The Brentwood of My Youth—Joan Didion’s Brentwood—Is Long Gone

Growing up in the Westside neighborhood in the late ’70s, I reveled in its affluent simplicity. Now, I hardly recognize it
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Brentwood, like much of the best real estate in California, was once a rancho. In the 1830s, these lands with their adobe houses and cattle ranches, were bestowed upon landed gentry called Californios, descended from or married into families of Spanish-speaking settlers from Mexico and Spain who came to the Golden State a century earlier. The ranchos stretched from the oceans to the mountains, and many were originally home to the Gabrielino-Tongva tribe, whom the Catholic Church enslaved to build their missions and forced to hear their sermons.

I grew up in what was once the Rancho San Vicente y Santa Monica, a 33,000-acre parcel that included what would be Santa Monica, Brentwood, Mandeville Canyon, and West Los Angeles. The Tongva called this area Kuruvunga, which translates as “A Place Where We Are in the Sun,” but in the 1870s when the Californios began selling off their land grants, all that was left of the village were pottery shards and grinding stones that the earth spit out when real estate investors dug into the ground to develop the rustic canyons, mesas, and foothills verdant with oaks, sycamores, and grasses, and wildlife like coyote, snake, rabbit, and birds.

Even the roads harkened back to the Tongva; their footpath ran through the Sepulveda Basin from the city into the San Fernando Valley. Eventually, in the 1920s, it was paved, and during the following decades demand for more roadway ushered in the earthmovers. In the 1960s they tore through the mountains and gouged an 1,800-foot-wide and 260-foot-deep passage, accomplishing in 24 months what should have taken millions of years if left to natural erosion. Thus, the 405 freeway was born to transport us and, ultimately, torment us with traffic.

I tell you all this not as a history lesson but to give you context, a sense of where I come from, and how this destruction, creation, and neighborhood-building was my land, too. I played with the other children in the gullies and streams that ran behind our house way up in the hills of Mandeville Canyon. I could wake up on late spring mornings and a heavy layer of marine fog hovered in the air, creating a voile-like curtain through which I could see a family of deer grazing on our lawn. On hot summer nights as I slept, surrounded by furniture my father built, in my antique brass twin bed covered in a blue Pierre Deux coverlet, I would awaken to the high-pitched, frenzied shrieks of coyotes who stalked neighborhood pets. In the morning I might hear news of a cat that had gone missing, or even more grisly, someone down the block might discover the shredded remains of a small fluffy dog who could not outrun the pack.

Brentwood wasn’t flashy, rife with paparazzi, or selfie desperation.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the neighborhood still felt as it was described in a 1907 Los Angeles Times advertisement that touted Brentwood as “a suburb away from the noise, dust and inharmonies of the city” and encouraged prospective residents not to miss an opportunity to live among “people of refinement” who “love Brentwood Park for its breadth of view—its variety of scene—its everlasting breezes—its naturalness.” It was, and still is, an affluent neighborhood, but back then, even with Los Angeles’s debilitating smog, there was reasonably priced housing stock—newly built post-and-beam houses suited both in price and style to young couples like my parents. Some said it was the closest facsimile of Waspy Connecticut in Southern California. Women drove wood-paneled station wagons or Volvos, and there were country clubs and beach clubs that didn’t allow Jewish families like mine.

The older homes—from the 1930s housing boom—were built in traditional styles like Spanish Colonial Revival, Georgian Revival, or Tudor and attracted celebrities like Marilyn Monroe, Joan Crawford, and Gregory Peck. During my era Dustin Hoffman, Joan Didion, John Gregory Dunne, and O.J. Simpson were some of the more notable residents. It was a friendly suburb. You knew your neighbors. You saw them at the grocery store, at the candy store, and at the local pizza place. Back then if someone asked me where I lived, they’d often say, “Where’s Brentwood?” I’d explain it was between Westwood and Santa Monica, north of San Vicente Boulevard, where the coral trees with their blood-red blooms and their craggy, bent limbs line the thoroughfare.

