Photograph by Tony Medina
In the Shadow of the Cat
To paraphrase Mark Twain, everyone talks about the Los Gatos stone cats, but no one does anything about them. But now Dana Frank has tracked down their history in her new book on the area's kitsch monuments.
By Steve Palopoli
THE LOST GATOS Cats. The Pulgas Water Temple. The Big Basin redwood slice. The Boardwalk's Cave Train. Living in Silicon Valley, you've seen one or more of them, maybe all of them. And you've probably wondered what the hell they're doing there. Growing up in what is now Los Altos, UCSC professor Dana Frank saw them, too. The difference is that years later she began looking in to how these odd places came into being, and how they became kitschy vortexes of local legend. The exploration began with her memories of her family, and culminated in her latest book Local Girl Makes History: Exploring Northern California's Kitsch Monuments. As a writer, Frank has shed her academic skin, but having spent her career looking for the untold stories of class, race and gender in American history, she's dug deep into the bizarre and surprising stories behind the mystery of these local landmarks. In telling the story of the Cats, for instance, she tracked down the history of the anarchist and suffragette who once lived at the estate and commissioned the building of the two statues that would come to be adopted as the defining landmark of Los Gatos. But she also uncovers the history of Vincent and Mary Marengo, the two servants whose relationship with their master and mistress tells a truer story of the boho politics up in the hills. And she ties it all in to Los Gatos' immigrant history, rooting the story in a time when University Avenue was known as Little Italy. Frank talked to Metro at her home in Santa Cruz about the legend and true story of Leo and Leona, the stone cats. Following the interview is an excerpt from Local Girl Makes History.
METRO: Your background is in academia, but this isn't primarily a history book. It's more like ... I don't know, a mystery.
DANA FRANK: Sometimes local history books just kind of sit there, and you feel like you're supposed to read it, but you don't. I wanted to make this a good story, like a detective novel. It wasn't like I set out to write a book about local history—at all! I just thought, "Hey, wouldn't this be fun?" I thought I was writing something for the Metro. Even when I started writing, I wasn't sure it was a book. I thought I'm just writing some fun little stories where I play around with my literary skills talking about the politics of history and these places.
Of the three sections that were spurred by your memories of growing up, the chapter on the Los Gatos stone cats is by far the longest and most intricate.
I knew I had a great story there. I knew it was harder. I deliberately waited till I knew what I was doing, because I knew that it was a higher level of challenge to pull it off because it was like this big, cool story. It's actually twice as long as the other three chapters.
You write about how the history of the statues became mythologized—as people retold it, they added new details to make it even wilder. Why do you think they inspired that?
First of all, we've got all these people like you and me who've driven by them and wondered what they are. So you could say there's a demand there. Like the Pulgas Water Temple, there's something there that you know is out of the ordinary, and you can't answer it. You don't have any way of answering where those cats came from, right? Until you buy my book! That's what's interesting, that the book turns out to be much more about imagination. I think people tried to figure what was going on out there, and little things float around as people try to piece together "Well, what are those cats?"
Your book is likely to fuel a resurgence of interest in them.
I think it's really important that people don't harass the current owners [of The Cats estate]. Obviously I have piqued interest in this, and as I say in the book, it was offered to me to go see it, and I finally decided that I wanted to respect these people's privacy. Because Vincent and Mary's family invited me in, and Sara and Erskine invited the whole world in who now have this house. But these are private people who have this house and this property and I'm a little afraid that the book is going to make people knock on their doors and harass them. Also, people should be really careful getting off 17! They should just wave at the cats, they shouldn't pull in. I'm terrified that someone's gonna die because I said you should go and see the cats. Just wave.
This is a book about local history by a professional historian, and in the book you have an interesting take on the importance and shortcomings of both amateur local historians and professional historians.
