The way I survived four moves to foreign cities where I barely knew a soul was to devise little excursions in my free time to acquaint myself with my new surroundings and to pass otherwise interminable week-ends. I call them “adventures” and I am very much attached to them to this day. I never minded the loneliness – I always knew that in time I would make friends and it afforded me explorations that very few would have found interesting anyway. Sometimes I would stumble upon some gem, other times my outings would prove fruitless – to some I have returned but I let most of them languish in the labyrinth of my memory, where they live intact. The London docks before they became fashionable and still smelled of ships and dirty water, the toys museum in Bethnal Green, St Albert’s monastery in the countryside just out of Milan, a delicious and empty seafood restaurant in the San Diego Bay.
After 14 years in Los Angeles, I still have a lot to discover and a file full of tidbits I will get to in time. This sprawling, chaotic, at times ugly and unfriendly city I inhabit makes one work hard for its gems, partly because a good amount of driving is always involved. Mercifully, I recently acquired a friend who shares my passion for excursions and will willingly come along to improbable destinations.
The William Andrews Clark Memorial Library came to my attention buried in a NY Times article on lesser known libraries around the country. I will defy anyone in Los Angeles who doesn’t work for UCLA to profess having heard of it. What piqued my interest was twofold: it sits in the middle of the West Adams district, a pocket of beautiful landmark houses surrounded by gangland and it hosts the largest collection of Oscar Wilde’s original manuscripts. How the hell did they find their way to California, I wondered.
The website made me aware the library is owned by UCLA, it gave me directions and offered a tour. When I called, a very polite and helpful Suzanne seemed vaguely surprised I was interested in a tour but she obliged.
L and I set out on a beautiful, windy and clear Monday morning, somewhat expecting a letdown but pretty intrigued. We arrived in front of a large property surrounded by a tall hedge, blocking the view of the red brick building behind it, designed as a miniature Hampton Court. The grounds are lovely, plopped down in the midst of a poor neighbourhood where the high school has bars on the window and a police car sits out front. The gentleman who gave us the tour definitely wanted to know how we had come across the library which contains 100,000 rare manuscripts stored in an underground vault for climate control and safety. It’s fairly clear that scholars and researchers are the main audience for this treasure trove, not L and I.
It turns out Mr. William Clark inherited a copper related fortune from his father which allowed him to stop his legal career immediately and dedicate himself to some of his passions, books being chief among them. The building is interesting in the way wealthy Americans at the turn of the last century borrowed European architecture and transplanted it over both coasts. One room is powder green and clearly of French inspiration while the “book” rooms are wood panelled and a mixture of Craftsman and old England. To see the whole collection is obviously impossible but what we were afforded was out of the ordinary: a single page of the very first Guttenberg Bible (and it was ok to touch it), the story of the world from its creation to 1498 Germany with illustrations that were painstakingly stamped on the pages, what Shakespeare would have been reading in his time (turns out Boccaccio and Chaucer were high on his list), an Oscar Wilde signature he left on a card inside a wallet – and the reason why so much of Oscar is now housed in the West Adams district is that Mr Clark acquired the collection when Mr Wilde was very much out of favor, just a couple of decades after his conviction for gross indecency.
When we re-emerged in the wind and sun, we took a walk around 25th Street and Arlington, two curious women on an otherwise empty neighbourhood and we did come across some stupendous houses – old ladies from a time gone by, a better time – some had received beautiful face lifts, other sat on their lots in a state of semi disrepair but all full of charm and ghost stories. Yes, even sunny LA has its wandering spirits.
The William Andrews Clark Memorial Library
2520 Cimarron Street Los Angeles Tel: 323 731 8529 – http://www.humnet.ucla.edu