August 13, 2016 by John Wilcock
Ojai has a not-always-deserved liberal reputation, a haven for artists and writers and the kind of place where mavericks might feel welcome. Dating from the 1920s, the advent of Annie Besant’s Theosophical Society, the valley has prided itself on its “New Age” metaphysics, a widespread belief that the area has been spiritually blessed in some indefinable way. California psychobabble is prevalent here surfacing in Holistic Journey classes, Vedic Association meetings, lectures on vichara (whatever that is), qigong, energy-shifting, or body-mind integration.
Situated about 12 miles from the Pacific Coast Highway in an 18,000-acre valley, ten miles long and up to three miles wide, whose fertile terrain yields avocados, oranges, apricots, almonds, apples, and orchids, Ojai is once-seen, never-forgotten. What visitors remember is the felicitous main street; its small, friendly shops tucked behind monastery-like pillars.
North of town the jagged Los Padres mountains, simultaneously protective and inviting (although few rise to the challenge) offer a famous “pink moment” as the glowing sun sets on rugged slopes that reach heights of 6,000 feet. Apart from the rainy winter months there is almost constant sunshine—with July and August 100-degree heat, but with pleasantly balmy evenings. Even in winter, temperatures hardly ever drop to freezing, and the rains rarely turn to snow except for their dramatically picturesque coverage of the mountains. There are pictures on file of Ojai’s snow-covered streets, back in 1918, 1927, and 1948.
Visually the town is unique having been styled by Edward Drummond Libbey, an Ohio glass millionaire, who was captivated on a visit, then returned to commission the colonnaded arcade, tower and park that exist today. It became the kind of distinctive place that stayed in the visitor’s mind, and its reputation was enhanced in 1937 when director Frank Capra chose to shoot scenes from the movie Lost Horizon east of downtown. Reportedly, the director spent thousands of dollars to rent the world’s first snow machines, used to create Himalayan peaks out of canvas and plywood. Shangri La! Now there was an identity Ojai could optimistically adopt.
As early as 1915 when Donald Crisp’s Clunes Picture Co. filmed part of Helen Hunt Jackson’s weepie novel Ramona, the Ojai valley attracted stars. Claudette Colbert, Norma Shearer, and Robert Taylor began vacations by landing at Henderson Field, a grassy airstrip behind the highway in Mira Monte, and Bud Abbott and Joel McCrea both owned nearby ranches. There’s a whimsical 1949 ad of Charles Laughton appearing in a Pabst Blue Ribbon commercial shot at the five-star Ojai Valley Inn.
Local schools have graduated Jackie Coogan, (who starred in Chaplin’s The Kid) Tatum O’Neal, and Keith Carradine; and Anthony Hopkins, Jeff Corey, Tim Burton, James Brolin, Rory Calhoun, and Johnny Cash all had Ojai homes. Today’s best-known local star is Larry Hagman who lives in a spacious mansion (designed by his wife Maj) atop Sulphur Mountain, with panoramic views and an indoor swimming pool. He is occasionally seen at local functions and sits on the board of the local theater.
Otto Heino may not be a familiar name to most readers but the ceramic pots he creates in his Ojai studio fetch $25,000 or more in Japan. That’s because he spent years trying to create an elusive yellow glaze that had been used by Chinese ceramicists centuries ago and when he finally succeeded the demand almost exceeded his capacity to supply. The pots have “the color of butter, the hardness of stone, and the price tag of "a small car” observed Santa Barbara magazine. Preparing the clay takes about an hour while throwing a large pot takes only a few minutes, Otto explains: “The speed of pulling the form and exerting the right amount of tension on the clay, contribute to the vessel’s freshness”. Otto, 88, was the cover story for the third issue of my magazine.
Orange orchards are ubiquitous, especially east of town where they rub shoulders with horse ranches; orange crops were being shipped across country by the close of the 19th century and the annual crop was fetching more than a million dollars by the 1950s. The orange business is less and less profitable as imports from Morocco and Brazil flood the market. In the western part of the valley, stretching 12 miles to the ocean, a handful of oil derricks are a reminder of the first strikes made here as far back as the 19th century.
