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He’s at home in the field or nearby power tables

Former maitre’d works his way from Spago to USC

by Andrew Good
Joseph Hawkins
Joseph Hawkins is director of ONE Archives at USC Libraries. But in a former life, he was at the epicenter of fine dining in Los Angeles. (USC Photo/Dietmar Quistorf)

For students of anthropologist Joseph Hawkins, fieldwork could require a reservation at Spago.

Fortunately, Hawkins can make those kinds of arrangements. Wolfgang Puck’s legendary restaurant has never been easy to get into, especially at its original location on the Sunset Strip. After that location closed in 2001, it moved to Beverly Hills, where Hawkins would like to take his students for anthropological courses on class and status.

Hawkins’ path to academia has been unique. He currently serves as director of the ONE Archives at USC Libraries, the largest LGBT collection in the world. But in a former life, he was deeply entrenched at ground zero of LA’s fine-dining culture in the ’70s and ’80s.

After opening in 1981, Spago became the go-to hangout for Hollywood stars, industry insiders and all manner of glitterati. Hawkins served the likes of Johnny Carson and Jack Lemmon while working at Spago as a server and floor manager, and eventually as maitre’d at Puck’s other restaurant, Chinois on Main. In some ways, the fly-on-the-wall experience was a primer to the anthropological work he’s made his career and passion.

His introduction to L.A.’s star culture began in 1976, when he moved to Southern California after college. Like so many other local transplants, he found work in the restaurant industry, cutting his teeth at Robert’s at the Beach, a Venice hangout known for attracting black literati like Maya Angelou and James Baldwin. It also drew some well-known figures from TV and film — Lucille Ball, Orson and Caroline Bean, and a young Don Johnson, a decade before he became known on Miami Vice. A few years later, Hawkins had moved on to Michael’s in Santa Monica, where he “met all the other famous people I hadn’t met at Robert’s.”

“It was paparazzi-ville,” said Hawkins, professor of anthropology at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

From Quentin Crisp to Sly Stallone

Robbie Robertson of The Band was a frequent visitor, as were the designers Charles and Ray Eames. On one occasion, Hawkins served gay bon vivant Quentin Crisp. Sylvester Stallone sat one table over, close enough that they could — and did — share some conversation. It was a surreal example of how the restaurant scene brought together unlikely pairings that could only happen in Los Angeles.

In 1981, Chef Mark Peel of Micahel’s called Hawkins up and introduced him to a new name coming up in the fine dining world. Hawkins hadn’t heard of Wolfgang Puck before that call, but Puck had earned a reputation among diners of Ma Maison, another insider eatery that Carson often mentioned on The Tonight Show. But with the opening of Spago, Puck left a footprint that’s unlikely to be forgotten.

“It was like Camelot,” Hawkins said. “There was no one there that wasn’t famous. The entire book was kept so only the elite were in there. You had to have clout to get in.”

Especially back in the ’80s, Spago meant more than expensive dinners. Eating there was a rite of conspicuous consumption, Hawkins said, transforming the ambitious into deal-makers. There was a central dining area where high-status clientele sat, enjoying “power tables” that gave them the ability to survey and be surveyed by the room. If an agent was on the down-and-out, Hawkins explained, he might tip the maitre’d extra to sit among these power diners and look more important.

“In anthropology, we talk about how when you move through ritual, you move through status,” Hawkins said. “Usually we talk about cosmological ritual — you move from boyhood to manhood. You change from the unsaved to the saved. In Spago … the idea was that you were transformed into the wealthy, the elite.”

There were other areas, too, most notably, a patio known as “Siberia,” which was as far from the power tables as possible. Less visible sections were tucked in the back, but diners intentionally sat there to hide from their spouses, Hawkins said.

The ugliness of ego

Hawkins eventually started arranging Spago’s flowers — massive, colorful spectacles that were three to four feet across and about four feet tall. It took the better part of a day to arrange them.

In time, he started his own flower business for the homes of stars. Zsa Zsa Gabor, Eva Gabor and Hal Linden (Barney Miller) were all clients. He was also asked to do the flowers for Madonna and Sean Penn’s wedding.

“I was installing these water lilies in the pool, and when I came up, the water was in my face, and Sean Penn was shooting at these [paparazzi] helicopters with a Beretta,” Hawkins said. “It felt like I was in Apocalypse Now.”

By 1987, the ugliness of ego started to wear on him. People would make demands and ask, ‘Do you know who I am?’

“I would say, ‘No. Do you?’ And that’s when I knew it was time to go,” Hawkins said. “They didn’t want to hear that from me, and I didn’t blame them. I just didn’t want to be in the restaurant business anymore.”

Puck owned a restaurant in Japan, and he suggested Hawkins take a job there; a change of setting might do him good. He expected to be there three or four months; he ended up staying three years.

He fell in love with the culture as a whole, but found Japanese gay culture particularly intriguing. What had historically been unspeakable in the West was tolerated to a much greater extent in Japan, where a cultural space had been carved out for gay men and women. Homosexuality had long been a part of kabuki theater, where cross-dressing was a tradition. There were even recorded bar fights between samurai who had become romantically involved with kabuki actors.

“As my mom would say, they just ran up and down the Ten Commandments like they were a xylophone,” Hawkins said. “This was all really fascinating to me, and I wanted to look at it from an anthropological perspective.”

One of the schools Hawkins applied to was USC; he was accepted as a graduate student to start his PhD in 1990. In the intervening years, he would teach at several universities before returning to USC to teach gender studies in the anthropology department.

Today, Hawkins’ interests are more traditionally academic. As director of the ONE Archives at USC Libraries, he has helped cultivate and preserve one of the most unique collections of queer history in the world. Strolling through the collection, Hawkins can pluck out stories that in turns are inspiring, hilarious and tragic.

That material has come from closets, attics, garages — in at least one case a sex dungeon — and for Hawkins, represents a passionate anthropological project in itself.

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