REMEMBERING PEARL SLOAN
FROM TOPANGA MESSENGER, APRIL 2007
BY LEE MICHAELSON
Topanga lost a treasure last week with the passing of 89-year-old Pearl Sloan, a charismatic and energetic leader among the now-dwindling handful of remaining homesteaders who built the Canyon in the post-World War II era.
The former Pearl Skala was born on July 29, 1917, outside Chicago in suburban Des Plaines, Illinois, as American doughboys began to pour into the trenches of World War I France. Her family hailed from a diverse mix of Eastern European origins; her father was a civil servant who worked for the Postal Service.
Pearl’s bright mind was evident from an early age. When she was five, Pearl would read the Czech newspaper to her grandmother, an immigrant who never learned English. Another quality that came to typify Pearl—her interest in other people and their activities—also marked Pearl from her youngest years, as her children were to learn much later on the occasion of her 50th wedding anniversary. In response to an invitation for any comments the recipient wanted to share with the family, one of Pearl’s kindergarten classmates responded with a letter summing up her character. “Even at five or six years old,” the classmate wrote, “Pearl was really interested in what was going on. If she asked you about a picture you’d drawn, she really was interested in what you had to say.”
At 16, Pearl met the love of her life, Bill Sloan from neighboring Park Ridge, Illinois, in their junior English class. Five years later, she married her high school sweetheart.
“They were an educated pair,” writes Michele Johnson in the upcoming revision of “The Topanga Story.” “Pearl had studied journalism at Northwestern and Bill was finishing up his studies in engineering,” when Bill joined the Navy and went off to fight in Northern Africa during World War II.
Bill became enamored of the balmy weather in Morocco while stationed there, says the Sloans’ daughter Miriam Warner, reporting the family lore. Pearl and the couple’s three young sons waited out the war at her parents’ home in Des Plaines, and, especially during the winters, Bill would comment to his service mates on how much Pearl and “the boys,” back home in the frigid climes of the “Windy City,” would love it. One of Bill’s service buddies hailed from Southern California and responded, “Well, if you like weather here, you’d really love it in California!”
And so it came to pass that in 1946, Bill and Pearl Sloan packed up the three boys—Bill, David and Jon—and all their worldly possessions into a Chrysler Arrow sedan and a 16-foot travel trailer and headed west for California. They left a lot behind—not only possessions that didn’t fit, but also “family, church, traditions—everything about life as they knew it.”
The family settled for a time in a Burbank trailer park, while Bill found work at defense contractor North American (later North American Rockwell) and finished his engineering degree at night. But the tight quarters quickly made everyone stir crazy. Anxious for more elbow room, writes Johnson, in February 1947, the Sloans came to Topanga to look at lots for sale in Old Canyon.
Though Pearl Sloan came to love Topanga—as Topanga in turn grew to love her and her family—it evidently was not love at first sight. “It was raining and there was nobody on the streets,” Pearl recalled to Johnson. “I said, ‘I’m not going to move up here.’ There were no people and no churches.”
Happily, Pearl reconsidered. After looking at land elsewhere, the Sloans returned to Topanga on March 2, their son David’s sixth birthday. According to Johnson, it was a beautiful, sunny spring day, and Pearl and Bill “fell in love with an oak-studded parcel,” ultimately purchasing three lots on five acres for $2,600. “To tell you the truth, we even talked her down a bit,” on the asking price, landing their parcel for the grand sum of $1,200, Bill Sloan joked to Kathie Gibboney last December in a profile honoring the couple in the Messenger’s “30th Anniversary Special Section: A Tribute to 30 Years of Readers.” In the end, it was a pragmatic choice: they settled on Topanga, Pearl said in the piece, because “it was the only place we could put the trailer.”
The Early Years
The Sloans, like many young families who settled in Topanga in that era, set about building their home, as time and money allowed, while living on the property in their trailer. The project would take years to complete. By December, with the help of friends and co-workers, they managed to lay the foundation for their future home and to finish one small room, celebrating by putting up a Christmas tree.
