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The Secret of Danny Santiago

Famous All Over Town

by Danny Santiago
Simon and Schuster, 285 pp., $14.95

1.

Q. So my first question is, have you at any time been a member of the Communist Party?

A. I would like to answer that by saying that I am not a member of the Communist Party. However, as to the second part of your question I will stand on the fifth amendment and refuse to answer this question because I feel it could incriminate me.

Q. Well, actually I asked you only one question, whether you had ever been a member. You state you are not a member now?

A. Yes.

Q. When did you withdraw from the Communist Party?

A. I would have to decline, sir, on the same ground.

Testimony before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, Los
Angeles, California, September 19, 1951

The Richard and Hinda Rosenthal Foundation Award is given every year by the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters to one painter and to one “American work of fiction published during the preceding twelve months which, though not a commercial success, is a considerable literary achievement.” Over the years, this prize has been awarded to novels by, among others, Bernard Malamud, John Updike, Thomas Pynchon, Joyce Carol Oates, and Diane Johnson.

The book chosen this year was Famous All Over Town, an ebulliently funny first novel by Danny Santiago about an indomitable young Chicano growing up in the East Los Angeles barrio. The citation for the Rosenthal Award, presented by John Kenneth Galbraith at the Academy and Institute’s annual ceremonial last May 16th, read:

Famous All Over Town adds luster to the enlarging literary genre of immigrant experience, of social, cultural and psychological threshold-crossing…. The durable young narrator spins across a multi-colored scene of crime, racial violence and extremes of dislocation, seeking and perhaps finding his own space. The exuberant mixes with the nerve-wracking; and throughout sly slippages of language enact a comedy on the theme of communication.

Danny Santiago did not show up at the ceremony to pick up the $5,000 check that came with his Rosenthal Award. His absence was in keeping with a long-established pattern of reclusiveness. There is no photograph of Danny Santiago on the dust jacket of Famous All Over Town. His agent and publisher have never laid eyes on him. Neither have they ever spoken to him on the telephone. Danny Santiago claims to have no telephone. His address is a post office box in Pacific Grove, California, a modest settlement on the Monterey peninsula. All communication with Danny Santiago goes through this Pacific Grove post office box. Danny Santiago refuses to be interviewed and therefore did no publicity on behalf of Famous All Over Town. It is as if Danny Santiago did not exist, and in a way he does not.

As it happens, I have known the author of Famous All Over Town for the past eighteen years. He was my landlord when my wife and I lived in Hollywood. Danny Santiago, strictly speaking, is not his name. He is not a Chicano. Nor is he young. He is seventy-three years old. He is an Anglo. He is a graduate of Andover and Yale. He was the only member of the Yale class of 1933 to major in classical Greek. He is a prize-winning playwright. He is the co-author of the book of a hit musical comedy that played 654 performances on Broadway.

He was a screenwriter. He worked with Charlie Chaplin on The Great Dictator. He was a member of the Communist party. He worked as a volunteer social worker in East Los Angeles. He was one of 152 people named, on September 19, 1951, by a single witness before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, which was investigating Communist infiltration of the movie industry. He was subpoenaed to appear before the Committee. He declined under oath to say whether he had ever been a member of the Party, which he had, in fact, officially left three years earlier. He was blacklisted. He wrote monster pictures under an assumed name. He continued, along with his wife, to do volunteer work in East Los Angeles through the 1950s and into the Sixties. In 1968, he showed me some stories he had written about the neighborhood where he had been a social worker for so many years. As a result, I became a reluctant co-conspirator in his establishing the identity of Danny Santiago. His name is Daniel James. “Danny Santiago,” of course, is Dan James translated into Spanish.

2.

Q. Will you state your full name, Mr. James?

A. Daniel Lewis James.

Q. When and where were you born?

A. In Kansas City, Missouri, January 14, 1911.

Testimony before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, Los
Angeles, California, September 19, 1951

Dan James’s grandfather was the first cousin of Frank and Jesse James. This grandfather went to Brown. His grandmother was in the first graduating class at Vassar. His father graduated from Yale. The Jameses of Kansas City were Midwestern gentry, importers and purveyors of fine china—Spode and Haviland—which they sold throughout the Midwest and the border states. The business—T.M. James & Sons—flourished. Daniel James’s maternal grandfather purchased the home of a robber baron in Kansas City who had gone broke. I have seen a photograph of this house, which has long since been razed. It was a house of which Soames Forsyte might have approved, the house of a man of property, huge, in the convention of the day, dominated by a tower and punctuated by turrets and gables and cupolas and verandas, and it was in this house that Daniel James was born in 1911, his parents’ only child.

