Friday, September 30, 2005

A nod from Winfrey lifts author


Friday September 30, 2005

Style & Culture
A nod from Winfrey lifts author
* Sales of a memoir by James Frey receive a jolt after it is included in the TV host's book club.

By Steven Barrie-Anthony, Times Staff Writer

Probably the biggest news of his career and James Frey couldn't tell his mother. It was 1:15 on an early September afternoon and Frey was sitting in his tiny home office in Amagansett, N.Y., ear glued to the phone, talking to Oprah Winfrey.

Thirteen years previous, Frey was in an Ohio jail serving time for assault and convalescing from the spiraling addiction to alcohol and crack that nearly killed him. "I wasn't a writer, just a troubled kid," he said in a grainy voice tinged with hard living. But sobriety ushered in a writer's drive and sensibility, and Frey's gritty memoir "A Million Little Pieces" came to life in 2003 as a statement as well as a story.

"It's a gob of spit in the face of victimization culture," Frey said. "I hadn't ever read a book or seen movies or television that got addiction right. A lot of times people try to blame other people for their problems or try to romanticize addiction. I don't believe that most addicts are victims of anything but themselves."

The book was a runaway success, and Frey began receiving about 200 fan letters a day. But there's a bestseller and then there's an Oprah's Book Club bestseller. "Oprah can take a book from being successful to being extremely successful," said Sara Nelson, editor in chief of Publishers Weekly. "A mention from her is every author's dream. She's hugely powerful."

Frey knew this. His mother, Lynn, an Oprah fan for years, kept him up to date with the talk show queen's suggested readings. He also knew that Oprah had suspended her book club in 2002, only to revive it last year for classics only. So when he answered the phone and a woman introduced herself as a producer from the Oprah show, the whole thing smelled of a prank. He went along anyhow, agreeing to make an appearance to discuss addiction. Then Oprah herself picked up the phone and popped the question: Would he be interested in being part of the Oprah's Book Club?

Frey was "shocked and thrilled" and agreed immediately. He told his wife that afternoon but a confidentiality contract banned him from telling anybody else, including his mother, until Oprah made the official announcement. (Lynn Frey "coincidentally" received an invitation to the taping, which aired on Sept. 22, and screamed from the audience, "That's my son!" when Oprah made the reveal.) In the meantime, the book's publisher, Anchor Books, ordered 600,000 additional copies to bolster its reserves. It would need those and more: Within a day of being selected, "A Million Little Pieces" rocketed to No. 1 on, and four days after the announcement, bookstores had sold roughly 85,000 copies.

Although he "gets nervous in front of big crowds" and says that "writers are very solitary people, and I enjoy being alone for hours each day," Frey is fervently enthusiastic about his association with Oprah. He repeats words like "awesome" and "amazing" and considers it "my duty to make Oprah feel proud for having chosen me, to participate happily, willingly and joyfully in everything related to being part of this."

His unabashed enthusiasm contrasts sharply with the string of qualms that Jonathan Franzen let fly in 2001 when Oprah nominated his novel, "The Corrections," for inclusion in the club. Although Franzen later apologized and backpedaled, it was clear that he considered the honor a dubious one. Oprah promptly rescinded his welcome.

That's unlikely to happen with Frey, who is vocally unafraid of any kind of populist stigma. "I'm not part of the literati at this point," he said. "I don't write criticisms, I don't participate in literati activities. I don't care about that stuff, frankly. I just think it's amazing that so many people are going to read my book. I'm happy to have any reader, regardless of their socioeconomic standing, their education or anything else."

The literary and publishing world is positively giddy about Oprah's return to contemporary authors; the club is perhaps the only platform that can transform any book into a smash overnight. M.J. Rose, author of "The Halo Effect," has suggested that the sharp drop-off in fiction book sales after Sept. 11 was related less to the national chaos than to Oprah's hiatus from recommending authors of today.

"And I'm really excited that Oprah picked something that's this edgy and dark," Rose said. "It's not typical at all of the kinds of books she used to pick.... I've talked to three authors in the last 24 hours who all said, 'This means that any of us could be chosen now.' "

Frey is of course busier than ever; he sits in his office at his little desk, shuffling through the thousands of songs on his computer, and typing away. The sequel to his debut, "My Friend Leonard," was published in June and he's at work on a detective show pilot and a screenplay about the founder of the Hell's Angels (both for Fox) and a novel about Los Angeles.

"Los Angeles is just a giant, incredible city unlike any other city in the world," he said. "Its culture is different and its geography is different. But when anybody writes about it, it's always crime or Hollywood. There haven't been any great books about the rest of this giant metropolis."

Then, three or four times each day, Frey puts his 9-month-old daughter in a stroller and walks with her through the neighborhood. She has no idea about the Oprah hubbub, Frey says. She may be the only one.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Getaway, in the city


Thursday September 22, 2005

Getaway, in the city
* Even in frenetic, frustrating Los Angeles, there are places where people can slow down and relax. You just have to find them.

By Steven Barrie-Anthony, Times Staff Writer

There are places on this Earth that promise a peaceful easy feeling, places that suggest a chance at serenity. Hawaii, Yosemite, Martha's Vineyard. Los Angeles, typically, is not on that list.

