My parents collected plein-air California paintings, and that was the art that hung in the Hopps household. In 1936, when I was four, one of the artists they collected — a man called André Roth — came to the house to paint portraits of me and my brother, Harvey, who was still a baby. I remember being perched on a high stool, naked to the waist, while he stood at his easel painting. Apparently, I was a difficult subject, because I wouldn't sit still; I kept getting down and running around the easel to see what Mr. Roth was doing. I'd never seen anyone paint before, and I was fascinated with the process of capturing a likeness; I thought it was magic. How can this disagreeable man, whom I have to sit still for, produce something that looks like me? I'd rush into the next room, where there was a mirror, to see if I really looked like the painting; I drove that poor artist crazy by trying to keep track of his progress.
My next experience with art took place in the home of my Irish- American grandfather, Carle Phinney. My parents and my brother and I lived in a house on Maywood Avenue, in Eagle Rock, in the northeast corner of Los Angeles, just west of Pasadena. Eagle Rock is home to a giant rock with a crack that makes it look like an eagle's head. (In fact, it looks more like a skull, but apparently no one wanted to call the town Skull Rock; as a child, I often wondered why not.) My mother's parents and her uncle, Harry, lived next door to us, in a bigger house, where my grandfather, who was a doctor, kept his medical office and laboratory as well. In my grandparents' house, there was a big Brunswick standard pool table, where the men would retreat to shoot pool. It had originally belonged to a branch of my family that had gold mines in Cripple Creek, Colorado, and, much to my mother's dismay, it was shipped to California when that family died out. When the sunroom at the back of the house became the poolroom, my mother made sure that the glass doors were made opaque, so that you wouldn't have to sit in the proper living room and look at a damn pool table.
My grandfather's house had art that fit his turn-of-the-century sensibilities. There were several prints of hunting scenes and pictures of amusing animals — dogs playing poker — framed and hung around the house. But what thrilled me most was a pair of risqué Victorian-era black-and-white engravings — mass-produced prints, not fancy etchings — that hung in the pool room. The first engraving showed two women, stripped to the waist, sword fighting. In the second, one of the women had prevailed and the other was lying on the ground, dead or wounded. Those engravings had the first breasts I remember seeing, other than my mother's, and I was fascinated by them. I knew that the prints were exciting in a way that I didn't understand, and after my grandfather died, in 1938, I made a big point of wanting to have them.
The first time I got in trouble for my approach to art was in first grade, at Eagle Rock Elementary School, when my classmates and I were given an assignment to decorate a large plywood dollhouse, about four feet high. We were given wheat paste and wallpaper — rolls of it — and told to cut it out and wallpaper the rooms. That seemed so stupefyingly obvious to me. I decided that, instead, we should tear up the wallpaper and make multicolored collages for the walls — though I didn't know then to call them collages. The other kids loved doing this — tearing up the paper and making patterns with it — but the teacher was very upset. In her view, of course, we'd done exactly the wrong thing.
My grandfather's brother, Harry, ran the mortuary in Eagle Rock. There was a mean-spirited gag that went around at the time: "If Doc Phinney can't cure you, his brother will bury you." I liked Uncle Harry very much, and when I was four or five he made me an album — a horizontal scrapbook covered with pink-and-blue fabric. He told me to cut out pictures of things I liked in magazines and glue them into the album. On the cover, he'd pasted a first image — a little boy in rompers, running with an American flag. The boy didn't look like me — he was blond — but since then I've always had a soft spot for images of the American flag. I still remember some of the pictures that I pasted in: there were flashy cars and ads for Campbell's Soup, with little tomato-headed people making the soup. I was very partial to those; later, Paul McCarthy's work reminded me of them. Looking back at that scrapbook as an adult, I was shocked to see how many of the images I chose then presaged the work of artists I met later in life. In my teens, I kept up the habit of clipping images from magazines that came to the house that struck my fancy. I wouldn't cut up art magazines, but if I saw things in Time and Life that interested me I'd clip them out and mount them in an album. I remember Time magazine doing a piece on Max Ernst when he was in Sedona, Arizona, and I was just fascinated by him.
