Lionel Rolfe and the Rise and Fall of the L.A. Coffeehouses
JANUARY 10, 2018
AUTHOR LIONEL ROLFE is a retired Los Angeles journalist who has written for nearly every newspaper and magazine that’s existed in or near the city in the last 50-plus years. Indeed, though a frequent traveler, Rolfe has never lived far outside of L.A. These days he lives in a small apartment in Atwater Village. He’s lived alone for almost a decade, since his third marriage ended in divorce. There were many women in his life, many friends and enemies, many loves and many hates.
Rolfe’s health is not good. But he has decades of memories to turn over in his head, of experiences up and down the Pacific Coast with all kinds of people from his days as an itinerant newspaperman. Some of these stories have gone into his novels and memoirs: Last Train North (1987), Death and Redemption in London & L.A. (2003), Fat Man on the Left: Four Decades in the Underground (1998), Literary L.A. (1981, revised in 2002), and a recent book of think pieces and essays, The Fat Man Returns: The Elusive Hunt for California Bohemia and Other Matters (2017). (Full disclosure: I have not checked out his quirkier titles, like Presidents & Near Presidents I Have Known .)
The well-worn ruts inside a mind that sees the world through old-lefty spectacles have been scraped down to the bedrock, expressed in resentments against every variation you can imagine of that menacing old phantom, “the man”: Trump, capitalism, the current publishers of the Los Angeles Times, et cetera. These bogeymen haunt Lionel’s essays about the world as it is today, and the word he most often lobs at Trump et al. is “fascist.” (It should be noted that Rolfe is one of those political people whose personality is nonetheless easygoing, though he does often seem worried.)
Two of Rolfe’s heroes are San Francisco–born novelist and pamphleteer (yes, that used to be considered an occupation) Jack London, a vigorous public promoter of socialism, and Mark Twain, a defender of democracy and science. Importantly, both are true-blue Californians, who partly inaugurated what he likes to call “the California bohemian movement.” This is a term you come across frequently in Rolfe’s books, but nowhere outside of them; that’s because there never was any such “movement” per se, except maybe as something that was in the air if you happened to live in, say, Big Sur or Venice or Echo Park during the 1940s and ’50s. (See, for instance, Lawrence Lipton’s The Holy Barbarians  and Daniel Hurewitz’s Bohemian Los Angeles .)
Rolfe is actually on firmer ground, pun intended, when he writes about the Los Angeles coffeehouse scene of the 1950s and ’60s in the excellent, fact-filled chapter of his book Literary L.A. titled “Cafe Au L.A.”
In fact, I first met Lionel and his then-wife Nigey Lennon at a coffeehouse. This was back in dim and distant 1983, at the old Onyx Café on Sunset Boulevard, next door to the Vista Theatre. The Onyx may have been the little hole in the wall that actually started the mid-1980s explosion of coffeehouses across the country. Before then, all you had were, well, coffee shops, like Norms on La Cienega Boulevard.
Nigey and Lionel came into the Onyx one night; they were finalizing an exhibit (upstairs) of Matt Groening’s early cartoon drawings. My friend, illustrator Jonathon Rosen, introduced us. Nigey was kind, nerdy-goofy, humorous, with a deep boyish voice. We talked about stuff like the surrealists and Alfred Jarry. Nigey was really taken with Jarry’s “Père Ubu” character and was surprised to meet a younger person who had heard of the obscure French proto-avant-gardist.
It turned out Lennon had just published a book about Jarry — more an appreciation than a proper biography — illustrated by the cartoonist Bill Griffith. The book was, like its author, nerdy, informed, comical. It was amazing for me to meet someone in Los Angeles who actually wrote books, let alone interesting ones. Then I learned that her husband wrote books too.
With his scraggly, bushy beard and a smile that was more like a toothy grimace, Lionel didn’t talk much about himself. I know now that he was basking in the satisfaction of having seen his book Literary L.A. into print just over a year earlier.
The lasting popularity of Literary L.A. is undoubtedly thanks, in some significant part, to the presence therein of Lionel’s onetime fellow Los Angeles Free Press columnist Charles Bukowski. Although Lionel makes no great claims of friendship with Bukowski, he describes (in the book’s later, revised edition) a tag-along evening when he and Nigey joined “Buk” to see the L.A. premiere of Barfly (1987). Bukowski was drunk, yelling at the screen. Other people in the audience were getting annoyed. “I’ve never seen a flophouse as empty and clean as that one!” he yelled during one scene. Someone told the drunk to shut up. “Hey, I’m the guy they made the movie about! I can say anything I want to. You shut up!”
Aside from Bukowski, the lineup of characters in Literary L.A. included many colorful-friends-of-the-author who might have otherwise died forgotten. Like the obscure phantoms that populate Henry Miller’s Book of Friends (1976), these were literary hangers-on, members of the Nigey and Lionel gang in Silver Lake: an eccentric coffeehouse proprietor named Monty Muns; John Harris, the owner of a hip bookshop in Santa Monica; and Gene Vier, a Times copyeditor.