It's a city of unrivaled opportunity and heart-wrenching disappointment, frenetic energy and inertia, creativity and writer's block. There's all that smog and so much pent-up frustration that a mistake on the freeway might just get you shot. Despite our sunlight and swaying palms, Los Angeles lost its title as the capital of mellow a long time ago. It's too busy or too gritty, too nouveau riche or too superficial. Choose your epithet.

Bertold Brecht wrote that "The angels of Los Angeles / Are tired out with smiling." Truman Capote compared this place to "a jumble of huts in a jungle somewhere." But not every Angeleno flees the area when the need to relax arises; there are places close by or within a relatively easy drive where you can catch your breath. Ask around, and you'll find a surprising number of contemplative niches that begin to contradict the angriest descriptions of the city. Joan Didion even waxed poetic about our gridlock, if you can believe it. "The freeway experience ... is the only secular communion Los Angeles has," she wrote. "Actual participation requires a total surrender, a concentration so intense as to seem a kind of narcosis, a rapture-of-the-freeway. The mind goes clean. The rhythm takes over."

In case you're not ready to experience rush hour as meditation, here are a few less challenging Southland destinations that encourage a feeling of quietude and peace.

Hollywood Forever

Cemeteries are some of the most beautiful and contemplative spots around, Beverly Coop says. Just look, here, at Hollywood Forever. Coop and pal Jenna Moerk are sitting on the steps of the island mausoleum dedicated to William A. Clark Jr., founder of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Ducks preen in the surrounding pond, and headstones and monuments rise from grassy earth in every direction.

"I walk around and wonder at who might've known these people, who grieved for them, who's still grieving for them," says Coop. Moerk adds: "I've been to all the cemeteries around here. It's quiet time. No one bothers you."

Spend an afternoon at Forever and you'll realize two things: that relaxing graveside is far less macabre than it sounds; and that you're not the only one who enjoys it. There are benches throughout the property, but the best vantage points are by the countless shrines and tombs lining the 63-acre sprawl.

Mourning passersby whisper of loved ones lost, but other visitors seek out graves of fallen heroes buried here -- Rudolph Valentino, Jayne Mansfield, Cecil B. DeMille -- or chuckle wistfully about how a stroll through these stones is about all you need to put life into perspective.

Bodhi Tree


West Hollywood

Seekers of all stripes have long adored the Bodhi Tree Bookstore, and three decades of footsteps have worn pathways into the varnish of its floors. Regulars grab complimentary cups of herbal tea and drag green lawn chairs into favorite corners. Some buy books and others don't, but the staff doesn't seem to care either way.

"This place lends itself to calmness," says longtime visitor Karin Meidel, reclining by a window and paging through a book on a personality profiling system. "People come here looking to improve themselves; people here are a little more evolved."

The selection is heavy on metaphysics and mysticism -- with shelves labeled Astrology; Native American Shamanism; Inner Healing Dreams; UFOs -- but there are also mainstream favorites like the newest "Harry Potter" and plenty of purely rational, scientific fare. Music piped throughout has a soft New Age flavor and complements the scents that emerge from racks of incense, perfumed soaps, candles and essential oils.

Overstimulated? Head next door to the used-book section. The subject matter is the same, but it's so quiet you'll hear your own footfalls, and the only scent in the air is of yellowing pages.

Brand Library,


You may think you've come to Brand Library in Glendale for a book, but the surrounding park will beckon. There are soft grassy slopes and sunlight, and if you listen carefully you'll hear the nearby thwack of bats on balls and snippets of laughter on a perpetual breeze. Everywhere you look you'll see another tilted grassy slope, another tree to rest your back against, another city dweller strolling absent-mindedly and not looking the least bit guilty about it.

The library, housed in the 1904 mansion of wealthy Glendale benefactor Leslie C. Brand and resting in the foothills overlooking the city, is renowned for its art and music collections. The pristine white building conjures up an Indian palace with its arches and grand bulbous domes. An art gallery and concert room sit adjacent to the main facilities, and the Brand estate extends on all sides. There's a baseball diamond, a sandy playground for children, and enough grass, open space and hiking trails on the nearly 500 acres out back to exhaust you. Trek far enough and you'll find a waterfall.

Why read at home? Plop down in the library and page through an art book and listen to music. Or close your eyes and forget why you came and let everything go slow.

Ultra-high seats,

Dodger Stadium

It's good that the Dodgers aren't the Yankees. If Dodger Stadium was packed to the brim every game, then there wouldn't be patches of empty seats high in the top deck, and you wouldn't be able to camp out in the worst seats in the park, all by yourself. Average attendance this season is 44,722, which leaves more than 11,000 empty seats on any given evening.

Love baseball or hate it, it doesn't matter. Pack a picnic and head to the game a little late. Buy the cheapest ticket available ($6 for adults, $4 for kids) and climb stairs until your legs ache. Search for wherever people aren't.

Get settled, put your feet up. Down below, throngs of fans cheer and boo and drink and instigate the human wave -- but here at the lip of the giant bowl there's a balance between the fans' tunnel vision bravado and the nearby expanse of sky.

It's not the same with other sports. "You can watch a tight, well-played football game, but it isn't exciting if half the stadium is empty," former baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn once wrote. "But you can go to a ball park on a quiet Tuesday afternoon with only a few thousand people in the place and thoroughly enjoy a one-sided game." Indeed you can, and it doesn't much matter who wins.

