Tucked down the tiny little Hollywood side street of La Vista Court, a street so small you might easily mistake it for an alley, is a very unusual old building with a very unusual story to tell. They call it “London House” and they call it that for good reason. Although today hidden behind barred gates, there is located right by the front entrance a handsome bas-relief of legendary author Jack London. For decades this sculpture combined with the building’s unusual appearance, has fueled a swirl of speculation as to its origins and what association it might have with the man who penned such timeless classics as The Call of the Wild and The Sea-Wolf.
For one man in particular, Robert Gary, this question became something of an obsession and he spent decades trying to find the link between London and the building at 5152 La Vista Court. Gary, a freelance writer and script supervisor, first moved into an apartment in the building in the mid-1950′s and quickly became entranced by the mysteries that seemed to whisper from its very walls. Gary could hardly be blamed for falling under the building’s spell. It was definitely a place that would inspire curiosity in anyone who encountered it. Rising a monolithic three stories above its bungalow neighbors, the building was unlike anything else on the street, the neighborhood or even all of Los Angeles for that matter. Windows in odd positions, a large door opening out of the second floor, ship’s lanterns, statuary and even a block and tackle winch protruding out from the top of the facade, all gave evidence that this was indeed no ordinary apartment house. Which, of course, it was not. Within a few years of moving in, Gary had become so attached to the building he managed to become its owner, purchasing it from pioneer Chicano activist Frank Lopez, who had been a founder of Plaza de la Raza, the very first Mexican-American cultural arts center in the United States.
During this time, Gary became convinced that there must be some direct connection between the building and Jack London and that he must have spent the night or even lived there. Initially based on the statue of London out front, Gary’s belief was reinforced by the discovery of an inscription found on an upstairs window penned by none other than poet George Sterling, a man who had been one of London’s closest friends. The nautical elements of the building seemed further evidence of a connection to the sea-loving London and, although he was a Northern California-based author, it was known that London had visited Los Angeles on more than one occasion beginning in 1905. Jack London had died in 1916 and therefore the building would have had to have been built before that time. According to Lionel Rolfe, who wrote about Gary and London House in Literary L.A., Gary had told him the place had been built in 1870 and had once been the headquarters of a vast cattle ranch that stretched from Hollywood past downtown. Gary related that London used to come there to buy cattle for his ranch up in Glen Ellen so frequently that the owner of the ranch renamed the house “London House” in his honor. Where Gary learned this information is not known, but it was enough for him to feel comfortable enough to affix a blue enamel plaque to the front of the building that a friend had made that read “Jack London Slept Here.”
But did he? Over time, Gary became aware of some unsettling facts that did not jibe with what he originally had been told. There was no such ranch as he had been led to believe and, most horrifying (and damning) of all, city records revealed the building had been built, not in 1870 or even any time close to that, but in 1923, well after London’s death. This must have been heartbreaking news to Gary who had become a great devotee of London and his legacy telling the L.A. Times, “Over the time, I began to fall in love with him…I can see why he has, to this day, so much devotion from so many people.” But, in this outwardly disappointing news, it was discovered the building really did have a genuine Jack London connection. It had been built by Finn Haakon Frolich, a noted sculptor of his day for use as his studio. Frolich, described by Irving Stone in Sailor on Horseback as London’s “court jester and sculptor,” was one of the author’s greatest friends and it is his sculpture of Jack London that holds the honor today of adorning the entrance to the Jack London State Historic Park up in Glen Ellen. And even if Jack London had not slept there, George Sterling surely must have. The inscription in the upstairs window Gary had discovered bore the words, “Dedicated to Finn Frolich by George Sterling. 1924.”
The news that two of Jack London’s great friends had such strong bonds to “London House” should have delighted Gary, but, it probably didn’t. Having nurtured for so many years the belief that London himself had been a part of the building, one can imagine that anything less than that could only have been a disappointment, an understandable reaction under the circumstances. The facts, unsatisfying as they were, however, were facts and there appeared little left to do about it. That was, until “the lady” appeared. One day in 1979, while Gary was away at work, a taxicab pulled to the front of London House and from it emerged an elegantly attired white-haired lady who appeared to be in her late 70′s or early 80′s. She said had come to visit the place she had seen as a very small child, telling one of Gary’s tenants that she had been there in 1904 or 1905. Not to the three-story building on the spot today, but to a small white cottage that, according to her, sat on the spot in the middle of an orchard. It was in that little cottage that she remembered seeing a man named Jack London who was living there at the time. He was writing stories on the Russo-Japanese war for Hearst. ”She said he had papers all over the place, in little stacks,” the tenant recalled her saying, “He wrote in longhand.” As it was, there was a one story wooden addition to the back of London House. Could this have been the cottage? The old lady seemed to think so. After looking around a bit, the mysterious visitor climbed back into the taxi and vanished. She had not left her name or any way to contact her. And she never returned.
