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."

  • Also
  • Bibliography
    Among books reviewed in preparing this story were:
    The Life and Times of Los Angeles, by Marshall Berges
    Billion Dollar Blackjack, by William G. Bonelli
    Los Angeles, by Harry Carr
    Paper Tigers, by Nicholas Coleridge
    City of Quartz, by Mike Davis
    After Henry, by Joan Didion
    Globalizing L.A., by Steven P. Erie
    Thinking Big, by Robert Gottlieb and Irene Wolt
    The Powers that Be, by David Halberstam
    Privileged Son, by Dennis McDougal
    Southern California Country, by Carey McWilliams
    William Mulholland, And the Rise of Los Angeles, by Catherine Mulholland
    The San Fernando Valley: America's Suburb, by Kevin Roderick
    Los Angeles Transformed, by Tom Sitton
    Metropolis in the Making, edited by Tom Sitton and William Deverell
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:

My dear Harry Chandler. I want to talk to you some more about the shipbuilding matter; also about Mr. Firestone, (you know what I mean). Also about those Pasadena people and what we shall say to them; also about what names to use when we get our lots (Van Nuys matter). It is hard to tell what names to use. You know what is best to do in all these things better than I do. Thank you. M.H.

Those were the old days.

Profound Structural Shift

Like many a reader, billionaire Eli Broad had a complaint about his newspaper. Refreshingly, his was not about liberal bias or a change in the comic strip lineup. Broad's peeve was personal.

"Stop calling me 'billionaire,' " he told some Times reporters who had gone to see him not long ago in his Westwood office.

The billionaire Eli Broad this, the billionaire Eli Broad that — he was tired of it.

What would he prefer, philanthropist?

The 72-year-old nodded.

"Or civic leader … whatever you want to call me, but just add 'who happens to have wealth.' "

What many people engaged in Los Angeles affairs call Broad is the closest thing the city has now to a modern Harry Chandler, a ubiquitous power broker (who happens to have wealth). Founder of two Fortune 500 companies, Broad has retired from day-to-day business to focus instead on philanthropy, forming foundations that seek to influence issues as varied as the study of the brain and the revitalization (again) of downtown L.A.

He has been a patron to political causes — promoting Villaraigosa and stopping the San Fernando Valley secession movement among them. He has been a force behind the creation or expansion of cultural institutions.

Yet for all that, Broad acknowledges that he operates in a city far removed from the one the Chandlers and their compatriots sought to dominate. Not long ago he reread a history of early Los Angeles, and reflecting on the narrative he sounded almost envious.

"It certainly was a lot easier back then," he said. "If you owned a lot of land, and had some water coming, and owned a newspaper, all at the same time…. "

And today?

"How do you get stuff done in L.A. today? In New York or Chicago you know how you get stuff done. You go see Mike Bloomberg or you go see Richard Daley or someone. Here it's harder. You've got to form it, whether it's a joint powers authority, or some consensus, or so on."

In interviews, various community activists, academicians and politicians made the same point about the power structure in Los Angeles: What had been a vertical apparatus has flattened out over time, reflecting the fundamental transformations of the city's demographics and economics.