Joan Didion’s Famous Former Hollywood House Is Now a New-Age Spiritual Retreat

A visit to where she wrote <i>The White Album</i>
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If you happen to stumble upon the Shumei America Hollywood Center, you’ll be greeted by one of the compound’s managers, who’ll be eager to share with you Shumei philosophy and the history of the facility, a white two-story house on Franklin Avenue. According to one of the many informational pamphlets that can be picked up at the center, Shumei is a “spiritual organization dedicated to advancing heath, happiness, and harmony for all humankind through applying the insights of its founder, Mokichi Okada.”

 

As for the house, it was purchased by the organization in 1979 to create a peaceful oasis in the center of urban Hollywood—a place for people to be cured of their spiritual and physical ailments through the appreciation of art, natural agricultural, and the healing practice of “Jyorei.” But for a period during the helter-skelter 1960s, author Joan Didion called the house home.

At the time, Didion began her days with a cold bottle of Coca-Cola and a can of salted almonds. She awoke late each morning and, donning a pair of oversized black glasses, made her way down the L-shaped staircase to the kitchen of the seven-room Hollywood estate she shared with her husband and daughter.

 “I had to have Coca-Colas in the refrigerator, and they had to be really cold,” Didion recalled in the recent documentary, The Center Will Not Hold. “And if anyone took my last Coca-Cola there would be a scene in the kitchen.”

By the time the Didion moved there in 1966, the house was already a relic of Old Hollywood. Built in 1920, it boasted a Greek-columned front facade, clay tile roof shingles, and many white French doors topped with arched window panes. The house appears in a number of Didion’s pieces, most notably The White Album, her now classic work of New Journalism chronicling a succession of increasingly fragmented events that she experienced as a magazine reporter in the late ’60s.

“In the years I’m talking about I was living in a large house in a part of Hollywood that had once been expensive and was now described by one of my acquaintances as a ‘senseless killing neighborhood.’ This house on Franklin Avenue was a rental and paint peeled inside and out, and pipes broke and window sashes crumbled, and the tennis court had not been rolled since 1933, but the rooms were many and high ceilinged and, during the five years I lived there, even the rather sinistral inertia of the neighborhood tended to suggest that I live in the house indefinitely.”

For Didion, the house came to embody the creeping excess and paranoia of the time. She described hosting lavish parties frequented by “music people” like Janis Joplin, praying with a babysitter who saw “death in her aura,” taking “25-mg of Compazine” to prepare a “large and elaborate” Easter lunch and turning away strangers driving panel trucks who wandered into the house asking matter-of-factly for “Chicken Delight.” The property next door was owned by the doomed Synanon rehabilitation center (later regarded as a cult), and another building, which was by then boarded up but had once been a Japanese consulate, was home to what Didion described as some kind of unspecified “therapy group.”  

“There were rumors. There were stories. Everything was unmentionable but nothing was unimaginable. This mystical flirtation with the idea of ‘sin’—this sense that it was possible to go ‘too far,’ and that many people were doing it—was very much with us in Los Angles in 1968 and 1969. A demented and vortical tension was building in the community. The jitters were setting in.”

Against the backdrop of the Manson murders, Didion recounted how this mounting unease radically distorted her perception of an ordered reality, a feeling she was unable to shake during her time in Hollywood. “The Sixties did not truly end for me until January of 1971, when I left the house on Franklin Avenue and moved to a house on the sea,” she wrote.

Magali Gauthier

While Didion believed it was only a matter of time before the building’s owners would tear down the old estate and replace it with a high-rise apartment complex, the house on Franklin still stands today. For this we can thank Shumei and its adherents, including Annie Pierce, one of the center’s managers.

“The first time I stepped in this door I said, ‘How do you get to live here?’” says Pierce, who moved in last year.

Upon my visit, Pierce, a casually dressed mother of two adult children, described Shumei principles and showed me around the natural garden in the center’s ample backyard. She then invited my partner and I, who accompanied me on the visit, to have a look inside.

I’m happy to report the house’s interior appears strikingly similar to how Didion described it. The French doors are still intact, and the main living and dining rooms remain sparsely furnished with vintage furniture that looks like it could have been left over from Didion’s time there. When I asked Pierce if she was aware that a famous author had lived in the house, she replied, “You mean Joan Didion!” and pulled out laminated copies of the famous black-and-white portraits Julian Wasser took of Didion and her family at the house.

According to Pierce, the producers of the recent Didion documentary had reached out hoping to hold a screening of the film at the house, but that the plans ultimately fell through. After watching the documentary, Pierce was surprised to learn about the house’s history. “They were having some serious parties here—I mean, Janis Joplin! It must have been wonderful,” she says.

We chatted a bit longer about the healing benefits of natural agriculture before I asked if we could take a look upstairs. Pierce was happy to oblige, offering to show us the center’s “sanctuary.”

First, my partner and I were asked to remove our shoes and rinse our mouth and hands in a knee-high marble sink at the bottom of the stairs. Pierce then led us up the staircase, past the room that likely belonged Didion’s adopted daughter, Quintana Roo, and to the sanctuary in what was once the master bedroom. The sanctuary’s plain white walls and rows of cushioned beige chairs had the mindful air of an Ojai therapist’s waiting room. A wood paneled alter of sorts was positioned at the front of the room, adorned with arranged flowers, a framed picture of Shumei founder Mokichi Okada and a Japanese calligraphy scroll drawn by Mokichi translating to “Bright Light.”

We were invited to take a seat, and Pierce called to another one of the center’s managers to perform Jyorie for us.

“The chant too?” the manager asked.

“No, no chanting—we don’t want to freak them out,” Pierce replied.

She closed the door and politely asked us to shut our eyes. We were instructed to sit straight so that light could enter our third eye and to make a slight bend at our waist to reveal our crown chakra. The two healers then stood before us with outstretched arms, focusing a “spiritual light” that would penetrate our bodies and remove any “spiritual clouds” that may have been causing sickness or unhappiness.

The fact that I was partaking in a kind of new-age purifying ceremony in the very bedroom where Didion may have once peered out her window to glimpse the hidden practices of the “therapy groups” next door, was not lost on me.

After about silent five minutes, the session was complete and the healers thanked us with a bow before turning to salute the alter. “How do you feel?” Pierce asked. “Relaxed,” my partner replied, somewhat timidly.

Pierce says it’s not uncommon for Didion enthusiasts to stop by asking to poke around the writer’s old residence. She’s eager to show them the home’s original French doors and gently shaded back terrace—and of course, to share the principles of Shumei.

She’s even hopeful that one day, Didion herself may return for a tour of the house on Franklin.

“Maybe we can entice her to come out for a special visit,” she said. “Especially if we send some pictures and say, ‘Look, people are asking for you!’”


RELATED: Joan Didion Partied With Los Angeles Magazine in 1970


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