Photographer: Julius Shulman 1910 - 2009

Function and Imagination at Human Scale

By Steve Appleford

Photographer Julius Shulman lived high up in the hills of Laurel Canyon, where visitors to his landmark 1947 steel-frame modernist house would usually find chocolates and a big jar of peanuts amid the organized clutter of his office. That’s how Shulman, who died in his sleep July 15 at age 98, liked his architecture: lived in, with function and imagination rendered at human scale.

His pictures were, of course, idealized images of modern homes and other buildings, but the human figure often played a crucial role, perhaps most spectacularly in the startling elegance of his “Case Study #22.” In that 1960 photograph, two young women sit comfortably in the corner living room of a glass-walled Pierre Koenig home as it extends out over the lights of nighttime Los Angeles, interior and exterior in vibrant harmony. It was powerful evidence of a rich culture in Los Angeles — though too many of his pictures have outlived the original structures.

Shulman was an enthusiastic champion of other L.A. photographers and was still shooting during his final years with the help of collaborator Juergen Nogai. He’d traveled the world, but never felt the need to relocate to Manhattan or any other city bursting with architecture. He found his greatest subject right here.

LA Weekly, July 29, 2009

He Was Wrong

Strange Rumblings from the Gonzo Afterlife … Ralph Steadman Ink Stains and Battle Scars … Flashback to a Final Campaign … The Suicide Solution … New Books and Old Photographs … One More Fling in Hollywoodland … An Outlaw’s Farewell, A Son’s Revenge

By Steve Appleford

"Would you like a drink?” It is still an hour before noon, but the man is thirsty and British and far from home, with a mountain of books still to sign and a speech to make about his old friend and tormentor, author Hunter S. Thompson, dead now for nearly two years. It will be fun tonight, another celebration at another bookstore, greeting the fans of gonzo journalism at one more stop on the road. But his friend is gone now to the afterlife, a “road man for the Lords of Karma,” as Thompson liked to say in his final years. Game over. So Ralph Steadman orders us a couple of beers. Mrs. Steadman will have a Manhattan.

This is a peaceful moment on the patio of the Sunset Marquis Hotel, but Steadman looks weary. His hair is completely white. And his left eye is swollen and red from this week’s trip to Los Angeles, a blazing, ghastly eyeball that could have come from one of his own violent drawings. Around his neck hangs a clay talisman shaped like a primitive ceremonial head, a gift from Thompson: “Wear this, Ralph. It will ward off evil spirits.”

Steadman does an excellent impression of his old friend and slips into it easily, his voice deepening and flattening into a serious monotone of authority, like a newsman teetering over the edge: “Ah, Ralph, you filthy little animal. You nasty little beast, I have a job for you ….” And who better? For 35 years they had shared an appetite for dementia and savage humor in their work, beginning in 1970 with an outrageous magazine article on the Kentucky Derby for Scanlon’s Monthly. Thompson’s piece was a vivid deconstruction of Southern high-society and low morals on derby day, and Steadman responded with great splashes of ink and paint that unmasked an America of bruised flesh and gnashing teeth. The horror, the horror ….

The article was “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved,” a pivotal moment in what Tom Wolfe would soon call the New Journalism, a movement of nonfiction writers who used the literary tools of novelists to tell a more vibrant true story. Thompson preferred to call his stuff Gonzo. And Steadman remained his occasional collaborator, illustrating Thompson’s pieces in Rolling Stone magazine and his most famous book, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Wolfe would later declare Thompson “the greatest comic writer of the 20th century,” a Mark Twain for a new age, and Steadman’s role was to create an equally dangerous new visual style.

“There was lots of fun about it all,” Steadman says now with a grin. Thompson was a unique collaborator, a man with insatiable appetites way out on the margins. “There were a lot of strange contradictions. He had a kind of violence, but a gentility as well. It was a relationship I don’t think would happen now. People are far too politically correct. You can’t even get started. It’s fascist, in many ways.”

That was before February 20, 2005, when, at age 67, Thompson shot himself in his kitchen, with his new wife on the phone and his son, daughter-in-law, and grandson in the next room. They were horrified. But the last few years had been dark days for Thompson. He suffered through elaborate surgeries on his spine and hip, and was frustrated with the inevitable dulling of his art after decades of drink, pranks, and extremely dangerous drugs, plus the trauma of one more presidential election gone terribly wrong. He spent months in a wheelchair, and then could barely walk. He spoke of suicide, as he always had. This was understood. And he wanted his ashes shot from a cannon on his property in Woody Creek, Colorado. Steadman hoped he wouldn’t resort to suicide, but often drew images of Thompson with a gun to his head, or with his brain simply exploding off the page with ideas and intensity.

Only the timing surprised him. “He was a guy who knew how he wanted to die,” Steadman says. “He’d already told me he knew he’d commit suicide one day. He said he’d feel real trapped in his life if he didn’t know that he could commit suicide at any moment. And he had an arsenal of weapons. He was a frontiersman, pioneer type. He would have been one of the first to go into Indian country crossing towards the West in a covered wagon.”

Thompson’s sudden exit made a memoir inevitable. Steadman began considering it on the train west from the Colorado memorial service and finished it a year later. He has published many illustrated books, but the Thompson memoir, The Joke’s Over, is his first book of extended writing at nearly 400 pages. The result is a chronicle and character study, a clear-eyed assessment of his time with the outlaw journalist, and not always pretty. As he wrote, Steadman says he often heard Thompson’s voice, repeating one of his frequent admonitions: “Don’t write, Ralph. You bring shame on your family.”

They were comrades forever, and there was occasional friction. “Did people notice the writing before they noticed my pictures, or did my pictures get noticed before the writing? I think that was always a bone of contention,” says Steadman. “He’d say, ‘It was me, Ralph. It was always me doing it. You were along for the ride.’” Steadman has said as much himself. He was like artist Sir John Tenniel to Alice in Wonderland author Lewis Carroll, or the E.H. Shepard to Winnie the Pooh’s A.A. Milne. Except with blood and beasts and broken bone. These weren’t kid stories.

“We were like chalk and cheese,” Steadman notes, “but it worked.”

They often communicated by fax, with letters sent over the mojo wire at 3 a.m. Woody Creek time. Steadman kept all of them, and is traveling with some of that correspondence on his book tour, carefully preserved in plastic folders. A letter from Thompson could be read as either rage or affection, if one knew how to interpret it. Steadman pulls one out, this one written on letterhead for the Woody Creek Rod & Gun Club, and begins reading, again in Thompson’s voice: “Ralph, your Baroque style of psycho gibberish is appreciated here. What I really need is a six-month loan of $50,000 at whatever rate you can handle. Keep your advice and send money ….”

Those days are over, but there remains a hunger for more, to find an afterlife for gonzo. The Joke’s Over is merely the first book to respond to Thompson’s suicide and the life and career he left behind. There is also GONZO, a massive, elegant volume of photographs by and of Thompson. His widow, Anita, will have a book early next year. There will be another volume of letters, an oral history from Rolling Stone, and a book by his son, Juan, in 2008.

A film version of The Rum Diary, Thompson’s only published novel, is planned. And new documentaries, including Buy the Ticket, Take the Ride (a portrait on the Starz pay-TV network), and an upcoming authorized documentary, with access to the author’s film and audio archives, directed by Alex Gibney (the acclaimed Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room). In July comes the Hunter S. Thompson Symposium on Literature, Law and Politics at the Aspen Institute.

Looking back is all anyone can do now. More than a decade ago, Steadman and I had talked once before, as he passed through Los Angeles on another book tour. There was an edge to his voice then, a spark of excitement in his eyes, and he talked openly of his desire to join Thompson on one more gonzo super-adventure. Maybe on a slow boat to China. Steadman liked that idea, but it never happened. He is busy on other projects now, and all that’s left is to cope with what it meant. He still wonders about that. In his book’s closing chapter, he writes a letter to Thompson, questioning the reasons and timing of his suicide, conceding that in the wake of Bush’s reelection, “Your America had gone.”

