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Ape & Essence and the death of Aldous Huxley's widow.

When a friend told me this week that Laura Huxley had died, I realized that it had been maybe five years since I last saw her.

But I wasn't surprised at the news. The self-help author and New Age activist was 96 and although she aged well, she definitely had been slowing down as of late.

Once or twice in the last year or so I drove by her home on Mulholland Highway, a mountain valley away from the Hollywood sign. Her Subaru was so dusty it didn't look like it was being used. I even knocked on the door, but no one answered.

Although I had known Laura for years, ever since I met her and her husband Aldous Huxley shortly before he died--the same day President John Kennedy was assassinated--I had my doubts about her.

I had met the Huxleys at a concert in Hollywood where my uncle and aunt, violinist Yehudi Menuhin and Hephzibah Menuhin, were performing. Laura and Yehudi had developed a close bond, because both had been violin prodigies. Yehudi had been the most famous musical prodigy since Mozart. She had come from Italy to play at Carnegie Hall, and then came to Los Angeles to perform with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. She later went to work as a film editor at RKO and by happenstance and perhaps design became Aldous' second wife.

Yehudi was good friends of both of them. He played the Bach Chaconne at the memorial gathering for Aldous in London.

My biggest doubt about Laura was that she had been responsible for turning a great English writer who had been a spokesman for science and the enlightenment into a mystic, and worse, his writing lost a lot.

Huxley's grandfather was Thomas Huxley, a biologist and celebrated agnostic who had been a major influence on Charles Darwin. Aldous came from an illustrious English family of intellectuals and scientists. His brother, Sir Julian Huxley, was also a prominent scientist and the founder of UNESCO.

Aldous was born in 1894. His dystopian novel Brave New Worm was published in 1932, five years before he moved to the New World.

Despite his drift toward mysticism, he wrote another important book while in the mountains and high desert north of the Los Angeles basin in 1948 called Ape & Essence. The vision it propounded was so horrifying perhaps that is why the author chose to flee in the maelstrom of mysticism and Laura didn't deserve all the blame.

Aldous and Maria, his first wife, lived on the grounds of a former Utopian colony, Llano del Rio, during much of World War II. This is from where the novel germinated.

Aldous had the scientist's eye for the detail of flora and fauna. And he was able to drive on back dirt roads in the desert without known mishap despite the fact he was practically blind. His wide knowledge of nature stood him in good stead during his many hikes and drives in the desert.

Because of his blindness, he loved the light he could see living on the edge of the desert. When an atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima it produced the most blinding light of all, setting off some chemical or perhaps psychological metamorphis in him.

The grimness of Ape & Essence may have come from the fact that life on the high desert was sometimes too secluded, and too full of the joys of nature. It was during World War II, and Huxley's royalty checks from England were gone, and gas, tires and spare parts were hard to come by. Eventually he would have to abandon the desert because he was finding more and more of his income in the studios. Certainly no city ever had a more gloomy prophecy created for it than the one Huxley wrote in Ape & Essence.

He was so affected by his circumstances that when his wife Mafia offered to allow him to have lovers to inspire him to write more, he declined.

But he loved the Joshua trees, the wildflowers and the rattlesnakes. And after the horrors of the second war in Europe, where Huxley still had many friends and family members, the Nuclear Age thoroughly horrified him. In 1945 he wrote a friend, "Thank God we are to have peace soon," but went on to suggest it would be a disquieting peace at best, since atomic bombs would be hanging overhead.

"National states armed by science with superhuman military powers always remind me of (Jonathan) Swift's description of Gulliver being carried up onto he roof of the King of Brobdingnag's palace by a gigantic monkey; reason, human decency and spirituality, which are strictly individual matters, are themselves in the clutches of the collective will, which has the mentality of a delinquent boy of fourteen in conjunction with the physical powers of God," he wrote.

Huxley's obsession with the blinding light of Hiroshima turned to a terrible pessimism--not to be ended until his attraction to LSD and the other psychedelics of the '50s and some novels that definitely were not up to par.

