Liudmila Konovalova: The New Maya

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Dressed in black leg warmers and an insulated lavender down vest to ward off the cold that had chilled the magnificent opera house, the disarmingly gracious Konovlova, the prima ballerina of the Vienna State Ballet — the Wiener Staatsballett, sank herself into a rehearsal break just off an enormous ballet training room as she contemplated a journalist’s question about her childhood idol.

Like most Russian-born dancers, Liudmila Konovalova grew up fantasizing that she would follow in the toe shoes of the country’s fabled ballerina Maya Plisetskaya, who spent much of her career as a captive under fierce scrutiny and at the murderous whim of Stalin’s regime, but still shimmered as one of the greatest dancers of the 20th century.

Ballerinas Maya Plisetskaya and Luidmila Konovalova at the legendary Russian ballet icon's 85th birthday gala where Konovalova performed her signature Black Swan pas de deux. (Courtesy of Liudmila Konovalova, © Copyright 2016.)

Ballerinas Maya Plisetskaya and Luidmila Konovalova at the legendary Russian ballet icon’s 85th birthday gala where Konovalova performed her signature Black Swan pas de deux. (Courtesy of Liudmila Konovalova, © Copyright 2016.)

But for Konovalova, that fantasy was little more than a fairy tale, a seemingly unrealistic goal given her circumstances. The child of a broken home, she lived in a shelter as a teen and was rejected by the Bolshoi Ballet company after going through its academy. She had little reason to expect that one day her homeland’s ballet icon would wondrously connect with her artistically and personally, breathing new life into her dreams, not unlike Michelangelo’s near-touching hands of God and Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

Much less could she have foreseen a scenario in which that would happen when she was literally down and out — and in the most embarrassing position possible.

But that was the spectacle Konovalova now remembered from Italy’s 2007 Premio Roma Dance competition at which Plisetskaya was head of the judging jury, and where Konovalova dreaded she had chosen to perform the challenging Black Swan pas de deux in front of her role model whose storied name was synonymous with “Swan Lake” in the world of ballet.

“I was thinking, the Black Swan is… one the most famous roles that Maya Plisetskaya did,” recalled Konovalova who had never met Plisetskaya until that competition, “and now I (am) gonna show her my Black Swan! I thought it’s a joke. That would be total fiasco.”

Almost prophetically, in the middle of her performance that day, Konovalova’s worst fears pirouetted out of control. Slipping and as her legs gave way underneath her, she felt certain that her dreams of winning the competition had just fluttered somewhere beyond her black tutu — all in front of Plisetskaya. 

“I finished my (Black Swan) variation exactly (as) the music was ending, seated on my ass,” said Konovalova, one of the select group of dancers who performed at the Ave Maya Gala at London’s Coliseum Theatre in 2016 honoring Plisetskaya, who died the previous year at the age of 89. “Yes, I fall completely on my popo, bottom, rear, ass — however you call it — it is the fact.

“I was sure I am out of the competition and plus such big shame… But right after I was sitting on my ass, Maya Plisetskaya stands up. (She) was clapping and laughing!

“So then we did (the) coda. I did my fouettés. This all went fine. We got a really good applause, but she was (giving) me standing ovation…”

The competition wasn’t over, though Konovalova figured she could no longer even place, much less win, and that in further rounds could only hope to complement her dance partner who was still up for a prize himself.

“That gave me time to give more to understand the situation,” she said, looking back on what appeared to be developing into a disappointing moment in her career. “I was officially working nowhere. I (was) finished with Russia. I had (a) contract to Berlin, but I (was) suppose to start in two months.

Liudmila Konovalova and Matthew Golding performing in 'Swan Lake.' Courtesy of Liudmila Konovalova, Copyright 2016.

Liudmila Konovalova and Matthew Golding perform in ‘Swan Lake’ in Moscow in 2015. (Photo by Alex Pankov. courtesy of Liudmila Konovalova, © Copyright 2016.)

“So I was girl from nowhere.”

Then, as all hope seemed gone, fate stepped in.

“Konovalova! Where is my Konovalova?” “Коновалова,где моя Коновалова!”

Startled out of her self-pity over having fallen in competition, Liudmilia couldn’t believe she was hearing Plisetskaya’s voice screaming her name in their native Russian tongue. “Konovalova! Where is my Konovalova?”