The original plan had been to reside in the one-room structure temporarily, while building the main house higher on the hillside. But when Bill learned that this would require dynamite to get sufficient flat land, they decided to stay where they were, expanding the one-room house instead. A marvelous 300-year-old oak tree stands on the site, and the Sloans incorporated it into the design—at first it was part of the patio, but as the little house expanded, Bill and Pearl built around it. Bill put his engineering skills to work, devising steel-reinforced concrete bridges over the tree roots to protect them, and brought the tree inside the house, where it continues to flourish, a truly unique feature of their home.
Pearl’s eyes twinkled as she described the family’s early Topanga years to Gibboney: “We had orange crates for cupboards—of course I decorated them with a nice piece of fabric. The outhouse was out back and filled with spiders. We had to get water from a pipe hooked up way down where Inn of the Seventh Ray is now. By the time it got to us there would only be a trickle. We didn’t have enough water to wash the clothes, so we had to go to a laundromat in Santa Monica and bring the wet stuff back to dry—they didn’t have dryers yet.”
Pearl smiled and shook her head when asked if she had anticipated the difficulties of early Topanga homesteading. “We were young, we had no idea.” As the house grew, so too did the Sloan family. Daughter Miriam came along in November 1948, the year after they had built the single room that later became the kitchen: “I slept in a box in the kitchen,” she says. The youngest, Barbi, came along a few years later, joining her sister and parents in the kitchen while the boys continued to camp out in the trailer.
“During the day it was very lonely for a woman,” Pearl told Gibboney. “The kids were bussed off to school, which was over where Froggy’s now is, and the men were off at work. We didn’t have two cars back in those days so we gals were stuck here with virtually nothing.”
“Everybody’s Best Friend”
“What they did have,” writes Johnson, “were friends.”
One of Pearl’s first Topanga friends was Carol Marshburn. As Pearl recalled it, she was outside Esther and Cecil Wilson’s grocery store and candy shop (where an apartment building now stands at Old Canyon and Skyline). It had been a tough day for Pearl, who had been struggling to cope with three kids in a trailer, with a house under construction, on a bare lot with no telephone, no electricity and very little water. Miriam, born later, recalls how even after the house was first built, the family had to take their showers from a hose hung from a tree in the mid-afternoons: “The whole gang of us would stand underneath the little stream of water for a few minutes and then jump out of the way as soon as the warm water ran out,” she laughs. But on this particular day, the elementary school had just iced the cake by sending little Billy home with a note saying that Pearl should send him to school with cleaner hands.
In typical fashion, instead of getting mad, Pearl responded with humor. When she saw “a girl walking by with a baby carriage and two kids hanging on her side,” the situation struck Pearl as funny and she impulsively yelled, “Do you have the time?” Her 60-year friendship with Carol Marshburn was born that moment.
Pearl met two more of her earliest Topanga friends—Evelyn Smith and Leona Soderstrom—at the annual Silver Tea held at St. Giles Catholic Church. “She was surprised to find such a refined event held in the middle of a rugged wilderness,” writes Johnson. Indeed, Pearl was pleasantly surprised to learn that, contrary to her initial impression, Topanga was “a pretty going concern” in those days, boasting not only churches of several persuasions, but multiple gas stations and many small stores as well.
Throughout her life, Pearl Sloan distinguished herself by her ability to draw people to her, surrounding herself with friends of all ages enchanted by her wit, self-effacing humor, and warm sense of caring interest. “Mom used to say, ‘As we get older, I just have to choose younger friends,’” recalls Miriam. “My own friends used to love to spend time with her. We’d plan to go to the Hollywood Bowl, and they’d ask, ‘Could you bring your Mom and Dad?’ They weren’t just being polite. People totally looked forward to seeing them and would gravitate toward Mom in particular. It was like, ‘Man, that’s somebody I would like to party with.’”
