January 23, 2019

Remembering Al Martinez

 

“A column without passion is like sex without love—it gets the job done but doesn’t mean anything.”

PHOTO BY KATIE DALSEMER, MESSENGER

Remembering Al Martinez

Al Martinez, right with his wife Joanne (Cinelli) at the Huntington Library retrospective of his career titled “Al Martinez: Bard of L.A.” in 2012.

That quote was one of the many notes pasted on the corkboard above Al Martinez’s computer in his home office in Topanga and it was passion that sums up the last 50 years of his professional life of chronicling the lives of all types of folks.

Martinez passed away on January 12 at West Hills Hospital of congestive heart failure. He was 85 and had been suffering from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) for a number of years.

In addition to his wife, Joanne, Martinez is survived by a daughter, Linda; a son, Allen; six grandchildren; and soon, a great-grandchild by his granddaughter, Nicole, and her husband Adam Weatherall. Cinthia, the eldest of his three children, died of cancer in 2011.

To celebrate his life, the family arranged a memorial on Sunday, February 8 at the Bergamot Station Writers Boot Camp in Santa Monica where more than 200 people gathered in the auditorium to commemorate his profound contribution to writing.

Martinez was a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, as well as a screenwriter and an author of books and national magazine articles. His work has been compared at various times both to that of Ernie Pyle and Mark Twain.

PHOTO BY KATIE DALSEMER, MESSENGER

Remembering Al Martinez

The Huntington Library has archived not only Martinez’ columns from the newspapers, but his books, TV scripts, plaques, scrolls, photographs of him during the Korean war, his reports from the front and letters home, his Pulitzer Prize, pictures and letters

Martinez worked at the Oakland Tribune for 15 years before moving to the Los Angeles Times in 1972. He was the recipient of three team Pulitzer Prizes, including one in which he was senior writer for a series on the growing Latino community in Los Angeles.

He was also named one of the top three essay columnists in the country in 1986 by the National Society of Newspaper Columnists and went on to win several other prestigious awards.

In 2012, the Huntington Library declared Martinez “The Bard of L.A.” for the exhibit that chronicled the life of one of the most beloved columnists for the Los Angeles Times and, later, the Daily News, “LA Observed” online and the Topanga Messenger.

The Library has archived not onlyMartinez’ columns from the newspapers, but also a multitude of books, TV scripts, hundreds of magazines he wrote for, plaques, scrolls, photographs of him during the Korean war, his reports from the front and letters home, his Pulitzer Prize, pictures and letters. It has also recorded Martinez and his wife, Joanne (aka Cinelli), reading some of his columns for the exhibit.

Indeed, for more than 30 years, Martinez chronicled life in Southern California as a columnist who had “an extraordinary ability to take something very personal and spin it out beautifully to make you laugh or weep,” said Sue Hodson, curator of the Huntington Library exhibit in an earlier interview with the Topanga Messenger.

The columnist was “the voice, not just of Angelenos, but of Everyman and Everywoman,” Hodson said. “He captured bits of humanity in his writing, writing eloquently, gracefully and movingly of the human situation. He told universal stories and wrote about what unites us.”

EARLY LIFE

PHOTO BY KATIE DALSEMER, MESSENGER

Remembering Al Martinez

Nicole Martinez Weatherall stands next to the portrait she painted of her grandfather that was on display at the Huntington Library in 2012.

Al Martinez was born July 21, 1929, in Oakland, CA, to Alfredo and Mary Martinez. His parents split up when he was five and he had a tough early life.

At 20, he married Joanne Cinelli, who was a fellow student at San Francisco State, and he soon joined the Marines. From 1950 to 1952, he served in the Korean War as a rifleman and combat correspondent.

Upon returning from the war, Martinez briefly attended UC Berkeley but left to join the Richmond Independent as a reporter. He moved to the Oakland Tribune in 1955 and stayed until 1971.

Before relocating to Southern California, Martinez and his wife took a two-month trip across the U.S. in a camper with their three children, who ranged in age from 10 to 23, and their dog, Hoover.

That trip was the basis for his marvelous book, “I’ll Be Damned If I’ll Die in Oakland: A Sort of Travel Memoir,” published in 2003.

