This essay was originally published in Piecing Together Los Angeles: An Esther McCoy Reader (East of Borneo Books, 2012).
That was something I had to learn over and over again—how to get home. I tried to disguise it, but there it was. What I feared most of all was to appear helpless. I did get home finally. I came by the long route.
— Esther McCoy, “The Crash,” 1986
In 1960, Esther McCoy published her now classic Five California Architects, an original and inspired look at American modernist architecture and its distinctly West Coast roots. McCoy’s studies of each architect—Irving Gill, Bernard Maybeck, R.M. Schindler, and brothers Charles and Henry Greene (in a chapter contributed by architectural historian Randell L. Makinson)—stand alone, compelling individual stories all placed within a California setting and occurring during the first half of the twentieth century. McCoy’s ideas and concerns about the book had been percolating throughout the 1950s, and she recognized that to consider these independent characters and their diversely pioneering work as a single group was “impossible.”
McCoy’s career as an architectural writer began earnestly in 1945. While she was working as a draftsman in R.M. Schindler’s Kings Road office, Direction, an East Coast–based journal dedicated to “the arts and letters of the left,” asked her to contribute an article about Southern California. McCoy responded with “Schindler: Space Architect,” a precisely drawn firsthand account of Schindler’s practice and his dynamic use of space as a fundamental building material: “His houses are wrapped around space…. A Schindler house is in movement; it is becoming. Form emerges from form. It is like a bird that has just touched earth, its wings still spread but at once part of the earth.”
The article was exacting, poetic, and clearly approving, but this first step into architectural writing was in no way easy. Direction’s editor, Marguerite Tjader Harris, removed McCoy’s critical mention of Le Corbusier and the questions surrounding International Style from the text. Mrs. Harris, a charismatic American heiress, was herself a writer and former literary assistant to novelist Theodore Dreiser, McCoy’s longtime friend, professional mentor, and occasional employer. (Intermittently, over a period of 18 years, she worked for him as a researcher and reader.) Although it was well-known that Mrs. Harris was Dreiser’s mistress, it was not public knowledge that she was also the mistress of Le Corbusier, information that surfaced through her censoring edit of McCoy’s writing. After McCoy had filed her story with Direction, Schindler asked why she hadn’t submitted it to him first for approval. “‘Don’t you want it to be right,’ he demanded,” she later recalled. “No,” she answered, “I want it to be mine.”
McCoy’s writing is so admirably her own—sharply observed, unstilted, generous, inherently literary, and bracingly refined; her lucid sentences bristle and glow. “One incentive to write about Southern California was that it was so neglected,” she remarked. “It was a place that was not taken seriously. And, damn it, I wanted it to be taken seriously.” In 1950, McCoy wrote Architecture West, a short film survey of one hundred years of Pacific Coast building and design, directed by photographer Erven Jourdan. McCoy’s film script vigorously staked her claim: “The West meant freedom, freedom from the East, freedom from Europe. Simple necessity produced forms from contemporary experience,” declares the documentary’s unseen narrator, the authoritative cultured voice native to Cold War-era educational films. “A new way of life gave adventuring men new ideas.… Men of the West were not afraid of new forms.” Architecture West swiftly delivers a striking roundup of free-range architectural evolution, a conceptual through line that leads from a mid-nineteenth century Oregonian block house fort to R.M. Schindler’s radically translucent Tischler house (1949–50), still under construction.
As the postwar building boom swept steadily through Southern California, economic optimism, new technologies, and dream houses flourished, and McCoy’s published work focused more and more on architecture. Her articles about modern budget-minded houses appeared regularly in Living for Young Homemakers, a midcentury offshoot of Mademoiselle magazine. For the Los Angeles Times and Home, the newspaper’s stylish design supplement, she wrote about new single-family dwellings, local architects and their design principles, and the historic legacy of California architecture. At Arts & Architecture (the Los Angeles–based avant-garde magazine where each chic issue, said McCoy, was “as thin as a tortilla and sleek as a Bugatti”), she was given the freedom to write on a wide range of topics for little or no pay: she chronicled the magazine’s innovative Case Study House program, wrote about the disregarded landmarks of Los Angeles, and reported on modernist design from Mexico.
