Edited from an article by Jeff Booth
A beautiful little canyon in Los Angeles has had a significant influence on two alternative lifestyles. Bordered at one end by the San Fernando Valley, the porn capital of the world, and the Pacific Ocean at the other, Topanga Canyon was home to both Sandstone and Elysium during the New Age Movement of the late 20th Century.
The Swingers of Sandstone
Sandstone was the model for modern swinging and the many commercial clubs that are now across the country. Founded by John and Barbara Williamson in 1969, it was situated on 15 acres, with a large house, pool and other amenities. It was a unique and safe environment for people to experiment sexually.
Swinging was first reported by the media in the 1950's as "wife-swapping". Swinging quietly evolved primarily in the Hollywood area and in Berkley, but there was also early activity in Chicago and New York. By the spring of 1972 there were eighteen party houses and social swing clubs in Southern California, primarily in Hollywood, Los Angeles and Orange County.
Unlike the other clubs, Sandstone had not just a sense of community, but a feeling amongst attendees that they were participating in something important. Lectures and seminars were held, and there was an air of intellectuality. It was about more than just sex, and people became friends. Also unlike at other venues of the time, people used their real names and became close friends with their fellow members.
Art Kunkin, founder of the Los Angeles Free Press, was a frequenter of Sandstone, where he says it was like a second home. He told me often it had been one of the peak experiences of his life.
Sandstone was originally planned as an intentional community and a showplace for alternative living. John Williamson had hoped that it would act as a model for other groups, something that never really happened.
Sandstone lasted just 4 years. Perhaps it was the natural evolution of swinging that doomed it to failure, but other groups like Family Synergy and Live the Dream sprang from its roots and still exist today, two decades later.
The Nudists of Elysium
A longer lasting Topanga Canyon icon was the Elysium Institute, founded by Ed Lange in the mid-1960's. It was the only nudist resort in Los Angeles County. After fighting the County for a quarter of a century to stay open, and finally getting a conditional use permit, it was problems with the landlords (the late Lange’s daughters) that finally caused them to lose the lush and tranquil property that had been their home for 33 years.
There was an aborted attempt to recreate Elysium in a remote Malibu canyon, but it was too far, too undeveloped, and too undercapitalized to have much of a chance.
Ed Lange used money from the sales of his nudist publications to finance Elysium, and it was his involvement with the courts in getting the old Comstock laws repealed that made it possible for him to publish in the first place. Those court decisions made it legal to send nudist magazines through the mails, and also opened the doors for magazines such as Playboy.
Nudist clubs began at the turn of the century and arrived in the U.S. in 1929. Up through the 1950’s, they were regularly raided by authorities. By adopting an almost puritanical attitude about sexuality, they were able to deflect much of the criticism and keep their doors open.
These attitudes are still prevalent today, which is why Kris and I are not welcome at many nudist clubs. Kris has a clit piercing, which is forbidden by two clubs that we know of in Southern California. They also forbid singles, gays, belly chains, and many types of bodily contact, including full contact hugging. They have rules that require everyone to be nude all of the time.
According to June Lange in an interview when Elysium first opened, “The taboos were enormous. They squeezed the humanity out of people in order to prove that nudism was innocent”. At the time, many nudist clubs had “no touching” rules, and you were not allowed to look at another person lower then their neck.
Elysium wanted to be something different. They had a policy of being clothing optional, and at the time, this was a very controversial thing to do in the nudist community. Traditional nudists thought that wearing clothes was more sexual in a nude environment. Elysium also offered nude massage on the lawn, another aspect that shocked traditional nudists. They were ahead of their time, and what they created in the 60's was the precursor to modern clothing optional resorts.
In those early days I must admit there was some swinging going on at Elysium, although it was not as out in the open as at Sandstone. (It also was going on at other nudist clubs at the time, but they never had the courage to admit it because that was one of the "taboos.") By the time we joined Elysium in the mid-1980's, however, the "meditation rooms", the last vestiges of their wilder days, were closed and the "crazy" permissiveness of the 60's and 70's had been replaced by the fear of herpes and AIDS. Interestingly, even to this day a quarter century later after they closed, the "Meditation Rooms" is what Elysium is best remembered for among the nudist establishment instead of the other pioneering innovations Lange brought to the naturist movement.
We found Elysium to be a much more relaxed environment than other clubs. People could hug and touch, and while overt sexuality and genital touching was forbidden, there was not the paranoia about simple touching found at so many nudist places. It was a wonderful, loving, and sensual environment.
Up the steps on a little hill above the lawn was a very large hydropool that could hold about 50 people when full (often it was.) We spent many hours there visiting with people, the air scented by the eucalyptus trees that provided afternoon shade. You could spend a lazy afternoon sitting on blankets on the lawn, chatting with friends, and appreciating the many nude forms that dotted the lawn. It was a very social place.
I wound up having long term sexual relationships with two of the women I met at Elysium. The two times I had sex there was very late at night in the hydropool when there was no one else around except Kris. Of course, open sex could get you kicked out if you got caught, but we never did.
Before Ed Lange died, I posed naked in the background of a photo of Ed that appeared in the Los Angeles Times, my first appearance naked in print. I also did my naked magic show there, which was aired on Extra on NBC and mentioned on radio stations across the country, including the Paul Harvey News. They all made mention of how difficult it would be for me to hide things, which was certainly true. The 4-minute clip used on the TV show "A Current Affair" used a top hat to cover my privates. I was glad they used a large hat.
One night a month -for five years!- we created a gourmet meal at Elysium for from 20 to 40 people. From an authentic 15th century wedding feast to a meal based on aphrodisiacal foods, we had great fun preparing elaborate meals. Like sex, sharing food is a wonderful and sensual experience that brings you closer together, and it is also better enjoyed in various stages of undress (although cooking naked can be very dangerous).
It was also at Elysium, during a class Kris was teaching on Tarot card reading, that she read my cards and told me that my life would change dramatically and that I would find new intimacies in my life. Shortly thereafter we got married.
We will certainly miss Elysium. It was a special, magical place, and with its passing, an era passed with it.
Reprinted with permission from the Dr. Susan Block Institute