As we continue on Jane Hall’s well-documented journey through the 1930s, I’m reminded of a book I read many years ago by Winifred Gallagher, The Power of Place: How Our Surroundings Shape Our Thoughts, Emotions, and Actions. We last left Jane and her brother Dick Wick Hall, Jr. in a setting that was so different from what they were used to, I wonder how the sharp contrast between the wide-open West– especially Salome and Manhattan Beach– and New York City affected them. This is the first of a few posts that I will write occasionally when I visit places again that determined who they were.
This past Sunday, March 25, my daughter Carlyn Maw and I headed from Pasadena to Manhattan Beach, California to follow Jane’s (her grandmother’s) trail for a day. First stop, the small cottage in Polliwog Park that is home to the Manhattan Beach Historical Society. President Steve Meisenholder, who has spent most of his life in the area, gave us a tour. In one of the back rooms we found (among other enticing artifacts) a vintage icebox, a stove, a washing machine and two wool bathing suits* of the sort that “little Jane” might have worn when she plunged alone into the ocean on a brisk March afternoon in 1928.
Our second destination was the town of Redondo Beach just a few miles away. Redondo Union High School is now spread out over 66 acres; its historic Sea Hawk athletic teams are still very much alive today! But the Beaux Art auditorium that announced the campus when Jane and Dick were there exists only in yearbooks and photographs. Thanks to Therese Martinez and the Archives staff these are carefully preserved in the school Archives which has a new home. After driving around as much of the campus as possible on a soggy Sunday, we decided to wait out the torrential rains at a nearby Starbucks. The relentless downpour outlasted us.. So we made our way back to Manhattan Beach over semi-flooded roads for an early (and terrific) dinner at Talia’s with Steve and Carlyn’s significant other, Tod Kurt.** The meal took on a special meaning because, as some of you regular readers may remember, the restaurant is in the building that was home to Jane, Dick and their mother, Daysie, between 1927 and 1930.
Finally at about six o’clock the sun broke through the clouds; the Manhattan Beach Pier (now a California State Landmark) became more inviting despite the chilly winds. Off the end of the pier beyond the Roundhouse seals glided through surface waves and Brown Pelicans became projectiles as they plunged into the Pacific with astonishing speed and accuracy to pick up their own evening meals. Some things do not change over time such as the view west over the vast expanse of the ocean. As three well-fed pelicans took off into the sky, I thought of Jane’s devotion to her mother and brother. “Now we are The Three” she wrote, three people who became inseparable as they struggled to survive without Dick Wick Hall just a few blocks from this pier. And Three who would soon become two orphaned adolescents faced with another American tragedy. How Daysie loved the seashore, while her husband was much more at home in the desert– the power of place had a big effect on their marriage.
But the view back toward the east from the pier is far different from what it was when the Halls lived in sight of the ocean. The population has exploded from less than 2000 people when Jane’s career was launched to more than 34,000 today.* She arrived in New York City with an extraordinary resume. Glued to the pages of her scrapbook is proof that at 15 she was a writer: 51 published poems, 35 cooking columns, plus 18 stories, some quite long. And she saved 19 other clippings of her nonfiction– news articles, essays, editorials and even two book reviews. Most of them had been published in the Los Angeles Times, the Redondo Daily Breeze and Manhattan Beach papers.
So many editors had believed in Jane. She wanted to be a novelist and could have been a journalist. I thought of Dorothy Townsend who was only nine years younger than Jane. She died this month at the age of 88. On March 21, the Los Angeles Times paid homage to her life as a “pioneer for female reporters” between 1954 and 1986. Like Jane, Dorothy was “funny and smart and she was one of the guys, and that was very hard to achieve back then,” according to one of her colleagues. So what would shape Jane’s world view now that she was about to live in the other Manhattan—the more famous, glittering one– and spend part of her time on her uncle’s farm in Virginia? Her options seemed unlimited but her aunt and uncle had their own priorities. Jane had been used to so much freedom. I wish we had known her when she could still hear the pelicans and the sea gulls from her bedroom at 1148 Manhattan Ave. Part Two of this chronicle– how her life was transformed by Manhattan, Virginia and ultimately by Hollywood– begins with the next post on April 15.
* The label clipped to this bathing suit at the MBHS reads: “Wool bathing suit for rent at Manhattan Beach bathhouse. During the late 1920s & early 1930s, the same suits were used by both men and women. It wasn’t until 1933 that men could take off the tank top on the beach.” MBHS figures put the 2000 population of the town at 33,852.
**Carlyn and Tod are both electronics experts and were recently featured on the Discovery Channel’s first program in their new series Unchained Reactions.
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