James Irvine Garden,

Little Tokyo

The James Irvine Garden in Little Tokyo tells a story that's worth hearing. But first you have to find the space, on a recessed plot at the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center in Little Tokyo. Take the lobby elevator to the basement and walk through an institutional-looking hallway to the doors that open to the garden. The painstakingly landscaped Japanese-style sanctuary is hidden just enough so that it's often empty.

Cross its perfectly manicured lawn, traverse two wooden bridges and you'll discover the fountainhead. The spring represents "the immigrants coming from Japan," says Robert Hori, director of board and donor relations at the center. Then the stream divides.

"One path is a turbulent, chilly path, and the other moves slowly, contains more placid waters," says Hori. "These are the two sides of the immigration experience: those who saw Japan as their homeland, and those who saw this as their own country." In the end, the two streams merge into a pond that symbolizes the great American melting pot.

Renowned landscape architect Takeo Uesugi designed the space, and during the construction process he was joined by many gardeners, landscape contractors and nurserymen from throughout the Japanese American community who labored free of charge. The garden was finished in 1979 and two years later was given the National Landscape Award from the American Assn. of Nurserymen, presented by Nancy Reagan.




It's a non sequitur, to be sure, a sliver of serenity sandwiched between Hollywood's Kaiser Permanente facility and the goliath Scientology headquarters. But resist the urge to flee concrete and traffic and instead pull into the parking lot at 4860 Sunset Blvd. Look for the sign that says "Church of All Religions." Walk under the arched gateway. Follow the marigolds.

Each Self-Realization Fellowship temple has its own character, some sitting on regular-sized city lots and others spanning acres, but the spiritual tradition's late founder Paramahansa Yogananda made sure that each was a mecca of tranquillity. Everyone is welcome, all religions and creeds; bring along your Bible, Koran, favorite Buddhist sutra or Nietzsche book. And don't expect proselytizing.

A lot of people come here from Kaiser, explains Ken Francis, the soft-spoken gardener who tends the property full-time. Some just looking for peace, others awaiting a loved one in surgery. Francis doesn't know all of their stories; he just trims and landscapes and does his best to keep up with the garden's 62-year legacy.

The marigolds merge with impatiens of all colors, leading to a small octagonal gazebo surrounded by greenery, a fish pond and fountains overhung by palm fronds and giant bamboo stalks. Doors stand open at either end, and the gazebo is empty except for marble benches and floor tiles that are cool to the touch despite a scorching sun.

Beyond the gazebo, seek out hidden nooks a la the Secret Garden. A metal chair swathed in bamboo. A clearing through a low trellised gate with just enough space for the stone bench and you.

Beach access, Malibu

When you're feeling hopelessly mired in the complications of city dwelling, it might do you good to toss your day planner and cellphone and crawl toward the coast. Malibu is perfect for sunburn and catharsis, but the crowds can be a problem. Even once-upon-a-time uncrowded beaches such as Point Dume brim with bodies on any moderately sunny day. Where can you find serenity on the sand?

Avoid the beaches with giant reputations. Instead, troll Pacific Coast Highway for obscure stretches accessible from the road via overgrown pathways and rusty metal staircases. Look for the small signs announcing "beach access." Park on the shoulder -- look out for the busy traffic on PCH -- and make your way downward. Be forewarned that some property owners along parts of the Malibu coastline are famously annoyed by beachgoers, and visitors are required by law to stay below the "mean high tide line" (the highest point the tide will likely reach that day). There are no lifeguards posted on these stretches, so don't swim alone, and parents: Watch your children. Despite the hassles, such a journey has much to offer.

There's a gorgeous spot along Escondido beach, just south of Zuma. Another, accessible via the Zonker Harris beach access way, is about 300 yards southeast of the Malibu pier. There are also plenty of access spots along Malibu Colony Road and Broad Beach Road that run parallel to PCH.

Claim your own. But you might want to think twice before telling your friends.

Meher Mount, Ojai

There are plenty of parks and gardens open to the public, but few feel as homey and intimate as your own backyard. It's just this kind of intimacy that distinguishes Meher Mount, the roughly hewn ecumenical meditation center that sits atop Sulphur Mountain overlooking Ojai Valley.

Actually, "meditation center" is a stretch: The place is meditative, certainly, but the only structure on the top plateau is a small house where the caretakers live with their daughter. The space is less formal than it is a friendly backyard that you're welcome to stroll through, sit in and gaze from -- at panoramic views of Mt. Baldy, the Channel Islands, Topa Topa....

The dry and rugged landscape conjures up the retreat's late founder, Agnes Baron, the self-proclaimed "witch of Sulphur Mountain" who spent the last decades of her life fighting an uphill battle to keep Meher Mount open to the public and away from developers. The breezy quietude, broken occasionally by a woodpecker's tapping, recalls Baron's muse, Meher Baba, the Indian spiritual master who kept silence for the last 44 years of his life.

Perhaps the prize spot on the 175-acre property is underneath an old oak tree; ask the caretakers and they'll take you to it. Heavy branches overhang a wooden bench and shade you from the sun, and the atmosphere underneath the leafy umbrella is so peaceful and calm that you may well forget to emerge until the sun's setting.