His wife, Anna, looks up from her drink. “I kind of liked that, really. Maybe it sounded more philosophical.”

Ralph nods. “I’d like to find out for sure what is the gonzo essence.”

Anna notes that he has attempted to understand that legacy before, in his 1998 book Gonzo: The Art, which collected much of his work with Thompson. Steadman agrees.

“I said there was ‘banzo’ as well, which is bad gonzo,” Steadman says. “That’s something I don’t want to do: lousy gonzo.” Thompson himself often said there was nothing worse than reading a writer trying to ape his style, even if those he influenced have a hard time escaping that urge.

There is also, of course, a School of Steadman, the generations of imitators who have adopted the Welshman’s intense scrawl, splashed and slashed across the page, and not always to good effect. “The worst thing for me is for people to try and imitate my style of drawing. But you can’t stop it, can you?”

* * *

“Who are you? Are you smart?” Thompson wants to know who I am. It is October 2004 and he’s just landed on the Sunset Strip. I am here to observe him in action, just as he once traveled to the feet of McGovern, Ali, etc., in search of wisdom and adventure. Now Thompson is himself that source of all-knowing craziness.

He appears to be in excellent spirits, at 67 a grandfather but no less determined and ready to indulge his whims in a blaze of broken glass and burning lighter fluid, if it comes to that. And he has come to meet the reading public, to sit at a bookstore counter with a tall glass of golden fluid and a collection of pens and exploding props, as 250 of his Los Angeles fans line up with copies of his newest book – the longest line on the Strip this night. Just minutes ago, as his van passed the long line in front of Book Soup, he leaned out a window to shout: “You commie bastards!”

“He’s in a good mood,” his wife Anita says anxiously, and it seems true enough as Thompson signs the books and teases his admirers one by one, poking them with a fork or drawing a line across their faces, and accepting their gifts: a bottle of whiskey, a book, a sweater, a joint, a hug.

“Is anybody in this room going to vote for George Bush?” he asks suddenly, and the room goes quiet. “I’m not going to hurt you.”

He is a cultural hero to these people, an outlaw and social critic with a demonstrated obsession with sports and politics, a man who has known presidents and openly cursed his most beloved sports teams. Hey Rube is his newest book, a collection of short essays from his sports column on But he is not well. His body is broken. Thompson’s left leg is a mess and has been for a year, ever since breaking it in a fall by the minibar in a Honolulu hotel suite. So he’s arrived late, after hours of physical therapy on his leg, which still seizes up at the bookstore, leaving Thompson to laugh and moan between signatures.

Joining him is actor Benicio Del Toro, Oscar-winning Method man and genuine Hollywood celebrity. But here he is most recognized for his alarming presence in the film version of Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, as the crazed and insatiable attorney Dr. Gonzo. It was the portrait of a desperate man about to burst, overstuffed with drugs and madness and the weight of post-’60s malaise. He put on 50 pounds for the role. But tonight the actor is a quiet presence in a black suit and fedora, hovering beside Thompson with a burning cigarette as the great man signs books and pours himself another drink. “Don’t take any shit from these people,” Thompson tells him.

On a nearby CD player, Mick Jagger yowls an ancient lament of real folk blues, a lovely tune raw and dreamy (“I felt so sad so lonesome, that I could not help but cry”). It is a fitting soundtrack to this scene of pain and celebration. Soon Thompson’s leg seizes up again, and he’s led out the back door for a smoke. He notices me there, sees my note-taking, remembers that I am here as a journalist. “Who is he? He better be fucking good,” he begins shouting, slapping Del Toro on the shoulder. “He better be fucking righteous!”

I am the least of his problems. One by one, his fans are led out back to meet him, to get an autographed book or two. Veteran political wizard Pat Caddell stops by to say hello, suggesting they meet for a drink later. Thompson has only signed about 100 books, and he suddenly needs to leave. His leg, his whole body, is turning on him, and he is led to a waiting SUV downstairs, his posture degenerating into the shape of a gnarled claw. The 150 gonzo fans still waiting to meet him are about to be seriously disappointed. Some are angry. As he is driven away, Del Toro follows in his own car, which is when a young woman in black appears and throws a full can of Tecate beer in his direction, just missing the car as he turns the corner.

Two nights later, Thompson is in his 5th floor suite at the Chateau Marmont, settled at a table by the window, a jug of Chivas Regal at his feet. Also on the floor are the three galley pages from his upcoming essay on the presidential election for Rolling Stone, the venue for some of his greatest work. Anita is cooking linguini in the kitchen and Thompson is talking with Laila Nabulsi, his one-time fiancée and the long-suffering force behind turning Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas into a movie, a 10-year quest that ended up as an epic black comedy starring Johnny Depp and Del Toro in 1998, terrifying matinee audiences across the country.

The phone rings. Thompson picks it up, shouting: “What?! Oh. Benicio who? … What are you up to? … Well, I’m up here doing an in-depth interview with a scholarly looking gentleman from the L.A. CityBeat. … He’s a big kind of Frankenstein-looking guy who was looming in front of the stage wearing a big, bright, white shirt, caught all the light? … No, no, I’m having a little fun. And I can’t walk and I don’t have a ride back. So, what do you mean, Where am I at? I’m at the – yeah, yeah … I’ve got nothing but time. Laila’s here … Yeah, definitely, we’ll do a stunt! Yeah … If you bring a bunch of lighter fluid and a burning paper, we could hold that out on the front of this balcony and from the edge, shower the lighter fluid on it, it will go down into the garden. All right.” He hangs up.

Our interview has yet to begin. Thompson is distracted, worried about confirming a private jet back home to Colorado, occasionally rising to struggle across the carpet, stretching his leg, hobbling painfully on the cane Anita bought this afternoon at a drugstore. He blames the weather for his trouble. Young hotel bellmen come in and out, carrying food and towels and a vat of boiling water. Soon, Del Toro arrives with some friends. But there is much to discuss: Thompson did not spend 2004 traveling on a presidential campaign bus, as he did in ’72 during the Nixon-McGovern contest, or when he chased Jimmy Carter for an influential magazine profile four years later. Thompson is no longer the most dangerous boy on the bus, though he had planned on attending both political conventions this year (and missed both). He does, however, remain deeply connected to major players in national politics. He knows these people.

He first met John Kerry during the 1972 protests of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, and knew Bill Clinton back when he was a young campaign worker entrusted with a losing district near Waco, Texas. Thompson has warm friendships with Democrats and Republicans, with both James Carville and Pat Buchanan. But he knows no one in the current White House. No one except maybe George W. Bush himself.

“I haven’t told this story before,” Thompson says, and the room goes quiet. “I met George Bush in 1976, I guess, in Houston. And my first real memory of him, and only one, is of him passed out in my bathtub.” It was at the Hyatt Regency, where he also remembers dropping a naked blow-up doll down into the Atrium from his hotel balcony. “I knew people who were in the drug business from Houston, and I was there for a Super Bowl and I was looking for drugs. Of course.”

Could this be true? Had a young G.W. just been another party-boy passing through Thompson’s gonzo orbit, or was this something like his conjecture during the ’72 primaries that candidate Ed Muskie’s bizarre behavior on the campaign could only be explained as a heavy addiction to the powerful, obscure drug Ibogaine? Columnist Ron Rosenbaum wrote about witnessing the same Bush-Thompson encounter in the New York Observer on March 27, 2000, though he says nothing of bathtubs and remembers the year as 1974, after Bush had been a classmate of Rosenbaum’s.