There are amazing things that local history does—you can't just wait for some academic professor or graduate student to decide something's important. And people are interested in their own history, and saving it. The professional stuff, a lot of it, is driven by very obscure concerns that don't really serve anybody either. But a lot of it is wonderful. It does have certain standards of how you footnote and proof things that I do actually believe in, and that can get fishy at the local level. You can see in the Pulgas Water Temple chapter how a rumor becomes "proof," right? So that's what you have to watch out for. And also, the celebrity entrepreneur thing, that the local businessmen are the most important people. But there's some larger political level about "Well, who are these entrepreneurs and where do they get their power?" They get it from the state Legislature. Who controls the state Legislature? Who controls Congress? Who's building the railroads for who to get what to market—these larger social forces that are not entrepreneurs. And also, the way the local entrepreneurs are being contested. Just because someone's famous, therefore they're important.
Which is why you could find so much on C.E.S. Wood and Sara Bard Field, who were famous and rich and owned The Cats estate, and almost nothing on the servants who actually made their bohemian lifestyle possible?
"Well, they were famous and they were rich, therefore we're going to write about them"—as opposed to the maids. Well, what happened to the maids? What happened to the people who worked in all those apricot packing sheds, and whose grandkids I went to high school with? What happens to all these people—because they're not all over the newspapers, they're not in the movies. So it's really about: what are the forces of history? And also, how do I come in? As somebody who's professionally trained, I have a set of skills that some people might not have. A lot of local history people don't know about the manuscript census for example, or how to use the city directory. But I couldn't do it without all that stuff that was collected in the Los Gatos Public Library; I mean, they've got a really good collection there. And there are years of newspaper columns in the Los Gatos paper, and someone who clipped years of newspaper columns, including that hilarious file called "Permanent Citizens" instead of "Prominent Citizens." But you know, Peggy Conaway in the Los Gatos Public Library was amazing. She understands the difference. So some things get pretty fudgy in the local history world—you don't have to footnote where you got it, you just repeat things however you want. But obviously I don't want to insult the local historians, because I think most professional historians don't have a sense of giving back to communities. Or how to speak to regular people. And sometimes people do amazing research at the local level.
I love when you talk about the process—'I was nervous about doing this or talking to this person,' and setting the scene and showing the drama of the research and interview process, in a way.
That's interesting, because I just kind of take for granted that that's in there. It's also a way of pulling the reader into the story. This is a piece of creative nonfiction, that's the genre I'm playing around with. I wanted to write a book using every literary skill I could marshal or develop to make people feel things—I wanted to make people laugh, and I wanted to make them cry. Every time I read the very end, I cry. The part about Ramona and me. I feel like the conclusion to the last chapter is the best thing I ever wrote.
It's interesting that the book ends on this poignant personal moment, rather than some kind of summary or conclusions about the places or themes you've covered.
I wrote the introduction last, and all that stuff about the "imaginative California," all that was a theme that I didn't plan. Then all of a sudden I realized it was there. When I landed that last line about Ramona and her own imaginative California, then suddenly I had this full circle with the opening line. And I didn't even plan that. It's like, you know, the magic that sometimes happens. There's 95 percent work, and then the magic comes in.
The way you write about these places is really grounded in your own memories.
The Cave Train chapter is really like my love song to Santa Cruz. And the Cats chapter is about my father, as you can tell. And that stuff was hard to put in there—should I go and put that in there about my father dying in the middle? But I'm thinking about my father, you know? His story is woven in with this. This is partly about things I went to as a kid, and I went there with my parents. My father took the picture of me at the Cats. My mom went to the Boardwalk and swam at the plunge. We're in there. My sister's in there confirming the stories—cause a lot of people will say, "It's not true about the dead body signs on 17," and the somebody will say, "Oh yeah, I remember them." There are all these things where how do you even know they were true?
It seems in the book like the South Bay was a particular hotbed for rumors about LSD in the Pulgas Water Temple.
Well, I think they go all up and down the peninsula. All I can say is that where I grew up in what is now Los Altos, these are the stories that went around. And they clearly went around in San Jose among my friends. The closer you get up the peninsula, the stories get less mythical and more "I knew someone who did it" or "I did it" or "I'm not about to do it." It gets less mythical and more "my story" the closer you get to San Mateo. The other thing is that in San Jose, I don't want to say this, but it was not the most exciting place in many ways culturally. Santa Clara County had its charms—playing in the apricot orchards and things we loved to do, but we were looking for something that was not a tract house and a mall, or an orchard, which were the things we had available. That's why going to Santa Cruz or going to Pulgas, we were looking for something that was culturally different and attractive on the weekends. I think it may have been more mythical to us down the peninsula, whereas if you lived in San Mateo you got to go to San Francisco. We only got to San Francisco once a year, so this was a big thing.
