Fifty shades of Seattle

For an update about the movie, click here.

Way back in 1884, author Helen Hunt Jackson wrote a novel called Ramona, about the trials and tribulations of a half-Indian woman as Southern California fell under U.S rule decades earlier. Despite its dark themes of greed, racism and murder, the book caught the popular fancy in an unexpected way.

Although the specific events were fiction, tourist-attraction opportunities presented themselves pretty quickly to enterprising locals in what would become the world center of make-believe. A San Gabriel Valley house touted as Ramona’s birthplace. A San Diego villa said to be her wedding site. An Indian reservation grave called her final resting place (although at novel’s end Ramona was still very much alive and living in Mexico City). To accommodate the throngs, the Southern Pacific even built a rail spur just north of Los Angeles in the Santa Clarita Valley–where I lived before becoming New To Seattle–and put a station next to a hacienda where Ramona supposedly grew up. Indeed, the marketing of Ramona’s image is credited with helping to generate the first of Southern California’s many wild population booms and waves of prosperity. Still in print, Ramona has been made into a movie four times, the last starring Loretta Young and Don Ameche.

Ramona came to mind amid the current hoopla over the run-away success of Fifty Shades of Grey. That’s the first in a trilogy of what admirers and critics alike are calling “mommy porn” for its explicit descriptions of BDSM and other kinky activities in a format acceptable to upscale female purchasers. (Since this is a family blog, you’ll have to Google or Wiki BDSM yourself to get more details).

You see, the books are all set in Seattle. So I perceive another fine marketing opportunity for the fine folks at Seattle’s Convention and Visitors Center. The organization currently is looking for a replacement gimmick to its aging promotion of the slightly suggestive and somewhat ridiculed “Metronatural Seattle.”

The author of Fifty Shades, E.L. James, is said to be a 40-ish London mother of two and a TV executive. It is unknown (at least to me) whether the author has spent much time in the Seattle area.

But who cares?

Given Seattle’s overcast skies (229 days a year, tops among major U.S. cities), you might think “grey” refers to the weather. But instead, it is a reference to Grey Enterprises Holdings Inc. That’s a business owned by the youngish billionaire tycoon Christian Grey, described as “Seattle’s richest bachelor” (move over, Paul Allen).  Grey Enterprises is located in downtown Seattle in “a huge twenty-story office building, all curved glass and steel, an architect’s utilitarian fantasy, with Grey House written discreetly in steel over the glass front doors.” It has a “glass, steel, and white sandstone lobby” that the first-person narrator, the soon-to-be dominated college student Anastasia Steele, finds “frankly intimidating.” (Steele, by the way, attends the Washington State University campus in Vancouver, Wash.)

The books are full of repeated references to the beauty of Seattle and its surroundings. Reaching the waiting room for Grey, whom she is interviewing for her college newspaper, Steele encounters “a floor-to-ceiling window that looks out through the city toward the Sound.” She writes, “It’s a stunning vista, and I’m momentarily paralyzed by the view. Wow.” [Italics in the text]

At another point, Steele goes outside to experience “the bracing, cleansing, damp air of Seattle” and “the cool refreshing rain.” Still later, after she wakes up one morning, “a glorious Seattle morning greets me.” There are references to pretty days on the Alaskan Way Viaduct and numerous Seattle area features–Mount Rainier, Bainbridge Island, Fifth Avenue. And this: “I had not really appreciated how beautiful and rugged Seattle’s surrounding landscape is–verdant, lush and temperate, tall evergreens and cliff faces jutting out here and there. It has a wild but serene beauty on this glorious sunny afternoon that takes my breath away.”

There are a few climatologically snippy moments. Steels writes about the person giving her a massage at Sea-Tac Airport: “He was a very nice young man, in a blond, perma-tanned way–honestly, who has a tan in Seattle? It’s just so wrong.” But not many.

The books contain throw-away references to The Seattle Times--a crossword puzzle, an internship, a published photo of Steele with her new squeeze–cancellation of a Boeing plane order, and Northwest Hospital. Someone is building “a new eco-friendly community to the north of Seattle.”  Making an appearance: an online gossip site called the Seattle Nooz.

In my cursory review of the trilogy, there’s not much that seems to tie the plot to anything unique to Seattle (other than, perhaps, giving a new meaning to Sleepless in Seattle). The city essentially is just a glamorous setting.

Christian Grey has a swank high-rise pad, where a lot of interesting stuff happens, located at “301 Escala, Seattle WA 98889.” As best I can tell, neither the street nor the zip code exists (although, as a commenter points out below, there is a high-rise condo building named Escala on Fourth Avenue in downtown Seattle). But hey, that didn’t stop the promoters of Ramona from successfully fashioning must-see venues for the out-of-town rubes.

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Fifty shades of Seattle — 12 Comments

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  5. “Escala” is, though, the name of a new glam condo building at 1920 4th Ave. I don’t think Mr. Grey would have bothered with a 3rd floor unit, though, looking across the street at, is it?, bed bath and beyond.

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