California Scenario,

Costa Mesa

It might seem impossible to find a contemplative niche across the street from that pulsing hub of consumerism, Costa Mesa's South Coast Plaza. But trust that opposites can coexist, and find yourself standing on the hot asphalt of a parking lot, staring up at a towering black glass office building.

The freeway roars nearby. Walk between that building and the neighboring Jerry's Famous Deli, however, and you'll hear water flowing over rocks. In this interior courtyard a carefully choreographed stream gurgles down the edge of a massive stone triangle and winds its way through the rest of California Scenario, one of two California sculpture gardens designed by artist Isamu Noguchi. The 1.6-acre site, completed in 1982, explores the crossroads of place and identity that so fascinated Noguchi, himself the combination of two lands and cultures -- the child of a Japanese poet father and an American mother.

At first glance this is a landscape of hard surfaces and sharp edges, but a closer look reveals that cut objects combine with others to suggest arcs and curves; that concrete, granite and rock are mitigated by gentle slopes of grass and sand. The garden "combines all the different landscapes of California in one spot: Desert, mountains, plains or central valley," says Amy Lyford, an associate professor of art history at Occidental College. A redwood grove tickles the boundaries of sand and cacti. Shade commingles with sun, wet with dry.

Los Angeles subway

Remember when you were little, sitting in the back seat of the car while mom or dad drove? You'd stare at your hands or out the window and let the engine's droning carry you toward sleep. As an adult, a ride in the back seat might still serve as a soothing lullaby. But how often do you get that opportunity?

A subway ride can come close.

The Los Angeles subway and light rail systems are vastly underused, so in the middle of the day or later in the evening cars are plenty empty for make-believe. Plug in to an iPod if that's your thing, or just listen to the whirring of wheels-on-tracks and stare out at Los Angeles from above and underneath. Let your eyelids droop, and end up wherever you end up. Then grab another train and head home.

Or stay awake and experiment, explore. Chinatown to Union Station on the Gold Line, then on into Hollywood via the Red Line. As daylight wanes, consider taking a break from riding to watch the sun set from the raised platform of your choice.

And beyond

This list is just the beginning; once you start looking, the region begins to seem like a contemplative place after all. Other worthwhile destinations include the Getty Museum complex, the garden behind the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, the sprawling acres of trees and flowers at the nearby Huntington Library and hiking paths in Griffith Park, Angeles National Park and Runyon Canyon. The sandy landscapes of Death Valley and Joshua Tree are must-sees. And of course there are hundreds of oases that you'll stumble upon if you encounter this bustling cityscape in the right frame of mind.



Peaceful places

Hollywood Forever Cemetery

6000 Santa Monica Blvd.

Hollywood, (323) 469-1181

Open 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily

Bodhi Tree Bookstore

8585 Melrose Ave.

West Hollywood, (310) 659-1733

New bookstore, open 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily. Used bookstore, open 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily.

Brand Library

1601 W. Mountain St.

Glendale, (818) 548-2051

Park hours: daylight until 10 p.m.

Library hours: 1 to 9 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays, 1 to 6 p.m. Wednesdays, 1 to 5 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays

Dodger Stadium

1000 Elysian Park Ave.

Los Angeles, (323) 224-1500 game schedule.

James Irvine Garden

244 S. San Pedro St.

Los Angeles (Little Tokyo)

(213) 628-2725

Open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily

Hollywood Self-Realization Fellowship

4860 Sunset Blvd.

Hollywood, (323) 661-8006 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays

Malibu Beach

access ways

For more information about Malibu beach access ways or for directions, contact the Los Angeles County Department of Beaches and Harbors: or (310) 305-9545.

Gates open at dawn, close at dusk.

There are no lifeguards or other safety features at these beaches; use at your own risk.

Meher Mount

9902 Sulphur Mountain Road

Ojai, (805) 640-0000 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays; noon to 5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays

The caretakers request that visitors call before arrival.

Los Angeles subway

Schedules at or call 1-800-COMMUTE.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Feeling good about their work


Tuesday September 20, 2005

Feeling good about their work
* At the parties, TV's stars are positively giddy about their medium.

By Steven Barrie-Anthony and Maria Elena Fernandez, Times Staff Writers

FINALLY, television is king. At least, that's what Patricia Richardson of "The West Wing" was saying. She was standing on the red carpet outside the "Entertainment Tonight"/People magazine post-Emmy soiree and explaining matter-of-factly that "TV is better than movies. Look at shows like 'Six Feet Under' and 'West Wing,' and then look at all the dreck Hollywood is putting out."

That was the consensus at Emmy parties around town Sunday night, where celebrities sick of their status as show biz's second-class citizens (a theme even Emmy host Ellen DeGeneres riffed on during the broadcast) celebrated a blockbuster year for the small screen -- and a lackluster year for the big one.

"More and more people get their information and entertainment from TV," said television icon Don Johnson, who has a new show, "Just Legal," on the WB. "Film has become a boutique business. The time has come when we're going to get all our entertainment in our home."

Inside at the Mondrian Hotel, the dark, musky scent of chocolate all but wiped out perfumes and colognes, leading revelers by their noses to the Godiva room. Truffles were everywhere, hundreds of them, glued to the walls in circles and swirls like something out of "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory."