By 1952, McCoy’s reputation as an informed and discerning architectural writer had been established, and she applied for a Guggenheim Foundation fellowship. She sought financial support for a proposed book: a collection of architectural stories that would “constitute a history of West Coast modern work.” When her Guggenheim application was rejected in the spring of 1953, she received a suitably indignant and encouraging letter from Phyllis Dearborn, a friend and colleague. Dearborn, a photographer and writer based in New York and Seattle, worked in partnership with her husband, photographer Robert Massar; as Dearborn-Massar they documented contemporary architecture in the Pacific Northwest. “Really significant work, Esther, and it is just a crime that it will not be made into a book,” wrote Dearborn. “Do you know William Atkin at Reinhold Publishing? He is a good friend of ours and will be in Seattle,” she added, offering to pitch McCoy’s book proposal during an upcoming meeting of the American Institute of Architects. McCoy’s reply is a classic in itself: a concise yet faceted depiction of what it means to be a writer at work. Quickly agreeing that “Atkin at Reinhold sounds good,” McCoy prompted Dearborn to update the earlier book proposal to include her recent feature in Arts & Architecture, “A Vast Hall Full of Light,” a splendid portrait of L.A.’s eccentric, unheralded Bradbury Building (1893). “I’m also at work on a piece on Irving Gill,” McCoy continued. “One thing about these stories that is different (well, no one else is doing this kind of thing, anyway) is that the personality of the architect is not neglected.” And it was true, as she noted, no one else was doing that kind of thing. McCoy worked with the scrupulous objectivity of a draftsman and a novelist’s empathic sensibility; recognizing how individual lives shape experience and generate the built environment, she brought cultural history and biography into the discussion of architecture. Although McCoy was planning to reapply to the Guggenheim, the freelance writer’s lament still nagged at her. “What I want,” she frankly admitted to Dearborn, “is a job with a retainer.”
The job with a retainer never materialized. “Writers and artists always evade the 9-to-5 jobs and live simply to keep their talents limber,” she remarked in a 1988 letter, deflecting any spotlight on her own career, more than fifty prolific years as an influential freelance writer, critic, and lecturer. Born in Horatio, Arkansas, in 1904, Esther McCoy was raised in Coffeyville, Kansas, one of seven children in a book-loving household “where someone read to someone else every night.” Educated in the Midwest, she was just twenty-one when she decided to leave the University of Michigan, move to New York, and pursue her vocation as a writer. Landing in the cultural hothouse of 1920s Greenwich Village, she found work as a bookstore clerk, copy editor, and a researcher for Theodore Dreiser. She traveled to Moscow and Berlin and spent nine months in Paris, frequenting Les Deux Magots and writing fiction. She returned to New York and then retreated to Key West, spending another five months quietly at work on a novel for a competition sponsored by Charles Scribner’s Sons. Although her entry won recognition and a monetary award, only the first-place winner received a publishing contract with Scribner’s. From the beginning, McCoy’s life as a writer was driven by both her unquestionable talent and an astonishing resiliency.
In 1932, McCoy was back in Greenwich Village, living on Leroy Street, when she was hospitalized with double pneumonia. Her recovery was slow and Boyne Grainger, an ebullient poet-journalist friend, urged her to leave the city for Southern California, where she might properly recuperate in the warm, dry climate. Taking Grainger’s advice, McCoy went west, intending only to wait out the raw New York spring and regain her health. As she recalls in “About Malibu,” an unpublished memoir written in the mid-’70s, “If you lived in New York it was proper to make fun of Los Angeles. I started liking California in March 1932, when the train stopped in San Bernardino in the early morning and I stepped out on the platform. There was an overpowering perfume in the air. ‘What is it, what is it?’ I asked one person after another until someone said, ‘The orange groves.’”