“I was scared… but went front… And then comes unbelievable thing,” said Konovalova, who found Plisetskaya reaching to embrace her. “She hugs me and tells me how great it was and that I gonna get a first prize, and that she remembers how hard was this variation of Black Swan, and I am doing it so light, like nothing.

“And that I am real ballerina.

“I thought I am dreaming… Deeply! And need to wake up… But it was the truth! Sometimes I cannot even talk about it because it sounds so unrealistic!

“So then it was second round and on to the third I had to repeat Black Swan again. She came to me right after third round was finished. She told me that it is the best Black Swan she ever saw. She told me that I will get first prize and I will not share it with anyone — normally very often they share the prizes — but Maya Plisetskaya said, ‘No way. She will get it alone!’

“And I got it! And got it alone! And I know that she was fighting for me, and because it was against their rules to give it just to me, and Maya Plisetskaya had major fight, but she did what she told me! And this you almost never see now.”

A touch of the hand of providence indeed.

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Looking for Hemingway

Young Teo Davis chats with Ernest Hemingway pool side at the Davis family villa in Spain, La Consula, where the author lived for months in 1959. (Teo.Davis.muchloved.com)

Young Teo Davis chats with Ernest Hemingway poolside at La Consula, the Davis villa in Spain, where the author lived in 1959. (Teo.Davis.muchloved.com)

IN THE FALL OF 1975, WHEN MY WIFE decided she wanted a divorce, I moved into a quaint though dilapidated cottage in an obscure rain forest corner of River Oaks, Houston’s poshest neighborhood, where our home’s only amenity was being awakened each morning by a family of raccoons rummaging through our kitchen.

The address was fittingly pretentious, 8 Asbury Place, and it belonged to a fashion writer named Peter Heyne, who through his connections at Women’s Wear Daily was forever entertaining young debutantes with double last names and lineages to names in Texas history books.

I was too depressed with self-loathing, pity and half-baked plans about moving to Paris in search of Hemingway or, at least, a reasonable facsimile of personal oblivion. To his credit, Peter didn’t try to dissuade me and instead indulged my delusion. His previous roommate who had inhabited my bedroom, he enlightened me, had once sat on Hemingway’s lap in some grand villa in Spain. His parents had been wealthy American expatriates who entertained Hemingway, his longtime literary pal A. E. Hotchner and the entourage that followed Hemingway for an enchanting summer of running with the bulls.

“His name is Teo Davis,” said Peter. “He was educated in Cambridge, married a contessa who later divorced him, and he moved in here with me.”

“So where is he now?” Yes, I wanted to know, where do mended broken-hearts go when they haven’t shot their brains out.

“Teo? Teo’s now in Hollywood. He’s out there writing screenplays.”

Having just seen Sunset Boulevard for the first time in my life, and with the image of slain screenwriter Joe Gillis in Norma Desmond’s swimming pool lurking in my head, this was not what I wanted to hear.

Teo Davis, though, would remain indelibly on my mind, if for no other reason than that he had left behind notebooks and parts of an unfinished novel. The most interesting of his notes were in Spanish: References to “Papa” and “Hotch” and “Málaga.” His handwriting was so bad, however, that making sense of his ramblings proved to be an exercise in fiction and futility.

51huzvrohyl-_sx329_bo1204203200_One afternoon, I actually found a library in Houston and checked out several biographies of Hemingway. To my surprise, what Peter had said was true. Bill and Annie Davis were rich, beautiful people in Málaga who, though they did not know Hemingway very well, had invited him and his fourth wife Mary to stay with them in 1959 at their elegant estate called La Consula. Their house was filled with a lot of servants and cars, and they were parents of a son and daughter. One of the biographies even mentioned Hemingway playing in the mornings with young Timoteo.

Peter didn’t seem to know much more. “To be honest,” he said. “I thought he might have been making it all up.”

Fifteen years passed. Instead of Paris, I decided to go to Spain. I don’t know whether I was searching for Hemingway or for Timoteo. I found neither. I wound up in Los Angeles. One day I finally sobered up. I was still alive, writing for an NBC prime-time cop show and sharing an office overlooking Sunset Boulevard. Peter had been right. When you’ve been to hell and back, you go on to Hollywood to make things up.

