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Re-Reading LA: 'Billion Dollar Blackjack' from 1954

The reason for the alien "otherness" of Los Angeles has been named differently in different seasons, but all the interpreters of our re-read city have actually been trying to identify its original sin.

In Helen Hunt Jackson's "Ramona" (1884), the primal stain is the displacement of the land's Native Americans and Latinos by American aggressors. For critics like H. L. Mencken in the 1920s, the innate depravity of Los Angeles flowed from the gullibility of its inhabitants and the cynicism of those who preyed on them. In Carey McWilliams' "Southern California Country: An Island on the Land" (1946), the fault is in the city's theft of water from the Owens Valley. In "Chinatown" (1974), written by Robert Towne, the stolen water is only a screen for other evils. The original sin of Los Angeles for Towne, echoing Jackson and McWilliams, is rape.

In William Bonelli's "Billion Dollar Blackjack: The Story of Corruption and the Los Angeles Times," (1954), it's lust for power that animates the personalities that Robert Towne blended (and obscured) into the film's incestuous Noah Cross.

Perhaps because the city's founding depravity could be located at the offices of the Los Angeles Times, a circumspect Towne misdirected the audience of "Chinatown" to a fictional stand-in.

For Bonelli, Los Angeles is a sunny cesspool created out of nearly nothing except dirt and that famously stolen water. He's less interested in the water and more in who took it. They're a trio of men, related by marriage, blood, and ownership of the Times across three generations.

A cast of hundreds surrounds them, but "Billion Dollar Blackjack," for reasons of dramatic unity and revenge, mostly ignores the supporting cast.

Harrison Gray Otis
Harrison Gray Otis | Creative Commons License

Bonelli's book (ghost written by reporter Leo Katcher) is supposed to be an exposé of how Harrison Gray Otis (1837-1917), his son-in-law Harry Chandler (1864-1944), and Chandler's son Norman Chandler (1899-1973) cynically manipulated the development of Los Angles from 1881 onward for the sole benefit of Otis and the Chandler family. Bringing Owens Valley water to Los Angeles (to raise the value of land a syndicate headed by Otis and Chandler planned to sell) was, according to "Billion Dollar Blackjack," just one of their crimes.

David Halberstam's "The Powers That Be" (1979) tells the story of the Chandlers and their Times with the care of a historian. Bonelli (speaking through Katcher) wants to be a muckraker, indifferent to historical context or plausible psychology.

In "Billion Dollar Blackjack," Harrison Gray Otis is a blustering demagogue, passionately opposed to organized labor, even more so after the bombing of the Times building in 1910 by two labor union operatives. Harry Chandler shares his father-in-law's prejudices, particularly the belief that what's good for the Chandler family is good for Los Angeles. Norman Chandler, polished by family wealth, quietly carries on the business of making Los Angeles profitable for the Chandlers.

In support of that goal, the Chandlers use their newspaper as a club, a lever, a pulpit, a cash cow, a megaphone for ballyhoo, and an organ of conservative politics. (In the 1930s, the Times was anti-Roosevelt and anti-New Deal. In the 1950s, the Times thought President Eisenhower was soft on Communism.)

After the Bombing of the Times, 1910
After the Bombing of the Times, 1910 | Creative Commons License
 
Harry Chandler
Harry Chandler | Creative Commons License
None of this story was new when "Billion Dollar Blackjack" was published in 1954. The Times had long been labeled one of the nation's most partisan newspapers. The efforts of Otis and Harry Chandler to prevent union organizing in Southern California had earned them the hatred of labor leaders.
 
That city and county government into the 1940s was corrupt was widely known (but not if you only read the Times).
 
"Billion Dollar Blackjack," in prosecutorial style, pins all of that history on the Chandlers in a web of connections threaded through organized crime figures, City Hall bag men, corrupt cops and sheriff's deputies, the district attorney, county supervisors and city councilmen, members of the Merchants & Manufacturers Association, and the powerful landowners in the Chandler circle. (John Buntin's "L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America's Most Seductive City" (2009) covers the same ground with even more detail.)
 
The Times may not have profited directly from City Hall corruption, but it energetically defended many of those who did, including Mayor Frank Shaw (eventually recalled by Los Angeles voters), District Attorney Burton Fitts (defeated by a reform candidate in 1940), LAPD Chief James "Two Gun" Davis (implicated in an attempted murder by car bomb), and the LAPD's "Red Squad" (whose officers busted union picket lines and tapped the phones of those on the paper's enemies list).
Official corruption touched almost everyone in Los Angeles politics, including Bonelli himself, who was in and out of various political offices until 1954. His case against the Chandlers and the Times, however lurid, was paralleled by Bonelli's apparent involvement in a system of kickbacks while he was a member of the state board that oversaw liquor licenses.
 
He may also have been involved in a protection racket that shielded prostitution and after-hours clubs along a notorious strip of Santa Monica Boulevard. Indicted in 1939 and tried in 1940, Bonelli's case was ultimately dismissed.
 
Bonelli had every reason to hate the Chandlers and the Times, which had repeatedly tried him in editorials and the paper's news columns. The paper's resentment seems to have lingered. When Cecilia Rasmussen wrote about Bonelli in 2002 in an "L.A. Then and Now" story, Bonelli's real and suspected crimes are cataloged, but the corruption the Times protected in the 1930s went unmentioned.
 
Whatever truth might have been in Bonelli's muckraking was ignored.
 
In 1955, long after his political career had ended, Bonelli was arrested in Arizona for prior violations of California's campaign laws. Rather than face trial, Bonelli fled to Mexico where he successfully fought extradition and died in 1970. "His fall from the pinnacle to disgrace was as dramatic as his climb," Rasmussen wrote, "and today his name - William George Bonelli - has virtually disappeared from the history books."
 
The Chandlers haven't entirely disappeared from the history books, but they have from modern memory, a loss they surely welcomed. They no longer needed the Times to protect their power, position, and wealth.
 
"Billion Dollar Blackjack" is a stylish hatchet job, written for suspect reasons and for a presumed criminal about to go on the lam. It didn't lead to reforms. It didn't change the Times. (That had to wait for Otis Chandler, Norman's son, who became the paper's publisher in 1960.)
 
And it didn't end the erasure of the city's past that afflicts its residents with selective amnesia.

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