June 14, 2007
The salonistas of L.A.—talking about writing
Several years ago, the Jewish Museum in New York mounted an exhibition called "The Power of Conversation: Jewish Women and Their Salons." Focusing on women such as Henriette Herz in 1780s Berlin, Genevieve Straus in 1890s Paris and Salka Viertel in 1930s Santa Monica, the exhibition demonstrated the critical role these women played in the culture of their times and in promoting the work of such writers as Oscar Wilde, Marcel Proust, Bertolt Brecht and Thomas Mann.
Today in Los Angeles, the three Jewish women profiled below - Andrea Grossman, Louise Steinman, and Julie Robinson - have created their own 21st century versions of the salon. Whereas once the salon was a private, exclusive gathering, today it has become far more democratic.
Grossman runs Writer's Bloc, a nonprofit organization that, as its Web site declares, "is dedicated to producing provocative, fun and entertaining programs that feature the most interesting writers and thinkers in our cultural landscape." Louise Steinman is the director of the ALOUD Series at the Los Angeles Public Library's Central Library, which declares itself, on its Web site, as "the place to exchange ideas with fellow citizens and to learn from outstanding thinkers and artists across a wide variety of disciplines." And, finally, Julie Robinson is a book group leader whose company, Literary Affairs, promises to take readers "beyond the book" and who in addition to hosting book groups in private homes, now also leads book groups at the Beverly Hills Tennis Club, Wilshire Boulevard Temple and Sinai Temple, and organizes author events and even literary travel experiences.
Today, almost every cultural institution hosts a reading series. What the salonistas described below have discovered is no longer a secret: Los Angeles, in spite of - or perhaps because of - its reputation as the world capital of scripted entertainment and the purveyor of "reality" entertainment, is filled with passionate readers who hunger for literary fiction, ideas and conversation.
Writer's Bloc: Great Writers in Public Forums
Since 1996, Writer's Bloc has offered up a heady mix of writers and interviewers in conversation. I can't remember when I attended my first Writer's Bloc event, but soon those familiar black-and-white postcards started piling up in my mailbox, announcing one more amazing event after another.
Over the years, the writers who've appeared include a Who's Who of contemporary culture, including Alice Walker, John Irving, Scott Turow, Isabel Allende, Gore Vidal, Nora Ephron, Richard Ford, Mona Simpson, Steve Martin, Michael Ondatje, Norman Mailer, Joan Didion and pretty much anyone you can imagine being interested in hearing.
Some unforgettable evenings I've attended include seeing Elmore Leonard and Martin Amis (together!) or, more recently, Bob Woodward being interviewed by John Dean.
Although the venues for the events change (they've been held at such different locales as the WGA theater, The Fine Arts Theatre, the auditorium at the Wiesenthal Center and Temple Emmanuel in Beverly Hills), they are consistent in providing a sense of drama and excitement - they are always events.
I've been to some that were sold-out/standing-room only, and others where a few dozen fans spread themselves throughout the rows. But without doubt, the most enthusiastic fan at each is always Andrea Grossman, who is the founder and one-woman band behind Writer's Bloc.
Grossman grew up in Beverly Hills, and is a graduate of Beverly Hills High, of UCLA as an English major and of USC's Annenberg School, where she received a graduate degree in communications management. She worked in corporate marketing, in pay-TV programming for the legendary Z Channel, as well as for Select TV, and worked in Democratic Party Fundraising.
Grossman discovered her calling when she suggested to the Friends of English UCLA support group that they bring in authors of cultural interest. After Isabel Allende's appearance, Grossman realized two things: First, "that certain authors should be speaking not just in bookstores, but in a public forum," and second, what Grossman calls "'The Sesame Street' effect" - where if you get one great person to appear, then it becomes OK, or even mandatory, for others to do so.
Grossman saw "a real need for mainstream great writers to talk about their ideas in a friendly forum" that was "not stuffy, not academic, just fun." Out of that conviction, Writer's Bloc was born.
From the start, Grossman's intention was to set the standard extremely high, to get great writers involved. For her first real Writer's Bloc event, Joan Didion was interviewed by Robin Abcarian of the Los Angeles Times. That certainly set the bar.
Over the years, Elmore Leonard has appeared four times; Norman Mailer, three times; Gore Vidal three times; and Steve Martin, Calvin Trillin, and Harry Shearer have also made several appearances.
Writer's Bloc is a nonprofit. Grossman explained that while on occasion authors have received fees for appearing, most of the time they do not. Tickets are $20, and authors usually stay after to sign books, which are sold on the premises.
Although Grossman told me that her "real love is fiction," her programs frequently feature nonfiction writers. She admits to "being real interested in political figures."
Grossman confessed that although "sometimes [running] Writer's Bloc can be frustrating, with problems and issues to handle," she loves the programming part of it. What she loves most is an event where "there's great drama and great theater."
She acknowledges that in Los Angeles the challenge is to get people out of their homes. That, too, is Grossman's standard: "I only do a program if I would get in my car and fight traffic [to go see it].
As for high points from the last nine seasons, Grossman cites an evening with John Le Carre reading from "Smiley" and telling stories as unforgettable; a Garrison Keillor program, right after Sept. 11, where she recalls that "people were desperate for community" and Keillor got everyone singing.