The Fall of the House of Chandler
No American newspaper has dominated a city the way the Los Angeles Times has dominated Los Angeles. The city and the newspaper are so intertwined, Dennis McDougal points out in “Privileged Son,” his sprawling history of The Times, that it’s impossible to separate the two. In less than 100 years, Los Angeles went from a desert hamlet to one of the world’s two media capitals. The Times, owned by one family for almost its entire existence, did more than just cheer on this extraordinary transformation. The Times shaped it and took advantage of it, accruing more influence than any single newspaper or any single family should.
When Harrison Gray Otis arrived in Los Angeles to edit the Los Angeles Daily Times in 1882, he was a failure, an itinerant newspaperman and printer whose proudest achievement was service in the Union Army. Within four years, though, he had borrowed enough money to convert his one-fifth interest in the paper into majority ownership. He incorporated the company as The Times Mirror Co. and, with the help of his future son-in-law, Harry Chandler, the paper’s circulation manager, crushed the competition. Known as the General, Harrison Otis was a bully and a buffoon. “With a bellicose prose style that blended politics and passion with half-truths and full-blown fiction,” McDougal writes, “Harrison Gray Otis jammed his personal point of view into every inch of his staunchly Republican newspaper.”
For almost 80 years, this would be the model for the paper. Anti-labor, racist and provincial, The Times was the paper of Los Angeles’ business elite. Politicians and the police were there to protect their interests and, more than anything else, those interests revolved around the city’s rapid growth. The key to growth was water. In the most notorious incident in the city’s history, the General and his son-in-law formed a syndicate that snatched water from the Owens Valley and diverted it to Los Angeles. At the same time, the General and his cohort secretly bought more than 44,000 acres in the San Fernando Valley. When the water arrived in 1912, the land--once considered barren and useless--was worth millions.
Though the General loved attention, his son-in-law preferred anonymity. He, too, would use The Times to punish his enemies and pursue his financial interests, but he would remain behind the scenes. For more than 30 years, Harry Chandler would hold more power than anyone else in Los Angeles, more power, it’s fair to say, than anyone else has ever held in the city’s history. Newsweek once described him as the “Midas of California.” In addition to his role in the Owens Valley affair, Harry Chandler was directly or indirectly involved with the creation of the Coliseum, Olvera Street, the Salton Sea, the Biltmore Hotel, Douglas Aircraft, Chinatown, the Hollywood Bowl, the Ambassador Hotel, Hollywoodland (and therefore the Hollywood sign), Caltech, the Auto Club of Southern California and Santa Anita Race Track. Ruthless and strait-laced, he assured the Chandler’s family wealth for generations to come. When he died in 1944, he had accumulated more than 1.5 million acres, and The Times was one of the most profitable newspapers in the country.
Norman, Harry’s bland and self-effacing son, didn’t so much expand the empire as secure it. He laid the framework for Times Mirror’s becoming a modern media conglomerate. He brought in outside consultants. He acquired other companies. He took the stock public. The newspaper, though, continued to be a national joke. In a poll of the Washington press corps, the Los Angeles Times ranked among the three “least fair and reliable” papers in the country. Right-wing and boosterish, The Times remained what it had always been: the personal tool of the Chandlers.
It was Norman’s wife, Dorothy Buffum, who was the driving force in the family. The daughter of a Long Beach department store magnate (and later mayor), she was not of the same “class” as the Chandlers, and her husband’s siblings viewed her as an interloper. Four years after giving birth to her second child, she suffered a nervous breakdown and, at the urging of her husband, she went to see a psychiatrist, a courageous decision for anyone in 1932 but especially for a woman of her status. The psychiatrist, she later recalled, told her to “stop being a passive victim and start getting involved.”
David Halberstam, in his 1979 history of modern media, “The Powers That Be,” portrays her as a heroic figure who challenged the Chandlers’ provincialism and pushed her only son, Otis, to greatness. McDougal, though, paints a less flattering picture. In his words, she was a “power hungry matron-in-the-making” who tried to control everyone around her. She may have single-handedly raised the money for the Music Center and transformed Los Angeles’ cultural life, but she was a cold and petty tyrant, according to McDougal. She blackmailed people into making donations; she used the newspaper (especially the women’s pages) to champion her personal causes, and she alternately smothered and intimidated her two children.
McDougal doesn’t have much feel for psychological nuance, so his account of Dorothy Chandler’s relationship with her son is one of the book’s major gaps. McDougal hints that Otis grew to resent his mother for using him in her wars with her in-laws, but he never examines how this might have shaped his behavior. By Otis’ own account, he had no plans to enter the family business when he was growing up. He led a privileged, isolated life for most of his childhood. His father insisted that he work on the family ranch during summers to experience physical labor. His mother insisted that he be sent East to boarding school to gain a proper education. He returned to California to attend Stanford, where he proved to be a world-class athlete (injury prevented him from going to the 1948 Olympics) and a high-flying fraternity brat. After serving in the Air Force, he returned home with a Pasadena society wife, two small sons and vague thoughts of becoming a sports doctor. Instead, his father greeted him with a seven-year executive training plan that would take him through every department of the paper. He would start in two days. What he discovered was a newspaper that was corrupt and provincial to its core. In 1960, his training complete, he became the fourth publisher in the history of the paper. He was 32.
