News your connection to The Boston Globe
Today's Globe  |   Latest News:   Local   Nation   World   |  NECN   Education   Obituaries   Special sections  

Capturing the luster of the Golden State

LOS ANGELES -- When the California recall was briefly postponed last month, the news hit the state like a bombshell. Most Californians heard about it via radio, television, or the Web. That's not how Kevin Starr heard about it. Tom Brokaw's assistant called to tell him.

Not that she was acting as Starr's personal news server. She wanted to conduct a background interview on the recall, which is back on for Tuesday. It's been like that for several months. Starr, 63, has long been the go-to guy for anyone interested in the Golden State's past, present, or future -- and never more so than during the recall period. Do you watch "Nightline"? Listen to National Public Radio? Read the Times (New York, London, or Los Angeles)? Then you've probably encountered Starr.

"He's the recorder of our culture," says the state Senate majority leader, John Burton. "He is our living archive," says David Lesher, editor of California Journal.

Arnold Schwarzenegger may have been Mr. Universe, but Starr is Mr. California: a fourth-generation San Franciscan who crisscrosses the state weekly, teaching its history at the University of Southern California and preserving its history as state librarian in Sacramento.

On Monday mornings Starr catches the first flight to Los Angeles. At USC, he holds a university professorship, the highest honor the school bestows on its faculty. On Monday evenings he flies to Sacramento, where he oversees what had been a $750 million budget and 250-person staff before the latest round of budget cuts. On Thursday nights he's on the train back to San Francisco.

"I'm pretty good at time management," Starr says with uncharacteristic understatement as he sits in his USC office. Furthermore, he notes, when USC is out of session his schedule becomes almost sedentary. He can settle back and take the bus to Sacramento on Tuesday mornings.

Starr owes his unofficial status as state historian laureate to his ongoing cultural history, "Americans and the California Dream." An epic chronicle every bit as various as its epic subject, it ranges from viticulture and orange-crate labels to the founding of Stanford University and the arrival of the aviation industry in Southern California. Six volumes have been published; a concluding one is in preparation that takes the state up to 1963. For good measure, Starr will publish a kind of coda next year that looks at California in the '90s.

"Anyone writing about California owes a huge debt to Kevin," says Starr's friend and sometime political antagonist, Mike Davis, the author of the Marxist critique "City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles."

"I don't think in the whole history of American letters and regional writing anyone has pulled off something equivalent to Kevin's books on California as a civilization," Davis says.

If the prototypical Californian is tan and laid back, then Starr is not a prototypical Californian. He's florid and unfailingly ebullient. There's a constant intellectual churn in his conversation. Ideas, titles, names spill out, and Starr takes a bearlike pleasure in splashing around in them: The wetter he gets, the better.

Starr bears a certain resemblance to Mayor Thomas M. Menino, but the similarity ends at the vocal cords. No one would ever call someone with such a big, booming voice "Mumbles." Nor does the resemblance extend to wardrobe. The mayor does not share Starr's weakness for bow ties and seersucker.

Starr acts the part of clubman, as well as dressing it. He's a model of hearty good cheer, with the beefy look of a man who knows how to open a menu and savor a wine list. Rather than deny his culpability, Starr concedes the point, citing an unimpeachable source. "My wife says, `Well, Kevin, there's a touch of you writing California history from the perspective of the bar at the Bohemian Club.' "

In fact, Starr does belong to the club, an exclusive all-male institution best known for its high-powered summer retreat, Bohemian Grove. "When I first started reading Kevin," Davis says, "I thought maybe this is a brilliant guy who at the end of the day wants to be part of the power structure, to sit in Bohemian Grove."

That complaint is not unique to Davis. A consistent criticism of Starr's California books has been their tendency toward triumphalism. Starr portrays a state largely predicated on progress and optimism: a striver's California, an achiever's California.

