Al Martinez, Bard of L.A.

Al Martinez at his desk in 2012. (Photo by John Sullivan.)

Al Martinez at his desk in 2012. (Photo by John Sullivan.)

I was born July 21, 1929, the year of the market crash and the start of the Depression. But they weren’t my fault.
—Al Martinez, quoted in “Out of the Shadows,” Tu Ciudad, Dec./Jan. 2006.

It was Martinez’s fault, happily, that for five decades his columns and writings inspired readers to think more deeply about the world around them and see more clearly the common humanity that binds people together. Sadly for all of us who have read his words or been blessed with his friendship, his voice has been stilled, for he passed away last week at the age of 85.

It’s my job, too. Not to investigate, but to weave woes and wonders into the tapestry that will one day be viewed as representative of our time.
—Al Martinez, “The Smell of Murder,” October 4, 1996, in Reflections

As a journalist and columnist, Martinez wrote for the Richmond Independent, the Oakland Tribune, and—for more than 35 years—the Los Angeles Times, where he was one of the paper’s most popular writers. In 2007, the Times let him go as part of its downsizing, only to reinstate him after thousands of his fans vehemently protested. However, 18 months later, the paper let him go again and did not relent. Far from retiring, Martinez began writing regular columns for the Los Angeles Daily News and the Topanga Messenger. He also produced a regular blog for AARP and taught writing seminars.

Al Martinez and his wife, Joanne Martinez, whom he called by her original surname, Cinelli. (Photo by John Sullivan.)

Al Martinez and his wife, Joanne Martinez, whom he called by her original surname, Cinelli. (Photo by John Sullivan.)

[About his wife, Joanne Martinez, pictured with him above] I see a face caressed by time, the way spring deepens into summer. I see a smile that, like a river, changes with the light. I see eyes whose gaze exceeds the horizon.  I see roses I see sunlight.
“How did we manage 50 years of marriage?” I asked.
“By dividing the chores. You write and I do everything else.”
—Al Martinez, “Fifty Years in Orbit,” August 4, 1999, in Reflections

Martinez explored every facet of the human experience, celebrating individuals who shine in the face of overwhelming burdens, condemning bigotry and intolerance, and chuckling at our capacity for folly. Echoing the poet Walt Whitman, Martinez noted: “I sing the people.” His popular columns earned many awards, including three Pulitzer Prizes and the prestigious Headliner Award for the best feature column in the United States. Martinez also published several books, ranging from compilations of columns to a novel, and he earned an Emmy nomination for his television writing.

Sometimes I’m not sure where reality ends and hallucinations begin. That’s why they made me a columnist.
—Al Martinez, “Sweet Bypass Blues,” November 7, 1991, in Reflections

Recognizing Martinez’s timeless, graceful prose and his extraordinary contributions to the fabric of Los Angeles, The Huntington acquired his papers in 2006, and I was fortunate to be able to curate an exhibition in 2012 devoted to him and his career. In planning the show and reading Martinez’s writings, I was struck by their poetic qualities, so the title that seemed to capture him best was “Al Martinez: Bard of L.A.” He truly sang the people as he captured their accomplishments, trials, and foibles. He also wrote of the natural world and the way its beauties and power shape us. He specifically wrote of life in L.A. (or “El Lay, La-La-Land, the Land of Fruits and Nuts, the City of Fallen Angels,” as he referred to it), discovering universal truths in the stories he told of his fellow Angelenos.

It is at once a world of wonder and danger, of thunder and full moons. Humanity remains as unsettled as the air that vibrates in a storm, and as dominating as a moon that rules the night.
—Al Martinez, “A Storm Filled with Promise,” February 11, 2001, in Reflections

Portrait of Al Martinez by John Robertson. (2001)

Portrait of Al Martinez by John Robertson. (2001)

A few weeks ago, I wrote a blog about another writer, Kent Haruf, whose papers I collected for the library, who had become a dear friend, and who was taken from us much too soon. Now, far sooner than I would wish, I am writing another tribute to a person I knew first as a writer and then as a beloved friend. A friend of mine e-mailed me recently that she could imagine Al and Kent somewhere in the ether, sharing martinis (Al’s drink of choice) and comparing stories of their favorite curator. This image makes me smile and makes my two writers seem comfortingly close at hand.

There is a knoll in Topanga State Park, up an oak-shaded back trail, where you can see all the way to the ocean… I know a place now where, when I become too conscious of my own heartbeat, I can consider the rhythms of the ocean instead, and the seasons of the mountains.
That’s more of a confirmation of life than I ever realized before.
—Al Martinez, “High on a Hill,” in Ashes in the Rain

About his craft as a columnist, Al wrote in I’ll Be Damned If I’ll Die in Oakland: “Editors and publishers come and go, typefaces change, formats shift, columns move from here to there. I endure, writing the words and singing the songs, prowling like an old alley cat through the lives of those I father into my paragraphs.” He will no longer prowl through the lives and neighborhoods of Los Angeles, but for me and many others, his friendship will continue to warm our hearts. And, for all of us, his writings will endure to remind us of our humanity.

The dog was a pathetic and possibly psychotic no-breed animal named Barney, with beady, close-set eyes and an arrogant attitude.  He could have been the love child of an unholy union between Richard Nixon and Bebe Rebozo.
—Al Martinez, “Heaven, Hell, and L.A.,” in I’ll Be Damned If I’ll Die in Oakland

Sara S. “Sue” Hodson is curator of literary manuscripts at The Huntington.

One thought on “Al Martinez, Bard of L.A.

  1. I love Al Martinez. He was a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, back in the day when I read the Times daily. He is a wonderful writer. His columns made me laugh and cry, sometimes in the same column. When my children were young, we all went to school together Monday through Friday. My husband and I dropped our children off and then went on to school/work. I would read some funnies to everyone, and if there was an Al Martinez column, I would read the column out-loud.

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