Howard Ahmanson, Sr. (1906-1968) is remembered more today for his support of the arts or for his son Howard Ahmanson, Jr.'s own philanthropy and support of Proposition 8 during the last election. But historian Eric John Abrahamson offers a more detailed look at the insurance and savings and loan tycoon in his new book, Building Home: Howard F. Ahmanson and the Politics of the American Dream.
The book, underwritten by the Ahmansons, shows a wealthy businessman with almost Hearst-like ambitions to build his empire. Money didn't seem to be an object when it came to dressing the part (and driving the right cars, dining at the right restaurants, or hiring the right artists and designers to build modern office buildings worthy of the press's attention) while he cut corners in office décor and demanded employee efficiency. But the book acknowledges that he was also known to chalk his good fortune up to luck and call himself the "undertaker at a plague" as he got rich selling fire insurance to foreclosed properties during the Great Depression.
Even Ahmanson's philanthropic work had a rocky start. Abrahamson writes in the biography that as Ahmanson's wealth increased and he was "incorporated into the circles of the civic elite," he was expected to participate in these endeavors as "philanthropy played a critical role in confirming his status." Abrahamson reports that Ahmanson's work in the founding of LACMA resulted in the departure of respected museum director Ric Brown (who claimed that board members, including Ahmanson, wanted their personal collections showcased -- even if they were fakes) and a scathing commentary in The Nation magazine that ended with a plea for the wealthy "to support creative excellence without assuming that they can buy it." Meanwhile, the book comments that Ahmanson's donations to the Music Center only came after Dorothy Chandler nudged him into doing so as a way of bridging the worlds of old money (hers) and new (his) in Los Angeles.
Ahmanson's company Home Savings and Loan dominated Southern California's real estate boom of the 1940s and 50s, when Los Angeles' population was exploding and there was high demand for housing (and the construction loans and mortgages needed to build and protect it). He also knew how to maximize his profit out of the loans, such as making a quick profit off of lending and selling many loans to the then-recently established Fannie Mae. Later on, he denounced inexpensive tract homes and had visions of building communities within Los Angeles, complete with parks and walking paths, retail strips and schools.
"He had a very strong sense of the positive role that the government can and should play in America," says Abrahamson in an interview. "And yet, of course, he was using government's role to become very, very rich. And I don't think he saw anything wrong with that. He was a capitalist in that sense."
Because really, in the end, Ahmanson knew what the public wanted and how to give it to them.
"[In the book], you don't get a sense of him as a man of people, but he really had a good sense of where the middle class homeowner was," says Abrahamson. "What they wanted out of life, what their fears were ... what they wanted out of the community."
Abrahamson will talk about this biography as part of the Autry's GO WEST reading series, a collaboration with PEN Center USA and UC Press, at 2 p.m. March 16 at the Autry in Griffith Park. Admission is free for members and the cost of a daily museum ticket for others.