Hollywood and Wine, just one intersection in Robert Lawrence Balzer’s life, shows how a blue-eyed, white Anglo-Saxon Protestant from Iowa relished his life as a Hollywood man about town in the society columns to ultimately creating a new American genre of wine journalism, literally developing the template for all wine writing to follow. His first article in 1937, four years after the ending of Prohibition, was the beginning of salvaging the wine industry decimated by its impact. For the next 60+ years, Balzer continued to legitimize the industry to the world and three years prior to the famous Judgment of Paris in 1976, his 1973 Chardonnay tasting in New York showed California wines besting French wines.
Alan Watts called Balzer a “marvelous coincidence of opposites,” a bone fide 20th Century Renaissance man with more lives than a cat: Hollywood celebrity, Buddhist monk, fancy grocer, wine educator, bon vivant, restaurateur, chef, actor, author, pilot, poet, painter, photographer, dancer, world traveler, philanthropist, radio personality, visionary. Embracing an aesthetic manifest destiny, for a full, rich, complex life, he squeezed a multitude of adventures into nearly a century, eagerly recalling them as his life offers both vivid entertainment and vicarious experiences to enrich the reader’s life.
Balzer was socially fluent across a stunning range of worlds, interests and issues, counting among his closest friends, President Ronald Reagan, Olivia de Havilland, Gloria Swanson, Joan Fontaine, HRH Norodom Sihanouk, Robert Mondavi, Baron Philippe de Rothschild, Burgess Meredith, Greta Garbo, Marlon Brando, Wolfgang Puck, Claude Taittinger, the Wente family.
“To give birth to a dancing star, one must have chaos within.” (Friedrich Nietzsche) Balzer lived according to his own rules, never playing it safe. He cut his teeth as a wine and food merchant to the stars on Larchmont Boulevard in Los Angeles and blazed a trail as a war correspondent in Southeast Asia, a Buddhist monk in Cambodia, a chef for three Presidential Inaugurals, receiving two cooking awards (one for $10,000), teaching wine classes for over 36 years and leading wine tours that crisscrossed the meccas of American and European wine culture. He penned a weekly wine column for The Los Angeles Times for 32 years, was the sole arbiter for the Travel/Holiday Restaurant Awards for 18 years and founded the California Wine Experience in 1981. His restaurant in Idyllwild, California, attracted Presidents, Hollywood celebrities, authors, a murder confession and more. Dancing with famous actresses he won Charleston contests, bought Rudolph Valentino’s home Falcon Lair, selling it to Doris Duke. The home he built overlooking the Hollywood Hills, next to Jack Nicholson’s future home, was coveted by Howard Hughes then sold to Marlon Brando. He met George Bernard Shaw and Noel Coward in London. He acted in plays, at home and with the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and in two movies. He was a hostage on a Bombay freighter, mentored by the Dalai Lama and Aldous Huxley among others.
Along the way Balzer forged lasting relationships: a loving 10-year marriage to talented actress Emily Lawrence, 20 years of intimate rapport with Gloria Swanson, a 30-year domestic partnership with James Willett and a lifelong friendship with Olivia de Havilland.
Many other stops in his 99 ½ years leave a tremendous legacy of friendship and a shining lesson in the potential of the human spirit emphasizing joy and optimism. Believing “the better part of one’s life consists of his friendships,” (Abraham Lincoln) Balzer said his life was blessed with wonderful friends, in all walks of life and was grateful for their gifts of understanding and spiritual strength. On the maiden voyage of the Queen Mary in 1936, he was still teaching, traveling and writing in 2008 when he took his students on a last wine trip to France.