During World War II, McCoy went to work as an engineering draftsman at Douglas Aircraft, detailing wings on the C-74 cargo ship. In her 1986 essay for the Whitney Museum’s exhibition High Styles: Twentieth-Century American Design, she notes, “Nowhere was the break with the past more evident than in the aircraft industry, a creation of World War II. No plane was truly machine-made until after the declaration of war in December 1941. Up until then, an order of two planes was a big order. But with the war came orders for dozens of planes at a time—and the necessity of mass production, which sounded the death knell for handcrafting.”
As the war was ending, McCoy hoped to study architecture at the University of Southern California; but as a forty-year-old woman, her application was “discouraged” by an architecture school filling up with male students on the G.I. Bill. When McCoy heard that R.M. Schindler’s only draftsman had been called into the armed services, she took her architectural drawings to his office, intending to apply for the position but expecting only “a cool dismissal” and perhaps a closer look at his Kings Road house. Schindler, however, spoke to her as a fellow architect and hired her on the spot. For McCoy, the encounter was an unexpected moment of clarity, surprising and irrevocable:
“The glass,” he said.
I had put a strip of glass between door height and window height in all the rooms—a transom strip. I waited; I was ready with my reasons for using the glass—to bring south light into north-facing rooms, and to see the treetops when the curtains were drawn. And another reason I wouldn’t have the nerve to tell him; to make the house fly, which was, I suppose, a result of working so long on airplane wings.
But he wasn’t curious about why I used the transom strip, just how I had used it. The glass was broken up by the rhythm of studs. “You could have used a longer span,” he said, adding almost belligerently, “You know that.”
That was the most encouraging thing he could have said—that I should have known something.
Writing is a lonely business and McCoy welcomed the camaraderie and conversations at Douglas Aircraft and Schindler’s office, where she worked from 1944 through 1947. Most mornings, she woke at 5 a.m. in order to write undisturbed. Her short stories appeared regularly in literary quarterlies and the best of “the slicks.” In 1948, The New Yorker published “The Important House,” a wry domestic drama, a proto-feminist narrative about Mrs. Blakeley and her Los Angeles modern home, an architect-designed residence about to be photographed for House & Garden. As Mrs. Blakeley waits for a slipcovered couch to be delivered, she decorates the rooms with her favorite silver and flowers. The couch arrives and the magazine’s photographer and Mr. Aidan, the architect, descend on the house. Quickly, the two men tear apart the interiors, rearranging everything—uprooted ivy is taped to a wall, tabletop items are removed, and the slipcovered couch is evicted, replaced by a metal-framed cot poached from the next door neighbor’s patio:
Mr. Aidan had pushed all the drapes to one side, leaving the whole house open to the camera. It gave the room an unpleasantly exposed look, she thought. The drapes would never in the world be arranged that way.
“You’ve made it look as if no one lived here,” Mrs. Blakeley said, and cackled sharply, trying to keep calm.
“I want to convey the total idea of the house,” Mr. Aidan said.
McCoy continued to write fiction: The Pepper Tree, a novella about the Japanese-American internment, was published in California Quarterly; an unproduced script cowritten with film noir screenwriter Silvia Richards made the rounds of major studios; her stories were adapted and produced as radio and television plays; and “The Cape,” originally published in Harper’s Bazaar, was featured in The Best American Short Stories of 1950. During the 1950s and ’60s, McCoy met regularly with an informal writers’ group that included Ray Bradbury, Sanora Babb, Sid Stebel, Peg Nixon, C. Y. Lee, and Richard Bach. Since the market for short stories was always slow and payments minimal, McCoy subsidized her fiction writing with architectural assignments.
In Los Angeles, there was “an extraordinary amount of provocative architecture within easy reach,” McCoy stated simply. “Much more than anyplace else. So magazines would ask me to write.” Her explanation is, of course, too simple. McCoy was a professional, an indefatigable researcher, and an unusually reliable and attentive writer. She had developed an exceptional understanding of architecture through study, interviews, observation, lively curiosity, and her perspective as an architectural draftsman. As a fiction writer, she knew how to unpack the essential elements of a story. Los Angeles was an irresistible subject, and McCoy was able to write about it in an intricate yet accessible way. “I wrote about the people I knew, contemporaries,” she once explained. “And because history has speeded up, they became history soon.”
