Those who write about the sprawling history of Los Angeles have, it would seem, almost too much to choose from, to sort out and to leave out. One recent online piece in Curbed L.A.’s “Los Angeles History 101” got hammered by some of its readers for ignoring the historic influence of the aerospace industry in Southern California, while focusing instead on classic tourist tidbits like the Hollywood Sign. But since it can feel overwhelming to write about Los Angeles, a good rule of thumb is: Don’t spread yourself too thin; focus in on something good and sexy; and for God’s sake don’t cover ground that’s already been done to death.
New York Times best-selling author and biographer-of-cities Gary Krist (Empire of Sin, City of Scoundrels) has chosen a good, focused biographical approach in his new book, The Mirage Factory: Illusion, Imagination and the Invention of Los Angeles, released today by Penguin Random House, which looks at early–20th century L.A. (circa 1900 to 1930) through the life stories of three hugely influential individuals: William Mulholland, D.W. Griffith and Aimee Semple McPherson.
William Mulholland is the audacious Los Angeles Water Company engineer and “water czar” who made our lives on this once-parched piece of land possible. Controversial film director D.W. Griffith is widely credited with creating the first great Hollywood movies. And huckster-evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson's self-created theology, the “Four-Square Gospel,” lives on today, despite the scandals of her life during the dizzy, jazzy 1920s.
While these still-consequential figures are well known to California history enthusiasts (and to a no doubt diminishing sliver of the public), Krist prides himself, as any good historian does, on digging into the archives and uncovering long-lost details of his subjects’ lives. With this book, Krist has succeeded in creating a colorful and fresh narrative of L.A. history, while avoiding a mere retread of their stories.
The phrase “warts and all” comes easily to mind when you think of this trio of early Southern California powerhouses: Mulholland, Griffith and McPherson were controversial in their day, and remain so. All were giants in their field who would eventually suffer an equally giant fall from grace after their best work had been accomplished, none so painfully, as it would turn out, as Mulholland.
Here was a lad who’d emigrated from Ireland to dusty little Los Angeles back in 1877, unschooled and broke at 22. But he was a brilliant autodidact, reading books at night on engineering and gradually making his way to the top of the corporate ladder at the old Los Angeles Water Company (this was back in the days when the downtown area was relying largely on the L.A. River for its water).
To his everlasting but controversial glory, LAWC Superintendent Mulholland cast his gaze, in 1904, upon a remote body of water way up north, the Owens River, then carried out an audacious plan to construct a 419-mile-long aqueduct, like some gigantic metallic drinking straw, bringing that abundant water all the way down from there to here.
The water began flowing to L.A. in 1913. It was a full-on, successful water grab, one that slowly destroyed the bucolic lifestyle of the people living up in the Owens Valley. But let’s face it: Bill’s drinking straw was the reason you and I are able to live and, well, drink here in 2018; the aqueduct sits there to this day flowing along, snaking its way down across fields and deserts, over hill and dale, feeding and bathing us, washing our dishes, filling our pools, watering our stupid lawns. Who wouldn’t agree with the grateful Angelenos of that time, who lovingly called him “Saint Mulholland.” He was clearly a hero for the ages.
D.W. Griffith was arguably the first serious American film artist. In an era of stagey overacting, he encouraged his “players” to play it down, to keep it natural. His use of close-ups and “quick-cut” editing represented a huge leap forward for the art form very early on.
“Although many people were suddenly making movies all over Los Angeles, no one doubted who was the true artist of the form,” Krist writes. Griffith’s best silent features, Broken Blossoms and Intolerance, were hailed as masterpieces, though as Krist points out, they were criticized by some as “not commercial” and “confusing.”
For cineastes today, Griffith’s name elicits both sneers and praise, thanks to the Southern-born film pioneer’s lunk-headed decision to make The Birth of a Nation, an elaborate feature film based on a book that glorified the KKK.
Even then (and in the midst of a truly deplorable resurgence of Klan activity across the country), this was too much for most Americans; both the NAACP and ordinary citizens publicly protested the movie’s cartoon depictions of post–Civil War black folk as marauding criminals and rapists. Despite this, Krist writes, Griffith’s name remained for many years “the first to spring to anyone’s mind when discussing the world’s great directors.” It was a different world.