It was a time of hands-off parenting, a feral youth with hard edges that offered an independence, a lack of supervision that had us stumbling into trouble without our parents ever being privy to the twisted plots. The dramas were tempered by a climate where gardenias flourished, only to be plucked off bushes and put in small vases bedside. The waft of the exotic scent accompanied our dreams, and the jasmine that blossomed from spring through summer, with its sweet, musky aroma, seemed an apt metaphor for our temptations and longings.

November 1965: actor and gubernatorial candidate Ronald Reagan with his wife, Nancy, and son Ronnie in their Brentwood living room

Bill Ray/Life Magazine/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images

“Meet at the top of Capri.” It was a vague direction, but we knew where to go since some of the neighborhood boys, scions of Dohenys, had taken us there. They blasted Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin from the Alpine stereo so we could hear the guitar riffs over the rev of the engine in their Shelby Mustang. They must have figured out the Ronald Reagan house was empty, as the family had put it up for sale when they moved to Washington to become the 40th first family.

At the time I didn’t realize the Reagan house, built in 1957 on a bluff high in the Santa Monica Mountains, had been called “the house of the future.” It wasn’t the traditional home you’d imagine that the Reagans might occupy. Instead, the spiffy Midcentury Modern, 5,000-square-foot ranch-style home, with its sweeping vista from city to sea, satisfied the actors’ desire for a view and an octagon-shaped pool. When it was built, Reagan hosted the General Electric Theater, a weekly CBS science series that reached 25 million viewers, making it one of the most popular shows on TV, and General Electric had outfitted the home with every kind of electrical innovation.

On several episodes the Reagans hosted the show at home. Nancy Reagan spoke highly of the “electric servants” in her kitchen that she said, “make mommy’s work easier”; the best coffee Ronnie ever tasted; and ovens with timers and temperature controls that prevented her soufflés from exploding.

As Nancy ground the residue of her soufflé dinners down the garbage disposal, Reagan traveled the country as a GE spokesperson, giving him the national exposure that not only boosted his political career but helped convince him to change his party affiliation from Democrat to Republican. His message was one of deregulation and advocacy for free enterprise, a stance that landed him in the California statehouse and then in the White House.

When Reagan was elected president in 1980, I was a junior in high school and didn’t care about and could not anticipate his impact. I had no inkling that during college I would be riveted by the televised Iran-contra congressional hearings of National Security Council aide Oliver North, who facilitated a scheme where profits of secret weapon sales to Iran were diverted to arm the anti-Sandinista contras in Nicaragua—a tale of gun running and drug trafficking that seemed more movie plot than political reality. I did not yet know the impact of HIV on my friends and a whole generation of talented men who would be lost to us. I couldn’t imagine that Reagan would never say the word “AIDS” until 1987, let alone fund any significant research. And I could not anticipate that Nancy Reagan, who had become known for her red dresses and a predilection for astrologers, would proffer ironic glee with her preposterous Just Say No anti-drug campaign in 1986. After all, the road to the Reagans’ home was where we went to party.

We’d drive down Sunset Boulevard, then turn north up Capri until we hit a dark dirt road. We were drunk or high on weed, or both. Sometimes cocaine was involved or quaaludes—the latter didn’t appeal to me, just made my legs wobble and didn’t offer the consciousness shift I craved: an urge to feel something different than the confines of convention, a comforting obliteration. One particular night I drove up the dark, windy road with a girlfriend. We arrived at the fire road adjacent to the house, which was just a shadow in the distance. We parked the car on the plateau that opened to a wide expanse. We were on top of our world. The city lights below, the stars above, and the cool air, but not so cold that we needed jackets over our jumpsuits in some shade of neon and lips most likely adorned with Revlon Cherries in the Snow. We opened the sunroof, left the car doors open, and cranked the volume of a cassette mixtape. The B-52s, “Planet Claire.” Our alienated anthem. The Pretenders, “Precious.” We yelled “Fuck off!” into the night.

Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne in 1972

Henry Clarke/Conde Nast via Getty Images

On August 19, 1970, prosecutors in the Sharon Tate murder trial called Timothy Ireland to the stand. He was the first witness after former Charles Manson follower Linda Kasabian, who cooperated with the prosecution, and concluded 18 days of testimony. During the trial, Kasabian wore at least one dress purchased for her by Joan Didion at I. Magnin in Beverly Hills. The writer developed a relationship with the Manson follower after visiting her at the Sybil Brand Institute for women while reporting on the brutal murders. On this Wednesday, Kasabian wore her hair in pigtails and a long-sleeved orange dress and moccasins.