That pessimism dates from the advent of the atom bomb. The idea of the book was a post-atomic-war society in which the chief effect of the gamma radiation had been to produce a race of men and women who didn't make love all the year around, but had a brief mating season. The effect of this on politics, religion, ethics, was interesting and amusing, he said.

Ape & Essence is not an easy novel to call amusing, unless, of course, one is amused by torture, brutality, degradation and other unspeakable horrors. Huxley wrote Ape & Essence with his considerable wit and satire, however, so it is not totally without humor.

The survivors in the book were all mutants. The original inhabitants of L.A. had been killed long ago. In three bright summer days the Third World War began. The physical city still stood; the wars had not yet scored a direct hit on L.A., but the radiation had destroyed most of the crops as well as finishing off the human population. Thus the handful of mutants, few thousands at best, lived in and among various familiar Southern California landmarks--the County Museum and Coliseum in Exposition Park, Pershing Square and the Biltmore Hotel across the way, USC and UCLA, and so on. The outlying neighborhoods were still there, too, only they were not inhabited. The gas stations were rusting.

The community center of the mutant survivors of L.A. was in Pershing Square. The mutants were oddly dressed, because their clothes came from corpses dug up from nearby graveyards. They drank from the skulls of the corpses, which had been fashioned into cups. Heat for the communal baking ovens in Pershing Square was provided by burning the books in the nearby public library. Water was carried in goatskins to be stored in earthenware jars kept in Pershing Square. Between two rusty posts hung the carcass of a nearly slaughtered ox and in a cloud of flies a man was cleaning out the entrails.

Across the way from this charming scene in Pershing Square was the mutant's temple--in the old Biltmore Hotel. In the book, the clergy lived there, chief of whom was His Eminence the Arch-Vicar of Belial, Lord of the Earth, Primate of California, Servant of the Proletariat, Bishop of Hollywood. His aides included the Patriarch of Pasadena and the Three-Horned Inquisitor.


The main event of the year, which was held in the Biltmore Hotel, was a two-week period of wild, enforced, orgiastic copulating, for sex was outlawed the rest of the year. The women wore flaps over strategic parts of their bodies that had the word "No" emblazoned on them. Nine months after the orgy there was a corollary event: Belial Day, a mass, sacrificial slaughter of the deformed offspring born from the main event. Women were called vessels to signify their uncleanness. In the book, most of the children from the vessels had were offered to the sacrificial fires of Belial Day.

Maria died in 1955, and he married her friend, Laura Archera, an Italian prodigy violinist the following year. He had, with Mafia's support, already been moving in more mystical directions. In 1953, he had written The Doors of Perception, which sang the praises of LSD. More than a decade later, as he lay dying, Laura convinced him to go out while under the influence of the drug.

Nonetheless, when I was writing my own book Literary LA., I remembered a snapshot on a table of Aldous and Laura looking languorous on a patio against a background of the Hollywood Hills.

It was obviously taken from their home.

I asked Laura if I could borrow the snapshot to be used in the book. The publishers, Chronicle Books, put it on the cover, turning the black-and-white snapshot into a wildly psychedelic colorful cover that was a great success.

Laura came to some of my parties and I became a more frequent visitor to her house, especially after my mother Yaltah, like her sister Hephzibah, a pianist, came to visit me in Los Angeles in the early 1981.

Yaltah had moved to London where she spent the last 40 years of her life.

My mother had never liked Los Angeles. So when Laura asked me to bring Yaltah up to her Hollywood Hills home, I jumped at the chance. Although her brother and sister knew Laura and had known A1dous well, she had not met them.

My mom was homesick for Europe from the moment she landed in Los Angeles, just as she was homesick for Europe for the 18 years she was married to my dad and lived here. My decision to take her to Laura's house was a good one. She felt wonderfully at home. She described it as "an oasis of Europe," she said.

