Cliff Hall, an inventor who photographed Los Angeles high society, dies at 94

Cliff Hall with the prototype of his Corwin Getaway sports car at the Petersen Automotive Museum in 1994.
(Frances Gardler / Los Angeles Times)

When Cliff Hall wasn’t documenting lavish parties in Bel-Air and Beverly Hills, the society photographer dreamed of ways to solve Los Angeles’ most stubborn problems.

He believed that his most famous invention, a sports car, could have addressed two issues in L.A. — making driving more fun, and building wealth for black residents — had it only been mass produced.

Hall, an inveterate inventor and ideas man who documented black and white society in mid-century Los Angeles, died Sunday in Loma Linda, said his friend Ed Boyer. Hall was 94.

A native Angeleno, Hall was a fixture on the Southern California social circuit. He documented glitzy dinners, bar mitzvahs and weddings in L.A.'s toniest neighborhoods — including some with housing covenants that barred black people from buying homes.


On many nights, Boyer said, Hall “might have been the only African American guy in the room, along with the other hired help.”

Hall worked for more than a quarter-century at the Los Angeles Sentinel, documenting the successes of the black community during an era of racial tensions and the rise of the black middle class.

One edition of the Sentinel from October 1955 featured stories on Emmett Till, who had been lynched in Mississippi two months earlier; a lawsuit seeking to block the racial integration of the Los Angeles Fire Department; and Hall’s photos of an award ceremony at the jet-age Statler Hotel in downtown, honoring a post office clerk as the city’s “leading citizen.”

Hall hired and mentored Howard Bingham, later known for his intimate photos of Muhammad Ali. Hall also opened a photo studio on 48th and Western avenues with Lamonte McLemore, one of the founding members of The 5th Dimension.

Hall dreamed of replicating the wealth of Bel-Air and Beverly Hills in L.A.'s black neighborhoods, driven by stable, high-paying jobs. He envisioned a factory that would produce a car of his own design, “made by black hands in the black community,” his website said.

“I wanted to build industry so I could have control,” including hiring more black and Latino workers and paying them a living wage, said Hall in a 2015 documentary. His goal, he told The Times in 1994, was to become the “Martin Luther King Jr. of industry.”

Louis Corwin, a Beverly Hills businessman, invested $100,000 in Hall’s idea: a fun, zippy car that the average worker could afford. Hall named the sports car the Corwin Getaway.

Finished in 1969, the prototype was 43 inches high. The mid-engine layout, twin seats and square headlights looked radically different from the boxy sedans on the market, but resembled other sports cars — including the Pontiac Fiero and the Fiat X1/9 — that were produced more than a decade later.

After appearing at the 1970 Los Angeles auto show, the Getaway was photographed with Ali and Sidney Poitier, next to the Wilshire Colonnade building, and in front of USC’s Tommy Trojan.

Hall never found the money to move the car into mass production. He recalled one bank manager who rejected his business plan in the lobby, next to the teller window, rather than invite him into an office.

“Me being a brother, too, that didn’t help a thing,” Hall said. If the manager had taken the meeting seriously, he later said, “he’d be a billionaire today, and I’d be a multi-billionaire.”

The Getaway prototype languished in storage until the Petersen Automotive Museum acquired it in the 1990s. The car was restored last year and is part of the Petersen’s permanent collection.