As Dynasty Evolved, So Did Power in L.A.

Times Staff Writers

In the days after he paddled into the Pacific to help scatter his father’s ashes, 52-year-old Harry Chandler returned to his Hancock Park home and began rummaging through old family papers and photographs. He was looking, in a sense, for his legacy, picking through artifacts of a family dynasty that had dominated Los Angeles for generations.

In one file he rediscovered a forgotten Christmas card from his father, dated Dec. 17, 1994. Inside was a handwritten note of congratulations, a message that, in the context of his quest, was freighted with new meaning.

Power in Los Angeles: An article in Sunday’s Section A about the Chandler family identified the director of the Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University as Franklin Guerra. His name is Fernando Guerra. Also, the name of the New York Times’ Sulzberger family was misspelled as Sulzburger. A caption with the article, under a photo of men looking over plans for Mulholland Drive, misspelled the name of engineer DeWitt L. Reaburn as Raeburn. The caption also indicated that the photo was taken in 1932 by Sue Reeves. It was taken in the early 1920s by an unknown photographer.

At the time the card was sent, Harry had just left a successful career in film and computer ventures to hire on at what his father called “the family store,” taking an office in The Times’ executive lair as director of new business development.

“To have you, at last, on The Times as an executive,” Otis Chandler wrote, " … makes me even more proud of you, and I feel an even deeper love for you. Now I have a son to carry on my life’s work. This was the ONE AREA of my life that was not fulfilled, and I have been quite depressed by this reality. So, onward and upward!”

The elder Chandler closed by offering assurances that within three years his son would succeed him on the family and corporate boards, that if all worked out Harry would, by implication, step up to take his turn as the latest in a long line of Chandlers to lead the Los Angeles Times and its related enterprises.

“I look forward to that day,” Otis wrote in closing.

It was a day that never came.

This is a story about power in Los Angeles, and how one family — patriarch Gen. Harrison Gray Otis and three generations of Chandlers who succeeded him — seized it, wielded it, nurtured it and eventually forfeited it. From their empire’s rough-hewn beginnings to its peculiar, drifting end, it was extraordinarily intertwined with the city itself.

For both the family and Los Angeles, the arc of power has unfolded in a series of overlapping stages: an early epoch of boomers, speculators and goatherds; a long run of clubby white capitalists, who, one generation removed from their goats, liked to think of themselves as “old money”; a latter-day installment of corporate elites, whose moment was crowned with the 1984 Olympics they sponsored; and, finally, a splintering off into many pieces.

Those who study Los Angeles today employ terms like “horizontal” and “diffuse” to describe the city’s power structure. They talk of a power vacuum and note that, with so many of its old Fortune 500 companies dissolved, bought up, relocated, Los Angeles has become something of a “branch city.” Whether this represents a good or bad development is open to interpretation.

“Today there is no single node of power in the city,” said Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. “It’s diffused geographically, diffused among important stakeholders — business, labor, for instance — and also racially and ethnically…. There is a devolution of power today that is more grass-roots and more focused on specific neighborhoods.”

Indeed, if the skyscrapers of downtown symbolized a certain era of influence in Los Angeles, so too do the small phalanxes of pro-union demonstrators who now converge beneath those gleaming towers, waving picket signs and chanting, “No justice, no peace,” sometimes in Spanish, sometimes in English.

Of course, the social architecture of any city is always far more complicated than it might seem in newspaper accounts or political speeches, and that has certainly been the experience in Los Angeles. The city’s rapid transition from backwater to major metropolis has become a rich and active minefield for a new corps of scholars eager to poke at the myths and long-accepted analyses.

“The story,” said one of them, historian William Deverell, “is never quite as seamless as everyone seems to think it is.”

The course of the Chandler dynasty also defies easy telling, in part because it too has been embroidered with so much mythology. What can be said is that the members have mainly disappeared from the circles of power in the city that, at least according to municipal gospel, they “invented.”

“The Chandlers and the extended family,” Harry said, “continue to play a significant philanthropic role, but we don’t wield the leadership and power that we once did.”

And what of the newspaper, now in its 125th year of publication? Once the family’s instrument of influence and fountainhead of wealth, it has followed the “branch operation” pattern. It has become a subsidiary enterprise, owned and controlled by Tribune Co. of Chicago.