How important was the notion of kitsch to you in writing this?
People have talked about kitsch monuments like the giant Paul Bunyan, that's the classic one. Even the Cave Train ride, it's kitsch but not a kitsch monument. It was hard to come up with the language, I kept calling them "my places" or "my sites." The Cave Train ride is not an object in the way the other three are, so what is this thing that unites the book? It's these places that have something that I wanted to write about. They're kitsch in the sense that they're not monuments in the official sense, it's not like here's George Washington's—whatever, you know, phallic symbol! They're just things that are semimonumental that carry some aura of importance, right? So I was trying to come up with some language for that, and a friend of mine called them kitsch monuments, and my editor picked up on that for the title. So I don't want to mislead people that it's a book about kitsch, but there's something about the kitsch quality, which is: they're hokey! They're not your normal official monuments in any way, any of them. And yet, they're all public things. Somebody put them up to lure people in and instruct them, in different ways.
How would you like this book to make people look differently at the stone cats?
I guess I want people to look at those cats and think about who's doing the work in San Jose. Who makes what possible; who is the Silicon Valley? I hope people figure out there's a subtext about Los Gatos today. No one can afford to live there who has to clean the houses there. Who does the work at all those restaurants? Who's washing all the dishes; who changes the beds? Who cleans the toilets? If you go to downtown Los Gatos, there's a store called the Maid's Quarters. It's a linens and pajamas store that has $200 pajamas. Who wants to go into a store called the Maid's Quarters? The logo of the store on their business card is a black silhouette, it looks like an English-style maid, but nonetheless it's black. Who's thinking it's groovy to buy massively expensive sheets and towels at a store called the Maid's Quarters, and what is that doing in downtown Los Gatos today?
DANA FRANK reads from 'Local Girl Makes History' at the Los Gatos Public Library on Thursday, Nov. 29, at 7pm, at the Council Chambers, adjacent to the Library, 110 E. Main St. Go to www.losgatosca.gov for more information.
From 'Local Girl Makes History' by Dana Frank:
Upstairs,Downstairs At The CatsBefore they built the freeways in the 1960s, in order to get to Santa Cruz from our house in Los Altos you had to wind through surface streets to Saratoga, then turn left for a straight shot to Los Gatos, and finally turn right onto Highway 17 to go over the mountains. Highway 17 was pretty much the same terrifying experience then that it is now, with the same sense of sudden death potentially lurking around every corner. When I was around five or six someone actually put up a series of giant billboards along 17 with pictures of glowing skeletons and dead bodies rising out of coffins, hoping, I guess, to terrify drivers into slowing down. I suspect now that adult travelers must have found them preposterous. Mostly they just weirded out us kids.
Highway 17 did have it pleasures, though. We always thought it was exciting to see if the water level in Lexington Reservoir was high enough to go over the spillway, and it was really cool if it was so high that the live trees at its edges were part way underwater. (We were never quite sure if that was good or bad for the trees.). My sister and I also liked the restaurant at the top of the pass, known then as "Cloud 9." Our parents never let us stop there, but we still found it exciting for reasons I now find unfathomable.
There was one really big moment on the car trip to the coast. After the dull parts on the surface streets, just as we pulled right onto 17, we'd pass two giant, white stone cats on the right hand side of the road, tucked into a hillside. They were about twenty feet tall, seated high and erect, sphinxlike, marking two sides of the entry to a mysterious road leading up into the oak forest. My sister and I loved those cats. They were the big event on the trip to Santa Cruz, and we always made sure we looked back at the exact right moment to catch them on the way out, then waved at them dutifully again on the way back home. Once, my parents actually stopped the car so we could see them up close, and I still have the picture: My cousin Carey, seven at the time, is on the left, then my sister and me, ten and seven, wearing matching stretch knit outfits with striped tops and knotted sailor ties across our chests. I'm seated against the cat on the right, which looms placidly above us as we both look out at the highway, me with an impish grin, the cat unfazed, as always.
