Forgiving Tom Wolfe
Four decades after publication of The Pump House Gang, the work is still a point contention for member of the local surf culture whose lives it cronicled.
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ON A LATE AFTERNOON in the winter of 1953—before construction starts on Mission Bay High School—four boys race along Grand Avenue in Pacific Beach. The car is a ’53 Studebaker, though it is unrecognizable. Grand Avenue is still a dirt road, and the rainy season has turned it to mush.
After a swerving, fishtailing, tire-spinning run, the boys climb out of the car, beers in hand. Except for patches of clear windshield under the wipers, the car is covered with mud. One of the boys, a 15-year-old called Mac, is a middle-distance runner on La Jolla High School’s track team. He is well-liked in sports and drinking circles, and hints of his Scottish pedigree have emerged through an uncommon ability to absorb and handle alcohol.
(Twenty-three hundred miles away, in the town of Lexington, Virginia, a 20-year-old dandy from Richmond studies liberal arts, throws a respectable fastball and joins a fraternity at the private Washington & Lee University.)
The middle-distance runner’s father, the desendant of a family heavy in doctors, is an orthopedic surgeon who served in the Navy in World War II. Those cheery-eyed boys climbing out of the Studebaker bear the memories and peripheral psychological trauma of that gruesome war and its 20 million dead. Unlike the rest of them, Mac bears physical evidence of the conflict. As a 4-year-old, he was wounded in the bombing runs at Pearl Harbor. Shortly after the attack, his family moved to La Jolla’s Camp Callan, a Navy installation that would transmogrify—in the early 1960s—into an outpost of the University of California system.
Unbeknownst to his parents, who nurture high expectations for their two children, Mac’s already been bewitched by an inchoate lifestyle; beguiled by those clean, head-high wintertime breakers off Windansea Beach, he’s been wooed by the siren of the Great Hulking Pacific. Already a fan of the slow hedonism typical of many waterfront communities—drinking parties, tan bodies, the surf and the parking lot at sunset—he’s been seduced by the easy ways of Southern California’s burgeoning beach culture.
(Back in Virginia, the dandy from Richmond abandons aspirations to pitch in the major leagues and turns all concentration to his schoolwork. After Washington & Lee, he will move on to a Ph.D. program in American studies at Yale.)
One morning in the winter of 2006, 53 years after that rollicking, mud-covered car ride down Grand, Mac sits on the visitor’s side of the bar at the London’s West End tavern in Pacific Beach. It’s quarter past 10, and the 69-year-old has just finished his early four-hour bartending shift.
“Two more,” he calls to the girl behind the bar.
Next to him sits a writer, a man young enough to be his grandson. Surrounding them are regular patrons, Mac’s family, the men and women he’s been sopping beers with for half a century.
“Fifty-one,” Mac says, shaking his head.
“What?” the writer asks.
“The Studebaker, it wasn’t new—now that I think about it, it was a 1951. And boy, I tell you, every square inch of that car was covered in mud.”
The beers materialize, and a man at the other end of the counter calls out to the bar matron, “Put them on my tab, Jessica—I owe him a round.”
“La Jolla High,” Mac says to the writer, pointing to the buyer of the round, “1967.”
Gazing around the room, he points out another four La Jolla grads who span three decades. Mac is a de facto historian of La Jolla High—a walking encyclopedia in all things related to the stretch of beach 20 miles on either side of the hard-barreling shore break called Windansea.
“One morning last year, we counted 18 La Jolla grads in here,” he says to the writer, “drinking Budweisers and raising hell before 10 o’clock in the morning.”
“Says a lot about this place.”
“Says a lot about La Jolla High,” Mac responds with a laugh.
(Twenty-four hundred miles away, in a New York apartment, the dandy from Richmond—now 75 years old—peruses an e-mail from his publicist . . . and decorously declines a request by a San Diego writer to comment on a 1966 article he wrote about the Southern California beach culture, one that helped make him famous and earned him the eternal ire of some of those hard-living denizens of Windansea.)