I moved into an old Spanish villa apartment in West Hollywood whose claim to fame was that F. Scott Fitzgerald had once lived there. I would soon learn that in Hollywood someone famous has always lived where someone not so famous now lives. It’s like reverse reincarnation: you were always someone famous in a past life. One day when we were in a story meeting at my office, a guy popped his head in the door looking like he had seen better days. He was there to paint our offices, he said, but he was the most unusual looking painter you will ever find. He was wearing a rumpled, navy Armani blazer, soiled linen slacks that none of us could afford, and he had a slight upper class English accent that was both unexpected and intimidating.

“My name is Teo,” he informed us like some waiter at LeDome, the elegant restaurant up the street, “and I’m your painter.”

I don’t believe Teo ever finished painting the office. He spent most days chain-smoking unfiltered Camels on our terrace overlooking the Sunset strip while we watched young actresses walking their composites and headshots to the agency across the street. Teo would regale us with reminiscences about Ernest Hemingway that, on the one hand, seemed implausible considering he was not even ten when Hemingway had spent several months under the same roof.

But who was to argue with a man from Eton. Peter hadn’t given him his proper props. Teo had been educated at Eton, not Cambridge, and he had married a woman of lofty status — not a countessa but the daughter of an English marchioness —  who had broken his heart. He also had vivid memories of the time Hemingway had visited. Hemingway had met Teo’s father in Mexico some years earlier, before Teo was born and when the author was still married to his third wife Martha.

Bill Davis’ given name was actually Nathan, an American of enormous wealth although Teo wasn’t certain how he had made his money. Or, if he knew, he never said. His father was a quiet, laid-back, balding man with a self-effacing sense of humor who was the complete opposite of Hemingway. He didn’t intrude on his famous guest, who at times treated his host almost like a servant. Hemingway called Bill Davis “Negro,” using the Spanish pronunciation, possibly because he had thick lips and swarthy features.

Davis accepted it as a term of endearing friendship and enjoyed playing chauffeur for Hemingway. Bill Davis loved to drive cars and in Mexico was driving a taxi cab, for inexplicable reasons, when he met Hemingway. Valerie Danby-Smith, who as a young Irish journalist in Spain had befriended Hemingway and later married Ernest’s youngest son Gregory, would recall that Davis “let the Hemingways use the house as if it were their own house. He didn’t do the big thing of ‘I’m the host, I’m hosting the Hemingways.’ He really took a back seat, and his wife Annie was just the most delightful person, just a wonderful, warm person.”

“We called him Papa — everyone did,” said Teo. “He was like a big teddy bear who was larger than life. When he was there, life revolved around him. Being quite young at the time, and a bit on the precocious side, I knew who Ernest Hemingway was — that he was an author of some importance — but just how important he was is something that I wouldn’t even begin to comprehend until years later.”

Teo Davis, top left on the wall with his young sister Nena and household staff from his family home, La Consula, and its 1959 guests, Ernest and Mary Hemingway. (Photo courtesy of the Estate of Teo Davis)

Teo Davis, top left on the wall with his young sister Nena and household staff from his family home, La Consula, and its 1959 guests, Ernest and Mary Hemingway. (Photo courtesy of the collection of Teo Davis)

Teo recalled that the day the Hemingways arrived at the La Consula, which was actually in the countryside west of Málaga, his mother had their cook make turkey sandwiches that his father had taken with him as a snack for the guests on their drive back from the port of Algeciras across from Gibraltar.

The Hemingways’ arrival at the estate had signaled a flurry of activity by the servants. Ernest and Mary had brought 21 pieces of luggage, and Teo remembered that for a few moments the entry of the estate had resembled a busy hotel lobby with servants acting as porters. The Hemingways were pleasantly surprised by what they saw. The Davis’ nineteenth century mansion rose gracefully behind twin iron gates. The doors alone were over fifteen feet high and were made of heavy carved oak. It was filled with Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko paintings and hundreds of first edition books. Outside the rich vegetation that included palm and acacia trees, pines, lilies and vines reminded the Hemingways of their finca in Cuba.

Hemingway did not sleep well and usually was awake before dawn, Teo recalled. Often he would find Hemingway at daybreak working at the stand-up desk on a veranda overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. Malaga, the birthplace of Pablo Picasso, is Spain’s second largest seaport, and La Consula offered a panoramic view of the historic Andalusian landscape.