As I grew up I always wondered who built those cats and what exactly was up the road they guarded. Then, one summer when I was in graduate school, living briefly in Palo Alto, I spent a week in the Hoover Institution Archives at Stanford, doing some research on the feminist movement in the 1920s for one of my professors. She had me reading the papers of a local progressive activist named Alice Park, who'd been active in the suffrage, peace, and labor movements in the early twentieth century. One day, inside a grey archival folder, I came across a small handwritten note on pristine, cream-colored paper. The letterhead at the top read:
Sara Bard Field
Above the letters sat a tiny line drawing exactly capturing my two stone cats.
I was thrilled. Not only did I suddenly know who had lived up the hill behind my cats, but it turned out that Sara Bard Field was a well-known suffrage activist and poet. She was married, I soon learned, to a bohemian fellow-poet, anarchist, and civil libertarian named Charles Erskine Scott Wood, and together they built The Cats, their estate in Los Gatos. I filed the discovery away in my head, hoping I'd write about them some day.
In the fall of 1999, well ensconced in my job and house in Santa Cruz, I was having some new linoleum put into my bathroom by a guy named Robert Balzer. While we were sitting around in my kitchen waiting for the glue to dry, I asked him where he'd grown up. "Los Gatos," he said. "Where?" "Do you know where the cats are?" "Yes," I said. "That's where Sara Bard Field and C.E.S. Wood lived." It turned out that his grandparents, Vincent and Mary Marengo, both Italian immigrants, had been Field and Wood's gardener/chauffeur and cook, respectively, during the 1920s, '30s and '40s. Robert and I both nearly fell out of our chairs. He said it was the first time in his entire life he'd ever met anyone who knew who the "crazy people" were that his grandparents had worked for. As a kid he'd wandered all over their estate, and he started telling me stories about arbors dripping with grapes, dogs with names like Brutus and Trotsky, and an upper gate shaped like a spider web. The labor historian in me was riveted by the story of these two Italian immigrants who had worked most of their lives as live-in servants to Wood and Field.
I kept thinking about Vincent and Mary Marengo and their lives in service to the two poets. I wanted to know what was going on up there at The Cats—not just who those two famous poets were and why they erected my roadside sphinxes, but how they had treated their servants and what their servants had thought of them. I knew there were two stories here; or, more precisely, one story of four intertwined lives. In this upstairs, downstairs story of masters and servants, moreover, did it matter that Wood was an anarchist, Field a feminist? How would the story of Wood and Field's bohemian dinner parties with famous authors and private-label wines change if Vincent and Mary Marengo, who cooked the dinners, washed the dishes, weeded the grapevines, and filled the bottles, were equally important?
I plunged into researching The Cats, confident of my ability to dig up the story behind them. But researching my four people turned out to be more difficult than I'd thought. I learned a lot, quickly, about Sara Bard Field and C.E.S. Wood. Vincent and Mary popped up fairly quickly, too; they were there, like quiet, efficient servants to my historical tale. But they weren't so easy to figure out. I had to piece together their story slowly, bit by bit, from a growing but not entirely satisfying pile of tiny, sometimes contradictory tidbits of information.
Researching The Cats' tale of masters and servants pulled me into fundamental questions about the politics of local history, about who does or doesn't matter to official History, and why. I had to deploy my full range of skills as a professional historian, as I plunged into archives, trolled through microfilm, and tracked down obscure documents in libraries. But at the same time, as I interviewed grandchildren of both couples and gradually pieced together their stories as best I could, I moved deeply into the very private world of family history, including, at times, my own. As more and more people shared their memories, photo albums, and opinions, the line between local history, "American history," and family memories got blurrier and blurrier, and it was easy to lose my way.
For all my training, as I tracked down my two implacable stone cats, their voluble masters, and their potentially inscrutable servants, it wasn't clear if I would ever figure out what was really going on up at The Cats. Nor was it clear whether I could, indeed, make the two couples who dwelled there equals in the eyes of History.
