Flash — and He’s Gone: In Memory of John Farrell, Writer, Bon Vivant, and Tiger of San Pedro

John Farrell, at bottom, over one of his articles for the Long Beach Union in his last semester at Long Beach State.  Cartoon by the great David Lowery.

The late John Farrell, at bottom, superimposed over one of his articles for the Long Beach Union in his last semester at Long Beach State. Photo from the Daily Breeze’ see the first link below. Cartoon by the great David Lowery.  (And yes, the “Oropeza” in the title is the late lamented State Senator Jenny O.)

John Farrell, who died last Tuesday, was a throwback — and I mean that in the nicest possible way.  He was a man of Victorian England, a man of 1920s newsrooms and opera houses, and a man of early 1960s New Orleans — the latter not because he ever lived there (to my knowledge), but solely because in appearance and avocation he was the closest creature I would ever hope to see to Ignatius J. Reilly in John Peter Toole’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book A Confederacy of Dunces.  And even with that description, I am missing 78% of what ought to be included mere to describe John Farrell.

“When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.”

— the book’s epigraph, from an essay by Jonathan Swift

[Toole’s Ignatius J. Reilly was] “… a mad Oliver Hardy, a fat Don Quixote, a perverse Thomas Aquinas rolled into one.”

— Author Walker Percy, from the foreword, who was initially dragooned into reading the manuscript and then thrilled to midwife it into publication eleven years after Toole’s death

Hundreds, possibly thousands (but I’d like to think fewer than tens of thousands), of people in the Southland and beyond would be better suited to write an obituary of John Farrell than am I — I suspect but do not know that it may not have been appropriate to call John a “slob” — but as John told me as he trained me (after a fashion) in what passed for my version of journalism, “you go with what you have.”  (He had two other great journalistic aphorism: one was that “film is cheap.”  In other words, take lots of photos and get them developed; don’t stint on what you need to illustrate the story.  I can only imagine how he must have welcomed the digital photography era.  The other was: “Printers always lie.”)

I knew John pretty well for only about two months, October to December of 1979, when I had just arrived at Cal State Long Beach and he was getting ready to leave.  John was the fourth Editor-in-Chief of the “alternative” newspaper on campus, the Union; he was, as I recall, the last of the founders of that newspaper (which still exists!) still around, and expectation was broadly held that it was not likely to survive his departure.

The newspaper had a weekly satirical section called the Grunion — which, I swear, preceded The Onion but was similar to its early editions when it began suspiciously soon afterwards at the University of Wisconsin — and I fell in love with it.  So I came to the office and volunteered to work for John.  A few weeks later, he asked me to become the fifth Editor-in-Chief, because the only people who were remotely qualified had already declined and he saw something in me that he didn’t see in others — an incredible amount of naive credulity.  He told me that it would be easy, and not to worry because he’d be continually by coming by and helping out and writing for us.  One of John’s affectations was that he carried a cane — as had his own now-lifelong friend and predecessor editor, Jim Cox —  of which he had an ample collection.  As the semester waned, they brought me a cane to help me through the semester.  I still have it; that’s it at the top of the photo.  I have had to use it on various occasions.  It’s surprisingly strong.

Despite his promise, John did not of course remain a regular presence in our small office in 1980 — that’s why he was looking for someone credulous — but he did occasionally stop by to edit and to rebuke us and regale us with his knowledge, opinions, and wisdom.  And his style — oh, man; his style.  He was both a riot and a raconteur, dressed those days in British tweed and hats and scarves, carrying what I vaguely recall his telling me was over 300 pounds as part of a rant about people advising him to exercise seemed not to realize that his simply walking around itself provided him with ample exercise.  John’s mustache was combed and curled upwards at the end; his beard, as I recall, was uncombed and curled every which way at every millimeter.  Even in 1979, he looked much like the photo you see above — minus a bit of the Charles Bukowski mien.

John had panache.  (Any adequate description of him would have to add a healthy dollop of Cyrano into the mix.)  His then-nickname, which I’ve always imagined he swiped from the classic newsroom movies, was “Flash” — “Flash Farrell.”  He was a glorious mess of a man — I was 19 then, and he seemed to be at least 40 to me although he was 27 or 28 — and we young ‘uns used to flock around him when he did come by and hold audiences, because that was part of the fun of it being there.  He was a passionate Sherlockian — inviting me to tend bar (while still well underage) at the Los Angeles soiree for the literary society the “Baker Street Irregulars,” at which the San Pedro resident proudly wore title of “The Tiger of San Pedro,” from a pivotal character in the short story “The Adventure of Wisteria Lodge.”  (I forget whether he actually had this title emblazoned on a sash; it wouldn’t have surprised me and I choose to believe that he did until corrected.)

