Lottie lived in a little house close to the summit of one of the Hollywood Hills. Once every two weeks we would take a Pacific Electric bus which ran out the Hollywood Freeway, and then the arduous walk up to Lottie’s. There was a garage, dug into the hillside and considerably below the house itself, and a switchback front walk with precipitous and rickety wooden steps up through the cactus badlands of her frontyard. Even now I can’t quite understand the ambition which made Mommy repeat that climb, the three of us panting and perspiring in the heat and smog, nor the inducement that had gotten the Steinway baby grand into Lottie’s tiny living room, the Buster Keaton antics. But there it stood, and Lottie talking away in her accented English, a petite, black-haired woman with a pretty red mouth. Only a couple of years previously she had been répétiteuse with the Frankfurt Opera. After a refreshment my sister and I would be put to nap on the two narrow beds in the small second bedroom. The windows were wide open and if it was breezy we might doze off immediately. But usually the air was hot and still and full of noise from the freeway far below, and to our roving eyes the walls of the bright little room were as good as bare. Hanging in a frame over the bed where I lay was a picture, probably an engraving although my scrutiny couldn’t identify it as such, of an old street in the city in Germany where Lottie had lived. Her piano playing and Mommy’s singing came in to us through the door, which had been left open a crack, of the bedroom and eventually Carolyn and I would fall asleep. I suppose we would be awakened by a pause in the intense vocalization. Mommy did not have lungs of leather, but her voice could fill an auditorium, her red hair the color of the Götterdämmerung itself, and Lottie was a sought-after operatic coach who got the utmost out of her singers.
When nap time was over Carolyn and I could play outside. There was a war on, and we would flatten Lottie’s tin cans for the scrap drive by hopping up and down on them. And then a whoop and a scramble up the slope in back of the house, a distance of less than a hundred feet, to the rounded top of the hill where a huge stucco Cross of Jesus several stories high, it seemed, thrust upwards into the sky. We stood at the base of it squinting up into the bright afternoon smog as Mommy’s powerful Wagnerian soprano wafted from the house. Below, the traffic glinted in the art deco freeway with the Hollywood Bowl on the other side. In the base of the cross was a little metal door partly ajar and covering a fuse box.
The barrage balloons floated serenely over Los Angeles.
Bits of frosted glass littered the weedy hilltop. Light sockets, countless light sockets ran all the way up and out the arms of the cross, all the lightbulbs smashed in their sockets, filaments exposed. Lottie had a portable disc-cutter with a microphone on a green cloth-covered cord. She would place a two-holed blank on the turntable and a lathe-like mechanism would cut a recording on it. Of course by this time the Germans had developed the tape recorder. But cutting one of these discs would produce a shellac chip which had the appearance of a handful of black hair from a comb, and if several recordings were made there would be a considerable quantity of this material which was highly flammable. This was demonstrated vividly in an ashtray during one of Lottie’s soirées; there was a printed notice in the cover of the recorder, that it was not to be used near open flame. I was seven years old, and this experience probably summed up my conception of what was going on in Europe: the Jewish woman with her hair on fire.