Meditations on Love and Loss Growing Up in the San Fernando Valley

Reading it feels like looking at a mosaic or collage, each page a verbal snapshot.
June 29, 2023

“I’m an unreliable narrator,” is how Susan Hayden introduces herself in her new book, “Now You Are a Missing Person.” That may (or may not be) the case, but after reading the book, there’s no doubt she’s a writer with a sharp, unsparing eye and a gift for precise, tactile prose, such as this description of her soon-to-be husband: “each curve of his face a secret prayer, each crack and line a scripture to live by.”

“Missing Person” a collection of stories, poems, and essays that Hayden describes as a “lyrical memoir,” is a meditation on love and loss. Reading it feels like looking at a mosaic or collage, each page a verbal snapshot. The short, two or three page chapters come together in a way that, by the end, you have a portrait of a place and time. “It’s a puzzle,” she told the Journal. It’s also a wonderful evocation of what it was like to grow up in the San Fernando Valley in the 1970s, as precise and resonant as the Valley of filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson (“Boogie Nights,” “Magnolia”).

We met to discuss the book at Uncle Bernie’s, a deli on Ventura Boulevard. As we walked in, she pulled me aside and whispered conspiratorially, “That’s the table where Arnie Fromin died!” Before it was Uncle Bernie’s, the building was home to a Fromin’s Deli. (There’s a longer story, as precise and complex as the genealogies in Genesis 5; Hayden could probably write a book about every tract in Encino.) As we’re led to our table, she points out the table where he family used to have Sunday brunches and the booths where she would hang out with her friends.  

Susan Hayden Photo by Christopher Mortenson

Writing about the Valley was her favorite part of the book. “It’s my milieu. It’s what I do. I always go back and find more. It’s an endless well,  there’s always more to discover.” There are dinners with the family Ah Fongs, Love’s Barbeque, shopping at Nieman-Marcus, Wherehouse Records and Postermat,  a wedding at the Ventura Club, summers at Camp JCA, swimming in Liberace’s piano-shaped pool, taking exercise classes with the pre-fame Richard Simmons. These pages throb with the high-keyed emotions of adolescence,  when each disappointment or heartbreak feels especially painful because you haven’t experienced it before, and the more sober memories of adulthood. “As I get older,” she said, “my perspective changes and I see more.” But it can be painful, she said, to drive down Ventura Boulevard.  “It’s a different landscape,” she said, “a completely different place.” The buildings in Encino “were short, and overnight, they became tall. It was just so sad.” She once tried calling the Encino chamber of commerce to find out the history of the neighborhood. “Honey,” she was told, “this place doesn’t have any history. It’s a business district.” One of the few relics, she says, is Uncle Bernie’s. 

A self-described “boy crazy” teen, she yearns for the boy working the slicer at the Encino Deli (as we were leaving, she pointed out the counter where the slicing machine once stood); a musician whose hair “looked like SpaghettiOs”; a boy who woos her in the soul section of a record store and ends up being Billy Eckstine’s son, and a relationship with a “once-famous matinee idol” 25 years her senior. But when Hayden saw her first husband, actor Christopher Allport, she was so sure he was her soulmate, she told her friend “That’s the man I’m going to spend the rest of my life with.”

Allport, along with her father, are the figures make the most distinct impressions. Her father, Sherwin Goldstein, was an entertainment lawyer; a larger than life figure who, while observant enough to keep a kosher home (the family were members of Valley Beth Shalom; she describes services as same length as a Grateful Dead concert, but remembers  Rabbi Harold Schulweis as “warm, accessible … a legend”), was more drawn to the music of the Doors than the liturgical music in shul. There’s a wonderful anecdote where Hayden and her father see Edward G. Robinson at the Du-Par’s restaurant in the Farmer’s Market and he sends her to ask him for an autograph. She remains a fan of Robinson to this day.  

Allport was a magnetic figure, a rock climber with the soul of a daredevil. He calls Hayden “a butterfly,” who made him feel alive. She thought of herself as “base camp. I keep the cabin warm.” It’s a whirlwind romance, and her father, who told her as a teen she could only marry a Jewish boy, calls the Episcopalian Allport her “bashert.”  Writing about him, Hayden’s prose becomes more urgent and sensual. Their bed “ignites as if it has been heated by a warming pan: hyperkinetic, oppositional.” 

Allport’s death in a skiing accident and her father’s death (caused, she claimed, by a hospital’s gross negligence) cast a shadow on the book’s latter half. (The wait for Allport’s body to be found and his death confirmed gives the book its title.) She compares the shock of her loss to having the furniture rearranged. “Everything got reconfigured and I didn’t have a say in it.” Her heart “was a haunted house.” A widow with a young son (Mason Summit, now a Nashville-based singer/songwriter who, with Irene Greene, performs as The Prickly Pair), it felt, she writes, “like we were on a construction site and a crane fell from the sky and clobbered us on our heads.” She worries about raising a fatherless son, visits psychics, feels unsure she is able to move forward. The book has a happy ending, though. She’s “an optimistic widow,” remarried and in the garden that Allport used to keep, finds solace.

Hayden was surprised to find the book was more Jewish than she expected. “I wasn’t planning on writing about it,” she said, “but I started to really see how much it was a part of my fabric … The fabric of who I am.”

Once “Missing Person” was finished, Hayden was surprised to find the book was more Jewish than she expected. “I wasn’t planning on writing about it,” she said, “but I started to really see how much it was a part of my fabric … The fabric of who I am.”  One reason, she said, was her father. “He showed up and led the way.” Hayden attended Hebrew and Sunday school (although, she admitted, she used to cut Hebrew school and go to church — “I even did confession a couple times”) but she rejected Judaism around the time of her bat mitzvah. “I quit. I told my father that I didn’t want to. And he was heartbroken. I just, I’d always felt like it was forced upon me. And that I was pushing it away for a long time because it was forced on me. But now that it’s not forced on me, I appreciate it.”

Hayden, the creator/producer of Library Girl, said the hardest part of writing “Missing Person” was being the presented, as opposed to the presenter. Calling herself “a mother hen,” she loves the community that Library Girl has become. As a secular Jew, she explained,  “I have the community building gene. I feel like I got that from shared events in the temple I grew up with. So I think that, that, that helped inspire the show Library Girl. A sense of belonging that I’ve always craved and created came from those days.” Hayden might call herself an unreliable narrator, but reading “Now You Are a Missing Person,” you’re definitely drawn into her circle.

This summer, Hayden will be reading from “Missing Person.” For dates, visit https://www.susanhayden.com/events.

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