“In my mind, Pearl became my best friend,” recalls Ami Kirby, who met Pearl in 1999 shortly after Kirby agreed to organize the Topanga Historical Society archives. Pearl was also active in the Historical Society. ”She seemed to be (then-club president) Gerry Haigh’s ‘right-hand woman,’” says Kirby, thinking back on their first encounter at a Society board meeting at the home of Louise and Ken York. Kirby was concentrating hard to learn the names associated with the many faces she was meeting for the first time around the Yorks’ dining room table, and after the meeting, she asked Pearl to send her a list of the board members. “She must have forgotten,” says Kirby, “because I had to ask her again, and she promptly called me up to apologize for what she called her ‘dumb mistake!’ I remember her throaty voice, her emphasis on ‘dumb,’ which carried over the wire a certain intimacy, a friendliness, a warmth—an invitation to be friends.
“She was a friend I happily shared with her innumerable other best friends. When I reflect on her long association with so many Topangans, I think she was everyone’s best friend,” says Kirby.
Recalling the many large dinner parties Pearl and Bill hosted over the years in their unique home, Kirby adds, “She was intensely sociable.” As Pearl’s eyesight began to fail, she continued to welcome guests to her dinner table. “She set the table with her best china and linens, put a well-cooked square meal on the table, had Bill pour the wine, and settled back for a good talk that ranged widely from the goings-on of friends and neighbors to what was happening in the wider world. The conversation was always punctuated with laughter—not prim laughter, but hearty guffaws, and if we were lucky, maybe laughter that would bring tears to your eyes. The people who gathered around that table would make a long list. And Pearl and Bill always seemed to be going to somebody else’s house for dinner. They had so many friends. They seemed to make them so easily.”
Miriam attributes her mother’s personal charisma in part to her curiosity. “She had a great wonder about things and people. There was nothing that wasn’t interesting enough for her to want to know more about it….And so when she asked you a question—like, ‘What do you do?’—it wasn’t just a conversation starter. She really wanted to know.”
Pearl also genuinely cared about other people, adds Miriam. Even in her final days, lying in a hospital bed on morphine, Pearl expressed concern about friends who came to see her. “One of my friends came to visit in the hospital; her father had heart problems. (Pearl) not only remembered, but asked her how her father was doing. Right to the end, she always acted in a manner that cared what everyone else was doing and feeling,” says Miriam.
“Oh, no. Not Pearl,” says Leslie Carlson, on learning of Pearl’s passing. “I loved her so….She always had a hug for me.” Carlson’s husband Steve nods sadly. Their reaction is typical of many others.
“A Real Spitfire”
Debra Silbar remembers Pearl as “always so happy.” Karla Morrison concurs, “She was full of joy.”
Carlson has another word for Pearl, looking back. “She was a real spitfire,” she says. “So full of energy.”
Daughter Miriam agrees. “She was involved in so much. She was a long-time scout leader. President of the PTA for many years. The Woman’s Club. The Lion’s Club. She was treasurer of the Historical Society until just a year or so ago when she couldn’t do it anymore. But whatever she was in, she was really, really involved in.”
Pearl “loved to do just about everything,” says Miriam. She enjoyed canoing with Bill, and loved books until she lost her vision. Even then, she remained a member of two Topanga book clubs. “Those marvelous women always made sure the books they chose were on CD or tape, so Mom could participate,” says Miriam.
Pearl was deeply involved with the PTA, and especially enjoyed the way the women would “dress to the nines” for meetings and other special events. She recalled one particular dust-up with the local superintendent over whether the “ladies” were to be allowed to hold their meetings on the school premises after the newly built school was opened at its current location. Pearl won that battle in the end, as she did many others.
Pearl certainly did not shy away from controversy, and there were plenty over the years. “If you think there are political battles in Topanga today,” she once said, “they are nothing next to the ones we used to have back when Topanga had its own school district and people were actually running campaigns for the board. And when we were making the decision whether to give up our own school district and turn the elementary school over to L.A. Unified—now that was a battle royale!”
Miriam remembers sitting under the kitchen table listening to the adults arguing back and forth. “People would real choose up sides over an issue, and sometimes they ended up not speaking to one another for a while. But in the end, they all got over it and came back together.”
