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Pages of History -- Morrow Mayo's 'Los Angeles'

February 9, 2011 |  1:52 am





  Los Angeles, Morrow Mayo  

For many people, this will be an exercise in tedium. But I’m hopeful that the research fanatics among the Daily Mirror readers will find it engaging.

I’m going to spend some time on Morrow Mayo’s “Los Angeles” to examine its reliability. In other words, I’m going to fact-check portions of the book, mostly against reports from The Times.

Mayo often quotes The Times   in his book, so we know he referred to it for some details, but we may find ourselves on a treasure hunt to unearth his other source material, so I expect to examine other period newspapers along the way, depending on just how far it’s worth carrying the whole matter. 

I’m starting with “Los Angeles” because this is where most contemporary historians begin. To be sure, there are earlier works on the subject, but where they are dry, dusty and plodding recitations of the past, “Los Angeles” is a jaunty dash through history with a guide who gives readers a wink and a sly look as he promises to tell “the real story.” Mayo is an entertaining and engaging author,  but (spoiler alert) he’s not especially accurate, and his errors, combined with his caustic commentary, have influenced generations of writers – even those who may not be aware that they are following in his footsteps.

Where to begin? I’ve decided to start in the last section of the book, rather than at the beginning, (the Portola expedition discovers the future metropolis is inhabited by “a tribe of circus freaks,” Page 6) or at the end, with Mayo’s bibliography, although it will be fun to examine his source material in another post, depending on one’s idea of fun.


In a brief biography on the book jacket, Mayo says that he spent six years in California working for various newspapers before he began “Los Angeles” in 1931, so I’m starting with an event that he observed first-hand: the sensational coverage of the 1927 abduction and killing of Marion Parker by William Edward Hickman. One would expect that a newsman would be fairly accurate in writing about an event that occurred a few years earlier and was still fresh in his memory. But is he? Let’s put him to the acid test.

Before going further I should note that the Hickman case involves a particularly gruesome  killing of a 12-year-old girl and the original accounts in The Times are extremely graphic. I’m not much on ghoulish sensationalism so I don’t plan to recount everything that was done to Marion Parker unless it’s necessary to contrast it with Mayo’s version of the crime.  

Here’s Page 293 of the chapter titled “Strange Interlude.”




 
  Los Angeles, Morrow Mayo  

 

Mayo doesn’t get through the first paragraph without making several mistakes. And although "nice-looking, well-dressed" is in quotation marks, there's no attribution, so we have no idea of who is being quoted. These are not good omens, friends.

 

  Dec. 17, 1927, Marion Parker  

 

Dec. 17, 1927: Hickman never talked to the principal or vice principal (who according to later accounts was busy with a Christmas program – remember that the killing occurred in December) but Mrs. Mary Holt.

 

  Dec. 17, 1927, Parker kidnapping  

Dec. 17, 1927: The kidnapper used a coupe (or a roadster, according to another Times  account) rather than a sedan, as Mayo claims, and Marion’s father, Perry, was at home rather than at work because it was his birthday.

 



 

  Dec. 23, 1927, Parker Case Timeline  

And the telegram from the kidnapper was sent shortly after 6 p.m. rather than “an hour later.”


  Los Angeles, Morrow Mayo  

Now this is interesting because it is – or appears to be – a direct quotation from the telegram. Curiously enough, this text does not appear in The Times. Mayo might have used another newspaper as his source and perhaps this will allow us to backtrack to his source material.

But what’s worth noting is where else we can find this wording: The dreadful 1986 book “Fallen Angels,” by  Marvin J. Wolf and Katherine Mader, which mostly lifts the Black Dahlia material from Jack Webb’s “The Badge,” and the 2000 book “Stolen Away,” by Michael Newton.

  Los Angeles, Morrow Mayo  

Now poor Mr. Parker couldn’t have called home because  he was, in fact, home. When did he contact the police? It’s not clear from The Times’ first stories about the kidnapping.


  Los Angeles, Morrow Mayo  

  Dec. 23, 1927, Parker Case Timeline  

Actually, the second telegram came the next day, not “a few hours later.”

Judging by the first page of the chapter, Mayo isn’t doing all that well, particularly for a seasoned reporter. I’ll defer further judgment until I can examine the coverage in some of the competing papers. Looks like a trip to the library is in order!

 

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