I didn’t know at the time we met that the Onyx Café represented a dream come true for Lionel, a kind of return to the old Venice and L.A. of the 1950s. “Between the late 1950s and about 1960 there were upward of a hundred coffeehouses in L.A.,” he told me recently. “I went to the Gas House in Venice, sure. And the Xanadu, a coffeehouse on Melrose Avenue that was near LACC, where I’d meet up with Art Kunkin before he started the Los Angeles Free Press. There were maybe 50 I went to.”
This was Lionel’s intimate connection to a history that he and Nigey savored, and recorded for us younger folks, in books like Bread and Hyacinths: The Rise and Fall of Utopian Los Angeles (1992, co-written by Rolfe, Lennon, and Paul Greenstein), which chronicles, among other things, the bombing of the Los Angeles Times building in 1910. In that book you will find the couple’s utopian socialist dreams expressed in obvious nostalgia for the pre–World War I career of Job Harriman, a man who ran for mayor of Los Angeles and lost, thanks to guilt-by-association with the Times bombers.
Lionel and Nigey’s marriage must have been great for a while. Living in leafy, boho Silver Lake, they wrote and published books together, their dreams of a California-coastal utopia dovetailing in a shared love of Twain, Jack London, the poetry of Robinson Jeffers, and music. Actually, they did differ on that last score a bit. Nigey loved early Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart, and was friends with both musicians. Lionel, a nephew of Yehudi Menuhin, preferred classical music. “It was a good marriage,” he recalls with a sigh. “I suppose money was the main problem.”
Lionel’s obsession with bohemianism seems, in the end, to be mostly autobiographical, a bit of wish-fulfillment on the part of the author, whose idea of utopia really consists of a Venice coffeehouse that’s filled with books and lustful young people who read communist plays and hate “the rich” because, well, just because. “Perhaps the Communist Party was only a detour in my life,” he writes in his book Fat Man on the Left, describing himself as a “red” during his days as a student at Los Angeles City College (LACC). He eventually came to recognize how tied politics were to deeper, more personal affiliations. “Why was it that Zionism, which is after all Jewish people’s nationalism, [was] not to be tolerated, and Arab nationalism or black nationalism was kosher?” he asks, and concludes: “I suppose that idealism always takes a back seat to a certain cynicism or even religiosity as one grows older.”
I remember going to several of Nigey and Lionel’s dinner parties at their apartment on Maltman Avenue, circa 1990, where their friends skewed toward the academic and musical. There was much wine, no pot, and the room would get very loud. Marilyn Monroe’s photographer Phil Stern was at most of these parties, years before his late-life rediscovery. An old L.A.-communist newspaperman named Lincoln Haynes, then in his 80s, once admonished me over the din: “We natives of San Peedro never pronounce it San Paydro.” Fun times.
“Standing on a street corner waiting for no one is Power,” the Beat poet Gregory Corso wrote in 1959. That’s what the Beats and bohemians like Lionel Rolfe still celebrate: the art of apparently doing nothing, exercising one’s “negative capability” (remember that?), simply taking the world in and inhaling “great draughts of space,” to quote another footloose bohemian, the great Walt Whitman. But bohemianism (and its kindly grandfather, humanism) still implies reading, as in books.
For decades, one of the more threadbare clichés about Los Angeles has been its status as the site of the apocalypse. Whether it was Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust (1939), Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), or the alarmism of Mike Davis’s City of Quartz (1990), Los Angeles emerged as a place of hollow desolation. Well, maybe the cliché was right: L.A. is about as far from utopian as it’s ever been. Nathanael West’s nightmare of the city exploding into fires and riots has occurred many times over. The old dreams of paradise, whether socialist, agrarian, or midcentury consumerist (not to mention the old racist “White Spot of America” boosterism of the 1920s), are mostly long gone. The electronic revolution once prophesized by such ’60s visionaries as John Cage, William S. Burroughs, Marshall McLuhan is now on full display on every street corner, in every car, on every person — that question mark–shaped body looking so puzzled, squinting into the little glass even in the glare of high noon, with plugged ears blocking out the world, not to mention approaching traffic.
Lionel surely mourns these impediments to enlightened bohemianism, though he still publishes regularly online, and even tweets. But to think that there was once an epidemic of poetry readings across Los Angeles in an endless array of funky, independent coffeehouses … maybe you remember them. “All these places are now Starbucks,” grouses Rolfe. “Hopeless. Even in London, where all the great ones used to be, all of them are now Starbucks.”
After losing touch with both Nigey and Lionel for many years, I learned one day that they had divorced. Nigey moved to Cape Cod with a boyfriend and, surprisingly, spent the last years of her life badmouthing L.A. Oh, well. Some of us will keep our heads in the clouds and our feet on the ground, with eyes open, as we wait out the plugged-in wave with peace and quiet — and a coffee, please.