Skip to main content
Original Issue

Happy Poverty on Catalina

During the Depression summer jobs—if available—paid little, but this one had other compensations

Islands have always played a big role in my life. I caught a chronic case of islomania when, as a girl, I first looked seaward from the summit of Mt. Wilson and saw Santa Catalina Island lying in the blue Pacific off the coast of California like some huge kraken rearing up out of 700 fathoms. I was not the only one thus afflicted. In the deep depression mid-30s, most southern California youngsters yearned toward Catalina with such fervor that if you stood on their seaward sides you could almost feel little waves of longing emanating from them. To see the island on a sparkling clear day was something. To sail toward it, watching its sun-baked ocher mountains and plunging cliffs grow in the distance, its shadows becoming rivers of verdure winding skyward from fanned beaches in secret little coves, was dream stuff. To spend a summer on Catalina seemed the very apex of paradise.

Fortunately for my particular dream, the Santa Catalina Island Company had long before discovered that school-kid help has certain virtues. I found myself therefore employed as a neophyte journalist in the publicity office, ostensibly writing something called "social notes" but actually bent on acquiring the world's best tan and an efficient crawl stroke. My journalistic endeavors, if you want to call them that, involved a deliberate usage of the names of the carriage trade staying at the Hotel St. Catherine. Every morning I ran a finger down the register, zeroed in on the Blue Bookers and made up jolly little items about these victims. Just to note that Mrs. So-and-so was "sojourning" on the island was much too dull, so I began to let my imagination take over. I would clothe my dowagers in flowing, fictional beach pajamas straight out of the latest issue of Vogue, and when that palled I would set them to participating vivaciously in the island's more rugged activities, from a day out swordfishing to a night at the local den of vice. To my amazement, my prey were pleased at this sort of thing, never once objecting to being glimpsed in pink maillot bathing suit or with yellowtail-tuna catch.

My greatest challenge was a Pasadena society matron who lingered week after week in the Saint Catherine's register. In her behalf my flights of fancy grew wilder and wilder. She sailed triumphant into the Tuna Club with flag aloft, indicating record-breaking game fish taken on light tackle. When she voiced no complaints about my stories of her fishing exploits, I flew way out in orbit with a dandy—a ride to hounds after the trophy boars on the island, followed by a luxurious Hawaiian luau with her kill as pi√®ce de résistance. Shortly thereafter there appeared at the office her nurse-companion, extremely determined under a starched white cap. It seems that her patient, kicking 80 and confined to a wheelchair, had become a source of worry to her grandchildren in Pasadena, as well as to her doctor and friends. Was it possible that the lady could just take the sun on the hotel veranda in the Pasadena Star-News in the future?

Regrettably, I turned from the aging dowager to the Hollywood characters floating just offshore. Never did so many improbable romances bloom on movie-colony yachts riding gently at anchor in Descanso Bay. "What redhead was glimpsed diving off John Ford's palatial yacht tied up at the buoy off Catalina's Casino?" I wrote. The fact that it was the ship's fat cook on his afternoon off didn't trouble me, Mr. Ford, the redhead or even Louella Parsons.

There were certain ground rules. Summer colonists always were "in residence." Anything that floated was a "palatial yacht." The sun was a permanent fixture in the sky. It was always "Santa Catalina Island"—never rude "Catalina." The Hotel St. Catherine was automatically prefixed by the description "luxurious," and the Island Villa, a collection of tents on platforms, was never mentioned. Moreover, you never, never got fanciful with the prim little bulletins announcing the comings and goings of the Philip Knight Wrigleys. And you never used their initials, P.K.

Like all the school kids of those days, I was paid exactly enough to enable me to rent a bed somewhere and eat—after a fashion. This sounds mean, but it wasn't—not really. If we'd been richer most certainly we could not have spent our pay any the more wisely, and we would have got into vastly more trouble. The big-brotherhood of our paternalistic employers extended even to the making up of grim model budgets for the summer helpers. But as these budgets allowed for no dances, no speedboats, no silk bathing suits and no raffia sandals, we ignored them. I never had more fun in all my life. Like all the rest of the young people, I reduced expenditure for food and housing to less than the bare minimum and had fun with the rest.

