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 2½ 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.”