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As Chandler Dynasty Evolved, So Did Power In L.A.

This Op-Ed was originally published on pbs.org in 2009. It has been edited to reflect current events.

 

In the days after he paddled into the Pacific to help scatter his father's ashes, 52-year-old Harry Chandler returned to his Hancock Park home and began rummaging through old family papers and photographs. He was looking, in a sense, for his legacy, picking through artifacts of a family dynasty that had dominated Los Angeles for generations.

In one file he rediscovered a forgotten Christmas card from his father, dated Dec. 17, 1994. Inside was a handwritten note of congratulations, a message that, in the context of his quest, was freighted with new meaning.

At the time the card was sent, Harry had just left a successful career in film and computer ventures to hire on at what his father called "the family store," taking an office in the Times' executive lair as director of new business development.

"To have you, at last, on The Times as an executive," Otis Chandler wrote, " ... makes me even more proud of you, and I feel an even deeper love for you. Now I have a son to carry on my life's work. This was the ONE AREA of my life that was not fulfilled, and I have been quite depressed by this reality. So, onward and upward!"

The elder Chandler closed by offering assurances that within three years his son would succeed him on the family and corporate boards, that if all worked out Harry would, by implication, step up to take his turn as the latest in a long line of Chandlers to lead the Los Angeles Times and its related enterprises.

"I look forward to that day," Otis wrote in closing.

It was a day that never came.

otis chandler
Otis Chander, Fourth Publisher of the Chandler Dynasty, transformed the Los Angeles Times from a conservative paper into a Pulitzer Prize-winner. | Courtesy The Huntington Library

This is a story about power in Los Angeles, and how one family — patriarch Gen. Harrison Gray Otis and three generations of Chandlers who succeeded him — seized it, wielded it, nurtured it and eventually forfeited it. From their empire's rough-hewn beginnings to its peculiar, drifting end, it was extraordinarily intertwined with the city itself.

For both the family and Los Angeles, the arc of power has unfolded in a series of overlapping stages: an early epoch of boomers, speculators and goatherds; a long run of clubby white capitalists, who, one generation removed from their goats, liked to think of themselves as "old money"; a latter-day installment of corporate elites, whose moment was crowned with the 1984 Olympics they sponsored; and, finally, a splintering off into many pieces.

Those who study Los Angeles today employ terms like "horizontal" and "diffuse" to describe the city's power structure. They talk of a power vacuum and note that, with so many of its old Fortune 500 companies dissolved, bought up, relocated, Los Angeles has become something of a "branch city." Whether this represents a good or bad development is open to interpretation.

"Today there is no single node of power in the city," said former Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. "It's diffused geographically, diffused among important stakeholders — business, labor, for instance — and also racially and ethnically.”

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Indeed, if the skyscrapers of downtown symbolized a certain era of influence in Los Angeles, so too do the small phalanxes of pro-union demonstrators who now converge beneath those gleaming towers, waving picket signs and chanting, "No justice, no peace," sometimes in Spanish, sometimes in English.

Of course, the social architecture of any city is always far more complicated than it might seem in newspaper accounts or political speeches, and that has certainly been the experience in Los Angeles. The city's rapid transition from backwater to major metropolis has become a rich and active minefield for a new corps of scholars eager to poke at the myths and long-accepted analyses.

"The story," said one of them, historian William Deverell, "is never quite as seamless as everyone seems to think it is."

The course of the Chandler dynasty also defies easy telling, in part because it too has been embroidered with so much mythology. What can be said is that the members have mainly disappeared from the circles of power in the city that, at least according to municipal gospel, they "invented."

"The Chandlers and the extended family," Harry said, "continue to play a significant philanthropic role, but we don't wield the leadership and power that we once did."

And what of the newspaper, now in its 137th year of publication? Once the family's instrument of influence and fountainhead of wealth, it has followed the "branch operation" pattern. It is now owned and controlled by Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong.

A Remarkable Collapse

Power, like its first cousin fortune, cannot be passed along as an heirloom forever. Families fracture. Bloodlines thin. Connections to the past grow tenuous. This has happened to many dynastic newspaper families across America.

"As soon as a family surrenders control of the newspaper, the paper and the family are transformed," said William F. Thomas, who served as editor of the Times through much of the Otis Chandler era. "The family disappears, and the paper becomes a place run by a corporation, usually a corporation headquartered somewhere else."

What makes the Chandler collapse remarkable is the velocity and depth of the fall. Although many American cities have been prodded along by influential newspaper families, the footprints that Gen. Otis and the Chandlers spread across Los Angeles have been depicted as beyond comparison to the others — outsize, freakish even.

"No single family dominates any major region of this country as the Chandlers have dominated California," David Halberstam observed barely more than a quarter-century ago, in an Atlantic Monthly cover story. "It would take in the East a combination of the Rockefellers and the [New York Times']  Sulzberge​rs to match their influence.”

Long before Halberstam, this notion of the Chandlers as the inventors of modern Los Angeles had been passed down by historians and journalists and had been promoted most persistently by the newspaper itself.