An open patio brimmed with bodies surrounding a stage. It was a tide of muted colors -- black is certainly back. It's exciting to be in TV these days, said "The O.C.'s" Peter Gallagher, "to be involved in this time of change. The problem in movies is that the old formulas aren't getting the returns the studios are hoping for. There's a certain danger in defining the audience too narrowly." Not everyone was optimistic that TV will become the dominant form, however. "Everything's cyclical, it comes and goes," said Kelsey Grammer, looking tired.

Earlier in the evening, award winner Felicity Huffman and husband William H. Macy were having a blast at the Governors Ball. "Those housewives can dance like there's no tomorrow," Macy said. Of his wife's award, he gushed, "I'm so proud, I just knew she would win. I don't know how I knew but I did.... That Emmy looks good on her."

At the Roosevelt Hotel, the TV Guide/Inside TV bash was in full swing, by far the most attended and anticipated party of the night. Anything at the Roosevelt these days is a sought-out invitation, but it helped that Missy Elliott was rocking the house.

"It was a great performance," said Don Wilson, who is guest starring as an X-ray tech on "Grey's Anatomy" this season. "She had very high energy, had the crowd jumpin' a little bit."

Afterward, the younger set danced inside to hip-hop and oldies near yet another decadent chocolate oasis -- this one sponsored by Dove. The color scheme was chocolate brown and orange with white flourishes to match the renovated hotel's class and glamour.

There were specialty drinks named after the nominated dramas and comedies. "Scrubs" shots were served in test tubes; in honor of "Lost," there were mai tais. For "Will & Grace," there was a Manhattan with a Twist; and in homage to the "Desperate Housewives," a Sour Apple Pucker Martini.

Celebrities partied in the balconies surrounding the pool as well as the pool area and lobby inside. Among the famous faces spotted: Ricardo Antonio Chavira and Mark Moses, both of "Desperate Housewives"; Jeremy Piven and Adrian Grenier of "Entourage"; Mathew St. Patrick of "Six Feet Under" and "Reunion"; John C. McGinley and Neil Flynn, both of "Scrubs"; Gabrielle Union and Eric Benet.

But no actors seemed to be having a better time than the cast of "Lost," who celebrated together by the serpentine bar and went nuts when Ian Somerhalder, whose character, Boone, died on the island, appeared at the party.

There wasn't a chocolate room at the HBO party at the Pacific Design Center, but the Bollywood-themed celebration was by far the night's most elaborately designed. Veteran event designer Billy Butchkavitz flew to India to do research and returned with miniature temples, which he meticulously reproduced as life-size hangout areas spread throughout a palatial blue tent and outside. Waiters strode about dressed in white cotton Indian-style tunics, refreshing plates of samosas and vats of delicious mango and pistachio rice pudding.

"Everybody Loves Raymond" actors held court around their reserved table. "We were all happy to be remembered," said Brad Garrett, who played Robert Barone. "It was awkward when they read our name. I try not to eat during the show, but Ellen DeGeneres gave me a piece of cheese, which I was just about to put in my mouth. Then they read the winner and my wife told me, 'Put the cheese down!' "

Costar Doris Roberts brought along her son and her two young grandsons as party dates. "I 100% thought 'Desperate Housewives' would win," she said, grinning, Harry Winston diamond earrings dangling from her lobes. "But this is wonderful. I did nine fabulous, wonderful years. I was working. I won three Emmys. I can't complain."

As the night waned, Quentin Tarantino shot out of the party, wearing a white shirt festooned with dragons. "I would've loved to have won," he said in his trademark nearly nerdy voice. "But 'Lost' is so good." His theory as to why TV is so popular these days? "All the episodes come out on DVD. That's so cool."

Nearby, Macy Gray hustled toward the valet. "It was a cool party," she said. "I didn't know anybody, but I had a good time."

Times staff writer Merrill Balassone contributed to this report.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

L.A. Renoir Paints the Way to Recovery of Stolen Rembrandt


Saturday September 17, 2005

L.A. Renoir Paints the Way to Recovery of Stolen Rembrandt
* Seizure of the French artist's work here leads to Denmark, where the last of three works taken in 2000 is recovered.

By Steven Barrie-Anthony, Times Staff Writer

The last of three valuable paintings stolen from a Swedish museum nearly five years ago was recovered Thursday in Copenhagen when an FBI agent posing as a buyer offered to purchase the Rembrandt self-portrait.

The recovery was the latest installment in a saga with all the makings of a Hollywood blockbuster, and on Friday, it turned out to have an L.A. connection.

The crime that set the tale in motion occurred Dec. 22, 2000, when three men with machine guns stormed the Swedish National Museum in Stockholm, grabbed the Rembrandt and two paintings by Renoir, and made an elaborate getaway that included tossing spikes on the road, blowing up parked cars and zipping away on a speedboat with a haul estimated by the FBI to be worth about $45 million.

A multinational investigation followed, and Stockholm police quickly retrieved one of the paintings, Renoir's "Conversation." But then the trail went cold -- until this year, when an FBI unit investigating a Eurasian crime syndicate came across the second Renoir, "Young Parisian," in Los Angeles.

