All winter long, in the shade of towering, ancient oaks, camellias bloom red, pink, and white in California’s Descanso Gardens. This enchanting garden has a painful origin, one tied to World War II. It is also a story of a beam of light in the darkness, an act of friendship amidst the anguish of many people.
This KCET video tells the story in less than twelve minutes, starting at the nine-minute mark, but you may want to watch the entire episode. Descanso Gardens is located in the city of La Canada (can-YA-da) Flintridge, only thirteen miles from downtown Los Angeles.
This video should start at about 9:00 minutes. Watch to 20:24. The last minute tells of the construction of Japanese Garden at Descanso Gardens, completing the story of what is now the largest camellia collection in North America.
E. Manchester Boddy saw a business opportunity, Brown says, but also had “deep compassion” for his friends and paid a fair price for the camellias.
The camellias I’ve seen in California are pink, white or red or a combination, such as red and white stripes. I hunt for “sports.” These are single plants with two different colors of blooms. For example, a camellia shrub with red blooms might have a section with white ones. Those branches have a natural mutation, so its blooms are different.
The trailer for the episode shows the gardens at Descanso.
Camellias at Descanso bloom from early autumn to spring, with the most dazzling floral display in winter, from January through February. Other gardens at Descanso make it beautiful year-round.
I passed through the Berlin Wall. Even though I was an American tourist, my trip through the Iron Curtain and into the DDR changed me. In 1983, there was no grafitti on the Communist side of the wall. Nobody could go near it.
It was assumed that the East German guards in the border towers, like the white one above, had machine guns to kill their fellow citizens. The vast majority of East Germans could not leave the DDR until they reached retirement age. They could see, beyond the Berlin Wall, the buildings of free Germany. They could also see this inspiring banner of Polish workers successfully challenging their own Communist government.
Crossing the Communist Border
I boarded a tour bus in West Berlin for a trip to the East. It stopped at Checkpoint Charlie. We crossed through and had a tour of East Berlin. At the end of this post, I include links to sights.
It’s leaving a Communist country that’s serious business.
Everyone had to get off the bus and stand single file on a long line painted on the pavement.
The stern young border guards appeared, wearing the military uniforms of a Communist country. I had nothing to fear, but thirty years later, I get a chill down my spine again.
A border guard examined my passport photo. He looked up and studied my face for at least five seconds. When he was sure I was not an East German seeking freedom, he handed me back my passport.
A guard produced a hand truck like the one below, but with a mirror on the bottom.
The guard moved the hand truck under the edge of the bus and looked at the mirror on the base. He was looking for an East German resident clinging to the undercarriage. He moved the hand truck in and out, all around the edges of the bus. Later, I crossed the border on a train in the countryside, and the same thing happened. After checking our photos, the guards looked under the long train seat for a person.
The Next Day, A Solo Trip
The following day, Communist Berlin pulled me like a magnet, and I went alone. I found poverty.
I went in a produce store where half a dozen people shopped. Everyone had little potatoes in their basket. Just the potatoes, except one woman had a dirt clod with a bright orange dot. It appeared to be a carrot, or bunch of carrots, in a dirt clod.
An attractive sign high on the wall said, “Apfels,” but I could not find apples or any other fruit.
I walked in a nice area and saw images of Marx and Lenin. I ate in a pleasant restaurant and pitied my waitress her lack of freedom.
I came to a rundown neighborhood and saw the rubble of a brick building.
I believe it was damage from the war, forty years before. Next to this, someone had spray-painted a cry for help.
They had written it in English. As if we could help them, I thought.
I mailed postcards from East Berlin to the U.S., and they took five weeks to arrive. My friends back home said, “Well, the censors had to read the postcards.” Yes, but five weeks to read three sentences?
Where the Tour Bus Went
A Military Cemetery With Propaganda
East Berlin, and East Germany (DDR), were the Soviet Union’s slice of the pie when the victorious Allies divided up Germany. My tour bus stopped at the Soviet Memorial in Treptower Park, where more than 7,000 Soviet soldiers are buried. They lost their lives in World War II. Our tour guide told us an inflated number, 25,000 soldiers, 5,000 in each of the five great rectangles of lawn.
I heard these museums were spared from Allied bombing. An island in a river is easy to see from the air. We were taken to a museum with the famous Egyptian bust of Nefertiti.
