Heaven on a Fault Line

I am about to take a month’s leave to work on a book and thought I’d say goodbye with a few of the things I’ve been thinking about, and experiencing.

I’ve been in California. I love California and feel that somewhere in my heart I am a forty-niner; I come here and want to live in the hills, panning for gold. I wonder, why would anyone not live here? The crashing coast, the beautiful light—artists should live here and paint in this light, as they once sought out the brightness of Paris—the deep vivid color of the flowers, the yellows, reds and purples. The East has greener greenery—the leaves on trees in New York and Massachusetts and Virginia are a deeper green and seem crisper and more sparkling after it rains—but the variety of the foliage here, the gnarly oaks, the winding bending sycamores, the elegant palms, is spectacular.

I’m staying in the most elegant hotel I’ve ever stayed in and surely one of the most elegant in the world, the Bel Air, which is located near some of the people I’m here to talk to. Every night a nice young man comes and starts a fire in the fireplace; and everyone is courteous, competent and quiet. The place hums. But the best thing is that the hotel is in a deeply wooded enclave and feels lushly natural and far from the city. You don’t hear traffic, you hear birds. There’s a plump white swan in a stream that runs through the property, and after dinner I saw a man who I think was Tom Hayden lead his little boy down to the swan so they could get a good look.

My first morning here I went out before 8 a.m. It was the weekend and everyone was still asleep except for the soft-walking staff. It was cool, really crisp for April, maybe 55 degrees, but the sun was strong and yellow and came through the leaves and branches and I could hear the stream, and there were big white flowers in full bloom, calla lilies and other kinds, and someone was burning wood, and I walked into the cool, moist air and thought: This is like the beginning of the world.

Then I went to the gym, which is small but has what you need. There was a woman doing calisthenics on a mat, and two men working out near a rack of weights. One was a trainer, the other was working the weights. I took a treadmill and got up to 4.0 and was rocking along and saw, by the mirrored walls, that one of the men was Tom Cruise. I just loved the sight of him. He is beautiful.

I was careful, as grownups are, not to stare and push past his privacy, and soon another fellow came in and we all softly grunted and sweated as the machines whirred, and after a while Tom Cruise went to leave. But first he put other people’s stray equipment back in place, and then made eye contact with each of us and smiled goodbye as he walked through the door toward the garden. When he’d been gone about 30 seconds, the woman on the mats looked at me and said, “Was . . . that . . . him?” With comic precision, like Lucille Ball when she sees Charles Boyer in the next booth at Chasen’s. We laughed and agreed he is very polite. It must be wonderful to be a movie star and make people happy just by being there. Anyway, he struck me as a beautiful palomino with alert eyes and a conscious intelligence.

*   *   *

I went to the Reagan Library, in the rusty colored hills of the Simi Valley, where I read Ronald Reagan’s high school and college short stories. There’s a great fluidity and smoothness, almost a roundness, to Ronald Reagan’s writing that never changed from when he was a boy to when he was president. He wrote stories about lifeguards—he was a lifeguard—and handsome young men at college—he was a handsome young man at college—and heroes—he wanted to be a hero, and in time he was.

You feel tender and protective about young Ron when you go through his papers, in part maybe because you feel tender about his young, not fully formed handwriting, and protective about the frailty of the soft old papers you’re holding. But also it reminded me that all of us who worked with him, or rather most of us, certainly those of us in speechwriting, felt protective about him when he was in the White House. Which in a way is odd because he was a big successful president and we were little shmigoogies.

But something in him made you want to shield him, help him. The most literal case I know of this is that of one of his Secret Service agents who over the years had become his friend. He often guarded the president, but on the day Mr. Reagan was shot, he was assigned, at the last minute, to the first lady’s detail. To this day when he thinks of the shooting he thinks: “If only I’d been there maybe I could have taken his bullet.” And he means it. He would have.

*   *   *

I saw Ed Meese, at a speech on Saturday night. He said: The thing people forget about Mr. Reagan is that he was born to be a leader. He was high school president, college president, the leader of a college strike, the president of the Screen Actor’s Guild. When he joined the reserves in the U.S. Cavalry—he joined up in the 1930s because he wanted to ride horses—they made him an officer. There was something in him that people saw, an ability to walk in front, a capacity to point in a direction and urge people to follow him.

