A prince who earned his crown
Catching a glimpse of Otis Chandler striding through The Times’ newsroom was like sighting a griffin: a creature of mythology, half-lion and half-eagle. In his person, Otis stitched together two ideas as dissonant as Valvoline and Sparkletts: a believer in that most-democratic of instruments, a free and fair press -- the only business mentioned in the Constitution -- and an heir to that most regressive of institutions, an absolute monarchy.
Chandler, who died early Monday, was the fourth generation of a dynasty of business monarchs, and every story told of kings and queens could be told of him: the gifted and golden prince, the formidable queen mother urging him on, the contentious and jealous family nipping at his flank.
His kingdom was Southern California. As owners and operators of the Los Angeles Times, his family had virtually ruled it for nearly 100 years, enriching itself as the region prospered under its marching orders.
Otis was a child of his name and his city, but he was also a child of the age. He became publisher in 1960, the year that John F. Kennedy was elected president. The nation was looking to new frontiers, and so was Otis. Ask not what your newspaper can do for you; ask what you can do for your newspaper.
The paper he inherited was so lousy that humorists made a joke of it. The city he was born in was sneered at like some beautiful but stupid starlet, wanting in substance, culture, taste and history.
To his forebears, the newspaper was just a means to an end -- a club, a prod, a reward. Otis made the newspaper its own purpose, and its own mission. And he elevated the city’s reputation as he elevated the paper’s.
His confidence was monarchical. He asked his editor, Nick Williams, “What does it take to make this the best paper in the world?” and he set about with a checklist to make it happen.
My colleague Eric Malnic, who just retired after more than 40 years here, said Otis was the right man, in the right place, at the right time, with the right tools. He professionalized the newspaper, hiring college-educated writers who could cover beats -- science, politics, the bold social and racial changes of the 1960s -- with sophistication and judgment, not with the gee-whiz hokum or the vituperative boosterism of the old L.A. Times. Mass and class, he said, was the paper’s mission.
That’s why reporters and editors admired him. He’d park his Duesenberg in the corporate garage and show up in the newsroom at least once a week to chat about this story or that series. On Christmas Eve or New Year’s Eve, he’d walk through the building, thanking everyone working holiday shifts -- thanking them by name. He even showed up at my section’s little Friday potluck lunch, and knew everyone, including the rankest of cubs -- me. The Times’ reputation was his reputation, and he made us feel that it was ours too.
THE PAPER was a responsibility; the Chandler family image was, I suspect, a burden. Otis spent lavishly to create a great American newspaper -- and didn’t hurt himself financially by it. But it seemed to me as if he were laundering a family fortune earned in some part through decades of robber-baron deals “in an age,” wrote historian Kevin Starr, “unbothered by later niceties regarding conflict of interest.”
When the Tribune Co. took over the Times in 2000, I wrote about the passing of the Chandler dynasty and its mixed legacy. I quoted Balzac -- that behind every great fortune there is a crime, and that the greatly fortunate Chandlers stood accused of their criminal portion: vicious union-busting, water theft, political manipulation. Otis sent me a kind thank-you note.
He was an imperfect hero, as even princes are. He abdicated the publisher’s throne as a fairly young man, beset by family pressures and diverted by personal issues.
As the paper suffered declines and setbacks, the Golden Age of Otis took on a deeper luster. One editor got so weary of reporters complaining that Otis would never have done this or that, he finally snapped, “Otis has gone surfing, and he’s not coming back.”
But he did, once, in 1999, after the paper’s new leaders cut a secret profit-sharing deal that had Times’ journalists unwittingly writing pieces for a promotional advertising issue about Staples Center.
It was the same kind of conflict of interest that had besmirched his forebears’ reputations. Otis drafted a barbed rebuke to the “executives in the top two positions” whose “unbelievably stupid and unprofessional handling” had perpetrated a “scandal” and a “fiasco” that amounted to the “most serious threat” to The Times in his half-century of being “associated” with the paper.
It was read aloud to the newsroom staff, and young reporters who had never so much as laid eyes on him cheered. Otis had left the building, but not the newspaper. His much-photocopied picture went up all over the newsroom. He was Shane and Frederick Barbarossa, rescuers come back to save us once more.
His image is still here and there in the newsroom, and in one other place.
Since Otis left, The Times has had seven publishers. But in the lobby, there are only four bronze busts of publishers: his great-grandfather’s, his grandfather’s, his father’s and his own. There will be even more publishers, but not, I suspect, more bronzes. The last of the Chandlers broke the mold.