At the Pergamon Museum, I was amazed to enter an enormous room containing part of a Greek temple. It’s the Pergamon Altar, and visitors walk up the ancient stairs. The many marble figures appear to be life-sized or larger. In another room, I walked down a walled street taken from ancient Babylon. Those walls are covered with beautiful blue tile.
Our last names tell about our ancestors hundreds of years ago.
Long ago, when there were fewer people, all anyone needed was one name. Eventually, that became confusing. Different men had the same name.
“John? Which John do you mean? John the miller, or John the young man?”
People spoke this way for centuries before these “tags” became the names John Miller and John Youngman.
In the year 1000 AD, the British Isles had only about 2 million people. This includes the UK and Ireland.
As an American, I tried to imagine this and looked for a comparable US state. I found that New Mexico is the same area, and it now has the same population as the British Isles did in 1000 A.D.
In 1066, William the Conqueror led the Norman invasion of England. Europeans started to go to England, and the population grew. People began to use last names. (In France, this taking of last names happened earlier, about 1000 AD.)
In the four hundred years or so after the Norman Conquest of 1066, people in the British Isles began to adopt last names. Their family members and relatives would have the same, or similar names. Some countries and regions resisted longer.
Often it was the knights and gentry who were the first to take last names. Knights, of course, are addressed as “sir.” Last names are also called surnames, which came from “sir”name.
Our names tell about our ancestors in the Middle Ages, writes William Dodgson Bowman in The Story of Surnames and Geneology.
Jack London’s ancestors were from…you know.
Playwright Noel Coward’s ancestors were cow herders.
There were four main categories of names, Bowman writes, giving these examples:
Where they lived. Street, Hill, or the name of their town
Who their father was: John’s son became Johnson
Nicknames like Wolf, Oldman, Goodman, Brown, Strong
Their occupation or position
Occupational last names are fun! I have been noticing them for many years. My dad told me about them after he explained why our last name was Wilson (son of Wil). It took me a while, but here is what I came up with on my own. I have known people with most of these last names:
Smith (blacksmith, silversmith, etc.)
Sexton (church custodian, even today)
Hostler, Ostler (takes care of horses)
Sawyer (saws wood)
Cooper (makes barrels)
Bowman has more, including:
Chandler (makes candles)
Fletcher (makes arrows, a more common occupation in the Middle Ages!)
Would you like to tell us about your name, or that of a family member?
“Welcome, Modernists!” read the banners in Palm Springs, California. I hadn’t thought of myself as being modern, but this is Midcentury Modern, with a focus on the 1950s and 1960s. It might be as cool now as it was back then. I went to the fall preview of Modernism Week, an annual February event billed as the ultimate celebration of Midcentury architecture, design and culture.
Frank Sinatra’s Home
My first stop was Twin Palms. Designed by E. Stewart Williams, this house will forever be known as Sinatra’s house, although he lived here only ten years.
He and his first wife, Nancy, moved into their brand new home and threw a New Year’s Eve bash to usher in 1948.
Yes, his bedroom was open for the tour! This is the view from the bed.
A preservationist who spoke to our tour said the pool, which is in the front yard, was not built to look like a piano, although its shape reminds people of one. The walkway’s pergola often casts shadows which look like piano keys.
Sinatra left his wife for actress Ava Gardner. In 1951, they married, but the marriage was stormy. The master bathroom sink is still cracked from the time Sinatra reportedly threw a bottle of champagne during one of their fights. They divorced in 1957, but became lifelong friends.
There is a lot of sandstone inside and out. A microphone was found embedded in it. The preservationist said Sinatra did that because he wanted to hear what people said about him after he left.
Fireplaces in the Sinatra home. On the left, the sandstone one in his bedroom.
Sinatra could record from the property. An antenna extends up from the stone feature in the middle of the photo below. It sent his home recordings to his studio.
His living room had sound and recording equipment built in.
We saw many houses in a few days, but one stood out. We forgot the official name–the Morse residence–and called it, “The James Bond House.”
The James Bond House (But Not Really)
In 1961, Mr. and Mrs. Morse commissioned architect Hal Levitt to remodel their tract home. They liked to entertain and wanted to bring a pool into their living room.
A framed photo in the home showed one of their parties in the 1960s, with Mrs. Morse dancing to a band.
When the party’s over, partitions are pulled out of the walls, and the living room is separated from the outdoor pool.
The party continues. Even if you can’t go, see photos with sunshine and style at Modernism Week.