A girl named Billie (whom I remember as a remarkable tank for alcoholic beverages) and I rented a tree house that was in grave danger of imminent collapse. It had a "bathroom," which consisted of a tin shower stall and reluctant John, reached by precarious catwalk around the trunk of the tree. The remainder of this establishment was one open airy room with no glass panes in the windows, a spectacular view of beauteous Avalon Bay, ominously creaking floors that swayed when anyone climbed our ladder, and fantastic disarray. I was raised to keep things neatlike, but Billie piled everything that she wasn't actually wearing or using in a heap in the middle of the swaying floor. In order to save myself polemic controversy, I learned to do likewise—with verve.

I marveled every morning at the Ivory-soap perfection of Billie emerging from this elevated rat's nest for her sales stint in the Pot Shop. In those days (when pot only meant something used for cooking or to put flowers in) the company operated a tile and ceramics plant that utilized the clays and tales found in the hills of Santa Catalina to make glazed-tile plaques and tables, vases and items of tableware with soft colors and satiny finish. Billie was the ideal final touch in the retail shop on El Encanto. A small-boned girl with a sensational figure, she wore her bright, shining hair cut short, like a child's yellow cap on her head. Her skin was tanned the color of a copper penny, setting off white teeth, blonde head and blue eyes. She was one of those girls who is born knowing how she should look. She never wore anything but blue and white, which on her appeared very crisp and clean even if she had yanked it from the mid-floor heap. The effect on the tourists was singular. Elderly couples morally opposed to smoking would totter out of the Pot Shop with armloads of ceramic ashtrays.

I doubt that there were 600 real residents on the entire 21-mile-long island in those days. Time was punctuated for us by alternating periods—the weekdays, when we "owned" Catalina, and the weekends, when public hordes descended on our paradise. We enjoyed them equally, because when the tourists were there we felt called upon to perform like natives in a superior sort of way, aquaplaning (that was before water skis) around the approaching steamers and diving off spectacular heights. The swimming was, and doubtless still is, the best on the West Coast. Air and water temperatures, warmed by currents from Mexican waters, were exactly right, so there was no shock on entering the sea and no chill on emerging. Sea, air and body came together in mutual complement, like tones of a pleasant chord. We were prehistoric creatures not yet completely adapted to either element but at home in both. There was no blight upon the bright days except that all of us thought almost constantly about food.

Mornings we got up at the very last possible second and raced down from our various canyon rims to our jobs. By noon we were famished, moaning with hunger cramps. We bought day-old hard rolls from a grocery store where they could be had for 1¢ each, eating them with bologna that the store sold by the single slice, having long since grown hardened to the penuries of summer help. For dinner we ran accounts at John's Seafood House, eating absolutely everything placed upon the table except the salt and pepper. John, a fat and amiable Italian, had an arrangement with party boat skippers whereby they turned their clients' catch over to him at extremely low rates. Thus he was able to feed us 50¢ tuna-plate dinners and trust that we would straighten our accounts with him on payday.

As we all were in exactly the same boat, there was no stigma attached to this poverty. We didn't exactly date, because the boys couldn't have paid our way into a penny arcade. We simply met and tried everything the island had to offer—the hiking and exploring, the beaches, sneaking into the Casino to dance when one of our number did duty as ticket taker, canoeing and fishing. We concocted wonderful schemes for augmenting our spartan fare and sometimes rode the bus up the switchbacked old coach road to Mts. Black Jack and Orizaba to hunt wild pigs. We never saw a pig, and it was just as well, for our hands were our only weapons. Pigs just made good food conversation and a lovely long hike back. On the way we swung by the William Wrigley Jr. memorial at the head of Avalon Canyon and up to the Pacific divide, here we could see the sea on both sides of the island and look out over the Palisades to San Clemente Island rising brown and barren out of low fog like a ghostly ship at sea.

But our interest wasn't the scenic magnificence so much as the Wrigley fig orchard, where great luscious Smyrna figs, heavy with sugar, hung in fecund abundance. The only trouble with the figs was that a considerable population of wasps ardently defended the crop from our forages. When we plucked a fig, we were likely to pick an irked yellow jacket, also. The record of our guilt was writ plainly on our swollen faces and stung hands. A less painful source of provender was the small rock bass and perch we caught off the rocks above Lovers' Cove.