Hemingway was almost religious in his morning ritual of writing. He began work each morning around 6 a..m. and finished by 10 a.m. Later, Teo was to learn that in those first ten days at La Consula, Hemingway roughed out the preface for a new school edition of his short stories. But Hemingway had gone to Spain on assignment for Life magazine which had contracted with him to write a short article about the series of mano a mano bullfights between Antonio Ordoñez and Luis Miguel Dominguín, two of Spain’s greatest matadors.

From the Davis estate, Hemingway spent the summer travelling with the bullfighters to gather material for the article. Later, however, Hemingway’s article grew to some 120,000 words. Tortured over trying to shorten his work, Hemingway asked his friend Hotchner to help edit the piece. Eventually they cut the article to 65,000 words, which Life published as “The Dangerous Summer” in three installments in 1960. It would be the last work that Hemingway would see published in his lifetime.

For little Teo, the experience would forever influence his life. He became a writer because of Hemingway, whose few moments of fatherly-like attention lavished on Teo affected him enormously.

Some mornings, Teo’s childish squealing as Papa chased him down the long halls of the estate awakened the other guests, who delighted in seeing Hemingway’s increasingly grumpy demeanor soften, even if only for a few fleeting moments. For Teo, these were much-needed displays of emotion that were sadly missing from his relationship with his parents. Neither Bill nor Annie Davis were affectionate with their children, and Teo would lament that “I cannot recall my parents ever telling me they loved me.”

Mary Hemingway would later write in her memoirs that the Davises had indeed been unusual people. Annie Davis, she said, was “an American who had lived abroad so long she seemed to us European.” The Davises also did not permit a telephone or radios in their home, so their only means of communicating with the outside world was by mail or telegram.

Nonetheless, La Consula was filled with commotion the nearly six months that the Hemingways were guests. Teo recalled that life on the estate during that period centered around Papa. He loved Fats Waller, and the Davises always had Fats Waller songs blaring from their loudspeakers by the pool. Hemingway’s favorite was “Your Feets Too Big.” He did not really sing in tune but instead loved to encourage other people to perform.

Often the commotion was simply the departure and return of Hemingway and his cadre of friends and bullfight aficionados. With Bill Davis at the wheel, Papa was on the road often, following that season’s bullfights. At various times, the group chasing after the bulls with Hemingway included Noel Coward, Lauren Bacall, Ava Gardner, and Beverly Bentley who would later marry Norman Mailer.

That summer, Hemingway turned 60, and little Timoteo was awestruck by the extravagant birthday party his parents hosted on July 21. Mary Hemingway summoned guests from all over the world and arranged the party with fireworks, champagne from Paris, Chinese food from London, Spanish musicians and flamenco dancers.

When a fireworks display set a palm tree on fire, the local hook and ladder company — led by bullfighter Antonio Ordoñez, joined the party. Hemingway enjoyed himself immensely, but the celebration produced some indications that all was not well with him. Among them was a nasty flash of ill temper directed at his frontline friend from World War II, General Charles Trueman “Buck” Lanham. Having come from Washington, D.C., for the party, he left Spain certain that Hemingway was an extremely troubled man.

To all but a few, Hemingway’s public persona had become almost a self-parody. A child could be excused for not seeing it. Most in Hemingway’s entourage, however, either excused it or refused to see it. Teo took it all in, delighted with the bafoonish Hemingway acting out fits of anger, rage and neurosis as if in a cartoon.

Within two years, Hemingway would be dead.

“I remember learning that he had died,” Teo recalled, “but I don’t think it was until later that I learned how he had died. I don’t know if it matters. He had lived a long, rich life and obviously, from his point of view, it had reached its end.”

Today, in a sense, there is still a bit of that irrepressible Hemingway spirit in the young boy who once looked up to him in that enormous villa in Spain. The boy, in fact, has now become a man just a few years younger than Hemingway had been when he visited La Consula.

“I’ve been looking for Hemingway for so long,” says Teo, “for a sense of who he really was, that at times I feel as if I’ve almost become Hemingway. Does that make sense?”

To an entire generation, of course, it does.

 

EPILOGUE: Timothy Logan Bakewell Davis, known to his friends as Teo, died March 1, 2016, in Pasadena. He was 64. His sister Nena has set up a memorial at http://teo.davis.muchloved.com.

 

This story is part of a new biography of Ernest Hemingway, Looking for Hemingway: Spain, the Bullfights, and  a Final Rite of Passage, to be published by Lyons Press in November 2016. To pre-order, go to Amazon.com.

