Press Release - "Al Martinez: Bard of L.A.” Focuses on Popular Pulitzer Prize–Winning Journalist

February 15, 2012


Exhibition is drawn from The Huntington’s collection of Martinez’s notes, corrected typescripts, photos, and more


March 17–June 25, 2012


Al Martinez in his home office in Topanga, 2011. Photo by John Sullivan, Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.


Al Martinez in his study. Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. 



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SAN MARINO, Calif.—The six-decade-long career of Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist and author Al Martinez is showcased in an exhibition that looks back at how the writer has chronicled the foibles, peccadilloes, accomplishments, and, sometimes, sad plights of those around him. “Al Martinez: Bard of L.A.,” on view in the Library, West Hall, at The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens from March 17 to June 25, 2012, traces Martinez’s work from his letters during the Korean War through his 25 years as a columnist with the Los Angeles Times and up to the present, with his regular columns for the Los Angeles Daily News and Topanga Messenger.


The exhibition highlights about 75 items from The Huntington’s collections, including columns; newspaper cartoons and ads depicting Martinez and promoting his columns; notes, corrected typescripts, and first editions of his books; magazine articles; scripts and call sheets from his television writing; travel articles and maps; and photographs, including those documenting him in his bursting home office or with his wife of 62 years, Joanne. 


“Al Martinez: Bard of L.A.” is complemented by an array of public programs at The Huntington, including a sold-out “Latino Experience in L.A.” book series; a conversation with Al and Joanne Martinez with host Larry Mantle of KPCC’s “Air Talk”; and a writing workshop led by Martinez himself.


Martinez, 82, donated his papers to The Huntington in 2006, and as an active writer he continues to send materials to the Library on a regular basis. The Martinez archive joins those of two of his Los Angeles Times colleagues—editorial cartoonist Paul Conrad (1924–2010) and the columnist Jack Smith (1916–1996)—and the Times’ corporate archive, all previously donated to The Huntington. The display also includes a few items on loan from Martinez, including a Pulitzer Prize plaque and other personal memorabilia.


“Al Martinez has an extraordinary ability to take something very personal and spin it out beautifully to make you laugh or weep,” says Sara S. “Sue” Hodson, curator of literary manuscripts at The Huntington, “but at the same time he can apply such introspective stories in broader ways so that he’s not just writing about himself.” Natalie Russell is the associate curator for the show.

Writing from the Trenches

Born in Oakland, Calif., Martinez attended San Francisco State College for three years before joining the Marine Corps during the Korean War. His letters home to his wife, Joanne (whom he still calls by her last name, Cinelli), displayed the first glimpses of a writing style that combined humor with pathos and irreverence. “A foxhole isn’t very deep,” he wrote in one letter. “It’s inadequate actually. But in it, you feel the strength of your own protection and the power of your defense.” While he didn’t keep every letter that he received from his wife, he did hold on to a little model airplane that his wife sent to him, complete with a lipstick stain, and the memento is on view along with the letters Joanne kept safely at home awaiting his return.


Back home after the war, he attended University of California, Berkeley, before dropping out of school again, this time to take a full-time job with the Richmond (Calif.) Independent in 1952. By 1955, he had secured a position with the Oakland Tribune, where he continued the types of musings evident in those war letters and began writing a column in 1963. “He started writing about his observations, mostly about people,” says Hodson. “He told funny stories and poignant stories, but often he could also be very angry on behalf of the characters that he met.” He tried to be more than a mere journalist, soaking up the novels of John Steinbeck or the short stories of Ray Bradbury in the Saturday Evening Post, thinking he could produce something akin to literature. Humbled by the greatness of a Walt Whitman, he glommed onto the famous line, “I sing the people,” hoping to simply tell stories about the people he met, much like a street poet or songwriter who shares the common humanity of his subjects in day-to-day life.


Martinez remained with the Oakland Tribune for more than 15 years before he began to feel the constraints of the conservative leanings of the newspaper’s publishers. After securing a job with the Los Angeles Times in 1972, he packed up his family and dog and headed for a new home in Topanga, only he took a circuitous route across and around the country. The exhibition richly documents the spirit of adventure that runs throughout a career that often blended professional independence with a love of travel. This formative crossroads would be echoed in the travel book he would write two decades later—I’ll Be Damned If I’ll Die in Oakland: A Sort-of Travel Memoir (2003). His proposal letter to the book editor at St. Martin’s Press sums up his intentions: “It won’t be a straight-out travel book, but one rooted in humor, irony, pain, weariness and all of the other realities that accompany travel.”