We all sat in Laura's wonderful, high-ceilinged, light-and-airy, whitewashed Mediterranean villa, high above the rest of Los Angeles. Laura was talking about how much she wanted to go home to Italy, if only for a visit. Yaltah nodded approvingly as we drove down the hill from her house. "She was very nice," Yaltah said, "and still very European," which she obviously meant as a crowning glory.

Not too long after that, Yehudi wrote me and told me to go see Laura and put my life in her hands.

Yehudi remained on close terms with Laura throughout the years. Laura had dedicated her life to carrying out the mystical prescriptions by which her husband wanted ultimately to be remembered. My instructions from my uncle were to put my life in Laura's hands, and she supposedly would mold me according to Huxleyan holiness of some kind.

Laura introduced me to Janice Seaman, a yoga guru who lived in nearby Glendale, and animal activist. I told her that I was only talking to her to make my uncle happy.

She said that was fine. Then she called me a couple of days later and asked if I could come with her to the desert where I got involved in a strange yam involving lions and tigers and murder. I wrote an article, at one point almost losing my life when a cement truck tried to run me off the road. None of this seemed to have much to do with obtaining the ancient higher wisdom, which I think was Yehudi and Laura's intent.

I continued my friendship with Laura, once even meeting Baba Ram Dass in Malibu as a result of her invitation. Ram Dass was the "Holy Man" also known as Dr. Richard Alpert, LSD guru Timothy Leary's associate.

I didn't drive her out. She came with George Dicaprio, the actor Leonardo's father, who often drove her on various outings and errands.

I don't think it was just coincidence that a few weeks before Yehudi entrusted me to Laura, her husband had been the topic of a strange conversation.

It started early one evening and ran well into the next morning in the Denny's coffeeshop on Highway 14, right where the Mojave Desert really begins.

Along with my ex-wife Nigey Lennon, we were joined by Don Van Vliet, best known as the rock cult hero Captain Beefheart. We had been discussing drugs, the '60s and the high desert. Beefheart was talking about how people who live in the desert (where he was reared) are often far more eccentric than those who live on the L.A. side of the San Gabriel Mountains.

Once, as a young lad growing up in the desert, Beefheart had a part-time job selling Electrolux vacuum cleaners in Pearblossom, which was not very far from Llano and Wrightwood, the desert and mountain communities that Huxley lived in. Beefheart explained it was known that the author lived in the desert, so when a tall, gangly customer came into the store where Beefheart was working, Beefheart recognized him immediately.

Van Vliet remembered being impressed by how down-to-earth Huxley was. Huxley explained that his wife Mafia had sent him out to look for a vacuum cleaner. Huxley asked Van Vliet if he could recommend one. Since Beefheart was selling Electroluxes, it was, of course, an Electrolux that Huxley purchased. Then they talked a bit.

During the conversation at Denny's, Beefheart said that Huxley had seemed to him a man who was looking for something, that he was an eccentric among the eccentrics who inhabited the desert.

About five years ago I brought my friend Paul Anderson to Laura's home. He was writing about her for one of the suburban sections of the Los Angeles Times.

The first thing Laura did was invite us to sit on some large, inflatable balls.

"It's like being in water, so like being in a mother's womb," she said, explaining why she preferred to sit on a children's toy she had ordered over the Web.

"You have to sit upright or you'll fall off," she explained. "Recently, I saw these in a catalog that said they were good for office chairs."

Laura explained to Anderson why she was not fond of Ape & Essence.

"Oh, don't mention that book. It's too dreadful," she began.

But she agreed with me that Huxley's use of bright light in the book was inspired both by his vision becoming better and clearer in the desert coinciding with the news from Hiroshima.

Laura had given me one of those balls; was it still in its package? I wondered, hearing the news of her death.

I checked if it was still in my bedroom closet.

I never found it to be a good substitute for an office chair. But I couldn't bring myself to throw it out.
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Title Annotation:Laura Huxley
Author:Rolfe, Lionel
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jun 22, 2008
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