The Secret Life of a Camera Girl in 1950s L.A.

See 1950s L.A. through Vilma’s lens

Read enough of Vilma’s old diary entries and her distinct voice—confident, sweet, but tinged with a bit of sass—will start to seep through each line. For her daughters Miriam and Victoria Caldwell, this was nothing new. They had grown used to her strong personality and grounded principles over the years.

When Vilma passed away in May of 2012, the Caldwell sisters, eager to hear that voice again, started flipping through her diaries and poring over boxes of old photos she’d left behind. What they expected to find was simple nostalgia—a way to revive their mother’s days working as a keepsake photographer—aka a “camera girl”—at two Clifton’s Cafeteria locations in downtown from 1952 to 1954.

As they leapt from one entry to another, they found something much better—a red-hot chronicle of their mother’s adventures around town with dozens of handsome men who were captivated by Vilma’s charm. With each page she wrote and each date she detailed, Vilma put modern romantic life to shame.

Anna Albaryan

“Every guy had a story,” says Miriam. And behind every story, was a slice of Los Angeles history. This is what drove Miriam to start a blog detailing all-but-forgotten aspects of L.A.’s cultural scene in the ’50s, when it was a town booming with swanky supper clubs, drive-in movie theaters, and nights of music and dancing at Mocambo or the Hollywood Palladium.

Miriam launched the Diary of Vilma in 2015, after figuring Angelenos might enjoy learning the lost histories behind these venues, so many of which have been razed and replaced with parking lots. The creation of the blog nearly coincided with the relaunch of Clifton’s Republic in September of that same year. As owner Andrew Meieran’s renovations returned the cafeteria to its former glory, Miriam’s blog added context to the scenery.

Vilma’s diaries and camera

Anna Albaryan

The Caldwell sisters sometimes host presentations based on Vilma’s diaries to give fellow Angelenos a taste of her wit and charm. On occasion, they also hop on the Esotouric’s bus tours to share some of Vilma’s adventures around Los Angeles. Here’s an entry that offers a feel for her witty writing style and the glimpses she offers of a bygone L.A.:

Al took me to Paul’s in South Gate on 8th between Hill and Olive in L.A., but we ended up in memory lane. I forced myself to kiss him goodnight and he said I couldn’t kiss, and that I will learn as I go out with more guys, and that he prides himself on who he kisses, and it is an art with him.

Things you have to listen to when you have ears.

Vilma and friends

Courtesy Miriam Caldwell

Vilma had a progressive perspective on marriage and dating. She was in her late teens and early 20s while working as a camera girl in the ’50s, a decade defined by conformity to societal norms and gender roles. Her fierce independence seems almost anachronistic. She had her own apartment, her own car, made more money than some of her male counterparts, and refused to marry the first, second, or even twenty-second man she met.

Now, her daughters are working on a book of Vilma’s stories. “Looking back years later, her diaries are like a work of art. They’re sassy and they’re whimsical at the same time, and they’re telling these amazing stories of vintage nightlife and working at Clifton’s and downtown L.A., but with a Vilma spin on it,” Miriam says.

In the end, Miriam adds, the diaries tell a “story of this girl who turned the camera around on herself.”

RELATED: 5 Nostalgic Things You Need to Try From the New Clifton’s Cafeteria

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