Success with the Los Angeles Times

By 1984, he had become a regular columnist with the Times, right on the heels of his successful run as a feature writer. He was senior writer in a team of journalists that year that won a Pulitzer Prize for a series on the growing Latino community in Los Angeles. Other awards continued to flow in: In 1986, he was named one of the top three essay columnists in America by the National Society of Newspaper Columnists; and in 1987 he won the National Headliner Award as the best columnist in the United States, which placed him alongside previous winners Ernie Pyle, Edward R. Murrow, Stuart Alsop, and Mike Royko. That same year he was also named the best columnist in California by the California Newspaper Publishers Association. He won two more Pulitzer Prizes in the 1990s, one for team coverage of the 1992 Los Angeles riots and the other, a staff award, for reporting on the 1994 Northridge earthquake.


Like his Times colleague Jack Smith (whose career was highlighted in the 2008 Huntington exhibition “Smith on Wry”), Martinez had a mandate to write about anything he wanted. Both could be very funny, often infusing their columns with the travails of home life—Smith with his backyard bird watching, Martinez with his resistance to taking out the trash. But unlike Smith, Martinez wrote frequently about politics and social ills, exercising a sometimes righteous anger about poverty, political idiocy, and social injustice. “Hate won last weekend in Westchester, a small, tense community south of Los Angeles,” he wrote in a 1986 column about an interracial couple. “They were driven out by a barrage of racist mail that climaxed in the shooting death of a pet rabbit in their backyard. But the rabbit wasn’t the real target. They were.”


While both Smith and Martinez gathered their columns into published collections, Martinez branched out into novel writing and essays beyond his column work. The exhibition shows the breadth and depth of this writing, including proposals, marked up manuscripts, and published copies of books that represent a blend of humor, muckraking, and love of adventure, and even include a novel, The Last City Room (2000), about the death of a newspaper. His nonfiction books include such titles as the aforementioned I’ll Be Damned If I’ll Die in Oakland as well as City of Angles: A Drive-By Portrait of L.A. (1996). He has produced three collections of columns: Ashes in the Rain (1989), Dancing Under the Moon (1992), and Reflections (2004). Rising Voices: A New Generation (1994) grew out of his Pulitzer Prize–winning reporting about prominent Latinos in Southern California. And his most recent book, Barkley: A Dog’s Journey (2006), blends the best of his column writing with new material about the last road trip he and his wife took with their terminally ill English springer spaniel. Martinez describes it as “a book of humor, philosophy, companionship and, in the end, sadness,” and he notes that the columns on which it is based elicited more response from readers than any other columns he ever wrote.

Beyond Life as a Columnist

Loyal readers of Martinez’s Times columns are aware of the paper’s unceremonious dismissal of him not once but twice. Following his dismissal in 2007, which came as part of the wave of downsizing hitting most American newspapers, the Times reinstated him in response to the uproar generated from thousands of subscribers. But 18 months later, the venerable columnist was let go again, this time for good.


But while Martinez may have been known first and foremost as a newspaper man, his two weekly columns didn’t define him. In addition to his numerous books and essays, he also had been a television writer for about 20 years. The author of screenplays and television scripts, Martinez received a 1992 Emmy nomination for the television movie “Out on the Edge.” Other projects included scripts for episodes of “Hawaii Five-O,” “Bronk,” and “Jigsaw John,” a show he created in 1975 that starred Jack Warden. The exhibition highlights many of these successes with scripts, photographs, and a vintage copy of TV Guide showcasing Jack Palance as “Bronk.”


Martinez remains active today, writing regularly for the Los Angeles Daily News and for his own local paper, the Topanga Messenger, and conducting the Topanga Writers Workshop, which he created in 2009. While his departure from the Times might represent the end of one era, his current writing—and blogging—indicate he is also part of a new (and very active) era of journalism. A pair of chairs beckon visitors in the gallery to sit and peruse current columns, and a computer will be available for on-line reading as well, inviting visitors to add their own comments to Martinez’s blog posts. Finally, an audio installation features Al and his wife reading their favorite columns over the years, dating back to the best of his writing for the Times.