A Remarkable Collapse

Power, like its first cousin fortune, cannot be passed along as an heirloom forever. Families fracture. Bloodlines thin. Connections to the past grow tenuous. This has happened to many dynastic newspaper families across America.

“As soon as a family surrenders control of the newspaper, the paper and the family are transformed,” said William F. Thomas, who served as editor of The Times through much of the Otis Chandler era. “The family disappears, and the paper becomes a place run by a corporation, usually a corporation headquartered somewhere else.”

What makes the Chandler collapse remarkable is the velocity and depth of the fall. Although many American cities have been prodded along by influential newspaper families, the footprints that Gen. Otis and the Chandlers spread across Los Angeles have been depicted as beyond comparison to the others — outsize, freakish even.

“No single family dominates any major region of this country as the Chandlers have dominated California,” David Halberstam observed barely more than a quarter-century ago, in an Atlantic Monthly cover story. “It would take in the East a combination of the Rockefellers and the [New York Times’] Sulzburgers to match their influence…. The Chandlers did not so much foster the growth of Southern California as, more simply, invent it.”

Long before Halberstam, this notion of the Chandlers as the inventors of modern Los Angeles had been passed down by historians and journalists and had been promoted most persistently by the newspaper itself.

“The history of modern Los Angeles is the history of The Times,” sang an unsigned essay on the paper’s front page, Dec. 4, 1891, the 10th anniversary of its founding. “The two are indissolubly linked together.”

That “indissolubly” suggests the hand of Gen. Otis, who loved adverbs as much as he hated labor unions — no small statement. A Civil War veteran, he drifted to Los Angeles in 1880, believing it a good place to raise goats. Within six years, however, he had gained full control of a fledgling newspaper, the Los Angeles Daily Times. The name was shortened to the Los Angeles Times, or, as Otis commanded, The Times.

In his classic interpretive history, “Southern California Country,” Carey McWilliams described how Otis “quickly developed the fixed idea that he owned Los Angeles, in fee simple, and that he alone was destined to lead it to greatness.”

The first Harry Chandler, who would succeed Otis, came to California to cure his injured lungs and joined The Times in 1885 as a circulation manager. Within a decade he had become Otis’ business manager and son-in-law. While Otis boosted Los Angeles, Harry Chandler seemed more determined to buy it.

Through assorted syndicates, he assembled vast amounts of acreage, some to be sold as farmland, some to be subdivided once the city sprawled into it. When he died in 1944, he was believed to be worth $500 million ($5.6 billion in today’s dollars).

Chandler appeared to regard the newspaper as more of a means than an end. He used it to tear down left-leaning political candidates, promote his business interests and, in at least one quirky case, push a personal passion.

The father of eight children, Chandler became persuaded later in life that implanting goat glands could extend male virility. This led to a spate of stories in The Times about the “world famous surgeon” who pioneered the procedure, and also to the perhaps apocryphal legend that two Times staffers were granted lifelong tenure for testing it on themselves.

Dorothy Buffum Chandler, who married Harry Chandler’s first son and successor, Norman, once described how her father-in-law and one of his syndicate partners, electric rail magnate M.H. Sherman, known as the General, would engage in roaring arguments about goat glands at Sunday brunch.

“Harry would get very enthusiastic,” Buff, as she was called, told an interviewer for an authorized biography of The Times published in 1984. “He was trying to get the General to take it. And the General was yelling back at him. He thought it was a lot of no-good fool stuff.”

Some pieces of Chandler’s land empire, in particular a chunk in the northern San Fernando Valley, were purchased before the city announced in 1905 its plan to divert water from the Owens Valley and carry it via aqueduct to Los Angeles.

The timing gave rise to an enduring suspicion, still debated among historians, that the infamous water-taking had as much to do with enriching Harry Chandler and his cohorts as it did with lubricating the city.

“A great deal of Los Angeles as it appears today,” Joan Didion wrote in a 1990 piece for the New Yorker, “derived from this impulse to improve Chandler property.

