Al Martinez, the Bard of L.A., remembered

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For a man who lived for words, Al Martinez was nearly speechless when he visited the Huntington Library three years ago. He was there to see an exhibit that featured decades of his work as a reporter and columnist.  “This is really nice,” he could only tell me.  I had spoken to Al while I worked as an editor for the Daily News on Sundays, when he had written a column for us. Among those, was a series of stories about his daughter’s death from cancer.   Then I met him in person for the first time at the Huntington for the opening of an exhibit about him. Standing in front of all those glass cases where his work had been displayed, he was quiet and humble and genuinely touched that so many people had been touched by his stories.  Martinez was dubbed the Bard of L.A. because of his lyrical style of writing about the complexities of life in Los Angeles, one person, one place and one event at a time, said Sue Hodson, curator of literary manuscripts at The Huntington. Martinez died on Jan. 12, 2015.  He was 85. From my story (Daily News,  March 14, 2012): 

Al Martinez came face to face with himself one recent afternoon inside the West Hall of the Huntington Library, and he was overcome by what he saw.

Surrounded by more than 50 years of his work – from Pulitzer Prize-winning columns and news features, to screenplays and books – Martinez struggled to find the right words to describe what it was like to have so much of his writing life on public display.

“This is really nice,” the Daily News columnist said Wednesday, when he visited the “Al Martinez: Bard of L.A.” exhibit for the first time.

“I’ve written so much for so many years that sometimes the old work is all new to me.”

The new exhibition at the Huntington Library opens to the public on Saturday.

Some of the items include unpublished personal work, such as the neatly typed letters sent by Martinez to his beloved wife Joanne when he was a Marine on the front lines of the Korean War.

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The letters, yellowed by time, display tender moments between the couple as they talk of children and safety. “A foxhole isn’t very deep,” he wrote in one letter. “It’s inadequate actually. But in it, you feel the strength of your own protection and the power of your defense.”

Also displayed are stories from his early days as a reporter at the Richmond (Calif.) Independent beginning in 1952, clips from his time at the Oakland Tribune beginning in 1955, and excerpts of columns from his 25 years at the Los Angeles Times. The exhibit also includes corrected typescripts, first editions of his books, scripts and call sheets from his television writing days, as well as current work from the Daily News and the Topanga Messenger.

Martinez was dubbed the Bard of L.A. because of his lyrical style of writing about the complexities of life in Los Angeles, one person, one place and one event at a time, said Sue Hodson, curator of literary manuscripts at The Huntington, which began receiving the writer’s work in 2006.

“He has a way of finding those human stories that bind us all,” Hodson said. “His work can make us laugh. It can make us cry. And sometimes, it can make us angry at the world and the injustices.”

Born in Oakland, Martinez attended San Francisco State College for three years before joining the Marine Corps during the Korean War. When he returned, he studied at UC Berkeley then became a reporter at the Richmond Independent. At the Oakland Tribune, he wrote six columns a week.

Joanne, his wife of 62 years said she was amazed by how well the curators at The Huntington organized and displayed her husband’s work.

“I’ve always encouraged him to write,” she said. “I always believed he had a gift.”

“I write all the time,” Martinez, 82, said. “I even write when I’m supposed to be sleeping,”

Martinez said he views the exhibit as the end of a certain time period, but it doesn’t mark the end of his life as a writer. He continues to lead the Topanga Writers Workshop, which he created in 2009. And he still writes about his wife, his children and grandchildren, those marvelous martinis he shares with friends and other observations about living in Los Angeles.

“If I didn’t write,” Martinez said, “there wouldn’t be a me.”

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