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The Socialist Who Won a Democratic Primary and the Dirty Hollywood Politics That Sunk His Campaign

Upton Sinclair's 1934 campaign slogan
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“Nothing is unfair in politics,” Irving Thalberg announced to a Beverly Hills party hosted in 1934 by prominent Hollywood liberals Fredric March and Florence Eldridge. “We could sit down here and figure dirty things all night, and every one of them would be all right in a political campaign.”[1]

Thalberg would know. The producer and studio executive at MGM had just announced his participation in helping to destroy the 1934 California Democratic gubernatorial campaign of Upton Sinclair, the well-known radical, muckraker, and Monrovia resident. The “perennial Socialist party candidate for statewide office,”[2] Sinclair’s astounding success in the Democratic primary, in which he won the nomination with more votes than any other primary election candidate in California history[3], led to perhaps the first big “hit campaign” of modern politics, spearheaded in no small part by the Hollywood studios, and in particular, MGM, Thalberg, and studio head Louis B. Mayer.

Cover of Upton Sinclair's "I, Governor" pamphlet
Upton Sinclair, who achieved fame as an author before entering electoral politics, titled his 1934 campaign pamphlet, “I, Governor of California: And How I Ended Poverty: A True Story of the Future.” Courtesy of the USC Libraries. | USC Libraries

In 1933, Sinclair, then turning 55, was a well-known prolific writer and activist, defender of the working class, health fad junkie, and a vocal supporter of temperance. As the author of “The Jungle,” which in 1906 brought public attention and outcry to unsafe working conditions in Chicago’s meat packing industry, Sinclair is credited with inspiring progressive reforms such as the 1906 Federal Meat Inspection Act and the establishment of what would become the Food and Drug Administration.

America’s favorite Socialist decided to consider a run for governor after receiving a letter “from a gentleman in Santa Monica, urging me to join the Democratic party, and permit him and some of his friends, members of the County Central Committee, to put me forward as candidate of the party for Governor of California.”[4] Despite his previous political affiliations, Sinclair wrote that he was a Democrat “by the same right that makes us Americans either Democrats or Republicans— I was born one,” adding that he never ceased being a Democrat in his position as an “advocate of the right of the people to manage their own affairs.”[5]

Sinclair’s signature piece of campaign literature was a 64-page pamphlet titled “I, Governor of California: And How I Ended Poverty: A True Story of the Future.” The pamphlet describes the campaign from the vantage point of the future (à la Bellamy’s “Looking Backward”), after Sinclair has become governor, brought California out of the Depression, and succeeded in a campaign that had given voice to those asking for radical change in California and across the country.

His platform was known as End Poverty in California, or EPIC, and it was premised on the idea of turning idle factories and farmlands into cooperatives for the unemployed, which would function on a “production for use” program. With headquarters in Downtown Los Angeles, the movement gave rise to an entire EPIC culture, operating over 50 district organizations and nearly 800 EPIC clubs, and published a popular weekly newsletter.[6]

Upton Sinclair, socialist dreamer
"It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it." Upton Sinclair in 1931, before the longtime socialist decided to run for governor of California as a Democrat in the 1934 election. Sinclair won the primary in a landslide but lost the general election. Courtesy of the Photo Collection – Los Angeles Public Library.
Upton Sinclair
Upton Sinclair in 1934, at the time of his gubernatorial campaign under the End Poverty in California program. "The American People will take Socialism," he would remark much later, in 1951, "but they won't take the label. I certainly proved it in the case of EPIC. Running on the Socialist ticket I got 60,000 votes, and running on the slogan 'End Poverty in California' I got 879,000. I think we simply have to recognize the fact that our enemies have succeeded in spreading the Big Lie. There is no use attacking it by a front attack, it is much better to out-flank them." Photo courtesy of the Herald-Examiner Collection – Los Angeles Public Library.

But Sinclair incurred the wrath of MGM president Louis B. Mayer, then chairman of the State Committee of the Republican Party, and Thalberg by proxy, when Sinclair was asked by a reporter if he had a plan for the unemployed motion picture actors in Hollywood. In his 1935 account, “I, Candidate for Governor, and How I Got Licked,” Sinclair writes that he responded, “why should not the State of California rent one of the idle studios and let the unemployed actors make a few pictures of their own?”[7] Upon hearing of this suggestion, Mayer supposedly recruited newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst to publish editorials and cartoons depicting Sinclair as a communist, and declared that he and fellow movie magnates would consider moving to Florida, whose legislature “announced its intention to exempt motion picture studios from all taxes.”[8] Sinclair was not afraid, however. “What would they do about the mosquitos?” he asked. “I have lived in Florida…right in the middle of a scene, one would bite the lady star on the nose and cost them fifty thousand dollars.”[9]

MGM played on Depression-era Californians’ fears of unemployed people moving west en masse from other states.

