The Daily Mirror

Los Angeles history

« Previous Post | The Daily Mirror Home | Next Post »

In the News

July 15, 2007 |  5:11 am



July 15, 1957

The painting on the cover of Time speaks to us a bit differently now than it did to the readers of 1957. There is little room for subtlety in an illustration intended to compete on newsstands with so many other magazines, forcing artist Henry Koerner to convey a simple message that could be grasped immediately.

There is Norman Chandler, a captain of Southern California industry, with the visual shorthand for Los Angeles that has become such a cliche: City Hall, palm trees and the mountains. Looking dignified and eminently trustworthy, with his hair parted down the middle like the baritone in a barbershop quartet, he is holding a copy of the Los Angeles Times folded into a sailor's hat as if he were about to play with one of the younger members of the next crop of Chandlers.

There are several messages we can see today that might have eluded the harried newsstand customer of 1957: The inference that the Los Angeles Times was best used for something other than reading (the article, in fact, calls it "neither a great paper nor a poor one") and perhaps that Chandler was a tin-pot Napoleon not to be taken seriously -- at least nowhere outside crazy Southern California. We might even surmise that The Times was nothing but an expensive plaything for the Chandler family.

The anonymous cover story conveys a similar message with just as little subtlety. Bristling with biased and unnecessary adjectives (beaches are not merely beaches but "the very Pacific beaches") and occasional odd metaphors (Gen. Harrison Otis "began to carve his name in the sand with his editorial cannon balls,") Time paints the portrait of a noisy, shrill city that could be accompanied by hustle-bustle music and staccato notes from a xylophone, like one of "The March of Time" newsreels:

Nourished by a generous soil and a benign climate, this open-toed, pastel empire last week beat with a great hum-thrumming vitality. On Wilshire Boulevard, rivet guns prattled into the fresh steel of new office buildings. The reiterated whop of the hammered nail rang out in a 6,000-house development on San Fernando farmland, in a 17,000-house subdivision in the tawny hills 40 miles to the southwest in Palos Verdes—and wherever bulldozers sliced down citrus groves to make room for more.

From the swarms of workers in electronics and aircraft plants came one big, tumultuous earache. And millions of nerves throbbed with the nightmare of 3,000,000 cars (one for every 2.2 people v. Detroit's one for every 3.2) cascading over 204 miles of multilaned freeways.   

Added to this was the arrival in Los Angeles last week of 4,200 popeyed newcomers (25 every hour of the year). Like the ever-moving, ever-changing populace that moved aside to make room for them, the new Angelenos eagerly got set to join the scurrying rhythms and busy polyphony: to work more change, to make more moves, more money, new houses, new businesses—and to crowd out of the way of next week's horde of 4,200.  

In this bouncing scenery, the one unchanging force is the Los Angeles Times. Each morning it drops with a thick, self-assured plop on 462,257 doorsteps from Anaheim to Azusa,* like a faintly welcome striped-pants uncle (wealthy but voluble). Neither a great newspaper nor a poor one, the Times, from its downtown limestone monolith, serves as an unshakable herald, chronicling the region with loving detail, goading Angelenos toward the megalopolitan destiny ordained by Harrison Otis.


The Times proudly announced the upcoming article in a Page 2 story--full of quotes and without a single quibble--as if the Chandlers were thrilled that the East Coast news establishment was writing about them at all.


From our perspective, the Time article is not terribly flattering but noteworthy for several reasons. It certainly falls into the trap of portraying the Chandler family as a dynasty of visionaries and mavericks who boldly and single-handedly shaped the ever-sprawling city, ruthlessly attacking all opponents. (Also see "Thinking Big"). And like most articles about Los Angeles, the report takes a slap at Hollywood, crackpot preachers, Forest Lawn, refugees from Iowa and a vain, superficial, suntanned populace that is making its fledgling attempts at culture.

Gen. Harrison Otis is depicted as a cantankerous, eccentric old coot shouting orders as if he were eternally under siege, so forceful a personality that it seems like the entire article is about him, although he constitutes only a third of the story. Harry Chandler, in contrast, is the shrewd power-broker operating quietly behind the scenes. One of the most telling quotes is this: 


"The difference between Harry and Norman," says one old-time Angeleno, "is that Harry sat in his office and ruled this city like a king. Norman doesn't rule; he isn't interested in ruling. What he wants is to become an institution."

Norman Chandler comes off as an unimposing milquetoast compared to his predecessors and must share the limelight with his wife, Dorothy "Buff" Chandler, portrayed as a terrifying uber-clubwoman, gadding about the city in her little Simca, meddling in civic and cultural affairs and nagging her husband to "do something" about that nasty smog.

If it were no more than this, the story would merely be a dusty curio, worth little more today than the few statistics we can glean from it. But the parallels between past and present, hidden in the Time story, are fascinating. Even breathtaking. Beneath the boilerplate analysis of a crass, frenzied Los Angeles lurks a telling reality:

Compare this, from 1957:

Yet in a town where the Times is one of the few enduring institutions, Norman Chandler knows better than to try to wield an overpowering political club. Today's Los Angeles is too amorphous for one man to rule, one newspaper to command,* or even one political organization to anneal.

And this, from a March 26, 2006, article by Peter H. King and Mark Arax:

Those who study Los Angeles today employ terms like "horizontal" and "diffuse" to describe the city's power structure. They talk of a power vacuum and note that, with so many of its old Fortune 500 companies dissolved, bought up, relocated, Los Angeles has become something of a "branch city." Whether this represents a good or bad development is open to interpretation.

"Today there is no single node of power in the city," said Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. "It's diffused geographically, diffused among important stakeholders -- business, labor, for instance -- and also racially and ethnically.... There is a devolution of power today that is more grass-roots and more focused on specific neighborhoods."

Simply said, the past is far more complicated and layered than we realize and much more like the present than we care to admit. There are no quick descriptions of Los Angeles--and no easy answers--that are of any use; the city is too big and too diverse for a thumbnail sketch. Only the broadest canvas will do and even then the city bleeds over the edges.

I like this final quote from Time:

"Sums up Buffie Chandler: "I don't say Los Angeles is the most beautiful place on earth, or even the most desirable. I love San Francisco, for instance. But I could never live there, because everything that needed doing has long since been done. In Los Angeles, things will always need doing, things will always need to be made better. Los Angeles is a place for the kind of people who are willing to try something new. It's a place for people who want to build a new world."

Email me