"They're right," Starr says. "My history can be considered triumphalist, I guess, athough I try to talk about the noir dimensions. But as I psychoanalyzed myself, as we all do as we get older, I understood from my own background . . . I had enough noir growing up that I was attracted to the things that helped me reconsolidate my life."

Starr spent much of his childhood in a Roman Catholic orphanage. After his mother reclaimed him, he lived with her and his brother in San Francisco's Potrero Hill housing project, which was also home to O. J. Simpson.

"Tough, let me tell you, tough," Starr says of Potrero Hill. He recalls how his mother went on welfare and couldn't afford to buy him glasses. "I made up my mind that I was going to do something," he says. Perhaps that's when he began to get good at managing his schedule. He had a paper route, worked as a painter's helper, did yard work, and kept up at school. "By the time I was finished with the eighth grade," he says with a pride the passage of half a century hasn't diminished, "I had $3,000 in the bank." Already, he was a striver, an achiever.

Starr, who remains an active Catholic, was educated in parochial schools, then graduated from the University of San Francisco. While there, he met his future wife, Sheila Gordon. The couple have two daughters and, Starr is quick to add, six grandchildren.

After two years of Army service in Germany, Starr went to graduate school at Harvard. "I chose Harvard because of the Kennedy association," he says.

It was, in a sense, at Harvard that Starr discovered California. More specifically, it was on the fourth floor of Widener Library. That's where the Horace Davis Collection of books on California and the Pacific Coast is located. Starr declares that browsing in libraries is one of his favorite pastimes. (He got his master's degree in library science from the University of California and in the mid-1970s was city librarian of San Francisco.) Yet he was also looking for a dissertation topic. That's when it hit him: He had come East to go West.

"All of a sudden I saw all these California books: diaries, memoirs, journals, histories, bibliographies. And a kind of enchantment overtook me, a kind of beguilement, a kind of reverie, definitely a physical reaction in the days that followed. . . . As I look back on it psychologically, I see that I'd made an absolutely powerful connection between California and my interior landscape."

Thesis begat book, book begat series, and interior and exterior landscapes merged when Starr returned to San Francisco, in 1973. Thirty years later, the series nears completion, and Starr will put California behind him. Maybe. He's toying with the idea of a book on the mutual influence of California and Asia. He does know that his next project (Starr is a great man for projects) won't be on California. It's to be a history of Catholic peoples in the United States. Starr describes it as "a Catholic layperson's equivalent to Irving Howe's `World of Our Fathers.' "

Inevitably, though, people want to discuss California. For example, can Starr say what the greatest change in the state has been during his lifetime? He answers without hesitation.

"People have ceased to live in California. That is, they live locally, they live globally, they live nationally, but they've ceased to live in California. . . . You don't have that commitment to the state, to the idea of it. That's part of how we lost control of our state politics. That began to drift. People weren't paying attention. You wouldn't sustain that level of drift in your town or city. Ironically, the recall is overcoming this."

Originally, Starr was dismissive of the recall. He now sees it in a different light.

"It had become a carnival," he says, explaining his initial reaction. "I felt we were being laughed at. I'd always defended California, but now I'm throwing in the towel! Well, three or four days later I said, `I'm taking the towel out.' Something is going on here. In a 24/7 environment, there's a heightened sense of speed, information, personal interaction, participation, a leveling effect -- all the things people have been studying about the computer age -- and California government is into 18th-century protocols. There's a disconnect. And eccentric as this thing is, it's also a case study in this disconnect. Not that I approve of the recall, but I understand it better now."

Starr has also participated in it. He cast his absentee ballot last month (he's registered in San Francisco, and on Tuedays he's in Sacramento). The ballot has two parts. Starr says that in the first part he voted against the recall of Governor Gray Davis. And while he did vote for someone in the second, he won't name a name. That's one fact about California that Kevin Starr is keeping to himself.

Mark Feeney can be reached at

Globe Archives Today (free)
Yesterday (free)
Past 30 days
Last 12 months