 

Adios, Lucy Casado: The End of an Era in L.A.

Lucy Casado, right, with Renee LaSalle, former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and Tony Castro at a presidential campaign fund-raising event at Lucy's El Adobe in Hollywood. Photo by Ryan LaSalle-Castro

Los Angeles restaurateur Lucy Casado, right, at a presidential campaign fund-raising event at her El Adobe Cafe in Hollywood with friend Renee LaSalle, former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and author Tony Castro  (Photo by Ryan LaSalle-Castro)

ON A PICTURE POSTCARD California evening, a group of Tibetan monks in cardinal robes and gold undershirts traipsed across Melrose Avenue in Hollywood from the direction of Paramount Studios and then walked into Lucy’s El Adobe Cafe. A diner in the famous Tex-Mex restaurant took notice but assumed what many others might have in Hollywood.

“Hey, Lucy,” the diner said to restaurateur Lucy Casado, who was nearby. “It looks like you’ve got some more extras from Paramount.”

Lucy rushed over and embraced each monk as if they had just won an Oscar. They were that convincing, possibly because they were real-life Tibetan monks — and friends of Casado and her  husband Frank, who had invited them to dinner to celebrate a new kinship that had developed over near tragedy and apparent fate.

Only weeks earlier, Lucy Casado had found herself frantically praying over the injured body of her oldest son, James, who had been badly hurt in a traffic accident — hurtled from his pickup near the top of Laurel Canyon as he drove home from the San Fernando Valley.

As she meditated before a makeshift altar covered with candles and religious icons in one of the bedrooms of her home, Casado had had a vision.

“I saw monks praying and chanting for my son,” she later recalled.

James recovered to full health, and the vision stayed with Casado, who soon sought out and befriended a group of monks who came to Los Angeles accompanying the Dalai Lama later that year.

That began a relationship between Casado and the Buddhist monks that spanned decades and  became a symbol of the role she came to play in the pop culture and political salon that often played out nightly for almost half a century at Lucy’s El Adobe.

Sadly, that era has ended. Lucy Casado, the Doña of Los Angeles, died Tuesday at Good Samaritan Hospital where she had been battling cancer. She was 91.

Jerry Brown during his first term as governor with restaurateur Lucy Casado, his beloved friend who died Tuesday.

Jerry Brown during his first term as governor with restaurateur Lucy Casado, his beloved friend who died Tuesday.

Born in El Paso, Tex., Casado and her husband opened their restaurant in the 1960s and in 1968 played host to Senator Robert F. Kennedy during the California Primary of his presidential campaign, just 24 hours before he was assassinated. She would go on develop a close friendship with future governor Jerry Brown in the 1970s when he was on the Los Angeles Community College District board of trustees and then California Secretary of State.

During his first two terms as governor, Brown could often be found at Lucy’s El Adobe. It became a California political-cultural footnote that the Casados played matchmakers in the famous Jerry Brown-Linda Ronstadt romance of the late 1970s — a much-ballyhooed relationship in the news media which some political experts at the time blamed in part for derailing Brown’s 1980 presidential campaign.

Brown regularly used the restaurant’s west room for his virtual Los Angeles office as well as his rendezvous with Ronstadt, who once cruised in on roller skates to give Brown a loving kiss while he met with two suits who looked on enviously.

“Magic happens at El Adobe,” Casado would say of her restaurant. “I don’t make it or control it. It just happens.”

“Lucy is an original,” Brown said in one interview. “She is Mrs. California.”

Now governor for a second time, Brown told reporters this week that he is “deeply saddened by the passing of Lucy Casado.”

Lucy Casado surrounded by Mayor Eric Garrett, actor Robert Patrick, former City Councilman Tom LaBonge and a few Buddhist monks at the dedication of Lucy El Adobe Plaza on Melrose Avenue in Hollywood.

Lucy Casado surrounded by Mayor Eric Garrett, actor Robert Patrick, former City Councilman Tom LaBonge and a few Buddhist monks at the dedication of Lucy El Adobe Plaza on Melrose Avenue in Hollywood.

“She was friends to the famous and to those who lived nearby and to politicians of both parties,” he said. “I spent many wonderful and memorable evenings at Lucy’s El Adobe.”

