The woman who sheds her assigned domestic role to make things happen in the community in which she lives, who walks out of her house and wrenches or wills or cajoles one or another raw frontier boomtown into an approximation of a city, was once a familiar type in California. Phoebe Apperson Hearst's assigned role in San Francisco was as the widow of the silver king George Hearst and the mother of the publisher William Randolph Hearst, but when she decided in 1896 to finance not just a building but an international competition for the design of the entire Berkeley campus, Phoebe Apperson Hearst pretty much invented the notion that the University of California, and, by extension, California itself, could demand the attention of the world.
Jane Lathrop Stanford's assigned role in San Francisco was as the wife of the railroad baron and politician Leland Stanford. But when he died in 1893 and his partners in the Southern Pacific joined her creditors to demand that she shut down the fledgling university she and her husband had built in memory of their son, Jane Lathrop Stanford stood up to the railroad, cut further into her capital and back on her living expenses and kept Stanford open. Eleanor McClatchy's assigned role in the Sacramento Valley was as "Miss McClatchy," the reclusive, unmarried inheritor of the McClatchy Bee newspaper chain and its collateral holdings in what its own trade advertising called "The Valley of the Bees," a woman so indifferent to the world outside the Valley of the Bees that deep into the era of five-digit zip codes she gave her office address to "Who's Who in America" as "21st and Q Sts., Sacramento 4."
Yet, during the years immediately after World War II, when the hop fields and pear orchards that surrounded Sacramento were being bulldozed into new subdivisions and new schools and new plants for new industries, Eleanor McClatchy created the civic theater complex that provided the first common ground on which prewar and postwar Sacramento, the children of asparagus growers and of Aerojet engineers, would eventually, if reluctantly, meet.
Many people have characterized Dorothy Buffum Chandler, who died last week at 96, almost 33 years after the inaugural concert at the Music Center she had made and would continue to make her personal responsibility, as a woman before her time. Yet, in many ways, she was a woman not before her time but after it--perhaps the last California woman ever to walk out of her house and see a boomtown she could wrench or will or cajole into an approximation of a city. Like Eleanor McClatchy, she understood instinctively that a newspaper has not only a unique responsibility for, but a unique interest in creating a community in which the claims of the newly arrived can be accommodated. She understood viscerally that the Los Angeles in which she and her husband had grown up had changed, that there were now millions of new people making a new kind of life in and around Los Angeles, millions of new people raising children who would not know a Las Madrinas debutante if they saw one and that this new kind of life was going to require a new kind of newspaper.
Famously relentless, she pressed her husband, Norman Chandler, to lay the groundwork for that new kind of newspaper--a newspaper that could hold its own on the national scene, a newspaper that would reflect not just the interests of its traditional local readership but the interests of a huge new kind of urban area to be known as the Southland. Notoriously single-minded, she trained her son, Otis Chandler, to bring that new kind of newspaper into being.
The new kind of newspaper underway, she unloosed her restless energy on the Southland itself, intuitively grasping the need to reverse the willy-nilly balkanization of its population and its resources, the centrifugal tendency that at the time led people from Pasadena to boast of never going to Beverly Hills and people from Beverly Hills to insist, and actually believe, that Los Angeles, "has no downtown."
If she understood what Los Angeles needed, Dorothy Chandler also understood that the need was in itself an opportunity, and she seized it, for herself, for her family and, in the end and most of all, for the community. In the course of raising money to build the Music Center, she introduced San Marino to Hillcrest. She introduced the motion picture industry to the California Club. She mixed everybody up, woke up the drowsing and rearranged the seating.
"She brought people together who'd never been together and had never expected to be together," Otis Chandler told Charles Champlin on the occasion of the Music Center's 25th anniversary. "At one point she asked me, 'Who owns the Lakers?' She'd never been to a game in her life but she went, and eventually she hit both Jerry Buss and Jack Kent Cooke."
Women who operate on this kind of broad front tend to be regarded warily. Even Mrs. Chandler's admirers have tended to marginalize her efforts, to speak of her defining influence on Los Angeles "culture," which is seen as an appropriate "feminine" interest but is also beside the point: What Dorothy Buffum Chandler did was no more about "culture" than what Phoebe Apperson Hearst did was about Beaux Arts architecture. What each of them did was will an idea of a place into being, and they did it because they shared an understanding that their personal and business fortunes would be inextricably linked to the fortunes of the places in which they lived, that their houses could prosper only to the extent that the places outside their houses prospered.
That this quite fundamental understanding is no longer much taken for granted has led logically to a deterioration not only in public life but in the very notion that we share a public life, or even want to. A 1996 study of the baby-boom generation commissioned by the National Endowment for the Arts found, according to its co-author Judith Balfe, that even the richest members of this generation seemed disinclined to support the public arts.
"The older generation, which endowed the organizations and built the concert halls--they're not being replaced," she pointed out in a Times interview. "By the 1950s, most every house had a television, and there were 45-rpm records and cheap radios and record players so teenagers could listen to their own music in their own rooms. So what happened was that you had a critical mass of consumers--the baby boomers-- whose tastes could be targeted by advertisers. Suddenly, instead of everybody being part of the same general culture, audiences were segmented and the sense of a culture--at least a popular culture--which transcended generations was lost."
Some of the private money that once went into endowing the organizations and building the concert halls is now diverted into the endowment of further privacy, higher walls, stronger gates, bigger Gulfstreams, heavier political access. What money is left tends to get marginalized, dissipated into a vast clamor of worthy but quixotic single-issue projects, admirable but narrowly targeted programs. Baby boomers, the NEA study found, will support an art event if it takes place on Sunday afternoon, and involves their children. Paul Allen is dipping into his $13-billion take from Microsoft to fund an interactive rock-music museum to be built in the shape of a smashed guitar. Bill Gates is giving $200 million of his Microsoft fortune to introduce libraries to the Internet via Microsoft software. The New York Times, in the wake of this somewhat ambiguous gift, reported last week that others among Seattle's thousands of "Microsoft millionaires" were turning to charity, "backing projects like saving the historic Paramount Theater, arming environmental groups with the latest in computer tools and creating a baby blanket company that gives all its proceeds to children's causes."
This is a long way from willing an idea of a place into being. A major fund-raiser for the New York Public Library recently explained to me that you can no longer raise the kind of money in New York that you once could, not because there is less money (there is more) but because the people who now have it do not feel an attachment to the place. "They live in New York," she said, "but they don't think of it as theirs."
When I heard this, I remembered a conversation about Los Angeles I had in 1989 with David Laventhol, at that time publisher of The Times. "People are looking inward now," he said. "They aren't thinking in terms of the whole region. People in Orange County don't like the Westside of Los Angeles. They don't like the Southside of Los Angeles. They don't like whatever. They're lined up at the county line with their backs to Los Angeles." These were not ideas of what it means to live in a place that Mrs. Hearst or Miss McClatchy or Mrs. Chandler would have been inclined to let stand.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times