Thompson talks of another Bush classmate, now one of the writer’s close associates, who claims to have been personally branded by the future president during a fraternity hazing. “And it was torture,” Thompson says. “Twenty-four hours of sucking raw eggs and no sleep and people telling you they’re pissing on you and pouring streams of hot water on your back. And the final thing was the president branded the goddamn pledges with a hot poker. It was a scandal. It’s a matter of record in the Yale Daily News.”

Then he hands me the galleys to his Rolling Stone piece and asks me to read a long passage aloud, including a crude limerick young George Bush is said to have told over and over again for two years while at Yale:

There was a young man named Green
Who invented a jack-off machine
On the twenty-third stroke
The damn thing broke
And churned his nuts into cream

I read it twice, and it gets a laugh every time.

He was not sentimental when Richard Nixon died in 1994, still calling his former nemesis “a crook … a political monster straight out of Grendel and a very dangerous enemy.” But Thompson now recognizes Nixon’s behavior as entirely reasonable in comparison to the current administration. And he is not confident about Election Day, or of the wave of newly registered voters supposedly primed to eject Bush from office.

“I’ve been through elections where people are counting on the youth vote before, but they’re not very reliable,” he says. “People tend to inflate it. I think there are more of us than there are of them in this country. That’s what this election is going to be about. Not whether Bush is a liar or thief or a pig or a murderer or a swine and stealing everyone’s retirement funds, but whether the American people want it that way. This will be a very defining moment for the American people.

“Kerry will win the election. Whether he moves into the White house or not … .” He laughs bitterly. “These people are not going to go willingly or not in any spirit of democracy. They never believed in democracy anyway. Shit, if this election goes against us, I’m not going to believe much in democracy either. If these crooked swine are able to manipulate the election and convince the voters to vote against their own interest … .”

He trails off, the thought unfinished, unthinkable. He rubs his leg. It is 2:30 a.m. and I have been a witness to his pain and his fun, but my interview is over and ruined. Virtually nothing of use was discussed. I borrow a cigarette. Benicio lights it for me.

“He’s all right,” the actor says to Thompson. “I can tell.” And for a moment I feel like that young Okie hitchhiker in the back of the red convertible hurtling toward Las Vegas, in the book and the movie, accepted into dangerous territory. (“We’re your friends … . We’re not like the others.”)

Thompson’s not so sure. “How can you tell?”

“I don’t know. I just can,” Del Toro says, watching me. “Well, we’ll find out later.”

Yes, and nearly three hours after I arrived, I say my goodbyes. I’d had many questions, on presidents and politics, on journalism and the writing process. Instead, I’m left with a tape filled mainly with Thompson in a frenzy over his travel plans and of myself reading his words back to him.

He shakes my hand. “Good luck with the piece,” he says, sitting down. “And if it’s not good, someone will be coming by to take care of you.”

Four months later, he was dead.

* * *

This is a party Thompson might have enjoyed. There is beer, wine, and the music is Hunter’s personal playlist: Dylan, the Stones, Neil Young, the Band. The man has been gone almost two years, but he is very much present at the M+B Gallery in West Hollywood. His face is everywhere, in huge photographs printed on archival paper, with color digitally restored. There are pictures of Hells Angels and Dobermans, of pretty girls and slaughtered pigs. But many more are self-portraits, studies toward creating the public legend of a dangerous literary man, modeled first on Hemingway and the Beats, and then something weirdly his own. The aviator shades and cigarette holder, the weapons and loping gait, an image as easy to caricature as Twain’s, and one he would sometimes come to regret. In the pictures is a man slowly ending his time as an observer and becoming the observed.

The images are from GONZO, a large-scale visual biography of Thompson, now selling briskly at the front desk at $300 each. He took most of the photographs himself, back when he was a working journalist providing art for his own stories, and a young novelist documenting his life.

Tonight’s opening has drawn a good crowd. Chatting in one corner is actor Bill Murray, who portrayed the outlaw author in 1980’s Where the Buffalo Roam, the first film interpretation of “the twisted legend” of Hunter S. Thompson. He had also been the subject of the writer’s final “Hey Rube” column, which was a 3 a.m. dialogue between them about a new sport Thompson invented: shotgun golf.

Standing beside him is Juan Thompson, who can be seen as a toddler in Woody Creek in one picture, a Frisbee in one hand, his other pointing to a photograph of G-man J. Edgar Hoover that’s been blasted with a shotgun. Good times. Juan is now 42, and he wears his father’s Aztec medallion over a white tuxedo shirt. “It means the world to me,” he says, touching it gently.

The gallery show opening is one more family reunion of the HST circle, but it can only be an echo of the gatherings that always swirled around Thompson, a rare blend of politics, art, literature, and heavy weaponry. “The reality is that Hunter was the hub and he connected a lot of people and for a lot of reasons he attracted a lot of people,” says Juan. “And when he died, he left a hole there, and there’s no way to fill that.”

Juan Thompson is writing about growing up gonzo for a book to be published by Knopf. He’s not a writer but a computer consultant. And yet he knew that he would one day write this book. They had discussed it. And Hunter wanted his son to wait until he was dead. He supported the idea, but didn’t want to have to read it. “By that time, he knew I wasn’t gonna do a hatchet job on him,” he says. “It just would have been too uncomfortable to actually read it. But he died. I really wanted to try to portray a different side of Hunter than the public persona. That’s how it started.”

His father wasn’t always around. He was often on the road on assignment, and then, after Juan’s parents separated and divorced, they lived apart. “So a part of this book is how both of us dealt with that, and tried to create a relationship where there hadn’t been one, and also how I gradually came to understand that he was a lot more present than he appeared to be at the time.”

* * *

On his final day in L.A., it was Laila Nabulsi who hustled the wounded antihero onto a private plane. It would be the last time she saw him, waving at her from a window. Just a few nights before, she had helped organize a party for him at the Taschen Bookstore. Taschen was set to publish an oversized version of The Curse of Lono, his long-out-of-print excursion into the depths of Hawaiian culture with Steadman. His editor there, Steve Crist, agreed to host the party, even if Thompson was actually in town to promote Hey Rube. And Thompson gave Nabulsi a long list of friends from across the planet who had to be invited. They included some of his Hollywood pals … Depp, Del Toro, Sean Penn, Angelica Huston. Hugh Hefner would arrive with an armful of Playmates. But Nabulsi told him that others further away would never be able to make it. Still, he insisted, “I just want them to know they were invited.”

Something was different. And for months after, Hunter kept thanking her for the party, that “elegant evening,” as he called it. Back in Woody Creek, he would watch a video from the party often. But as Nabulsi stood at the airport watching Thompson prepare to fly out that day, she sensed a change.

“It was so dramatic, and so like a movie, watching this plane,” Nabulsi says now. “And he said, ‘I wish you would come with me.’ And I almost jumped on the plane. I wish I had,” she says, shaking her head. “But, you know, I had something to do, and I couldn’t leave.”

She met him at the end of the ’70s in John Belushi’s dressing room at Saturday Night Live, where she worked, a young producer of short films for the show. That was the center of the universe in those days, a groundbreaking collision of comedy and counterculture. Belushi was her closest friend. And Thompson fit right in.

They had two great weeks in New York together. It turned out he was married. Must not have come up. Eventually, she moved into his house in Woody Creek, traveled with him around the world, became his fiancée, and then left him in the ’80s. Thompson joked that he always feared the exposé she might write. He talked about it for years after, and he even had a title for her: He Was Wrong.

