Jacques and Arnold’s presidential adventure

More notes on the 1993 annual meeting of the Linguistic Society of America, at the Biltmore Hotel (now the Millennium Biltmore) in Los Angeles, at which I gave (on 1/9/93) my 1992 presidential address to the society, “Mapping the ordinary into the rare: Basic/derived reasoning in theory construction”.

The setting. The hotel is a landmark building of downtown Los Angeles (on Pershing Square).

(#1) The exterior, viewed from Pershing Square; you will have seen bits and pieces of the exterior and (especially) the interior in numerous movies and tv shows (Business Insider photo)

Pershing Square was under reconstruction at the time of that LSA meeting, but I was aware of its fame as one of the settings of John Rechy’s City of Night, an unsparing novel of stud hustling, a book now seen as a lightly fictionalized personal history of public gay sex, in L.A. and elsewhere. The bad old days, before things were cleaned up and sterilized.

(#2) The Galleria, a sort of gigantic entrance court, with truly amazing architectural details (described in an appendix to this posting) — a piece of fantasy Los Angeles as constructed in the 1920s (the first Oscars ceremonies were held in the hotel)

From the (lengthy) Wikipedia entry: “Upon its grand opening in 1923, the Los Angeles Biltmore was the largest [United States] hotel west of Chicago.”

Earlier on this blog.

on 2/7/20 in “The BSDR files”, largely an account of the content of my presidential address. Plus:

Something that is actually relevant for my paper is that I was the first openly LGBTQ president of the society. That fact is not in itself remarkable, since I’d been fully out as a gay man in the academic world for over 20 years at that point, though on this occasion my queerness was on display: I appeared in a couple with my man Jacques Transue and we also hosted a huge OUT in Linguistics reception in the Presidential Suite at the Biltmore (an event open to all members of the society, so long as they were willing to be seen as gay-friendly). (It did seem to me that 1992 was awfully late for visible queerness, but, well, someone has to be first, and that just happened to be me.)

The relevance of my queerness to a paper on theory construction in linguistics appeared at its very end, where — having argued against a logic of basic + derived (and for a logic of default + override) — I turned to analogies in the theory of sex (referring to Laqueur 1990, Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud) and the theory of sexuality (referring to Boswell 1989, Revolutions, Universals, and Sexual Categories).

on 10/1/21 in “Lila Gleitman”, where I note that Charles J. Fillmore was president of the LSA in 1991 and Lila R. Gleitman in 1993, so that I was Chuck’s vice-president and Lila was mine — with notes on non-normative presentations of gender (like my brand of homomasculinity).

Recollections. Back on September 10th, to amuse my 1958 high school classmates on our mailing list (a third of us survive), I wrote up a few recollections of the Presidential Suite at the Biltmore. The text:

a little about the long weekend my man Jacques and I got in the Presidential Suite at the ornate Biltmore Hotel in L.A. (which sort of defines L.A. high-end excess): covering substantial parts of two floors, with five bedrooms and god knows how many bathrooms (the gigantic Master Bedroom that Jacques and I got had two huge bath suites, one for each of us) — J and I put up family, friends, and colleagues in those bedrooms — and a formal dining room for 20 (or more in a pinch, we learned, for diplomatic dinners) and a ridiculously big living room (oh, and a little secluded library, intended for use for private small meetings, we were told). And of course, an enormous bed, in the place of the bed where JFK was reputed to have pronged Marilyn Monroe (the beds are replaced very frequently, so it wasn’t literally the same bed, but still linguists insisted that J and I give them a tour of the suite that included the famous bed. Meanwhile, J and I felt obliged to use the bed for its historical purpose; “I think we have to do this for Jack and Marilyn,” J announced with a stage-lewd grin.

Not just Kennedy, but a ton of other US Presidents. Plus the Beatles and other celebrities.

Everything happens at once. So J and I were in L.A., but this time without visiting my father and stepmother in Arroyo Grande (on the Central Coast, roughly halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles) — because, sadly, my dad had died the April before. He’d spent years being absurdly proud of me and my enormous success at the totally baffling occupations of linguist and college professor, but at least it kept bringing me to L.A. From early childhood, he was very good at telling me (and lots of other people) how proud he was of me and my abilities at things he didn’t understand; he clearly realized that someone as far off the norms as I was would need reassurance, especially from their father.

Some years before the Presidential Suite, J and I had a long visit with Dad and Ruth, during which Jacques tried to extract from my father recollections of what I was like as a kid (I had tons of information about J as a kid, from everyone in his family; and he had my kid stories, but he’d never gotten the view from the outside). Dad was hopeless — his memories were all fuzzed over with that pride, not recalling my oddness as a child or the many times I had nearly died — but along the way, in talking openly about our lives as gay men in a complex relationship, J and I told Dad a great deal more about ourselves than most parents would probably welcome; but we were now his friends, and he’d talked openly about the difficulties of his life with my mother (by then dead for some years).