MGM also put its filmmaking machinery to work. Packaged with its feature films, the studio distributed fake newsreels designed to scare voters away from Sinclair. Masquerading as “California Election News,” with the MGM or affiliate name appearing nowhere, these newsreels featured a narrator who calls himself the Inquiring Cameraman, asking people on the street their preferred candidate in supposedly candid interviews. MGM played on Depression-era Californians’ fears of unemployed people moving west en masse from other states and showcased those deemed “undesirables” – people who appeared poor, homeless, dirty, or illiterate – declaring their sympathies with Sinclair, while citizens who appeared clean and educated were shown supporting the incumbent Republican, Frank Merriam.

“Remember,” says the voice of the Inquiring Cameraman, whom many surmised was the voice of Hollywood screenwriter and voice actor Carey Wilson, “they’re not actors; they’re nervous. I don’t rehearse them; I’m impartial. Now for the votes.” Many watching from Hollywood, however, said they recognized actors from Central Casting on the screen.[10]

MGM’s allies in the press followed the studio’s lead. On October 26, the Los Angeles Times printed a photo of a freight car “loaded with tramps going to California to live off EPIC. The same day the Hearst-controlled Los Angeles Examiner published a photograph showing more hoboes doing the same thing.” The photograph in the Times was in fact a still from Warner Bros.’ 1933 production “Wild Boys of the Road;” the Examiner’s was a posed scene with hired actors.[11] The studios, in the meantime, started to siphon involuntary “contributions” from employees to save California from “Russianization.”[12]

In the end, MGM, Hearst, and others helped defeat Sinclair’s campaign – he lost to Merriam by 11 percent of the vote – but its existence and impact still resonate locally and nationally. With almost 900,000 votes, Sinclair garnered more ballots cast than any previous Democratic candidate. Political historians credit his campaign with shaping California’s modern Democratic party and encouraging the establishment of New Deal programs like the Works Progress Administration that put millions of unemployed Americans to work.

Typical Boxcar "Tourists"
This photograph – actually a still from Warner Bros.’ 1933 production “Wild Boys of the Road” – appeared on the front page of the Los Angeles Times' Oct. 26, 1934, edition. The caption reads: "Westward bound in box cars, thousands of indigents are pouring into California lured by the rosy promises of Upton Sinclair as to what he will do for them if he is elected Governor. Here is a typical scene of a contingent of the invading bums pouring out of a freight car at El Monte."
EPIC convention, c.1935
More than 1,500 people fill a labor temple during a three-day statewide convention of Upton Sinclair's End Poverty in California (EPIC) movement, ca. 1935. (Image courtesy of the Photo Collection – Los Angeles Public Library.) A widely-quoted Saturday Evening Post article pointed out EPIC’s appeal to the same disoriented population who had previously flocked to Aimee Semple McPherson’s Angelus Temple and other dreamland “religious, political, and economic cults.” (cited in Gregory x-xi)
Barnsdall for Sinclair
"Have courage to stir this stagnant pool." Aline Barsndall installed these signs on her estate (now Barnsdall Art Park) supporting Upton Sinclair as the 1934 Democratic candidate for governor. Photograph by Harry Quillen, courtesy of the Photo Collection – Los Angeles Public Library.
EPIC headquarters
EPIC's headquarters for the End Poverty League at 23rd and Figueroa in Los Angeles, ca. 1934. Courtesy of the Photo Collection – Los Angeles Public Library.

Further Reading

Ceplair, Larry, and Steven Englund. The Inquisition in Hollywood: Politics in the Film Community, 1930-1960. 1st ed. Garden City, N.Y: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1980.

Mitchell, Greg. The Campaign of the Century: Upton Sinclair’s Race for Governor of California and the Birth of Media Politics. 1st ed. New York: Random House, 1992.

Sinclair, Upton, and James Noble Gregory. I, Candidate for Governor, and How I Got Licked. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.

Sinclair, Upton. I, Governor of California: And How I Ended Poverty: A True Story of the Future. Los Angeles: End Poverty League, 1933.

[1] Mitchell, The Campaign of the Century.

[2] Gregory, vii.

[3] Gregory, x.

[4] Sinclair 1933, 1.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Gregory, x.

[7] Sinclair 1935, 164-5.

[8] Sinclair 1935, 165.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Mitchell; Ceplair and Englind, 92.

[11] Ceplair and Englund, ibid.

[12] Ceplair and Englund, 92.

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