Ella Thorp Ellis, author of her memoir Dune Child
spoke at the El Cerrito Meher Baba Center August 2011. She met Meher
Baba when she was 6 ½ years old. The year was 1934, Christmas Day, in
the middle of the Great Depression. Oceano, where she lived, was an
artists' community that had sprung up on the extensive sand dunes south
of Pismo Beach and San Luis Obispo, 190 miles north of Los Angeles. Sam
Cohen had met Baba in 1932, and when Baba returned to Hollywood in
December 1934 to work on the screen play of his movie, Sam wired Baba
inviting him to visit the beach community where he lived. There were 18
people in Baba's retinue when he traveled to Oceano. They spent only two
days but left a lasting impression on the inhabitants.
impressions began on the beach sitting on a gunnysack full of clams at
age four. The artists' community survived on clam chowder and culled
vegetables from the local produce packing plant. They supplemented their
diet with a rare goose or swan that a neighbor might shoot with a
shotgun. They all suffered from a common ailment, deficiency of vitamin
M, or money, as Sam Kerawala describes the malady.
Ella was the
only child living in the dunes. She had a dog named Dribbly and a goat
named Dancer. "Dribbly, named after a dribble of white spots down his
throat and chest, loved everyone but he loved Dunham [Ella's father] and
me the most. He followed us everywhere, tail wagging, and soon even the
coyotes accepted him. Our goat, Dancer, also black and white and only a
little bigger, apparently thought Dribbly was her kid. At least that's
how my mother explained why Dancer herded and licked the dog. They often
slept curled up together. Sometimes I'd curl up and nap with them."
This gives you a sense of Ella's style in Dune Child
and in conversation.
book is populated with extraordinary characters, poets, novelists, and
artists. Novelists John Steinbeck and Upton Sinclair, and photographers
Edward Western and Ansel Adams make brief appearances. Her father,
Dunham, was the editor of a literary journal, Dune Forum
then the co-manager of Upton Sinclair's gubernatorial campaign, the well
known EPIC plan, End Poverty In California. Ella and Upton did not hit
it off at all. "I was more comfortable
talking books and gardens with Halcyon ladies than trying to play with
children, something I was having trouble learning to do, only partly
because I didn't run as well as kids who hadn't had polio. Besides,
everyone in Halcyon was a Theosophist. Winonah said this meant they
shared both love and food, which was better than socialism where you
only shared food. My mother said Theosophy was a mixture of the teaching
of Jesus and of Hindu Avatars."
When word came that "the Baba"
was to arrive with a retinue of 18 others, the community built a cabin
for him to sleep in. They expectantly awaited his arrival. "The Sri
Meher Baba traveled with a retinue that sounded to my mother like the
court of King Arthur. Princess Norina Matchabelli of the perfume family
and Mrs. Patterson, heiress to the Chicago Tribune, particularly
interested Marion [Ella's mother].". . . "It was during the building of
the Sri Meher Baba's guest house that I came to know Sammy Cohen, a
Dunite who lived in a cove about a mile down the dunes, near the poet
Hugo Seelig. Gavin and the heiress Mrs. Patterson hired Sammy to help
build the Baba's house because he'd become a devout Hindu and,
therefore, the Baba would feel Sammy's good karma. Sammy had even read
the Baba's writings. I became Sammy's shadow. He was young and laughed a
lot and would tell me incredible stories of his father's sausage
factories in Brooklyn. Sammy loved his parents but he had to leave
because he'd converted to Hinduism and could no longer eat even kosher
When Baba at last arrived at the Dunes, Ella was
walking with poet Hugo Seelig. "Hugo and I were nearing the path into
Moy Mell when three touring cars filled with the Baba and his disciples
passed us and slowed to a stop." Ella wanted to run to the car, but Hugo
stopped her and together they watched from a distance. "Hugo grinned
but continued watching intently as the newcomers, led by a man with
curly brown hair to his shoulders, pressed their hands together. It
looked like praying, though no one said a word. . . . I thought they
looked like a royal procession, everyone walking straight and proud."
