Needs and Opportunities in Los Angeles Biography – Part Two: 1900-1940

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Needs and Opportunities in Los Angeles Biography

Part Two: 1900-1940

By Abraham Hoffman, Ph.D.

Historical Society of Southern California
Copyright © 2001 Historical Society of Southern California

As the twentieth century began, Los Angeles continued its pace-setting population growth, its boosters not even stopping to take a collective breath. From 11,183 people inhabiting a city of 29.21 square miles in 1880, Los Angeles achieved a more than 500% increase in 1890 to 50,395, aided and abetted by the real estate boom of the 1880s and the arrival of the Santa Fe railroad as a competitor to the Southern Pacific. Los Angeles ended the 19th and began the 20th century by doubling in size, to 102,479 in 1900. This number tripled in 1910, increased by 40% in 1920, and topped a million as counted in the 1930 Census. On the eve of America’s entry into World War II, the city’s size had grown to 450.83 square miles and a population of 1,504,277.

To match the population growth of the City of Los Angeles (and the growth of other cities and towns in Los Angeles County) would require an infusion of industrial development, and the region was equal to the challenge. With the 20th century came the motion picture industry, the beginnings of aircraft production, and the escalating replacement of agriculture by a boom in office building and housing construction. Southern California struck oil, and the area immediately west of downtown Los Angeles was just one of the many locations dotted with oil derricks. Los Angeles fell in love with the automobile and dedicated its urban architecture to accommodate the thousands of vehicles that soon jammed its streets.

Historians and other writers who remark upon this phenomenal growth frequently do so by making Los Angeles a collective noun, and as often as not use the city’s name in a negative sense. “Los Angeles dominated the economy of the region,” “Los Angeles took the water of the Owens River from Inyo County,” “Los Angeles lured would-be starlets who ended up as waitresses, prostitutes, or both instead of becoming movie stars,” “Los Angeles became a city in defiance of all logic.” And so forth. Such accusatory descriptions evoke the image of a malevolent beast, the dark side of the force, the golden ring that must be dropped into the nearest volcano lest it spread its evil throughout the world.

To see Los Angeles as a collective entity, whether for good or (more often) for bad, overlooks all of the diverse elements that make up a great city. Without those elements, there would not be a Los Angeles any more than a New York, Paris, Rome, Tokyo, London, or Hong Kong—places over-brimming with activity, vitality, and, of course, controversy. For it wasn’t just “population growth” that created Los Angeles—it was the people who came here or were born here, with their ambitions, motives, hopes, plans, dreams, schemes, and willingness to succeed that made Los Angeles the economic, social, and political hub of southern California.

A person born in Los Angeles in 1870, celebrating his/her 70th birthday in 1940, would look back on a lifetime in which the city grew from a scruffy backwater town to a major metropolis. Regrettably, much of that growth in terms of the built environment has been lost to urban renewal and redevelopment. Today someone born in 1930 might well have the same sense of nostalgia about the changes that have occurred since World War II. Ralph Story, who enjoyed a long career as a newscaster, commentator, and local historian, hosted a television series, “Ralph Story’s Los Angeles,” in the 1960s, and did two PBS specials, “Things That Aren’t Here Anymore” and a sequel, still occasionally repeated on PBS. Viewers are told about such places as Gilmore Field, the Pan Pacific Auditorium, the Richfield building, and many other places familiar to the generation of that time but unknown to young people today.

What is missing from these adventures in nostalgia is the sense that what is here now, for us, may not (or, more assertively, will not) be here at some point in the future. For someone born in Los Angeles in 2000, imagine the city in 2070 without Dodger Stadium, the Coliseum, or a Los Angeles River encased in concrete. Then imagine what their replacements might be. The alternative future history is also interesting—the Cornfields as an industrial park instead of an eco-friendly one, and how close Los Angeles came to getting one instead of the other.

The point here is that cities don’t just happen, not Los Angeles nor any other. People make a city happen, shape the way it grows and what it has to offer. That said, it is time to focus on what has been done (or not done) in researching the lives of those people. Many challenges and limitations need to be faced in pursuing “Los Angeles as Biography.” First and foremost, this essay is limited to books that present biographies. Article-length studies, whether in Southern California Quarterly replete with footnotes or popularly presented in Los Angeles or Westways magazines, are not included. Second is the reality that many subjects may not be marketable and therefore won’t or can’t find a publisher. A third problem is the lack of materials that would tell about someone’s life. And the fourth problem is getting people interested in doing the digging to see if those materials can be found.

Biographical subjects fall into at least three categories. The first of these is “prominent people with biographies written about them.” The word “prominent” requires some refinement, as the term may include celebrities, political figures, controversial people, or all of the above. Such people are far more likely to be grist for biographical mills than the second category, “people who did not achieve celebrity status except in a very narrow sense.” I recall a junior high teacher who taught at the same school in Los Angeles for 41 years, teaching three generations in the same families and winning admiration and respect for her dedication and effort. However, unless the teacher kept a diary and a life-long file of correspondence that dealt with more issues than a list of classroom assignments, and had lots of public praise from successful people who as children were inspired by her, there seems little chance of anyone telling her life story. Still, “unprominent” people may well include those who were successful in their own fields, though little known outside those fields, if there is a good story that can be told.

The third category offers surprises as well as challenges. Los Angeles is a city of nuggets waiting to be discovered, with biography the mother lode. It is astonishing to see just how many people there are who achieved prominence in their time but who in perspective are not examined by a later generation of historians and biographers. These gaps in local history wait to be filled, enabling us better to comprehend how “population growth” brought people to make their marks in the region’s history.

The first forty years of the 20th century in Los Angeles in many ways resembles our own time (and, of course, differs in many ways as well). People came to Los Angeles without much knowledge of its past, and they arrived in successive waves. In sharp contrast to the Los Angeles of today, however, these people were largely older and seemingly homogeneous—white, Protestant, middle-class Midwesterners was the stereotypical image. Below the surface were Mexican Americans, Mexican immigrants, Japanese and Chinese Americans and immigrants, and, with World War II looming, a small but growing number of African Americans. With the political and economic structure of Los Angeles firmly under WASP-male control, almost nothing about minorities appeared in newspapers, unless it involved crime, and the real estate covenants strictly limited where they could live. Digging up information on minority people in any field for the 1900-1940 period requires enormous patience, research skills, and a high frustration tolerance.

In 1929 Laurence L. Hill, the publicity manager of what was then called the Security Trust and Savings Bank, published La Reina: Los Angeles in Three Centuries, a valuable compendium of Los Angeles history, told through numerous photographs and celebrating the accomplishments of Los Angeles leaders. Thumbnail photographs of those leaders appear throughout the book, almost all of them white males. Some token acknowledgment of women is given, along with a very few people of Hispanic/Catholic and Jewish background. But for the most part La Reina tells the story of a Protestant, white Los Angeles, with little discussion of the stresses and conflict that marked the city’s history during this period.

21st-century residents of Los Angeles may see La Reina as a curiosity. Skyscrapers have replaced many of the downtown buildings in the book’s photographs, and minorities are well represented in politics, business, and the professions. World War II created a disconnection in Los Angeles history. Postwar population growth came from young people, especially veterans and their families, who moved to Los Angeles for the climate and opportunity. With the civil rights movement beginning in the 1950s, the face of Los Angeles dramatically changed. By the 1970s women were running for and winning public office in such numbers as no longer to be a novelty in politics.

Nevertheless, the first half of the 20th century created an infrastructure still influencing the lives of Angelenos. Many public and office buildings, schools, and business establishments date to this period. Public services were modernized, and new industries began that exercise enormous influence on people all over the world to this day. To ignore the people who made this development possible would place the Los Angeles of today at the mercy of a similar fate a half-century from now, when a generation yet to be born will be either congratulating our accomplishments or cursing our failures.

So let us examine the lives of the prominent and unprominent of the 1900-1940 era and pursue “Los Angeles as Biography” to see how we got here, and what needs to be done to find out more about the journey.


Even with the imposition of term limits, Los Angeles offers many examples of people today who have held office for multiple terms. Since 1953 only five people have been elected Mayor of Los Angeles: Norris Poulson (1953-1961), Samuel Yorty (1961-1973), Tom Bradley (1973-1993), Richard Riordan (1993-2001), and James Hahn (2001-). By contrast, in the period 1900-1938 no less than ten people served as mayor. Apart from a few articles, little has been written about them, either because their service was undistinguished or they were inconsequential when compared to the entrepreneurial leadership of the time. However, it is much easier to write off long-forgotten mayors than to examine their involvement in issues ranging from corrupt police practices to municipally owned water and power systems.