But they remained close friends, and she began working toward finally making a film of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

After a decade of struggle, she managed to put the pieces together, producing a movie directed by Terry Gilliam in 1998. Gilliam saw the story as an antidote to the increasing humorlessness of the endless Nixon-Ford-Carter-Reagan-Bush-Clinton eras. Gilliam described the book’s dangerous duo as a modern Dante and Virgil, descending into the Inferno of contemporary America, with Vegas casinos as the circles of Hell, while around them raged the Vietnam War, the Nixon presidency, and a disheartened youth movement. He thought the time was right for a reawakening of everything that was irresponsible and politically incorrect. It wasn’t. At a press screening I attended on the Universal lot, the film erupted onscreen to a packed room, and only myself and a strange woman sitting next to me seemed to be laughing. The rest was uncomfortable silence.

The reviews were extreme. Critics called the film either a remarkable translation of an acclaimed book, or a document of unspeakable ugliness. It was brutal. More importantly, it was not a hit, which is worse than death in some circles. The timing was just wrong. Five years later, the DVD version was greeted with rave reviews and was embraced as a cult movie for a new generation not even born when the book was first published. College kids were heard quoting the dialogue. And a band called Avenged Sevenfold, a punk-pop-metal act from the O.C. committed to tattoos and styling mousse, had a career breakthrough with “Bat Country,” a song directly inspired by Fear and Loathing. The accompanying video was thick with images lifted from the movie.

Thompson also loved the film, but by then he was on to other things. A new marriage, more books. “He was serious about his stuff,” says Nabulsi. “You couldn’t just hang out and party. He hated that word. It wasn’t about that. It was about working. And if you couldn’t take it, you were out of there. There was one night where he was trying to work on something so he started talking about it, and there were three or four people there, who were supposedly helping. At one point Hunter said, ‘Is anyone writing this down? If no one’s writing this down, it’s just bar talk!’”

That scene was six months before he died. He had many projects: a sex book titled Polo Is My Life, a collection of short stories called The Night Manager, the film adaptation of The Rum Diary. Weeks before shooting himself, he still talked of future work with Steadman. He was on the phone with Simon & Schuster about more books. And Steve Crist had a plane ticket to see him at his Owl Farm compound the Tuesday after that fatal weekend, to meet and discuss the GONZO photo book (to be published by Crist’s new publishing house, AMMO Books), a huge project co-edited by Crist and Nabulsi.

His mountain of unfinished writing projects was not an uncommon affliction for writers who had set a new impossible standard. It took his New Journalism colleague Gay Talese 12 years to finish his last book. Starting and stopping, tinkering and rewriting, throwing it all out and beginning again. Talese would sometimes then study his words from across the room with binoculars. (The next book could be a while.)

Even so, Thompson left behind an impressive stack of books, including the first two volumes of his collected letters that earned his best reviews since the days of Fear and Loathing and The Great Shark Hunt. He wasn’t finished. Only his body betrayed him, the final revenge for a lifetime of fun and abuse. He is still beloved by his long-suffering friends and family, still read and worshipped by fans. All was well enough in his work, right up until the moment he sat at his typewriter and pulled that trigger. For those who cared, it ended too soon. He was wrong.

Illustration by Ralph Steadman, from The Joke's Over, courtesy Harcourt Books.

Los Angeles CityBeat, December 28, 2006

Uncommon Law

He's been governor, mayor of Oakland, a presidential candidate and a volunteer for Mother Teresa. Now the confounding Jerry Brown wants to be your top cop.

By Steve Appleford

San Francisco. They know him here. They want to shake his hand, to whisper a word of hello, to hear his voice again. Jerry Brown still has that effect, especially in a room like this, at a crowded gathering of Latino activists and politicians, mingling in an epic dining room with big windows overlooking the nighttime San Francisco Bay Bridge. Brown is just a guest here, passing through from one event to the next on another busy day of politics and contemplation. And he's running for office.

He was California's governor once, from 1975 to 1983, a young politician who openly supported farm-worker rights, who fought for environmental protections, who appointed minorities into real positions of power. He also ran three times for U.S. president, nearly derailing the Clinton juggernaut in 1992. And he is the current mayor of Oakland, where his tenure has been a profound education in government at the ground level, where crime and drugs and poverty are right at his doorstep.

Now he wants to be your next attorney general, the state's top cop. Even in a year when Arnold Schwarzenegger will be vying for reelection as governor, Brown's candidacy inevitably brings some serious political star-power to what is normally a down-ticket race between grim lawmen. The joke that A.G. stands not for “attorney general,” but for “aspiring governor,” does not apply.

It's been an unlikely career trajectory for this former governor, a man who has been in the same room as every president since Truman, and who also mingled with the likes of Allen Ginsberg and a wide variety of artists and poets and holy men. Mayor wasn't a step down, and neither would be the A.G. job. “Some people think I should run for governor,” he says now. “I don't want to do that.”

When he first ran for mayor, it was seen as an almost bizarre act, a lark for an ex-governor, a hobby for a would-be president. Tonight he's relaxed and practically cheery in a suit and tie, standing here at this gathering of the Latino Caucus of the League of California Cities with his new wife and campaign manager, Anne Gust. Across the dance floor is Rocky Delgadillo, L.A.'s city attorney since 2001 and Brown's chief rival in the Democratic primary race for attorney general. At 67, Brown remains energetic, engaged with his thoughts and immediate surroundings. (And you can see it whenever he gets together with former state chief execs for the occasional Governors Summit, chatting up the other ex-governors on stage with a spark mostly absent in Deukmejian, Wilson, Davis — each of them already fading to a nostalgic beige. Which is maybe understandable, now that their political careers are over.) Brown remains restless.

San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom is at the microphone, introducing Brown: “He still makes it across the bridge occasionally. The mayor of Oakland... it's still hard to call him mayor.”

The speeches are only beginning as Brown slips out the door, heading to Herbst Hall and a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the infamous first reading of Ginsberg's “Howl” at the Six Gallery in San Francisco. He'd known the Beat poet, and was a teenage freshman at the University of Santa Clara in 1955 when “Howl” was first read. But tonight he's been invited to read something from Jack London, who was himself twice a candidate for mayor of Oakland a century earlier. The story is “The Edge of the Abyss,” a social critique about the plight of ghetto children in 1902: “The outlook for children is hopeless. They die like flies and those that survive, survive because they possess excessive vitality and a capacity of adaptation to the degradation with which they are surrounded.”

When he's finished, Brown removes his reading glasses. “Pretty heavy,” he says, “but it's still going on.” And then he's gone.

Against the Grain

Fox News seems to like Brown, a lifelong Democrat willing and able to underline the errors of his own party (and Republicans) for anyone who asks. So he's in a small TV studio down in Jack London Square on a Saturday morning for a few minutes of political chat across the airwaves, focused mainly on terrorism and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Soon, he's back by his car, pacing slowly as he discusses his comments on a cell phone.

For many voters, he's still hard to pin down. Edmund G. Brown Jr. is a man who can't let go of politics and its potential to make change, but other interests continue to pull at him. It is rooted in his four years of study and contemplation in the Jesuit Order, and the notion of agere contra, the concept of going against one's self, to consider radical ideas, new solutions. He was elected as California governor in 1974 at age 36, beginning an administration that was progressive in ways that were not merely political, but openly philosophical, intellectual and spiritual, following no party dogma but his own.

He wasn't the youngest governor in California history, an honor that still belongs to J. Neely Johnson, 30-year-old partisan of the Know-Nothing Party, and a man who once vetoed a bill for “bad spelling, improper punctuation, and erasures.” Brown had his own quirks, a governor who dated a rock star while living like a monk in a Sacramento apartment with a mattress on the floor. He drove himself to work in an unglamorous Plymouth sedan.

Brown was a puzzlement even to some supporters, who wondered about his calls for solar power and his notion that California should launch its own satellite, ideas few could honestly debate today. Since losing a race for the U.S. Senate in 1983, he's been in and out of politics, taking side trips where few have followed.

“It's a very ambitious, power-oriented occupation,” he says of politics. “I'm unusual in that my father was governor, so it is easier for me to follow this path. I've followed many paths, but I kept coming back to the political, because I like it. But I have other things in my life, and they are against the political, against the grain of that.

