Attorney to Hippie to Beloved Literary Gadfly. Steven Gilbar? Yep.

By Jeff Wing   |   June 25, 2024

Yes, there are people in the area you are more likely to have heard of than to have actually met. Jeff Bridges. Carol Burnett. Beloved local mononyms Ellen, Oprah, and Harry. Steven Gilbar is in this category, but with a caveat. The name rings a deafening bell, but where the hell have you heard it? Steven Gilbar. Steven Gilbar. You know these words. They haunt and pursue like the sourceless accusatory utterance in a Hitchcock movie. Then you meet the guy – “You’re Steven Gilbar?” – and realize you really don’t know him from Adam. 

The name drifts liltingly through the Central Coast zeitgeist due not to the familiarity of Gilbar’s mug, but because for decades the man has lavished heartfelt forensic attention on our adored Shangri-La. You’ve seen his innumerable trade paperbacks in colorful stacks at the bookstore, or staring up like beseeching velveteen puppies from the “impulse buy” section at checkout.

Gilbar’s decades-long gift to the region has been literary. He adores writers and writing and venerates both musical Mother English and the local lore she hoards. For some 30 years Gilbar has been hell bent on disinterring the alarming artists, mischief makers, and reactionaries lurking below the Santa Barbara/Montecito surface of olallieberry meringue. Thanks to Gilbar, we now know the Central Coast as a complex literary hotbed, yes – but also as a drain-circling gyre of delicious scandal, and a place murderers once frequented with some regularity, likely due to the weather.

Steven Gilbar is our Herodotus, our Plutarch, and our Studs Terkel – all rolled into one and attenuated to a stork-like height of around 7’. It’s time we got the guy sorted. 


The latest (and possibly final) offering (courtesy photo)

Having recently published a new book – Montecito Noir: True Tales of Murder and Mayhem in Paradise (with a signing at Tecolote on Saturday June 29 at 3 pm) – Gilbarhad intimated in an email exchange that he might be prepared to finally rest on his laurels (my words). In a mild panic I called a summit and we jammed at Renaud’s on Coast Village. Whenever I meet with Gilbar, his initial expression suggests he’s just heard something amusingly extortionate about me. This time was no different, but I’ve learned not to have my first word be “What.” 

Gilbar is tall, quietly emphatic, and bitterly funny. He combs his distinguished-looking gray hair straight back in the manner of NYC film actors and retired astronauts. Originally from Detroit, he’s been here for a while – living first in SF and later in what he calls Baja Montecito – and has made a mark. Gilbar founded Santa Barbara’s beloved Speaking of Stories, has his work and literary ephemera cached in UCSB’s Special Collections, and through the years has been reviewed by The Atlantic, The New York Times’ Book Review, Publisher’s Weekly, and the Wall Street Journal (a sampling). His forwards have been written by the likes of Clifton Fadiman and David Brower. Just don’t call him a writer. 

“That’s what I like about research,” Gilbar says. “It’s like panning for gold, and all of a sudden you get the nugget. Eureka!” Dating to the early ‘80s, Gilbar has spilled enough ink to have produced a canon. He calls himself a literary archaeologist. His M.O.? He drags the unexplored depths of the public domain in search of the sort of stirring and macabre and unexpected stuff that slithers around under pressure down there. These things swell spectacularly as you haul them up and yank them out of the water. That is, if you have a sweet tooth for colorful, digestible, eye-widening reads and are just learning of Steven Gilbar’s oeuvre, you have hit the freaking jackpot. But, like, who is he? 

Atticus Finch to Rasputin

Born in Detroit, Steven Gilbar got his B.A. from the University of Michigan in ’63; his J.D. from Wayne State University in ‘67. “I took the Michigan bar and I passed. I had a job but no passion. When I was still in school I’d already sort of had a breakdown. ‘I want to be an artist, Lord. Show me the way!’ The idea of being a writer was, you know, very appealing, very bohemian. You wear a black turtleneck and you hang out in coffee shops.”

