Over the years [Jake] Zeitlin earned a reputation as one of the world’s top dealers in rare books and science manuscripts. Though Zeitlin had first announced himself on the Los Angeles scene as a poet, science is what he really loved. He had tried upon his arrival in Los Angeles to get a job at a museum; in Texas he had been a respectable local amateur birdwatcher who had even had publishing credits in the field.
These specializations did not obscure his continuing involvement in literature, however. Early in Zeitlin’s career, a man wandered into his bookstore who would have a large impact on the city’s intellectual life as well as Zeitlin’s career. He was Elmer Belt, a physician who may have been one of the consummate book collectors of all time. Belt eventually would assemble the greatest collection of books relating to Leonardo da Vinci outside Italy, a collection that eventually went to UCLA. He was also the personal physician of evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, as well as of the “American Zola,” Upton Sinclair, whose books he collected with a fervor almost equal to that which he devoted to his hero da Vinci; the Sinclair collection is now housed at Occidental College. Among many other things, Belt was a prime mover in the founding of the UCLA Medical School.
Zeitlin told of his arrangement as Belt’s primary da Vinci supplier in a eulogy he delivered at UCLA for Belt, who died at the age of 87 in 1980. During the Depression, the doctor’s office was across the street from Zeitlin’s bookstore, and the deal he made with Zeitlin helped immeasurably toward keeping the latter in business. Belt said he could afford to spend $200 a month on da Vinci, which Zeitlin admits was an important part of his cash flow in those days. But in return, Belt told Zeitlin to go easy, not to overcharge him.“If you do, I won’t buy anything else from you,” he said. The relationship between Zeitlin and Belt proved to be lifelong and close.
When all is said and done, Zeitlin’s greatest impact on Los Angeles was through the books, resources and people he directed to UCLA.
Starting in 1927, Zeitlin supplied many of the basic books that the university’s new library needed; it was largely through Zeitlin’s efforts that UCLA obtained Belt’s da Vinci collection years later, and it was Zeitlin who “discovered” the man who would become UCLA’s great librarian, Lawrence Clark Powell. During the thirties and forties when Powell was head librarian, he intentionally set out with Jake’s help to equal the Bancroft Library’s collections on the Berkeley campus.
Powell came into the bookstore a little late in the game, catching only the tail end of the original scene that emanated from Zeitlin’s downtown operation. Powell was not part of the inner circle that published Opinion in 1929 and 1930, for instance. But of greater significance than Opinion was the emergence of the Primavera Press in 1928 from Zeitlin’s shop. Through this publishing company Zeitlin became the first patron of three great printers Los Angeles has produced: Saul Marks, Grant Dahlstrom, and Ward Ritchie.
Powell first visited Zeitlin’s bookstore in 1928. It was, he said, “a crack in the wall with a grasshopper sign on the window. There was no other shop in town like this tiny oasis where time relaxed its grip, an incarnate answer to Codben-Sanderson’s prayer, ‘sweet God, souse me in literature!’—a place fragrant with oil of cedar, where purchases were wrapped in orange and black patterned paper.”
Powell lived in Paris during the first three years of the thirties. While he was there, Primavera Press commissioned him to write a biography of the poet Robinson Jeffers, who had grown to manhood in Los Angeles. When Powell returned to Los Angeles in 1933, his first volume was published. He went to work at the bookstore and moved into a house near Zeitlin’s in Echo Park. The Jeffers biography sold out its first printing of 750 copies despite the fact it had appeared well into the Depression. Its popularity owed a lot to the fact that it was illustrated by Rockwell Kent, but it was a good and interesting book about a then new and important figure.
Three years later, however, the Depression was really in full sway, and Primavera folded. Its traditions, however, were carried on for years after that by the late Ward Ritchie, whom John Ahouse took me to meet in 1994.
Ritchie began in the thirties as the printer for Primavera, operated a successful commercial press for many years on Hyperion Avenue, and was living in very active retirement in Laguna Beach. He had a lovely Spanish-style house, and actress Gloria Stuart who later appeared in the movie “Titanic” was his longtime companion.
Ritchie was of the strong opinion that today’s books are overly dominated by graphics. “It’s not the type that’s conveying the message anymore,” he said. What was ironic about this comment was that Ritchie’s own style was heavily influenced by Frangois-Louis Schmied in Paris, with whom he had apprenticed in the thirties, and whose books with their eye-catching graphics are still highly sought after today. Ritchie had an enormous 1835 English hand-press in his basement on which he still published limited editions under the imprint “Laguna Verde Imprenta.” On his work desk were some current designs for the Historical Society of California. Ritchie was still very busy, not only producing books by hand but also designing books for the University of California Press. He designed about 75 titles for them. He also had printed about 25 volumes by Robinson Jeffers over the years.
Perhaps it really is hard to say where Zeitlin’s influence on the intellectual life of Los Angeles was felt the most, for he seems to have brought together so many people for so many different reasons for so many years. It would be remiss of me if I did not mention I had an interesting business transaction with Jake. I didn’t meet him because of the business dealings—rather the dealings evolved out of my meeting him.
My mother had grown up knowing Willa Cather, “Aunt Willa,” who was also her Shakespeare teacher. She came to love Willa more than she did her own mother, who in later years she even came to despise. My mom had exchanged many letters with Willa over the years and I had heard her read many of them aloud. I was especially interested, because some of them mentioned what a cute baby I was.
Scholars and writers had been trying to see those letters for years, but while Willa was alive and while Edith Lewis, her executor and long-time companion, was active, my mom would let no one read them.
