The Origin Story of Tarzana, a Neighborhood Named After an Ape Man
Once, shortly after we had moved to the Ranch, Dad and I were out riding together. We paused at a high point from where we could look out on most of the Valley below, stretching across the Santa Susanna Mountains across the far end. Neither one of us spoke and then my father waved his arms to indicate the vista before us and said, half seriously and half-joking, “This is mine, all mine.” —Joan Burroughs, Edgar Rice Burroughs and Tarzan by Robert W. Fenton
It took God millions of years to get Tarzana and me together … and I have to give him credit for pulling off at least one very successful job. —Edgar Rice Burroughs, Tarzan Forever: The Life of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Creator of Tarzan by John Taliaferro
During the previous century's teens and '20s, Los Angeles County was a commercially driven fairyland.
Everyone was trying to be someone else — or somewhere else. Theda Bara, the screen vamp whose stage name was an anagram for “Arab Death,” was really a nice, bookish intellectual from Cincinnati. The gates of Babylon, left over from the filming of D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance, loomed over Sunset Junction for years after the film was completed. Premieres were held at Grauman’s Chinese and Egyptian theaters, and middle-class Angelenos moved to meticulously planned developments like “Hollywoodland,” a faux-European village of thatched-roof houses and riding trails. And out in the dusty San Fernando Valley, Edgar Rice Burroughs, creator of Tarzan, lorded over an estate fit for a colonial governor, until it became financially prudent to subdivide it away.
The son of a successful Chicago businessman, Burroughs had grown up a rebellious child of cosmopolitan privilege. Until the age of 35, Burroughs and his wife, Emma, had lived an exhausting existence in cramped apartments, as the always scheming and dreaming Burroughs flitted from one job to the next. Everything changed in 1911, when he began writing. With the publication of Under the Moons of Mars (considered the inspiration for Superman) and Tarzan of the Apes, in 1912, the young family’s fortunes rapidly changed. Burroughs quickly became a pulp-novel machine, churning out Mars and Tarzan stories for a ravenous public. When asked by Los Angeles Times columnist Lee Shippey how he, who had never been to Africa let alone Mars, came up with his far-flung tales, he echoed many white-collar and working-class yearnings of the era:
I suppose it was just because my daily life was full of business systems, and I wanted to get as far from that as possible. My mind, in relaxation, preferred to roam in scenes and situations I’d never known. I find I can write better about places I’ve never seen than those I have.
Dreaming of Wild West adventures and royalties from film adaptations of his books, Burroughs moved his wife and three young children to Los Angeles. In 1919, they paid $125,000 for Mil Flores, the sprawling, 540-acre country estate of Los Angeles Times publisher Harrison Gray Otis, who'd recently died. Otis had designed the estate, which sat atop a mountain above Ventura Boulevard, to mimic the old ranchos of Southern California’s early days. There was a 4,500-square-foot, Spanish-style mansion, a pool, cabins and a herd of thoroughbred goats that roamed the property’s canyons. Shortly after moving in, Burroughs wrote his lawyer back East, “I believe that [this] is one of the loveliest spots in the world.”
Burroughs threw himself full-throttle into becoming the master of Mil Flores, which he renamed Tarzana, in honor of the creation that had made the purchase possible. He aimed to make Tarzana a self-sustaining estate and bought a number of animals to breed, branding them all with a Tarzan symbol. “My brain, if it ever was in a rut, has certainly been dynamited out of it,” Burroughs wrote. “I have to think about Angora goats, sheepdogs, draft horses, plows, cows, chickens, Fresnos, tractors, cooks, foremen, ranch hands, goat herders, a keg of ten-penny nails, coyotes, cottontails and several hundred other things.”
The improvements continued. Burroughs bought a prize herd of Berkshire swine. A series of unfiltered pools, linked by waterfalls and fit for Tarzan and Jane, were built, as was a rudimentary nine-hole golf course. Burroughs’ mother — who would die on the estate in 1920 — compared Tarzana to a magical English estate of the highest order. A reporter from the Los Angeles Times, visiting in 1922, described the idealistic portrait Tarzana painted:
Tarzana is reached through a red, ragged-robin rose hedge, and riding through this floral bower, hovered over by humming birds and butterflies, is an experience at once and forever engraved upon the memory. The interior of the interesting castle is both homelike and artistic, a huge fireplace suggesting the delightful evenings of the Burroughs family and their friends; inglenooks, the joy of kiddies in the picture book stage; a well-stocked library; spacious ballroom; stately dining hall, and the breakfast corner with its gorgeous view of the mountains. The swimming pool and the gym attest to the athletic proclivities of the author and his family, which includes three splendid specimens of young America, one daughter, Joan, and two small sons.