The restaurant also became a Hollywood destination for liberal Democratic politicians, while mining for political contributions in California. A wall in the restaurant is covered in photographs of some of the most prominent names in American politics and pop culture — from the late Hubert Humphrey to Ronald Reagan, from Dolly Parton to Drew Barrymore, from Cesar Chavez to Steven Spielberg.

“Eating at Lucy’s and getting her blessing,” wrote Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez.” is almost a rite of passage in L.A. politics.”

Over the years, Casado and her restaurant have also been credited for their role in nurturing and feeding promising young musicians, including Ronstadt, Glenn Frey and Don Henley of The Eagles, Jimmy Webb and Jackson Browne.

One of the musicians on Lucy’s Wall of Fame is jazz saxophonist Mindy Abair who hit No. 1 on the jazz charts with a track titled “Lucy’s.” The night the song topped the charts, Lucy was dining with her friend Tom Selleck, who, upon hearing the news walked over and surprised Abair with his personal congratulations.

Abair, like many others in the music and entertainment industry, suggests that there was something mystical about Lucy’s El Adobe, some nourishing nectar beyond the margaritas and arroz con pollo that always brought success to most who make regular pilgrimages there.

In remembering Casado, Eagles founding member Don Henley recalled her as a fellow Texan and a source of inspiration.

Lucy Casado with songwriter and longtime friend Jimmy Webb at the restaurant. (From Philip Bailey's Facebook page)

Lucy Casado with songwriter and longtime friend Jimmy Webb at the restaurant. (From Philip Bailey’s Facebook page)

“Lucy Casado was a mother figure to much of the L.A. singer-songwriter community,” he said in a statement. “Beginning in the late 1960s and early 1970s, she and her husband, Frank, along with their children, welcomed our rag-tag band of troubadours into their little restaurant on Melrose Avenue.

“It was a cozy, candlelit watering hole, where politics, food and music were often the topics of discussion, over a savory plate of mole poblano, washed down with the best margaritas in town. Lucy was as passionate as she was compassionate — a tough-but-tender little ball of fire from El Paso, Texas, who, like so many of us, made the pilgrimage to the City of Angels.

“She encouraged us in our struggling days and she delighted in our successes. We were all her children and we will miss her.”

Lucy was preceded in death by her Frank Casado, whom Republican political strategist Stuart Spencer called “a Mexican Toots Shor.” Frank Casado, who along with Lucy helped found the Mexican American Political Association, died in 1990. Lucy is survived by her daughter Patricia Casado and two sons, James and Darryl.

A memorial mass for Casado will be celebrated at Saint Victor Catholic Church in West Hollywood May 20.

Meanwhile, her tributes have only begun. Undoubtedly, some will be given at the El Adobe Cafe which now includes a piano room, with a baby grand whose keys have been played by the numerous artists Casado has befriended over the years. There is also a room adorned by statues of St. Francis of Assisi and St. Anthony as well as likenesses of the Virgen de Guadalupe and the Dalai Lama.

The piano was a gift from songwriter Jimmy Webb.

“He needed a piano when he’s in town, so be bought one to go here,” Lucy loved to tell visitors. “Every time he’s in town, he comes and plays and eats too, of course.”

Webb even immortalized the restaurant in music, including in the song, “Adios,” recorded by Ronstadt with Brian Wilson, and featuring the line, “Drinking margaritas all night in the old cantina.”

Lucy Casado watches Buddhist monks creating a sand mandala at her restaurant.

Lucy Casado watches Buddhist monks creating a sand mandala at her restaurant.

It is in this old cantina that Casado set aside two weeks each fall for the monks and their making of a colorful sand mandala, which always attracted a steady trek of visitors, much like any other Hollywood roadside attraction.

“The mandala is beautiful,” Casado said in talking about the ritual, “but the tradition is that sand will be returned to sand — to symbolize the impermanence of life.

“Life is like that. We can celebrate it, and we can be celebrated, but we all have a time that is measured, so we should treasure those each grain of sand we have given to us.”

 

Tony Castro books include the 2016 releases DiMag & Mick: Sibling Rivals, Yankee Blood Brothers (Lyons Press) and Looking for Hemingway: Spain, The Bullfights and a Final Rite of Passage (Lyons Press).

Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays!

May the joy and peace of Christmas be with you during the holidays... The love of my life in a vintage card from the incredible artist Dennis Mukai.