"Every Dunite from miles around appeared, bearing gifts of food or
drink, sitting quietly in a semicircle outside on a sand dune. Sammy and
Hugo were invited inside the community house for an audience but I sat
on a dune with Doggett." Then at last Baba called for Ella.
remembers Baba calling her to come and meet him, she remembers his
bright eyes, and that he kept her at his side with his hand on her
shoulder for perhaps five minutes or more while he conversed, in
silence, with the adults. She recalls his very animated face and how he
could focus his attention on the one he was talking to. "He put his hand
on my head and I felt warm all the way down to my toes. He pressed
gently and I smiled. I knew he didn't speak. I remember a greenish slate
and chalk but I didn't see him use it. He held an alphabet square in
one hand. He had an interpreter. I meant to tell the Baba how much Sammy
admired him, but there was Sammy sitting next to him. I don't remember
if I said a word, but I do remember feeling blessed in the warm glowing
light from his face. And I remember the happiness in my mother's eyes."
can still look out and imagine the Baba and the Princess Matchabelli,
and the heiress Elizabeth Patterson walking over the tops of the dunes. I
can close my eyes and call up the Baba, his robes blowing in the wind,
with the women in jackets and jeans and berets on either side of him.
The women were talking and it didn't seem to bother either of them that
the Baba didn't say a word. I can still hear the waves crashing onto the
beach behind them."
We were all quiet and gentle with each other
for a while after the Sri Meher Baba and his friends left. There was a
lot of meditating and talk of the soul. "We're a bit hung over on
spirituality," as Carl put it. "He's the holiest man we'll ever meet,"
Hugo said and my mother noticed tears in his eyes.
Ella's talk was recorded on video, and eventually it will become available. Probably Dune Child
will become a massive best-seller, probably in a few hundred years. It
offers a rare glimpse of the Sri Meher Baba and his retinue of a
princess, an heiress, artists and spiritual aspirants. Dune Child
is a complex story filled with joy, innocence, companionship, sorrow,
and disappointment. Ella's mother and father split up. Her mother
eventually was committed to a state mental hospital. Her father, though
successful in many ways, had three unsuccessful marriages. It is a story
enriched by the brief and bright appearance of the "Hindu Avatar". It
was a real joy to have Ella speak to our group.
Ella wrote a brief personal history to accompany a web page devoted to her writings. See the web site http://www.oocities.org/ellathorpellis/BioFrame.html
.At this site, one can also read Ella's synopses of her novels. Her synopsis of The Year of My Indian Prince
her novel published in 2000, tells the story of a teen romance
involving a young protagonist much like Ella herself at that age, a 16
year-old young woman who is confined to a hospital with tuberculosis.
Ella contracted polio as an infant and then tuberculosis when she was a
The following is her brief autobiography:
I think of home I see myself as a small child digging clams at dawn,
alone at low tide on a California beach. We were poor, I'd had polio,
and my father edited The Dune Forum
magazine for a literary
commune in the sand dunes. When my parents separated and my father went
east to found The Utopian Society, I was sent in to town to live with a
country doctor's family. Later I returned to live with my father, then
my mother, then an uncle who was a painter, part of an affectionate
extended family but always missing the last family and the dog I'd had
to leave behind with them. We drifted up the coast following the Pacific
Ocean, more at home with the seals and the surge of the surf than with
our new neighbors.
Getting tuberculosis as a
teen-ager and having little to do but read and dream eighteen hours a
day for three years probably turned me into a writer. I discovered that
what I liked to read were adventure stories that grew out of conflicts
between people who could surprise me, would spring to life and lodge in
my memory forever. I loved reading Carson McCullers and Anton Chekhov,
and I would have married Scott Fitzgerald if he hadn't already died.
put off writing to marry and have three sons and then to move across
the world to Argentina. There I began to write about people I loved and
was lonely for: my mother, my little brother. When we came home to
Berkeley, I longed for Argentina and wrote about saving horses during a
drought on the ranch where we'd spent summers, basing my hero and his
friend on two of our sons. I found that growing up in five households
had given me a treasure chest of characters, who could be called up for
any story I wanted to tell. However, any character worth the two years I
work on a book soon takes over. One day I'm writing about a boy named
Luis, based on my son, when suddenly this boy begins to talk and act and
think magically differently than any son of mine. I'm hearing him speak
as I type and it's getting hard to keep up. That's what makes a story,
and what makes writing fascinating, almost addicting.