This was my first taste of Midcentury Modern, and now I really appreciate it.
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Even before photography, astronomy yielded beautiful images. At the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens, I popped into the library to see the universe. The exhibition is titled Radiant Beauty: E.L. Trouvelot’s Astronomical Drawings. They were published in 1881 and 1882.
The title is from Trouvelot’s own words: “No human skill can reproduce upon paper the majestic beauty and radiance of the celestial objects.”
“Mare Humorum,” above, shows the surface of the moon, both in sunlight and the darkness of the lunar night.
Trouvelot was a self-taught astronomer. He immigrated from France to Massachusetts as a young man and established a silk-producing farm. He made astronomical drawings, often in pastel, with the aid of telescopes at Harvard and the U.S. Naval Observatory, the latter the world’s largest telescope at twenty-six inches.
He travelled to see total eclipses of the sun, one in Wyoming Territory (shown above, with solar storms), and another in the South Pacific.
There is a lunar eclipse this week! This is one drawn by Trouvelot.
I love his drawing of Jupiter, above. Two white moons on the left cast shadows, one on the Great Red Spot.
These are from a published set of fifteen lithographs of his drawings. The Huntington displayed their complete set. There’s a reason it is very rare, and that’s only one thing covered in the following four-minute video, also available on YouTube:
There’s something special about an object made by a team of artists instead of a machine. The irregularities make it unique.
Louis Comfort Tiffany’s glassworkers made what he called Favrile (hand-made, hand-blown) glass vases for people who lived around 1900, an age of industry and machines. The people of this time also wanted the art of the dawning twentieth century to be new and different than the art of the past.
Louis Comfort Tiffany, son of the famous jeweler, was a young painter and interior decorator whose commissions included the White House. Later, he was able to focus on his passion: glass. He experimented and learned from others, making glass with dimension. Metal gave glass an iridescent luster.
Tiffany designed gardens and drew inspiration from nature.
His company had made leaded glass windows that looked like paintings. The expensive windows decorated mansions of the very rich. He marketed these vases to a much wider audience.
Tiffany studied ancient glass in his travels to the Old World, and also at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, very close to his home. He loved the pockmarks and other deterioration that took place over centuries in the soil. He and his team created new vases with pockmarks and an ancient look he called Cypriote.
The one with the fish may be my favorite. This vase is empty.
It’s still a New Year celebration in Pasadena. The 100th Rose Queen reigned over the Rose Parade yesterday, and the Pasadena Museum of History has remarkable photos, fashions, crowns, and more on display.
Fashions have changed, and fashion reflects history. This is the 1971 Rose Queen and Royal Court.
A hundred years ago, chariot races were the post-parade sporting event instead of football.
Mr. D. M. Linnard raced chariots in this toga around 1905.
The early Rose Queens had to come up with their own costumes (they were given five or ten dollars to defray the cost), and also the roses to decorate their carriage.
Before 1935, selection of the queen and princesses was informal. Early Pasadena royals included actresses. Usually, the women of the royal court were chosen because they were popular, excellent students, accomplished in other ways, or friends and family of Rose Parade volunteers.
There were even two men. In 1913 and 1914, there were Rose Kings as well as Rose Queens, similar to Homecoming Kings and Queens at high schools and colleges.
On January 1, 1942, the parade was cancelled due to the war, but the queen and her court put on their gowns and drove a car with a giant V for victory.
The 1951 Rose Queen–in white, as always–and Rose Princesses. Contrast this fashion with the royal wardrobe twenty-one years later, when many women wanted to join the workforce and see the Equal Rights Amendment made part of the Constitution. Ready for business.
The royals are ambassadors for the city of Pasadena, with well over 100 appearances in the few months before each New Years Day. Despite a hectic schedule which includes school, their wardrobes are coordinated with each other. Here’s their secret.
The exhibit at the Pasadena Museum of History includes many gowns. Some Rose Queens got married in theirs. There were two longtime designers for the Tournament of Roses. William Cahill of Beverly Hills, a noted designer of wedding gowns, supplied gowns from 1953 through the early 1970s.
1950s Rose Queen and Rose Princess gowns by William Cahill
1970, left, and 1971, both by William Cahill
Since 1993, almost all gowns have been created by designer Tadashi Shoji. These are from 2005 and 2004. Queens wear white, and this one is made of satin ribbons with rhinestone trim.