Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Betty Lewis' "Holy City" Book Review

I'd wanted to visit this once-renowned or reviled tourist attraction halfway between Santa Cruz and San Jose, not far from where I type this on vacation under the redwoods, but not much remains after lots of "mysterious fires," in the 50s and 60s. German shepherds prowl the premises, groves and weeds sprout largely undisturbed where a filling station, zoo, roadhouse, and self-sufficient white supremacist spread where cattle were raised, crops grown, peep shows beckoned, and reportedly Hawaiian Punch was invented. It attracted drifters during the Depression, many of whom stayed on to eke out a living. At one point, it was over 90 men and four women. As you might expect, William F. Riker, a native Californian, played early successes at spiritualism and bigamy into a career manipulating the hearts and minds of whomever had the patience or the desperation to put up with remarkably turgid-- even by cult standards-- rants about the White Man's Burden, messianic prattle, and Babbitt-like nostrums of self-help delivered in a brisk, ad-man lingo.

Lewis, a local historian of the Monterey Bay area, does her best to gather all the newspaper documentation, a few scraps of interviews with those who lived there, the grand larceny trial when Riker was represented-- and later sued by his client for defamation while his lawyer had to fight for his fees rather than a "spiritual" offering set aside for him in heaven-- by a young Melvin Belli during WWII. Lewis does not delve much into the white supremacist teachings that Riker espoused, and you get little sense of what may be after all lots of nonsense. I suspected that Lewis lacked the fortitude for hashing out Riker's prattle, and the excerpts she provides do not exactly whet your appetite to want to read more about his fevered plans to save the Golden State from foreign takeover, to find Christ in "Father" Riker, and to attain some sort of transcendental state by nodding along with what the founder dished out along with gas and grub for whomever passed by.

Riker's no poet, but must have possessed considerable charisma to entice so many to stop not only for punch or a sandwich but to stay there for years, in primitive conditions, working at this roadside attraction. He also amassed most of what Holy City took in; its inhabitants contributed their earnings back to Riker. The off-beat allure, inherent within this published preservation of the relics, of Holy City somehos lingers beyond the data assembled by Lewis. Perhaps such cults must lurk beyond the journalistic, legal, and municipal record. At least one murder happened here, celibacy among the members vs. Riker's own right-- even though or because he resembled a bloated Babbitt more than Elmer Gantry from the photos here-- to bed any lady who wandered into his lair, surely created an atmosphere that demanded more exploration by today's investigator of this sylvan realm. The flavor of the garishly advertised-- with a row of highway Santas and pitchman billboards-- place must be guessed at more by scanning the rare postcards and ephemera collected by Lewis for reproduction. I'd have liked more day-to-day details of the place, but apparently the historian appears to have compiled as much as she could into a small book under a hundred pages, divided between text and illustrations.

Riker later accepted, after the trial and after WWII, that Jews and Aryans could both rule the world. He ran for governor more than once, but failed to rouse support. A new highway bypassed his development, and a fickle public nosed about other cults with younger gurus. This led to "Father" Riker selling half his share to a Hollywood M.O.T. investor-- this precipitated legal battles and residential unrest, hastening the decline of Holy City. A letter here printed from late in his life, eagerly proposing its sale to nudists in a public offering of stock, testified to Riker's salesmanship skills, his way with an argument, and his folly. I'd have liked to find more about this character; Riker has collected I reckon about all that's left from a life that touched thousands, but which, like the ruins of Holy City, appears barely visible beneath a busier, tamed, if still half-evangelical, half-New Age and spiritually restless Californian corridor between bohemian Santa Cruz and enterpreneurial Silicon Valley.

Today, according to accounts I found gathered at Holy City References & Articles, only a glassworks making works of art and its owner, Tom Stanton, reportedly inhabit these forlorn premises. Long after the post office closed, its hundreds of residents dispersed. The communal circus that lasted more or less from 1919-69 finally closed, scattering the few faithful who stay silent, devoted followers of "Father" toiling away for salvific dreams that remain elusive and nearly silent within these pages.

Photos from Andrea Perkins' article linked from the URL above. Portions of this entry posted today on Amazon.

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