There is something mythic about Otis’ story. He is the prince who walks among his people and vows to reform his kingdom. He is Henry V, the good-time frat boy who achieves greatness when he ascends to the throne. Blond, blue-eyed, with craggy good looks and an athlete’s bearing, Otis was a pure vision of Southern California heroism. Not given to self-reflection or intellectual fancy, he was a man of action. He lifted weights, he surfed, he hunted, he raced cars and he transformed the Los Angeles Times into one of the best papers in the country. No longer would East Coast papers view it with contempt. “I wanted,” he later said, “to make them eat their bloody words.” Working with two editors--Nick Williams and then William Thomas--he expanded the staff, created new sections and opened bureaus. By the end of his tenure, only The New York Times would have more domestic and foreign bureaus or a bigger Washington staff than the Los Angeles Times. Most important, he insisted that the paper no longer function as the personal expression of his family. As Otis poured money into The Times, the paper became the most profitable in the country. By 1969, its weekday circulation surpassed a million and ad sales exceeded $115 million.
The company’s enormous financial success kept the rest of the Chandlers at bay. Otis’ cousins hated what they saw as the paper’s drift toward liberalism, and they hated even more that they had lost control of their paper. Following the pattern of his father, Otis became chairman of Times Mirror in 1981. He was sure, though, that none of his five children was capable of succeeding him, so he named Tom Johnson to succeed him as publisher, and for the first time in nearly a century somebody other than a Chandler was running the Los Angeles Times. Five years later, Otis unexpectedly stepped down as chairman, and for many the golden age was over.
Like a gargantuan 19th century novel, the saga of the Los Angeles Times is full of larger-than-life figures and historic sweep, betrayal and intrigue, pettiness and triumph. It’s a great story, and it’s a shame that McDougal doesn’t tell it well. He’s a ham-fisted writer with a penchant for cliches and mixed metaphors. Otis, he says at one point, was “wrestling with feelings that caught him on his lantern jaw like a sucker punch.” The book is filled with such howlers. McDougal, a staff reporter at The Times during the ‘80s, has done an admirable job on the early history of the paper, but his contemporary account of the paper is thin. Factual errors creep in (his chronology, for instance, of the 1999 Staples Center scandal is off). He has a tendency to recount conversations verbatim without identifying his sources. His descriptions become increasingly personal; you get the impression that he’s getting back at colleagues and editors who once crossed him (for example, he describes former editor Shelby Coffey III as “Nixonian” without an explanation). But the larger problem is that McDougal can’t decide whether “Privileged Son” is a social history of Los Angeles, a biography of Otis Chandler or an extended portrait of a newspaper dynasty. There’s no reason why it can’t be all three, but in “Privileged Son,” each element keeps elbowing the other out of the way. The effect is a book that seems at once too crowded and too short.
The hole at the center of “Privileged Son” is Otis himself. Even to those who worked closely with him, he was a vexing character. Fiercely competitive, capable of engendering extraordinary loyalty, he also was self-absorbed, spoiled and a loner. But in McDougal’s telling, these contradictions don’t add up to a rounded complex portrait. They’re more like Post-it notes that tell us what he was like but never show us. What’s missing is how a rich Southern California jock, who showed no passion for the family business as a young man, suddenly fell in love with his own newspaper and understood at some elemental level that journalism is more than a business; it’s also a public trust.
What’s also missing is how, after devoting his life to The Times, Otis could walk away from it all at the age of 58. This is the central mystery of his life. Was it his health, which had been acting up? Was it boredom? After 20 years as publisher, in the rough-and-tumble of putting out a newspaper every day, was he just temperamentally ill-suited to be chairman of Times Mirror? Was it a midlife crisis? After divorcing his first wife (and then remarrying), did he also need to divorce himself from all the obligations his mother had instilled in him since he was a young boy? Or was it, as some have suggested, a palace coup engineered by members of the family who had always resented Otis and the paper’s newly moderate politics? My guess is that all these reasons are true. The family did force him out, but he was also ready to quit. After 58 years of being a Chandler, of carrying the mantle and the burden, he had had enough.
The paper and the company, of course, were never the same. Yes, the Los Angeles Times remains one of the best papers in the country, but the Otis drive “to push The New York Times off its perch,” as he once famously put it--a drive that led him to increase the editorial budget by nearly 1,000% in his first 10 years--has been replaced by more modest goals. Times Mirror, the company that the Chandler family had so brilliantly built for more than 100 years, began to fall apart. Otis’ two successors as chairman--Robert Erburu and Mark Willes--dismantled the company piece by piece, selling off almost all of its non-newspaper assets. Their strategy was aimed almost entirely at the short term, to prop up Times Mirror stock price and to increase the family’s dividends. As other newspapers were expanding into media conglomerates embracing television, movies, magazines, book publishing and the Internet, Times Mirror was shrinking. Newspapers alone, though, could not sustain the company. Otis and Tom Johnson had understood this in a way that eluded their successors. At the height of Otis’ tenure, Times Mirror was the second largest media company in the country. By the time Willes was through, the company was no longer ranked among the top 10. The company had become so weakened that when Tribune Co., owner of Chicago Tribune, offered to buy it last year, the proposal was greeted by most who remembered The Times’ glory days with enormous relief. Otis was not told about the sale until the deal was complete. But when he heard the news, he approved.