"The history of modern Los Angeles is the history of the Times," sang an unsigned essay on the paper's front page, Dec. 4, 1891, the 10th anniversary of its founding. "The two are indissolubly linked together."

harrison gray otis
Harrison Gray Otis, Founding Publisher of the Chandler Dynasty, was a pioneer newspaperman who would rather fight than make a profit. | Courtesy The Huntington Library

That "indissolubly" suggests the hand of Gen. Otis, who loved adverbs as much as he hated labor unions — no small statement. A Civil War veteran, he drifted to Los Angeles in 1880, believing it a good place to raise goats. Within six years, however, he had gained full control of a fledgling newspaper, the Los Angeles Daily Times. The name was shortened to the Los Angeles Times, or, as Otis commanded, The Times.

In his classic interpretive history, "Southern California Country," Carey McWilliams described how Otis "quickly developed the fixed idea that he owned Los Angeles, in fee simple, and that he alone was destined to lead it to greatness."

The first Harry Chandler, who would succeed Otis, came to California to cure his injured lungs and joined the Times in 1885 as a circulation manager. Within a decade he had become Otis' business manager and son-in-law. While Otis boosted Los Angeles, Harry Chandler seemed more determined to buy it.

Through assorted syndicates, he assembled vast amounts of acreage, some to be sold as farmland, some to be subdivided once the city sprawled into it. When he died in 1944, he was believed to be worth $500 million ($5.6 billion in today's dollars).

harry chandler
Harry Chandler, second publisher of the Chandler Dynasty, was Los Angeles’ largest landowner, and an inspiration for the villain of the 1974 film "Chinatown." | Courtesy The Huntington Library

 

Chandler appeared to regard the newspaper as more of a means than an end. He used it to tear down left-leaning political candidates, promote his business interests and, in at least one quirky case, push a personal passion.

The father of eight children, Chandler became persuaded later in life that implanting goat glands could extend male virility. This led to a spate of stories in the Times about the "world famous surgeon" who pioneered the procedure, and also to the perhaps apocryphal legend that two Times staffers were granted lifelong tenure for testing it on themselves.

Dorothy Buffum Chandler, who married Harry Chandler's first son and successor, Norman, once described how her father-in-law and one of his syndicate partners, electric rail magnate M.H. Sherman, known as the General, would engage in roaring arguments about goat glands at Sunday brunch.

"Harry would get very enthusiastic," Buff, as she was called, told an interviewer for an authorized biography of the Times published in 1984. "He was trying to get the General to take it. And the General was yelling back at him. He thought it was a lot of no-good fool stuff."

Dorothy Buffum Chandler, wife of Norman Chandler, built one of the world’s great performing arts centers by reaching out to all elements of Los Angeles society. (Courtesy The Chandler Family Archives)
Dorothy Buffum Chandler, wife of Norman Chandler, built one of the world’s great performing arts centers by reaching out to all elements of Los Angeles society. | Courtesy The Chandler Family Archives

Some pieces of Chandler's land empire, in particular a chunk in the northern San Fernando Valley, were purchased before the city announced in 1905 its plan to divert water from the Owens Valley and carry it via aqueduct to Los Angeles.

The timing gave rise to an enduring suspicion, still debated among historians, that the infamous water-taking had as much to do with enriching Harry Chandler and his cohorts as it did with lubricating the city.

"A great deal of Los Angeles as it appears today," Joan Didion wrote in a 1990 piece for the New Yorker, "derived from this impulse to improve Chandler property.

"The Los Angeles Civic Center and Union Station are where they are because Harry Chandler wanted to develop the north end of downtown, where the Times building and many of his other downtown holdings lay.

la times building
Los Angeles Times Headquarters, circa 1972. Everything that goes into making a city function as an entity of power – real estate, development, transportation – the Times was at the center of it. | Courtesy The Huntington Library

Indeed, from the Coliseum to Caltech, from the Los Angeles Aqueduct to the Southern California aerospace industry, from the freeways, to the city's sprawling form, to the capitalization of the S in Southern California — all these and more at some point have been credited to the Chandler empire.

Only in recent years have historians begun to challenge the widespread depictions of Chandler omnipotence, working through previously under-studied documents to provide a more complex portrayal of early L.A. power brokers.

"The Times," said Steve Erie, a professor of political science at UC San Diego and an expert on early Los Angeles, "was first among equals and all that. But it wasn't calling all the shots all the time."

Still, Chandler and his associates did attempt to extend their tentacles into seemingly every conceivable piece of Los Angeles enterprise.

A duplicate of an undated letter from Sherman to Chandler, on file with Chandler papers at the Huntington Library in San Marino, suggests not only their expansive agenda, but also a sense of their operating style:

 

Those were the old days.

Read the rest of the story at the Los Angeles Times.

 

Top Image: Otis Chandler, Fourth Publisher of the Chandler Dynasty, with wife Missy and their five children.  The family personified the California Dream. | Courtesy The Chandler Family Archives

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