The little we know is tantalizing enough. Meredith P. Snyder (1859-1937) served four terms as mayor, three of them non-consecutive: 1896-1898, 1900-1904, and 1919-1921. Snyder advocated creation of the shoestring strip that would connect Los Angeles with San Pedro Harbor, and he was mayor when the city replaced the privately operated Los Angeles City Water Company with what we now call the Department of Water and Power. Yet no biography of Snyder exists to explain his 1919 comeback after fifteen years, nor are there any for the nine mayors who followed him: Owen McAleer (1904-1906), Arthur C. Harper (1906-1909), George Alexander (1909-1913), Henry Rose (1913-1915), Charles E. Sebastian (1915-1916), Frederick T. Woodman (1916-1919), George Cryer (1921-1929—the mayoral term went from two to four years under the 1925 City Charter), John C. Porter (1929-1933), and Frank Shaw (1933-1938). Fletcher Bowron bridged the prewar and postwar periods, serving four terms as mayor between 1938 and 1953; attention to his career will be given in “Los Angeles as Biography, Part Three.”

A minimum of effort reveals that these mayors were in the thick of political and economic controversies. Harper (1866 -?) and Shaw (1877-?) were forced out of office amid accusations of corruption and scandal; Porter proved ineffectual in coping with the growing economic depression of the 1930s; Cryer (1875-1961) presided over the transformation of Los Angeles into an automobile culture; Alexander (1839-1923) almost lost to a socialist challenger.

Charles E. Sebastian (1873-1929) could have been a mentor to Bill Clinton. Serving as chief of police from 1910 to 1915, he ran for mayor in 1915 and found himself facing some serious allegations. The charges included beating a disabled man to death in prison, keeping a mistress, and using his mistress’s 16-year-old sister as a lookout while Sebastian and big sister frolicked upstairs in a downtown hotel. Sebastian succeeded in getting the beating charge dismissed and was acquitted of the morals offense, but he openly continued his relationship with his mistress. A reporter obtained Sebastian’s love letters to his mistress, in which he described his wife as “the Old Haybag,” and published them in the Los Angeles Record. Under pressure from an aroused public morality, Sebastian resigned from his office, his wife divorced him, and he spent the remainder of his life in ever-decreasing employment opportunities and declining health. His mistress cared for him until he died. Incredibly, no one has attempted a life and times of this colorful and controversial figure.

The political fortunes and misfortunes of these mayors await further investigation. However, one need not expect that local history requires heavy doses of sex scandals and corruption. Los Angeles in the Progressive Era, roughly lasting from 1900 to 1920, had plenty of other issues, among them electoral reform, municipal water and power operation, improvements in public health and sanitation, and the protests of working-class people against employer exploitation. John Randolph Haynes (1853-1937) and his wife Dora (1859-1934) came from Philadelphia to Los Angeles in 1887, just in time to make a fortune in real estate, banking, and other endeavors. A physician by profession, Haynes was also a Fabian socialist, a strong supporter of the initiative, referendum, and recall, and a long-time member of the Board of Water and Power Commissioners. His life and career have been profiled in Tom Sitton’s excellent John Randolph Haynes, California Progressive (1992), and Haynes’s reform legacy continues to this day in the work of the Haynes Foundation.

Other progressive leaders from Los Angeles remain almost unknown except in footnotes. No biography has been written about Meyer Lissner (1871-1930), yet his extensive collection of correspondence at Stanford University Library has provided generations of scholars with invaluable insights into the state’s progressive movement. His Jewish faith seems to make him an exception to the Protestant image of the progressive, a detail that argues for more research into this period, such as been done by Tom Sitton and William Deverell, eds., California Progressivism Revisited (1994), an important anthology that urges a modern reappraisal of the progressive movement.

In 1911 George Alexander narrowly defeated Job Harriman for mayor. Harriman was an attorney by profession and a socialist in his beliefs. His defeat has long been connected to the trial of the McNamara brothers in the 1910 bombing of the Los Angeles Times. In many ways a tragic figure, Harriman is profiled in Paul Greenstein et al., Bread and Hyacinths: The Rise and Fall of Utopian Los Angeles (1992). Another reformer of the era, Katherine Phillips Edson (1870-1933), campaigned for woman suffrage and succeeded in getting California to grant women the vote in 1911, nine years before the nation adopted the 19th Amendment. Articles have been written about Edson, but the most important study is Jacqueline R. Braitman’s 1988 UCLA doctoral dissertation, “Katherine Phillips Edson: A Progressive-Feminist in California’s Era of Reform.” The dissertation merits publication, the sooner the better.

Los Angeles’s campaign to obtain a reliable water source to ensure the city’s growth has been well documented in recent years. Several studies have examined the Owens Valley-Los Angeles water dispute. Not until the year 2000, however, did a creditable biography of William Mulholland appear. Catherine Mulholland’s William Mulholland and the Rise of Los Angeles (2000) provides an outstanding example of how diligent research can recreate the life and times of a crucial era in the city’s development. The author’s admiration of her grandfather did not prevent her from critically appraising his accomplishments and failures—and from critically assessing the sometimes sloppy research some writers have done on the water dispute. The biography comes just as Hollywood has adopted the name Mulholland as shorthand for a film noir definition of the dark side of Los Angeles, as in the motion pictures “Mulholland Falls” and “Mulholland Drive.”

William Mulholland presided over the creation of the Los Angeles Aqueduct. Water also meant electrical power, but Mulholland’s counterpart in creating a municipal electrical system, Ezra F. Scattergood (1871-1947), is unknown outside of the DWP. Scattergood had to fight private power interests who opposed a municipally owned electrical system, and, as a grateful city should acknowledge after the state’s power debacle in 2001, he prevailed. Yet a biography of Scattergood remains to be written. So does one for Frederick Eaton (1855-1934), the man connected to Mulholland in bringing Owens River water to Los Angeles. A century after the deed was done, Eaton descendants still hold on to family papers, to the frustration of scholars who see the Owens Valley-Los Angeles water controversy story as incomplete.

Other public officials worth a biography in this period include Thomas Woolwine (1879-1925), who as an assistant district attorney investigated police corruption in 1907 and 1908 until Mayor Harper fired him. Woolwine had the proof, however, and Harper resigned. The people applauded Woolwine’s effort by electing him district attorney. Woolwine deserves more than a street name in City Terrace. A far more flamboyant district attorney, Buron Fitts (1895-1973), held the office from 1928 to 1941. He hated labor organizers and allied himself with Harry Chandler, publisher of the Los Angeles Times. His troubled tenure included a grand jury indictment for perjury, suspicion of bribery, and other misdeeds. Fitts even defended Mayor Shaw, arguably the most corrupt mayor in the city’s history. Neither Fitts nor Shaw have had full biographical treatment.

In contrast to Fitts’s controversial political record, John Anson Ford (1883-1983) is remembered as one of the best supervisors ever to serve Los Angeles County. For years Ford advocated the rights of minority and poor people, calling for progressive legislation and better government. He was elected six times as county supervisor, spanning the years 1934 to 1958. Ford lived a hundred years, a period long enough to write his autobiography three times: Thirty Explosive Years in Los Angeles County (1961), Honest Politics My Theme: The Story of a Veteran (1978), and The World of John Anson Ford (1983). Historians should do more than utilize Ford’s papers; he merits a major biography.

Ford opposed the crooked Shaw regime, and so did restaurant owner Clifford Clinton (1900-1969), owner of the landmark Clifton’s Cafeterias in downtown Los Angeles. Clinton was very much involved in civic reform, and his outspokenness almost got him killed; a corrupt police officer threw a bomb at Clinton’s home. Instrumental in going after Shaw and the police department, Clinton backed the recall of the mayor and the election of Fletcher Bowron as Shaw’s replacement. His work as a political reformer represents but one part of a career that included philanthropy and feeding the hungry during the Great Depression. With all this, Clinton awaits his biographer.

