Aldous Huxley--L.A. Writer

 

    Aldous Huxley was one of the seminal figures of 20th century literature. Born in England in 1894, he was the grandson of Thomas Huxley, the biologist who influenced Darwin, and the great nephew of Matthew Arnold.

   At Eton, Huxley was stricken with a rare virus that left him blind in one eye and with little vision in the other. Undeterred, Huxley taught himself to read Braille--reading Macaulay in Braille was slow going, he later said--graduated from Eton and won a scholarship to Oxford where he took a First in Greats.

   Although Huxley's eye condition exempted him from combat, he registered as a conscientious objector during World War I and did alternative service sawing and clearing brush on an estate near Oxford. He met and married his first wife, Maria Nys, a Belgian refugee.

   Huxley's near blindness prevented him from studying medicine, and he turned to fiction.  In the 1920s he turned out a string of novels--Crome Yellow, Antic Hay, Point Counterpoint--that were thinly disguised portraits of post-war English society.  Huxley's writing satirized the disillusionment (and decadence) of the upper classes whose world had been turned upside down by the Great War.

   During the 1930s Huxley actively crusaded on behalf of pacifism.  It was pointless to meet militarism with might, he believed: wars were only "won" by bankers and manufacturers.  Moreover, society's emphasis on competition and success was at the root of war, Huxley argued, and peace could only be achieved by repudiating these values.  Huxley's views were influenced by a close friend, Gerald Heard, who urged individuals to seek world peace through meditation "to cure their own inner conflict."

   As Hitler rose to power, Huxley's pacifism drew the ire of his countrymen, and his neutrality during the Spanish Civil War rankled the English Left.  In 1936 the editors of the Left Review dismissed Huxley as "a ghost speaking in a vacuum."

   While Europe prepared for war, Huxley and Heard embarked on a lecture tour of America.  Huxley was also interested in enrolling his son, Matthew, in an American university to avoid the rigors of an Oxford education.  After a pilgrimage to Taos, New Mexico, to visit D.H. Lawrence's widow, Aldous and Maria journeyed to Southern California.

   Huxley was fascinated by Los Angeles. He loved the solitude of the Hollywood Hills and the mountains that rolled down to the ocean.

   The city's architecture amused him. He never tired of telling Maria of some delight he had come across: a coffee shop or drive-in in the shape of a hamburger or doughnut.

   The Huxleys flourished in their new surroundings. Maria studied palmistry and astrology.  Aldous dieted on vitamins and fish and read the Veda, ancient Hindu texts.  According to Vedantists the physical world is but an illusion.  Huxley was joined in his afternoon meditations by Heard and Christopher Isherwood, the English novelist who had followed his friends to California.        

   As the war in Europe raged, Huxley remained disengaged.  At dinner parties, Maria found, friends learned not to bring up the subject with Aldous. When Huxley's agent asked him to sign a letter protesting the persecution of European Jews, the author refused. Increasingly, Huxley and Isherwood were attacked in the English press for remaining in California while bombs fell on London.

   As Huxley's English royalties dwindled, he sought film work.  He was introduced around the movie colony by Anita Loos, author of the popular novel, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and a successful screenwriter. Anita even proposed they collaborate on a screenplay.  Huxley suggested adapting Othello.

   The studios recognized the value of Huxley's name, and he was soon under contract at MGM. He worked on a film adaptation of Pride and Prejudice which starred Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier, as the priggish love struck nephew. The script was delightful and charming, devoid of the usual Hollywood clichés. "One must do one's best for Jane Austen" was the way Huxley put it.

   At the studio, sitting in his cubicle, Huxley began to sketch out a novel, After Many a Summer Dies the Swan.  The novel was a roman a clef  about William Randolph Hearst and his paramour, Marion Davies, whom Anita Loos had introduced the Huxleys to. According to Hearst's biographer,  the portrait captured Hearst's "strange combination of cruelty and kindness." (W.A. Swanberg, Citizen Hearst, New York, Scribner/Collier, 1986 ed.) "A nice madman" was Maria's characterization of the press lord.     
     
   After Pearl Harbor, and America's entry into the war, Huxley turned further inward. He was "disconnected from his time," as one noted Huxley scholar put it, living in "a world he no longer felt he could change." (David King Dunaway, Huxley in Hollywood, New York, Harper & Row, 1989)

   Huxley and Maria moved to a clapboard house in the high desert.  The Mojave sun was good for his vision.  There Huxley worked on a biography of a sixteenth century priest and absorbed himself in the works of Catholic and Eastern mystics: Lao-tzu, Chuang-tzu, Catherine of Siena.

   When money ran low, Huxley again succumbed to the lure of Hollywood, recruited by David O. Selznick to work on Jane Eyre.  The movie starred Huxley's friend and admirer, Orson Welles.  In Huxley's hands, the gothic tale cast a harsh glance at cold, Protestant England.

   Since coming to California Huxley had engaged in a number of affairs with Maria's connivance. She believed these liaisons helped Aldous take his mind off his work. Huxley, however, began to practice sexual abstinence as part of his ideal of self-control. An old flame who visited him during the war was taken aback when Huxley spent the afternoon discussing Catherine of Siena.

