83-year-old tells rich tale of the Dunes
By Gayle Cuddy
Ella Thorp Ellis recently visited her “old stomping grounds” in Oceano and Halcyon, giving a presentation in Arroyo Grande to discuss her recent book, “Dune Child.”
Ella, who is 83 years old and lives in Santa Cruz, spent five years as a child living in Moy Mell (Gaelic for “land of honey”), a colony of artists, writers, photographers and philosophers nestled in the Oceano Dunes during the Great Depression. She vividly describes several characters who lived there, including her father, Dunham Thorp, and mother, Marion Thorp.
Ella had polio at age 4 in Los Angeles. Her father was convinced by Hugo Seelig, a poet and Dunite, that she could be cured by Oceano doctor Rudy Gerber. Dunham (Ella calls her parents and other adults by their first names), a press agent for Joan Crawford, and Marion, a poet and violinist, saw it as a way to live off the land and write.
Dr. Gerber helped cure Ella by massaging her legs and encouraging her to trek through the Dunes. Moy Mell was about two miles south of Arroyo Grande Creek and several dunes in from the ocean.
Ella brings the Dunite era alive almost 80 years later, describing an idyllic early life with her parents and other Dunites, clamming, swimming, cooking, eating together and being the doted-upon child of the group.
There are, however, intimations of future troubles when she catches her father kissing another woman and mother kissing another man. Marion gets up at noon, leaving Ella on her own, and soon begins falling into trances, often not responding to Ella.
Fortunately, many kind-hearted Dunites befriend Ella. Ella likes visitor John Steinbeck, with whom she walks hand-in-hand, but not Upton Sinclair because “he doesn’t like a kid who butts in.” She loves carrying equipment for photographer Edward Weston.
At age 6, Ella went to live with the Gerbers and their daughters to attend Oceano Grammar School. She was devastated to live away from her parents.
Soon Ella went back to Moy Mell to avoid the measles epidemic and went back and forth between the two locales for several years, though Dunham was often away. At 10, her parents took her to court for their divorce. She had to choose between them. A difficult decision, she chose her dad, who took her to Berkeley.
Eventually, Marion went into a mental hospital, where she stayed for 22 years, finding comfort in running the library.
During the next few years, Ella would go back to live with the Gerbers, with an uncle in Washington, D.C., and back to San Francisco with Dunham.
She contracted tuberculosis at 16 and was hospitalized for 21Ž2 years. She decided she “wanted to get out and have a normal life with children.”
Ella met Leo Ellis at a dance, marrying him at age 21. They had three sons and nine grandchildren and are still married. She obtained a master’s degree in creative writing, taught at San Francisco State University, and has written several books.
They lived all over the world, including several years in Argentina. Ella is working on a book of historical fiction based on her time there.
Ella ends “Dune Child” with this: “My true home remains in the Oceano dunes facing the Pacific Ocean.”
—San Luis Obispo Tribune
—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
Santa Cruz County Stories, Ella Thorp Ellis: Writer, artist, 'dune child'
By Ann Parker
Santa Cruz Sentinel
Posted: 03/24/2013 03:57:53 PM PDT
Ella Thorp Ellis remembers walking hand-in-hand, at the age of 5, with John Steinbeck. "John liked kids," she says. "He asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I said, 'A writer -- isn't everybody a writer?'"
In Ella's world, everyone was an artist of some sort. Her father, Dunham Thorp, was a scriptwriter and Joan Crawford's press agent. Marion, her mother, played the violin and wrote poetry.
Born in Hollywood, Ella spent most of her childhood in Moy Mell (Gaelic for "Land of Honey), a tiny bohemian community and writers' colony in the vast sand dunes near Oceano. Founder Gavin Arthur, a "Dunite" himself, was the grandson of America's 21st president, Chester Arthur.
The Thorps moved to Moy Mell in 1932, after Ella was crippled by polio as a toddler; they sought help from a gifted Oceano osteopath, Dr. Rudy Gerber. In her candid 2011 memoir, "Dune Child," Ellis describes slowly recovering under Gerber's care: learning to walk again, swimming in the ocean and exploring her beloved dunes as the colony's only child.
"It was a very loving community," recalls Ellis. "I was brought up by about 30 different adults, all of whom adored me."
Artists visited Moy Mell regularly, including some who would become legendary. Steinbeck was one of her favorites -- "He and I just took to each other" -- and she idolized Edward Weston, carrying his camera plates while he photographed the dunes. Hindu mystic Meher Baba impressed her as "the most beautiful man I'd ever seen."
But Ella disliked "bossy" Upton Sinclair, who ignored her when he came to visit Dunham, his press secretary.
"He adored my father and wanted his attention. So did I. We were total rivals," she declares. "My father was my life."
In 1938, Ella's parents divorced and she moved to Berkeley with Dunham. Six years later, at 16, she contracted tuberculosis and was confined to a hospital bed for three years.
"I hated being in the hospital, but they thought I'd die otherwise," she says. "I decided that I'd read all the books I ever wanted to read. 'The Grapes of Wrath' was one of them." That Steinbeck novel is the focus of this year's Santa Cruz Reads program, Feb. 27-March 27. Ella attended one of the discussion events and spoke up toward the end, says project co-founder Janis O'Driscoll, who was present.
"She said, 'I knew John -- he held my hand,' " O'Driscoll recalls. "She told stories about Steinbeck and all of us hung on her every word. It was such an amazing gift."
And Ella's childhood words to Steinbeck did come true: She became a writer and is now working on her 11th book.
Praise for Previous Books by Ella Thorp Ellis
Faces the great experiences of life head on, realistically…a difficult subject, handled with insight and skill…
This book stimulates quiet, sober reflection. A reader will not easily forget the mother-daughter relationship…
…a thoroughly satisfying novel…”
—San Francisco Examiner
Vivid National Geographic-like descriptions of South American wildlife add an extra dimension to this novel about a boy facing tough decisions…Relating Paolo’s reverence for the natural world around him, Ellis deftly parallels animal instincts with human behavior…tensions between all characters are convincingly conveyed in this intimate eloquent novel.
Born in the Great Depression, author Ella Thorp Ellis grew up in a collective bohemian community on the California coast. Resident artists and writers, including her father and mother, were frequently visited by well-known figures including Upton Sinclair, John Steinbeck, Edward Weston, and Meher Baba. Former lecturer at San Francisco State University, Ella Thorp Ellis has been celebrated for her young adult novels, six of which were American Library Honor Books of the Year. Married, with three sons and nine grandchildren, she divides her time between Berkeley and Santa Cruz, California.
By Ella Thorp Ellis
Published: August 2011