By Paul Liberatore
After 20 years in Mill Valley, journalist Joyce Kleiner knew her idyllic little village in the redwoods was special, the hometown of rock stars and writers, artists and eccentrics, poets and politicians, activists, actors and famous folks of every stripe.
But until she wrote the new book, “Legendary Locals of Mill Valley” ($21.99, Arcadia Publishing), she hadn’t really appreciated the rich traditions and culture these celebrated people, both past and present, have woven into the fabric of life in the shadow of Mount Tamalpais.
“Researching this book was really good for me,” she said. “It gave me a fresh perspective. I’ve always been very grateful that I live here, but I realized all over again what an extraordinary and unique place this is. I got to see the quirkiness, the variety of lifestyles in Mill Valley. I met so many really cool, positive people who helped me re-fall in love with Mill Valley.”
She is not alone in her infatuation. Mill Valley, population about 14,000, was listed as one of the 20 best small towns in America last year by Smithsonian magazine. A guest columnist for the Mill Valley Herald and a former member of the town’s parks and recreation commission, she was approached last year by Arcadia Publishing, a company specializing in regional history titles, to help launch its “Legendary Locals” imprint with a book about Mill Valley, so far the only Marin town to be featured in the series. This is the third book Arcadia has published about the town, following “Images of America: Early Mill Valley” and “Then and Now: Mill Valley.”
“The success of our previous books led us to take a third look at the town,” said Legendary Locals Manager Kris McDonagh. “We began looking for a Legendary Locals author in Mill Valley based on a few factors: it seems to be a thriving community with great local businesses and very interesting residents and former residents.”
Very interesting residents indeed. After accepting the assignment, Kleiner was faced with a daunting challenge: How do you get a town full of fascinating people into one book?
“I could write three more books from the material I wasn’t able to include in this one,” she said.
Musicians alone could have filled the paperback’s 127 pages. As it was, she included Huey Lewis, Sammy Hagar, Bob Weir, Austin de Lone, Bonnie Raitt, Maria Muldaur, former Sweetwater owner Jeanie Patterson, toilet seat guitar maker Charlie Deal, Dan Hicks and Dave and Jon Fromer. Kleiner sought out Village Music’s John Goddard for his expertise on Mill Valley’s musical history.
“He helped me understand the legacy of Mill Valley’s musicians,” she said. “When it comes to musicians, it was really hard to decide who to include, but he told me people he personally felt had to be in book.”
To organize such a stellar cast of characters, Kleiner divided the book into seven chapters. “Bohemia in the Redwoods,” for example, featured, among others, lesbian poet Elsa Gidlow, a founder of the alternative community Druid Heights: artist Tom Killion, whose images of Mount Tamalpais are iconic, and Jack Finney, author of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” a sci-fi classic about aliens replacing a small town’s residents with emotionless beings that emerge from pods.
“Finney’s choice to place the story in his hometown of Mill Valley makes the book particularly creepy for those who live there,” Kleiner wrote.
In the chapter “Visionaries and Quiet Champions,” she shines a light on environmental activists like former state Senator Peter Behr, Trust for Public Land founder Huey Johnson and Marin Agricultural Land Trust co-founder Phyllis Faber, who helped save woodsy Mill Valley and environs from proposed planned developments like Marincello, originally conceived to house up to 30,000 people in 50 apartment towers, hundreds of homes and townhouses on the Marin Headlands, now preserved in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.
“While doing my research, I suddenly realized that Mill Valley is surrounded by open space,” she said. “A lot of the people who made that happen are from Mill Valley.”
In her accounts of the town’s Beatnik past, Kleiner explodes the myth that Jack Kerouac wrote “The Dharma Bums” while sharing a Mill Valley cabin with poet Gary Snyder.
“People have been repeating that myth for as long as I’ve lived in Mill Valley,” she said with a chuckle. “It’s even on the Mill Valley Wikipedia page. But Kerouac was living with his mother in Orlando, Fla., when he wrote it. But the novel does include his time in Mill Valley with Snyder. It’s the official account.”
In the book and in a column in the Mill Valley Herald, Kleiner celebrates Mill Valley as a town of traditions and institutions — the Mountain Play, the Outdoor Art Club, the Dipsea Race, the Mill Valley Film Festival, the Fall Arts Festival, the Memorial Day Parade, among other noteworthy events.
“I found it stunning that Mill Valley has an extraordinary number of multi-generational families,” she said. “The town’s sense of tradition is passed from one generation to the next.”
But, looking at current housing trends, she worries that the rise in real estate prices and the scarcity of affordable rentals are squeezing out the kinds of people who made Mill Valley a town that books are written about.
When she began her research, the first person she contacted for insight into Mill Valley’s creative character was playwright and songwriter Rita Abrams, whose 1970 hit, “Mill Valley,” is the town’s official song. Abrams has since announced that she can no longer afford to live in the town her song put on the map.
“Working on this book, I became aware that some of the things we most value about Mill Valley were created by artists and musicians when it was an appealing place for people in their 20s to live,” Kleiner said. “They were important in building the culture of the town, which makes it so interesting and attractive to people now. If they and their adult children can no longer afford to live here, then I think we’re going to lose something important, the exact kind of people who made Mill Valley what it is. And I think that would be a real loss.”
Contact Paul Liberatore via email at firstname.lastname@example.org
If You Go
What: Book launch and signing of Joyce Kleiner’s “Legendary Locals of Mill Valley”
When: 7:30 p.m. May 29
Where: Depot Bookstore and Cafe, 87 Throckmorton Ave., Mill Valley
Source: © Copyright Marin Independent Journal