The big event of that summer, gastronomically and otherwise, was the coming of the film company of Mutiny on the Bounty (the Clark Gable-Charles Laughton one) to Isthmus Cove and Catalina Harbor, where they built the grass-thatched shacks of Tahiti and Pitcairn Island. A nicer thing couldn't have happened. Fletcher Christian's hut persisted for years thereafter as a yachtsman's bar, as did a native trading post constructed at the end of the dock. Polynesian villages, buried in towering palm trees imported full-grown from the mainland at enormous expense, looked exactly right at this enchanting isthmus of crystal-clear waters surrounded by plump, sun-burnished hills.

Now, in Hollywood it is no trick to gather together the wanted number of film extras to mill about anonymously in the background. On Catalina Island in the summer of 1935 it was something else again. Casting about for "natives," an assistant director took one look at our mahogany skins and our porpoise-like ease in the water and hired all of us school-kid employees of the Santa Catalina Island Company as Polynesians. As M-G-M's lease was big business, the company raised no objection. Each morning we boarded a fast boat at Avalon and whizzed to Isthmus Cove, where we wrapped ourselves in sarongs and descended like varmints in a chicken run on the long-plank buffet table laid out all day long for the picture company. We ate ourselves into an agreeable coma. Like husky sled dogs accustomed only to a scant diet of frozen salmon, once fed abundantly at this rich table we became bloated. The outraged assistant director took one look at us, girls and boys alike, and screamed in indignation:

"Your bellies stick out so far you all look pregnant!"

Thereafter some hold was placed upon our feeding, and we were forced to bestir ourselves in the accomplishment of the picture. The girls with long hair really had it made. Tahitian maidens all, we were plucked like so many hibiscus blossoms by the ruffian crew of the Bounty and fled screaming to the bow of the ship, where we dived overboard in long arcs into the clear sea below and came up giggling, our wet hair spread around us like seaweed. It was wonderful. They did this scene over and over again for a full week.

Franchot Tone sauntered around very aloof with zinc oxide on his sunburned nose, and Laughton was grumpy and hot and uncomfortable in his tight pants. But Gable was a born heller with a built-in libidinous twinkle in each eye. We discovered that if anything female stood within reach of him, he'd drop one great meaty arm around her shoulders. We palpitated to catch these electrifying moments on film. So we planted conspirators with Brownie cameras within shooting distance, approached within reach of Mr. G. with maidenly immodesty and waited for nature to take its course. Later, back in our cubicles in Avalon, we screamed ourselves into hysterical hiccups over these blurry snapshots as if it were the greatest joke in the world. However, not a girl among us failed to treasure them under her pillow until they became dog-eared and finally faded away.

When the movie emerged some months later, I watched with bated breath and pounding heart, just barely able to stand the awful suspense. Not one of us—not a single one—is identifiable in the finished film. There is a moment, just a bare flickering of the eye, as the Tahitians are swarming all over the newly arrived Bounty, when that girl way off on the left could be...but this is wishful thinking.

We went back to our old enthusiasms, gathering in the soft velvet nights on the cliff across the bay from the Casino to dance dreamily to the faint music of Ben Bernie and All the Lads. They just don't write music like that anymore. I Left My Heart in Avalon, Star Dust, Three Little Words, Let's Fall in Love, Aloha—they were the sonnets of Elizabeth Barrett Browning drifting across a half-moon of dimpled light from the gleaming round gem of the Casino on Sugar Loaf Point. We pooled our money, nickel by nickel, and sent the oldest of our number off to the village liquor store. Our idea of a really wild evening was a pint of Old Quaker shared sip by sip and dancing to this poignant, ectoplasmic music. We necked tenderly, the way kids once did. I'm not sure whether it was malnutrition or the mores of the day, but we were strangely innocent. A modern teen-ager would upchuck with disdain, but we felt wicked, which is the important thing.

Sometimes we'd feed most of the pint to Billie, who drained it down like Coke in one long swig with absolutely no discernible effect except for willingness to sway into a graceful, trancelike hula. When the thin violins of Good Night, Sweetheart finally drifted over the bay we were devastated, heartbroken. We handed in our fishing setlines and wandered off toward home up the darkened canyon walls to dream on Gable's picture. We didn't louse things up by counting the hours or even the months of this idyll. It is enough to inherit the earth, even on a temporary basis.

As Thomas Wolfe so rightly said, you can't go home again. Years later I tried. Though the early-morning view out over the bay was as lyrical as ever and the toyon holly bloomed like fire in the hills as extravagantly as I remembered, a vital element was missing. Like first love, an island summer when one is 18 can happen only once.