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Climbing Mt. Bassett

September 8, 2010 |  4:00 am

Sept. 27, 1978, James Bassett

Sept. 27, 1978: James Bassett dies.

dropcap_I_vadis am climbing Mount Bassett. It’s as if I’m halfway up and have come across the abandoned camp of an expedition that vanished many years ago while trying to conquer some snowy, fog-shrouded peak. Abandoned equipment and scattered tin cans surround the adventurers' hut.  Inside, on a crude table, the last pages of the logbook describe a harrowing plight before trailing off into infinity. 

Let me explain.

Not long after I joined The Times in 1988, I heard the legend of Jim Bassett’s book about the company.  Bassett, so the story went, was given carte blanche by Otis Chandler to write a “tell-all” book and after years of work delivered a manuscript that was locked in a closet because, indeed, it told all.

Last week, at the Huntington Library, I finally got to see Bassett’s manuscript, which is divided into two three-ring notebooks of about 400 pages each.  

My glee and delight faded as if I were a child who wants a bicycle for Christmas and is handed the keys to a bike factory. 

I knew Bassett was over his head by the second or third page, when he was still on Yang-na and the sandal-footed padres trudging wearily to the sleepy/dusty pueblo of Nuestra Senora la Reina de Los Angeles. Not until Page 25 does Harrison Gray Otis walk into the sleepy/dusty office of The Times (1882). It’s another 25 pages before Otis gets control of the company (1886) and 50 more pages before he buys his first Linotype (c. 1890).

And when Bassett finally gets to the 1910 bombing of The Times after 171 tedious, tiresome pages, does he use any of the original source material that he and two his assistants spent years gathering? No. He opens Louis Adamic’s 1931 book “Dynamite” and types in whole paragraphs without ever asking himself: “Is this book the least bit accurate or reliable?”

Bassett, poor fellow. So earnest and so lost. He and his two assistants did get carte blanche from Otis Chandler to write the history of the paper and they gathered a storehouse of information – enough interviews and documents for dozens of books on The Times. Memos, company reports, scholarly journals and men’s magazines that you’d find in a barbershop – they got everything they could find. In fact, the entire Times History Center was created to house the materials gathered for Bassett’s one  book.

In truth, not all of Bassett’s manuscript is like a stale old textbook on California history. Some of it – much of it,  in fact --  is even worse.  He meanders. He gets distracted by interesting but irrelevant stories in going through the old papers. He struggles to contrast Linotypes and the now-primitive technology The Times was using in the 1970s. Again and again, he ignores the actual news stories -- on microfilm and hard to access -- in favor of books that are readily available but wrong or at least questionable. He doesn't stick to a chronology but circles and backtracks through time, boxing the compass of history. He’s obsessed with old editorials.

Poor old fellow, he meant well -- and he worked so hard on his opus. 

Although Bassett had “In Harm’s Way” to his credit, there were much better – younger -- writers on the staff by this time who could have done justice to such an ambitious project. At this point, Bassett was nothing but the old guard; a reliable holdover from the drab, gray Norman Chandler years; a loyal drone in the Richard Nixon campaigns of  the 1950s, though not a zealot like Kyle Palmer.

Poor old Bassett. Correspondence shows that he sent chapters to retired Editor Nick B. Williams for critiques. Williams replied again and again: Cut. Don’t quote so many editorials. Cut.

But no matter how many times Bassett was advised to cut, he wrote even more. I am still on Volume One so I’m not sure whether he completed the book before he died in 1978. Although his outline concludes in the mid-1970s,  his chapter summary trails off after Chapter 24, which deals with President Kennedy’s assassination and the Watts riots.

There’s a lesson for writers in Mt. Bassett, named for the man who created a mountain of information so big that he couldn’t climb it. The good news is that he saved so much material for the researchers who followed. Like me.

Epilogue: In 1984, The Times published a bland but approved corporate history by Marshall Berges called “The Life and Times of Los Angeles,” the same title as Bassett’s ill-fated book. It, too, had a troubled history. But that’s another story.


Sept. 27, 1978, James Bassett