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Joan Didion essay trained eye on secluded Alta Loma street – Press-Enterprise


Joan Didion was rightly hailed as a great writer and chronicler of California upon her passing Dec. 23 at age 87. Some in the Inland Empire still bear a grudge, however. Including on Bella Vista Drive.

That is the private street in Alta Loma that was central to Didion’s famous 1966 essay, “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream.”

The Miller family — a dentist, his wife, their three children — lived on Bella Vista. Gordon Miller burned to death in the family Volkswagen after a crash into a lemon grove on nearby Banyan Street in 1964. His wife, Lucille, who had been behind the wheel, was convicted in a sensational murder trial in 1965 of setting the fire for the insurance money on her husband’s life.

Earle and Joyce Anderson have lived on Bella Vista since 1967, in a sprawling four-bedroom home with a pool. Earle calls Didion “a terrible writer.”

Didion “seemed to feel we were the slum of the area and it was no wonder the Millers lived here and had their problems,” Anderson, 87, a retired Kaiser Steel superintendent, told me Thursday from his recliner.

Recent home sales along the street top $1 million, but Earle and Joyce have no intention of leaving the custom home they built for $43,600.

“It’s been a great street for us. We raised five kids here and they’ve all been successful,” Earle said.

In fairness to Didion, Bella Vista was about the only place she wasn’t negative about in that essay. She said the Millers had traded up in 1964 to live there, achieving “the bigger house on the better street.”

However, she expressed distaste for the lemon grove on Banyan, between Sapphire Street and Carnelian, where the crime occurred.

“Like so much of this country, Banyan suggests something curious and unnatural,” Didion wrote, as if wrinkling her nose at a plate of lima beans.

The fallen eucalyptus was “too dusty” and might harbor snakes. The grove was “too lush, unsettlingly glossy, the greenery of nightmare.” The stones resembled “rubble.” The mountains, which she incorrectly named the San Bernardinos rather than the San Garbriels, were “too high.”

Other than that, how did you like the play, Mrs. Lincoln?

Two weeks ago in this space, I said “Some Dreamers” is “a fantastic piece of writing, and I recommend it to all.” But I also said my admiration for Didion is tinged with ambivalence because of what came across as snobbery toward inland suburbia.

The San Bernardino Valley was “an alien place” and “ominous country.” Tract homes were “the flotsam of the New California.” Out here, “one person in every 38 lives in a trailer.” That works out to an underwhelming 2.6%.

More than 50 years later, Didion’s take on our region — with scenes in San Bernardino, Alta Loma, Cucamonga, Loma Linda, Redlands, Ontario and Riverside — rings true for some and rankles many. Comments poured in.

“How dare she write about the IE as if it were Bakersfield!” Nancy Charest griped.

“And the smirking, holier-than-thou attitude from Angelenos toward the Inland Empire continues to this day,” Matthew Bramlett tweeted.

Did people here in the 1960s, as Didion wrote, really not know about artichokes, never meet Catholics or Jews? Was it truly “hard to buy a book”?

Michele Tacchia, who grew up in Fontana, said her “well-read” French-Catholic father and Jewish mother introduced her to artichokes. Catholics, Jews, books, artichokes: Tacchia is practically a one-woman refutation of Didion’s viewpoint.

“It’s never been my impression that my dad had any great trouble buying books here,” said Franklin Bruno of his learned father, Frank Bruno, 91, of Upland, who taught psychology for decades at San Bernardino Valley College.

Mike Murphy of Highland named four Catholic parishes in San Bernardino in the mid-1960s, and added: “Rabbi Norman Feldheym was such a civic luminary from Temple Emanu El that the city named its then-new public library on Sixth Street in his honor.”

Not everyone had such broad experience.

“I for one grew up in the IE not ever encountering an artichoke and thinking everyone was a Protestant,” said John Neiuber, who hailed from Chino and was raised Lutheran. He continued: “Catholics and Jews were people who lived elsewhere and we were to be wary. Girls had beehives and should marry well. It was what I knew. Didion was spot-on for many of us back then.”

Allen Callaci of Claremont said the tone of Didion’s essay is what’s important.

“It was an impressionistic, evocative and haunting sketch of a specific time, place, event and region,” Callaci said, “written to shine a light into the shadows cast by the light of the California dream, much like ‘The Day of the Locust.’”

I like his point, but I have to admit I couldn’t stand “The Day of the Locust.”

Martin Hildreth of Upland, an avid reader and Didion admirer, said: “I don’t take offense at her characterization of San Bernardino County. After all, she was from Sacramento, not the cultural center of the world by any means, then or now.”

The lemon groves on Banyan are gone. But back on Bella Vista, the entry sign still reads “Private Road/Bella Vista/Dead End,” as when Didion visited. And in the 1960s, many others visited due to news coverage that included the Millers’ address.

“We’ve heard lots of stories from people who lived here at the time,” Earle Anderson said. “The looky-loos from all around came up here and wanted to look at the house. And since it’s a dead end street and people had to turn around, it was a traffic jam.”

This Dead End sign stands at the end of Bella Vista Drive in Alta Loma. It’s functional but may also warn writers against looking too hard for deeper meaning. (Photo by David Allen, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG)

Writers for the L.A. Times and N.Y. Times have visited, looked in vain for 8488 Bella Vista and assumed the address is now a vacant lot, hard by the wash and an evocative Dead End sign.

However, the Miller house, as Earle and Joyce call it, still stands near the end of the block, but with a different number. The couple is absolutely certain.



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