Another figure who made headlines in the 1930s, author Upton Sinclair (1878-1968), almost was elected governor in 1934. In what many consider the dirtiest campaign in the state’s history, a hostile press and business coalition maligned Sinclair’s character and reviled his “End Poverty in California” program. It should be noted that Sinclair lived in southern California from 1915 to 1968, mainly in Pasadena, writing best-selling novels and co-founding the American Civil Liberties Union. Ironically, no California library wanted his papers (the Huntington and Bancroft libraries both turned him down), so in 1951 he gave the papers to the Lilly Library at Indiana University. Anyone wishing to do research into the fascinating life of Upton Sinclair, or the people with whom he maintained long-running correspondence, must go to Indiana to do so. Of several biographies, see William A. Bloodworth, Upton Sinclair (1977) and Leon A. Harris, Upton Sinclair: American Rebel (1975). Greg Mitchell, The Campaign of the Century (1992), focuses on the 1934 election.

Los Angeles politics could involve gadflies as well as reformers and machine politicians. Andrae B. Nordskog (1885-1962) published the Los Angeles Gridiron, a weekly paper whose misleading title had nothing to do with football. Nordskog used it to roast his many political enemies. He opposed the construction of Hoover Dam, railed against the city’s policies towards landowners in Owens Valley, and disapproved of the creation of the Metropolitan Water District. Nordskog’s papers have been placed in the library at California State University, Northridge, where researchers may learn much more about this fascinating gadfly.

Kent K. Parrot (1880-19?) is a much harder research nut to crack. He worked for Mayor Cryer in the 1920s and was the closest Los Angeles may have come to a political machine boss, yet the Cryer-Parrot connection remains almost entirely unexplored. Given the importance of the city’s growth and such issues as public v. private power, buyout of Owens Valley property, and violations of the 18th Amendment, this period offers a very fertile field for research.

Then there was Griffith J. Griffith (1850-1919), remembered for his donation to the city of the park that bears his name. At the time some civic leaders suspected his motives, accusing him of making the gift to get a tax break. Griffith was a heavy drinker, and while in a drunken rage he shot and severely wounded his wife. He served time in San Quentin, and after his release he found the City Council wanted nothing to do with him or his park donation, refusing and delaying construction of access roads and facilities. The council also refused his donation of funds for a park observatory, but Griffith had the last word, leaving the money to the city in his will. In 2002 the observatory was closed for a three-year renovation. Thousands of people showed up for the last chance to tour it until renovations could be completed. Griffith and his park are profiled in Mike Eberts’s fine study, Griffith Park: A Centennial History (1997).

Before leaving the realm of politics, two other figures deserve mention. Eugene Biscailuz (1883-1969) served as Los Angeles County Sheriff from 1932 to 1958, the first person in the 20th century to be repeatedly elected to the office. Older residents will recall Biscailuz never met a parade he wouldn’t ride in, and he could be counted on to make his appearance on horseback every year in the Tournament of Roses Parade. A brief profile of the colorful Biscailuz is Lindley Bynum’s Biscailuz: Sheriff of the New West (1950), but more serious research should be done on his career and his work as sheriff.

On the opposite side of the law, Tony Cornero (d. 1955) operated the Rex, a gambling ship off the southern California coast in the 1930s, one of four such ships he owned. Patrons took water taxis to the ships 24 hours a day, to the despair of do-gooders who wanted his operation shut down. Cornero successfully evaded the law until 1938, and a few years later he continued his career in Las Vegas. Apart from a few articles, Cornero remains an understudied underworld figure and a real challenge to anyone who wants to explore his controversial activities. By no means was he the only person engaged in vice in Los Angeles during the 1920s and 1930s. Guy Finney, Angel City in Turmoil (1943) offers an introduction but is badly out of date.

In recent years local politicians have given their names to posterity by having public monuments named for them, the most heavy-handed example being Richard Riordan’s appointees to the Library Commission renaming the Los Angeles Central Library after him. There are too many other examples of this going on to accuse Riordan of exceptional hubris, but the practice of monument memory cannot substitute for how history may judge their deeds if not their arrogance. Except for Bowron, who clearly deserved Bowron Center being named for him, the mayors of the1900-1940 period have no monuments—hardly a statue, government building, or school. History has been brutally selective in erasing them from the city’s collective memory. Mayor Woodman (1872-1949) was luckier than the rest in getting a street named for him in the San Fernando Valley.


Whether a mover/shaker or merely a successful businessman, the people who promoted business activities for Los Angeles enjoyed a high profile in the 1900-1940 period. Known as “boosters” for their relentless support of Los Angeles development, these men were involved in oil, real estate, finance, and industry to the point that they identified themselves as “industrialist” or “capitalist” in the subscription biographies that lauded their achievements. They created exclusive clubs such as the Jonathan and California Clubs, using success as the criterion for membership while ignoring or excluding successful women and minorities. Jews from the pioneering era might still be included, but not anyone connected with the motion picture industry. More than most politicians of the era, they left a legacy of street names, schools (perhaps named for the street rather than the person), long-standing businesses and corporations, and law offices.

Frank Wiggins (1849-1924) earned much if not most of the credit for kick-starting the promotion of Los Angeles. A sickly invalid when he came to southern California in 1886, Wiggins regained his health and paid the debt by his long service as secretary of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce. He helped found the Frank Wiggins Trade School, forerunner of Los Angeles Trade Technical College. Wiggins created the “Los Angeles on Wheels” traveling exhibit that brought Los Angeles international attention when it was set up at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. For all this, a biography of Wiggins remains to be written, and with it the story of the growth of the city to metropolitan status.

William May Garland (1866-1948), another transplant who came to California in 1890, did much to boost the image of Los Angeles when he laid plans for the city to host an Olympiad. Years of effort through the 1920s, including construction of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, culminated in Los Angeles hosting the XII Olympiad in 1932. By profession an attorney, Garland also made a fortune in real estate and served as president of the state chamber of commerce. His career invites biographical study.

Town founders and builders did their share in boosting southern California, and while space limitations preclude a major roll call, a few are representative of their achievements. Leslie C. Brand (1859-1925) earned the title “Father of Glendale,” aided by the extension of the Pacific Electric Railway to the fledgling city. A true entrepreneur, Brand was involved in banking, real estate, and public utilities. He awaits his biographer. Brand’s contemporary, Moses Sherman (1853-1932), cast a wide entrepreneurial net as owner of the first interurban streetcar line in the city, land developer, and real estate speculator. Sherman’s position as a water commissioner may have provided him with the opportunity to form a syndicate that garnered a fortune in San Fernando Valley land in 1904, an issue that historians have never satisfactorily resolved. In any event, his land interests resulted in the creation of Sherman Oaks; Sherman Way is also named for him. He named Hazeltine Street in Van Nuys for his daughter. His legacy for history is the Sherman Library in Corona del Mar, a treasure house of sources on southern California land development. Except for William O. Hendricks’s brief M.H. Sherman: A Pioneer Developer of the Pacific Southwest (1971), Sherman’s life merits major study.

Two outstanding figures in real estate promotion offer an example of selective biographical history. William Paul Whitsett (1875-1965) subdivided Van Nuys in the San Fernando Valley in 1911, initially promoting small farms and dairies. He served as a DWP commissioner in the 1920s, founded the Bank of Van Nuys, and was involved in other endeavors as well. Few would argue his title of “Father of Van Nuys.” Merle Armitage, Success is No Accident: The Biography of William Paul Whitsett (1959) is a major study of Whitsett’s life. John F. Baur’s William Paul Whitsett, a Biographical Sketch (1987) is a brief essay, written around the time the Whitsett family endowed a history professorship at CSUN. Every year the Whitsett Foundation sponsors a lecture on California or Western history.

In contrast to the studies on Whitsett, no biography has been written of his contemporary in real estate promotion, Hobart J. Whitley (1860-1931). Like Whitsett, Whitley was involved with the Suburban Homes Company and was its original manager. The communities of Canoga Park (originally called Owensmouth), Reseda (originally Marian), Tarzana, Woodland Hills, and Encino owe their beginnings to Whitley promotions. In the 1920s Whitley opened Whitley Heights in the Hollywood Hills, earning him the somewhat ambiguous title of “Father of Hollywood, ” a sobriquet more logically belonging to Horace Wilcox, who subdivided the land in 1887 and named it “Hollywood.” Clearly as important as Whitsett, Whitley still needs a biographer.

Other town builders may lack enduring fame but still have some public recollection. Abbot Kinney (1850-1920) is remembered for two separate endeavors, his work with Helen Hunt Jackson in promoting the reform of U.S.-Indian policies, and the founding of Venice on the Pacific Coast. Tom Moran, Fantasy by the Sea (1979) tells the story of Kinney and his recreation of a bit of Italy in southern California. John B. Leonis (1872-1953) began the city of Vernon as an industrial center around 1905. A brief biography by James Kilty, Leonis of Vernon (1963) describes his career.