A.C. Lyles, a producer at Paramount who met Mr. Reagan in 1936 or ’37 and has stayed his friend all these years, told me no one who knew Mr. Reagan was surprised when he went into politics; they knew he’d lead and they knew he’d rise. Mr. Lyles told me that when he got to know him, he thought Ronald Reagan was the smartest man he ever met. “Everyone else here talked about the movies, which is understandable, it’s our business, but he talked about what was happening in the world.” Mr. Lyles said James Cagney, who was a political conservative and who took an active interest in the people and players of Hollywood, thought Mr. Reagan might be president some day, and urged him to go into politics. Back in the ‘50s, Mr. Lyles typed up a prophecy and had it notarized. It said Ronald Reagan would someday be president of the United States. He sent it to his friends so they could one day attest to his prescience.

I had dinner with Mrs. William French Smith, Jean Smith, whose husband, Mr. Reagan’s first attorney general, died a few years ago. She met Mr. Reagan in the ‘50s, “when he was an actor.” She saw him give a speech to the Junior League, of which she was a local leader. A few years later she met Bill Smith, and they married. Her husband started to talk to her about his friend Ronnie Reagan, whom he and a few others were trying to talk into running for governor. Mrs. Smith said she’d seen Mr. Reagan speak years before and that she’d thought he was going to be a very important man someday. In fact, she said, he could be president. “I was the first one to say it,” she told me.

They all think they were the first one to say it, or think it, and in a way they’re all right. Mrs. Smith told me the night Ronald Reagan won the 1966 California’s governor’s race a young man in the crowd at the victory celebration walked around wordlessly holding a big banner in his hand: “Reagan for President.” He was the first one to say it, too.

I spent a day at the Reagan ranch, way up in the mountains north of Santa Barbara. They’ve kept it as it was when he was last there, and what strikes you most is its modesty. The property is fantastic, almost 700 acres more than 2,000 feet above sea level. You can look this way and see unfolding ranges and then the sea, and that way and see more ranges, and towns. Former National Security Advisor Bill Clark told me Mr. Reagan called it his “cathedral in the sky.” You should see the fences he built, and the tack house with his old saddles and blankets.

But the house itself is so modest. A little porch, a sitting room, a small dining area, a small kitchen with GE appliances, a small master bedroom and a small second bedroom. Mikhail Gorbachev visited in 1986 and later said it was not good enough for a great leader. I imagined what it was like for him, snaking his way in a motorcade up the winding hills with the California live oaks and the streams and knowing what was ahead; he knew of movie stars and capitalism, he knew he was about to see the great mansion of a rich man, a many-roomed abode unfurling itself on a hill. And instead he found a one-story white stucco house, something ma and pa might own after a lifetime of a losing struggle against the malefactors of great wealth.

Mr. Reagan didn’t care about the house; he cared about the trails and the horses and the land and the fences. “He liked to get dirty,” a man who used to ride with him told me. “He liked to do it all himself, the care of the horses and the land.”

While I was enjoying California and just breathing it in, just loving it, just roaming around the Paramount lot and seeing old sets and imagining Irving Thalberg leaning in the shade and smoking a cigarette, while I was having all this California fun, the news about the state was not good. A report came out this week saying the Golden State’s business prospects are not bright, and everyone is worried about the electricity crisis. And there’s the still-looming writers’ strike, which could hurt the movie business and throw people out of work.

The people who live there are feeling understandably anxious; as the visitor, I kept thinking: This place is fabulous, at its worst it’s heaven. Enjoy it—it’s ungrateful not to! I asked a man I know if after 15 years here he can still see the beauty, and he said with what I thought was relief, “Oh yes. I really notice it every day.”

And of course there’s this. In my hotel room, in the blond-wood bureau, in the third drawer, in which they keep an extra blanket and a local phone book, there was what looked like a black nylon shaving kit. I pulled it out. On top it said “Hotel Bel-Air Earthquake Kit. Please do not remove/For Emergency Use Only.” It weighed about five pounds. Inside were bandages, tissues, a silver Mylar emergency blanket wrapped up tight, a silver whistle, two Cyalume Lightstick Safety Lights, eight four-ounce packs of emergency drinking water, and a 4-by-6-inch brick of “Emergency Ration Food Provisions” whose label says, because this is California, “Contains 100 percent of most Daily Recommended Vitamins & Minerals—Absolutely NO cholesterol.”

It was quite . . . wonderful. Like doing duck-and-cover drills when I was a kid, as if they would help. It reminded me, of course, that California, our great unanchored beauty, is heaven on a fault line. Beautiful but not fully grounded, like a young actress making her way down the red carpet at the awards ceremony and tottering on stiletto heels.