Saturday, September 19, 2020

"There Was No Doubt Gertrude Stein Had Come Back to Life."

AM has long maintained that Cass Elliot was the Gertrude Stein of Laurel Canyon. Stein, who lived in Paris in the 6th Arrondisement at 27 rue de Fleurus, spent the informative years of her life as host, along with partner Alice B. Toklas, to the American Expatriates of the 1920s – the likes of Avant Garde photographer Man Ray, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway  and European artists alike, in particular Pablo Picasso, Luis Bunuel, Francis Picabia and Henri Matisse. If one is impressed with the ghetto of artists that populated L.A.'s Laurel Canyon in the 1960s, one would be overwhelmed by those who frequented No. 27. Essentially, Stein was mentor, editor, guru and critic, not to mention champion, of the artistic renaissance that pervaded Paris in the 1920s. Two accounts that bring Stein’s enclave into focus are her biopic, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (oddly titled an "autobiography" and credited to Toklas), and Hemingway's posthumously published A Moveable Feast. As well, Stein is expertly portrayed by Kathy Bates in Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris, lounging in a Queen Anne-styled chair, dressed in brown corduroy, with an entourage of the famous, or soon to be famous, hanging on her every word. It would not be unusual for Fitzgerald and Hemingway, already fully established in the writing community (Fitzgerald with Gatsby under his wing and Hemingway, having already published The Sun Also Rises, working on A Farewell to Arms), Fitzgerald stumbling on his words, Hemingway, cocksure and arrogant, telling off Juan Gris, simply because that was Hemingway's M.O.

As an Angelino, I drove by "Our House," the hillside home Joni Mitchell shared with Graham Nash, on a million occasions, making it a part of my tour for house guests, forever overawed – but I can't imagine walking into No. 27 to find the wall covered in Cezannes or the early works of Matisse. The constant flux of people in and out brings to mind T.S. Eliot's Prufrock: "In the room the women come and go,/ Talking of Michelangelo," but these weren't "people," these were the great minds of the 20th Century, coming and going, each hoping for an audience with Stein. In the mid-20s, the scene established itself as a more formal Salon on Saturday evenings with Alice B. Toklas acting as hostess. Stein's idea was to allow these incredible masses to entertain themselves while she holed up with her own interests. It was the perfect time for her to work on the autobiography. James R. Mellow describes a typical evening at the Saturday Salon: "Among the crowd of Hungarian painters, French intellectuals, English aristocrats and German students, one might pick out the figures of Picasso and his mistress, Fernande Olivier (Picasso looking like an intense young bootblack; Fernande, almond-eyed and attractive). The man with the reddish beard and spectacles, looking like a German professor, would be Matisse. Next to him might be the poet Guillaume Apollinaire and his clinging friend, the painter Marie Laurencin. The tall figure would be that of Georges Braque, whose superior stature among the smaller cubists made him the official hanger- of-pictures in the atelier. In the American contingent, the familiars would be the painters Patrick Henry Bruce and Alfred Maurer, both of them early advocates of the modernist vision and both, at the same time, followers of Matisse."

By the same token, it was Cass Elliot who shaped the 60’s behind-the-music scene. The Top Ten smash "I Saw Her Again" by The Mamas and the Papas was the first major hit of the summer of 1966. By then, the band was L.A. royalty, with their own table reserved at the Whiskey-a-Go-Go. One could go so far as to say that this was when and where the unwitting Salon of the Canyon began (unofficially Cass had overseen the same scene in Greenwich Village years before). Keep in mind that what may read as pretentious, was in no way the case. Neither Stein nor Cass Elliot orchestrated their guru-like draw; both were genuine and charming, welcoming people, regular people too, to their homes. Cass though, by all accounts, was unassuming and genuinely appreciated those who sought her attention. I would love to have created the idea of Cass Elliot as Gertrude Stein, but Graham Nash had the thought back in '67: "There was no doubt that Gertrude Stein had come back to life. She [Mama Cass] was brilliant and she loved friends and she loved to get high with all of us. She was the queen!"

Donovan remembers Cass from his celebrity filled L.A. debut at The Trip in 1966 as "The most vocal fan in the audience." He went on to say that he became friendly with all four members of the band, but that "Cass made this eighteen-year old boy welcome in America and she treated me like a sister in a time of overwhelming fame for me" (Donovan had become a star overnight, first with "Catch the Wind" and then with the monster hit "Sunshine Superman"). He would later immortalize his feelings for her in a stylized psychedelic homage called "Fat Angel."

There are conflicting stories with regard to The Hollies living on Cass's floor. Guy Webster, who photographed the cover of the "Stop Stop Stop" single, said that The Hollies slept on Cass's floor because "they had no money since they hadn't any hits."  Nash tells it differently (and indeed the history seems to jive with Nash’s): "Whenever you went over to Cass's house you got so bloody loaded that, sure, you ended up crashing over there. We saw the sun come up many times." Either story fits the Stein analogy: patron or party host.

Things would change dramatically for Cass in 1966 with her pregnancy with Owen. Determined to keep the child despite the lack of support from the father, a new focus was apparent in her life. An underlying loneliness was exchanged for motherhood. The inherent difficulties transformed themselves in The Mamas and the Papas' third LP, which was, with Cass in mind, titled Deliver. On it were two new singles, the Michelle Phillips focused "This is Dedicated to the One I Love," and the autobiographical "Creeque Alley," which would become the band's third-best selling single. 

A change in lifestyle did nothing to stall Cass's dedication to those with whom she surrounded herself. Over the next few years Cass's home remained open to the likes of The Beatles, Crosby, Stills and Nash, Jim Morrison and Frank Zappa.

Part II – Monterey – Next.