The collection of Wood and Field's papers in the Huntington [Library in San Marino] was daunting. Its directory listed a total of 312 boxes plus another 43 in an addendum, containing altogether around 32,000 different items—photographs, drawings, manuscripts, diaries, clippings, scrapbooks, leaflets, and, especially, 193 boxes of correspondence. Peter, the curator, told me that the collection is very popular among researchers, not because they're interested in Wood and Field (and all those overblown love letters Wood wrote for prosperity, alas); but rather because they're interested in the more famous people like Bennett Cerf or Robinson Jeffers or Roger Baldwin or Muriel Rukeyser who wrote to them.
Right off it was easy to learn about my two stone cats. In the directory I discovered a file called "Clippings—the Cats." In the master list of correspondents I found Robert Paine, who Hamburger had said was their sculptor. Dutifully I filled out the order forms at the reference desk and waited for the page to fetch the two boxes. Putting their contents together with a few old newspaper clippings I later found at the Los Gatos Public Library, I was able to reconstruct pretty well the history of my cats sculptures and how they'd been created. Just this small piece of the story turned out to reveal a lot about Wood and Field—their artistic ambitions, their generosity, their self-importance, and the tendency of Wood, in particular, to overdramatize everything. I could see their ambivalence about "the People, " who sometimes turned out to be bit ungrateful and unwashed. I didn't find Vincent and Mary yet; but I was starting to get some clues about class dynamics up at The Cats.
At some point in 1919 or 1920, after they bought the property but before they built the main house, the Colonel and Sara decided to put up some kind of monumental sculpture near the entrance to the their estate. "My wife and I had a sort of mania to prove that California was the American Italy—the very place for outdoor drama, outdoor sculptures and so on," Wood recalled in a 1931 newspaper article. Several other properties lay between the highway and their own estate, so they bought a small piece of land right where the dirt road turned off the highway.
We thought if we could put up on the highway ... some very imposing and dignified sculpture in the cheap material of concrete, it would be an example that would inspire others to do likewise, and possibly towns and road districts would bring in sculpture as a decoration for parks and bridges and buildings.
Wood cast himself as benevolent instructor: "If we are to make youth of our country interested in art, they ought to live with it daily. It ought to be part of their common experience—not something set aside for the occasional visit to a museum or a park."
The poets were casting about among their Bay Area artist friends for a sculptor when Robert Paine approached them about commissioning a work. Paine had worked for the prominent American sculptors Augustus Saint-Gaudens and Frederick McMonnies, helped out on sculptures for the 1893 Chicago World's Fair and the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition, and spent two years in Rome copying a famous statue of two chariots. He appears to have been most known for inventing a mechanical device used to exactly replicate sculptures. The only photograph of him I found shows a narrow-shouldered, long-faced man with blonde hair brushed straight back from his forehead and a pair of pince-nez spectacles perched on a long, straight nose. He's got just the hint of a smile, suggesting a mild-mannered amiability. Field described him as "an eccentric," "a rugged character," "a very odd and delightful creature." Wood just said he was "an anarchist."
According to Wood, Paine offered to design two sculptures at The Cats in exchange only for "the day wages of a mason" and lodgings while he designed and built them. Wood loved the notion that Paine was so dedicated to the project that he worked for almost nothing. Paine "believed that the artist who gained such joy from his work should not be paid large sums of money for it which make the artist's labor prohibitive for those of small means," wrote Wood on a subsequent occasion; "he insisted on taking only a day laborer's wage" (dropping, we can note, the wage rate in this version). But it seems just as likely that Paine didn't have any other work, saw an opportunity to execute an important piece, and wasn't averse to free rent and steady wages. In her oral history, Sara says that Paine "had never had a chance to do a heroic thing on his own."
Together the poets and Paine settled on two monumental cats. "We chose The Cats as a figure," Wood later explained, "not because of any definite reference to this locality of Los Gatos—'The Cats'—but because at all times and everywhere the cat has suggested itself as one of the most beautiful forms for sculpture. We discussed bears, men, horses, bulls—but finally, with the strong preference of the sculptor himself, we selected cats, and we did then select the wild cat in colossal form, because of Los Gatos."