“I just got married. I've just got my second wind here as a human being.”

His political second wind perhaps began when he became Oakland mayor in 1998. He aimed to attract 10,000 new residents to the city, and his election was seen by supporters as bringing desperately needed attention to a place troubled by crime and decay.

“Oakland had a lot of empty spaces that needed to be filled up,” Brown says, as he walks through the redeveloped Jack London Square. “To fill them up, you need people to spend money, bring in private capital. Government does not build restaurants and, for the most part, doesn't build houses. That's done in the private sector, so you have to attract it. For 25, 30 years, people weren't investing in Oakland. Now they are. It's dramatic. There wasn't a building built in this neighborhood in more than 30 years. I built the first one. Now there's many.

“Doing that, I have no doubt, is a great positive,” he continues. “It creates jobs, it's vitality. When I first moved to Oakland, this was dead.”

Four cranes tower above the street now, the sign of a continuing boom for which he only takes partial credit, acknowledging the boost provided by low interest rates and a Bay Area real-estate boom. But some who supported him in the past, or backed his initial run for Oakland mayor, suggest Brown has taken a turn to the right with his law-and-order policies. Development meant gentrification. And Brown's support for a 10 p.m.-to-6 a.m. curfew for felons currently on probation sparked protests at Oakland City Hall.

At the Oakland-based Critical Resistance, a national penal-reform group, organizer Sitara Nieves mostly dismissed Brown's progressive past. “For the last few years, it seems like Jerry Brown's been more interested in running for attorney general than being the mayor of Oakland,” she says. “He has been trying to make himself look tough on crime. It's had a real destructive effect on the people of Oakland.”

Brown argues that city leadership goes beyond the usual ideological battles between Democrats and Republicans at the state and national level. “Right-wing people don't want to use government as much, more liberal people are comfortable with government — that's true,” he says. “But you'll find most city mayors tend to be more on the independent, pragmatic side, whether that's Villaraigosa, Willie Brown or myself. That's just the way the role of mayor is. We have to do things. We can't sit there and pontificate. They want the potholes fixed, they want the garbage picked up, they want stuff happening. That's why mayor is a good school for practicality.”

His time as mayor required a focus on law-and-order issues, but Brown insists that it's always been there. A speech from 1982 listed a variety of crime statistics, such as the more-than-doubled number of felons imprisoned. “Use a gun, go to prison” was a slogan seen by every Californian endlessly on billboards, buses and televisions. The state criminal recidivism rate was about 15 percent when he left the governor's office, Brown says. It's now above 60 percent.

His views on the death penalty haven't changed, either. “I would prefer that we not have a death penalty,” he says simply. Then he adds, “But I certainly see, when I'm in a place like this, and you see vicious killings, you may say, ‘Well, these guys are certainly getting what they deserved.'”

He also points out that, in California, more death row inmates die from old age and suicide than from execution. There have been just 13 executions in California since Reagan was in the statehouse, a tiny number relative to the likes of Texas (which put to death a record-breaking 40 people in 2000 alone). As attorney general, Brown says, his role would be to simply defend the death-penalty verdicts of juries before the Supreme Court. His own views on capital punishment are irrelevant. “I will carry out my duties as attorney general — as I've always done,” he insists.

That isn't what interests him about the job. He will not be there to flip the switch or buy the chemicals or mail the invitations. The A.G.'s special unit that defends death-penalty verdicts in court will continue to do so as a matter of routine. There are other areas of law and order to consider, though maybe something other than outgoing Attorney General Bill Lockyer's recent suit to put warning labels on French fries.

“I signed 10,000 laws,” Brown says of his terms as governor. “Since that time, there were another 15,000 added. Suffice to say, there is plenty of room for greater protection of the environment, greater protection of education equality, greater protection of worker rights, greater enforcement of corporate accountability.”

He's sitting outside a small coffeehouse, and he's approached by a young law student, a kind of preppy Billy Idol figure with spiky platinum hair and a white T-shirt so bright and crisp it looks dry-cleaned. “I live here in Jack London... and I'm a big fan of yours,” says the student. “I just want to wish you the best on your next run. Attorney general — let's make it happen.”

“Well, OK. Did you sign up on my website?”

He hasn't, but he does read Brown's blog. “I'm moving down to L.A. next year to practice law, but I could help you out down there. I'm in pre-L, so I'm kind of in that slump where I'm not doing a whole lot of anything.”

“Is that right? Well, maybe we'll find something.”

Staying clean as things get dirty

After losing the U.S. Senate race to Pete Wilson, Brown disappeared to Japan for six months to study Buddhism. He then flew to India and became a volunteer for Mother Teresa and distributed food in areas inundated by floodwaters in Bangladesh. “I've met a lot of people in my life,” he says. “I've read a lot, I've encountered a lot, from Mother Teresa to the Dalai Lama to Pope Paul VI to the head of the Jesuit Order. I've seen a lot, and it gives me a perspective that is very valuable for a prosecutor. Because the power of the office — you can destroy somebody's life, you could destroy a corporation. To have this power, I think you need a sense of restraint, and I've studied restraint.”

His A.G. campaign office is in the same converted Sears building where he lives with his wife and their black Labrador, Dharma, in a neighborhood where he has found needles and spent bullet casings on the ground. “There have been a number of shootings,” he says, and he stands up, pointing out the window. “Right over there. You see Colonel Sanders? A guy was killed there two years ago. Gunned down in the parking lot. Down there on 32nd, we had two people killed.” And there were others, a total of six people within two years just in Brown's immediate neighborhood.

His wife is a lawyer and former executive with the Gap. They met 15 years ago, though Gust was mostly oblivious of the famous Gov. Brown during her years at Stanford. They were married in June in a ceremony conducted by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, with 600 guests and a camera crew from CNN and coverage in The New York Times. Brown chose the soundtrack: Gregorian chants and medieval music.

“Jerry has always been an independent thinker, and he's a creative thinker,” Gust says with a smile. “He doesn't take to control all that much. He hasn't run traditional campaigns in his life. Not that he's running one now.”

Brown is moving around the room, from one desk to another, shuffling through papers, making calls, as Dharma sleeps on the floor. I'm sitting nearby with Gust, talking strategy in her capacity as campaign manager. Inevitably, the death penalty comes up, and how to counteract use of the issue by his likely Republican opponent, state Sen. Chuck Poochigan of Fresno. Brown hears this and stops in his tracks.

“I've got to tell you something for the fifth time,” he says, standing over me. The man is yelling at me, but not in anger — more like a frustrated college professor. And he brings up an example from this year's election, this one concerning the recent governor's race in Virginia, which was won in an upset by Democrat Tim Kaine. “They had a campaign in Virginia — they executed twice as many as California, in a smaller state. They love the death penalty. They have a Republican attorney general who took ads out saying, ‘This guy would not even execute Hitler!' and he lost. That's a fact. In a state where the ads were vicious, where the governor can issue clemency, has the power of life and death, is the key to capital punishment, people still voted for the Democrat. And he was behind in the polls. He went on and said, ‘These are my feelings, but I will carry out the law.' They believed him. So I think this is a total non-issue. And I've been around this business for 40 years.”

That's true enough, but some ugliness is inevitable if he wins the nomination. Just because that's how politics is played now. And maybe because Jerry Brown will bring out the worst in certain Republicans with long memories.

He breaks it down. “What you do is spend a lot of money, and they dig up as much dirt, and then they throw it as cleverly and as cleanly as they can,” he says. “And in the end, the least dirty one wins, at one level. I don't do that.”

So I ask him, “Does the least dirty one always win?”

“No, but many times that happens.”

