Kevin Starr, who many consider to have been California’s greatest historian, was a writer, a teacher, a librarian and an adviser to governors on both sides of the aisle; the kind of charming companion who could make any meal memorable.
He was also the “rarest kind of San Franciscan — one who loved Los Angeles,” said Dana Gioia, California poet laureate, USC professor and the friend who has been asked to deliver Starr’s eulogy.
For years, Starr would come down every week to teach at USC, where he was a professor of history.
Starr both predicted and chronicled the rise of L.A. to become the preeminent financial and cultural capital not just of the West but of the Pacific Rim, Gioia said.
“What he loved about Los Angeles was the energy and creativity the place had, and he brought none of the kind of snobbism that so many San Franciscans almost reflexively, you know, bring with them to Los Angeles,” he said.
Starr died of a heart attack Saturday, and his passing has been mourned by a veritable who’s who of politicians, writers and intellectuals.
There was Gov. Jerry Brown calling Starr’s vision “bigger than life.” Former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger paid tribute, too, while former first lady Maria Shriver wrote about losing a friend and mentor. California writer D.J. Waldie noted Starr’s kindness, and Atlantic writer James Fallows remembered learning from Starr in college.
“Kevin’s friends, who number in the tens of thousands, will remember him as a person who from the moment he entered the room made everything brighter, friendlier and more memorable. He had a social genius for friendship, for collegiality,” Gioia said.
But while funerals tend to make us dwell on our loss, they also have a way of forcing us to reflect on what the dead may still have to say about us. And Kevin Starr had a lot to say.
When AirTalk set about crowdsourcing a contest for “Californian of the Year” in 2013, Starr brought his almost encyclopedic knowledge of the state to bear.
Guest host Patt Morrison asked for Starr’s picks, including those figures who might have made the cut in the past. Starr rattled off a list of important women that he said don’t get discussed much anymore, including dancer Isadora Duncan, a fiercely progressive artist who anticipated the women’s liberation movement by 50 years; and writers like Dame Shirley, who chronicled the gold rush, and Gertrude Atherton, an early California novelist.
But when asked who he would have nominated in 2013, Starr chose Gov. Brown, who “almost single-handedly saved California by preventing the kind of bloodbath, the kind of impasse, the kind of ideological gridlock that we see in Congress that closed down the government.”
Starr’s words have helped us to make sense of an impossible tangle of cultures, races, political forces, Gioia said.
“I think Kevin will be remembered as the first historian who understood that the only way that you can talk about California is to be all-inclusive of the various, often contradictory trends that make up this state,” he said.
But Starr’s observations were by no means limited to politics. It’s hard not to be won over as he describes to AirTalk the political, artistic and architectural significance of the Golden Gate Bridge, comparing it to the Parthenon in Athens…
…or to be pulled into his narrative as he reminds us how the Golden Gate Bridge got its color — “international orange.”
And, as Gioia points out, Starr wasn’t content simply to write about things — he wanted to make things happen in the real world. Perhaps that’s why he didn’t just walk the bridge as part of his research for his book — he swam under it:
Starr’s own history was clouded with heartache. He had a very rough childhood, with his parents divorcing and his mother having a breakdown, Gioia said. Starr was raised in a Catholic orphanage, and when he got out, he lived in a housing project.
But whatever happened in his personal life, and whatever difficulties the rest of the state faced through the years, he never lost his essential optimism, said Gioia.
“What Kevin Starr wrote about was the idea that California represented the purest embodiment of the American dream, which is to say a place where the average person can lead a good, free and reasonably prosperous life,” Gioia said.
California may have lost Starr, but his voice, his perspective, will not be leaving our side any time soon.