The Books: After Henry, ‘Times Mirror Square’, by Joan Didion

Still on the essays shelf with another essay from After Henry, by Joan Didion.

As I mentioned, the book After Henry is broken up into three sections labeled, Washington, California, New York. We have clearly been going through the “California” section, and ‘Times Mirror Square” is the final essay in that section. There are other great essays I didn’t excerpt, one about “fire season”, one about a contentious mayoral race in the late 80s. ‘Times Mirror Square’ is the story of many of the formatting and managerial changes that went down at the Los Angeles Times in the late 80s, under new management, and what that signified in terms of California and its expectations for itself. Didion is so good with this stuff. What exactly IS the identity of the Los Angeles Times? If you say “Wall Street Journal”, or “New York Times”, or “Washington Post”, there is a clear idea in the mind of what that paper is, and the community it serves. Not so the Los Angeles Times, and Didion finds that fascinating. She thinks it has something to do with California itself, and its origins. She looked at the upheaval of the paper and saw the underlying narrative. The essay begins with a fascinating history of the Los Angeles Times, and its first successful publisher, Harrison Gray Otis (who was at the Republican National Convention where Abraham Lincoln was nominated for the Presidency). He was a guy who had a full life of other pursuits, but who then, at 45, pulled up stakes and moved to California. As people tend to do. Didion gets that about her home state. Unlike other states in America, California beckons. It always has. It is a symbol and an idea more than it is an actual place. Harrison Gray Otis was an ambitious and smart man and in creating the Los Angeles Times, in the late 1800s, was also trying to create the Los Angeles that he wanted to live in.

People came to California with nothing, hoping to make a buck. People came to California who had already made a ton of bucks, because there you could make even more. People came looking for space, freedom, breathing room, millions. Harrison Gray Otis, one of those people, wanted to imprint on the city that not ALL were welcome, this wasn’t going to be a community of riff raff, of castoffs from other more successful established states. His editorials from the beginning stated that, calling out for workers with energy, “first-class men”.

Didion writes:

The extent to which Los Angeles was literally invented by the Los Angeles Times and by its owners, Harrison Gray Otis and his descendants in the Chandler family, remains hard for people in less recent parts of the country to apprehend. At the time Harrison Gray Otis bought his paper there were only some five thousand people living in Los Angeles. There was no navigable river. The Los Angeles River was capable of p roviding ditch water for a population of two or three hundred thousand, but there was little other ground water to speak of. Los Angeles has water today because Harrison Gray Otis and his son-in-law Harry Chandler wanted it, and fought a series of outright water wars to get it.

If you know Didion’s work, you know her obsession with water.

I have said before that if Didion wrote about different brands of toilet paper she would manage to make it interesting and thought-provoking. I had no idea that there was such an interesting story behind the Los Angeles Times, and now I know a little bit more about the world, and a small sliver of one of our states, and it is one of the main reasons I love Didion. Yes, it’s great when she writes about something I already love, like John Wayne, or politics. But I love essays like ‘Times Mirror Square’. It not only shows me why Didion cares about the history of the Los Angeles Times, but it shows me why I should care too. The story of America writ large … in the history of one local paper.

Here’s an excerpt.

After Henry, ‘Times Mirror Square’, by Joan Didion

The Times under Harrison Gray Otis was a paper in which the owners’ opponents were routinely described as “thieves”, “scoundrels”, “blackmailers”, “venal”, “cowardly”, “mean”, “un-American”, “assassin like”, “petty”, “despotic”, and “anarchic scum”. It was said of General Otis (he had been commissioned a brigadier general when he led an expeditionary force to the Philippines during the Spanish-American War and he was General Otis forever after, just as his houses were The Bivouac and The Outpost, the Times building was The Fortress, and the Times staff The Phalanx) that he had a remarkably even temper, that of a hungry tiger. A libel suit or judgment against the paper was seen as neither a problem nor an embarrassment but a journalistic windfall, an opportunity to reprint the offending story, intact and often. In November of 1884, after the election of Grover Cleveland to the presidency, the Times continued to maintain for eleven days that the president-elect was James G. Blaine, Harrison Gray Otis’s candidate.