Thea M. Page, 626-405-2260,

Lisa Blackburn, 626-405-2140,



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Related Programming

[SOLD-OUT] Book Series: The Latino Experience in L.A.
Feb. 29, March 28, and April 25 (Wednesdays) 11 a.m.–12:30 p.m.
A selection of readings will capture the humor, compassion, anger, fear, and triumphs of the Latino experience in the greater Los Angeles community. Facilitator Judith Palarz will lead discussions of The Barbarian Nurseries, by Hector Tobar; The Madonnas of Echo Park, by Brando Skyhorse; and The Tortilla Curtain, by T. C. Boyle. The series also includes excerpts from Reflections, by Al Martinez, as well as a private tour of the exhibition by curator Sue Hodson.
Members: $75.  Non-Members: $85. Registration: 626-405-2128.

A Conversation with Al and Joanne Martinez, with host Larry Mantle
April 4 (Wednesday) 7:30 p.m.
Larry Mantle, host of KPCC’s “Air Talk,” will conduct an informal chat with Al and Joanne Martinez about their lives, Al’s columns and other writings, and their memories of travel and family. Reservations are not required and the event is free and open to the public. Friends’ Hall.
Curator Tour: “Bard of L.A.”
April 19 (Thursday) 4:30–5:30 p.m.
Join curator Sue Hodson, along with Al Martinez (the “Bard of L.A.” himself), for a private tour of the exhibition drawn from the Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist’s life and writings. Martinez is known for his columns in the Los Angeles Times and for several works of fiction and nonfiction. Members: $15. Non-Members: $20. Registration: 626-405-2128. Space is limited.

Wednesday Afternoons with Al: A Writing Workshop
May 30, June 6 and 13 (Wednesdays) 2–4p.m.
Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist and author Al Martinez will lead this three-part workshop for writers of all levels and interests. Participants will be assigned writing exercises that parallel their interests and receive guidance and editing. Mr. Martinez will talk about his own writing experiences and provide direction and feedback for participants as they develop and share their work. (Each participant will be asked to submit a short writing sample to Mr. Martinez so he may evaluate the writers’ styles and interests.) Members: $150. Non-Members: $165. Registration: 626-405-2128. Space is limited.


[EDITOR’S NOTE: High-resolution digital image available on request for publicity use.]


About The Huntington
The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens is a collections-based research and educational institution serving scholars and the general public. More information about The Huntington can be found online at


Visitor Information:
The Huntington is open to the public Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday from noon to 4:30 p.m., and Saturday, Sunday, and Monday holidays from 10:30 to 4:30 p.m. Closed Tuesdays and major holidays. Admission on weekdays: $15 adults, $12 seniors (65+), $10 students (ages 12 – 18 or with full-time student I.D.), $6 youth (ages 5 – 11), free for children under 5. Group rate $11 per person for groups of 15 or more. Members are admitted free. Admission on weekends and Monday holidays: $20 adults, $15 seniors, $10 students, $6 youth, free for children under 5. Group rate $14 per person for groups of 15 or more. Members are admitted free. Admission is free to all visitors on the first Thursday of each month with advanced tickets. For more information, call: (626) 405-2100 or go to


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Al Martinez in front of tents during Korean War, ca. 1951. Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.



Cardboard airplane, from a box of Kellogg’s cereal, 1951. Joanne Martinez kissed this little airplane and sent it to Al in a letter. He returned it to her in his letter dated Aug. 25, 1951. Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. 



Jigsaw John, Avon, paperback, 1975. Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.



“Al Martinez Puts a Face on the City,” newspaper ad from the Los Angeles Times, ca. 1970–75. Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.




Al Martinez. The Last City Room, first draft of book proposal, typescript with autograph corrections, June 11, 1996. Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.



Al and Joanne Martinez, photo by John Sullivan, 2011. Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.



Artist John Robertson’s portrait of Al Martinez, 2001. Reproduction. Collection of Al Martinez

About The Huntington

The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens is a collections-based research and educational institution established in 1919 by Henry E. and Arabella Huntington. Henry Huntington, a key figure in the...

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