At a recent dinner party I met a woman who had fallen in love with a longtime friend of mine. I liked her at first sight, or rather at first chat, because it’s the talking that always gets me. She was smart but with a light touch—no need to flaunt it. We dropped into an immediate and spirited conversation about everything: dogs, food, good writing and bad writing, and the city we both call home. Slight, dark haired, and lovely looking in a natural way, she had moved to Los Angeles a decade earlier and had capitulated totally to its complexity, catching herself, she said, completely by surprise. She had come from the east and had been looking for a magazine job in the Bay Area, figuring herself to be a Northern California type, more Birkenstock than bikini. When nothing materialized in San Francisco, she ended up with an editing job in L.A. “Though it felt like second best, I figured I’d give it a try,” she told me. “But as soon as I got here, I knew it was my place. I just knew I could be my biggest self here.”
In her forties when she came, she took up surfing and became addicted to it. She joined a blues band and started playing gigs around town. She discovered she could ride her bike to work. None of this had she expected, and she still wore the enchanted smile of the convert. I smiled back. For years I had heard new arrivals bemoan what they saw as the city’s tyrannical beauty standards and concomitant lack of intellectual standards (cue the surgically enhanced young blond on the arm of an aging millionaire with a comb-over). Some ultimately made peace; others couldn’t settle in, fleeing to other cities. In fairness, a number of my schoolmates felt the same way, leaving for college, never to return. But here was the opposite: a woman in full embrace of her adopted home and taking advantage of every possible opportunity it offered. Listening to her, I realized she exemplified the ultimate L.A. woman, someone who has plunged into all there is to experience. She calls Disney Hall her synagogue and says she likes best that you can be a “hyphenate” here—a singer-surfer-editor-artist-cook—that everyone is busily reimagining their lives, adding things, losing things, trying things, and that nobody judges you for an eagerness to experiment.
I have been hearing more of such sentiments—from hipsters with flowing hair and piercings to goal-oriented careerists. Not so long ago I would run into driven young women, and they would all be trying to get somewhere else—Manhattan, London, Paris, even Chicago (because the theater there is excellent)—to be where the action was, where there was a defined path to a chosen goal. Now they are saying something else: I am staying put or I am coming back precisely because there are no dictated rungs to success, no old-school snobbery. The general feeling is that this is a good place to be a female, that it affords a wide range—not just of potential jobs and fashion choices but of possible selves. The future feels bigger, open, uncircumscribed. There are no throwback ideas of lineage or propriety.
To a native, this is amusing and pleasing. I have always thought Los Angeles is a terrific environment for women, in no small part because of the physical (and therefore psychological) freedoms. Growing up here, I spent my summers on a towel by the ocean reading the assigned tomes: Moby-Dick, Crime and Punishment, Madame Bovary (the only quasi beach read of the lot). I learned early on that I could be a hyphenate: a beach babe-book lover-journalist—that there need not be a contradiction. I always felt like my high school chums and I got a head start on feminism, the height of which was still a few years off, by believing that women should use the entire complement of their gifts. You could be a top-notch student without having to downplay your feminine or athletic assets. When I went east to a girls’ school, I felt awkward. I wasn’t preppy enough for the Ivy League boys who came to the dances, and I was way too tan. Sometimes to shock them I would cut loose on the dance floor, a sensual daredevil from some wild other planet—that’s how they looked at me. It was fun, but I hated it and couldn’t wait to come home. By the time I went back as a journalist, that coast had unbuckled a lot while I had no doubt calmed down and stopped being defensive about my roots. But I still felt out of place.
One young poet I know, who went to college at UCLA, is off to get an MFA in Boston, but her plan is to return. She says she adores the warmth and wearing her teddy-like tops in whatever season—while still being taken seriously, something she says isn’t true elsewhere. The Los Angeles she inhabits is a diverse and tolerant community where she, the child of a Mexican mother and a Persian father, fits in. I watch her walk across the room when we meet for lunch, and she knocks me out with her confidence and the comfort she clearly feels in her skin. Those are not easy attitudes, as many of us can attest—some would say especially in L.A. We’re all intimidated by the media’s ideas of feminine perfection that originate here, beamed at us from movie screens and magazine spreads. But these images lose their power as you walk the streets with the radiant multicultural jumble of women who are busting open the old norms. They eat with zest, and they talk freely about everything. They are joyously uninhibited in the best ways, intellectually, gustatorily, and, I can only presume, sexually. They like the city; it suits them. I see them at plays and in plays, at sushi joints and in hospitals—where they are the doctors.
So much promise awaits here. As a friend of mine said, this is a great city of first acts for women. There is no better starting point, the sun a spotlight on your bare limbs as you make your way down a fashionable street or sit at an oceanside café. The trickier part is what follows: how you adjust to the inevitable disappointments—the acting career that didn’t work out or the marriage that didn’t hold. There are, of course, women in very tough circumstances throughout this metropolis who fight hard every day, single moms, midlifers without health care. I marvel at their grit, their grace. The sun goes right on shining, mockingly so some days, as they struggle to stay afloat or reright their ships, tucking away the dreams they carried to this promised land. “What characterizes the real L.A. woman,” my friend said, “is how she handles the second act.”
I witness it all the time: the resilience of women. They learn a new trade or refall in love with a longtime spouse (how’s that for a switch?) or take singing lessons or become involved in philanthropy. Some have face-lifts, but unnoticeable ones that leave them appearing refreshed, not erased. Yes, there is pressure to look good, but those efforts are often directed at remaining healthy and strong. Stroll Beverly Hills and you see how some of the age-phobic go overboard, but most people don’t—at least the ones I know. There is a kind of cheery camaraderie among my tribe, a rueful chutzpah as we reflect on the passage of time and on our lives. We agree that this is a fine city to grow old in—again because there is no prescribed way to do it. At the same evening event, I can encounter all types: an aging hippie with no makeup and a bank vice president in the proverbial black pantsuit. They have new hobbies or new lovers or new grandchildren—or some combination of the three. They are still evolving, still hyphenating, to use my surfer friend’s word. As fate would have it, she has just relocated to the East Coast with the man who brought us together that night. Love took her, though she has every intention of getting back here.
Illustration by Michael Gillette