SOME OF THIS history I already knew when I first took up residence in 2001, having written it up for my five books about California; the remainder I researched for a little guide, Pink Moment, that I put together soon after arriving. (Pink moment is the famous local phenomenon when sunset drapes the Los Padres mountains). The guide was not received well—only a couple of shops would sell it—and I got the distinct impression that it was regarded by the powers-that-be as an act of hubris, as in Who is this interloper who dares to come here and write about us? Of course, that could have been my imagination, but when I volunteered for work at the museum (which had also declined to display my guide) my offer was rejected.
0ur local historian, Patricia Fry, is the descendant of a pioneer who arrived in 1876, sold brooms door to door and was the father of a man who planted the first olive orchard in the valley. She realized early on she wanted to be a writer, and had her first book signing at Barts Books, the famous store which keeps some books on a sidewalk display, available to all-comers at any hour of the day or night (just drop payment in the slot in the door).
Fry’s next book was a history of Ojai, a task that kept her so engrossed in the past, learning about people long-dead and immersing herself via newspaper reading in a community no longer here, that she could at times become momentarily disoriented. “One day I was in the library all day long” she recalls. “I was doing this on just about a daily basis and they called that the library was going to close in five minutes. It took me few minutes to get my bearings and I put the newspapers back and stepped outside and for a moment I was really shocked…that cars were speeding down the road.”
Oh yes, you had been in the past…
“I had. I fully expected, not anything consciously, but evidently I expected the clippety clop of horses and buggies slowly going down the street. So it took me a while to get back to reality”.
My attempts to get people interested in working on a local cable TV show brought no response. Perhaps everybody was infected by today’s greed syndrome: if there’s no money to be made, why bother? Most people these days are not inclined to spend time producing something without some immediate payback, and so it’s perhaps not surprising that the most democratic system of communication even invented, is so little used that in Ojai at least it will soon become obsolete. Long before YouTube, the cable TV companies were offering (often reluctantly) Public Access, one or more channels open free on which anybody could air their programs.
I quickly found my own Tuesday night half-hour slot to be a satisfyingly efficient way to let off steam about many of the aggravations that I accumulated from reading the daily papers and monitoring other media. You probably have been getting annoyed about some of the same things yourself: the state of the world, greed, atrocious art, celebrity fetishism, moronic fashion, tawdry taste, to name but a handful. What a wealth of subjects there were to talk about! And that’s without even mentioning politics. There were more examples in every day’s newspaper. I thought I might summarize some of the things that I talked about on my solo raps on the show.
“Guile, gall, grit and gamesmanship” have been used to describe the “activist investor” Carl Icahn, but surely “greed” should be added to that appraisal. Here’s a guy who’s devoted his life to moving into companies with borrowed funds, bullying his way onto the board of directors and then emasculating, stripping, or closing down the company solely to make a personal profit. This is much admired in the business community and in this manner, after exploiting such companies as Texaco, TWA, and Blockbuster, Icahn has acquired a fortune of $14 billion. But, of course, that’s no reason to stop. Like most avaricious capitalists he’ll never have enough no matter how many people suffer from his depredations. When last heard from he was gobbling up shares of Yahoo, hoping to oust the ten-member Board and substitute his own sycophants.
Nobody is surprised any more that corrupt African dictators siphon off billions to establish personal fortunes, but one always wonders if they ever give a thought to their starving subjects.
There are more billionaires on record every year but not many of them seem to be grateful for the opportunities they have been given to get filthy rich. Quite the opposite: many of them spend more on lawyers seeking ways to avoid taxes than most people earn in a lifetime. I guess what I’m trying to say is, why can’t some of these folk be rich and generous at the same time? Obviously a few of them are but many more think they will never have enough and if it means taking from people who have so much less, well, there’s nothing wrong with that.
The only explanation we heard about why it was imperative to bail out huge greedy companies on the verge of bankruptcy was about the catastrophic fallout that would ensue if we didn’t act, with banks and other companies collapsing in succession like a row of dominoes. But such warnings are never specific and make economic dunces like myself suspicious that once again we were conned by a private language only the in-group understand, things deliberately kept obscure so we won’t understand the trickery.
People like me, who don’t understand economics, are baffled by the way that half of the world can suddenly be having financial problems simultaneously. Everybody, every place, every country bereft of money at the same time? Where did all the money go? It can’t all have been suctioned up by hedge fund managers and Chinese and Russian billionaires.
