Portraits of Remembered People
by Hildegarde Flanner
John Daniel, Publisher (Santa Barbara, 1987)
Poet, playwright, and essayist Hildegarde Flanner and her mother arrived in Los Angeles in 1923, refugees from the devastating Berkeley fire where both lost all their possessions. Only 24, Flanner had already won a prize for her poetry while a UC Berkeley student. Her prize-winning poem, “A Young Girl,” was later printed in a limited edition by the H.S. Crocker Company in San Francisco with an introduction and decorations by Porter Garnett. Hathi Trust offers an online edition.
Flanner’s portraits in this book include two Los Angeles personalities: Olive Percival, whom we have written about before, and Danish artist Kay Nielsen. The best thing about both essays is that Flanner knew the subjects personally.
While others have documented aspects of Olive Percival’s life, Flanner’s descriptions are much more personal. The multitalented Percival was a writer, artist, collector, gardener, and hostess who lived in the Arroyo in the first half of the twentieth century. She documented her life and the city around her in her diary, which, transcribed, fills 2,000 pages. Flanner’s images of Percival are as delightful as they are insightful:
In my diaries Miss Percival stands clear and strong, a little stout perhaps, but a good shape, even queenly. Her head was always poised, and her features composed. She could laugh without loss of dignity. Her brown eyes were round and expressive. I never saw her swept-back hair out of order in its combs.
While her hair may never have been out of order, she did let it down on occasion, especially with Flanner:
Outwardly Olive Percival complied with the ideas and social customs of her friends, such as the women who belonged to the Friday Morning Club and the Ebell. But she had a capricious, rebellious and daring streak in her soul. The quotation that follows is from one of my letters to her, the only one I noted down after we had enjoyed a little mutual rebel-rousing in sedate places. “Tues. morning Nov. 7, 1933. I have missed our jaunts and other hilarious visits. We do put zest into our conversation—and I recall how we have laughed as we rolled from subject to subject—leaving no club-lady unturned. I fear you are wicked, and I hope that I am.”
Flanner’s relationship with Nielsen began as a school girl:
… on an afternoon, done with arithmetic and Latin, free at least to lie on the library couch …wide open on my hiked-up knees the most beautiful book in our house. To me, the most beautiful book on earth, East of the Sun and West of the Moon: Old Tales from the North, illustrated by the Danish artist Kay Nielsen.
Many years later Flanner is stunned when the artist of the golden age of book illustration and his wife Ulla rent the cottage next door to her in Altadena! Nielsen came to Los Angeles in 1936 to do the scenic production for Max Reinhardt’s “Everyman” at the Hollywood Bowl. He then worked for Disney and is best known for designing the “Bald Mountain” sequence in Fantasia. Nielsen was never able to find steady work and providing for the necessities of life was always a struggle, alleviated somewhat by the generous support of the couple’s many friends.
Saved by a librarian
One savior was a Los Angeles school district librarian, Jasmine Britton, who arranged for the support of the Filippa Pollia Foundation to commission Nielsen to paint a mural in the library of Central Junior High School. The presentation of the mural was a major event attended by the educational and social elite, including Arthur Millier, Los Angeles Times art critic, who praised the mural as “one of the most beautiful wall paintings in America.”
This and other mural commissions provided temporary relief, but Nielsen was never able to earn enough money for the couple to maintain a decent lifestyle permanently.
More about Flanner
Although not so well known today, Flanner is included in Modernist Women Poets, An Anthology (Counterpoint, Berkeley, 2014) along with Gertrude Stein, Amy Lowell, Marianne Moore, and others.
She married the architect and printmaker, Frederick Monhoff in 1926. He is remembered with a printing lab named for him at the Otis College of Art and Design where he taught design and printmaking. The couple produced a number of fine press books together, featuring his images and her poetry. See especially In Native Light (Calistoga, CA, 1970). For examples of Monhoff’s architectural work, see www.la.curbed.com.
Cover image from The Unknown Paintings of Kay Nielsen.