The discovery of oil in southern California ensured the fortunes (and misfortunes) of key people in the industry. Probably the most famous was Edward L. Doheny (1856-1935), who became embroiled in the Teapot Dome scandal in the 1920s and whose son died under mysterious circumstances never fully explained. Margaret Leslie Davis, Dark Side of Fortune: Triumph and Scandal in the Life of Oil Tycoon Edward L. Doheny (1998) is the most recent and best biography. See also Dan La Botz, Edward L. Doheny: Petroleum, Power, and Politics in the United States and Mexico (1991); Martin Ansell, Oil Baron of the Southwest: Edward L. Doheny and the Development of the Petroleum Industry in California and Mexico ( 1998); and Francis J. Weber, Southern California’s First Family: the Dohenys of Los Angeles (1993). Doheny Drive in Beverly Hills should sound familiar, and the Doheny Library at USC was donated in memory of Doheny’s son.

If the Doheny rise to fortune became tragedy, then the escapades of another oil man in the 1920s played out as farce. Courtney C. Julian (1885-1934) lured 40,000 gullible investors to their financial ruin by promoting “Julian Pete,” the popular nickname for his petroleum company. He published attractive newspaper ads written in a “just us folks” style that proved irresistible to potential investors. Speculation in Julian Pete stock ran wild until the bubble burst. The shareholders lost $150 million (in 1920s dollars), and Julian escaped arrest by fleeing to China, where he committed suicide in 1934. Jules Tygiel, The Great Los Angeles Swindle: Oil, Stocks, and Scandal during the Roaring Twenties (1994) is indispensable reading for an understanding of the period, and William G. Hutson, My Friends Call Me C.C.: the Story of Courtney Chauncey Julian (1990) provides a biographical perspective.

Considerably less sensational but more durable were the efforts of the Hancock and Gilmore families in the oil business. For many years the chain of stations operated by Hancock Oil and Gilmore Gasoline filled the tanks of Los Angeles motorists. G. Allan Hancock (1875-1965) used the family fortune for philanthropic purposes, to fund the creation of the Allan Hancock Foundation for Marine Research at USC in 1905. In 1916 he donated part of his property to the county to create Hancock Park, ensuring the study of the prehistoric animals found in the park’s La Brea Tar Pits. De Witt Meredith, G. Allan Hancock: A Pictorial Account of One Man’s Score in Fourscore Years (1964) is an oddly subtitled introduction to Hancock’s life. Sam T. Clover, A Pioneer Heritage (1932) is a still useful biography.

The Gilmore family connections to the Fairfax area continue to this day. Arthur F. Gilmore (1850-1918) bought Rancho La Brea in 1880 and later struck oil on the property. His grandson, Earl Bell Gilmore (1897-1964), took over the business in 1924 and became an important local oil and gas distributor, his chain of 1,100 stations covering five western states. Earl’s ventures included midget auto racing, Gilmore Field (home of the Hollywood Stars minor league baseball team), the Pan Pacific Auditorium, a commercial bank, and the Farmer’s Market, among other enterprises. A small family museum and gardens adjoin the Farmer’s Market property. For all the importance of the Gilmores to Los Angeles economic development, no significant study of Arthur or his grandson Earl has been written.

Similarly slighted by history is Alphonzo E. Bell, Sr. (1875-1947), prominent in oil, real estate, and cofounder (with his father) of the city of Bell in 1898. Bell struck oil in Santa Fe Springs in 1921, saving him from near bankruptcy and creating the family fortune. Bell’s son, Alphonzo Bell, Jr., served several terms in the U.S. House of Representatives. The younger Bell was the subject of several scholarly articles, but Bell Sr. certainly merits biographical study.

Another oil man, Edwin Pauley (1903-1981), donated $1 million to UCLA towards the construction of Pauley Pavilion in the 1960s, and for decades was a power player in the Democratic party. But no serious study of his career has been done.

Well before World War II, and even prior to the First World War, Los Angeles pioneered in aviation. The region’s first air meet was held at Dominguez Field in 1910, and in 1929 the city turned out in the hundreds of thousands to greet the arrival of the Graf Zeppelin on its round-the-world flight. The year-round climate and large open areas attracted young men with high-flying ambitions. Glenn L. Martin (1886-1955) showed up in 1905 and started his first airplane factory four years later, raising money for his business by doing flying stunts in motion pictures. His career is profiled in Henry Still, To Ride the Wind: A Biography of Glenn L. Martin (1964) and William B. Harwood, To Raise Heaven and Earth: The Story of Martin Marietta People and Their Pioneering Achievements (1993). Martin’s chief engineer, Donald W. Douglas (1892-1981), started his own company in 1920, aided by financial backing from Harry Chandler. Douglas pioneered the DC series of commercial aircraft, famed for their durability and longevity. Douglas is profiled in Wilbur H. Morrison, Donald W. Douglas, a Heart with Wings (1991), and Frank Cunningham, Sky Master (1943). John K. “Jack” Northrop founded his company in 1932, constructing aircraft plants in Hawthorne and El Segundo, among other locations in the county. Richard S. Allen, The Northrop Story, 1929-1939 (1990), and Ted Coleman, Jack Northrop and the Flying Wing: The Story Behind the Stealth Bomber (1988) focus on aspects of Northrop’s career but are not biographies.

Corporate mergers and buyouts in recent years have combined or erased venerable names in the aircraft industry, and a similar fate has befallen other businesses in Los Angeles, none perhaps more poignantly than department stores. Gone are Broadway and Bullock’s; Robinson’s and May Company merged into a hyphenated marriage. Lost in the shuffle are the people who founded department stores and made shopping downtown (before the stores moved to the suburban malls) an adventure for children and an experience for adults.

Other than some brief biographical notes in a few reference works, little is known of Moses Hamburger, founder of the department store that bore his name in the early 1900s. Surprisingly little is also known about David May II (1912-1992) whose grandfather started the May Company. In 1923 May came to Los Angeles and bought out A. Hamburger & Sons. For decades the May Company at 8th and Broadway was one of the most notable department stores on Broadway. Moses Hamburger and David May II (who also built the nation’s first shopping center, the Crenshaw Shopping Center) deserve attention from business, urban, and local historians and the biographers who could tell us more about them.

The same is noted for John G. Bullock and O.T. Barker and the stores they founded. We know more about Arthur Letts (1862-1923), founder of the Broadway department store, in a dated but still serviceable biography by William H.B. Kilner, Arthur Letts (1927). Letts eventually bought out Bullock’s but in the long run the stores were taken over by Macy’s.

Critics (usually from back East) have often derided Los Angeles as “six suburbs in search of a city,” but the growth of Los Angeles need not be a chicken-egg riddle, especially considering the contributions of Henry E. Huntington (1850-1927). Huntington is remembered for building the Pacific Electric Railway to the outskirts of Los Angeles County, creating what many nostalgically recall as the best public transportation system in the world. However, there was a motive behind the construction. Huntington bought extensive chunks of real estate in the outlying areas and, by extending his streetcar tracks to them, made it possible for people to live some distance from where they worked. Thus Huntington’s name appears as Huntington Beach, Huntington Park, and Huntington Drive as he left his mark on the landscape. The money from his business interests poured in to the point where Henry and his wife Arabella (1850/51-1924) began collecting rare books and paintings. Their avocation culminated in the creation of the Huntington Library and Art Gallery. The importance of his contributions has attracted biographers to examine his life and work, including James E. Thorpe, Henry Edwards Huntington, A Biography (1994); Selena A. Spurgeon, Henry Edwards Huntington, His Life and His Collections (1992); and William B. Fredericks, Henry E. Huntington and the Creation of Southern California (1992). Arabella, however, still needs a biographer to examine her fascinating life.

Banks provided the financing for commercial enterprises, and while few have not been absorbed by larger corporate fish (or sharks, if you prefer), some names are remembered for their long history in Los Angeles. Joseph F. Sartori (1858-1946) founded the Security Savings Bank in Los Angeles in 1888. His career is described in John R. McCarthy, Joseph Francis Sartori (1948). Another banker, Jackson A. Graves, recorded his experiences in his autobiography, My Seventy Years in California, 1857-1927 (1929). Both Sartori and Graves merit more critical study, as does the life of Howard Ahmanson (1906-1968), since his earlier years fit into the time period of this essay.

