Drinking with Dr. Seuss

“And across from me is Ted Geisel,” Miller continued. “Who writes a few small words, mostly for children, and gets paid extravagantly for them. That’s the only reason we let him in the group. He also draws very strange pictures.”

The Esmeralda Goodbye, Chapter 10

Okay, I never had a drink with Dr. Seuss (Ted Geisel). But my parents did. They were part of the same creative & social circle in La Jolla, CA in the 1950s and 60’s. And my father took the photographs for 3 books written by Geisel’s first wife, Helen Palmer. I think I met Dr. Seuss at our house when I was a little kid, but that’s one of those memories my brain may have constructed later.

As I was writing The Esmeralda Goodbye, I started wondering if there was some way to fit Ted Geisel/Dr. Seuss into the story. I’d already made writers Raymond Chandler and Max Miller important characters in the book, but I couldn’t figure out a way to fit in Dr. Seuss. Then I got an idea. Perhaps he used to drink with other writers at the Whaling Bar, which was a popular watering hole for La Jollans in the 1950s. It was located at the La Valencia Hotel. Tourists as well as locals were patrons. Needless to say, La Jolla was a small town back then and some interesting people hung out together. I thought my idea might work.

The solution I ended up with was to have my policeman protagonist enter the bar as he’s searching for a suspect in the disappearance of Zsa Zsa Gabor’s diamond necklace(!). He’s hailed by his friend, Max Miller, who introduces him to the other writers at the table—Ted Geisel, Raymond Chandler and Neil Morgan (Morgan was an editor and columnist for the San Diego Union Tribune who also wrote the first biography of Dr. Suess). They trade some jokes and banter with our protagonist before providing some useful information.

Top L-R Raymond Chandler, Max Miller, Ted Geisel and Neil Morgan
Bottom The Whaling Bar at the La Valencia Hotel, circa 1950 something

I had more fun writing that chapter than any other in the book and I think it turned out well. About a year ago I met Neil Morgan’s widow, Judith Morgan. I told her about the chapter I’d written. She paused for a moment, considered it, and said, “Yes, that could have happened.” Validation!

Rather unwisely, the corporate owners of the La Valencia Hotel decided to replace the Whaling Bar ten years ago with a newer, hipper “bistro”. The good news is that they’ve now gone back and replaced the bistro with a new version of the Whaling Bar that contains some of the fixtures and art from the original. I’m planning to visit soon. I’ll order a Gimlet, of course, one of Chandler’s favorite drinks.

Here’s a story about the Whaling Bar’s closing that was broadcast by our KPBS station. If you’re interested you can download a copy of my chapter here (or even better read the book).

Tijuana Bibles & The Perverted Savants Club

My recent novel, The Esmeralda Goodbye, is set in Southern California in the mid-1950s. Some of the characters I developed early on were a trio of disaffected young teenagers—Danny Stirling, Willie Denton, and Rachel Shapiro—who chafe against the conventions of high school and the provincial attitudes of their hometown. They’re smart, talented kids, but they’re seen as troublemakers and weirdos by their teachers and fellow students.

Danny, the ringleader, embraces his outsider status and flaunts his rebellious attitude. He convinces the other two to join him in a secret club, The Perverted Savants. The objective of the club is to share information about all the things polite society doesn’t want them to know—sex, crime, politics and adult hypocrisy.

To give the story verisimilitude, I needed to find examples of transgressive literature and art of the time, but also something the kids would have access to and could believably share with each other at their meetings. Danny, the reader, brings in a paperback copy of Jim Thompson’s 1952 noir, The Killer Inside Me. Rachel, whose father is a scientist, brings in her parents’ copies of the Kinsey Reports. Willie is a talented artist who likes to draw cartoons, which made me think of the underground comics of the 1960s (Zap Comix, Robert Crumb, et al), but my story preceded those publications by at least ten years. MAD magazine had been around for a couple of years by the time of my story, but I wanted something more salacious. What kind of cartoons could Willie have brought to the meetings?

That’s how I learned about Tijuana Bibles.

Tijuana Bibles weren’t from Tijuana. And they weren’t bibles. They were pocket-sized pornographic magazines, published in the United States from the 1920s to the early 1960s. Most of them were eight-page comic strips printed in black and white. At least a couple of panels in each magazine featured the characters engaged in some form of explicit sexual activity.

Some of the characters were original creations, but many of the booklets featured parodies of celebrities or well-known cartoon characters.

Even Mickey Mouse got in on the act.

These were major copyright infringements, of course, but the nature of the medium, the anonymity of the artists and the lack of publishing information helped protect the creators from legal entanglements. The booklets were sold under the counter at magazine stands, bus terminals, penny arcades, and second-hand bookshops. Downtown San Diego in the 1950s was a popular gathering place for US Navy sailors and shops like those were plentiful in Horton Plaza and the Gaslamp District. Tijuana Bibles were almost certainly sold in some of those shops, so it was feasible that my characters might get hold of a copy.

In today’s one-click-away hardcore world, the Tijuana Bibles seem almost quaint. They’re funny and feisty and, in their way, provide a snapshot of American sexual attitudes in the 1950s, an underground challenge to the prevailing puritanism of the day.