For a time, it seems, life at the rancho was pure bliss. “Friday nights at the rancho were something special,” his daughter, Joan, remembered. “The ballroom and theater were below the servants' quarters and each Friday, my father issued a standing invitation to those living in and around the rancho to come up for a free movie. There was no theater for miles around and perhaps 150 or 200 people used to come by every week. … My father loved his life at the rancho. He used to get up at 5 a.m. — never later than 6 o’clock — and go riding. Most of the time, one or more of us would accompany him.”
Burroughs echoed these sentiments, writing in his journal about his favorite horse, the Colonel: “I love to ride and I love the Colonel and some day when I am very old, with nothing but memories, I shall go through the daily record and live again the happiest days of my life.” He even wrote a song in honor of his beloved home, “My Own Tarzana Ranch”:
Pine no more my lassie,
My little lad be gay!
For we’re going back
To our own Tarzana Ranch
To our own Tarzana Ranch far away.
But in true Burroughs (and American) fashion, his old restlessness and financial dreaming quickly got the best of him. Not content to simply be lord of Tarzana, and finding estate life more complex — and more expensive — than he expected, Burroughs decided to subdivide around 50 acres of the ranch. In 1922, he attempted to start the community of Tarzana, which he advertised thusly:
An artistic colony on high-class residential acres [open to all] who expressed artistic desires through the medium of pictures, flowers or vegetables, furniture, drugs, plumbing, poetry or the screen — but artists, each in his own field, and each a lover of the beautiful. The mere desire to join this art colony will not in itself be sufficient unless you also have the artistic urge.
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The Tarzana lots sold poorly. Burroughs attempted a different sales tactic, placing an ad in the Los Angeles Examiner that read, “Tarzan of the Apes to Sell Lots in Tarzana.” This pitch did marginally better, but only a few lots sold. In 1924, only five years after they had moved in, the Burroughs moved out of their mansion on the hill. It became the club house of Burroughs’ newest business venture, the El Caballero Country Club, which opened on a portion of the ranch and flourished briefly before closing during the Great Depression.
In 1926, the Burroughs family moved to a newly built, modern frame house on a Valley portion of the Tarzana property. Burroughs moved his office nearby to a “pretty cottage shaded by a huge black walnut tree, on Ventura Boulevard,” which was decorated with large bearskin rugs and tiger skins that had been sent to him by Tarzan fans. But by the early 1930s, Burroughs and Emma had divorced, and he decamped with his new wife to tony Beverly Hills and the beaches of Santa Monica. In the late 1930s, he sold his once beloved Tarzana Ranch to a development company for a measly $30,000.
Surprisingly, the Tarzana name did not die out with Burroughs’ waning passion for his ranch. In 1928, residents of the fledgling Tarzana development and their much more successful neighbor, Runnymeade, formally chose to name their community Tarzana. In 1930, the Tarzana post office opened its doors, and the Tarzana Chamber of Commerce called to order its first meeting. When asked what he thought of the name “City of Tarzana," Burroughs quipped that it sounded like “a steamboat.”
Some residents of Tarzana were less than pleased with the town’s quirky name. As early as 1936, residents were calling for a classier, more “dignified” name befitting the upper-middle-class community. When Burroughs died in nearby Encino, in 1950, there was not even a Tarzan book in the Tarzana library, since the series was considered to be of no educational value (this situation would not be remedied until the early 1970s, when the library accepted a collection of books from the Burroughs family). In 1998, the city of Tarzana began to embrace its ape-tastic past by rechristening its business district the “Safari Walk.”
Although it has morphed into a diverse, decidedly unromantic, bustling Valley community of 40,000 people that he wouldn’t even recognize, Edgar Rice Burroughs himself remains a small part of Tarzana. His ashes are spread under the massive walnut tree in front of his old cottage office on Ventura Boulevard. Now home to Edgar Rice Burroughs Inc., it is where his family continues to monetize and protect his continually profitable legacy of escapism and adventure.
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