His other books include a novel about the death of a newspaper, “The Last City Room” (2000); “City of Angles: A Drive-By Portrait of L.A.” (1996); “Barkley: A Dog's Journey” (2006) about a road trip with his terminally ill English springer spaniel; and collections of his columns.

MEMORIAL

PHOTO BY ADAM WEATHERALL

Remembering Al Martinez

Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez emceed the memorial for Martinez and quipped that he was often “praised for columns he did not write,” that were in fact Al’s.

At the Bergamot Station event guests walked in to several memorial tables of Martinez’ works, including a typewriter, one of his Hawaiian shirts and a wide variety of martini glasses, a drink that he was famous for enjoying.

On the front table at the entrance there were guest books full of remembrances people wrote about Martinez that will no doubt become a precious family keepsake.

There was also a lifetime of photos on the walls and enlarged framed copies of his columns and essays.

PHOTO BY ADAM WEATHERALL

Remembering Al Martinez

The Jazz combo, “The Flying Pisanos” played standards during the memorial, including “My Kind of Town,” “Lady Be Good” and “MyWay.”Members are, from left, John Pisano, guitar, Chris Conner, bass; JimFox, guitar (not shown) and Jeanne Pisano, vocals.

To begin the program, guests slowly filed into the auditorium to the strains of “My Kind of Town” (adapted for Los Angeles) and sung by the “Flying Pisanos,” a jazz combo with John Pisano on guitar, his wife Jeanne on vocals, Jim Fox on guitar and Chris Conner on bass.

Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez opened the memorial with his observation of Martinez: “He was a family man with a martini in hand,” he said. “He entertained and informed loyal readers for decades, writing with grace, humanity and humility and holding the bastards accountable, too, in the greatest tradition of comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.”

Lopez chuckled at the idea of often being complimented for columns “I did not write,” meaning he was the “other Latino” on the L.A. Times staff.

“Al would want this day to be a celebration of the 50 years of the profession he loved,” Lopez said. “How does anyone hang on and still get better at it?”

Bill Boyarsky, a former L.A. Times city editor and columnist, said he and Martinez both started out at the Oakland Tribune.

“Martinez was able to connect directly with people because he was a marvelous storyteller,” Boyarsky said. “He really could make a walk in the park sound like an adventure.... That was his great gift.”

His son, Allen “Marty” Martinez, thanked the crowd and asked them to remember his father as the man who loved hikes and family vacations, to “remember him as he was and celebrate his life.”

Co-hosting the event with Lopez was film and TV producer Roger Pugliese, who recalled seeing Martinez at the Topanga Post Office years before and feeling like he had just seen “a rock star.”

“To me, he was really something else,” Pugliese said, and he soon joined Martinez’ writer’s group that he taught in Topanga every Saturday.

“Here’s this kid from the Bronx who didn’t think he could do anything that well, and yet when I sat in his writing class, he did nothing but encourage me—like he did many others,” Pugliese said. “He imparted his knowledge and wisdom on all of us; he’s somebody who can’t be forgotten… he’s larger than life.”

Inspired by their teacher, Pugliese teamed up with director Alexandra Snegoff to make a documentary about Martinez’ life and they showed a brief clip at the memorial.

“What’s amazing about Al Martinez is that he went from poverty to Pulitzer,” Pugliese added. “He went through what he went through and became what he became.”

Adam Weatherall, who is married to Martinez’s granddaughter, Nicole, was also taking his writing class. In a touching “Letter to Al,” he said that it was as if he could still feel his presence­—reading all of the obituaries, correcting the grammatical errors, pointing out the facts they got wrong and ‘demanding that someone get out your little black book and call the editor.’

“He could turn poetry into reality, as if anyone could write like you…your writing puts you in the league of Steinbeck and Poe,” Weatherall read. “You were a great grandpa, a great husband and a great friend…this is just a thank you note a little too late.”

After the memorial, the Flying Pisanos sang “My Way,” specifically chosen by Joanne, his wife of 65 years, to reflect the man who was a bon vivant, a family man and a writer who “lived a hell of a life.”

“It's the people I've written about who march through my memory like an army of shadows,” Al Martinez wrote in 2009 in his final column for the Los Angeles Times. “They all mattered to me, the clowns and the victims, those who gave and those who took....”

