Huffpost Arts & Culture
Iconic Whaling Bar in La Jolla to Close
January 2, 2013
By: Mary Duncan
Must all good things really come to an end? I’m beginning to believe it’s true.
In 1982, when I purchased an apartment overlooking the gardens and swimming pool of the La Valencia Hotel in La Jolla, I also acquired access to their pool and hot tub ($20 tip to the pool staff) and entry to the famous Whaling Bar that has a large mural depicting a whale hunt. The famous bar, which has been an integral part of the La Valencia Hotel since the 1950s, is closing in early January to make way for a French bistro.
When smoking was allowed, I remember sitting downwind of Art Buchwald’s smelly cigar and being annoyed by artist Walter Keane’s cigarettes. Keane, who was famous or infamous for his big-eyed waif paintings, lived in a “peasant’s shack” overlooking the beach. Later, his wife Margaret, won a law suit which proved she was the artist, not him. La Jolla folklore thrives on such scandals.
This past year, when two large television screens were hung on both sides of the mural, my sensibilities were shaken. A friend who was annoyed by the visual pollution nudged me in disbelief and said, “The Philistines have taken over.” Admittedly, the sound was low and basketball star Dennis Rodman and his entourage had dined there, but still, it was almost as if large screen televisions had been hung over an altar.
When Raul Guerrero, an internationally known artist invited me to join him this week for a farewell drink, he described The Whaling Bar as a sanctuary for writers and artists.
As we sat there facing the mural, Raul said, “I read a passage in director Luis Bunuel’s autobiography, My Last Sigh, in which he talks about the sanctuary he found in certain bars. After a cocktail or two he could reflect on his film scripts, thoughts and muse over the life events that defined his movies. The Oak Room at the Plaza, The Ritz in Paris, a retreat in Mexico with a bar overlooking a vast canyon and the Palace Hotel Bar in Madrid being his favorites.
Raul continued, “It’s so true, bars for some of us, are sanctuaries. They fill the role of the church. In a bar you can commune with the other parishioners and commune with the priest, who serves the holy host (peanuts) and holy water and also worship the graven image. In the case of the Whaling Bar, the mural depicting a whale hunt inspired me to begin a series of paintings depicting artist bars which invariably all held the same characteristics that Luis Bunuel cherished. See Raul Guerrero exhibition.
Overtime Raul said he had painted many different artist bars, but the Whaling Bar is his favorite.
Raymond Chandler drank there, Gregory Peck frequented the place when he acted at the Playhouse, Greta Garbo, I understand was also there and of course many of my friends and I went there over time… For me it’s sad to see the end of this place as it reflects the changes our society is undergoing, everything is accelerated now and social environments where one could go contemplate the muses are quickly disappearing… I think what I’ll miss most about the Whaling Bar, and bars like it, are the auras of those past occupants sitting at the bar lost in contemplation or immersed in interesting and diverse discussions. Those moments will now be lost forever.
Such future moments may be lost, but my memories of drinking there with Russian writers Yevgeny Yevtushenko and Victor Erofeyev, Cuban poet Pablo Armando Fernandez and psychology professor and writer Mihaly Csikszentmihalyii are not. Laughing over a glass of wine with writer Bradley Smith and scientist Francis Crick are still a part of my literary psyche. That same evening, Ted Geisel (Dr. Seuss) wandered in and signed an autograph for a delighted child who was sitting in a red leather booth with his parents.
Dennis Wills, the owner of La Jolla’s legendary D.G. Wills Bookstore, often used the Whaling Bar as his favorite watering hole for his famous guest authors. Gore Vidal, Norman Mailer, Christopher Hitchens, Maureen Dowd, Jill Abramson and Beat-era poet Michael McClure all drank there. Recently, Dennis delivered a dozen red roses to Francoise Gilot, the artist, who was mistress of Picasso and mother of two of his children. Gilot, who is also the widow of Jonas Salk, was celebrating her 90th birthday.
Where do we go from here? Time will tell if a modern French styled bistro will fill the void left by the absence of deep wooden walls, whaling murals and worn red leather booths where many famous “bottoms” sat. Perhaps the description of the new cafe as a “bistro” is an indicator of what is to come. In Russian, bistro (bystro) is often translated to mean “hurry, hurry” or “quick, quick.” Not much contemplation, musing or deep conversations are accomplished in that type of environment.