   Huxley was at peace in the high desert.  He learned to drive a car and was able to navigate the back roads.  Living at the foot of snow-covered mountains was an almost mystical experience. In the desert light, he would tell Maria, he found "an expression of the divine joy" and "love which is at the heart of things."

   According to David King Dunaway, Huxley's writings began to address the problems of the post-war world. Among Huxley's predictions were concentration of corporate power, proliferation of nuclear weapons, future wars over oil. In 1948 he published Ape and Essence, an apocalyptical vision of Los Angeles after a nuclear war.

   One of Huxley's chief aims in life was "the extension of consciousness." In the early 1950s he began experimenting with drugs, first mescaline, then LSD. In a celebrated essay, The Doors of Perception, Huxley described an encounter with mescaline.  (Aldous Huxley, Collected Essays, New York, Bantam Classic, 1960 ed.) A half hour after ingesting the drug, he "...became aware of a slow dance of golden lights." The books in his study flowed--"like rubies." "Space was still there but it had lost its predominance." There was "an even more complete indifference to time." Huxley kept telling himself: "This is how one ought to see, how things really are."  Another time, on mescaline, he realized: "One never loves enough."

   Huxley's film career had faltered when the studios turned to war and gangster movies, and it never rebounded.  Several projects failed to materialize, including a movie about a visit Queen Victoria made to Oxford.

   In 1955, after a brief illness, Maria Huxley died. She was undaunted by the thought of death.  "To me, dying is no more than going from one room to another," she told Laura Archera, a friend of hers and Aldous. (Laura Huxley, This Timeless Moment, San Francisco,  Mercury House, 1962 ed.) In Maria's last moments, Aldous had read to her from The Tibetan Book of the Dead.

   After Maria's death, Aldous grew closer to Laura, an Italian-born concert violinist and therapist who had treated both Huxleys. On one occasion Huxley asked Laura to be present--his "companion"--while he took LSD.  Huxley found it a "most extraordinary experience:" "for what came through the open door..." he later wrote, "was the realization of Love as the primary and fundamental cosmic fact."

   In 1956 Aldous and Laura were married at the Drive-in Wedding Chapel in Yuma, Arizona. The clerk who issued the marriage license assured Huxley that she admired his novel, Brave New World.

   After their marriage, Aldous and Laura lived quietly in the Hollywood Hills--in a home in which Laura still lives. Nearby is a street that was re-named after the author: Huxley Drive.

   Huxley seldom discussed his earlier works and did not follow contemporary literature. "He did not talk about Kerouac," Laura recalled recently in her slightly Italian-accented English.

   Huxley would smile when someone mentioned Brave New World, his popular 1937 novel about the tyranny of science.  "We smiled because that is what paid the rent.  It had been so easy for him to write."  Later, during their marriage, he wrote "very quickly" a sequel: Brave New World Revisited.

   Aldous followed a simple daily routine.  In the morning he would write. Then he would walk "very often in the hills around Griffith Park."  In the afternoon Huxley "would see some friends and then walk some more."  He "was an observer," Laura said. "He would write about what he saw."

   Usually, the Huxleys ate dinner at home.  Life was "not so frantic as it is now," Laura recalled. "We lived in the hills that gave us a privileged quietness."

   Huxley never lost his fascination with Los Angeles.  He was "amused by all the differences and interests."  He would say, "There is everything in Los Angeles."  The city was "like Venice in the 17th century--where East and West would meet and everything would happen here."

   Early in their relationship Huxley worked on The Genius and the Goddess. He spent the next four years writing Island, a utopian fantasy that contained some autobiographical references to his marriage with Laura. Shortly before the book was completed, a fire destroyed their original home; the manuscript was one of the few possessions Aldous retrieved as the flames leaped through the dry hills.

   Huxley was not completely satisfied with the novel. He believed it was "imbalanced" because "there was more philosophy than story."  Huxley considered himself an essayist who wrote fiction.  Of all his novels, he told Laura, only Time Must Have a Stop "put story and the philosophy together in a balanced way."

   But to Laura, Island which was published in 1962 remains "the finest and final work."  In her opinion, "He put everything in that.  Brave New World was a warning and Island was an offering."

   Laura disagrees that the novel is "a fantasy."  "Everything that he has written has happened--in some way or to some tribe."  Moreover, the book represents "what we could be if we were not so greedy and so crazy."

   Aldous Huxley died of cancer in 1963.  Later that decade his books were rediscovered by a generation attracted by Huxley's principled pacifism, utopian visions, and experiments with drugs.

   A brilliant young film student, Jim Morrison, called his rock band, The Doors, after Huxley's essay, and Huxley's writings became a portal to the sixties.

   Today, Laura Huxley is reticent about her husband's influence on the sixties.  In This Timeless Moment she has written about that generation's drug excesses and pointed out that in Island LSD was given to adolescents in a controlled environment.

   Laura believes that Aldous Huxley chose his own epitaph.  At a seminar in Santa Barbara towards the end of his life, he was asked, What can we do? Huxley said, "It is so embarrassing that after a lifetime all I can tell you is: Be a little kinder."

   (Ron Martinetti for AL. The author would like to thank Lionel Rolfe for providing background information and arranging several telephone interviews with Laura Huxley. This profile was posted on American Legends in August 2004. Laura Huxley died in 2007 at 96.)
 

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