Islands have always played a big role in my life. I caught a chronic case of islomania when, as a girl, I first looked seaward from the summit of Mt. Wilson and saw Santa Catalina Island lying in the blue Pacific off the coast of California like some huge kraken rearing up out of 700 fathoms. I was not the only one thus afflicted. In the deep depression mid-30s, most southern California youngsters yearned toward Catalina with such fervor that if you stood on their seaward sides you could almost feel little waves of longing emanating from them. To see the island on a sparkling clear day was something. To sail toward it, watching its sun-baked ocher mountains and plunging cliffs grow in the distance, its shadows becoming rivers of verdure winding skyward from fanned beaches in secret little coves, was dream stuff. To spend a summer on Catalina seemed the very apex of paradise.
Fortunately for my particular dream, the Santa Catalina Island Company had long before discovered that school-kid help has certain virtues. I found myself therefore employed as a neophyte journalist in the publicity office, ostensibly writing something called "social notes" but actually bent on acquiring the world's best tan and an efficient crawl stroke. My journalistic endeavors, if you want to call them that, involved a deliberate usage of the names of the carriage trade staying at the Hotel St. Catherine. Every morning I ran a finger down the register, zeroed in on the Blue Bookers and made up jolly little items about these victims. Just to note that Mrs. So-and-so was "sojourning" on the island was much too dull, so I began to let my imagination take over. I would clothe my dowagers in flowing, fictional beach pajamas straight out of the latest issue of Vogue, and when that palled I would set them to participating vivaciously in the island's more rugged activities, from a day out swordfishing to a night at the local den of vice. To my amazement, my prey were pleased at this sort of thing, never once objecting to being glimpsed in pink maillot bathing suit or with yellowtail-tuna catch.
My greatest challenge was a Pasadena society matron who lingered week after week in the Saint Catherine's register. In her behalf my flights of fancy grew wilder and wilder. She sailed triumphant into the Tuna Club with flag aloft, indicating record-breaking game fish taken on light tackle. When she voiced no complaints about my stories of her fishing exploits, I flew way out in orbit with a dandy—a ride to hounds after the trophy boars on the island, followed by a luxurious Hawaiian luau with her kill as pièce de résistance. Shortly thereafter there appeared at the office her nurse-companion, extremely determined under a starched white cap. It seems that her patient, kicking 80 and confined to a wheelchair, had become a source of worry to her grandchildren in Pasadena, as well as to her doctor and friends. Was it possible that the lady could just take the sun on the hotel veranda in the Pasadena Star-News in the future?
Regrettably, I turned from the aging dowager to the Hollywood characters floating just offshore. Never did so many improbable romances bloom on movie-colony yachts riding gently at anchor in Descanso Bay. "What redhead was glimpsed diving off John Ford's palatial yacht tied up at the buoy off Catalina's Casino?" I wrote. The fact that it was the ship's fat cook on his afternoon off didn't trouble me, Mr. Ford, the redhead or even Louella Parsons.
There were certain ground rules. Summer colonists always were "in residence." Anything that floated was a "palatial yacht." The sun was a permanent fixture in the sky. It was always "Santa Catalina Island"—never rude "Catalina." The Hotel St. Catherine was automatically prefixed by the description "luxurious," and the Island Villa, a collection of tents on platforms, was never mentioned. Moreover, you never, never got fanciful with the prim little bulletins announcing the comings and goings of the Philip Knight Wrigleys. And you never used their initials, P.K.
Like all the school kids of those days, I was paid exactly enough to enable me to rent a bed somewhere and eat—after a fashion. This sounds mean, but it wasn't—not really. If we'd been richer most certainly we could not have spent our pay any the more wisely, and we would have got into vastly more trouble. The big-brotherhood of our paternalistic employers extended even to the making up of grim model budgets for the summer helpers. But as these budgets allowed for no dances, no speedboats, no silk bathing suits and no raffia sandals, we ignored them. I never had more fun in all my life. Like all the rest of the young people, I reduced expenditure for food and housing to less than the bare minimum and had fun with the rest.
A girl named Billie (whom I remember as a remarkable tank for alcoholic beverages) and I rented a tree house that was in grave danger of imminent collapse. It had a "bathroom," which consisted of a tin shower stall and reluctant John, reached by precarious catwalk around the trunk of the tree. The remainder of this establishment was one open airy room with no glass panes in the windows, a spectacular view of beauteous Avalon Bay, ominously creaking floors that swayed when anyone climbed our ladder, and fantastic disarray. I was raised to keep things neatlike, but Billie piled everything that she wasn't actually wearing or using in a heap in the middle of the swaying floor. In order to save myself polemic controversy, I learned to do likewise—with verve.
I marveled every morning at the Ivory-soap perfection of Billie emerging from this elevated rat's nest for her sales stint in the Pot Shop. In those days (when pot only meant something used for cooking or to put flowers in) the company operated a tile and ceramics plant that utilized the clays and tales found in the hills of Santa Catalina to make glazed-tile plaques and tables, vases and items of tableware with soft colors and satiny finish. Billie was the ideal final touch in the retail shop on El Encanto. A small-boned girl with a sensational figure, she wore her bright, shining hair cut short, like a child's yellow cap on her head. Her skin was tanned the color of a copper penny, setting off white teeth, blonde head and blue eyes. She was one of those girls who is born knowing how she should look. She never wore anything but blue and white, which on her appeared very crisp and clean even if she had yanked it from the mid-floor heap. The effect on the tourists was singular. Elderly couples morally opposed to smoking would totter out of the Pot Shop with armloads of ceramic ashtrays.
I doubt that there were 600 real residents on the entire 21-mile-long island in those days. Time was punctuated for us by alternating periods—the weekdays, when we "owned" Catalina, and the weekends, when public hordes descended on our paradise. We enjoyed them equally, because when the tourists were there we felt called upon to perform like natives in a superior sort of way, aquaplaning (that was before water skis) around the approaching steamers and diving off spectacular heights. The swimming was, and doubtless still is, the best on the West Coast. Air and water temperatures, warmed by currents from Mexican waters, were exactly right, so there was no shock on entering the sea and no chill on emerging. Sea, air and body came together in mutual complement, like tones of a pleasant chord. We were prehistoric creatures not yet completely adapted to either element but at home in both. There was no blight upon the bright days except that all of us thought almost constantly about food.
Mornings we got up at the very last possible second and raced down from our various canyon rims to our jobs. By noon we were famished, moaning with hunger cramps. We bought day-old hard rolls from a grocery store where they could be had for 1¢ each, eating them with bologna that the store sold by the single slice, having long since grown hardened to the penuries of summer help. For dinner we ran accounts at John's Seafood House, eating absolutely everything placed upon the table except the salt and pepper. John, a fat and amiable Italian, had an arrangement with party boat skippers whereby they turned their clients' catch over to him at extremely low rates. Thus he was able to feed us 50¢ tuna-plate dinners and trust that we would straighten our accounts with him on payday.