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Re-Reading L.A.: 'Señor Plummer' from 1942

Los Angeles, more than any other city in the West, grabs you by the arm -- nearly by the throat -- and insists you hear its explanation of itself. To the reader of its popular literature, Los Angeles can seem like a city of compulsive memoirists who want you to know why they came here, what they found when they did, and if they stayed or left.

Some of these narratives are hilariously unreliable as history, like Horace Bell's "Reminiscences of a Ranger: Early Times in Southern California" (1881).

A very few, like Harris Newmark's "Sixty Years in Southern California 1853-1913" and Sarah Bixby Smith's "Adobe Days" (1926), begin with the purely personal and end as something like a diary of the city.

Most of these narratives are like Jackson Graves' "My seventy years in California, 1857-1927" -- a recasting of the American myth of the self-made man as a myth of self-made Los Angeles.

But among them are a few books like Leo Carrillo's "The California I Love" (1961), where Los Angeles, even after American occupation in 1847, is remembered for its sweetness of life and the melancholy of that life's passing. Not history, exactly, but something deeper, more intensely felt -- affective history.

Señor y Señora Plummer
Señor y Señora Plummer | Photo USC Digital Library

"Señor Plummer: The Life and Laughter of an Old-Californian" blends all these modes of presenting the city: history, diary, comic anecdote, boast, and sad reflection. It's an "as told to" book assembled by John Preston Buschlen (writing under the coy pseudonym of "Don Juan") and published by the Times-Mirror Company in 1942 when Eugene Plummer was 90.

The Los Angeles Times was then (and would be for another two decades) a principal custodian of the official mythology of Los Angeles. The paper used writers like Buschlen, who had turned out scenarios for Jesse Lasky and novels for a variety of publishers, to retell the city's myths to successive waves of newcomers.

Plummer was an original resident in the 1870s of what would become Hollywood. He knew the raucous town that Los Angeles was then.

Buschlen used an old man's memories to serve the city's myths in "Señor Plummer." In one, the procession from Mission San Gabriel to the founding of Los Angeles in September 1781 gets a solemn remembrance of gray robed Franciscans and banner carrying soldiers with Governor de Neve in the lead, although that story was invented nearly a hundred years later by promoters in need of a colorful and exotic beginning for their Los Angeles sales pitch.

Plummer didn't claim to be at the founding of the city, but Buschlen has Plummer tell the story anyway. The pageantry is essential to the myth.

Plummer did have memories of the city's famous outlaws Joaquin Murrieta (partly fictional) and Tiburcio Vasquez (mostly real). Connections to Murrieta and Vasquez were signs that Plummer had been a friend to Californios and Mexicans marginalized in the Americanizing Los Angeles of the 1870s.

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And Plummer had been their friend. He worked as a courtroom translator and probably, as he says, an informal adviser to Spanish speaking Angeleños caught in the law. The law catches nearly everyone in "Señor Plummer" in writs, restraining orders, injunctions, adverse judgments, and fraudulent land titles. The law in "Señor Plummer" is thoroughly Dickensian, a trap for the unwary and the principal tool of Anglo dominance over a much larger Latino population.

The rise of Anglo Los Angeles through property theft was early on softened into a myth of feckless native Californios, childlike in their trust of others, losing their land to cunning Americans and their skill at hard bargaining. Some of the myth of Latino incompetence is in "Señor Plummer," but you also see that Latino landowners (both men and women) fought fraudulent deeds and brazen land grabs. They resisted. They went to court. They chased off Anglo squatters with pistols and shotguns.

Plummer identifies himself as Latino throughout "Señor Plummer," although his father was an Anglo sea captain and his mother, with sketchy connections to the Pacheco family, was born in Toronto. In the way of Los Angeles, Eugene Plummer is reinvented as Don Eugenio Plummer, the "last of the dons" with tales to tell of the characters -- like the blustering Horace Bell -- who populated Los Angeles before 1900.

 Señor Plummer and actress Ruth Roland and banker G. G. Greenwood at Plummer Park
Señor Plummer and actress Ruth Roland and banker G. G. Greenwood at Plummer Park | Photo courtesy LA Public Library

In these jokey accounts of drunks and scallywags -- so much like recycled Mark Twain -- "Señor Plummer" trades in stereotypes. It's only at the periphery of his anecdotes that something ambivalent leaks into the narrative. Plummer is shown sitting in a fragment of the land his mother homesteaded in what is now West Hollywood, waiting for even these last acres to be foreclosed, while around him in vivid memory are the ranchos and homesteads of Anglo and Latino neighbors -- a shadow landscape overlaid on the triumphant city.

Nearly everything about the way the author presents Eugene Plummer is meant to evoke a false nostalgia for a past that hardly any Anglo reader in 1942 could remember. But not everything is nostalgic.

Los Angeles in "Señor Plummer" is small, dusty, violent, reckless, and a dumping ground for adventurers who couldn't make it in San Francisco. Beyond the cluster of storefronts, saloons, and a few hotels around the old plaza, the city is sparsely built up. Homesteaded sections have a single frame house hardly more than a shack. The next house was at least a quarter mile away across arroyos and empty fields.

Those who live there -- Anglo and Latino -- make what living they can growing an acre of produce, dairying a few cows, raising a hog or two, and running small businesses that fail more often than they succeed.

The Fandango
The Fandango | Photo courtesy LA Public Library

In the end -- and despite the book's rustic humor and its colorful eccentrics -- "Señor Plummer" presents early Los Angeles as a place where nearly all its residents are dispossessed -- the Native Americans by Spaniards and Mexicans, the Mexicans by the Anglos, and the half-Latino Anglos of the 1840s by the conniving Yankees of the 1860s, Newer waves of Anglos are cut off from their homes back east by distance, desire, and their misfortunes.

Plummer's own misfortune is the reason for the publication of "Señor Plummer." Plummer is presented as the last remaining Anglo pioneer of Los Angeles and the last ranchero to be driven off his land by Yankee cunning. His book of recollections was part of a campaign to keep him on his land even after it he lost it.

Understandably, Plummer keeps coming back to the fandangos and fiestas of a slightly older, more Latin Los Angeles made mostly of adobe. Someone is always singing a ballad there, before the guitars and fiddles pick up a waltz or a polka. No one is dispossessed there, but everything is about to be erased.

Eugene Plummer -- Don Eugenio -- died in 1943 at 91. In 1937, a last parcel of his homesteaded land had become Plummer Park, where he lived until his death, the oldest resident of Hollywood.

He outlived the pre-occupation Californios, to whom he was only slightly connected, to become a representative of Anglo myths about them. He allowed himself to become a souvenir of Los Angeles.

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