings of vaginas that he smuggled in under his coat. "A true con man, a great
boulevardier," laughed Muns.
Nigey and Muns and I sat around discussing these good times over a bottle of wine. We
talked of how, despite the best efforts of Carol Perry, that street-wise philosopher, and his
sidekick "Mad Dog Richard Wilburn," the Xanadu was finally done in by a contingent of Satan's
Slaves, an outlaw motorcycle gang that drove everyone else away after a while.
Muns would often go through his San Francisco periods, where he insisted the old beat thing
was coming back. "There's a renaissance of jazz and poetry in North Beach again,"
he optimistically insisted.
Then he got into his Ireland thing, when it appeared the old beat thing really was not
coming back to North Beach. He purchased some land in Ireland, where he was planning on
retiring to the old sod.
"Someday we will all live in Dublin," he
"But Muns," I replied, "I don't have any great Irish thing. How about one day we will all
retire to Jerusalem and Haifa."
"Nah," he said. "Not the same thing."
Toward the end of his life, Muns admitted he missed the old Xanadu intensely. We often
pondered just what the chemistry was that occurred in that rather unprepossessing
storefront. Perhaps, Muns suggests, the Xanadu was to Los Angeles what San Francisco's North
Beach had been to the entire beatnik movement, "back when," Muns said rhetorically, "I'd hike
a thousand miles to meet a friend."
"Is there anything going on in Los Angeles today?" I asked Monty, hoping he would have known
something I had missed.
He shook his head.
"How about 'Beyond Baroque,' down in the old Venice City Hall?"
He shook his head. "It would be hard to duplicate down here what they even take for
granted in San Francisco. What is a coffeehouse movement? Well, for one thing, it's people who
work all night, using their imaginations. That is what it amounts to," he said.
Monty said part of the reason coffeehouses will never rise again in Los Angeles, "real
coffeehouses, that is," are the high rents.
"Yeah," I say. "Do you know something
strange. You know Los Angeles Magazine, that big, glossy, boring city magazine? A good friend of mine,
Lincoln Haynes and a group of his friends, founded it as a nice bohemian literary monthly.
Then they lost control of it. They went on to collaborate on a famous project of the Johnson
years, a book called 'The Begatting of a President' that Orson Wells later narrated on a
record. Then they did one on Reagan, but it didn't seem to hit."
Muns said he had heard of Haynes and read the old magazine, but he said it was of a slightly
earlier generation of coffeehouse people than we were -- more early fifties.
"But I liked it. They had articles by people who were brought up in the Los Angeles River
before it had concrete levees; when the kids would go and catch frogs in it. A fine little
magazine. It drew some artists and writers together and it was important. Didn't last long,
though," he said.
And so there we sat talking, Nigey, Muns and I, all of us sounding like a bunch of old
bohemian reprobates talking about this city's hidden literary tradition, about the better
Damn they were better.
When Muns died in a car accident in the nineties, I think he had given up hope. And that
affected me as well. That's part of the reason I wanted to keep the dream alive by writing about
Lionel Rolfe writes about coffeehouses and Los Angeles
literature in his forthcoming LITERARY L.A., for which he will be having a book signing at Skylight
Books on Feb. 3.
Rolfe is the author of the ebook, "Death and Redemption in London &
L.A." (deadendstreet.com), which contains an expanded account of the death
of Kessler and Himmel. He also has authored "Literary L.A." (a third
edition of which is forthcoming in February) and "Fat Man on the Left"
Four Decades in the Underground," both from California Classics Books and
available at Amazon and Barnes and Noble online.
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