IN THE LATE 1950s, Hollywood began churning out a series of beach movies depicting the same Southern California beach culture that had beguiled Jack “Mac” Macpherson. Then, in the early 1960s, William Van Petten—a local writer who was plugged into the beach crowd—related stories of La Jolla to an up-and-coming New York Herald Tribune reporter named Tom Wolfe. Known for his work with the Tribune’s Sunday magazine, the white seersucker suits he wore and the unique cultural views he’d developed during a Ph.D. stint in American studies at Yale, Wolfe had written a 1963 Esquire article about custom cars in Southern California, “The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby,” that raised eyebrows in journalism and grew into a book.
Jackie Haddad, a Van Petten family friend, became point woman for Wolfe’s introduction to La Jolla. She remembers the meeting like this:
“Bill was a close family friend. He lived in La Jolla part-time and in Santa Monica part-time. He wrote for the L.A. Times, among other publications. He was in New York trying to promote a book project he was working on and met Tom through a mutual acquaintance. Bill described La Jolla and the beach scene to Tom, who became intrigued with what he heard, and Bill invited him to come to California and see it for himself.
“Bill asked me, Neale [Jones], Artie [Nelander] and a few other people who normally hung out at the Pump House if we would talk to Tom, and the reaction was mixed. I agreed to meet him because I didn’t want to disappoint Bill. Bill brought Tom over to my house, and they spent several hours with me and my mom. Then we went to the Pump House, and Tom did some interviews and research. Some people were cooperative; some weren’t. Photos were taken. Some kids felt they didn’t get an opportunity to give their views, some flatly refused to talk, and some tried to put him on.”
Van Petten died years ago, as have a handful of the Pump House Gang, and Wolfe, through his publicist, has declined to discuss the book. So, as happens with a story after 40 years, much of the reality of that summer of 1965 has been left to legend, lore and innuendo.
This much is certain: Wolfe was in La Jolla only for a few days, and he wrote in a highly stylized prose—often inserting the writer into the narrative while exaggerating the unique perceptions he was laying down. He was a pale-skinned East Coaster and older by more than a decade than most of the beach kids he was studying. His assignment was to report back to a population of other East Coasters, searching for the nut of the eccentric, Dionysian Southern California beach culture that had been serialized by Hollywood through the early 1960s.
The plan, at the time, was for a one-off run in the Sunday magazine—it was only later, with the success of a string of such articles (written on a cross-country tour), that the book idea materialized. Because it was published in such a prominent magazine, and because of Wolfe’s unique style (not necessarily for any veracity or objectivity in the work itself ), his take on the strange social strains fermenting on local beaches became a proxy authority on La Jolla. The fact that Wolfe’s unique and removed perception of their world has been adopted as reality by the rest of the country has rankled many of those who were involved with the Pump House.
For starters, Wolfe (perhaps for the sake of economy in the article) mixed two distinctly different groups in his story. The Pump House kids were a tight-knit group of teenagers (most of them under 16) who hung out around Pump House 21 at Windansea Beach. Up the street, loitering in the parking lot, was a loose group of young men—a decade older than the Pump House kids—who orbited a central nucleus called the Mac Meda Destruction Company.
“Those guys had the parking lot, and we had the Pump House,” says Liz Ballardo, a prominent character in Wolfe’s article, along with her sister. “It was kind of an unwritten thing. If we went up there, it was okay; if they came down to the Pump House, it was okay, too. But you usually prefer to hang out with kids your own age.”
Lindy Brower, one of Ballardo’s best friends in the 1960s, went on to become her sister-in-law. Brower was also the girlfriend of Rupert Fellows, a golden-haired, mischievous and well-liked leader in the Pump House crew (and another character in Wolfe’s story).
“Mac Meda was in the parking lot; we were Junior Mac Meda,” Brower says. “They had world-famous surfers up there and did all sorts of wild things. We really didn’t hang around them; we stayed with our own age group. You had to graduate to the parking lot.”