The name of Col. Griffith Jenkins Griffith...
The name of Col. Griffith Jenkins Griffith is one of the most recognizable in modern Los Angeles--Griffith Park, Griffith Observatory, Griffith Park Drive and Griffith Park Boulevard.
But in his time, the Welsh-born immigrant who made a fortune in mining--a man with luxurious tastes, civic generosity, an unquenchable thirst for alcohol and an intemperate disposition--was best known not for his good deeds but his criminal ones--like shooting his wife in a drunken tirade.
In his time, the city was new and growing. In 1882, the colonel, who acquired his title courtesy of his buddies in the California National Guard, bought 4,071 acres of Rancho Los Feliz for $50,000.
In 1896, Griffith presented the city with a Christmas gift of the 3,015 acres of hills, green valleys, streams and meadows that today is Griffith Park.
Some cynically declared that the donation was a tax dodge; others believed it was from the goodness of his heart. Either way, the gift was offered with Griffith’s injunction: “Public parks are a safety valve of great cities . . . and should be accessible and attractive, where neither race, creed nor color should be excluded.”
Griffith’s wife, Mary Agnes Christina Mesmer, was a descendant of the Verdugo family, who received the King of Spain’s first land grant in the region--the 36,000-acre Rancho San Rafael--which made her a landowner too. The colonel asked her to deed him a piece of her land as collateral in a business deal. Being an obedient wife, she did. But later, when she asked for it back, Griffith blew his top.
His reputation as a man of temper was cemented by what happened then, on his vacation in 1903, at the Arcadia Hotel, an elaborate four-story seaside resort overlooking Santa Monica Bay. The hotel was named after Arcadia Bandini Stearns de Baker, daughter of a leading family during Mexican rule, who married two of the richest American settlers in California, one of whom owned part of Santa Monica.
On a late summer afternoon, the Griffiths took a leisurely walk on the beach. Mrs. Griffith returned to their room, the Presidential Suite. A short time later, Griffith appeared with bloodshot eyes, handed his wife her prayer book, and ordered her to kneel as he took out his pistol and cocked it.
The Protestant Griffith accused his wife of being “in league with the Pope and the church to poison him so she could turn all his money over to the Catholics,” according to the Griffith Park Quarterly. He told her to close her eyes and swear she had been a faithful wife. She said, “Darling, you know I have.” She begged for her life. Their 12-year-old son, she sobbed, needed his mother.
Griffith, very drunk, was unmoved by her claim of faithfulness and her plea of motherhood.
As Mrs. Griffith opened her eyes and saw the pistol barrel only inches from her head, she jerked her head, and the bullet went through her left eye.
Screaming in terror, she jumped through the open window and tumbled two stories to the roof of the veranda below, breaking an arm when she landed.
She dragged herself through a window into a room. Screaming for help, she found a towel to hold over the eye, which was gushing blood.
The hotel manager answered her call for help, but Griffith was on his heels. “Please don’t let him come in,” his wife wailed. “He shot me! He’s crazy!” Griffith calmly denied it and insisted that his wife had accidentally shot herself.
The manager summoned the sheriff.
Griffith’s attorney, the legendary Earl Rogers, came up with what was then a novel defense: trying to “prove that Mrs. Griffith had too much religion, and the colonel too much champagne,” wrote a Los Angeles Times reporter. Rogers argued that Griffith was a victim of “alcohol insanity.” The colonel was convicted of attempted murder, drew only a two-year sentence and left San Quentin a year later as a new man--sane, sober and still very rich.
He soon made further gifts, willing even more land and a substantial trust fund for the upkeep of the park, and for building an observatory and theater.
Despite the bloody shooting that cost her the sight in one eye--and because her religion forbade divorce--Mrs. Griffith stayed with her husband in their 17-room mansion until he died in 1919, at age 67. The mansion still stands on North Vermont Avenue, near the Roosevelt Golf Course. But the Arcadia Hotel’s 22-year life ended in 1909, when it was torn down. Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel was recently constructed on the same site.
Today, a 14-foot, $100,000 statue of Griffith is being sculpted by Venice artist Jonathon Bickart and paid for by the Griffith Park Trust. It will be placed at the main entrance in time for the park’s 100th birthday in 1996.
He will not be carrying a gun. And there is no known statue of the long-suffering Christina Griffith.