Topanga’s Last Trace of Diane di Prima

Alexandra AllerBy Alexandra Aller      May 28, 2021

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Topanga’s Last Trace of Diane di Prima
PHOTO © FRED W. MCDARRAH Diane di Prima and LeRoi Jones (aka Amiri Baraka) in the Cedar, 1960.
For many lovers of the Beats, known as the last great generation of American writers, Diane di Prima is a household name. She, a prolific writer of poetry and generous memoirs recounting the times, was an anomaly of a woman even to her peers. For a female writer to garner success for poetry during the 1960s was practically unheard of, but it wasn’t just her work that stood out, it was her almost always protruding pregnant belly that baffled her own community of Beats and outliers. In those times, to be a woman was one strike against you as a writer. To have a family, that was obliterating to your career. Yet, she wrote at length about her beautiful journey as a woman, mother, student and writer in her autobiography, “Recollections of My Life as a Woman” (Viking, 2001). Tucked away, in what feels like too short of a chapter, she leaves traces of her first home in Topanga Canyon. It was a quaint cabin she wrote, “wrapped charmingly around a tree which stood smack in the middle of the doorway.” di Prima lived there with her two daughters, Jeanne di Prima, whose father was a fair-weather friend and Dominique di Prima, whose father was Diane’s illustrious lover, LeRoi Jones, better known as Amiri Baraka (then married to Beat writer, Hettie Jones). She was pregnant with her third child, whose father was also her first husband, Alan Marlowe, whom she described as “mostly gay” and the ex-lover of one of her best friends, Freddie Herko, who sadly committed suicide by leaping out of a New York City building window in 1964. It was the early 1960s and though they were poor, they managed to get a loan from a bank in the Valley with help from her father and a friend, realtor Bob Dewitt. Now, Bob Dewitt, is a local legend of sorts in Topanga, who one could say is responsible for the eclectic community that formed in the 1960s and even now. In “The Topanga Story” he is described as “a realtor, artist, and club owner,” who “famously greeted his real estate clients barefoot.” di Prima and Marlowe barely lived there a couple of years, so short of a time in fact that hardly anyone knew they had been there. In a place like Topanga, so rich in history and so fond of its preservation, it was astonishing to me that it wasn’t documented online or known by locals. However, there is so little record of that house besides a few excerpts, it’s easy to see how it could have evaded the archives for so long. Her residency in Topanga was a small but challenging sliver for di Prima, wedged between her journey to San Francisco, an era she wrote so fondly of, and an imminent return to her home in New York City. di Prima’s time in Topanga was a personal precipice, estranged from city life, tucked away in the woods, unable to drive, in a loveless marriage, and keeping her family alive on the kindness of her mother’s grocery store tab from a local grocery store (which may be the Fernwood Market). She had spent her entire adult life, completely independent, and now found her means of living in the hands of a man obsessed with being a movie star and fast cars.
Book Cover of Diane di Prima’s “Memoirs of a Beatnik,” first published in 1969. She left college to become a poet. Ezra Pound was one of her early mentors.
After digging through old real estate clippings, going back and forth with Pablo Capra, archivist for the Topanga Historical Society, tracking down voter records, and reaching out to artists who could have had insight, little was discovered besides an inkling that she may have lived in Fernwood. I found myself aimlessly driving through Topanga’s lush winding roads, hoping for an occult-like compass impulse to pull me towards the house when I remembered that she wrote about her one saving grace, working on the next publication of The Floating Bear, the famous Beat newsletter sent from coast to coast to like-minded artists and friends.

It was there on the cover of The Floating Bear’s twenty-fifth issue, miraculously archived online by Reality Studio, the web’s leading resource dedicated to William S. Burroughs and the underground press in the 1960s, that revealed the address of Diane di Prima’s home in Topanga on Observation Drive in Fernwood.

The home now belongs to Max Penner, a third generation Topangan who used to bartend at the famous Corral that burnt down in the ’70s, and then again in the ‘80s. Penner was gracious enough to give us a tour of his home, although it was almost completely remodeled. He thankfully took such pride in his land that he was able to cite previous owners and original components that confirmed a match. The blooming acacia trees di Prima described had unfortunately died but left a stump of remembrance. A smoking chimney that clouded up the home had also been fixed. Penner kept the massive tree that stood tall at the helm of the home, and the original room built into the side of the hill still had its original window frames. Penner wasn’t just able to point to the old blueprint, but even knew the oldest tree on his property, and told vivid tales of his own youth in the canyon.

“Topanga was a place where the communists and rednecks could get together for breakfast,” Penner said.

It felt right that a native who cherished his town in such a fashion would now own such a historic piece of land. I’ve often wondered if homes choose the person and what kind of presence resides in the absence of that person.
ARCHIVED BY REALITY STUDIO Diane di Prima birthday photo, August 6, 1996, taken by Allen Ginsberg. The Floating Bear newsletter published by di Prima and LeRoi Jones, led author Alexandra Aller to locate the Topanga house.
Though di Prima passed on October 25, 2020, at the age of 86, one can always find her spirit in her work and perhaps on the land that once harbored her. To preserve the history of such places like homes, workshops, or theatres, is to preserve these access points.

Alexandra Aller’s debut novel, “Building You Up, the Novel & Soundtrack,” an immersive literary and musical project, is available on byalexaller.com.

For more information on Diane di Prima: The Clayman Institute for Gender Research
https://gender.stanford.edu/news-publications/gender-news/beat-writer-diane-di-prima-recites-poetry-speaks-her-generation-s; notednames.com.


Diane di Prima debuted auspiciously with her first collection, “This Kind of Bird Flies Backward” (Poem 1958) with an introduction by Lawrence Ferlinghetti; the poem; “Memoirs of a Beatnik,” in 1969; and “The Book of Hours” in 1970. In 2011, at age 76, she also made a documentary film, “The Poetry Deal: a film with Diane di Prima,” in association with filmmaker Melanie La Rosa in 2011. To view The Poetry Deal trailer: vimeo.com/38883225; Women Make Movies: Watch film with library card at https://www.wmm.com/catalog/film/the-poetry-deal-a-film-with-diane-di-prima/. For a detailed obituary by Tate Swindell: kerouac.com/ in-memoriam-diane-di-prima.
Alexandra Aller

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