But alas, I fear that I have made John seem less serious than he was.  He also was a professional — and, beyond that, pretty bleeding close to an archetype.

John was as seriously devoted to writing as one could imagine — a longtime freelancer (or perhaps more at times) with the Long Beach Press-Telegram, writing less as a career than as a craft, a passion, a calling, an obligation.  He loved the arts, especially theater, especially opera and classical music.  (I refer you again to the excellent Daily Breeze story on his death for more, including links to his writings.)  I’m going to use some of the quotes from that piece to give you more of a sense of John before I try to sum him up.

“He was hustling from Sherman Oaks to San Pedro and Long Beach and Cal State Long Beach, that’s where we met 41 years ago. He’s been hustling every weekend. He was always at the computer, always writing.”

— Charlotte Irons, the longtime friend with whom he was staying when he died, and who discovered his body where he had been at work on his computer

“He loved his work, he would always talk about plays and music,” his brother said. “He always wanted to be a writer. I believe he died writing a review. He died doing what he loved.”

— Ed Farrell, John’s younger brother and co-conspirator in journalistic battles at Cal State Long Beach

“John was an incredibly hard working person. I don’t think he ever turned down an assignment.  His love of the arts was apparent in every story he wrote for us. He was a true champion of local theater, and that spirit and passion will be greatly missed.”

— Stephanie Cary, an arts and entertainment editor for the Los Angeles News Group, for which John wrote

“[He was the] ultimate bohemian. …  He was very flamboyant in his dress. He always looked very theatrical with his dress — unusual hats, sometimes it would look like he was in costume for some play  … He was living hand to mouth, but he was philosophical about it. He didn’t care as long as he was doing what he enjoyed.

— Al Rudis, a former Long Beach Press-Telegram editor who worked with Farrell for years

I imagine that John did care, more than he let on, about “living hand-to-mouth” — but that he was unwilling and perhaps unable to make to sacrifices to his integrity, or perhaps his modest lifestyle, that would change that.  He was adaptable to life’s insults — the rare Angeleno who did not own a car and often traveled by bus — and adept at turning adversity into a good story.  What he was not going to adapt to was any societal demand that he not be who and how he was and doing what he thought he ought to be doing — which made him the sort of independent, iconoclastic, but never unjust spirit that won him, even if not riches, such a large coterie of friends and admirers.

People like John Farrell — with his intelligence, discernment, and artistic talent (for good writing and criticism are themselves arts) — are not supposed to exist outside of a relative few officially sanctioned outlets.  Or rather: if they do exist in someone, it is supposed to be for a relatively brief time, a period of youthful exuberance, not for four decades of their (too-short) lifetime.

John was an anomaly.  He made his own way.  And he was willing to take the consequences of doing so.  How many people in our society — and especially in our safety, prosperity, and security-minded county — do that for so long?

What John cared about was writing, documenting, providing feedback, and contributing to the discourse of arts and beyond in some lasting way — leaving behind a corpus before he left a corpse.  The Daily Breeze story mentions that prior to his death, “Farrell had been working on a book made up of a compilation of his reviews” and was … “checking the Opera archives to pull hard copies of some of his old reviews.”

I don’t know what you’re up to these days, brilliant young bohemian reader of ours, but if you or others could help to make that happen — so that John’s writings and sensibility truly do have a more lasting and accessible place in our collective archives of writing on the arts — you would be doing something very worthwhile.

I didn’t keep in touch with John, seeing him only once after my return to California in 2006.  But, throwback that he was, he certainly did teach me not only how to set columns late in the night with paste and display tape, and how to save money on the rare occasion we could afford color, but also the right and proper way to end a story, with which, in John’s memory and with a link to a significant cache of his writings, I now leave you as we bid him adieu.


About Greg Diamond

Somewhat verbose attorney, semi-retired due to disability, residing in northwest Brea. Occasionally runs for office against bad people who would otherwise go unopposed. Got 45% of the vote against Bob Huff for State Senate in 2012; Josh Newman then won the seat in 2016. In 2014 became the first attorney to challenge OCDA Tony Rackauckas since 2002; Todd Spitzer then won that seat in 2018. Every time he's run against some rotten incumbent, the *next* person to challenge them wins! He's OK with that. Corrupt party hacks hate him. He's OK with that too. He does advise some local campaigns informally and (so far) without compensation. (If that last bit changes, he will declare the interest.)