Through it all, Pearl’s was a voice to be reckoned with—a voice of common sense, intelligence, wit and charm. “Pearl loved to attend meetings,” says Kirby, “she spoke eloquently. I recall one particularly divisive meeting about plans for a future County library in Topanga. Pearl stood up and succinctly stated her well thought out position in support of the library. The room was hushed, as the rambunctious group calmed for a moment to listen to her.”
During last summer’s often-contentious meetings about the future of the Community House, Pearl was an insightful presence. When speakers would begin to bicker about what they believed the “old-timers” would or wouldn’t have wanted, she would pipe up, “Well, I think I’m the oldest member of the Club sitting here in this room, and I can tell you …,” then regale the crowd with a tale from the old days that put the entire controversy in perspective. She told of one previous proposal to sell the House, which she said drove the president to drink and had the members sitting seething on the beach all summer. When Pearl “had her two minutes worth at the microphone, the House grew quiet as the audience listened with admiration to this very old woman who spoke so well about the early days of the Woman’s Club,” says Kirby.
The Gift of Humor
Part of Pearl’s ability to take strong stands on contentious matters and still maintain her many and varied close friendships was her gift of treating disagreements with humor. Pearl, and husband Bill, were among that rare species in Topanga—Republicans. Kirby (who is not) recalls the memorable day, sitting a Pearl’s kitchen table, when she first learned that fact. “I stopped dead, stared at them, and said softly, ‘You’re kidding me.’
“‘No. We’re not,’ they said. ‘We’re Republicans!’
“’You mean you like George Bush?’ I squeaked out.
“’Yes,’ said Bill, ‘and I think he’s doing a darn good job.’”
Kirby says her jaw probably dropped a good inch. Pearl defused the awkward situation. “Pearl looked at me with her laughing shrewd eyes and said, ‘You mean, “How can we be Republicans and be such nice people?”’”
Pearl was the lynch pin of the Topanga Historical Society for many years. Leslie Carson remembers Pearl, as the Society’s treasurer, bringing her the rent check until just recently; she gave up the job only when she felt her waning eyesight might cause her to make a mistake. For the same reason, she decided a year ago to change from a voting board member to an emeritus member.
Just four days before she became ill, she accompanied Kirby to a local history event at Malibou Lake. “I can’t hear very well,” she said, “and I can’t see, but I’d love to go.” The morning was beautiful and Pearl enjoyed seeing the general outlines of the mountains as the two women drove along Mulholland Highway.
Pearl sat at the Topanga Historical Society table all day, speaking with people who stopped be and visiting with Dan and Roberta Kirby and with Scott and Anahita King who were there as well.
At day’s end, after Kirby pulled her car into the Sloans’ driveway, the two friends sat for a while in the car, talking on as they often did, says Kirby.
“Those driveway conversations were some of the best we had—quiet talks, intimate talks. Not news anymore, but two best friends getting down to what seemed important to us. I know Pearl had these kinds of talks with many of her best friends, and I’m glad to have had this last one with her.”
The following week, Pearl fell ill, suffering from what were originally thought to be mere stomach pains. By March 14, the pain had progressed to the point were Bill was worried enough to call Pearl’s long-time friend, Kathy Virkler, who took Pearl to the hospital. Pearl underwent exploratory surgery, where it was discovered that her intestines had completely shut down. Doctors made her as comfortable as possible as the family gathered around. Jon Sloan, his wife Kathy, daughter Leah, and son Tyler were with Pearl all day on the Sunday before she died. Bill, Miriam, and granddaughter Ashly (the daughter of Bill, Jr.) took up their watch that night and were at Pearl’s side when she passed in her sleep at 3:50 a.m. on Monday, March 26.
Pearl is survived by her husband Bill; her children Bill, Jr., who resides with his family in Ann Arbor, Michigan; Dave, of Fayetteville, Arkansas; Jon, who resides with wife Kathy in Saugus, California; Miriam Sloan Warner, of Reseda, California; and Barbi Sloan, of Martinsville, Indiana. She will also be missed by her grandchildren Jennifer, Heather, Seth, Ashly, Silas, Drew, Joe, Tony, Nick, Rocky, Carli, Leah and Tyler; and her great-grandchildren Cedrick, Cloan, Max, Jordan, Bijou and Gus, as well as her many friends.