In the Fall of 1920 Paine moved from Los Altos down to Los Gatos to live in the shack (Wood and Field were still living in San Francisco at the time). He'd already been sketching domestic cats and the big wild ones at the San Francisco Zoo. On December 2, Paine wrote Wood: "I will have a paper silhouette suggestion of the cats at one or both of two places following out your suggestion as to placing them as such seemed to me best, or at any other place you may have thought better." He suggested "the entrance to the place," where the cats could sit on a pedestal "of perhaps two thirds their own height." At this point—despite later pronouncements that he'd always wanted them by the highway—Wood was still considering a site farther up the road, where the road turned to cross a culvert.
Paine not only made sketches, but sculpted twenty or thirty little clay models of cats until he got what he wanted. "The feeling is the whole thing as you said it must be," he wrote Wood. "A cat is to me to be an appetite as ferocious yet as suppressed and unconscious as a tree's and must be done with a serenity more deep and enduring than a red-wood forest's." Paine then sculpted the first full-size cat in clay, from which a plaster mold to pour the final, concrete cat would be made.
By some point in late 1921 or 1922 Wood and his architect, Walter Steilberg, had settled on the site down by the highway. The cats were finally poured into two different molds, the casings removed, and they began their serene gaze out at the highway. Actually, one only is gazing, eyes wide open. The other has its eyes closed, its ears back. Contrary to my sure-bet memory, they aren't twenty feet high, but only eight. And they're made of concrete, not stone.
Wood and Field's cats quickly got the attention they'd wanted. The sculptures "soon became popular landmarks to travelers on their way to Monterey and Carmel," Hamburger notes. The problem was, they got some other attention, too. By 1930 the cats had been vandalized five times—with paint, with lipstick, with chisels. On Halloween night, 1930, the San Francisco Bulletin reported, Wood found them "painted all over in red and black, with the neck of one cat badly mutilated and an ear chipped from the other."
Wood and Field were irate, and not reluctant to show their own claws. In letters to and interviews with local newspapers over the next few days they reiterated their own noble, selfless goal in erecting the cats—to bring art and beauty to the community—and decried the outrageousness of the cats' defacement: "Nearly everybody appreciates them as works of art, quite apart from civic pride. They have appeared in various articles all over the United States. We have received letters of interested inquiry from both foreign and domestic tourists, and their pictures have appeared to our knowledge in Los Angeles, Chicago, and Paris," Wood boasted. "Yet they are permitted to be destroyed." Writing later in the Los Gatos paper, he roared: "It is probably too much to expect them to be appreciated by the half-grown mind—childish, and perhaps moron intelligence of youth. These immature, childish intellectuals have seen in them only a subject for childish pranks." Apparently those he called the "latest defacers in this growth of rivalry in moronism" had failed to be sufficiently Uplifted by Art.
Wood soon toned it down a bit only to cast a broader blame: "We know it is only by some small group of misguided young people without any knowledge of art; but also we know it has never aroused any real protest—any real interest—any real action by the people of Santa Clara County, to whom really the cats were intended to belong." Not so subtly, he suggested that he and Field might move the sculptures elsewhere if the people did not show their concern. "There is apparently not the slightest conception of Art in the community," he declared, or the cats would have been protected. "And let me conclude in saying it is not the thoughtless, foolish and ignorant people who are to blame, but it is the attitude of the whole people." Casting his supposed selfless dedication aside, Wood was furious, his contempt for the masses palpable. They had failed to keep up their end of some implicit bargain in which he graciously donated to the People, who in turn were supposed to properly revere his work.
The People, evidently shamed, did respond. Soon the Los Gatos fire department showed up to help restore the cats. The police department promised to station an officer in a car nearby every Halloween. For seventeen years the marauders were held back at the gate.
