When I was 11, my family moved into a 1924 Spanish style house in Laurel Canyon. It was an oasis in the hills with a history steeped in Old Hollywood. The yard smelled sweetly floral like orange blossoms on a hot summer’s night. Or the lingering perfume of a silent film star’s ghost. Clara Bow lived on our street and Louise Brooks in the neighborhood. Bougainvillea cascaded down the hill like a waterfall of jewel tones washing over the dusty succulents. Squirrels were fat from gorging themselves on the fruit of an avocado tree. And the coyotes were fatter still from eating the squirrels. Deer, opossums, owls, quail, rabbits and raccoons all lived in our backyard. It was so charming, but not at the time. At the time I was 11. I had curly hair, ill-advised bangs, braces, and a bad attitude exacerbated by the fact that I was a competitive figure skater who wanted to be Moira Kelly in The Cutting Edge. The 76 front stairs made me feel sorry for myself whenever my parents made me take out the trash. And the fact that they bought me a pair of Lightning Rollerblades that I wasn’t allowed to use because my mother said our street was too steep, made me feel sorrier still. How as a child in 1993 was I going to have any fun?
With a dog. For my 12th birthday, my parents got me a Maltese that I named Bailey Jane. She looked nothing like Elizabeth Taylor’s Maltese that appeared in her White Diamonds commercials. For starters, Bailey’s hair was kept short in a puppy cut. Sure, she was an animal of privilege but she was still a dog. A canyon dog. She had trouble to get into. The likes of which she would have never found if we had been constantly getting her groomed. Like the baby coyote she discovered with the broken leg in the muddy underbrush of my mother’s hydrangeas. A dog just can’t have those kinds of expeditions with silky floor length tresses. That’s not to insinuate that the hair Bailey did have wasn’t silky. It was. So much so that I took to using her puppy shampoo. I adored her. I wore zip-up hoodies so I could walk around carrying her. Her ears smelled like cookies and her dirty paws of stale popcorn stuffed in old socks. She was my best friend. But that didn’t mean I was hers. At least not her only.
Bailey’s best fur friend was Patches, the black and white cattle dog who lived next door. Despite their size difference they really enjoyed each other’s company. Patches would mosey over to ours and paw at the door like a child asking if her friend can come out to play. Bailey would look at my parents and me longingly. We’d open the door and the two of them would chase each other outside. One day, Patches came over and I noticed a piece of paper tucked into her collar.
“Would your family and Bailey like to come over for tea?” I showed the note to my parents. We wrote back. “Yes.” I tucked the paper back where I found it and sent Patches on her way. She returned a few minutes later with another note. “Great. See you at 4 o’clock. Gary & Sarah.”
Gary and Sarah were Patches’ parents. We didn’t know much about them except that they had been in the canyon for a long time and that Sarah once scolded my father for speeding up the hill. “Dogs and children live here! Slow down!” But that afternoon, we were going to do what people in L.A. never do. We were going to get acquainted with our neighbors.
Where our house had shades of Norma Desmond’s in Sunset Boulevard but on a much smaller scale, the Legons’ house had shades of Tom Wolfe’s “The Pump House Gang.” It was magnificent, modern, and full of Pop art. And tea. Not Snapple Peach, but properly brewed hot tea in the middle of the day. Darjeeling, Lapsang Souchong, or plain English Breakfast. I loved it and I loved them. Each time I’d go to theirs, it was like taking a field trip. Like going to Pooh Corner in the 1960s with Graham Nash and Joni Mitchell as your chaperones.
Bailey and I would often go without my parents. Over time and cups of tea and slices of Stilton on raisin toast, I would learn about and develop an appreciation for art. Sarah came to New York from Southampton when she was 13. There, she and her older brother, David, fell in love with the art scene. She told me the Leo Castelli Gallery was one of their favorite places and that the manager there took them under his wing. And that one day he took them to a party hosted by art director, Art Kane, which is where they met Andy Warhol and forged a friendship that would change their lives. While still children David and Sarah became Andy’s assistants. And what most people don’t know is that it was young Sarah who taught him to silkscreen.
Sarah is the real Edie Sedgwick–except she had class and she never cared to be famous. For instance, there is a photo that some paparazzo snapped of her with Andy and she’s wearing a dress from his FRAGILE HANDLE WITH CARE series. She is identified as “unknown woman,” because her mother taught her it was tacky to give your name to the press. No young gorgeous girl standing next to an icon would do that these days.
But it wasn’t just Sarah’s history or the Rauschenbergs that hung on her wall that interested me. It was how she was genuinely interested in 12 year old me. I’d tell them about Justinian’s Corpus Juris Civilis. I’d tell them about making crêpes in French class. Sarah would help me conjugate verbs in the passé composé using être as opposed to avoir. I’d tell them about the Lichtenstein exhibit I’d seen downtown with my parents. We’d discuss his Ben-Day dots and how they related to Seurat’s pointillism. We’d talk about Clueless. I’d show them my latest figure skating tricks. They were like the cool eccentric relatives I didn’t have in town.
We all know the African proverb made famous by Hillary Clinton: It takes a village to raise a child. I am so happy Patches and the Legons were my villagers. I think of them fondly whenever I hear “Our House” and remember afternoon tea parties at theirs with Bailey Jane whenever anyone offers me a good cup of tea or a toasted Stilton sandwich. Now that I’m a mother, I wonder who will my daughter’s villagers be? And more importantly, what kind of dog will we get?