“Show up.”- Wylene Wisby Dunbar
A Brief and Informal History of SBWC
The year was 1964, and the glamorous celebrities who once wandered down Broadway Street in San Francisco had been usurped by topless waitresses and topless dancers, and even topless shoe shiners. Writer, painter, and owner of El Matador, Barnaby Conrad was ready to go, too. Barnaby Conrad closed El Matador. No longer would he welcome stars like Marilyn Monroe, Bing Crosby, Charlston Heston and Frank Sinatra, or the writers: Jack Kerouac, John Steinbeck, Alex Haley, Truman Capote, and William Saroyan. The beautiful parrots in the glass case -- one, a red macaw named Truman Capote -- were donated to the Santa Barbara Zoo. The paintings, the life-size portrait of Manolete, the matador costumes, the bull head over the bar, and the tables and chairs and bottles of booze, were sold, sold, sold.
Barnaby and his wife Mary packed up their family and all their memories of celebrity and the San Francisco nightlife, and moved to Santa Barbara where Barnaby would teach art at his alma mater, Cate School in Carpinteria. Santa Barbara was a wonderful place for Barnaby to focus on his writing and his painting again.
It was Fred Clark (then Headmaster of Cate), hoping to bring in some money for the school during their vacant summer months, who suggested Barnaby start a writer’s conference. Barnaby was already involved with the Squaw Valley Writers Conference where it had been his job to attract top writers.
The first year, in 1972, Barnaby called Ray Bradbury and asked him to speak at the conference. Ray responded, “I don’t know, my schedule is full. Who else have you got?”
Barnaby replied, “I’ve got Budd Schulberg, Clifton Fadiman and Alex Haley.”
“I’m coming, too!” said Ray.
Then Barnaby invited Schulberg, who asked, “Well, who else is coming?”Barnaby told him, “Ray Bradbury, Clifton Fadiman and Alex Haley.” “All right,” said Budd. “Then I’m coming, too.”
Barnaby ended up getting Ray, Budd, Clifton, and Alex Haley. It took Barnaby years to admit to this scheme, and he adds now, “I really was a con man.” They had thirty-seven students, four workshop leaders, and Ray stayed all week, sleeping like all the attendees in sleeping bags. The workshop leaders that year were, Jack Leggett, Nils Mortensen, Jerry Hannah, and Sid Stebel, who had come with Ray and has taught at the conference every year since.
The next year they had forty-seven attendees, Bradbury returned and Charles M. Schulz spoke for the first of many years to come. Though the conference had had a wonderful beginning, it was already growing out of the Cate School, and Mary had started hunting for a new location.
In 1975, the Santa Barbara Writers Conference found its home for the next twenty-five years at the Miramar Hotel. The historic Miramar with its beachfront bungalows has always been the backdrop for SBWC’s most fond memories. The conference lasted seven days, six dedicated to workshops because, as Mary says, “Friday was getting-to-know-you day—or getting to drink with you.” Workshops were a mix of both lessons and read-and-critique sessions. Salty ocean air wafted in through open windows and everyone paused as the trains whistled by outside. After class, you could find Joan Didion poolside in her big sunglasses, or spot Gayle and Dennis Lynds dining at the Santa-Fe Amtrak Railcar. On Monday night, if you were lucky enough to be invited, you might attend Mary’s cocktail party to drink martinis and discuss the great American novel with Jonathan Winters, James Ellroy or Gore Vidal. Any day of the week, you could watch Barnaby and Sid Stebel playing tennis with Charles M. Schulz or Walter Davis, and an assortment of willing opponents. After hours, around ten o’clock, the “Pirates” convened at a secret location, reading and critiquing, cigarette smoke clouding the faces across the room, acquaintances becoming best friends, sometimes lovers, until blurred eyes readied them all for just a few hours sleep.
Over the years, there have been many stories. James Michener came in ’74. Barnaby wrote him, asking him to come, but heard nothing for months. It wasn’t until two weeks before the conference that James responded, asking only that Barnaby pay the $50 for his flight change. James said he could only stay two hours. He stayed four days.
Irwin Shaw was driving from the Biltmore back to the conference one night with his lady friend and got his car stuck on the railroad tracks. Although both Irwin and his friend had been drinking, he ran to the nearest home and phoned the police. When the police arrived Irwin told them it was she who had been driving! She was arrested and Irwin was taken back to the Miramar to share his story. According to Barnaby, he did pay her bail.
From Barnaby’s Name Dropping: I invited Buckley to the Santa Barbara Writers Conference on short notice in 1977. To my amazement he accepted, flew out, and made a dazzling speech. When he prepared to leave the next day, I tried to press an honorarium on him. Knowing the size of our tubercular budget, he declined. “Let me at least catch your airfare,” I said. He shook his head. “This one’s on me!” How does one repay William F. Buckley Jr.? I devised a plan of retaliation: At the Bohemian Club’s summer encampment I snuck several candid photos of Buckley. Then I did a sketch from them and sent him the result. When he tried to repay me, I demurred, saying, “This one’s on me!” But when Buckley’s next book, Airborn, was published, I was sent a copy plus a large check, for instead of the author’s photo on the jacket was my sketch of him!
Eudora Welty came several years, and each time the Conrads tried to pay her. Eudora said once, “Why would I want to be paid for the best time of my life?”
But the times were changing in Santa Barbara. In 2000, the Miramar closed its doors for renovations after a sale to a developer. Meanwhile, the Conrads moved their conference to Westmont in 2001. But writers are notorious for being lushes and a contentious relationship soon developed between the conference and the Christian college.
In 2004, the Conrads put the conference up for sale. Several bids came in, but, they chose Santa Barbara local, Marcia Meier, as the new owner. Marcia kept the conference at Westmont only one year before moving it to Fess Parker’s Double Tree—a sprawling pink beachfront hotel. She brought in more agents, which became a draw for attendees. She also started the Young Writer’s Program and added a Master Class schedule.
The new hotel added an elegance that had been absent during the Westmont years. Attendees raved over the luxurious accommodations and spacious meeting rooms, and it seemed SBWC might have a new home. Then in 2009, the downturn in the economy put the conference on hiatus for two years and left writers to collect at other conferences, though none quite the same as our beloved SBWC.
In June of 2010, SBWC changed hands again when it was purchased by Monte Schulz, who has been attending the conference since 1975 and teaching since 2001. The 2014 dates have been set for June 7 - 12, and the Hyatt Santa Barbara has given the conference a new life. The Conrads have been a tremendous support. Their son Barnaby Conrad III, who now owns Council Oak Books, teaches a workshop and emcees the conference. There are high expectations for the SBWC to see its best days ahead, and the success of the 2011 conference proved that online workshops and tutorials have not put us out of business, that writers still need and want to shake hands and exchange business cards rather than click "Friend" or "Follow"; they want to pat eachother on the back during workshops and meet afterhours at the barinstead of scheduling a Skype date; they want to hear Clive Cussler tell stories and stand in line for an autographed novel, not buy Crescent Dawn on Kindle. There are some traditions that have not lost their magic to the ease and accesibilty of online tools and SBWC is certainly one of them.
We end this story with two men, both of whom were named after their fathers, who were born within a month of each other, and whose fathers supported this conference at its Cate School beginnings, Monte and Barnaby III will invite us lovers of words back for the 42nd Annual Santa Barbara Writers Conference.
(Thank you to Marla Miller, Monte Schulz, Sid Stebel, and, of course, Barnaby and Mary Conrad, whom I interviewed for this piece that I hope reminds us all what a wonderful legacy we are a part of.)
– Nicole Starczak, Director, SBWC