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The marathon race is the only event of the modern or ancient Olympics, as far as I know, that is taken from recorded history. One long September day in 490 B.C., 10,000 Athenians battled 100,000 Persians and obtained victory over ludicrous odds. Pheidippides, according to Herodotus, was "the trained runner" called upon to race from the plains of Marathon some 23 miles to Athens to tell them that the city had been saved.
On the morning of Aug. 12, at about the five-mile mark, latter-day observers of the Pheidippides tradition who are competing in the Olympic marathon in Los Angeles will run on San Vicente Avenue and pass the eighth fairway of Brentwood Country Club—and an echoing piece of history. The course, which is bounded by San Vicente, Montana, Gretna Green and Burlingame avenues, comprises more than 129 acres of hillocks, berms, rivulets, arroyos and streams; and the long fairways are flanked by lanes of high, lush evergreens. In 1915 Brentwood was a private club where Angelenos like the Bundys (who had given their name to Bundy Drive, from which the marathoners will have just run) would gather, golf and generally be at their leisure. By 1928, hard times had fallen, and the course and clubhouse were foreclosed over a $200,000 debt.
At this point Brentwood was purchased by representatives of the exiled King Carol of Romania, who had apparently caused a good deal of scandal at home with his mistress, the red-haired Magda Lupescu. The king in his turn made Brentwood a public course, charged greens fees, used the upper floor for hotel accommodations and, rumor had it, the lower floors for a successful bookie operation (doing business where the men's locker room exists today).
In 1947, two men, Arthur Edmunds and his cousin Edward Zuckerman, were looking to play golf. For the first time in their lives they had the time and the money, but not the place. Just a few years earlier one local club had a sign posted on its rolling dichondra: NO DOGS OR JEWS. The reputation of places like the Los Angeles Country Club and Wilshire Country Club was such that they had no need for signs.
There was, of course, the gorgeous Hillcrest Country Club on Pico Boulevard in West Los Angeles; however, because of its waiting list and its membership fee, perhaps Zuckerman and Edmunds felt it would be easier and less expensive to buy Brentwood than to try to join Hillcrest. So they began to undertake negotiations with the Russian representative of King Carol to purchase Brentwood. Eventually they turned for help in the negotiations to Ben Weingart, along with Mark Taper, founder of the Mark Taper Forum in L.A. Weingart, by all accounts a man wily enough for any opponent, met the Russian repeatedly in downtown hotels, finally wining, dining and wenching the man into a deal: For a million and a quarter Zuckerman and Edmunds could buy the club. All they needed was the money. This they raised by scraping up $5,000 subscriptions (Edmunds turning to, among others, his brother-in-law, who as it happens is my father). The club became a success, with Zuckerman and Edmunds its first two presidents, and all this is but a prelude to the interesting part of the story.
Some years later, in the 1950s, all the country clubs in Southern California were threatened with the possibility of being overrun and destroyed by real-estate development. The real-estate tax law being what it was and is in Southern California, land in areas not specifically zoned for commercial, residential or manufacturing use is taxed for what would be its "highest and best use."
The crisis came about in this manner: Brentwood Country Club had become prosperous enough to attract the tax collector, and, furthermore, the Brentwood community wasn't zoned for much of anything. Therefore, the club was subject to a "highest and best use" tax, and no one would have had the temerity or chutzpah (depending on your country club) to claim that developing skill with a nine-iron was the highest and best use for that open land. If a precedent was set at Brentwood, then all country clubs, Jewish and Gentile alike, would be exposed to the tax. Something had to be done, and it was done. A California initiative was drafted, designated Proposition Six and designed, as the publicity ran, to "keep California green." It proposed to do this by taxing all the lush acreage in all golf courses as the golf courses they were, rather than for what they could be in their "highest and best use."
The matter was a delicate one and had to be presented to the public carefully in order to gain sympathies and votes. Key members of the country clubs banded together in a unique spirit of cooperation to accomplish this end, not unlike the disparate, suspicious and quarrelsome little Grecian city-states unifying to repel the Persian hordes. They advised, supported, encouraged one another to put the best possible face on the initiative, which was soon to go before the public for approval. (I don't suggest it was as dramatic as the lamb lying down with the lion, but I do know that when Eddie Zuckerman met Asa Call, chairman of the Pacific Mutual Life Insurance Company, for lunch at Wilshire Country Club, it was news around our house.) Certainly the spirit of Camp David prevailed at the country clubs. Some months before, Billy Gray at the Bandbox (a Yiddish nightclub on Fairfax that put on parodies of current movies, "The Cohen Mutiny," "Ben Hurowitz"), when he asked himself in an opening monologue how he got into the L.A. Country Club, answered himself by breaking into a popular lyric of the time, "They call me the Great Pretender," singing each syllable with the thickest Yiddish accent.
The issue heated up as election day drew near. There were outraged cries on one side that the only things being protected for the public were private golf courses, and the country clubs added to their green-belt arguments the dire warning that in the event of disaster (hydrogen bombing was most frequently mentioned, I believe) the public needed some open area to gather in, precisely what for I never understood. In any case the initiative passed, the country clubs in all their rough and green splendor were preserved, along with many of their less splendid restrictions, at least as far as I know.
However, even if one considers the preservation of private country clubs a mean goal, he would have to concede that the achieving of it was no mean feat. (I might have contempt for flagpole sitting but I would never deny that it's probably very difficult. Some people even feel that way about golf itself.) My second cousin and my uncle, along with their Jewish and Gentile cohorts, attacked the problem, it seems to me, with a considerable display of skills—legal, political, psychological—along with relentless patience, energy and a nice knack for keeping an unblinking eye on the main chance.