If things were run by logic, some deity would pass on the word from on high that from now onwards all debts were forgiven and everybody starts even again. Not that that situation would prevail for long, because the greed heads would never stop trying to steal other people’s shares; that’s the essence of the capitalistic system.
The glum collateral damage of these times is that the multi-billion dollar bail-out still leaves many home buyers who were conned by unscrupulous financiers undeservedly to their fate. But far more numerous are the greedy gamblers who made disastrously bad guesses. Is a compensatory payoff obligatory to such folk whose made the wrong bets if other innocents have to pay for it?
The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation guarantees personal bank accounts and so does anybody really care that hedge fund managers and investors will suffer after the obscene profits they have already made? And what about the billionaires who ran these now-collapsing companies and yet still get multimillion dollar payoffs that presumably could otherwise pay down some of the debts? We’ve always been brainwashed to believe that only huge golden parachutes will secure the services of brilliant CEOs who might otherwise defect to rival companies but we have learned pretty quickly how brilliant some of these guys are. Sometimes I think the basic unspoken metaphor on which America really operates is that old saw about how we must destroy this village in order to save it.
But there’s something about the way language is constantly being manipulated by what we call, for convenience, the right wing. Take, for example, words like liberal (“one who is open-minded or not strict in the observance of orthodox, traditional, or established ways”—Merriam Dictionary) or socialism (“advocating collective or government ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods”). Are these ideas really dangerous? “Socialized medicine” is a particular Republican bugbear. In actual fact it means that medical care becomes a responsibility of the government and covers everybody, not just the people who can afford it. The reason why the right wing hates it so much is that by their reasoning somebody should always be able to make a profit, even in matters of life and death.
When the market is alleged to be able to take care of itself it merely means that there are no limits as to the profits than can be made by greed heads who don’t care about anybody but themselves. So, with the recent rescue by the Federal government of the banks and financial institutions we see a resurfacing of the old cliché: socialism is what comes to the rescue when capitalism fails.
In the election we saw two other examples of perfectly sensible ideas painted as evil incarnate: “spreading the wealth” and “class warfare”. How could anybody except a greed head think it a bad thing that if there’s plenty of money around that it shouldn’t be shared to some extent by all classes and not just the rich? And shame on the “haves” who think that the “have-nots” lack the right to fight for a share. I have rarely found myself agreeing with Los Angeles Times columnist Joel Stein, but during the financial meltdown that occurred recently he advanced the suggestion that rather than an expensive bailout, maybe the best action would be to do nothing.
Greed has so many facets and so many bases. Wikipedia defines it as “the selfish desire for or pursuit of money, wealth, power, food, or other possessions, especially when this denies the same goods to others. It is generally considered a vice, and is one of the seven deadly sins in Catholicism”. If you Google the word, you’ll find that there are 26 million references to the subject and it’s doubtful that you could read a single issue of any newspaper, anytime without finding examples.
One that was new to me was to learn how much sports fans are willing to be exploited. Being a fan is one thing, but quite another is being such a fanatic that there is no limit to what they’ll pay to rapacious stadium owners to pursue their hobby. At the three new stadiums that will open next year (2010) in New York, season tickets will more than double, with fans being asked as much as $500 per game. Aren’t the builders of these stadiums usually given huge subsidies by the cities where they establish their domains? But rip-off ticket prices are only part of it: in some cases a “personal license” of anything up to $20,000 must be paid in advance to allow fans to buy tickets at all. Of course, if the fans revolted and refused to pay, the prices would come down but most of them are as cowed (and as stupid) as moviegoers who absolutely, positively must see a film the day it is released. Not much hope of that.
Manhattan Memories is available at amazon.com.
An updat,ed A Guide to Occult Britain, complete with new illustrations, is also available at amazon.com.
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National Weed (1974, issue #3)
Forty years ago the second of my three books about magic was published, A Guide to Occult Britain (Sidgwick & Jackson) covering a wide range of sites from Stonehenge to Loch Ness and King Arthur country to the witches of Pendle Hill. It is now available as an eBook
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An authorized comic book biography of John Wilcock,
This IS a book-length comic series on John Wilcock. People who enjoy focusing on underground and alternative media are occasionally familiar with John's work, but most often the response is "who's that?" Outside of small press historians and collectors, John remains very unknown. Which makes no sense, the more you learn about him. We're very excited about the opportunity to tell his story. Art for THE STORY OF JOHN WILCOCK is by me and co-conspirator Scott Marshall. Story comes from an extended and ongoing year-long interview with Wilcock, himself. The focus is John's years in New York, roughly 1954-1971.