That recovery led the FBI and a host of local, national and international law enforcement agencies to track down the Rembrandt self-portrait and mount a sting operation in a Copenhagen hotel.

The suspects, four Swedish residents who have been arrested and are awaiting indictment, were asking for half a million dollars, according to the FBI, a fraction of the painting's estimated $36-million value.

The Renoir arrived here through Los Angeles International Airport about two years ago, according to J.P. Weis, special agent in charge of the FBI's L.A. office, who spoke alongside representatives of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and other agencies at a news conference Friday in the Federal Building in Westwood.

Nearby, an easel displayed the recovered Renoir, featuring a small scratch above the subject's ear -- superficial damage to the painting's varnish that authorities said could easily be fixed.

The representatives of the agencies involved declined to address most details of the local recovery, citing an ongoing investigation into an organized crime ring.

It is not unusual for stolen artwork to become caught up in other illegal activities, said Sheriff's Capt. Stephen Johnson.

"It's often used as collateral for various kinds of illegal transactions," he said. Stolen art this famous and expensive is essentially unsalable, said Scott Schaefer, curator of paintings at the J. Paul Getty Museum, who was in charge of authenticating the Renoir and was also at the news conference.

But if the illicit owner is intent on selling, he said, Los Angeles is a good locale in which to make an attempt.

"There are both private and public investors here who are big buyers," Schaeffer said.

Monday, September 12, 2005

Not Bourbon St., but it'll do


Monday September 12, 2005

Not Bourbon St., but it'll do
* Creative types who were forced to flee New Orleans are regrouping and reconnecting in laid-back Lafayette, La.

By Reed Johnson and Steven Barrie-Anthony, Times Staff Writers

LAFAYETTE, La. -- Like those of so many artists and musicians, Peter Nu's life was scattered to the four winds when Hurricane Katrina ripped up the Gulf Coast two weeks ago. He's still not sure when he'll be able to go home to New Orleans, and what sort of job prospects may greet him once he gets there.

But this last weekend, Nu was back tapping out jangly melodies on his steel drum at an impromptu art fair here in the heart of Cajun country, about two hours northwest of New Orleans. Admittedly, the crowds were a bit smaller and not quite as funky as those in the French Quarter. But Nu seemed relieved just to be making music again.

"Every time I get settled, some cosmic force moves me," Nu said, taking a cigarette break between sessions in front of Chris' Po-Boy, a local sandwich shop. "When they let people back in [to New Orleans], I might go back. But I might stay here."

Since Katrina slammed into this region of soggy landscapes and resolute people, Baton Rouge has become a temporary command center for businesses and planners drawing up blueprints for the area's comeback. Many artists, on the other hand, have passed over the buttoned-down state capital and headed for laid-back Lafayette. It's likely that hundreds, if not thousands, of musicians, artists, photographers, writers, designers and other creative talents have fled New Orleans in Katrina's wake, both the world-famous and the not-so-famous. Some have strayed as far away as Memphis, Nashville, Houston, New York and Los Angeles.

But few places are likely to absorb as many artists, or welcome them as handsomely, as this easygoing, culture-hungry city of roughly 110,000, give or take several thousand evacuees currently lodged in the Cajundome. Whether for reasons of family, history, geography, or just because many people in both places would rather pound rocks than be caught living elsewhere in the state, New Orleans and Lafayette are growing cozier by the day.

"There are an awful lot of people here who have friends and family in New Orleans in general," said Marce Lacouture, a musician who hosts a culture program on Lafayette public radio. "There are a lot of people who know each other from working at the [New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival]. There are an awful lot of musicians and artists who have connections here. I know of several places where there are 10 to 12 people who are all writers, artists or musicians, all staying at a friend's place. We're in the process now of trying to figure out just how many musicians are here."

Settled by refugees of another massive upheaval -- the expulsion of French-speaking immigrants from British-ruled Canada some 250 years ago, known as "Le Grand Derangement" -- Lafayette is the epicenter of Cajun culture. It's an amiable hotpotch of African American and French-Canadian cultural flavors, and the community regards itself as a kind of sister city to Creole-influenced New Orleans, on the other side of a vast swamp.

Barry Ancelet, a folklorist and professor of Francophone Studies at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, said that improvisation lies at the heart of the regional culture, whether in food, music, architecture or any other art form. Following both world wars, he said, there were systematic efforts made to get the local Cajuns to abandon their native culture, stop speaking French and assimilate with the rest of the country. But those efforts were resisted, and now it's widely recognized that the region's quirky charms represent a rich and irreplaceable legacy. He believes that Katrina has intensified that local sense of identity. "When something like this happens," he said, "the old stuff comes roaring out."

It sure roared out Saturday night at the Cajun/zydeco benefit concert for the Red Cross held in a downtown park. Dubbed "Banding Together," the event corralled local musicians, displaced artists from New Orleans and nationally known performers such as Michael Doucet of BeauSoleil before a howling, boogeying, red-beans-and-rice-eating crowd estimated at 7,000. Many people here have responded to the Crescent City's suffering the way a protective younger sibling might to an older, more brittle one in distress.