“The Los Angeles Civic Center and Union Station are where they are because Harry Chandler wanted to develop the north end of downtown, where the Times building and many of his other downtown holdings lay…. The Los Angeles highway system exists because Harry Chandler knew that people would not buy land in his outlying subdivisions unless they could drive to them.”

Indeed, from the Coliseum to Caltech, from the Los Angeles Aqueduct to the Southern California aerospace industry, from the freeways, to the city’s sprawling form, to the capitalization of the S in Southern California — all these and more at some point have been credited to the Chandler empire.

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.”

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.

“Let’s admit it,” said Tim Leiweke, president and chief executive of Anschutz Entertainment Group, the force behind Staples Center. “We are a different, unique town: a little dysfunctional, more spread out and a little more difficult to manage…. You have to be prepared to work very hard, and be very patient, to get big projects, big visions completed here. But this is still the land of opportunity.”

“Who runs L.A.?” repeated City Controller Laura Chick. “Labor. Contractors and vendors and lobbyists who do business with the city.” Increasingly, she said, there has also been “more empowerment of communities, neighborhoods, activist groups, constituent groups….”

In terms of its power structure, there’s little of present-day Los Angeles that reflects the vision of its so-called inventors. Contemporaries of Gen. Otis and Harry Chandler envisioned a city that would serve as a center of American “Anglo-Saxonism,” a “white spot” that would stand apart from Eastern cities that in the early 1900s were filling with immigrants.

Instead it has become — well, listen to Villaraigosa describing in an interview his winning campaign formula: “I penetrated a broad swath of Los Angeles’ ethnic and racial community…. I’m not just talking about whites, blacks, Latinos and Asians. I’m talking about the many different ethnic groups: Persians and Armenians, Israelis and Jews and East Indians and Pakistanis and Sri Lankans and Koreans, Chinese, Filipinos.”

The early keepers of the Chandler dynasty sought to attract industry by thwarting organized labor. Today Los Angeles is considered a national model for union activism, in particular for its inroads into the immigrant population. This does not appear to be a short-term phenomenon.

“I think unions’ power will grow,” said A.J. Duffy, president of United Teachers Los Angeles, “because local unions … are dealing with the traditional union base, which is the people who do the work in this society, the immigrant populations, mostly Latino, who have begun to join unions in massive quantities — janitors, hotel workers … hospital workers.”

A city where corporate leaders came together as a “Committee of 25" and provided a sort of shadow government now has as its economic engine an army of lone-wolf entrepreneurs and small-business owners, churning away in anonymity with no time for lunch at the California Club or museum fundraisers.

In earlier Los Angeles, said former Mayor Richard Riordan, “you didn’t have a lot of entrepreneurs. Today we have an overabundance of entrepreneurs.”

And whether they are running small-bore businesses or international media conglomerates, they do not necessarily connect to the city and its pursuits in the same way power brokers of the past did. For starters, they tend to be too busy.

“It’s not easy,” said Alberto Alvarado, Los Angeles district director for the Small Business Administration, “to get up at 4 in the morning and work 18 hours a day” and then “move from that arena into the corridors of power and influence.”

Also, at the opposite end of the entrepreneurial ladder, those engaged in international ventures — the Kirk Kerkorians and Sumner Redstones and the like — might live in Los Angeles, might have Harry Chandler-like fortunes, but the orbits of their interests can spin far beyond the day-to-day philanthropic and civic needs of the city.

“The secret to Southern California’s old elites,” said historian Mike Davis, “is that whatever they officially did as businesses — ran newspapers or studios or street car lines and so on — what gave them stability in terms of the local political landscape were their huge investments in L.A. dirt.”

And today, he went on, “media barons and so on don’t have the same kind of necessary relationship to the region.”

“The super rich,” said Connie Rice, a civil rights lawyer active in Los Angeles on several fronts, “don’t need the city for anything. It has nothing to offer them. The city has no jurisdiction over their deals. They don’t need to borrow money….”

There is more wealth than ever in Los Angeles today.

“Los Angeles is thriving,” said Steven S. Koblik, president of the Huntington Library. “The money is coming from all directions, and it’s not always visible. You can run a ratchet company and make $100 million and become a player in this city.”

Or you can run a ratchet company, make $100 million and start working in anonymity on the next $100 million.

