He proved to be the greatest land-development visionary since Moses. Harry Chandler came to Los Angeles in 1882 to recover his health, which was shattered after a fall into an icy pond at Dartmouth. Back then, LA was a lawless backwater, murder capital of the United States. Chandler went to work as a paper boy for the Times and not long after married the publisher’s daughter. Through hard ward work and imagination, Chandler became the guiding genius in the development of the nation’s fastest-growing city, conjuring up such landmarks as the Rose Bowl, the Hollywood sign, CalTech, the Ambassador Hotel, Douglas Aircraft, Santa Anita, and the 1932 Olympics. He didn’t invite the Dodgers to Chavez Ravine (his son Norman did that). But he created the Salton Sea — by accident (an irrigation scheme on the Colorado River went awry in 1905).
Harry Chandler bought a lot of real estate — maybe a little less than Thomas Jefferson but in the same league. Famously, he made a water wonderland of the semidesert San Fernando Valley. First, he and a cohort of investment partners bought 44,000 acres in the Valley on the cheap. Then the Times persuaded voters there was a dire water shortage. Voters said yes to bond issues for a 250 mile aqueduct from the Sierra Nevada, engorging the aquifer under Chandler’s land.
Moses Hazeltine Sherman, who lent two of his names to Valley thoroughfares, was among Chandler’s favorite investment partners.
Running for mayor as a Socialist, Job Harriman won the primary in 1911 but lost the general election when the radical unionist McNamara brothers pleaded guilty to setting off a bomb in the Times building. Harriman was a local defense attorney for the McNamaras, alongside Clarence Darrow.
In 1914, Harriman left politics to establish the Llano del Rio collective farm. Located just north of the San Gabriel Mountains, near today’s Devil’s Punchbowl Park, the utopian community started with five families, each buying shares in the collective. The colonists built houses, two hotels for visitors and prospective colonists, a cannery, and various specialty shops. The crops included 250 acres of alfalfa, 200 acres of orchards, and 100 acres of garden vegetables.
Llano del Rio grew to 1,000 colonists, and then Big Rock Creek began to run dry. In 1917, the colonists packed up and moved to Louisiana — out of the frying pan of the Mojave desert, into the vegetable steamer. As soon as the colonists moved out, nearby ranchers vandalized Llano del Rio. All that remains are stone foundations.
Note: Click photos to see full size.
Arnaud Bontemps graduated from Pacific Union College in 1923 and got the hell out of LA, which by that time was advertising itself as The White Spot of America. Joining in the Harlem Renaissance, Bontemps drew attention as a poet and novelist. He later became the movement’s chief preservationist. At Fisk University, he assembled important collections based on the work of Langston Hughes and other African-American writers.
Bontemps’ first novel, Chariot in the Cloud (1929), was set in South-Central Los Angeles in the 1910s, when the city’s black population was small and mostly middle class. His first novel never found a publisher. His second, God Sends Sunday (1931), was based on the life and travels of a favorite uncle, who was a famous jockey. When his racing days were over, Little Augie rode the rails to LA and lived for a while in Mudtown, an area of “three or four dusty wagon paths” and shacks overgrown with morning-glory, gourd, and honeysuckle. Mudtown was a straggly rural patch beyond the more suburban neighborhood of Watts. As Bontemps explains, “Mudtown was exceptional. Here, removed from the influences of white folks, they did not acquire the inhibitions of their city brothers. Mudtown was like a tiny section of the deep south literally transplanted.”
Aimee Semple McPherson loved God and loved putting on a show. She made a career of doing both, but eventually — like many uniquely gifted believers before her (St. Francis, Shakespeare, and Quaker painter Edward Hicks, to name a few) — she ran into trouble.
Sister Aimee preached in white and wore high heels. Observers said she had a way of whooshing sexual energy around a room while preaching a simple Four Square vision of the Bible. Raising her arms was a favorite gesture, making audiences aware of the contours of her body, even in prayerful supplication.
Sister Aimee developed “illustrated sermons” with elaborate props, sets, and special effects, drawing on talents in nearby Hollywood. Big crowds came to her Angelus Temple on Sunday afternoons to see lavish productions such as “Arrested for Speeding,” based on the time she got a traffic ticket.
Overwhelmed by work, Sister Aimee disappeared for 36 days in the spring of 1926. Her followers were sick with worry, and the whole country read about it in the papers, especially after she turned up in Douglas, Arizona, telling an off-kilter tale of escaping kidnappers in Mexico. Other reports suggested she had been in Carmel, shacked up with radio technician Kenneth Ormiston. As shown in the photo, District Attorney Asa Keyes (left) and deputy Joseph Ryan (far right) went to Douglas to investigate. Also in the photo are Sister Aimee’s business manager/mother Minnie Kennedy, daughter Roberta Star Semple, and son Rolf McPherson. For a sense of how the scandal of Sister Aimee’s disappearance affected each of them, zoom for a closer look at their eyes and mouths.
Los Angeles is famous for its salvationist kooks, but Clifford Clinton was their polar opposite. He dedicated himself to making this world (and his city) a better place.
Clinton opened the Golden Rule cafeteria in 1931, well into the hard times of the Great Depression. The cafeteria operated as a for-profit business but had a policy of turning no one away if they couldn’t pay. For a nickel, you could buy a meal of soup, salad, bread, Jell-O (it’s protein), and coffee. Clinton had to open a penny cafeteria to keep up with demand — people lined up for blocks for vegetable broth.
Combining his first and last names, Clinton changed the name of the Golden Rule to Clifton’s and opened a second store. He remodeled both in 1939, with the original location getting an elaborate South Seas makeover, complete with a 20 foot waterfall. The Clifton’s still open today, at Broadway and Seventh, features a redwoodsy theme.
As a food consultant to the War Department in the 1940s, Clinton took it on himself to ask a Caltech biochemist to develop a food with complete nutrition for five cents a serving. The result was the soy-based Multi-Purpose Food (MPF), which fed the starving after WWII and later filled shelves in backyard bomb shelters. In 1946, Clinton organized Meals for Millions, now part of the Freedom from Hunger organization.
Unlikely as it might seem, somebody bombed Clinton’s house in 1937. It was not long after a grand jury investigation, led by Clinton, found rampant corruption in the police department. Suspicion fell on Captain Earle Kynette, who stood trial the following year for another bombing.
Sleepy Lagoon Murder Trial
In the Sleepy Lagoon murder case of August 1942, everyone behaved according to stereotype.
+ A gang from Downey beat up a 38th Street Gang leader and his date, which led to a counterattack later that night, which ended in a young man’s death from a stab wound.
+ The police rounded up all the brown-skinned suspects they could find, 600 in all, of whom an unlucky 22 were selected to stand trial. (The eight seen here remind me of kids I knew from high school, called into the office. Guilty or not, they’re in trouble, thinking of how they will face whatever comes next.)
+ Henry Leyvas was the star among the defendants — handsome, brash, and politically aware.
+ Do-gooders organized the Sleepy Lagoon Defense Committee, posturing in defense of a martyr made to order for the cause.
+ The judge, unable to tell one Latino from another, played his part to perfection, refusing to let the defendants have haircuts or decent clothes for the trial.
+ Mothers, sisters, and girlfriends celebrated and then grieved the vain heroics of young men.
Some 40 years later, the Sleepy Lagoon case inspired the play and movie Zoot Suit, about the stereotype of the defiant young man — how it empowers but also imprisons him. “My worst enemy, my best friend… myself.”