Ireland was the afternoon witness. A graduate student employed by the Westlake School for Girls, he was hired to supervise a “sleep-out” on the campus tucked in the wealthy residential enclave of Holmby Hills. In the early morning hours of August 9, 1969, he heard something. According to the police report, “Between 0100 and 0130 Mr. Ireland was awake, alert and watching the sleeping children. He heard a male voice from what seemed to him a long distance away to the north or northeast shout, ‘Oh, God, no. Stop. Stop. Oh, God, no, don’t.’ Ireland said that the scream persisted for approximately 10 seconds. The male voice was clear and he did not notice an accent.” During the trial Ireland said he got in his car to search for the source of the screams and found nothing. On cross-examination, Manson’s lawyer asked him if he documented what he heard. He replied, “No sir. You don’t forget things like that.”

Westlake School for Girls

Harvard-Westlake archives

I attended the Westlake School for Girls from 1976 to 1982. I discovered the Manson connection when I read my parents’ paperback copy of the book Helter Skelter by the prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry. I quickly found Ireland’s story on page four, a scene setter with the ominous proviso: “The canyons above Hollywood and Beverly Hills play tricks with sounds. A noise clearly audible a mile away may be indistinguishable at a few hundred feet.”

The site of the murder on Cielo Drive was about a mile from the bucolic campus. From the center of campus, if you looked up toward the hills to the north, you could see the homes lining the ridge of Benedict Canyon near Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski’s house.

The Spanish Colonial Revival campus—built in the 1920s by architects Arthur Kelly and Joe Estep, the same men who designed the nearby Playboy Mansion—was a single-sex education Shangri-la with rolling lawns, flowers, and a maypole that was paraded out every spring so we could dance around the phallus and weave colorful ribbon patterns as we celebrated the pagan rite of spring. We wore uniforms—gray skirts, white oxford long-sleeved shirts, and navy-and-white saddle shoes with pink-eraser-colored soles. My classmates included the daughters of influential Angelenos like Tom Snyder (the talk show host who famously interviewed Manson in 1981), philanthropists, and real estate magnates like Helen and Peter Bing, the daughters of Carole Burnett and Peter Fonda, and Didion and John Gregory Dunne’s daughter, Quintana.

The Los Angeles of my high school years was the L.A. of American Gigolo, with muted pastel interiors that retained the character of a city built with a panoply of styles, where you could get anywhere in 20 minutes by car. Yet, percolating beneath Richard Gere’s sleek Armani wardrobe and the glamour of Lauren Hutton’s trench coat and her burgundy Bottega Veneta clutch, there was an underlying darkness, a roughness. It seemed all was not well. We were a generation of divorce. Some of us were neglected or had parents who were alcoholic or whose alcohol we drank. During the week we did our homework, sometimes up to three hours a night. And despite the English teacher who failed me on every paper I wrote, I persisted. I scribbled observations in journals, on scraps of paper, in frantic letters to friends and boyfriends.

Writer Stacie Stukin (sitting) with friends on New Year’s Eve in the 1980s

Courtesy the author

Although I was burdened by a feeling of never quite connecting, being an outsider who preferred detachment to real engagement did not mean I wasn’t inspired by my privileged education. At the time, I did not understand the nature of that privilege or how, later in life, it would impact how others viewed me. Back then, we slogged through Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, read Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles, replete with maypole dancing, and when we discussed Kafka’s The Hunger Artist, I was moved by the idea that one could be so compelled to create that dying for art was a reasonable option. Here was the proudly feminist English teacher, who taught us about the ERA and that women made 70 cents to every dollar men earned, and when she assigned Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire, she read aloud the part of Stanley Kowalski, lumbering across the classroom as she bellowed his lines in order to teach us the difference between consent and rape. We read the poems of Adrienne Rich and Emily Dickinson and learned that a woman’s voice is something to be valued even when society might not agree.