In the eighties I was going through a particularly rough time as a freelance writer, so my mother just packed the letters into a regular airmail envelope and sent them to me for Jake to sell. He sold them to the Cowboy Museum in Norman, Oklahoma. I paid some back rent and even took a short vacation to San Francisco. Jake was more generous with me than he really needed to be, advancing me funds against the expected sale, which kept me going. Eventually the letters went to Princeton University.
Zeitlin’s relationship with Huxley was of greater moment than my encounter with him. Huxley wrote a lot about the town and place, and his ideas particularly influenced the younger generation coming up during the sixties in Los Angeles. Zeitlin first met Huxley in the spring of 1938 at Frieda Lawrence’s ranch, where he began the job of cataloging and offering for sale the manuscripts of her late husband. Zeitlin met Aldous and Maria and was close to both until their deaths. They became friends during several days spent in the beautiful New Mexico landscape, which included not only many long conversations, but also the viewing of Indian rain dances. “And it rained—it rained torrents,” Zeitlin recalled. He was particularly proud of the inscription Huxley once wrote to him: “For Jake Zeitlin, our guide, philosopher and friend in the West.”
Zeitlin convinced Huxley to come and work in the Hollywood movie studios, which paid well. Moreover, Zeitlin helped Huxley burn his first drafts of a screenplay, so bad was it. There was Huxley, pulling down $2,500 a week—in the late thirties yet—but judging from his first effort, it appeared that he might never be a screenwriter. Nevertheless, Huxley went on to eventually write some good scenarios. His script for “Pride and Prejudice” is considered a Hollywood classic.
Zeitlin also brought in his friend Powell, who was hungry and out of work, to do the job of cataloging the Lawrence manuscripts. In the process, Powell also became close to Frieda Lawrence and the Huxleys—friendships which would be important to the UCLA collections Powell would one day develop. You can understand why Powell would later write that “looking back, we can see that the Depression nourished culture as it brought together artists, professionals and intellectuals. The catalyst was Jake, his shop the cultural heart of Los Angeles.”
When Huxley made the keynote speech to open Zeitlin’s new shop in Westlake in 1938, he recognized the importance of Zeitlin’s role as a catalyst. Writers were constantly attracted to his shop—William Saroyan had wandered in once and tried to convince Zeitlin that he should publish something of his, sight unseen. Zeitlin replied that he would be glad to publish something of Saroyan’s, especially if he could see it first. You never knew whom you might meet at Zeitlin’s shop, said Carey McWilliams. And as if to prove McWilliams right, Zeitlin was full of great stories about his brushes with such noteworthy writers as Steinbeck, Faulkner, West, Dreiser, and S.J. Perelman.
Zeitlin also knew Henry Miller quite well, although he was not an enormous fan of the man’s writing or of the man himself, who he dismissed as a rather commonplace and vulgar fellow, “a crumb with no social conscience.” Zeitlin’s views were confirmed by Josephine as well. Zeitlin agrees that Miller obviously had an outsized writing talent. He took Miller to talk to Huxley over lunch in 1937, and while everyone was cordial enough, the chemistry wasn’t there. Huxley later observed to Zeitlin that Miller reminded him “of a Sunday school teacher from the Midwest.”
Still, in the coffeehouse scene of the late fifties and early sixties, copies of The Air Conditioned Nightmare were as much in view as Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn had been on display in hip circles in the thirties, forties and early fifties. That book, along with books by Kerouac, Ginsberg, Kenneth Patchen and Ferlinghetti, were the true voices of the beats.
*It was getting late and we had been talking for several hours. Zeitlin was blunt in his opinions, and I was anxious for him to venture more of them. For example, I told him that I thought his friend Powell had treated Upton Sinclair, one of my favorite writers, rather badly. And I asssumed the reason was politics. What did Zeitlin think? Zeitlin replied that his old friend Powell may be a wonderful fellow—he and Powell communicated regularly right up to the end— but Zeitlin nonetheless said “he had no political sense. Never had. He even endorsed Nixon once.” Powell died at the age of 94 in March of 2001.Zeitlin also had little patience with my impression that great writers seemed to have vanished from the landscape. “I don’t think writing has gone downhill. I think publishing has. There were always chambermaid romances and dime-store novels. And I think that Mr. McLuhan made more noise than sense,” he added, dismissing the late Canadian media philosopher who in the sixties was predicting the end of literacy. “I don’t think there’s been a decline in literacy—although I don’t know where the literates are anymore.” He insisted that contemporary writers like Saul Bellow and John Updike must be taken seriously. “The writers of principle are still there, just as they always were.”I was not entirely convinced, but I listened when he said, “There’s been a tremendous amount of ferment here, a lot of new enterprises, fortunes being made, and the material for a lot of crashes was also being made here. There’s a tremendous intermingling of cultures. The legend of Los Angeles has grown tremendously, and people believe in legends so much they don’t even compare the legend to the reality. Southern California has become a tremendously legendary place.”Zeitlin played a big role in that legend, like the Los Angeles River, a strange river that sometimes flows with a terrifying intensity. Along the river and over the decades, people have written a lot of books about L.A. People often look at the Los Angeles River especially when it is dry in summer and make jokes about it. They’ve done the same thing with the city’s cultural life—they proclaimed it is a river that mostly runs dry. But the Los Angeles River is very much alive—just in an odd kind of way. You have to get to know it to understand it and treat it with respect.
*This is excerpted from a chapter in Lionel Rolfe’s “Literary L.A.,” digital copies of which are available on Amazon’s Kindle Store and on Scribd.