The Hopps family came to the New World from Yorkshire, England, passing through Virginia to what became the state of Missouri, where they worked in the lead mines. Then, during the California gold rush, my great-grandfather, Howard Hopps, headed west, from Joplin, Missouri, and settled in Oakland, on the east side of the San Francisco Bay. Howard and his children worked mostly in the boatyards, where they built, among other things, the old San Francisco ferryboats; I believe there are still a few left in circulation with the Hopps name on plaques mounted on the sides. There wasn't much interest in art in the family at that point, though one relative did make the stained-glass dome for the San Francisco department store called City of Paris, which later became Neiman Marcus. And somewhere I have a painting done by an ancestor in the eighteen-fifties, a dark little landscape of the Bay.
Howard had several sons and a daughter with his wife, but by 1880 he had more or less gone crazy. He became a self-proclaimed man of God and lived off his sons while he walked the streets, preaching and impregnating as many young women converts as he could. He was a constant embarrassment to the family. When his son, my grandfather, Walter Sr., couldn't stand it anymore, he took off, panning for gold and working his way through the country to seek his fortune. In Naco, Arizona, near the Mexican border, he met up with a cousin of his, Perry Fike, a wild young man, who was running a horse ranch there with his widowed mother, Lydia. Perry Fike was up for an adventure, so he crossed the border with my grandfather, and they continued on to a city on the gulf called Tampico, north of Vera Cruz. Walter decided to open up a hardware store there. He'd never had a day of college, but he was smart and a natural mechanic. Soon after he got to Tampico, there was a crisis in the town. Something had gone wrong with the bank vault, and they couldn't get it open. Since Walter had worked in mines, he knew how to handle dynamite, and he volunteered to blast open the safe without destroying the money and gold that were in it. This really impressed the banker, who loaned him money to get his hardware store going. Walter also did some contracting with Perry Fike. My grandfather was a great brickmason, and he laid a lot of the brickwork at the Eagle Rock house in his later years.
Once the hardware store was profitable, my grandfather decided that he wanted to have a citrus plantation. Tampico is in a lush area, and he bought some land on the outskirts of town. By 1900, he had a wonderful plantation going, with tangerines and sweet lemons, grapefruit and blood oranges, and he developed an interesting clientele: British ships would come into the Tampico harbor with metal goods, knives and steel from Manchester and Sheffield, and they'd take back citrus fruit. Shipboard, they'd make marmalades, jellies, and chutney, which they'd eat on the boat and sell to dealers when they got home.
A lot of American expatriates came to Tampico, too, and at some point my grandfather befriended a man from Atlanta named Leo Fleishman. Fleishman was bringing a product from Atlanta into Mexico, and he offered to take my grandfather on as a partner in this deal. My grandfather passed on the offer; he had an idea for a different food product that he was trying to perfect and promote: peanut-butter tacos. The Mexicans hated them. What he'd passed up was the opportunity to be a fifty-percent partner in bringing Coca-Cola into Mexico. And that's why the Hopps family isn't rich today.
My grandfather was well liked in the Tampico community, but, at a rather advanced age, well into his forties, he decided that he wanted a wife, and he settled on the idea of an American schoolteacher. He took a trip back to the States to find one. In the Midwest, he drove around from town to town in a horse and buggy, courting teachers at town dances and ceremonies, until finally, in Caney, Kansas, he met one who agreed to marry him and go back with him to Mexico. My grandmother, Belle Mcllwain, had no idea what she was getting into. All she took with her was a basket of clothes and a trunk full of books. Still, she grew to like it there. It was a hard life: my grandfather was boisterous and willful, but also an interesting, gentle man. They had three children in rapid succession: my father, Walter Jr., in 1903, and then a daughter, Rosita, and another son, Byron.
There was trouble brewing in Mexico that would change the course of my grandfather's life. The Mexican Revolution, which took place around the time of the First World War, was a truly bloody affair. The revolutionaries hated the Catholics — and they had reason to. My grandfather told me that he had once seen a priest walking down the center of the street in Tampico with a man with a bullwhip in front of him and another behind him to whip anyone who didn't fall to his knees as the priest went by. During the revolution, a lot of Catholics, priests and nuns, were slaughtered. Walter Sr., American expatriate that he was, was sympathetic to the workers, who had been exploited horribly by the landowners. He always paid the highest possible wages to the people who worked on his plantation. One of the other landowners even hired someone to assassinate him for that reason. My grandfather had a scar on his chest where a bullet had bounced off a rib and torn through the skin. (After that happened, one of my grandfather's plantation workers hunted down the would-be assassin, took him to the Tampico town square, and hacked him apart with a machete, leaving the body there as a warning that no one should try to harm Señor Hopps.)