Brown seems disappointed in all this talk of the death penalty, when there is so much else to consider. “You guys are sort of counterculture. Aren't you going to get more into the more poetic aspects of the campaign?”

Gust laughs, but he's serious.

“This is the biggest cliché. It's cable-news stuff. Your worst adversaries just wallow in this stuff,” he adds.

Either way, Brown's presence in the election will shift the equilibrium of an already heated election cycle. He almost seems to believe the race won't be noticed much in the shadow of Schwarzenegger's ultimate judgment day next November. “This is very limited exposure,” he says. “If you have three weeks of television, it will be a miracle.”

But there is a certain perverse poetry to Brown's decision to reach for the one office where his views on the death penalty might actually be a factor. Anything else would just be too easy. Too boring. And he's counting on his other accomplishments, and the basic intellect and logic of his argument. He's counting on the public being able to see a man working agere contra, against himself, and to agree that's really the way to move the culture another step toward the future.

Los Angeles CityBeat, Dec. 15, 2005

Photograph by Steve Appleford

In Ravaged Croatia, a Reunion in the Ruins

Balkans: Expatriate in Canoga Park rejoins his family and witnesses his homeland's catastrophe. First of Two Parts.

By Steve Appleford

OSIJEK, Croatia — Civil war in the former Yugoslavia has scarred both Zvonko Kutlesa's country and his family these last two years.

It has made refugees of cousins and aunts, soldiers of friends and in-laws, has devastated the ancient landscape and culture of this region and has split Kutlesa's own young family between two continents.

As he travels by rail toward a reunion with his pregnant wife and two small children in the eastern front-line city of Osijek, old villages and farmland rush past his window seemingly untouched by time or war. Yet he feels a mix of euphoria, melancholy and anger as he journeys far from his home in Canoga Park across newly independent Croatia.

Just last night, his mother had told him of more destruction at his childhood home of Prijedor, Bosnia, where Serbian occupation forces have leveled the Catholic church to make room for a parking lot.

"They took a piece of my childhood," Kutlesa says quietly. "I'm sure I'm not going to Prijedor anymore. That's life — you have to accept that.

"In Prijedor, three nations lived together, three religions," he says of the Croatians, Bosnians and Serbians, the Catholics, Muslims and Orthodox, who have been locked in violent conflict since 1991. "Now everything's changed. When you are sleeping and the dreams come from your childhood, the next day you are sick."

After five years of living and working in the United States and finding some success with a small construction business in Canoga Park, Kutlesa, 38, had hoped this trip would finally bring him home permanently. A trained civil engineer, he expected to participate in the rebuilding of Croatia. But the weak economy here has made jobs scarce, meaning he'll be forced to return to Los Angeles by August to earn the money his parents, wife and family desperately need.

For Kutlesa, there would be trips to the front in the days ahead, visits to local refugee camps for Croatians and Bosnians, talks with retired men contemplating the prospect of rebuilding their destroyed homes without materials or money. First, though, he would be with his family again in Osijek, a small, elegant city of about 100,000 inhabitants, threatened on three sides by Serbian forces. Many here expect the ravages of war to return yet again.

That lingering threat seems far away the moment Kutlesa leaps from the train at the sight of his wife, Vlasta, and daughters Maya, 8, and 16-month-old Dorotea. He looks very much the casual Southern Californian in his Ray-Bans, Reeboks and baseball cap as he runs toward them, his thick mustache only partially obscuring a smile. It is their first embrace since December, when Vlasta returned to her job as a specialist in brain infections at Osijek Hospital, after a year of living with her husband in the San Fernando Valley.

She had been unhappy in Los Angeles. This professional woman found herself isolated in their apartment, with few English skills, unable to legally practice medicine in the United States without undertaking two years of study and exams. And then there was the war, every night on television. "It was terrible," Vlasta remembers. "We were separated from relatives. I was worried."

For most of those 19 months after their Los Angeles wedding in 1991, "I stayed all the time at home," sometimes walking to the park with the baby and Maya, her daughter from a previous marriage. "It was a prison for me."

Like many Croatian expatriates in Southern California, the Kutlesas were moved by the war at home, giving what they could to charities through St. Anthony's Catholic Church in downtown Los Angeles. Kutlesa became president of the Croatian Benevolent Society, a 70-member local group that gathered tons of food, clothing and medicine for eastern Croatia, one of the hardest-hit areas of the war. And he was spending more and more nights at meetings in San Pedro, after long days at work.

"It happened many times that (Vlasta) was upset because I didn't spend a lot of time with my family," Kutlesa says.

On New Year's Eve, drawn partly by a physician's sense of duty to her troubled country and partly by the feeling that Croatia was where she belonged, Vlasta left for Osijek with the children.

They planned for Zvonko to follow a few months later. "But things change very quickly," he says, mulling the financial concerns that will compel him to return to Los Angeles.

Among those concerns is support for an extended family of 15 cousins, aunts and uncles from Bosnia whom the war has transformed into refugees. One cousin is staying with Kutlesa's parents in Zagreb, the Croatian capital, after a dangerous trip through Serbia and Hungary. Others are missing.

Outside the train station, Kutlesa is again reminded of the tragedy he had only witnessed helplessly from Canoga Park. The open wounds of this civil war sparked by Croatia's declaration of independence from Yugoslavia on June 25, 1991, are scattered everywhere in the old city. A year-old cease-fire between Croats and Serbs has spared Osijek further mortar attacks, though automatic gunfire is often heard in the distance.

The city stands on the south bank of the river Drava, which acts as a natural defense and dividing line against Serb forces now holding the lush Baranja region to the north. United Nations Protection Force troops from Belgium patrol the area. Last summer, a fisherman was killed by a sniper as he glided along the Drava, but swimmers and sunbathers have slowly returned to the river.

In town, young men in battle fatigues struggle across wide streets on crutches and incomplete limbs, past tall 19th-Century houses gutted by fire. Others spend the afternoons watching subtitled reruns of the American soap opera "Santa Barbara," for a display of Southern California decadence and misery.

Vlasta has been living on a road to nowhere, a four-lane street called Vukovarska. It was once a major thoroughfare to Vukovar but is now a dead end, stopping miles short of the devastated city held by the Serbs. During the war, Vlasta's house was hit by mortar fire, destroying the roof and windows. Across the street, another house, a charred shell without a roof, is beyond repair.

"They didn't have a particular target, so they started shelling civilians," Zvonko says, throwing up his hands on his first full day back with his family. He is blurry-eyed this drizzly morning as he steps outside to walk Maya to school. "What kind of military target can you have here? Look, it's only houses!"

By the time he and Maya arrive, youngsters are already chattering on the steps in their colorful T-shirts and backpacks, oblivious to the shrapnel damage around them. It is everywhere here, in spite of massive repair work — in halls and classrooms, walls and ceilings. During the war, this primary school was hit four times. Last year, children were in class for only two months.

Six hundred and seventy students attend, including 200 refugees, just one mile from the front.

"Most of the children here are by themselves," says Elizabeta Banpin, an English teacher. "Their parents are in Germany or Austria working, and they are here with their relatives. Of course, that's a trauma for them, and that's reflected in the work they do here."

Others have had parents killed. One boy watched his sister die in a mortar explosion, and later attempted suicide with pills. One 12-year-old girl was killed just outside the school while running to pick up a videotape from a friend.

Thunder rumbles outside, and Banpin laughs wearily. "When we hear this we are all frightened. We think, ' That is the sound — maybe they are starting again.' "

It's a common sentiment in Osijek. The entire city had been a battlefield, and now, with the cease-fire, its population rests uneasily between war and peace. Serbian forces are still within easy mortar range, with only a thin line of civilian police and U.N. troops protecting the new border.

Across the Drava one rainy night, not 50 yards from the thick oak forest that marks the beginning of Serbian-held Baranja, a quintet of young Croatian police reserves stands guard. Some huddle around a fire outside or sit with a deck of cards in the cramped guard shack.