So, farewell Al, we will miss you; Bon Voyage as we raise a glass to your journey with your favorite drink—a Grey Goose martini, up with two olives on the side.

THANK YOU, AL MARTINEZ

By Adam Weatherall, January 13, 2015


Dear Al,

PHOTO BY JOHN SULLIVAN

Remembering Al Martinez

The legendary columnist Al Martinez in his home office in Topanga.

As I write this, I feel as though your presence is directly over my shoulder reading all of your obituaries and correcting the grammatical errors, pointing out the facts they got wrong, and demanding that someone get out your little black book and call the editor. If you were here you would have said something like, “Why didn’t they start it off with a real attention grabber?” Then you would grab a notecard and jot down some impossibly beautiful sentence and say, “This would have been perfect.” You would have been right to [do that]; your ability to describe even the most mundane occurrences and, through verse, transform them into fascinating moments that transcend the ability of most columnists, and puts you in league with Steinbeck, or Poe. I want you to know, Al, this isn’t an obituary; it’s more like a thank you letter that I wrote just a little bit too late.

Thank you, Al, for everything you taught me these last few years. You were a well of knowledge, your career as a journalist spanned more than 65 years. You started writing correspondence as a young Marine in Korea and, since then, you have done everything from riding on Air Force One to staring down the leader of the American Nazi party, and you did it with style, taking your readers along for the journey. You were a dreamer, Al, and when we read your words we could dream with you. You could turn poetry into reality, and make the news into a song that we all wanted to sing along with.

Al, I want you to know I can even now feel your red pen slashing across this page, I can hear you saying, “Get to the point man and remember structure!” and “Stop rambling,and shorten your sentences!” You would scribble some gorgeous little lyric at the bottom of the page and write, “Like this” next to it. As if any of us ever could write like you could.

Al, I want to take this opportunity to thank you for trying. All those Saturdays you spent at the end of your career imparting kernels of knowledge to your students were greatly appreciated.

I want you to know, Al, the phone is ringing off the hook, the message machine is filled, and the L.A. Times has had to create a special message inbox to handle the extra flood of condolences for your passing. You were well loved by a great many people, who felt as though they lived life right along with you because of how well you described it. You were known for covering Southern California, your passion for your wife, Joanne, the love you had for your family and sometimes even your dog.

People sometimes forget that behind the man who wrote the books and TV shows was always a courageous journalist who often got the story because you were the only one in the city room with guts enough to write the article. You despised racism and bigotry and you weren’t afraid to go after the darkest parts of life and expose them to the light of day. Throughout your career you held fast to the tenets of journalism that you helped create and never faltered from your path as an honest reporter.

Al, I am going to miss you. Not just because of the way you wrote, but because of who you were all the time. Gracie, Josh, Jeffrey, Nicole, Shanna, Travis, Marty, Linda, and, of course, your Cinelli are all heartbroken over the loss of their Al. You were a great grandpa, a great father, a great husband and to me a great friend. You were loved more than I can accurately describe.

I believe when great people die there is a void created within our humanity by the abundance of love felt for them being displaced by their absence. This void hits you like a tidal wave as the news of their passing spreads. I think yesterday when you passed a lot of people got hit with that wave and are awash within a sea of sadness.

But I know you, Al, and you wouldn’t want us to cry. You would say, “I was in a war goddammit! Keep calm and have a martini!”

Again, Al, you would be correct. There are worse things on this earth than the passing of a man who lived a fulfilled life with a beautiful wife, loving children and a legendary career. But it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t celebrate his life, because that’s the way Al would have wanted us to remember him, with a Grey Goose martini, up, two olives on the side, and of course shaken not stirred! Al, you once told me your signoff was far superior to mine. My signoff is “Logic will prevail.” You argued that you're not sure if logic will prevail and you wouldn't end your articles with something you weren’t sure was factual. You said, better to end it with something you were sure was a fact... like, “My name is Martinez and I write.”

Al, I will leave you now with the last words I said to you in ICU #10 at West Hills Hospital, that fateful, sun-speckled January 12th afternoon: Thank You, Al. Thanks for everything.

Editor's Note: Adam Weatherall is Al Martinez's grandson-in-law.