One can only imagine Robert Gary’s reaction upon hearing this news, a mix of renewed hope and unbridled frustration over not being there himself at such a momentous event. But it almost seems to have been a cruel thing to do to Gary, this mysterious visit, sending him chasing the chimera of Jack London in the building yet again. Yes, it is a fascinating twist and wouldn’t it be wonderful if her recollections were true? But again, there are challenges. Serious ones. To begin with, expecting a person to remember the exact location of a cottage some 75 or so years after seeing it once as a four or five-year old, is a bit of a stretch of plausibility especially considering how drastically changed the area was and the cottage not even being visible from the street. Undaunted, however, Gary again moved forward, seeking building records for the cottage, which would have originally been directly behind London House. Gary was hampered in his efforts by not having an address for the cottage. It was, as it turned out because it did not exist, at least not at the location in question. Since the 1800′s, the Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps have been regarded as an undisputed resource in the description and location of buildings, both commercial and residential, in more than 12,000 locales in the United States. Below is a section of the 1919 Sanborn map showing the future site of London House.
And the 1950 Map.
As the 1919 map shows, there was no cottage or any other structure on the property three years after Jack London’s death. The closest bungalow (colored orange), which was directly next to the property originally (1919) addressed as 5147 1/2 Clinton Street still shows up in the 1950 map with a renumbered address of 5148 La Vista Court. Therefore it could not have been moved and “added” to the site. Perhaps, the mysterious lady was off by a block or so, but that must be left to pure conjecture. Further, Russ Kingman, considered the ranking authority on Jack London, shows no record of the author being in L.A. during the period in question other than a trip down to see the 1905 Tournament of Roses parade (He stayed at the Hotel Maryland) and does not believe he had been to either London House or any such predecessor. Sad? Yes, somewhat. It would be wonderful to be able to provide a tangible link to such a legendary author as Jack London to early Hollywood, but sadder still is the fact that, like a number of persistent legends, the Jack London legend does an unintended disservice to who really deserves to be remembered and honored at the site. Finn Haakon Frolich (1868-1947) was a remarkable man in his own right and his importance to the site has been greatly mitigated in the search for Jack London. As Russ Kingman told the L.A. Times, “I think the house is significant and historic because of Finn Frolich himself.” Frolich’s son Gilbert, who has been working on a history of the house, agreed, telling Lionel Rolfe that, although he realized the building is known mostly as London House, his father “dedicated it more to himself than to Jack London,” adding that the bas-relief of London was not even added until the middle of the Depression.
And the building has had quite a colorful history all its own with some famous Hollywood names associated with it. One of Gary’s tenants was actor Richard Beymer and another was the wonderful Victor Buono, a great character actor, best remembered perhaps for his holding more than his own against the considerable scene-stealing talents of Bette Davis in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), even earning a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination. According to Gary, the narrow stairs of London House were always a challenge for the rotund actor. And, according to Gilbert Frolich, London House was also home for a time to another great character star, John Carradine, who lived there while taking sculpting lessons from Frolich in his very first days in Hollywood. “My mother said Carradine was such a good actor, “remembered Gilbert, “that he was almost, but not quite, the only tenant ever to talk her out of collecting the rent.”
Although Robert Gary’s quest did not yield the “smoking gun” proving London’s visit, it was not in vain. Over the years, he put everything he could into preserving and restoring London House, often at great personal sacrifice and further preserving the Socialist London’s spirit by keeping the rents at London House low. Gary’s efforts have ensured this hidden little Hollywood gem will continue to intrigue passersby for decades to come. And hopefully, Finn Haakon Frolich will get the credit for which credit is due for his remarkable studio building, which should, for all intents and purposes be called “Frolich House.” That is, unless the mysterious little old lady decides to come back for another visit.