January 2, 2011
A way with Andy Warhol : John Wilcock recalls life in iconic pop artist's inner circle
During a journalism career that began when he was 16, John Wilcock has interviewed celebrities — Marilyn Monroe, Marlene Dietrich, Milton Berle, Steve Allen and Bob Dylan, to name a few — was part of enigmatic pop artist Andy Warhol's intimate circle in the 1960s, traveled to exotic locations all over the globe, has written dozens of books ranging from frugal travel to magic, was one of five founders (Norman Mailer was one of them) of the Village Voice and co-founded Interview magazine (still in circulation) with Mr. Warhol.
“The Return of the World's Worst Businessman”
John Wilcock is not what you would call a household name, and yet, he has had a measurable impact on art, journalism and culture-at-large over the last century. He co-founded Interview with Andy Warhol. He also was one of the co-founders of The Village Voice. He has written for countless print and online publications: Frommer’s, The Daily Mirror, The Daily Mail, The East Village Other, The Huffington Post, The New York Times, The Ojai Orange, etc. So why, one feels inclined to ask, is he relatively unknown? The answer seems simple: Wilcock has called himself “the world’s worst businessman.” This self-description makes sense because listening to him one hears the voice of a writer and a traveler and an enthusiast, not at all the voice of a businessman. In an age when it seems like everyone is all about business—art as a business, fashion as a business, everything as a business—it is refreshing to hear someone self-identify as “the world’s worst businessman.” It seems less like he has failed as a businessman and more like he has refused to become one. In addition to all his other accomplishments,...
Wednesday, December 29, 2010
Jewcy Top 10 Art Books of 2010
This brilliant remake of a pop primary document is brought to you by John Wilcock, probably the Most Interesting Man in the World in the realm of writers. The Village Voice cofounder had also edited Warhol’s seminal mag Interview in the 70s. The fruit of the book is in the genius of its redesign. After 40 years out-of-print, the newly edited edition is “beautifully redesigned in a bright, Warholian palette” that surrounds a trail of Harry Shunk’s internationally Pop-art-informed camera as well as transcribed interviews with those closest to Warhol that ultimately make up an oral history of the artist’s Factory period. By looking at him through the scope of his peers, this book is the equivalent of Pittsburgh’s Warhol Museum in illuminating qualities of Warhol’s warped mirror on which our American culture was briefly reflected.
Monday, November 15, 2010
A Reader Comment from the recent New York Times Frugal Traveler post
Not only did John Wilcock shake up staid publishing in the USA, from the Village Voice to the East Village Other, his influence extended to several continents, including Australia & the UK, where - in his mild mannered way - he pushed the boundaries of image and speech. The counter culture was nothing but a dull puddle, until John kicked out the jams and ignited the Underground Press, which attracted absurd prosecutions, that of course boosted circulations. An unsung hero of the sixties,
It was the first handwritten letter I’d received in 5 years. Or maybe 10. Signed by John Wilcock, a man I’d never heard of, and postmarked Ojai, Calif., it was waiting for me when I returned from my Săo Paulo-to-New York summer trip. Mr. Wilcock wrote that he had been an assistant editor at The Times Travel section back in the 1950s, and had written the first editions of “Mexico on $5 a Day,” “Greece on $5 a Day” and “Japan on $5 a Day” for Arthur Frommer in the 1960s.
By George, I thought. This man was the original Frugal Traveler.
“A GOOD WAY to describe John Wilcock is to say that he is a talented bohemian counter-culture journalist who once played a major role in the emergence of America’s underground press. Born 1927 in Sheffield, England, he left school aged 16 to work on various newspapers in England, and on Toronto periodicals before moving to New York City. There in 1955 he became one of the five founders of the Village Voice in which he and co-founder Norman Mailer wrote weekly columns. Wilcock called his column “The Village Square”, an intended pun. He and young Mailer were not quite friends, although Wilcock was at times annoyed, but always amused, by Mailer’s monstrous ego.”