McCoy’s writing deftly illuminates the rapidly changing city and West Coast modernism for both mainstream readers and architectural cognoscenti. When she describes midcentury design as “the marriage between Walden Pond and Douglas Aircraft,” it’s a perfectly turned phrase that defines an era. McCoy introduced the work of many Southern California architects—including R.M. Schindler, Richard Neutra, J. R. Davidson, Craig Ellwood, Harwell Hamilton Harris, and Pierre Koenig—to a wider audience and helped build major reputations. A contributor to national and international magazines, she wrote regularly for Architectural Forum (New York) and Zodiac (Milan). As architectural historians Robert Winter and David Gebhard declared in their Guide to Architecture in Southern California: “Our present awareness of Southern California architectural heritage has been due to a one-woman crusade on the part of the critic and historian Esther McCoy.”
McCoy published five books about architecture along with countless articles, stories, reviews, and essays. Five California Architects was eventually published by Reinhold, commissioned by William Atkin and then edited by his unsympathetic successor. In 1987, McCoy recalled:
It was sort of an under-the-counter book that the young architects were beginning to find. Five California Architects didn’t get too high marks among the historians because there was too much in it that was not the way architectural history was written.…
I don’t know really know how to describe it except that it did deal more with their lives, and my feeling that architecture did come out of people, and those people came out of backgrounds, and the things they saw when they were children, things they grew up with, and how these affected their choices, and also their own points of view on things, many things that were not purely architectural.
I think the usual architectural history at the time was written from the point of view of the facade, and there wasn’t too great an emphasis even on the floor plan. Having worked in an architect’s office, knowing the importance of the floor plan as the basis for the creation, I did give it great attention. I already had a great sensitivity to floor plans, and I think now, three or four years after finishing Second Generation, I can still walk the floor plans of almost all the buildings that I wrote about and would recognize them.
The floor plan, with its pathways, pauses, and intersections, provides the framework for narrative and an imprint for memory. McCoy’s straightforward writing ran deep; she understood the plot.
Throughout her long career, McCoy traveled extensively and her writing often focused far beyond Southern California—to Mexico, Italy, Guatemala, and Brazil. Her work became recognized and prized. She was awarded the Star of Order of Solidarity by the Republic of Italy for her reporting on the arts, and there were prestigious foundation fellowships, professional honorifics, and writing residencies. In 1979, she was pleased to receive a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship and composed a lighthearted memo to herself, vowing to always use one plain word even when she knew five more important ones. McCoy also remained true in her dedication to writing about Los Angeles. It was necessary, she said, because “most of the messages sent west to east get jumbled at the Rockies.” In 1989, McCoy was commissioned to write a catalogue essay for Blueprints for Modern Living: History and Legacy of the Case Study Houses, a landmark design exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. Her essay, a finely balanced mix of memoir and scholarship, was published two months before she died at the age of 85.
Among McCoy’s papers is a clipping torn from a 1954 issue of The New Yorker, an article titled “Books, A Consciousness of Reality,” W. H. Auden writing about Virginia Woolf. On the last loose magazine page now carefully preserved in an archival folder, Auden writes:
If I had to choose an epitaph for her, I would take a passage from The Waves, which is the best description of the creative process that I know: “There is a square; there is an oblong. The players take the square and place it upon the oblong. They place it very accurately; they make a perfect dwelling-place. Very little is left outside. The structure is now visible; what is inchoate is here to be stated; we are not so various or so mean; we have made oblongs and stood them upon squares. This is our triumph; this is our consolation.”
In McCoy’s writing, careful deliberation engenders joy. Very little is left outside. This is her triumph, this is our consolation.
This essay was originally published in Piecing Together Los Angeles: An Esther McCoy Reader (East of Borneo Books, 2012). For more information about the book, please click here.