Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

'Dear Los Angeles' Collects Nearly 5 Centuries Of Opinions About The City

<em>Dear Los Angeles </em>features snippets of diary entries and letters written between 1542 to 2018. Above, daybreak over downtown LA in December 2011.
Frederic J. Brown
AFP/Getty Images
Dear Los Angeles features snippets of diary entries and letters written between 1542 to 2018. Above, daybreak over downtown LA in December 2011.

Love it, hate it, or just hate the traffic, everyone has an opinion about Los Angeles. A new literary olio gathers hundreds of those opinions together, in a book called Dear Los Angeles: The City in Diaries and Letters, 1542 to 2018.

Editor David Kipen has dug up centuries' worth of excerpts about California's largest city. The book, he says, is "a collective self-portrait of Los Angeles when it thought nobody was looking." The excerpts he's picked roughly divide up between Los Angeles as heaven and Los Angeles as hell.

It was hell for novelist William Faulkner, who came to town to write movies. "This is a strange and curious place," he wrote to his agent in 1942. And it didn't grow on him. He was homesick, Kipen says. "At least I can't be any sicker tomorrow for Mississippi than I was yesterday," Faulkner wrote in '45.

Half a century earlier, when LA was covered in orange groves, a visitor named Harriet Harper felt enchanted by the place: "There is something in the crisp, rarified air of this pretty city that acts like a stimulant upon the human system," Harper observed in May, 1888.

In keeping with the LA sunshine, the book's excerpts are organized into one calendar year — January to December — but they jump back and forth between the years, decades and centuries.

In 1931, Albert Einstein spent a long semester at Cal Tech and was charmed by Pasadena: "It is like paradise," he wrote. "Always sunshine and clean air, gardens with palms and pepper trees and friendly people who smile at one and ask for autographs."

Many of the excerpts in the book are written by people who were lured to Los Angeles by the film industry — but Kipen says he didn't want movies to dominate his book.

Still, you'll find studio head Jack L. Warner scolding his writers for not getting to work on time — "It is not asking too much for a writer to be at his desk sometime between 9:00 a.m. and 9:45 a.m.," he wrote in 1937 — and Marilyn Monroe, just a few months before she died in 1962, sending a note to Germany's consul in LA: "Thank you for your champagne. It arrived, I drank it and I was gayer."

Over the centuries, visitors to LA found they just had to write about it — some loved it, others did not. Faulkner declared in 1945, "I don't like this damn place any better than I ever did," and the following year Eleanor Roosevelt marveled from the air: "The city lies below you like a multi-colored heap of jewels." Expressions of love and loathing are all addressed to one extraordinary city in Dear Los Angeles.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit

Nationally renowned broadcast journalist Susan Stamberg is a special correspondent for NPR.