"We've got to do something to help these people," said Nate Williams, 18, the accordion-squeezing front man of Lil' Nathan & the Zydeco Big Timers Band, shaking off the sweat backstage after he and his band wrapped up their set here at the benefit, which was expected to raise several thousand dollars. A Lafayette native, Williams said he was impressed but not surprised that his hometown had turned out in force to support the troubled folks farther downstate. "A piece of our culture has been, not torn away, but damaged," he said. "It's not going to be the same if they can't get it back together."

For their part, some of the displaced artists who've relocated here temporarily say they feel right at home -- at least as "at home" as possible when your house or apartment may be under 6 feet of water, your instruments are missing or destroyed, and your former bandmates could be somewhere halfway across the country. Though Lafayette may not be Bourbon Street, some evacuees say, this city affords a dry place to lay your guitar or fiddle, and a supportive atmosphere.

"We're doing pretty well," said Eddie Bo, a well-known jazz, blues and funk piano player, who's staying with a friend in Church Point, 20 miles northwest of Lafayette. Most of his band is now in the Lafayette area, Bo said, and the members are already trying to line up gigs. "I don't think we're going to have that same ambience anymore that's always been there in New Orleans. We'll have some of it. But everybody's going to be different."

Like other Lafayette residents, Karen Hamilton, who's hosting Bo and his sister, Veronica Randolph, and used to run a New Orleans coffee shop and cafe with them called Check Your Bucket, emphasizes the positive things that have resulted from the uproar of the last two weeks. "God doesn't close a door without opening up a window," she said, "something good has to happen from this."

The decision of so many artists to relocate here is no coincidence. Lafayette has a cultural richness that many much larger urban areas would envy. Saturday night, hundreds of locals and out-of-towners roamed the bars, restaurants and art galleries of the city's restored downtown. Young parents pushing toddlers in strollers passed by Goth rockers lolling against the brick building facades.

Architect Greg Walls, who works in the David Courville Architect firm housed in a stylishly renovated building, said of Lafayette: "It's such a small town, and yet it still has that metropolitan feel."

Maureen Brennan, executive director of the Cite des Arts, an arts and educational center housed in a rambling downtown building, said she is looking for ways to open up the facility as a performance venue for displaced jazz and blues musicians. Cite des Arts already hosts Cajun and zydeco dance classes, live theater performances and French classes, among many other activities. "I'm from Oklahoma, but one of the things that's kept me here is the incredible amount of talent," Brennan said.

At least one other downtown hangout, the 307 Jazz & Blues Club, is assisting musicians to find work, pay their bills and repair or replace their equipment.

While musicians so far are getting the bulk of the media attention, other types of artists have been receiving, and offering, shelter from the storm. John Perret, a painter who lives in Lafayette but displayed his work at Jackson Square in the French Quarter, organized an open-air show for himself and other displaced artists over the weekend. Perret was part of an ad-hoc flotilla of 400 boats from the Lafayette area that helped rescue Katrina survivors. Now he and his wife are hosting several New Orleans artist friends and friends-of-friends at their home.

Scott Jordan, editor of the Independent Weekly, an alternative newspaper, said he has about 17 people staying with him -- adults, a baby and other children, plus two cats. Many are writers or photographers, including the current editor of the New Orleans alternative paper Gambit Weekly. "There's a lot of energy in the house, there's good energy here," Jordan said. "For folks who are here, they need to address things as soon as possible, like health insurance, mortgage, food stamps. There's not a lot of time for moping around. There's lots of activity. The phone rings constantly. We've got four computers running now. Everybody's working, trying to do as much as they can, not only to try and figure out their own personal situations, but to get some answers for why this happened and where we go from here."

Some cultural workers here believe that out of this disaster-induced fusion of Cajun and Creole, New Orleans and Lafayette cultures, striking new hybrid art forms may emerge. "You pull out an accordion in any other part of the country and people run the other way," said Matthew Goldman, a music producer and press and advertising director for the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival who is heading up Project Heal. "I think people in New Orleans are going to pair up with people here and make music here that people have never made before."

Standing backstage under a beautiful crescent moon at the end of Saturday's concert, Lafayette hospice worker Margaret Gray expressed the thoughts of many people here. "We're like the best-kept secret in Louisiana," she said.

But maybe not for long.


Reed Johnson reported from Lafayette and Steven Barrie-Anthony from L.A.

Thursday, September 8, 2005

Time Is Running Out for Stranded Pets


Thursday September 08, 2005

Katrina's Aftermath
Time Is Running Out for Stranded Pets
* Thousands of dogs, cats and other animals left behind by hurricane evacuees are slowly dying as rescuers struggle to save them.

By Reed Johnson and Steven Barrie-Anthony, Times Staff Writers

NEW ORLEANS -- Peter Block was waiting patiently for an emergency bus to Baton Rouge with his two black Great Danes, Venus and Serena, and Jasmine, a border collie mix.

Half his house, near the 17th Street Canal, was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, Block said. The rest was swept away when a levee broke.

In recent months, Block's father and two sisters died of cancer. Now, with $116 in his pocket, Block is hoping to start a new life somewhere else with his dogs.

"It's what I live for," Block said as he nuzzled and petted his three canines. "My girls."

These are tough times in the Crescent City for both man and beast. Though Katrina's floodwaters are slowly receding, the storm and its ruinous aftermath have turned even the simplest tasks -- getting some sleep, scrounging a meal not tainted with E. coli bacteria -- into Herculean labors.