None of this is to suggest that there is a universal yearning to re-create the Committee of 25. As real estate developer Steve Soboroff put it: “I can’t think of anything scarier than having 25 corporate rich white people deciding what should happen to a city of millions of people.”

And yet, there are trade-offs.

“I think what made the Chandlers great,” said Franklin Guerra, director of the Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University, “was that, yes, they had power, political power, social power, economic power, but they were willing to use it. Whether you agreed with them or not, they had a vision. And so you could mobilize for that vision or against that vision.”

Guerra places the peak of the family’s power, not in the woolly heyday of Gen. Otis and Harry Chandler, but rather in the 1950s and early ‘60s, a time when the dynasty was controlled by Norman and Buff Chandler.

They were a power couple before the term came into fashion. Here was Norman, in an interview with a Times biographer, recalling how he and his friends came to recruit Republican Rep. Norris Poulson to run for mayor in the early 1950s.

“I had a luncheon at the California Club and invited a group of six or eight gentlemen…. At least four or five of us agreed that Poulson was our best bet. We went into another room right then and there, and I called Washington. I happened to find him in his office, told him we were meeting at the California Club and that there were prominent people here, and financial support would be forthcoming.”

And here was Buff, in the same interview, describing one of her own power plays. It was 1952, and the couple disagreed over which Republican candidate for president to endorse. He wanted Robert Taft. She liked Ike.

“Before we went east to the convention,” Buff recalled, with Norman apparently still in the room, “I remember we were out in Sierra Madre in our pool house. And I tried with all my persuasive power to get Norman to be for Eisenhower. But he stuck very firmly with Taft.

“So I said, ‘All right, you go your way, and I’ll go mine. I’ve tried everything, so now I’ll resort to the last thing … and that’s sex. We can’t have any until you change your mind!’ ”

The newspaper endorsed Eisenhower.

The Times in this period was not a good newspaper. It was filled with wire service briefs, dispatches about new city incorporations, annexations and subdivisions, reports of horrific car wrecks and slanted political coverage that read more like memos from — and to — the Republican Central Committee than journalism.

Despite the lazy reporting, there was loads of advertising. What was unfolding was in part an accident of timing. The Times in the mid-1950s found itself the major morning newspaper in a metropolis that was exploding in both population and economic vitality.

“I cannot imagine any other place,” Guerra said, “where the middle class lived so well in the history of mankind than in L.A. of the 1950s. There were plenty of jobs, plenty of houses, plenty of material things to buy, plenty of entertainment things to do.”

And plenty of people to subscribe to newspapers.

And plenty of newspaper advertisers trying to reach them.

“And that,” Guerra said, “was the power of the L.A. Times. Before, the paper was more of a loss leader. In the ‘50s, it began to be more its own legitimate product. They could produce enough income to then say, ‘Hey, let’s legitimize this thing.’ ”

In 1960, the newspaper flush, Norman Chandler headed upstairs to go about expanding Times Mirror, the parent company. It would in time evolve into a media monolith with a portfolio of three dozen distinct companies — newspapers, forest products, publishing houses, ranches, cable systems, mapmakers, magazines, electronic media.

Otis Chandler was installed as publisher — another turn of the dynasty, but not a seamless one. The selection of the 32-year-old Chandler over his more conservative uncle Philip created fissures in the family, and they would have consequences.

In Pursuit of Profits

In the aftermath of his Feb. 27 death, Chandler was remembered in obituaries and eulogies for the journalistic turnaround he pulled off as publisher. Sometimes lost in the praise, however, was the full purpose.

Chandler didn’t set out to transform the newspaper simply because he believed in quality journalism. Rather, and here perhaps was his greatest contribution to the industry, he also sensed there would be profit in it.

Toward the end of his run as publisher in 1980, Chandler would complain that media reporters placed too much emphasis on the editorial improvements he’d brought to The Times, while overlooking innovations in production and marketing.

“If the editorial expenditures that I had made — which were substantial — if those were not transferable and translatable into advertising and circulation gains, and thus into profitability,” he said, “all I would have been doing would be adding to the payroll on the editorial side and carrying nothing down to the bottom line.”

