The building of the freeway system in the late 1950s imposed a kind of sameness over a once vast and wide-open Southland, which a dwindling number of older Angelenos can still remember. Even though you and I are far too young to remember L.A. without them, just try to imagine how adventurous it must have been in pre-’60s Los Angeles when “traveling” from one end of L.A. County to the other really was traveling, taking an electric-car trip or a car ride out from say, Santa Monica to Pasadena or Palm Springs. Distances in SoCal back then must have seemed gigantic. Visiting an L.A. attraction like Descanso Gardens, a lush flower oasis in the rather fringy foothills of La Cañada Flintridge, was no doubt a far-off, all-day commitment for most folks.
The Huntington Gardens in San Marino are famous and impressive in an imposing, Downton Abbey kind of way, of course, but Descanso Gardens are more … the best word is natural, more native and wild; a smaller-scale hilly mixture of oak tree forest, nature trails and flower gardens, ponds and some man-made attractions, including a Japanese Tea House, which is quite nice.
Once the private estate of a now-forgotten newspaper publisher downtown with the grand name E. Manchester Boddy (pronounced Boe-dee), Descanso is nestled (nay, hidden) near the Verdugo Hills. The amazingly quiet isolation and tranquility when you’re walking through these oak-covered hilly trails is a tonic for city living, a peace-out overload. Who says flowers are only for funerals? (Well, nobody says that, I just wanted to write it.)
Judging from the foot traffic the day I went, it seems that the rose garden (the “rosarium”) is probably the most popular attraction at Descanso. Couples get married there all the time, under the spindly wooden arches surrounded by floral splendor, which seems an appropriate setting for such a joyous occasion. I can report that there were plenty of roses swaying in the late-afternoon breezes, big plump ones of unusual colors hanging out in the rain-soaked, very green, sun-dappled garden.
Manchester Boddy (who resembled three old-time actors: both Douglas Fairbankses and Ronald Colman) was a serious gardener and camellia enthusiast. He was responsible for creating new breeds of these flowers with the help of then-famous horticulturist-hybridizer Walter Lammerts.
Plant-nameage is out of my orbit; flowers are flowers. So I grabbed the rather daunting handful of brochures they offer you upon entering. Which way to go? Well, you do get a map. You can walk a large, circular round through the 150 acres in a clockwise manner, which sounded good to me. Where are the “Coastal Tidytips”?
“The gardens do change during the course of the year,” Descanso’s recently retired director, David Brown, told me. “The cherry trees bloomed magnificently on cue in January, the lilac gardens bloom for only two weeks a year. The roses will come again in May and then again in early August, another flush of roses.” Boddy’s camellias apparently are forever, except in the summer.
Brown especially recommends visiting an area known as the Ancient Forest: “A private collector gave us 175 cycads. These are very ancient plants that go back 280 million years, from the pre-floral planet Earth. We had just the perfect spot for them. It feels Jurassic there.” I recommend seeing this area.
And as a lifelong lover of the desert I also recommend checking out the California Native Plants section of the Gardens, walking the meandering trails here and spotting the isolated, spindly little desert-y flowers that include the buttery-gold California poppies, the official state flower (their bright-orange-gold color must really make the bees horny, as they were clearly meant to do). It’s fun to discover them all isolated and sporting these bright colors out in the middle of brown bramble-brush. “I admire their endurance,” Brown says. “They’re very, very hardy.”
Brown emphasized how lucky nature lovers are in Los Angeles. “In L.A. we have four major gardens, which is pretty unusual: the Arboretum in Arcadia, Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Gardens in Claremont, the Huntington of course, and Descanso. But to most Angelenos, La Cañada is pretty remote,” he says.
Well, the founder willed it so. Manchester Boddy was a kind of miniature William Randolph Hearst in L.A., except that unlike Hearst, he was born poor, a genuine old-fashioned self-made man. In New York, young Boddy was an encyclopedia salesman, selling them door-to-door. But as you know, everybody in the 1920s was ambitious, so he headed out West and finagled his way into becoming the editor of a failing Los Angeles newspaper: the L.A. Illustrated Daily News.
“I started the Daily News on … a ‘borrowed shoestring,’” he claimed years later. He turned the Daily News, a tabloid-format paper, into a mildly left-leaning forum when all the other newspapers here were solidly Republican and anti-union; it was one of the few that challenged LAPD corruption during the extremely corrupt 1930s. The Daily News also boasted, after WWII, a staff more noticeably diverse than other Los Angeles papers, including at least two Latino columnists. Pretty unusual back then.
But like America, Boddy turned rightward after WWII, and in some circles he is remembered (i.e., blamed) for giving a leg up to one of the most, uh, questionable politicians California ever produced: President Richard Nixon. The story is that Boddy himself tried a run for the U.S. Senate in 1950 (as a Democrat) against Helen Gahagan Douglas, labeling her “the pink lady,” i.e., a communist sympathizer.
Mrs. Douglas beat Boddy in the primary, but then she had to face the Republican Nixon, a native of Whittier and a decorated U.S. Navy war vet. Boddy, it seems, advised him to publicly compare Douglas’ voting record to a pretty much full-on Communist politician from New York, Vito Marcantonio. The tactic worked, and Nixon was on his way.
So we might never have had Nixon as president had it not been for Manchester Boddy. (Um, you could always go chain yourself to the ticket window at Descanso and protest, I guess …)
Feeling bored with the newspaper business by the late 1940s and already selling his custom-bred camellias as a side business, Boddy left the paper in 1952, devoting all his time to his beloved acres, which he’d purchased back in 1937. Eventually he sold the gardens to the city of L.A. in 1953 and retired down near San Diego. The paper folded in ’54; there’s no connection to the current Valley paper of the same name.
Among the other features at Descanso Gardens (besides a Patina’s restaurant, open only on weekends), Boddy’s own home still stands, on a secluded corner of the grounds. You’re free to wander through it and take in the, uh, rather gilded furnishings of the rooms, which make me think of Liberace and Palm Springs circa 1959, a style for which I am personally not nostalgic. Boddy’s study/office and personal library were re-created by “pulling lots of things out of the archives,” according to David Brown. Nothing political here, though. All I saw were hundreds of horticulture books, which of course is apt. Framed photos documenting Boddy’s life add some nice L.A. history to the rooms.
He had a great setup, but man, it must have been isolated out here back in those days. Guess that’s what Mr. and Mrs. Boddy wanted. And I guess they can be forgiven their Zsa Zsa Gabor–ish, gold-and-satiny tastes in furnishings.
“I believe the gardens will be remembered long after the Daily News and all the other newspapers in Los Angeles, perhaps, are forgotten,” Boddy prophesized (accurately) to the late Ralph Story, an old-time L.A. newsman, shortly before his death in 1967.
“Well, Mr. Boddy is entitled to that opinion,” was Story’s retort. “I'm tempted to think that in its short life, the Los Angeles Daily News meant more to us than the prettiest bed of camellias.” Columnist Jack Smith also reminisced wistfully, “It may be that few of us were perfectly sober when we put the Daily News to bed, but it was a wonderful paper, full of humor, youthful energy, good writing and irreverence.”
So RIP, everyone. And good for you, hail-fellow-well-met, gardens-bequeathing E. Manchester Boddy. You lived well, you built yourself up from nothing, you stuck it to City Hall and you crossed plant-genes.
Though you did look like seedy Ronald Colman wearing an ascot …