Then in 1947 they struck again; and this time it was Sara, on her own now for three years, who lashed out. On Halloween night someone poured red paint on one of the cats (rather artistically, it must be granted) so it looked like blood was dripping from its mouth and down to its paws. In a long letter to the Los Gatos Mail-News Field let loose on city officials. "No police officer was near when the present outrage was committed." A week had passed, but "there has been no effort on the part of the community to discover who were the perpetrators of this vandalism ... nor has the public shown the slightest interest in the matter." Equally important, "There has been no attempt, as there was before ... to impress upon the children the honor due to works of art nor has the writer received any suggestion of community aid in restoring the sculpture if indeed, restoration is possible." Field threatened to "take drastic action" and move or even destroy the cats if the public didn't protect them. She was also angry that cretins in town were profiteering from the cats.
The profit approach to art except in spiritual terms is distasteful to me but the fact is that the town of Los Gatos has had thousands of dollars worth of free advertising from the presence of these noble sculptures. With no benefit to us, indeed, without even our permission being asked, ... picture post cards of the cats have been and are being made by the hundreds and are mailed all over the world.
She added proudly that she and Mr. Wood had received letters about the cats from European travelers "who recognize them as great sculpture." But Field was also clearly offended that the People, to whom she and Wood had given the cats, had their own independent, even profit-making ideas about how to celebrate them.
A few days later Field wrote again to "thank the people for their warm, understanding response not only through the written word but through the practical act of cleaning the defaced statue." Two employees of the city of Los Gatos had used cleaning fluid and paint remover to take off the offending paint. Sara also thanked all those who had expressed their love of the cats. "True works of art intimately associated with daily life imperceptibly become accepted as standards of beauty, and the cheap, vulgar, and ugly automatically rejected. In the nearly quarter century these cats have stood at the southern approach to our town I think they have silently taught some, at least, of a whole generation what noble sculpture in our very midst can do."
"Fate of 'Cats' Up to Wood's Buyer" announced the Los Gatos Daily Times in January 1953, when Sara put the estate up for sale. "I can't imagine that anyone buying the property would do anything to them," she told a reporter. "They are such an integral part of the place." She admitted that she "had been approached on several occasions with plans to move the landmarks into the town of Los Gatos," but preferred they "remain in the wooded hollow."
In 1955 Bruce and Diane Ogilvie bought the estate, and named the sculptures Leo and Leona. Vandals struck again in June, 1964. For those of us who love the cats, the press photograph is painful to look at: this time they knocked off one cat's ears and the top of its head. The damaged cat looks eerily more ferocious than ever, with its slanted eyes wide open.
Although it's not clear when or how the Ogilvies restored the cats to their current incarnation, by later decades the story of the cats' original creation had taken on mythical elements that snowballed over time in the local papers. Paine, the sculptor, got more and more eccentric with each retelling; now it took him not two but three or sometimes four years to complete them. Now he had designed and built them for free out of pure dedication to art. "Mr. Paine lived almost as a monk" while creating the cats, one story in the late '40s or '50s rhapsodized. "His diet consisted mostly of rice." Wood and Field weren't wealthy, we were told. The cats were now made of marble rather than poured concrete. One was now male, one female. And they'd always been named Leo and Leona, they were always chosen to reflect the town's name, and they were always going to be placed by the roadside.
In the end, C.E.S. Wood and Sara Bard Field weren't so misguided, really, in their highway beautification campaign. Generations of travelers did appreciate the cats, including a lot of children, including me. Like my own private redwood tree slice at Big Basin, my beloved cats were special to me and also to thousands of other people. I wouldn't have my private memory of either, in fact, if they weren't public objects, placed deliberately so children would be instructed. Even my photograph of my sister, my cousin, and myself was probably one of thousands taken as other families, too, picnicked at the base of the cats.
The sculptures embodied perfectly and for generations Field 's and especially Wood's vision of themselves as artistic benefactors to the masses. But the cats' full story also turned out to reveal the poets' notion of themselves as a superior elite, more far-thinking, more generous, more culturally refined than others. And despite their self-deceptions, Wood and Field weren't entirely selfless. They expected recognition of their superiority and beneficence, or got incensed.
LOCAL GIRL MAKES HISTORY: EXPLORING NORTHERN CALIFORNIA'S KITSCH MONUMENTS, by Dana Frank; City Lights; 278 pages; $16.95 paperback; Nov. 1
Send a letter to the editor about this story.