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Camellias and 'Commies' in LA's Tabloid Age

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There aren't many places in LA as layered as the Descanso Gardens in La Cañada-Flintridge: pre-colonial oak forest, colonial period rancho, formal garden, commercial nursery, custodian of Japanese American memories, gallery of landscape designs, and home to one of the city's most controversial figures.

A walk along the winding paths of the gardens, among roses, camellias, lilacs, and wildflowers, is to be half lost in the California Dream of abundance, ease, and cultivated beauty. All of nature and all of modernity was the promise to well-off Angeleños in the 1920s. It's jarring, then, to recall that the comfortable house that overlooks the long, wide slope of the gardens had been one of the places where LA's rough-and-tumble politics were made and where the city's even rougher newspaper business flourished.

The house on the ridge above the gardens belonged to Manchester Boddy - businessman, newspaper publisher, commercial nurseryman, unsuccessful politician, and ultimately one of the losers in the contest to decide LA's future.

Boddy purchased the land that is now Descanso Gardens in 1937 and commissioned "architect to the stars" James E. Dolena to design a gracious house. It would have vistas from almost every room into the glades and oak trees that characterized Boddy's 165-acre Rancho del Descanso. With the start of World War II and the collapse of the Japanese American nursery industry, Boddy acquired the stock of two interned nurseryman and eventually planted 20 acres of camellias - the largest collection in North America - to supply commercial florists. He later turned another five acres into an experimental garden for hybridizing new varieties of roses and lilacs.

Those lush acres were the foundation of the county-owned Descanso Gardens, greatly enlarged since the county acquired the land in 1953. Boddy himself, who built a second garden retreat in San Diego County, is almost forgotten, although both his camellias and his politics are part of how Los Angeles came to be what it is.

Boddy was one of those self-made men whose trajectory through Los Angeles in the first half of the 20th century was sudden, colorful, and finally disappointing. He had a salesman's gifts and charisma that inspired confidence. He came West with his wife in 1920 for his health, headed the book publishing subsidiary of the Los Angeles Times, and in 1926 (with only $750 of his own money) acquired the failing Los Angeles Illustrated Daily News. He had no experience running a paper.

Like other western boomtowns with lots of newcomers and cranks, Los Angeles had already run through a long roster of failed newspapers by 1926. The established dailies were the rival Los Angeles Times, run by the Chandler family, and the Herald Examiner, part of the Hearst syndicate of newspapers. Other papers, ignored by big advertisers, struggled to find a niche audience of subscribers, often choosing scandal over sober reporting.

These were the tabloids, printed on a skimpier sheet than the big dailies, often on tinted paper, usually with lots of illustrations tending toward beauty queens, gory accidents, gangsters, and prominent people behaving badly. Read as entertainment by an expanding class of working men and women, newly literate and English speaking, the tabloids and their columnists often gave the news a crusading, stand-up-for-the-common-man spin.

The Daily News had tried that format, but without the sex and violence. It didn't work. But Boddy seemed to get the formula right in the 1920s, mixing in just enough Hollywood scandal and supplying some of the violence himself. He loudly attacked the notoriously corrupt Los Angeles City Hall and by extension the Los Angeles Times that actively defended it. He tied the LAPD to the protection of prostitution, bootleg liquor, and gambling. Boddy initially preferred the Republican politics of Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover, but he declared his paper to be Democratic, largely because his readers were.

As Boddy told newsman Ralph Story in 1964, "Primarily, I think the Daily News appealed to the masses who craved a philosophy of life in their daily newspaper. An interpretation of what was going on in the world, what was going on in the United States. Why they couldn't get a job. Why they couldn't pay their bills on time, and that sort of thing. So we brought home, from the very beginning, a message to a large class of Los Angeles citizenship."

As the Depression of the 1930s deepened, Boddy's editorials flirted with radical economic schemes, including Francis Townsend's plan for the federal government to give $200 a month to every citizen over age 60 and the "Ham and Eggs" plan that would get a check for $30 every Thursday to the elderly. He also briefly gave space to Technocracy, a utopian movement that would have turned government over to scientists and engineers.