But such academic conceits were not always so simple. We had a whisper network. We knew which adults really wanted to hear us and help us develop our voices. And we knew who did not, like the teacher who continuously failed me. Was she angry at my privilege? Did she sense my predilection toward masochism? I perceived this as my hill to climb, to prove that all I wanted was to be a writer and all she wanted to do was tear that dream from me.

I write this not to perpetuate a grudge. I’m more interested in the determination it ignited, the weakness and strength I explored, and the will I developed to push back against obstacles that were not mine alone. I took solace in knowing I was not her only victim. Once, Quintana Dunne turned in an assignment only to have the teacher insist that her mother, Didion, had written the paper. Word traveled. Phone calls were made. Parent-teacher conferences commenced. We knew the teacher picked targets to belittle, and we speculated she just wanted an opportunity to engage with Didion since we had heard her praise the slight woman wearing dark sunglasses and a camel coat whom we sometimes saw on campus.

We read The White Album because we were obsessed with Jim Morrison and titillated by Didion’s repeated reference to Morrison’s black vinyl pants, worn without underwear. Like the Doors, we took acid to open our doors of perception. We read William Blake and Aldous Huxley, too. That was our privilege. To read poetry, trip on LSD, and wander the Sunset Strip, past the Whisky a Go Go with the soundtrack of “L.A. Woman” in our heads as we made our way down toward Santa Monica Boulevard to Duke’s Coffee Shop in the Tropicana Motel, the very place where Morrison had hung out. And like the children we were, we sat at the counter and ordered cinnamon toast.

We were self-assured teenagers, perhaps entitled, but we had our own sense of justice. We knew the teacher was wrong. We believed Quintana. We understood this was her burden, to be the child of two famous writers. We had our own burdens so we had faith in each other. We had to. We were raising ourselves and each other, forging a path toward adulthood. We had things to say. And our privileged education had taught us that our ideas mattered, that our voices should be heard.

Duke’s Coffee Shop

Courtesy Vintage Los Angeles

At 12:10 a.m. on June 13, 1994, Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman were found murdered in Brentwood. The bodies were slashed, the scene was bloody, and it seemed the only witness was Nicole’s dog, Kato, an Akita who was found howling as he roamed the neighborhood with bloody paws. If only the dog could talk, they said.

At the time of the murders, I had long since moved out of my parents’ house, and any evidence of the nostalgia of my childhood had disappeared. It was excavated out of existence when the local grocery store became a Whole Foods, and when the scene of the crime on Bundy Drive became a tourist attraction.

I rarely return to Brentwood. My parents have passed away, and it is now home to Gwyneth and Reese, and while that level of fame always existed, it was not flashy, rife with paparazzi, or selfie desperation. Teslas with winged doors and $150,000 Mercedes G-Wagons with tinted windows did not hog the road or cut you off with bold lane changes.

The house that Didion and Dunne lived in was torn down soon after they sold it in 1988.

The iconic coral trees are dying. There is a campaign to save them. They are old and have fallen victim to borers—insect eggs that hatch into larvae, which burrow deep into the branches and kill them. The residential streets, once lined with majestic front yards giving view to the traditional architecture, are now walls of security gates and tall hedges to prevent gawkers from seeing McMansions in the form of steroidal Cape Cods or modern boxes that look more like hotels than homes.

The house that Didion and Dunne lived in with Quintana was torn down soon after they sold it in 1988. In The Year of Magical Thinking, Didion describes driving by the property and discovering only a chimney standing on an empty lot. She recalls how the real estate agent had asked her and Dunne to inscribe copies of the books they’d written in the house because it would be meaningful to the buyers. “When we saw the flattened lot from the car, Quintana, in the back seat, burst into tears,” she writes. “My first reaction was fury. I wanted the books back.”

My childhood home still stands. I can see it on Google maps, pixelated but still recognizable. Reagan’s house was torn down to make way for a Spanish-style manse; O.J. Simpson’s house was demolished, too. But in what was once the heart of the Tongva village, Kuruvunga, a natural hot spring surrounded by native plants still flows. It’s one of the tribe’s last remaining historical landmarks, a sacred site, a place where we are all in the sun.

Excerpted from Slouching Towards Los Angeles: Living and Writing by Joan Didion’s Light, edited by Steffie Nelson (Rare Bird, 2020)