My grandfather even helped to smuggle in some rifles for the revolutionaries, wrapped in burlap on the trunks of the young citrus trees he had sent down from Arizona by train. That kept his plantation safe, but the plantation house became a hospital, with people dying in the orchards. My father, Walter Jr., saw so much carnage in his early teens — he helped to bury the dead in his own garden — that it turned him against Mexico. It broke his father's heart that he didn't take over the plantation, but he chose to go to America and become a doctor. The only time I ever saw my father cry was when I took him to see The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, which is partly set in Tampico. John Huston made Tampico look the way it did when my father was young, and Walter Huston, John Huston's father, played an old man who was very like my grandfather. There's a wonderful line in which Walter Huston tells the other characters, who are standing on gold and don't know it, "You're so dumb, you don't even see the riches you're treadin' on with your own feet."
When things got very bad during the revolution, the family was evacuated by ship to Galveston, and then traveled by train to Los Angeles, where Belle got a job with the Board of Education. My grandfather went back to Tampico and didn't return until three years later. He checked with the school board and found his family, just as they'd planned. "Everything's in order," he told them. "I saved the plantation, and things are settling down, and now I want us to do something together." He said, "First thing we're going to do is go out and buy a big car." So they went out and bought a Buick. The second thing they did was drive up into the Sierra Nevadas to build a cabin. Near Mammoth Lakes, an old mining town, they got a piece of Forest Service land and built a little house. It had no running water or electricity then, though it did by the time I was spending my summers there. After the children had finished high school, Walter Sr. and Belle went back to Mexico.
My mother's side of the family was Irish and Scotch, and most of them settled in the Midwest, but my grandmother, Myrtle May Hemstreet, and her parents were a frontier family in California. Myrtle May's mother, Annie Durkee, was the first woman trained as a surgeon in the state of California. She treated people in the parks after the great San Francisco earthquake. Myrtle May, who was born in Hillsborough, south of San Francisco, went to medical school, too, and that was where she met my grandfather, Carle Phinney. Carle had been born into an Irish family, in rather poor circumstances, and his family had expected him to become a priest, but he ran away from all that, disavowed Catholicism, and went out west to study medicine. Eventually he became the head of the old Pacific College of Osteopathy, which is now part of the medical school at the University of California, Irvine. Carle and Myrtle May had two daughters — my mother, Katherine, and her younger sister, Marian. Marian had a tragic accident when she was eleven: she was riding a little cart down a sidewalk in Eagle Rock, when she fell out and hit her head. She lived into her thirties, but mentally she never advanced much beyond the age she was at the time of the injury.
My mother's first serious boyfriend, when she was a teenager, was an actor named Marion Morrison, who, I think, lived in Glendale, next to Eagle Rock. Later, he became well-known as John Wayne. That connection somehow survived my mother's marriage to my father, who maybe not coincidentally looked a lot like John Wayne. My mother met my father when she was a student at the Pacific College. My maternal great-grandmother, great-aunt, grandfather, grandmother, and mother were all doctors. After my father and mother were married, they moved into the small house next door to the Phinney grandparents, and it became a kind of family compound; we'd gather together for meals. Often a dozen of us would sit down for breakfast, with one member of the family cooking in the kitchen. Sometimes my grandfather would get frustrated that the food wasn't coming out fast enough. He'd go and fetch a big plate of toast from the kitchen and start tossing it at people at the table, to see who could catch it; a lot of toast ended up on the floor, but he didn't care. I loved this, though, of course, it upset his wife and everyone else.
My grandmother was still practicing medicine then, and so was my mother, who went on working a little after my brother and I were born. She saw some patients during the Depression, when most people had only the eggs or the vegetables they raised to pay with. There was no health insurance, and you didn't turn people away. My mother was a school doctor for a while, and the progressive Broadoaks School in Pasadena let us attend for free because she treated the children there. My mother was a great admirer of Carl Jung, and later in life she always told me that, if her health hadn't failed, she would have gone to Zurich and studied at the Institute. She lived her whole life on Maywood Avenue in Eagle Rock. First in her parents' house, then in the little house next door with my father, then later, after my grandfather died, in a house up at the top of the street, which was where I mostly grew up.
Eagle Rock had been a separate town, next to Pasadena, and a little more rural. Above us there were some estates with horses and cattle. Carle Phinney had helped to found the town and he was its first health officer; he was also in charge of the waterworks, at a time when water was a major issue in Southern California. In those days, my father informed me, L.A. had corrupt mayors and a corrupt police force, whose activities have been at least in part accounted for in the noir novels of James Ellroy.