Information on other community builders still depends on the kindness of biographers. William A. Clark, Jr. (1877-1934), inheriting a fortune in Montana copper, put much of it into the William A. Clark Memorial Library (named for his father), operated by UCLA, a valuable resource for studying 17th- and 18th-century English literature and fine printing. Clark also founded the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. Other than C.B. Glasscock, The War of the Copper Kings: Builders of Butte and Wolves of Wall Street (1935), which is dated and to some degree not relevant, a biography of Clark remains to be written.

That some landmark names were once people who did something to get their names on street signs and buildings should arouse curiosity as to their life and times. So everyone knows about Wilshire Boulevard, but few remember any details about Henry Gaylord Wilshire (1861-1927), the eccentric socialist millionaire who developed the boulevard that eventually stretched from downtown Los Angeles to Santa Monica. A man who made and lost fortunes, Wilshire should command the attention of researchers who might well find his biography as marketable as property on Wilshire Blvd.

UCLA alumni know of Kerckhoff Hall, named for William G. Kerckhoff (1856-1929), an industrialist involved in a number of Los Angeles-based enterprises, including lumber, ice, electricity, and gas. His generosity to UCLA (and the California Institute of Technology as well) in its formative years earned him his name on the building of the new campus that opened in Westwood in 1929. Apart from Henry W. O’Melveny, William G. Kerckhoff, a Memorial (1935), a full-scale biography of this important industrialist and benefactor is yet to be written.

UCLA also benefited from nearby Westwood Village, developed by the Janss Investment Corporation. Founded by physicians Peter Janss and his son Edward, the corporation developed communities in the San Fernando Valley, West Los Angeles, and such upscale places as Holmby Hills. Other than the admittedly brief study of Patricia A. Allen, Janss, a Brief History (1978), the story of the Janss family has not been told.

Hubert L. Eaton has fared better in his own land use business, with people dying to get into it, as shown in Adela Rogers St. Johns, First Step Up Toward Heaven: Hubert Eaton and Forest Lawn (1959). Eaton opened Forest Lawn in 1917 in Glendale, his approach to death quite different from the traditionally grave view of morticians.


In 1959 W.W. Robinson wrote Lawyers of Los Angeles, a valuable compendium of information on lawyers in the county. The best known attorneys, however, seem to have acquired their fame through high profile cases and not a little flamboyance of their own. Earl Rogers (1870-1922) defended Griffith J. Griffith and used the then novel defense of temporary insanity to win a minimum sentence for the park donor. The most recent biography, Michael L. Trope, Once Upon a Time in Los Angeles: The Trials of Earl Rogers (2001), focuses on Rogers’s courtroom experiences. Adela Rogers St. Johns, Rogers’s daughter, wrote Final Verdict (1962), a personal account of Rogers’s life. A successful journalist in her own right, St. Johns published several autobiographies, of which Love, Laughter, and Tears: My Hollywood Story (1978) is an example.

Flamboyance was a requisite for attorneys who took on cases that attracted publicity, or, if they didn’t, would do so because of their ability to dramatize their presentations. Gladys Towles Root became known for her outrageous hats as well as her legal skills, defending clients accused of a variety of felonies. Root was especially noticeable because she was one of only a handful of women attorneys prior to World War II. See Cy Rice, Defender of the Damned: Gladys Towles Root (1964). Jerry Giesler (1886-1962), was not personally flamboyant, but his clients often were. He gained fame for keeping such movie stars as Errol Flynn and Charlie Chaplin out of prison. Giesler began his long career by serving as an apprentice to Earl Rogers in the defense of Clarence Darrow, the famous attorney himself on trial for allegedly suborning witnesses in the trial of the McNamara brothers, accused of blowing up the Times building in 1910. Giesler built a reputation for reliability and, to studio executives needing to get their stars out of hot water, indispensability. Giesler wrote an “as told to” autobiography, The Jerry Giesler Story (1960) that provides information on courtroom life in the early 20th century.

Far more traditional in interpreting the law is the firm long known as O’Melveny & Myers, one of the oldest law firms in Los Angeles. Harvey K. O’Melveny (1823-1890) came to California during the Gold Rush and settled in Los Angeles in 1869. His son Henry (1859-1941) formed a partnership with Jackson A. Graves who combined law and banking in his own career. Later, reorganization brought the name change to O’Melveny & Myers. The firm handled the legal affairs of developers of oil, business, and land deals. Henry O’Melveny helped found the Title Insurance and Trust Company in 1893. Aware of the importance of his records to history, he kept a life-long journal that ran to fifty volumes. William W. Clary, History of the Law Firm of O’Melveny and Myers, 1885-1965 (1966), utilizes the journals and merges the O’Melvenys and their partners into a work that celebrates both the people and the firm.

Attorney Marshall Stimson (1859-1943) combined his successful law practice with a commitment to progressive reform and helped found the Lincoln-Roosevelt League in the early 1900s. Given his activity in state and local politics, Stimson, like his contemporary Meyer Lissner, needs his biography written, since knowledge of his career would add to our awareness of California’s progressive movement.


Biographers have focused on motion picture people far more than any other field in southern California, though there are still some who need research done on their lives and careers. The emphasis here is on people whose work influenced Los Angeles economically or culturally, the fact of residence alone not being enough incentive to include every show business figure. Clark Gable, Marlene Dietrich, and many others would be examples of residents who contributed to the movies rather than Los Angeles.

Studio moguls have attracted their share of biographers, and their economic and political impact on Los Angeles continues to this day. Carl Laemmle (1867-1939), founder of Universal Pictures, has been profiled in John Drinkwater, The Life and Adventures of Carl Laemmle (1931, reprinted 1978), and, more recently, in Bernard F. Dick, City of Dreams—the Making and the Remaking of Universal Pictures (1997). Louis B. Mayer (1885-1957), long-time studio head at MGM, has been the subject of at least five biographies, among them Charles Higham, Merchant of Dreams: Louis B. Mayer, MGM. And the Secret Hollywood (1993); Diana Altman, Hollywood East: Louis B. Mayer and the Origins of the Studio System (1992); and Gary Carey, All the Stars in Heaven: Louis B. Mayer’s MGM (1981).

Mayer’s protégé, Irving Thalberg (1899-1936), has also received considerable biographical attention. Bob Thomas, Thalberg, Life and Legend (1969, rev. ed. 2000); Roland Flamini, Thalberg, the Last Tycoon and the World of MGM (1994); and Samuel Marx, Mayer and Thalberg: The Make-Believe Saints (1975), have all explored Thalberg’s career. For Warner Brothers, see Bob Thomas, Clown Prince of Hollywood: The Antic Life and Times of Jack L. Warner (1990), for a profile of the studio’s executive producer, and Warner’s (1892-1978) “as told to” autobiography, My First Hundred Years in Hollywood: An Autobiography (1964). Other studio pioneers include Jesse Lasky (1880-1958), with an “as told to” autobiography, I Blow My Own Horn (1957), and a tribute from his son, Jesse L. Lasky, Jr., Whatever Happened to Hollywood? (1975). The seemingly ageless Hal Roach (1882-1992), of Our Gang and Laurel and Hardy fame, was profiled in William K. Everson, The Films of Hal Roach.

Darryl F. Zanuck (1902-1979) has had many biographers. Recent studies of this powerful studio executive include George F. Custen, Twentieth-Century’s Fox: Darryl F. Zanuck and the Culture of Hollywood (1997); Marlys J. Harris, The Zanucks of Hollywood: The Dark Legacy of an American Dynasty (1989); and Leonard Moseley, Zanuck: The Rise and Fall of Hollywood’s Last Tycoon (1984). William Fox has been treated in Lillian Wurtzel Semenov and Carla Winter, eds., William Fox, Sol M. Wurtzel, and the Early Fox Film Corporation: Letters, 1917-1923 (2001); Glendon Allvine, The Greatest Fox of Them All (1969); and the fascinating effort by Upton Sinclair, Upton Sinclair Presents William Fox (1933). For Harry Cohn, head of Columbia Studio, see Bob Thomas, King Cohn: The Life and Times of Hollywood Mogul Harry Cohn (1967, rev. ed. 2000), and Bernard F. Dick, The Merchant Prince and Poverty Row: Harry Cohn of Columbia Pictures (1993).