One of the things the ever-growing family of children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren will hold most dear in their memories of Pearl was her unconditional love and acceptance, says Miriam, who is the family spokesperson. “All five of us experienced a divorce,” says Miriam of herself and her siblings. “We’d come to her with our problems or what was going on with the kids. She was unconditional in her love, never judging, always reassuring us, ‘Don’t worry. Things will turn out just fine.’
“And for the grandkids—it didn’t matter what they did. Pierce themselves. Not go to college. Wreck the car. Her welcome was warm and and unconditional regardless. Not to say she didn’t nudge them along. But she always believed they would sally forth and do the right thing. That solid rock of Granny and Grandpa and the tree was like a Rock of Gibraltar for the whole family.”
Pearl Sloan “lived life large” in her daughter’s words, and it was a life free from regrets. Once, when Miriam was going through her mother’s old things in preparation for her parents’ 50th anniversary celebration, she discovered letters and memorabilia revealing a facet of her mother’s life back in Chicago Miriam had been previously unaware of. Pearl had been interested in theater. She didn’t act, but she and Bill built the sets for a community theater, and Pearl did a great deal of behind the scenes work.
“I asked Mom, ‘Did you ever feel like you got wrested away from that to come to Topanga and raise five kids?’
“She just shook her head and said, ‘No. We did that. It was great. But that was then. Then we came here, and here we had different things. We had a wonderful family and lots of grandkids. We’re growing a group of great-grandchildren.’
“Mom’s philosophy was, ‘Plant your garden in the dirt you have.’ She didn’t look back. She was forward-looking. And she had no regrets.”
A Celebration of Life
The family has extended an open invitation to her friends and neighbors to a celebration of the life of Pearl Sloan at 2 p.m. on Saturday, April 7, at the Mountain Mermaid. Parking will be provided at the Topanga Community House, 1440 North Topanga Canyon Boulevard, with transportation to the Mermaid by shuttle. (Guests are asked not to drive directly to the Mermaid due to fire-safety concerns over on-street parking limitations.) There will be an old-fashioned potluck feast, reminiscent of the many similar Topanga events Pearl enjoyed over the years. The family will provide celebratory drinks, and guests are asked to bring their favorite dish and to R.S.V.P. to Ami Kirby at (310) 455-1969.
To submit a written remembrance of Pearl’s life for the Messenger, e-mail [email protected] with contributions by noon, Monday, April 9.
FROM LETTERS TO THE EDITOR
Sloan Family Thanks Messenger Community
BY MIRIAM SLOAN WARNER
On behalf of Dad and the entire Sloan family, I would like to extend our profound thanks to the Messenger for the wonderful remembrance of Mom [“Passages: Remembering Pearl Sloan,” Vol. 31 No. 7, April 5, 2007]. The article certainly caught the essence of who she was, though of course only touched upon all of our memories. Those memories, and the memories of so many others, were shared at the celebration of her life last Saturday [April 7], in a send-off that she would have appreciated so very, very much. A glorious potluck from the neighbors, plenty to drink and lots of conversation. It was a party that no one seemed to want to leave, and as I sat with Ami Kirby (many thanks to her, Kathy Virkler, Bill Buerge, Gail McTune and so many others for their tireless efforts on our behalf), and looked around the room at all the various groups deep in conversation—smiling, laughing and perhaps crying just a little—we decided that Mom’s spirit was probably perched on the great chandelier at the Mermaid joyfully watching everyone having such a wonderful time. It matters not the reason friends and family gather—just that they gather. Thank you all. For all who have asked, donations in Pearl’s memory may be made to the Topanga Historical Society, and the family plans to bequeath a copy of Mom’s “letters home” during their early years in the Canyon, which our grandmother saved.