Where history turned
June 5, 2008
FIRST, BECAUSE of what happened there 40 years ago today, it was a crime scene. Then it became evidence in a murder trial. The passage of time eased it from a place of horror to a place in history. And then bureaucracy consigned it — most of it — to a landfill.
On California’s primary election night in 1968, when Robert F. Kennedy walked from the joyous, luminous ballroom at the Ambassador Hotel into the kitchen pantry, and into the range of an assassin’s gun, he walked from America’s future into its sorry, bloody past.
What about that place, the hotel pantry, where history was unmade and remade in a moment?
The assassination turned out to be the last notable chapter of the storied and usually gloried Ambassador Hotel on Wilshire Boulevard, just west of downtown. George Washington didn’t sleep there, but Winston Churchill did, and Albert Einstein and F. Scott Fitzgerald and Nikita Khrushchev, sulking when he wasn’t allowed to go to Disneyland.
But time went by, and the chic hotels went west, and in 1989 the Ambassador closed. Donald Trump wanted to extend his edifice complex to L.A. and bought the place. The school district said it needed the property for schools, but then changed its mind in favor of something called the Belmont Learning Center downtown, and we all know how that turned out. A quarter-billion wasted dollars later, back the LAUSD came to the Ambassador.
The Los Angeles Conservancy moved in front of the wrecking ball to try to preserve what it could. Imagine studying American history within the very walls where Richard Nixon wrote the “Checkers” speech that saved his political bacon.
But the Kennedy family pretty much wanted the place razed and the ground sown with salt. Coupled with the LAUSD’s desperate need for classrooms, it was adios, Ambassador. The first of the three new schools on the property is supposed to open 15 months from now.
So where is the pantry now?
After the preservationists’ lawsuits and the environmental impact reports, the LAUSD agreed to pluck it out and maintain it intact. But the LAUSD’s senior project manager, John Kuprenas, told me that an engineer said no way. “Hold the bus,” is what Kuprenas told me the engineer said. “This plan looks kind of iffy.” The fear was that if the district “tried to take it out in a mass, it’d all completely crumble,” Kuprenas said.
So the pantry exists today not even as a kit to be eventually reassembled but in sample pieces — 2-foot-diameter cores of floor, walls and ceiling, along with doors, electrical panels and the biggest piece, the ice machine behind which Sirhan Sirhan stood, waiting to open fire. It’s all on 30 pallets, shrink-wrapped and stored in a secure, undisclosed location, waiting for a special commission and the school board to decide what historical institution might deserve them.
Except for some recycled steel, the rest of the pantry, along with most of the Ambassador Hotel, went to a landfill.
The schools’ new library will be built to the dimensions of the old ballroom, with a history corner with computer exhibits and maybe pages from RFK’s notes. A Judy Baca RFK mural is planned, as is a tribute to him in the park on Wilshire Boulevard. Ambassador artifacts, such as a bottle unearthed from the Cocoanut Grove, may go to Loyola Marymount’s extensive L.A. history collection. The Los Angeles Public Library will decide how to exhibit myriad photographs and a 3-D laser survey of the pantry.
And that’s it — the historical diaspora.
Much as I love L.A. — both the fake tinsel and the real tinsel beneath it, as someone said — in our grasping for the future, we let too much of our past fall from our fingers. The loss of the pantry is an especially sore point.
The pantry is of national significance because the RFK assassination was a national turning point, the “great perhaps,” as Kennedy’s friend, Pete Hamill, put it. And yet we knocked it down and swept it away like an outdated mini-mall. The Universal Studios fire that burned a fake New York street scene last weekend got more attention, and more lamentation, than the Ambassador pantry.
In Memphis, the Lorraine Motel, where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, is a civil rights museum. In Dallas, the sixth floor of the book depository from which Lee Harvey Oswald fired his mail-order rifle is a museum to John F. Kennedy’s assassination, and his legacy. And millions go to Ford’s Theatre in Washington to stand where the savior of the Union, Abraham Lincoln, was murdered.
Surely there could have been a way to preserve the pantry in situ, to keep it open where it stood, to keep alive the singular experience of “it actually, truly happened here.” What was in short supply was the political will to save the place.
Years ago, a prison chaplain who liked something I’d written invited me to interview Sirhan Sirhan. I went to Soledad prison with a Times reporter who had covered Sirhan’s trial; I didn’t know enough to contribute much to the interview, but I did shake the hand that pulled the trigger that killed Bobby Kennedy.
Then, late last year, with another fellow reporter, I got a look into the historical vault at the criminal courts building, a high-security storehouse for the evidence associated with renowned cases such as Manson’s and the Black Dahlia’s — and Kennedy’s.
There, in a storage box, was the dark suit Kennedy wore that night in June 1968. One sleeve was missing; one shoulder was still blotched with what I took to be blood. He was a smaller man than I had thought. With the back of my right hand — the same hand that shook Sirhan’s, I realized later — I made the merest contact with the fabric of the jacket. The galvanic circle of history crackled closed.
Saving the pantry for posterity could have delivered something of the same to millions brought up in a lip-sync, ersatz culture — an actual, authentic place where history stopped, pivoted, and took us down another road. No exhibit, no re-creation, no technology, however adroit, can evoke that.
Well, I should be grateful for small favors. Thank goodness they saved the clock tower from that “Back to the Future” set at Universal. What a loss to fake history that would have been.