Samuel Goldwyn (1892-1974), examined in a recent television documentary, has attracted attention from many biographers interested in his career of producing distinguished films such as The Best Years of Our Lives. Recent efforts include A. Scott Berg, Goldwyn: A Biography (1989); Carol Easton, The Search for Sam Goldwyn: A Biography (1989), and Michael Freedland, The Goldwyn Touch: A Biography of Sam Goldwyn (1988), among others. Adolph Zukor (1873-1976) was profiled in an outdated work, Will Irwin, The House that Shadows Built (1928) and deserves a modern effort. Mary Pickford (1893-1979) combined acting with business acumen and was a founder of United Artists. Eileen Whitfield, Pickford: the Woman Who Made Hollywood (1997); Scott Eyman, Mary Pickford, America’s Sweetheart (1990); and Gary Carey, Doug and Mary: A Biography of Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford (1977) are representative of the many books on her career. Mary’s good friend Frances Marion (1888-1973), arguably the most successful screenplay writer in Hollywood’s history, is the subject of an outstanding biography, Cari Beauchamp, Without Lying Down: Frances Marion and the Powerful Women of Early Hollywood (1997), which is also the source for a video documentary on Marion.

Paramount Director Cecil B. DeMille (1881-1959) is the subject of Charles Higham, Cecil B. DeMille (1973) and Gabe Essoe, DeMille: The Man and His Pictures (1970). Pioneer film director David W. Griffith (1875-1948), though forgotten by Hollywood after his precedent-setting and controversial films, most notably Birth of a Nation and Intolerance, has attracted many biographers. See Richard Schickel, D.W. Griffith: An American Life (1984, 1996); Martin T. Williams, Griffith, First Artist of the Movies (1980); and Robert M. Henderson, D.W. Griffith, His Life and Work (1972), among others. Thomas Ince (1882-1924), a major producer in the silent film era, remains overlooked but merits major biographical study. The same can be said for Natalie Kalmus, whose name graced hundreds of films as their Technicolor color consultant. For an overview of the film moguls, see Neal Gabler, An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood (1988).

Autobiographies of people in the movie industry must be used with caution. Most are ghostwritten, a detail revealed in the “as told to” co-authorship on the title page. Gerald Frank was “told to” by Lillian Roth, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Diana Barrymore, and others. Pete Martin heard it from Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Jerry Giesler, and Diane Disney Miller. Writers who lack clout are invisible ghosts who put the words on paper without even the “as told to” acknowledgment, doing it strictly as work for hire. That said, some film pioneers have been the object of serious study, conceding that part of their attraction may stem from scandal. Such is the case with Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle (1887-1933), profiled in Robert Young, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle: A Bio-bibliography (1994); Andy Edmunds, Frame-up! The Untold Story of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle (1991); and David A. Yallop, The Day the Laughter Stopped: The True Story of Fatty Arbuckle (1976).

As might be expected, numerous biographers have turned the life of Charlie Chaplin (1889-1977) into a cottage industry. Recent examples include May Reeves and Claire Goll, The Intimate Charlie Chaplin (2001); Joyce Milton, Tramp: The Life of Charlie Chaplin (1998); and Kenneth S. Lynn, Charlie Chaplin and His Times (1997). Will Rogers (1875-1935) also continues to attract attention. See Richard J. Maturi, Will Rogers, Performer: An Illustrated Biography (1999); Lance Brown, On the Road with Will Rogers (1997); and Mary Malone, Will Rogers, Cowboy Philosopher (1996), among others. The astonishingly long career of Lillian Gish (1893-1993) began in the early silent era and continued until her last film in 1987. In addition to her own writings, see Charles Affron, Lillian Gish: Her Legend and Life (2001) and Stuart Oderman, Lillian Gish: A Life on Stage and Screen (2000).

Of Western movie stars prior to 1940, none contributed more to the people of Los Angeles than William S. Hart (1864-1946) who donated his Newhall estate to the county for William S. Hart Park, and his home near the Sunset Strip to the City of Los Angeles for another park. Hart wrote My Life East and West (1929) but concentrated to a great extent on his theatrical years rather than his movie career, and was at times deliberately vague on personal details. His papers at the Seaver Center in the Los Angeles County Museum are an invaluable resource for research into his life and early Hollywood.

Ancillary to film production and performers is a vast field for potential study, from gossip columnists to studio workers. Los Angeles Times columnist Hedda Hopper (1890-1966) left acting for gossip reporting, telling of her career in her autobiography, From Under My Hat (1952). Hopper and her Hearst rival, Louella Parsons (1885-1973) have been profiled in a dual biography, George Eells, Hedda and Louella (1972). Showman Sid Grauman (1879-1950), best known for his imaginative theater designs on Hollywood Boulevard such as Grauman’s Chinese, is the subject of Charles Beardsley, Hollywood’s Master Showman: The Legendary Sid Grauman (1983). But his contemporary, Oliver Morosco (1875-1945), who built several theaters of note in Los Angeles in the early 1900s, awaits biographical attention. Makeup artist Max Factor (1877-1938), credited on hundreds of motion pictures and founder of the Max Factor Beauty Museum in Hollywood, is profiled in Fred E. Basten, Max Factor’s Hollywood: Glamour, Movies, Make-up (1995).


In contrast to the attention biographers have lavished on movie industry people, Los Angeles educators are largely forgotten once their time has passed. The recent notorious theft of the name of Rufus B. von KleinSmid (1875-1964) from the Los Angeles Central Library, replaced by a mayor whose term of office wasn’t even over at the time, is a case in point. Von KleinSmid was president of USC from 1923 to 1946 and was a long-term member and president of the Board of Library Commissioners. But no biography on him has been written. Lawrence Clark Powell (1906-2001), long-time UCLA librarian for whom Powell Library there was named, has written some autobiographical essays, but has not been the subject of a book-length study. Mary Foy (1862-1962), born in Los Angeles when the town had fewer than 6,000 residents, lived to see a growing television industry and the construction of the region’s freeway network. Her career included service as city librarian 1880-1884, and she worked on behalf of woman suffrage and other feminist issues. We do have Jane Apostol’s brief Mary Emily Foy: “Miss Los Angeles” Herself (1997), but a full-scale biography is long overdue.

For much of the 20th century the fashion among newly built high schools in Los Angeles has been to name them after U.S. presidents. Two schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District, however, were named for superintendents who served during this period. Neither John H. Francis nor Susan Miller Dorsey have been the subject of biographies, though their efforts and accomplishments are assessed in Judith Raftery, Land of Fair Promise: Politics and Reform in Los Angeles Schools, 1885-1941 (1992). Another overlooked educator, Ethel Percy Andrus (1884-1967) helped found the National Retired Teachers Association and the American Association of Retired Persons.


When tens of thousands of people came to Los Angeles in the 1900-1940 period, they often arrived rootless and disconnected from a city that seemed to have no sense of its history (the sense was there, but only if one could see through the transmutations). Many found spiritual solace in the religious offerings of the city’s churches, but some churches offered more than did others. Los Angeles soon acquired an unwanted image for religious quackery, an image enhanced by the antics of its most extreme practitioners. It is probably for this reason that so many biographies of Aimee Semple McPherson (1890-1944) have been written, some highly polemical against their subject. Three of the better ones are Daniel M. Epstein, Sister Aimee: The Life of Aimee Semple McPherson (1993); Robert Bahr, Least of All Saints: The Story of Aimee Semple McPherson (1979); and Lately Thomas, Storming Heaven: The Lives and Turmoils of Minnie Kennedy and Aimee Semple McPherson (1970). A TV movie was made about her in 1976, starring Faye Dunaway as Sister Aimee. Edith Waldvogel Blumhofer, Aimee Semple McPherson: Everybody’s Sister (1993), offers a sympathetic, in-house view of the evangelist. Given the flamboyance, scandal, and controversy in her career, Sister Aimee probably earned all the biographical attention.

That attention must have been most galling for Aimee’s chief rival in religious revivalism, Robert P. “Fighting Bob” Shuler (1880-1965), who arrived in Los Angeles in 1920, two years after Aimee showed up. The similarities and contrasts between the two are striking: both began religious radio stations and headed major congregations, Shuler as pastor of the Trinity Methodist South Church, and McPherson as founder of the nondenominational Church of the Four Square Gospel. Sister Aimee welcomed everyone to her church; Shuler hated Jews and Catholics, lawyers, many public officials, and, most of all, Aimee Semple McPherson. He published Bob Shuler’s Magazine and ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate. His fulminating finally exhausted the patience of the Federal Communications Commission, costing him his broadcasting license. He supported prohibition long after the 18th Amendment was repealed. Given his high profile in the 1920s and 1930s, and his long tenure as his church’s pastor, it is surprising that no serious biographical inquiry has been done. Alas for Reverend Shuler, sex sells, and Aimee’s career included plenty of reportage about her marriages and alleged affairs.