That's as true for the thousands of human survivors who still haven't fled their ravaged city as it is for the hundreds of dogs, cats, birds, reptiles and other pets that have been left behind to fend for themselves. Some are still grimly hanging onto life. They sit forlornly on the rooftops of flooded homes, slowly starving to death as rescuers in boats ignore them, looking for people instead. Some have even tried swimming to boats, only to be rebuffed.

Many other pets didn't make it, and their bodies now lie in pools of scummy water or by the side of highways. Even those lucky animals whose owners refused to part with them, come hell or high water, have been suffering right alongside their masters.

Like so many of the problems in this frazzled city, the scale of the abandoned-animal crisis caught even experienced players off guard.

"It was obviously worse than anyone imagined," Wayne Pacelle, president and chief executive of the Humane Society of the United States, the nation's largest animal-welfare group, said in a phone interview from Washington.

The society has about 250 workers in the storm-hit area "as part of a team that we're controlling," including workers from the Los Angeles Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the Oregon Humane Society and other organizations, Pacelle said.

"We were on the ground Tuesday, the day after the hurricane hit, but we were excluded from going in by state and federal authorities for the first several days," Pacelle said. "We've received 2,000 e-mails and phone calls from people who evacuated from New Orleans, who left animals in their homes and are pleading with us to rescue them. That's just in New Orleans. It doesn't count surrounding areas."

Pacelle said there may be 50,000 pets trapped in New Orleans homes. "The clock is really ticking. It's tearing us up knowing that so many animals are in need and [we] can't get to every one on our own."

Earlier during the crisis, rescuers had been ordered to save people but leave their pets. But "that works against the larger imperatives for disaster relief because people will not leave without their pets, and many people will go back in to get their pets," Pacelle said.

Animal rescue workers slog through the water and muck carrying crowbars to pry open or smash their way into houses where pets are believed to be. "I've been bitten, scratched, had [my] head cracked open," said Jane Garrison, a volunteer rescuer from South Carolina. But it's worth it, she said, because after a long Wednesday, Garrison and her four-person team had 18 animals -- dogs, cats, chinchillas and rabbits -- in crates in their truck.

Many animals, cats especially, won't come when called, so Garrison and others spend hours peering into unfamiliar nooks and crannies, cooing and soothing and finally grabbing. If they can't find the escaped animal, they'll put out a bowl of food and water and make note of the location. They've crawled into houses surrounded by fire, and pulled dogs off rooftops that are sagging and about to collapse.

"The suffering is overwhelming," Garrison said. "Sometimes they have food left, but all their water is gone. Every second is critical."

The good news is that so far, most of the animals left indoors seem to be alive.

More aid may be coming. Information is available on the Internet at The ASPCA also has a searchable online database to help reunite pets with their owners. Volunteers who want to help can register on the society's website.

Several temporary animal shelters have been set up around southern Louisiana and Mississippi, some next to shelters for human evacuees so people can visit their pets. Louisiana State University is providing shelter for hundreds of dogs and cats in an arena.

One such shelter in Gonzalez, La., is taking photographs of every animal and uploading them to the Internet.

Besides pets, the flooding has damaged some of New Orleans' animal attractions. The electricity failure meant there was no ability to pump oxygen into the water at the New Orleans aquarium, resulting in the deaths of about one-third of the 4,000 fish there. At the zoo, 12 people are trying to take care of about 1,400 animals.

After seeing how Hurricane Andrew nearly leveled Miami's zoo in 1992, leaving wild animals roaming the region, the New Orleans facility upgraded its hurricane preparations, so losses there were minimal.

At the edge of the French Quarter on Wednesday morning, Steve Dey, 39, was hand-painting an impromptu street sign that he hoped might draw some help.

Dey and his wife, Dewanda, 38, have been looking after the pet dogs of two elderly neighbors who fled the city a couple of days ago and are now barred by disaster officials from returning.

Since the hurricane struck, Dey has seen many instances of human beings not at their best. "The people around here, they love their dogs more than they love their fellow man, and rightly so," said Dey, who manages a small grocery store in the French Quarter. "Sad thing is, the animals around here are better behaved than the people. They're trained. They're not violent. You can walk 'em around without leashes."

By late Wednesday morning, a faint hope had arisen as a handful of residents, feeling deserted by authorities, chartered a bus to take them and their pets to Baton Rouge.

As they waited, a detachment of U.S. Army soldiers arrived to say that the federal government would fly people and their pets for free to any destination they chose.

Capt. Jamie Uptgraft said he and his men had spent the last two days rounding up animals and persuading their owners to leave the devastated city. "As long as they're in a cage, we'll take 'em," he said of the pets.

That was welcome news to Chris Buchner, 46, and her husband, Charlie Lilly, 46, who were lugging their two cats, Rose, 18, and Lucy, 5, with them in cages, along with their luggage, as they headed toward the arranged pickup point on the edge of the French Quarter.

The couple said they had spent days hiding in their home, afraid to come out while thugs roamed the streets firing guns.

"We really thought we'd come to the end because it was Armageddon out there," Buchner said.

Johnson reported from New Orleans and Barrie-Anthony from Los Angeles.