Alumni & Friends
The Bard of L.A.
In the autumn of 1947, a lanky teenager with a shaggy mop of dark hair arrived at SF State’s small campus, then just off Market Street. He was from a hardscrabble background in East Oakland, but he knew precisely where he was headed in life.
His name was Al Martinez, and he was going to be a writer. “The minute I got there, I found the [Golden] Gater office. I introduced myself and told them that I wanted to write for the paper." Gater readers soon learned that Martinez possessed uncommon gifts -- a lyrical prose style and a natural-born storyteller’s talent for making “a walk across the street feel like an adventure," says his longtime friend, the journalist Bill Boyarsky.
The summer before his senior year, Martinez’s education was cut short when he was called up by the Marines to serve in the Korean War. But his journalism career would flourish. At the Los Angeles Times, where he spent 25 years as a reporter and columnist, Martinez shared in three Gold Medal Pulitzer Prizes.
For many years, Martinez’s Times columns were the paper’s single most popular feature. Readers chuckled at his depictions of life in woodsy Topanga Canyon with wife Joanne (the couple attended SF State from 1947-1950 and met at the Gater) and Barkley, the chew-happy dog.
But Martinez is perhaps better known for tackling social injustice. “Hate won last weekend in Westchester," went the lead of a 1986 column about an interracial couple driven from their Los Angeles-area home.
Martinez branched out into novels, nonfiction books and TV. Hollywood loved his keen ear for dialogue and in 1992 rewarded him with an Emmy nod for the TV movie “Out on the Edge."
The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens in San Marino is showcasing the alum’s remarkable career in “Al Martinez: Bard of L.A." The exhibit highlights about 75 items, including wartime letters to Joanne -- “... even if you survive a war, you’re wounded in ways that you can never imagine ..." -- corrected typescripts, first editions of books and TV scripts.
“I’m overwhelmed by the whole thing," Martinez says. “I’m not accustomed to this kind of grandeur. Newspaper columnists are supposed to be cussed, and not praised, and suddenly, I’m the Bard of L.A.!"
At 82, the “bard" still pounds away at his keyboard each day. His columns appear regularly in the Los Angeles Daily News and Topanga Messenger; he blogs about “life, love, lust and lunacies."
He couldn’t imagine an end to his writing career, he says, “because it’s just who I am."
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