Boddy eventually became an advocate of President Roosevelt's less radical New Deal. The Daily News was said to be the only paper on the west coast to display the National Recovery Act eagle on its nameplate or to devote so many column inches in defense of New Deal programs. Democratic Party victories in Sacramento and Washington in 1936 gave Boddy's paper additional political clout.

Boddy got the scoops too, printing exposés of official corruption in city and county government and revealing the ties politicians had to organized crime. He let his columnists take seriously the anxieties and hopes of working-class Angeleños, in contrast to the middle-class Times. In his own front-page editorials, Boddy insightfully analyzed the rise of Nazi aggression through the 1930s, the entry of the United States into World War II in 1941, and Roosevelt's uneasy relationship with Soviet leader Joseph Stalin.

The war years did strange things to Boddy and the Daily News. As the paper aimed its reporting and features at defense workers and the families of men in the military, it began to align itself with their increasing political and cultural conservatism. And Boddy, already an enthusiastic amateur horticulturalist, took advantage of wartime injustice to acquire the stock of two nurseries owned by Japanese Americans, F. M. Uyematsu and the members of the Yoshimura family, who were forced to give up their businesses when they were interned in US government camps.

The conditions of Boddy's purchases and his sketchy records leave open how fair Boddy's dealings were with Uyematsu and the Yoshimuras. The consensus is he paid the "market price" for their plants. In the end, Boddy was the owner of tens of thousands of camellia shrubs and a nursery that became a major supplier of camellia blossoms to florists.

The Daily News of the war years, columnist Jack Smith later wrote, "was a wonderful paper, full of humor, youthful energy, good writing and irreverence." Although the Daily News was successful and even profitable, it depended on continual refinancing of its loans to keep the paper going.

With the end of World War II and the start, almost immediately after, of the Cold War, Boddy plunged into Democratic Party politics, in part because he was tired of running a newspaper and because he had begun to believe his own ballyhoo. In 1950, Boddy ran for the US Senate in both the Democratic and Republican primaries (a practice California permitted) against Democratic Congresswoman Helen Gehagan Douglas and Republican Congressman Richard Nixon.

Boddy for Senate, 1950
Boddy for Senate, 1950 | Photo courtesy Wikimedia

It was a virulent campaign, charged with Cold War and Red Scare anxieties. Boddy and the Daily News implied that Gehagan Douglas, a New Deal liberal, was a Soviet sympathizer. "Pink right down to her underwear" was Boddy's sneering charge.

But Boddy turned out to be a weak candidate and seemingly unconcerned with the demands of a modern political campaign. He ran second in the primaries to Gehagan Douglas and Nixon, who went on to characterize Gehagan Douglas as "the pink lady" in the campaign that followed and win the Senate seat that pointed him toward the White House.

Boddy's idiosyncratic ideas left him unprepared for the postwar politics of the right and left. His cobbled-together Daily News was unable to deal with the massive changes that TV and newspaper consolidation set in motion. Boddy was apparently kept on a short leash by silent investors in the Daily News who had interests in other papers with even more conservative editorial positions.

Boddy got out of the newspaper business in 1952. In 1953, he sold Rancho del Descanso to the county for nearly $1.2 million and moved half of his camellia collection to his Wilderness Gardens in northern San Diego County. In early December 1954, The Los Angeles Times purchased the debt-ridden Daily News, merged it with the afternoon Mirror, and fired the paper's unionized employees, leaving them jobless just before Christmas.

Boddy didn't think much of the Daily News in his retirement. He suggested to Ralph Story that his contribution to Los Angeles would be remembered in the gardens he planted and then sold a decade later to the county. The Descanso Gardens - and the Boddy home - would preserve his name.

They haven't. Boddy is a Wikipedia entry, a chapter in a specialist history of Los Angeles newspapers, and a footnote to the career of Richard Nixon. To walk through the rooms of his house, where his rise and fall are displayed on the walls of his office, is a melancholy pilgrimage to a shrine of ambiguous achievements.

Like many figures in Western boomtimes, Manchester Boddy stirred up a half-formed town trying to find a place in the world. He inspired some men with his ideas but misjudged the power that other, more resolute and harder men had over him. And then the times changed.

Boddy died in 1967 at age 75.

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