Former Attorney Litigates Ultimate Truth (courtesy photo)

Gilbar’s mind was not on the Law. Around that time a couple of Harvard professors, Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert – Dr. Alpert would later go by the name ‘Ram Dass’ – started counseling youth to “Turn on, Tune in, Drop out.” This LSD-inspired advice ran somewhat counter to Harvard’s established pedagogy and all heck broke loose. But a bored young attorney got the memo. 

“I tuned in, turned on, grew my hair and moved from Michigan to Sausalito in 1970.” Gilbar was in good company as he disposed of his necktie, the established order blowing apart in a mushroom cloud of patchouli. “A lot of people were coming to the bay area from all over, wearing flowers in their hair,” he says – referencing Scott McKenzie’s poignant siren song of that day – “…but I was too old to be a hippie. I was 28 and I was on a spiritual quest. I met a woman who did yoga, and I sort of saw the seven cities of gold. ‘You can get there!’ said Papa Ram Dass. So I became a seeker. But I didn’t want to become an acid head.”

In the throes of the New Thinking, though, Gilbar couldn’t help notice the Olde Thinking waggling a remonstrative finger. “The first thing I did, I took the California bar as a backup,” he says. Curiously, the times they were a’ changing, and the sleeping attorney in Gilbar briefly awakened to the business end of the burgeoning revolution. “While I was waiting for the bar exam, Cesar Chavez had launched his United Farm Workers strike in Salinas, and that was going really big. He was on a hunger strike and it was all over the papers, and he needed lawyers.” But Gilbar checked himself, passed the bar, and moved to Marin. “I joined an ashram. I was there for two years.” 

Photos of Gilbar during this period show a haunted-looking Rasputin type in apparent burlap. “Basically, I took the bar, then went guru shopping. And then I was broke.” The Matthew Bender Company of San Francisco – one of the largest publishers of law books – was hiring. Like Al Pacino (sort of), Gilbar kept being pulled back in. “Matthew Bender was owned by Times Mirror, a big office building in the financial district.” Mr. Quicksilver did his thing. Again. “My hair had been long and I had a beard. So I shaved it all off for a really clean-cut look. I went for the interview and the guy that interviews me looks like Jerry Garcia.” 

Home to St. Babs and Literary Destiny. The Long Way.

Mr. Gilbar – anthologizing alchemist (courtesy photo)

Steven had married in ’74. “Deborah was a real hippie and had dropped out of college. But she went back to school, and we moved to Berkeley.” Gilbar commuted into the SF for a time, and Deborah graduated with an MSW. He had savings of about $30K and had a ‘70s brainstorm. “We had this money. We decided to take a trip around the world. At that time you could buy a one-way ticket on Pan Am, and you could take as long as you wanted. We did that for almost two years.” As the Gilbars were gallivanting, Steven’s dad retired and the family moved to Montecito. Steven and Deborah came back to the states and a new plan. Well, plan may be an overstatement. “I was sick of San Francisco, and we wanted to have a child. This seemed like a great place to do that. We moved here to Montecito and found this little rental. My wife got a job at Planned Parenthood as a sex educator.” His Deborah passed in 1983. The following year Gilbar remarried. “I have been married for 40 years to the beautiful and sweet Inge Gatz, who was for many years the social worker at Montecito’s Friendship Adult Day Care Center. Inge adopted and mothered our then 4-year-old son.

Writing legal briefs and doing whatever else he could to pay the Man (more commonly known today as The Landlord) while watching their child at home, Gilbar hit upon an idea. “When you go to college and you want to read up on something, you ask a professor ‘could you give me a reading list about this subject matter?’ So I said, what about a book that covers disparate subjects? And so I had this idea and I leavened it with some humor and some quizzes and some trivia. It was something I could do at home, and I loved the process. I finished it and sent it out, and I just kept getting rejected. All of a sudden, St. Martin’s press gets back to me”. St. Martins gave Gilbar an $8K advance, he finished the book, and they published it. “I was published,” he says, still sounding mildly astonished. And from there the serial astonishments proliferated. Gilbar’s technicolor reinvention of the anthology would prove a startling X-ray of our sedate home environs, and a serial feast for those who seek it.

Steven Gilbar will be signing his latest book (not to say his final work) Montecito Noir at Tecolote on Saturday, June 29 at 3 pm.  

A sampling of the many books written by Steven Gilbar. (courtesy photo)

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