The Mirage Factory is great not only for the wealth of obscure facts Krist manages to weave into his tale of his three larger-than-life figures but also for the evocative word pictures of old Los Angeles and Hollywood he conjures up. The intensely romantic charm of early L.A. is best on display here in his chapters on Griffith and his milieu. Krist’s account of the director’s earliest years in L.A., making short one-reel films on a shoestring budget (“without even a script”) is fascinating, as both movie history and downtown history:
“Even urban street scenes were easily shot in the Los Angeles of 1910, since the city’s downtown was by now densely built up. Manhattan it wasn’t, but new … Beaux Arts buildings were filling the grid … at a rapid pace … and a number of elegant hotel lobbies … could double as the finest interiors of New York or Boston,” he writes.
“Griffith had rented a downtown loft on Main Street and an open lot at … Grand Avenue and Washington Street. To call the latter a studio would be generous.” Krist quotes actress Mary Pickford: “’Our stage consisted of an acre of ground, fenced in, and a large wooden platform, hung with cotton shades that were pulled on wires overhead. … Dressing rooms being a nonexistent luxury, we donned our costumes every morning at [a] hotel.’”
Krist must have enjoyed writing passages like the one that beautifully evokes the “romantic ruins” of old Hollywood, after an outdoor Griffith shoot circa 1920: “Babylon was crumbling. The huge set left over from the filming of Intolerance stood in the empty lot at Sunset and Hollywood boulevards, its ornamented façades and imposing plaster elephants warping and cracking in the hot California sun.”
As for Griffith’s original sin, the grotesque racism of The Birth of a Nation (born of his own 19th-century Southern upbringing), Krist reveals that many who worked with him on the film “had misgivings about the project” from the beginning. A cameraman named Karl Brown called the original story “terribly biased … as bitter a hymn of hate as I had ever encountered.”
But Griffith’s decline and fall was merely artistic. William Mulholland’s killed people. And here Krist, in chronicling the 1928 St. Francis Dam disaster that claimed more than 400 lives, is following in the footsteps of two excellent books on that tragedy, Floodpath by Jon Wilkman and Thirsty by Marc Weingarten.
Krist is up to the task, though. His description of the devastation wrought by Mulholland’s failed “back-up” dam project, which caved and collapsed at midnight on March 12, 1928, killing small-town dwellers from San Francisquito Canyon to Fillmore to Santa Paula right near the ocean, is searingly dramatic and, of course, intensely tragic. “It’s a scene of horror,” one witness told Mulholland, who listened “with his head in his hand.” The “Chief” went from public saint to devil overnight.
Of Krist’s trio of antiheroes, Aimee Semple McPherson is the easiest to make fun of … and as he tells it, she was considered a bit of a joke even in her day. There was, of course, the hokey evangelism and showbiz corniness that was her stock in trade for “saving souls” between the two world wars. Krist describes the over-the-top “showmanship” and circuslike atmosphere Sister Aimee supplied her audiences at Angelus Temple, the church she built that still stands today, its rounded façade facing Echo Park Lake. “Sister” was known to roller skate down the center aisle toward the stage from the back of the hall, shouting Bible verses, and that was one of her milder stunts.
Why include “Sister Aimee” in this book? Krist touts Sister’s importance as a precursor to the Southern Cal propensity for wacky religions and cults, but you have to wonder: Are we still known for that now? The days of televised mega-cathedrals in Orange County are, after all, mostly long gone. For those of us who are allergic to evangelists, this might be the least compelling part of The Mirage Factory,, though Krist’s account of Sister’s “fake kidnapping,” where it appeared she tried to cover-up a month-long getaway with her married boyfriend, by claiming to have been abducted, is fascinating and in parts hilarious.
The Mirage Factory is a colorful, enjoyable read, especially in its evocation of early, urban Los Angeles. My only complaint after finishing the book was: more, please. The narrative breezes along at times a little too swiftly, and I found myself wanting more details on some of the tantalizing facts dropped, like so many tasty bread crumbs, by its author.
One can quibble with Krist’s take on the “origin story” of this city, too. He has cited L.A.’s “initial growth spurt” as occurring within the book’s post-1900 time frame, and while there was a big jump in population then, a lot of people were already here building the city up during the 1880s and 1890s. (For a deeper dig into L.A.’s beginnings, see John Mack Faragher’s 2016 masterwork Eternity Street, which chronicles the for-real, from-the-ground-up nitty-gritty.)
Gary Krist reads and signs The Mirage Factory at Barnes & Noble at the Grove at 7 p.m. tonight. This is a wrist-banded event so RVSP here.