And then he pulled me aside and said, electrifyingly, “I just wanted you to know how proud I am of the man you’ve become”. (Still reassuring me, after all those years.)

If he’d lived, Dad and Ruth wouldn’t have come to the meetings, but they probably would have come down to L.A. to have some time with J and me and his grand-daughter Elizabeth, who was part of my entourage at the meetings. Dad would even have been delighted by the idea of J and me hosting a gigantic queer party at the Biltmore — because he would have seen the OUTiL event as a celebration of his son. So he was a presence in the air.

That’s Thing #1. Meanwhile, of course, there was (besides my presidential address) a day of Executive Committee meetings for me to chair, expeditions for food, three days of papers at the meetings, and innumerable brief connectings with people you only get to see at such occasions. Plus the adventure of train travel between L.A. and San Jose. And then the class I was to teach at Stanford immediately upon our return to Palo Alto.

Thing #2 was Jacques’s state, several years already into the dementia that brought him to death ten years later. He was still a wonderful companion, if you understood his limitations. But new information vanished almost immediately after it came in, so someone had to be with him all of the time, or else he’d become lost and frantic. Elizabeth shouldered most of this burden (as she came to shoulder so much in caring for J in the coming years). They did get to explore some in downtown L.A., which delighted Jacques.

Thing #3 was a consequence of the fact that the LSA meetings brought to L.A. Phillip Miller and Geoff Pullum (actually, Geoff and Barbara Scholz were in my entourage), with whom I was writing a joint article — Phillip as senior author — on the Principle of Phonology-Free Syntax with respect to some phenomena of French. So we carved out a chunk of one morning working on that together in the colossal living room of the Presidential Suite.

Thing #4 was, incredibly, the continuing spectre of the AIDS epidemic: first reported U.S. cases in 1981, then through the 80s and early 90s killing off almost a complete generation of gay men — my generation, J’s generation — and a large part of the generation following ours. By some fluke of extraordinary luck, neither J nor I contracted HIV, but we had to cope with almost constant loss and grief, and somehow get through life (in my case, reaching the peak of my academic career).

But AIDS in effect came to us in the Presidential Suite. To that little library I mentioned, where a mutual friend in L.A. brought Howard Faye — Howard Arthur Faye, born 12/30/59, died 6/2/95 — two years to dying from the complications of AIDS, but already quite frail, to meet J and me face to face after years of acquaintance on the net. From my 12/30/16 posting “Howard at 57”:

I came to know Howard through the lgbt newsgroup soc.motss (way back), where he was a notable presence: funny, perceptive, contentious, sharp-tongued, full of enthusiasms (for music, food, ideas, and, especially, wines). (We finally got to meet face-to-face in L.A. in January 1993.) Howard lived life fully, no matter what came his way. I was reminded of my great admiration for the way Carrie Fisher, Prince, and George Michael lived their lives, openly and fearlessly.

… For a touching view of Howard in action, you can watch this 1 hr. 12 min. documentary video containing material from 1991-1995 (shot and edited by Ken Rudolph for a memorial service at Justin Winery, Paso Robles CA on August 26, 1995). Warning: the video is unsparing as it approaches the end of Howard’s life. Loving, but unsparing.

Appendix on the Biltmore’s architecture. From the Wikipedia entry:

The architectural firm Schultze & Weaver designed the Biltmore’s exterior in a synthesis of the Spanish-Italian Renaissance Revival, Mediterranean Revival, and Beaux Arts styles, meant as an homage to the Castilian heritage of Los Angeles. The “Biltmore Angel” is heavily incorporated into the design — as a symbol of the city as well as the Biltmore itself. With a thick steel and concrete frame, the structure takes up half a city block and rises over 11 stories.

The interiors of the Biltmore Hotel are decorated with: frescos and murals; carved marble fountains and columns; massive wood-beamed ceilings; travertine and oak paneled walls; lead crystal chandeliers; cast bronze stairwells and doorways; fine artisan marquetry and mill work; and heavily embroidered imported tapestries and draperies. Most notable are the frescoed mural ceilings in the main Galleria and the Crystal Ballroom, which were hand painted in 1922 by Italian artist John B. Smeraldi, known for his work in the Vatican and the White House. Smeraldi and his team famously painted the ballroom’s colorful, seamless fresco over a period of seven months, decorating it with figures of Greek and Roman gods, angels, cupids and other mythological creatures. It was meticulously restored in the 1980s by Smeraldi’s apprentice, Anthony Heinsbergen. The imported Austrian crystal chandeliers that adorn it are 12 feet (3.7 m) in diameter.