One of them, a 31-year-old father of two, relaxes over his meal of bread and onion. Like the others, he had lived in Baranja and worked in a factory before the war. Now he wears a blue-gray uniform, collects bullets pulled from the trees, and waits to go home. "We feel good here," he says. "But we feel insecure, too."


Vlasta Kutlesa is due to deliver her third child in just a few weeks, but moves her pregnant form energetically and gracefully through the halls and offices of the department of infectious diseases. She's come with her family to Osijek Hospital for a visit. Friends and colleagues greet her with smiles and kisses, doting over young Maya and the baby.

She arrived in Croatia after the cease-fire, but missed little of the war's aftermath. She still remembers one young soldier who arrived at the hospital missing both eyes and his right arm. "I cried," she says.

Before the cease-fire, almost 320 bombs had fallen on the hospital complex, one of the largest medical centers in the country, with 1,500 beds.

During the war, 110 doctors left the hospital, some for their own safety and others for the Serbian side. Among the latter was Vlasta's closest friend. The two had traveled together, co-written medical articles, taken their children to parties and the theater. It had been a friendship far from the caldron of politics and ethnic animosity.

"The bridge of friendship is broken," Vlasta says. "I cannot stay cold of all this. I am human, a doctor, an altruist. I've seen soldiers, children, civilians die."

On one of their weekend outings since his return, Kutlesa and the family visit Volpovo, to see the old castle and walk through Narodni Park, where Vlasta's parents had their first kiss. Even on these quiet streets are scars of war.

Kutlesa pushes the baby stroller down a pebbly path, while Maya makes the usual jokes about her father's English.

The front line is only a mile away. Parked nearby is a military truck loaded with potatoes for the families of wounded soldiers, donated from Germany and Hungary. The Kutlesas chat with a young soldier in the park, and he tells them how the village brought out a World War I German machine gun from storage when the newest war came.

The soldier, 24, was born here. At his side he carries the small Serbian-made pistol his father bought back in 1960. "I'm not a warrior," he says. "I like riding a motorcycle and women more."

Just a few years ago, this soldier with the cropped hair and snug fatigues wore a Mohawk, listened to gloomy post-punk music and rode a BMW motorcycle.

Despite the bleakness, Vlasta can still smile contentedly beneath her short, tousled hair. She's with her family today, finally. The couple have spent nearly as much time separated by continents and time zones, work schedules and relief projects, as they have been together since their marriage.

"For me," Vlasta says, "now is the honeymoon."

Los Angeles Times, July 4, 1993

A Croatian's Tour of Desolate Homeland

Second of Two Parts

By Steve Appleford

OSIJEK, Croatia — These are the scenes of war's aftermath Zvonko Kutlesa has witnessed today: shattered neighborhoods and churches, a mother and her small children surveying the wreckage that was once their home, armed local men in battle fatigues standing lonely guard on the front line against Serbian forces.

For two helpless years in his Canoga Park apartment, Kutlesa has had to watch images like these from the war-ravaged former Yugoslavia. And he has come these thousands of miles to Croatia not only for a too-brief reunion with his pregnant wife and two children, but also to finally see firsthand what has befallen his country since the beginning of civil war in June, 1991.

He's brought an amateur video camera with him today, determined to document the continuing horrors for the Croatian and Bosnian communities in Los Angeles, where he will grudgingly return by August to earn money for his extended family here. Leaning against the heavy sandbags of a Croatian national guard post in the village of Jovanovac, Kutlesa aims his camera east, toward the Serbian flag flying high above enemy positions just 200 yards away.

The soldiers here, all refugees from the Serb-held village of Tenja six miles away, pass a bottle of warm orange juice between them and trade painful wisecracks about the war and the year-old cease-fire. Kutlesa laughs, though his mood is subdued later. "I didn't lose anything in the war," he said. "And when you're standing there with these people, I felt some shame, because I was in America."

Kutlesa, 38, came to Los Angeles five years ago, eventually joining another Croatian expatriate to form a small but thriving construction firm. During subsequent trips back and forth between the United States and his homeland, he married Vlasta, a college girlfriend. But the last two years have been the most difficult, watching the struggle of a newly independent Croatia and seeing his own relatives turned into refugees.

He remembers speaking by telephone with a sister huddled in a Zagreb basement during a bombing raid while her husband faced Serbs armed with Soviet-made tanks on the battlefield. One bomb fell in an open field 200 yards from his parents' home in Zagreb.

In Jovanovac, the cost of civil war has been much higher. The army estimates that about 50,000 mortars fell here, killing 33 villagers and wounding many. Homes damaged or destroyed during the war are scattered along the main road, some of them reduced to nothing more than mounds of broken clay and splintered wood.

The town stands in a crucial tactical position for the defense of nearby Osijek, where Kutlesa's family now lives. The city of 100,000 already faces Serbian forces on three sides and is protected only by civilian police and United Nations troops. If Jovanovac were to fall, Osijek could be quickly surrounded, with roads and communication lines cut off to the rest of Croatia.

Dragolaub Todoravic commands this post. The 33-year-old ethnic Serb's younger brother wears the uniform of the enemy and faces him across the contact line. Their mother has fled to Hungary. But Todoravic seems to shrug it all off. He jokes that perhaps his brother just likes to celebrate Serbian holidays.

What Todoravic wants are his belongings in Tenja, particularly the photographs of his children.

"That's all I want from my brother," he said. "Then the next time we talk, it will be with weapons."

A plastic figurine of the Virgin Mary rests on sandbags behind him, and soldiers with binoculars scan a raw no-man's land covered with brush and cut power lines. Todoravic prefers to identify himself as Orthodox--by religion--rather than Serb, because his family has lived in this part of Croatia for 300 years. "I feel like I am at home," he said.

This village next to the front line was devastated in a massive attack launched in November, 1991. The people here were mostly farmers and commuters to Osijek. Nearly 300 telephone lines demonstrated an uncommon affluence for so small a village.

Now little works as it once did--not the phones, not even running water. But one woman has returned to the unstable shell that was her house with her two children and a neighbor. "Have you ever seen kids on the front line?" one soldier asked, watching. "They have heart, no fear."

Valerija Bijelic, 29, has brought her children back to visit this house twice before. So Renata, 6, and 3-year-old Ivana have grown accustomed to the sight of destruction. Their mother said she is certain that the neighborhood will one day be rebuilt and resettled by the families that were here before.

"We all went through the same thing," she said, her red and orange blouse flapping in the wind. "Each house has problems. I think we'll feel much stronger for each other than we did before the war."

It is far from certain how long her family will have to wait before the house is rebuilt. Money is scarce in the Croatian economy, private loans rare and building materials expensive. In a country where a doctor's salary is as little as $150 a month, Bijelic's factory worker husband cannot hope to earn the money needed to rebuild.

Only about 760 villagers--of the 1,600 who lived here before the war--have returned permanently since the cease-fire.

Today, 51-year-old Stijo Klasan slowly works on the rubble of his house with a pickax. He's hoping to somehow recycle as much of this crumbling brick as possible when he rebuilds, though he's not sure when that will be. "I have to do this because I need a place to live," he said. "It's very close to the front. I don't feel secure. But where can I go?"

All that survives of his four-bedroom house is a garage, where his wife now sits, cleaning vegetables in the shade. In the attack that finally destroyed everything, Klasan fell with three shrapnel wounds to his upper body. He spent the next six months in a German hospital.

"I'm expecting better times," his wife said confidently. But the money needed to re-create their home seems far away. Klasan's monthly pension is just over $40. And replacing one window could cost him 10 times that.

"This war put me back 30 years," he said. "I'm old. How am I going to rebuild without help?"