May the joy and peace of Christmas be with you during the holidays… The love of my life Renee LaSalle in a vintage card from the incredible artist Dennis Mukai.

R.I.P. Fred Slatten, The King of Santa Monica Boulevard

THEY USED TO CALL FRED SLATTEN the King of Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood in the years just after the 1960s had begun transforming pop culture in America.

Slatten wasn’t a musician or an actor. He didn’t direct movies or represent stars. He did own a gorgeous bronze and gold Rolls Royce that became synonymous with him in the years that he was a fixture in an unincorporated West Hollywood trapped at the time between the glitz of Tinseltown and the exclusivity of Beverly Hills.

Fred Slatten in the 1970s

Celebrity shoe designer Fred Slatten in the 1970s

A tall, lanky former college basketball player at Kansas State, Fred Slatten became famous and rich for designing a product that he himself would never need – platform shoes, which became the rage for stars, celebrities and everyone trying to dress like them at a time when Hollywood lived on glam rock at its shaggiest.

One of the most prominent American shoes designers of his time, Slatten also designed boots – and those sexy, above-the-knee boots Nancy Sinatra sang about in her 1966 hit “These Boots Are Made for Walking” were Fred Slatten creations.

“Nancy Sinatra,” Slatten later recalled in one interview, “was our biggest customer.”

Friendship aside, though, Nancy couldn’t talk Slatten into selling her his personalized “FS 1” license plates from his Rolls Royce that she desperately wanted as a gift for her father Frank.

Cher, Diana Ross, Prince, Marvin Gaye, Barbara Streisand, Goldie Hawn, Liza Minnelli. Pick a name from that era, and they too likely shopped at Fred Slatten Shoes, a boutique he kept lit 24 hours a day with the display windows showing off spinning turntables of his platform designs.

“Before we knew it,” he once said, “we had a captive audience.”

Originally from Kansas City, MO, Slatten had been an executive at Bullock’s and later a wholesaler before deciding to design women’s shoes full-time.

His store on Santa Monica Boulevard was among a collage of unique boutiques, coffee shops, restaurants and hip businesses around the corner from Larabee Sound Studios in the years before West Hollywood became a city.

Stars and celebrities poured into Slatten’s boutique, but in an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Slatten recalled that actress Lana Turner had been “the only customer we kept the store open late for.”

“Then there was this little pudgy guy who turned out to be Elton John,” he said. “He bought every shoe we ever made.”

Slatten also had a special armoire in his store that was filled with nothing but platform shoes and boots made especially for singer Stevie Nicks.

“When Stevie needed a new pair, she would call Fred, and he’d have them sent overnight to her no matter where she was in the world,” recalled Becky Cash, who was like an adopted daughter to Slatten and the longtime manager of his store.

The boutique became a magnet for men shopping for girlfriends, as well as women, because Slatten took pride in hiring the most beautiful sales assistants he could find.

Fred Slatten's sales team: Becky Cash, Shannon, Nicole Lalli

Fred Slatten’s sales team: Becky Cash, Shannon, Nicole Lalli

“Gene Simmons from KISS came in a lot,” Slatten told one interviewer, “but I think he just liked our girls.

“Every centerfold for 15 years wore our shoes. Barbi Benton wanted a pair that lit up, so we powered them by batteries.”

At one point, Slatten’s shoes showed city skylines or the faces of David Bowie or Marilyn Monroe, while other platform shoes had real goldfish in their wedges and live birds in their heels.

But as West Hollywood transformed, with cityhood in the mid-1980s and a revamped image on the boulevard, the demand for Slatten’s specialized shoes changed, as well. He closed his boutique, continued designing shoes for others and eventually retired.

He also didn’t think much about today’s platform renaissance, saying they were “kind of gross looking.”

“Our shoes,” he said of his designs, “flattered the foot.”

Most recently Slatten had been working on his memoir about his time and role in Hollywood and his place and its pop culture.

His time, like everyone’s, had come and gone, he used to say.

On July 1, he died in his sleep at his home. He was 92.

Last week friends gathered at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery along Slatten’s beloved Santa Monica Boulevard where his ashes were scattered among the graves of Johnny Ramone, Cecil B. DeMille, Jayne Mansfield, Rudolph Valentino, Douglas Fairbanks and hundreds more of Hollywood’s greatest stars.

The King of Santa Monica Boulevard had come to his final resting place.