The Rendezvous Court, once the hotel’s lobby but now used primarily for afternoon tea, is decorated with a Moorish Revival styled plaster ceiling painted with 24 Carat Gold accents, two original imported Italian chandeliers from 1923, and a grand Spanish Baroque Revival bronze doorway, whose astrological clock still keeps time today. Two figures appear on the stairwell front — on the left is the Roman goddess of agriculture Ceres, while on the right is the Spanish explorer Vasco Núñez de Balboa. The current lobby at the hotel’s Grand Avenue entrance still has its original travertine walls and oak paneling as well as the large artificial skylighted ceiling, reflected in the custom carpet below.

Each ballroom on the Galleria level is themed either after the room’s original function or the hotel’s overall California-heritage premise. The Emerald Room was once the hotel’s main guest dining room; its decor features images of hunt and harvest, with hand-painted animals and fish on the cast-plaster ceiling beams. The Tiffany Room was formerly an open corridor used as a drop-off point for Crystal Ballroom functions. Now enclosed, the elegant space centers around exploration, with relief sculptures and panels depicting Queen Isabella I of Castile, and Christopher Columbus and other Spanish New World explorers. The split-level Gold Room, once a dining room for elite guests, features Prohibition-era hidden liquor compartments and panels along the ceiling for press photographers to take pictures of the event below. It is decorated with a gold cast-plaster ceiling, hand-oiled wood paneling, and nine mirrored windows along three sides.

The South Galleria is painted with floral friezes inspired by the decor of ancient Roman Pompeii, and features a vaulted ceiling, marble balustrades and heavy Roman piers. Gold-painted wrought iron gates open to a staircase leading down to the Biltmore Bowl.

Also of interest is the hotel’s health club and indoor pool, which was modeled after the decks of 1920s luxury ocean liners. Solid brass trim on windows, doors and railings, teakwood deck chairs and hand-laid Italian mosaic tile on the walls and in the pool are original.


4 Responses to “Jacques and Arnold’s presidential adventure”

  1. kenru Says:

    I’m not sure you recall; but I, too, was present when you and Howard met at the Biltmore back in 1993. At that time you wouldn’t have known who I was because I was only a lurker on soc.motss. I was sort of ignorant of your eminence as a linguist at the time; but you did impress me.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Memory is such a fickle thing. When I pulled up the recollection, I got Arne, and I also wondered how Howard and Arne would have gotten there without your involvement, but I couldn’t see you in my mind’s eye, so I committed in print to only one L.A. friend (not named). I’m sorry to have disregarded you.

      As for eminence, the label tends to make me giggle. But I *was* academically successful, largely due to sheer luck and timing and the behind-the-scenes sponsorship of truly eminent linguists, especially Ilse Lehiste. So I have in fact been a plenary speaker at the International Congress of Linguists (in Tokyo, in a gigantic auditorium) — but that doesn’t even come close to the experience of giving my presidential address in a gilded ballroom at the L.A. Biltmore.

      Otherwise, not much eminence, by the usual academic criteria: my work not significant enough to merit a Festschrift or a published collection of my papers, my life far too treyf for any university to risk giving me an honorary degree. And those are probably accurate judgments. (I *am* irrationally proud of having been elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences early in my career, but eventually I realized that that honor was achieved largely through advocacy by Ilse and by Vicki Fromkin.)

  2. arnold zwicky Says:

    A musing on the excess of the Biltmore’s public spaces: excessive, yes, but wonderfully so, created with scrupulous attention to detail and built to last (as it has, for a hundred years). Built, in fact, as a *monument to the city of Los Angeles*, a kind of secular cathedral. All that gilding has some historical or artistic point to it. (Note: not a gold toilet or anything similarly vulgar in the place.)

    True, you can’t miss the L.A. aspiration to go from zero to major world city, to become a New York City of the Pacific beaches and canyons in a lifetime, to cut through the gaudiness of being a city of dreams to become a city of museums and concert halls and public spaces that are both beautiful and enjoyable to use. Aim for a Biltmore, not a Grabpussy Tower.

  3. arnold zwicky Says:

    Several friends have commented on the wistful character of this posting. Well, from the vantage point of 2021, it’s an elegy for my father, for my man Jacques, and for my friend Howard Faye, with glancing affectionate allusions to Chuck Fillmore and Lila Gleitman, both now gone. But it’s suffused with my realization — at the time — that *nothing like this was ever going to happen to me again*.

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