The local Catholic priest here, Andrija Vrbanic, 38, must contend with rebuilding a church that once was the tallest structure in the village, thus becoming a prime target for rocket and mortar fire. At his home across the road, he pours brandy for guests and tells Kutlesa that the church was hit 64 times before its roof finally caved in.

This same village survived both world wars with little damage. For the present conflict, Jovanovac was evacuated, its women and children put on seven buses to a safer area on the Adriatic coast. When they returned months later, children were more aggressive than before yet easily frightened by loud noises.

"I believe within the next 10 years the village will not be the same as it was before the war," Vrbanic says. "I tried to get help to rebuild the church, and the first question is, 'How safe is it?' No one is going to invest in a high-risk zone.

"These are very hard times. People outside don't want to understand the situation here. They ask, 'If the shooting starts again, how are we going to pay it back?' "

For Kutlesa, hearing these stories and seeing these people struggle to return home is difficult. The destruction is far worse than anything he had seen in Osijek. Sympathy seems inadequate. "When someone asks you for some kind of help, how can you say, 'I don't have it?' "

In many ways, the Slavonia region of eastern Croatia remains unchanged since Kutlesa's last visit, shortly before the start of civil war. Green and yellow farmland stretches to the horizon, interrupted by tall oak forests. He had traveled through such scenery on his way to Jovanovac, welcomed by a bullet-riddled metal sign warning: "Ratna Zone."

And he found more en route to the village of Gasinci, passing dozens of the ubiquitous roadside statues of Christ nailed to the cross, standing watch over rich fields of corn, wheat, onion, potato and other crops.

At the Gasinci refugee camp near the Bosnian border, a toddler runs between small bungalows, waving a toy machine gun fashioned out of wood scraps. About 2,200 Bosnians live here now. Most have come during the last painful year of war, which still rages across Bosnia, often bringing with them only a plastic bag of belongings.

The difficulties for these Muslims are increased by occasional cultural differences with their Croatian hosts, says camp director Branko Vukoja. And memories of war are a recurring nightmare. "We have a lot of problems. Many people cry, or destroy everything given them at the camp--tables, furniture.

"We have a social worker here, but not a psychiatrist because we don't have enough money." One woman weeps so deeply for her husband killed in the war, a doctor is regularly called to give her an injection.

Children at the camp's primary school decorate their classrooms with bright drawings of flowers and battlefields. In an adjacent bungalow are gathered the old and infirm, many of them lonely and abandoned by their families.

Kutlesa captures much of this on videotape, squinting into his camera and panning across the camp, over to the few cars and tractors brought here from Bosnia, to the laundry hanging over rugged fields, to old men quietly congregated on shaded benches. The camp handyman sits on an old television outside his concrete hut, reading a newspaper. And men and women sit glumly in doorways, watching.

It's a sad, disturbing scene for Kutlesa. Though an ethnic Croatian, he was born in Bosnia, in an area now devastated and under the control of Serbian forces. He is still shaken by news of the destruction two months ago of an ancient mosque in the Bosnian city of Banja Luka.

"It was part of the history of Bosnia, it was part of architectural history," Kutlesa said with quiet anger. "And they destroyed it because it was a mosque and not a Serbian church. That mosque was built by the people and belongs to the people."

He said he will never return to Prijedor, the Bosnian town of his childhood. So Kutlesa will never see the grave of a close friend who died while he was in Los Angeles. And he will never return to the place where generations of his mother's family are buried.

At Gasinci, Kutlesa meets 13-year-old Adis Mujkic, who lost six members of his family last year, including a twin brother, when a mortar hit his house. Now he sits with his grandmother, who knits from a ball of red yarn and speaks of her lost son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren. "I have six wounds," says Senija Mujkic, tears welling in her gray-blue eyes. "I am going to have those wounds my whole life. I can't forget that."

Life here otherwise isn't unpleasant for her, her husband and grandson, she said. Some semblance of community has emerged. But it isn't home. "I'm just waiting for the decisions of politicians, for permission to go back."

Kutlesa finds similar frustration at the refugee camp for Croatians in the town of Cepin, where many struggle to resume their lives as before. They do so by farming small plots of land behind their bungalows, or by commuting to jobs or school in nearby Osijek. Others have found only more depression here, because their homes are very close but in Serbian-controlled territory, and out of reach.

"How do you destroy a civilization?" Kutlesa asks angrily. "You clear the land of the people and all the buildings, and in 20 years it's all gone. Nobody knows what was there before."

Of the nearly 2,600 refugees here, many have been without a home for two years. They were moved repeatedly from one refugee site to another, in hotels, gymnasiums and elsewhere across the country. At Cepin, each family is given one of two small apartments in a bungalow.

Behind the closed bedroom door of one unit, Tomica Balentovic, 15, listens to old punk rhythms by the Clash and to other Western recordings. His mother, Ruzica, sits at a kitchen table and tells Kutlesa the story of their family's arrival here two months ago, of the bombardment of their home city of Vukovar, of their capture by Serbs and the beatings suffered by her husband and eldest son.

"I want to go back," she said tearfully, in spite of widespread reports of mass destruction in Vukovar. "Nobody expects it to be like it was before. The best place is home."

Two weeks after his return to Croatia, Kutlesa is back at the front line, this time in the village of Nustar. A national guard escort brings him to the remains of a house on the farthest edge of town, where a narrow road leads to the captured village of Ceric, once home to 1,500 Croatians. The road is empty of traffic, blocked ominously by a dozen Croatian tank mines.

Vukovar can barely be seen at one horizon. And it is toward that city, and Ceric, that Kutlesa points his camera from the second floor of the house. His escort warns of Serbian sniper activity in the area, and Kutlesa moves carefully across a floor covered with shards of clay and concrete.

"Why die for nothing?" he said a moment later. "If I am going to die, I will die with a weapon in my hand."

Outside the house, retired Nikola Culjak has come to the front to look toward Ceric, his home for 40 years. He is a regular visitor here, traveling from his new home in Vincovci, despite the snipers, mines and warnings.

He stands watching in his tinted glasses and chuckles in resignation. "Almost everyone from that village comes here to take a look," said Culjak, 60. "Everybody wants to go back. You can't imagine how strong this feeling is."

Kutlesa stops nearby to speak with a young man holding his baby son beside their ruined home. With his parents, wife and two children, Nica Cikac lives in two surviving rooms in back. Most of their belongings were destroyed in the war.

A large stack of donated bricks are nearby; the family plans to rebuild. "The situation is dangerous, but it's best for us to be together," said Cikac, 32. He served in the army during the war, while his family was scattered to safe areas across Croatia. "The problem is we have children here, and I have to watch them. We don't feel secure because we are on the front line."

Later, in the car, Kutlesa smiles to himself. "I'm proud of these people, you know, because they're rebuilding. They're not just sitting around and waiting. They're trying to do the best they can. They have some spirit. This country is going to live longer than Serbia thinks."

Nothing in Nustar was safe during the war. Even the cemetery became a target, and it still shows the marks of attack. Tombs and headstones of Croatian, German and Serbian dead from several generations are scarred by shrapnel.

Luka Perica is here now, as he is most days, smoking a cigarette beside the grave of his son. Etched in the marble headstone is a portrait of 26-year-old Zdenko, an Osijek police officer who was among the first casualties of the ethnic conflict in Croatia.

"I didn't care about my house," said Perica, 53, referring to the bombing during the war. "But I wanted to save this graveyard because it belongs to me. It's everything that I have."

It's quiet as Kutlesa listens to this father describe the ambush of his son and his commander, who had gone to help two officers captured by Serbs. Kutlesa pauses for a moment on his way out of the cemetery and comes near to tears as he translates the father's last comment: "I am very proud of my son." Then Kutlesa turns and walks silently past the graves.

Los Angeles Times, July 05, 1993