Even under Harry Chandler’s son Norman, who was publisher from 1944 until 1960, the Times continued to exhibit a fitful willfulness. The Los Angeles for which the Times was at that time published was still remote from the sources of national and international power, isolated not only geographically but developmentally, a deliberately adolescent city, intent on its own growth and not much interested in the world outside. In 1960, when Norman Chandler’s son Otis was named publisher of the Times, the paper had only one foreign correspondent, based in Paris. The city itself was run by a handful of men who worked for the banks and the old-line law firms downtown and drove home at five o’clock to Hancock Park or Pasadena or San Marino. They had lunch at the California Club or the Los Angeles Athletic Club. They held their weddings and funerals in Protestant or Catholic churches and did not, on the whole, know people who lived on the West Side, in Beverly Hills and Bel Air and Brentwood and Pacific Palisades, many of the most prominent of whom were in the entertainment business and were Jewish. As William Severns, the original general manager of the Los Angeles Music Center’s operating company, put it in a recent interview with Patt Morrison of the Times, there was at that time a “big schism in society” between these downtown people and what he called ” the movie group”. The movie group, he said, “didn’t even know where downtown was, except when they came downtown for a divorce.” (This was in itself a cultural crossed connection, since people on the West Side generally got divorced not downtown but in Santa Monica.)

It was Norman Chandler’s wife, Dorothy Buffum Chandler, called Buff, who perceived that it was in the interests of the city, and therefore of the Times, to draw the West Side into the power structure, and she saw the Music Center, for which she was then raising money, as a natural way to initiate this process. I once watched Mrs. Chandler, at a dinner sometime in 1964, try to talk the late Jules Stein, the founder and at that time the chairman of MCA, into contributing $25,000 toward the construction of the Music Center. Jules Stein said that he would be glad to donate any amount to Mrs. Chandler’s Music Center, and would then expect Mrs. Chandler to make a matching contribution, for this was the way things got done on the West Side, to the eye clinic he was then building at the UCLA Medical Center. “I can’t do that,” Mrs. Chandler said, and then she leaned across the table, and demonstrated what the Chandlers had always seen as the true usefulness of owning a newspaper: “But I can give you twenty-five thousand dollars’ worth of free publicity in the paper.”

By the time Mrs. Chandler was through, the Music Center and one of its support groups, The Amazing Blue Ribbon, had become the common ground on which the West Side met downtown. This was not to say that all the top editors and managers at the Times were entirely comfortable on the West Side; many of them tended still to regard it as alien, a place where people exchanged too many social kisses and held novel, if not dangerous, ideas. “I always enjoy visiting the West Side,” I recall being told by Tom Johnson, who had in 1980 become the publisher of the Times, when we happened to be seated next to each other at a party in Brentwood. He then took a notepad and a pen from his pocket. “I like to hear what people out here think.” Nor was it to say that an occasional citizen of a more self-absorbed Los Angeles did not still surface, and even write querulous letters to the Times:

Regarding “The Party Pace Picks Up During September” (by Jeannine Stein, Aug. 31): the social season in Los Angeles starts the first Friday in October when the Autumn Cotillion is held. This event, started over fifty years ago, brings together the socially prominent folks of Los Angeles who wouldn’t be seen in Michael’s and haven’t yet decided if the opera is here to stay. By the time the Cotillion comes around families are back from vacation, dove hunting season is just over and deer hunting season hasn’t begun so the gentlemen of the city find no excuse not to attend. Following that comes the annual Assembly Hall and the Chevaliers du Tastevin dinner followed by the Las Madrinas Debutante Ball. If you are invited to these events you are in socially. No nouveau riche or publicity seekers nor social climbers need apply.

The Times in which this letter appeared, in September 10, 1989, was one that maintained six bureaus in Europe, five in Latin America, five in Asia, three in the Middle East, and two in Africa. It was reaching an area inhabited by between 13 and 14 million people, more than half of whom, a recent Rand Corporation study suggests, had arrived in Los Angeles as adults, eighteen years old or over, citizens whose memories did not include the Las Madrinas Debutante Ball. In fact there is in Los Angeles no memory everyone shares, no monument everyone knows, no historical reference as meaningful as the long sweep of ramps where the San Diego and Santa Monica freeways intersect, as the way the hard Santa Ana light strikes the palm trees against the white western wall of the Carnation Milk building on Wilshire Boulevard. Mention of “historic” sites tends usually to signal a hustle under way, for example transforming a commercial development into historic Olvera Street, or wrapping a twenty-story office tower and a four-hundred-room hotel around the historic Mann’s Chinese Theater (the historic Mann’s Chinese Theater was originally Grauman’s Chinese, but a significant percentage of the population has no reason to remember this), a featured part of the Hollywood Redevelopment.

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