Other religious leaders led more traditional lives, but biographers should not hold that against them. Dana W. Bartlett (1860-1942) was an author, preacher, and settlement house worker during this period, remembered mainly in the brief biography by his daughter, Esther Dana Bartlett, Dana W. Bartlett (1980). Charles E. Fuller (1887-1969) created the “Old-Fashioned Revival Hour,” broadcast weekly from the Long Beach Municipal Auditorium from the 1930s into the 1950s and then on television for many years. He founded the Fuller Theological Seminary in 1947. Daniel R. Fuller, Give the Winds a Mighty Voice: The Story of Charles E. Fuller (1972) was written by his son, and there has been recent research into Fuller’s life and accomplishments.

James W. Fifield, Jr. (1899-1977), long-time pastor of the First Congregational Church, wrote his autobiography, The Tall Preacher: Autobiography of Dr. James W. Fifield, Jr. (1977). Fifield wrote a weekly column in the Los Angeles Times for many years and built his church into the largest Congregational church in the United States. Rabbi Edgar F. Magnin (1890-1984) headed the Wilshire Boulevard Temple for more than a half century and was known for building interfaith friendship. Magnin is overdue for biographical study, given his connections to the motion picture industry, his civic leadership, and his many friends in high places.


If educators and librarians conspicuously lack biographies, architects seem to attract research and publication, much of it critical assessment of their contributions to Los Angeles architecture. Numerous books about Frank Lloyd Wright (1869-1959) have been published, including the recent book by his grandson, David K. Wright, Frank Lloyd Wright: Visionary Architect (1999). Lloyd Wright (1890-1972), Frank’s son, awaits a biographer. Richard Neutra (1892-1970), designer of homes, schools, and office buildings, is profiled in Thomas S. Hines, Richard Neutra and the Search for Modern Architecture (1982). Paul R. Williams (1894-1980) was the first African American to become a member of the American Institute of Architects. The designer of some 3,000 projects throughout the nation, his local contributions include commercial buildings, homes for movie stars, and the Los Angeles International Airport. Karen E. Hudson, The Will and the Way: Paul R. Williams, Architect (1994) is a recent brief study. Williams merits more attention.

Biographies of other noted architects from this period include David Gebhard, Schindler (3rd ed., 1997), on the life of Rudolph M. Schindler (1887-1953), and Bruce A. Kamerling, Irving Gill, Architect (1993), on Irving Gill (1870-1936). However, Cliff May (1908-1989), Myron C. Hunt (1868-1952), and William L. Pereira (1909-1985) await biographical study.

Simon Rodia (1873-1965) was not a formally trained architect, but he used his skills as a stonemason and tile setter to construct the Watts Towers, a task that took him more than thirty years. The towers have been declared a city cultural monument; Rodia saw his work as a tribute to America. Leon Whiteson, The Watts Towers (1989), is a brief tribute to Rodia and the towers he built. Aline Barnsdall (1882-1946) was a theatrical impresario and art collector. She commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright to design a house for her, and in 1927 she donated Hollyhock House and adjacent property to the city as Barnsdall Park. See Norman M. Karasick, The Oilman’s Daughter: A Biography of Aline Barnsdall (1993).


Two names stand out in Los Angeles newspaper publishing: Otis and Chandler. Harrison Gray Otis (1837-1917) bought into the Los Angeles Times soon after it began publication in 1881. The arch-conservative Otis championed the Republican party, big business, and industrial development, while reviling labor unions, Democrats, and anyone who opposed his views. His son-in-law, Harry Chandler (1864-1944), felt much the same way. Between the two of them, they dominated Los Angeles journalism until World War II and after. Incredibly, no satisfactory biography exists of either man, though books about their publishing empire have been written, such as Marshall Berges, The Life and Times of Los Angeles: A Newspaper, a Family and a City (1984), and David Halberstam, The Powers that Be (1979). Given the reluctance and resistance of Chandler family members to provide personal papers and correspondence dating to more than a century ago, definitive biographies of Otis and Chandler may never be written. Note that library references to Harrison Gray Otis may confuse him with his namesake, a prominent Federalist in the early years of the nation.

We don’t do any better in looking for biographies of other newspaper editors and publishers of the period. Samuel T. Clover (1859-1934) published the Los Angeles Evening News in the early 1900s and Saturday Night, a literary magazine, in the 1920s. He had quite an adventurous life, working as a merchant seaman, reporting his eye-witness account of the Johnson County War in Wyoming, and opposing the Los Angeles Aqueduct. His magazine provided opportunities for young journalists, including Carey McWilliams. McWilliams always lamented the lack of a Clover biography, for his career certainly merits attention.

A similar gap exists for Edward A. Dickson (1879-1956), editor of the Los Angeles Evening Express and the first person from southern California to be appointed to the University of California Board of Regents, a post he held for 43 years. UCLA well remembers him with the Dickson Art Court, for Dickson strongly backed the creation of UCLA. He was also a leader in the city’s progressive movement. Edward T. Earl (1856-1919) was another newspaper publisher of the period, hiring Dickson to edit the Express. He also owned the Los Angeles Tribune and used his papers to oppose what Otis and Chandler’s Times favored (or to favor what they opposed). Earl’s newspapers need to be diligently studied to reveal Dickson, Earl, and the journalism of the period.

Besides the major metropolitan dailies, two African American newspapers date from this period. Charlotta Bass (1880?-1969) published the California Eagle for the city’s black community after her husband died in 1934. Her autobiography, Forty Years: Memoirs from the Pages of a Newspaper (1960) is scarce. Leon Washington founded the Los Angeles Sentinel in 1933, and over the years it has become the nation’s second largest African American newspaper. Both Bass and Washington need their biographies written, as does Ignacio Lozano, founder of La Opinion in 1926. It is the city’s longest-running Spanish-language newspaper.

Of journalists, Adela Rogers St. Johns has written several autobiographical works, as noted above. Agness Underwood, the first woman to serve as city editor of a Los Angeles daily newspaper, wrote her autobiography, Newspaperwoman (1949), describing her career as a reporter and editor for the Los Angeles Herald-Express. William A. Spalding (1852-1941) worked for the Times and the Herald-Express, and he compiled a local history, History and Reminiscences, Los Angeles City and County, California (1931). He left a manuscript autobiography, edited by Robert V. Hine, ed., William Andrew Spalding: Los Angeles Newspaperman, an Autobiographical Account (1961).

Charles F. Lummis (1959-1928) continues to make up for the dearth of biographies on local journalists in the 1900-1940 period. Arriving in Los Angeles in 1884, he pursued a career that included the city editor post on the Times and editor of Land of Sunshine, a magazine promoting the virtues of southern California living. In 1902 he broadened its scope to the greater Southwest, renaming it Out West. Lummis also served as city librarian from 1905-1911. El Alisal, the home he built in the Arroyo Seco with help from local Indians, was completed in 1903. It became known as a local literary center, Lummis encouraging young authors such as Mary Austin in their work. Today the Lummis Home is the headquarters of the Historical Society of Southern California. The latest study on Lummis is Mark Thompson, American Character: The Curious Life of Charles Fletcher Lummis and the Rediscovery of the Southwest (2001). Other biographies of Lummis were given in Part One of this essay.

The record remains mixed on other local writers and historians. William W. Robinson (1891-1972) used his expertise as a title researcher with Title Insurance and Trust Company to write Ranchos Become Cities, Land in California, and other books, as well as a series of pamphlets on southern California communities that have become collector’s items. See Jimmie Hicks, W.W. Robinson, a Biography and a Bibliography (1970). George Wharton James (1858-1923) was a prolific writer of books promoting tourism and southern California history, among them Through Ramona’s Country and The Old Franciscan Missions of California. James succeeded Lummis as editor of Out West. His personal life was exposed to public view when his wife divorced him, accusing him of infidelity. Roger K. Larson, Controversial James: An Essay on the Life and Work of George Wharton James (1991) is brief and scarce.

Students going to libraries to seek information on local history will frequently find the fat multi-volumes of James M. Guinn (1834-1918) and John Steven McGroarty (1862-1944). Guinn came from Ohio to Los Angeles for health reasons in 1869, helped found the Historical Society of Southern California, and wrote such books as History of California and an Extended History of Los Angeles and Its Environs (3 vols., 1915) and Historical and Biographical Record of Southern California (1902). McGroarty served two terms in the U.S. House of Representatives in the 1930s and created the Mission Play, a somewhat skewed historical pageant that was performed at the Mission Playhouse in San Gabriel for many years. His books include California of the South: A History (5 vols., 1933-1935), and Los Angeles from the Mountains to the Sea: with Selected Biographies… (3 vols., 1921). These books usually followed a format of a first volume of history, with succeeding volumes containing biographies of leading citizens. Since those leading citizens usually bought the set, they became known as “subscription biographies” or derided as “mug books,” since they presented uncritical accounts of success stories. The books are still valuable for their biographical details on hundreds of southern Californians in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Guinn and McGroarty, however, await their own biographers.