If you’re interested in learning more (or want to see more explicit images from the comics than I’ve provided here), you may want to check out Tijuana Bibles:Art and Wit in America’s Forbidden Funnies by Bob Adelman and Richard Merkin. For more more about the history of Tijuana Bibles, try Wikipedia.

Sunny Jim’s Sea Cave

The cover for The Esmeralda Goodbye is taken from an old postcard I found, which features an illustration of a female swimmer standing on the rocks at the entrance to a cave, preparing to dive into the ocean waves below. As you’ll see from the images below, it’s a real location—Sunny Jim’s Sea Cave near the La Jolla Cove. It’s been a popular tourist attraction for over a hundred years.

Cover of The Esmeralda Goodbye.
Photo by Sharonannajacob via Wikimedia Commons , CC BY-SA 2.0

If you’re a particularly strong and fearless swimmer, you may be able to access the cave from the ocean. Kayakers also like to approach from ocean side. But most people get to the cave by taking a self-guided “tour” that starts at The Cave Store, located on the cliffs above. You can view a short sample of the tour via the video below.

In 1902, a German professor and mining engineer named Gustav Shulz hatched a plan to construct a tunnel to the cave from the land he owned on the cliffs above. It took him nearly 2 years to dig the tunnel. Visitors were originally required to use rope ladders to get down. The current stairway and observation deck were built later.

Photo by Cultivar413 via Flickr

A restaurant called the Crescent Cafe stood above the entrance to the cave, but it was burned down by an arsonist in 1915 and was replaced by The Cave Store. It is said that bootleggers used the cave and passageway to smuggle in whiskey during Prohibition and that human traffickers may have used it as stowaway spot for Chinese immigrants.

Photo by Cultivar413 via Flickr

In The Esmeralda Goodbye, the chief protagonist’s younger brother gets a summer job working at The Cave Store. I won’t give away any spoilers, but he discovers something important in the cave one morning while doing his rounds.

My friend and fellow San Diego author Matt Coyle used the cave for a book cover and scenes from his 2018 novel, Wrong Light. A Hollywood movie, Neptune’s Daughter with Esther Williams and Red Skelton, used the cave as one of its filming locations (I don’t know if Esther actually swam there).

How did the cave get it’s name? Well, the leading theory is that L. Frank Baum, author of The Wizard of Oz and a San Diego visitor in the early 1900s, named the cave after a cartoon character, Sunny Jim, who appeared on boxes of a British breakfast cereal. You can see how the outline of the cave resembles a man’s profile.

Sunny Jim's Sea Cave photographed from inside the cave
Photo by Jarek Tuszyński, CC BY-SA 4.0

It’s an old-fashioned kind tourist attraction and still worth a visit.

Book Trailer – The Esmeralda Goodbye

The Esmeralda Goodbye now has a book trailer. It’s big and thrillery and I think it does a pretty good job previewing the book. What do you think?

Trigger warning: This video contains a depiction of a man attempting suicide.

I Cover the Waterfront

I have been here so long that even the seagulls must recognize me.

I Cover the Waterfront by Max Miller

I Cover the Waterfront was one of the most popular and best-selling best selling books of the 1930s. A simple compendium of real-life vignettes about the lives of those who lived and worked along San Diego Bay, the book struck a chord with readers of the day. It’s wistful, low-key and charming and still makes for a good read today.

It’s author, Max Miller, was twenty-eight years old at the time and the success of the book allowed him to buy a house by the ocean in La Jolla, CA, just a block away from where Raymond Chandler and his wife lived. Miller and Chandler knew each other, drank together on occasion and sometimes played tennis together.

Which is why Miller, in addition to Raymond Chandler, became an important character in my historical mystery novel The Esmeralda Goodbye. The two men could not have been more different. Chandler’s personal appearance was more formal in style, favoring coats and bow ties. Miller preferred an informal look, happiest when barefoot in shorts and shirtsleeves. Chandler could be withdrawn and moody while Miller was ebullient and outgoing. Chandler enjoyed dinner parties and literary conversation. Miller played drums at parties and enjoyed boating, beachcombing, fishing and swimming (he made a point of finishing last in La Jolla’s Rough Water Swim every year). Aside from being writers, the only thing Chandler and Miller had in common was a fondness for alcohol. In The Esmeralda Goodbye, they serve as contrasting mentors to the protagonist, a very sober rookie policeman named Jake Stirling.

Max Miller, 1930s publicity photo
Max Miller in the 1950s

Miller wrote twenty-eight books in his lifetime, none of them remotely as successful as I Cover the Waterfront. One of his books that I enjoyed reading while researching mine was The Town with the Funny Name, another series of vignettes full of colorful characters that gave me a glimpse of life in La Jolla in the 1950s. Two of the real-life characters in Miller’s book—Perky Adams and Miss Billings—inspired two of the fictional characters in my book.

Miller continued to live in La Jolla the rest of his life and died in his home there in 1967.

I Cover the Waterfront remains Miller’s best known book and the one still in print today. It’s a charming portrait of an era and a place, the first book to put San Diego on the literary map. In its time it inspired both a movie and a song by the same name (it really is a great title, isn’t it?). Here’s a performance of the song by Peggy Lee.

The movie is available on YouTube. Warning: Aside from the title and its waterfront location, the movie bears almost no resemblance to the original book. It was produced during the pre-Hays code era of sound movies, and hints at the racier side of waterfront life noted in the book.