Writer and teacher Tom Filer, a 40-year resident of Santa Monica Canyon, died on February 26 at the Arcadia Retirement Village, his home since 2010. He was 87. Despite his deteriorating physical condition, he remained to the end, in his words, “okay above the neck.”
Thomas Hanford Filer was born in 1925 in Irvington-on-Hudson, New York, the only child of parents from well off, if no longer wealthy, New York families. He attended prep school, bound for Princeton, but upon graduation in 1943, he enlisted in the Navy and never really turned back.
Tom served in the South Pacific, dealing with the aftermath of the war on the island of Chuuk in Micronesia. Leaving the Navy in 1946, he worked for three years in the travel business, a position that brought him to San Francisco, where he decided to quit his job, move to California and make writing his life.
Tom enrolled at UCLA in 1949, majoring in theatre arts and developing professional skills and connections in the film school. But in 1952 he left UCLA and began working a variety of seasonal and part-time jobs, ranging from first mate on an albacore boat and free diving for lobster and abalone, to annual stints at Harrah’s casino at Lake Tahoe, where he rose from parking-lot attendant to running a craps table—all providing grist for his writing, besides food and rent.
Meanwhile, as a writer, Tom enjoyed successes in popular genres as well as literary fiction, providing the screenplay for Roger Corman’s science fiction thriller “The Beast with a Million Eyes” (1955) and the story for Corman’s “The Space Children”(1956). Tom even tried acting, playing Jack Nicholson’s sidekick Otis in Nicholson’s 1966 Western “Ride in the Whirlwind.”
In 1957, Tom received important recognition as a serious writer when his story “The Last Voyage” won the Atlantic First award. The story was selected for the 1959 O’Henry Prize Short Stories and included in “The Treasury of American Short Stories” (1980). In 1961, Tom’s first novel, “The Man on Watch,” was published to critical acclaim. He received major recognition again when his story “Civilization” (Chicago Review) was selected for the Pushcart Prize XXII: Best of Small Presses (1998).
In addition to publishing his stories in major literary journals, Tom enjoyed recognition and support through 15 fellowships from the Huntington Hartford Foundation, Yaddo and MacDowell Colony.
Tom’s move to Santa Monica Canyon in 1971 marked a major transition in his life. Renting one of the ramshackle summer cottages on what remained of the Villa San Pasqual picnic grounds that Perfecto Marquez created in the 1920s, Tom joined the small community of free spirits who thrived in this little enclave that time forgot. He became a teacher as well as a writer, offering creative writing classes through UCLA Extension and leading a private short story writing group, the Goat Alley Workshop, in his home.
Tom continued to live adventurously, however, swimming and diving year round in the ocean, exploring the Santa Monica Mountains off trail and taking adventurous trips to Europe, the Middle East (including Egypt) and Micronesia.
When the Marquez cottages were bulldozed in the mid-80s to make way for luxury housing, Tom found a guesthouse in the Canyon that he could rent as caretaker. Over the next 25 years, he wrote four novels–“Finding Mahmoud,” inspired by his travels in Egypt; “Haru-shima,” based on his Navy experience; “Civilization,” a fiction inspired by the history of Santa Monica Canyon; and “The Last Stand,” a fictional tribute to his little Canyon community and to his landlady Angelina Marquez Olivera, who preserved it as long as she could.
Like many writers, Tom was a passionate gardener who shared his life with a sequence of very good dogs–Hackly, Bok, Drushka, Lista, and Rojo–all memorable Canyon characters in their own right.
As a teacher, Tom conveyed by example as much as by precept that commitment and patience are as essential to the writing process as craft. He set high standards for his students as well as himself, often ending critiques with “Onward, however awkward.” His parting words were always, “Care well.”
Tom Filer was a great appreciator of nature, of the arts, of people. He had close friends in many walks of life and in many parts of the world. Writing, he said, was “a poor living, but a wonderful life.” He called himself “Lucky Tom.”
A memorial gathering will be held on Saturday, March 30, 4 to 7 p.m. at the Marion Davies Guest House, Annenberg Beach House, in Santa Monica. All Tom’s friends are welcome; RSVP at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (310) 573-0086.
This page is available to subscribers. Click here to sign in or get access.