In the business of book selling, the name of Jacob “Jake” Zeitlin (1902-1987) stands out during this period. Arriving in Los Angeles from Texas in 1925, Zeitlin opened a small bookstore in Los Angeles, moving to larger quarters as the business prospered. The bookshop became an intellectual center, attracting writers and artists. During his long career Zeitlin published works of fine printing, acquired a reputation for rare books and paintings, and was esteemed by his many friends. At the end of his life he published a brief autobiography, Book Stalking at Home and Abroad (1987). Ward Ritchie and Francis J. Weber have written tributes to his life. A biography of Zeitlin would also be a history of the intellectual life of a city often ridiculed for its alleged lack of it.

Zeitlin’s friend Ward Ritchie (1905-), a native of Pasadena, founded the Ward Ritchie Press, famous for its fine printing and limited editions. Over the years Ritchie has written four autobiographical works, and Lawrence Clark Powell wrote a tribute, The Work of Ward Ritchie: Designer, Printer, Poet (1997).

Of the many novelists who have lived in Los Angeles as well as using the city for setting their plots, three achieved great success and prominence during this period, which means they themselves have become objects for study. Raymond Chandler (1888-1959) created the private detective Philip Marlowe, and his descriptions of Marlowe traveling the “mean streets” bring modern readers the sense of a Los Angeles before urban renewal swept away the boarding houses and decrepit buildings on Bunker Hill. Among the studies of Chandler and his fiction are Tom Hiney and Frank MacShane, eds., The Raymond Chandler Papers: Selected Letters and Non-Fiction, 1909-1959 (2000); William Marling, Raymond Chandler (1986); and Philip Durham, Down These Mean Streets a Man Must Go: Raymond Chandler’s Knight (1963). Four Chandler novels—The Big Sleep, Farewell, My Lovely, The High Window, and The Lady in the Lake were conveniently published in one volume, The Raymond Chandler Omnibus (1964).

James M. Cain (1892-1977) wrote such classics of crime fiction as Mildred Pierce, The Postman Always Rings Twice, and Double Indemnity, stories that take place in a southern California far removed from the images of sunshine and boosterism. See Paul Skenazy, James M. Cain (1989); Roy Hoopes, Cain (1982); and David Madden, James M. Cain (1970). Many of Cain’s and Chandler’s novels have been made into motion pictures and stand as classics of the film noir genre. Nathanael West (1903-1040), whose life was cut short in an automobile accident, created what may be the most incisive Hollywood novel, The Day of the Locust, looking at the people in the movie industry who did not become movie stars. See Tom Dardis, Some Time in the Sun: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Faulkner, West, Huxley, Agee (1976), Jay Martin, Nathanael West, the Art of His Life (1970), and critical studies of his novels.

Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875-1950) wrote of Tarzan in Africa and John Carter on Mars, but he lived for more than thirty years in the San Fernando Valley. His estate formed the core of the community of Tarzana. Burroughs created Tarzan in 1914, and ever since then, Tarzan has become an internationally known hero through the many movies, comic books and strips, TV series, and the sequels Burroughs wrote. His life is profiled in John Taliaferro, Tarzan Forever: The Life of Edgar Rice Burroughs (1999), and Irwin Porges, Edgar Rice Burroughs: The Man Who Created Tarzan (1975).

Leo Politi (1908-1996) created an image of Los Angeles quite different from the noir interpretations of Cain and Chandler. The award-winning author of many children’s books, and a renowned illustrator, Politi lived on Bunker Hill prior to urban renewal. He painted the old buildings as they would have looked in their prime. His children’s stories often centered on the Plaza area. The only work done to date on Politi is Francis J. Weber, Leo the Great: A Bio-Bibliographical Study of Leo Politi (1989).


George Ellery Hale (1868-1938) gave southern California the legacy of the Mt. Wilson Observatory. His career is profiled in Helen Wright, Explorer of the Universe: A Biography of George Ellery Hale (1994). Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860-1935) was a major leader in the feminist movement in the years before the 19th Amendment. Several studies attest to her contributions, including Carol Farley Kessler, Charlotte Perkins Gilman: Her Progress Toward Utopia (1995); Ann J. Lane, To Herland and Beyond: the Life and Work of Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1990); and Mary Armfield Hill, Charlotte Perkins Gilman: The Making of a Radical Feminist, 1860-1896 (1980). William Grant Still (1895-1978) was an acclaimed composer and conductor, the first African American to conduct the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra and, by extension, the first in the nation to do so. His daughter has written of his career; see Judith Anne Still, ed., William Grant Still and the Fusion of Cultures in American Music (1995), and her William Grant Still, a Voice High-Sounding (1990). See also Verna Arvey, In One Lifetime (1984).


To a large degree this essay has contrasted the biographical fortunes of Angelenos, some of whom have received attention from one or more biographers, and others who haven’t, even though their careers were similar to those who have received biographical treatment. About 140 people were discussed, and there is no question that readers will point out the some person was overlooked, creating the additional dilemma of people deserving biographies that didn’t even get mentioned here.

In no particular order, here are the names of still more people who lack biographies, some of them a surprise because the names are familiar, others made obscure by the passage of time yet deserving attention in retrospect.

Charles F. Richter (1900-1985), Caltech seismologist who invented the Richter scale in the 1930s; Paul Shoup (1874-1946), president of the Pacific Electric Railway; Victoria Padilla (1905-1981), horticulturalist and author; Robert Glass Cleland (1885-1957), long-time Occidental College history professor and author of books on southern California history; Eli P. Clark (1847-1931), Moses Sherman’s partner in Los Angeles streetcar franchises; Harry Adams (1919-1985), African American who photographed the black community during his career on the California Eagle and Los Angeles Sentinel; Georgia P. (Morgan) Bullock (1878-1957), first woman judge in California; Neil Petree (1898-1991), Los Angeles business executive and president of the Barker Brothers furniture store; May Hastings Rindge (1866-1941), the “Queen of Malibu” who for years prevented the state from running the Pacific Coast Highway through her property; Daniel Freeman (1837-1918), who started a farm on land that became Inglewood; Clara Shortridge Foltz (1849-1932), first woman assistant district attorney in Los Angeles; Frank Dominguez, private detective; Isadore, John, or any other Dockweiler; Christine Sterling (d. 1963), champion of the preservation of buildings on Olvera Street; Christine Wetherell Stevenson, founder of the Pilgrimage Play; Augustus Hawkins, African American elected to the State Assembly; Harry H. Culver (1880-1946), founder of Culver City; Kaspare Cohn (d. 1918?), who began what is now the Cedar-Sinai Medical Center; Mrs. Artie Mason Carter, who raised funds for the creation of the Hollywood Bowl; William Nickerson, Jr. (1879-1945), co-founder of the Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Company, the largest black-owned insurance company in California; Harriet Russell Strong (1844-1929), the “walnut queen” of southern California and proponent of Colorado River water to irrigate the Imperial Valley; and the list goes on.

For anyone who still wishes to object that a favorite someone missing biographical treatment is not on the list, no problem—if the opportunity is there to do the research, writing, and publication, we can all be enriched.


Dates of birth and death for some of the people in this essay were not easily accessible, hence their omission. It should be noted that some of the biographies mentioned were published in limited editions and may be difficult to obtain. All were listed in the Los Angeles Central Library catalog.

Leonard Pitt and Dale Pitt, Los Angeles A to Z: An Encyclopedia of the City and County (1997), is an indispensable guide to people, places, and things about Los Angeles. Other sources include works cited at the end of Part One of this essay, as well as the McGroarty and Guinn works described above.

Two major guides for Los Angeles history are Doyce B. Nunis, Jr., ed. , Los Angeles and Its Environs in the Twentieth Century: A Bibliography of a Metropolis (1973), and its sequel, Hynda L. Rudd, ed., Los Angeles and Its Environs in the Twentieth Century: A Bibliography of a Metropolis 1970-1990, with a Directory of Resources in Los Angeles County (1996).

This publication was made possible by a grant from the Wells Fargo Foundation

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