Photo by Jack GouldNo. 12 on the Los Angeles Times Bestseller List, David Weddle's Among the Mansions of Eden is a colorful, scathing examination of the history and culture of Beverly Hills. It seems eerily familiar to anyone who's been around Newport Beach—as Weddle has. The 46-year-old journalist lives in Malibu, but grew up in Newport. He has written for Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and wrote "If They Move . . . Kill 'Em!," a celebrated biography of director Sam Peckinpah.
But Weddle's best work may have come two years ago in a cover story for the Los Angeles Times Magazine. "Secrets at the Bottom of the Drawer," based on his youth in Newport Beach, examined the myths surrounding the Greatest Generation Ever, specifically what life was like for children of vets who fought and survived World War II.
OC Weekly: What was Newport like when you grew up there?
David Weddle: I grew up in Irvine Terrace in Newport; I moved there from New York when I was in second grade. In the early 1960s, there were definitely wealthy people in Newport, but the vast majority of people from Corona del Mar to Balboa Island were middle class. Back then Jamboree was a two-lane road running through tomato rows. After we'd get Santa Anas, we'd see tumbleweeds blowing down the street. I used to catch snakes and tree frogs where Fashion Island is now; a stream used to run through the area. There was a lot of wildlife. It used to be that any pond you found was alive with tree frogs. Down on Bayside Drive is the Coast Guard station and a small beach. I used to wade into the water and scoop up fistfuls of sand dollars.
Houses were mostly tiny beach bungalows; now they're practically all multi-million-dollar homes. Newport and Corona del Mar are still among the most beautiful places to live if you can afford it. But you're hard-pressed to find middle-class families there. My elementary school doesn't exist anymore. It's all townhouses now. When they tore down my school, I felt sad, like anybody would. They were landscaping my past. When you go back to a school when you're older, you remember things you normally wouldn't. I can't do that now. Newport is a lot like Beverly Hills in this way—there's no past. The people almost have a hostile attitude toward the past.
Do you ever go back?
It's not a pleasant experience for me to go back; it's too painful for me to see what's happened to Newport. I still think California is a wonderful place to live. There was nothing better than riding your Stingray bike to the beach in the summer, then jumping off the rocks into the ocean. There wasn't much traffic. You could drive to the main parking lot in Big Corona and always find a parking place. I remember we used to take our hatchback Mustang there and always park in the first or second row off the beach.
Now there's a slowly eroding quality of life from overdevelopment, of which Newport is one of the saddest examples. You just don't get a sense of the natural world there anymore. That's a larger part of the California story. Each year it's a little less wonderful.
Your book describes Beverly Hills as very colorful and extremely dysfunctional. What parallels do you see with Newport Beach?
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There are certainly parallels in both city police departments. Both are well equipped and very well funded. They both have a reputation that you don't screw around with them or they will harass you. In high school I was pulled over by five motorcycle officers in Newport. They were quite abusive and physically intimidating, but they left without giving me a ticket. These are wealthy communities who want to make sure they are safe—and make sure "marginal people"—be they people of color or whatever—get the message that this isn't a place to drive through.
How about the wealthy? Beverly Hills is famous for weird extravagance.
Beverly Hills has a lot of entrepreneurs and celebrities. These are people who find fulfillment through their mansions or the supermodels they have around. You find garages for Formula One racecars. But there's something empty about that. Eventually some realize you can't find happiness that way.
But Newport Beach is a blander, more Republican crowd—more of a Babbitt crowd who made their money but still go to Rotary Club meetings. It tends to have a lot of high-level executives and inherited money. In Newport I saw more inherited money than super-wealthy entrepreneurs. I don't think having a lot of money that you didn't make brings you a lot of happiness. But Newport's wealthy aren't possessed by the demons that drive Beverly Hills entrepreneurs to such excess.