D.L. James, his father, was himself a Galsworthy creation, a businessman-aesthete in the manner of young Jolyon Forsyte, who painted. When he was not selling china, D.L. James was a play-wright, wright, occasionally produced in stock and little theaters and foreign and amateur productions, at work at the time of his death in 1944 on a five-act play on his kinsman, Jesse James, about whom his feelings were ambivalent; he could not decide, according to his son, whether Jesse was more sinned against than sinning. “My father met anybody interesting who came to Kansas City,” Daniel James says. “There was a little luncheon group of all the intellectuals in Kansas City, which numbered between nine and thirteen, I think.”1 Walter Hampden, the actor, was a friend of D.L. James, as were Karl Menninger and Thomas Hart Benton. Sinclair Lewis came to call.

It was only natural that from 1914 on D.L. James would spend his summers, with his wife and young son, in Carmel, California. A kind of manqué literary life could exist there for him as it did among the Kansas City intellectuals because in neither venue would it be put to the test of reality. There is a visual splendor about Carmel that is almost dreamlike, a soft-focus mirage of dunes and crashing white water and guano-washed rock islets and sheer cliffs falling into the surf and forests and meadows and clinging mists and windbent stands of cypress; the place tends to create a pervading, even comforting sense that no artistic accomplishment could ever match the landscape. Carmel was “an outpost of bohemia,” Kevin Starr wrote in Americans and the California Dream, 1850–1915, a place of “artists, near artists and would-be artists.” There was something moony about their attempt to merge art and nature. The California novelist Mary Austin (author of The Ford) wore long robes, rode a white horse, and worked in a tree house. It was the perfect spot to contemplate Jesse James as the fog rolled in and the years rolled by.

In 1918, D.L. James commissioned the project which was to be his monument. He had bought some property on a promontory near Point Lobos, a few miles from Carmel, and invited an acquaintance, the great California architect Charles Sumner Greene, to take a look at the site. Charles Greene was fifty, a partner with his brother Henry Mather Greene in the firm of Greene & Greene. The Greene brothers were craftsmen, virtuosos in wood and glass. For a quarter of a century in southern California, particularly in Pasadena, they had elevated the prairie house of Louis Sullivan into a mystical idea, the bungalow as a pre-Raphaelite vision. Stone was not their usual medium, but Charles Greene was so challenged by D.L. Jame’s wind-buffeted point that two days later, unsolicited, he submitted a set of rough preliminary sketches for a stone house of such intricate design that it would be almost impossible to tell where cliff ended and house began. D.L. James immediately engaged him to begin work.

Construction took five years. Charles Greene was always on the site, supervising the quarrying, the cutting, and the laying of the stone, all of it indigenous to Carmel. The house is U-shaped, as if fitted to the contours of the point; its granite walls are two to three feet thick and the stones are set irregularly into the facade with broken faces exposed. The effect is medieval.

Although the house has only one story, it has several levels adhering to the topography of the cliff. The ceilings in the living room and library are sixteen feet high and every one of the house’s seven rooms has an arched window opening onto the ocean a hundred feet or so below. Charles Greene revised his plans constantly, tearing out walls and replacing them if he were dissatisfied with the masonry or the workmanship. Costs escalated. In 1922, D.L. James finally called a halt before Charles Greene could complete an office on a lower elevation or put his own stamp on the interiors, as was his plan. The final cost, astonishingly, even allowing for the dollar’s soundness in that period, was less than $90,000.

The house is called Seaward and it has been the home of Daniel James and his wife Lilith since his mother’s final illness in 1968. It is a work of art, with all the baggage that phrase might carry. “This house was the answer to my father’s dream of immortality, which he did not achieve in his writing,” Daniel James says. The legacy would prove as well to be an enduring financial and psychological burden for the son. “Who am I to have this?” he asks rhetorically. “In my bad moments I’ve often felt all those tons of rock walls balancing on the back of my neck.” Whatever he accomplished, he would always measure that accomplishment against the house.

3.

Dan James is six feet six inches tall. He was cross-eyed until he was fourteen, a condition that nourished a tendency toward introspection. He missed a year at Yale because of tuberculosis. He majored in Greek “because it was a different thing to do.” He was informed more by Carmel than he was by either Yale or the mercantile Midwest. He knew Lincoln Steffens and Ella Winter and was exposed to what Kevin Starr has called Carmel’s “loquacious socialism” and “posturing reformism.” He was “progressive” as a matter of course, but it was not until his last year at Yale, after his sojourn in a Connecticut TB sanitorium, that he became politically active. He joined the John Reed Club and walked in a hunger march to Hartford.

  1. 1

    From an interview with Daniel James and his wife, Lilith, June 2 and 3, 1984, conducted and taped by myself and my wife, Joan Didion. Many of Dan James’s quotes in this piece come from that interview.

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