In 1894, young Harry Chandler cemented his role in the future of the Los Angeles Times by marrying his boss‘s daughter. He thereby not only became the patriarch of a dynasty that would rule the paper for nearly a century, but brought together two traits that would in large part come to define the fledgling city, adding to Harrison Gray Otis’ love for bluster and show his own quiet ruthlessness and greed. The two were well-reflected in the Times, which, far from merely reporting on the life of the city, helped determine it, playing a hand in most of the more shameful episodes of L.A.‘s past, from its violent anti-unionism to the Owens Valley water grab. The story of the Chandler dynasty, and particularly of Otis Chandler, its final sovereign, is the subject of Dennis McDougal’s Privileged Son.
The surfing, race-car-driving, big-game-hunting Otis retains near-mythical status in some cubicles of the Times newsroom, a status bolstered by his reappearance in the wake of the Staples Center scandal, when he made public his outrage with Mark Willes and Kathryn Downing‘s handling of the affair, awakening nostalgia for the good old days when Otis’ Times cared about good journalism as much as the bottom line (or so the myth goes) and would spare no expense for a story. McDougal, a former Times reporter, clearly buys into the Otis myth to a large degree, though he does manage to poke some holes in it. Otis, he reminds us, could be as cheap, callous and hypocritical as his forefathers, and was as ready as they to kill any story that revealed too much about the Chandler family‘s shady dealings. But McDougal clearly likes the man, and devotes almost as many pages to Otis’ exploits in summer camp, his hunting adventures and his spastic colon as he does to his transformation of the paper from a foaming-at-the-mouth right-wing rag to a blandly centrist Republican paper of national repute.
McDougal is unfortunately too much of an insider to give the story the context it calls for. Despite endless details about backroom developments, he provides little sense of the paper itself. He has access to Otis and Otis‘ friends and the old hands at the Times, but almost no perspective on the bigger shifts in the newspaper industry and the country at large that were as responsible for the paper’s changes as Otis‘ one-man show. Bloated, folksy rhetoric (Otis, for example, ”might have had lust in his heart, rust in his relationships, and dust in his wallet; but he had ink in his veins“) too often stands in for careful contextualization. And McDougal misses some of the broader ironies of Otis’ legacy, how he presided over the conversion of the Times from a provincial family-run paper with wide real estate holdings to a huge corporate media empire, only to be shown the door by the very corporate execs he had helped to usher in. Privileged Son sits uncomfortably between being a biography of the Chandlers (the first 200 pages are devoted to the many misdeeds of Otis‘ forefathers) and a history of the Times, not quite succeeding at either.
Raymond Chandler (no relation, of course, to Otis and Co.) hated Los Angeles, or claimed he did. In 1939, after having lived here for two decades, the detective novelist wrote a friend, ”I’m sick of California and the kind of people it breeds.“ He was still complaining 12 years later that L.A. ”has become a grotesque and impossible place for a human being to live in.“ And in 1956, already headlong into the alcoholic spiral that would last until his death three years later, he wrote another friend, ”Los Angeles is just a tired whore to me now.“
So it‘s not without some sad irony that Chandler (who, except for a few trips of several months’ duration to his beloved London and to New York, rarely got much farther than La Jolla) can be with hindsight judged the city‘s greatest and even its most affectionate chronicler of the first half of the 20th century. It’s Chandler, more than anyone else, who gave the world an image of the dark and murderous Los Angeles lurking beneath the glamour, impervious to the ever-shining sun; it was Chandler who created a vision of the metropolis as the site of modernity‘s grandest dreams gone horribly wrong, now the stuff of noir cliche. Though a self-confessed snob, he saw through the surface effects that so captivated and disgusted West and Waugh and the other East Coast and East Anglian exiles who then represented Los Angeles to the world. He saw, through Philip Marlowe’s tired eyes, ”a city no worse than others, a city rich and vigorous and full of pride, a city lost and beaten and full of emptiness.“
Considerable insight into Chandler‘s life and work can be drawn from The Raymond Chandler Papers, a new collection of his letters, essays and even the lousy poetry of his youth. There is little here that has not been published elsewhere, but this edition, put together by Chandler scholars Tom Hiney and Frank MacShane, is a good one, edited with few seams showing, informatively and unobtrusively annotated. That the prose of his letters is as sharp as it is, is impressive given that many were composed as Chandler sat up drinking late at night, fighting off ”that horrid blank feeling of not having anybody to talk or listen to.“ He was a lonely and difficult man who found companionship through correspondence — with editors, agents, writers, fans — more than face-to-face friendship. ”All my best friends I have never seen,“ he wrote. ”To know me in the flesh is to pass on to better things.“
The Chandler that emerges from these letters is complex, simultaneously an inveterate snob and ”allergic to big shots of all types wherever found,“ a passionate Anglophile whose chosen literary tongue is the American vernacular, a political conservative sick with the knowledge that capitalism ”implies a fundamental cheat, a dishonest profit, a nonexistent value.“ Above all he is a writer, enamored with language and concerned with little else. Again and again he spends whole paragraphs tearing apart a single lazily spun sentence. A keen and sometimes cruel critic of his contemporaries (of James Cain he writes, ”faugh! Everything he writes smells like a billygoat“), he does not hesitate to operate on his own work with the same well-honed tools (of his The Little Sister, he writes: ”There is nothing in it but style and dialogue and characters. The plot creaks like a broken shutter in an October wind“). Many of his pronouncements — his disgust with the ”slick magazines,“ with Hollywood’s cowardliness and the mediocrity of literary fashions — have lost none of their force in the intervening years. Nor has his wit; discussing a long-ago pan of Hammett‘s Maltese Falcon, he swore, ”By God, if you can show me 20 books written approximately 20 years back that have as much guts and life now, I’ll eat them between slices of Edmund Wilson‘s head.“
The Los Angeles Times is not listed even once in the nearly 40-page index of Seeking El Dorado: African Americans in California, a new anthology of historical essays — a sign perhaps that our local fish wrap has played as little role in the history of California’s black communities as those communities have played in its esteemed pages. Much of Western history, despite a few decades of revisionist efforts to the contrary, is still perceived as a white affair, all covered wagons and dusty saloons with a few brown-faced bandidos and stubborn Indians mixed in for color. African-Americans don‘t start appearing until they become entertaining (in the Central Avenue jazz scene) or frightening (starting with a bang in 1965) to history’s proper protagonists (white folks).
So it will come as a surprise to many that people of African descent have been in California as long as Europeans have. More than half of the first settlers of Los Angeles, way back in 1781, were of full or partial African blood. Seeking El Dorado — so named to express the aspirations of generations of black migrants to find a promised land of opportunity — goes a long way toward filling in the blanks. Its 13 essays (co-edited by Kevin Mulroy, director of the research center at the Autry Museum) stretch from the days when, under Spanish and later Mexican rule, race was a more fluid concept and African ancestry was not an obstacle to reaching the highest echelons of Californio society; to the turn of the century, when W.E.B. Du Bois was still able to write to the readers of his Crisis magazine that ”Out here in this matchless Southern California there would seem to be no limit to your opportunities, your possibilities“; to the population boom of the 1940s; to the Watts riots and the rise of black nationalism; to the success and ultimate failure of Tom Bradley‘s coalition politics; and to the suburbanization and unrest of the 1990s. If the quality of its essays is inconsistent (a couple are as dry as the others are engaging), Seeking El Dorado is a more-than-worthy effort, a balanced and thorough take on a too-long-neglected subject.