There were, for example, economic advantages to opening foreign and national bureaus: “We broadened our penetration and coverage of the upper-income, upper-demographic profile in the community…. We became very popular in the affluent Westside Jewish community as we began to cover world events and national affairs.”

It also made business sense to seed the Southland with suburban editions. The big retailers (and advertisers) were following the path of white flight, anchoring malls. So would The Times.

“Our future,” Chandler said, “was not in trying to be a paper for the black or the Latino populations or the low-income white population.”

In the context of dynasty, the changes cut many ways. For starters, Chandler rejected the role of behind-the-scenes Los Angeles power broker, seeking instead to influence civic affairs through the spotlight cast by stories, a method his grandfather might have considered hopelessly romantic and complicated.

Chandler’s father as publisher had fostered the rise of Richard Nixon and ran a newspaper universally described as the de facto boss of the Republican Party in California. Under Otis the paper would adopt a policy of not “routinely” endorsing any candidate for president, governor or U.S. senator.

He once paraphrased the angry letters he received from readers, and relatives, who missed the old Times: “Your grandfather would have turned over in his grave if he could see what you are doing to The Times today. It used to be a good Republican newspaper, and now we don’t know what it is. And it’s even endorsing Democrats, and it even has black faces in the paper, and it even has news about labor unions and labor leaders!”

Chandler even heard from his mother.

In the early 1960s, she was engaged in her greatest campaign, raising millions to build the Music Center downtown. She came to Otis with a complaint: The women’s pages, as they were called, were not paying enough attention to the “important people” of L.A. society, the people whom she might touch for contributions.

“I don’t want to read, and none of my friends wants to read,” she scolded her son, as he recalled the conversation years later, “about black foster parents and Spanish women who run clinics, or the sad story of some woman who has 10 children and has never been married and is on Aid to Families With Dependent Children.”

Chandler, though, had a trump card to play when relatives complained about the newspaper’s new direction: profits. They might not like The Times’ editorial positions, but they certainly were not discouraged by the increasingly robust dividends. Still, they were taking notes.

“After I got there,” recalled Anthony Day, The Times’ editorial page editor from 1971 to 1989, “I realized I was working for a prince who had taken power in a family coup. And as long as it went well, it went well. But I knew that the other family members resented it, and someday the coup would be undone.”

Otis’ decision to quit as publisher in 1980 — he was 52 years old — and move into corporate positions that were long on title but short on actual power has been for the last quarter century an in-house riddle.

There are indications he was pushed aside. There’s countervailing evidence that he just got bored or tired, complaining frequently to his closer associates about how he wished he’d been a doctor or a farmer.

“Otis always told me,” said former Editor Thomas, that “he left voluntarily, and I think he convinced himself it was true. In a way it was true.”

Nonetheless, it was true that influential members of the family’s conservative branches had steered Chandler toward the exits.

“What they did to persuade him,” Thomas said, “I don’t know. But he was persuaded.”

‘We’re Hurting All Over’

In the spring of 1992, a British writer named Nicholas Coleridge paid a visit to Otis Chandler at his private museum in Oxnard, where the former publisher maintained a collection of vintage cars and mounted hunting trophies. When Coleridge entered the office, Chandler was on his knees, tinkering with an electric train.

“All my business is run out of this office now,” Chandler told the writer. “Times Mirror and all that stuff.”

Coleridge had come to ask about strategies for suburban coverage, but instead Chandler commenced to inventory the many forces that seemed to be converging on the family enterprise. He complained for openers about the immigrant waves that were transforming Southern California.

“Recently I read that in one year 250,000 Guatemalans came in,” Chandler told Coleridge. “Probably another 300,000 from El Salvador, and Mexicans coming in by the millions. That’s one mighty headache for a newspaper like The Times. So we have the language problem. We have that in spades.”

He turned to economics: “We’ve had so many mergers and acquisitions and major companies going out of business, and there’s no way to replace that advertising volume. Pan Am is out of business. TWA is out of business. Department stores are in bankruptcy. Food markets have merged. Those are millions of lines of advertising we used to have that won’t return to the paper.”

Finally, there was the post-Cold War “peace dividend,” which was costing the paper columns of aerospace help-wanted ads each day.

“Horrendous,” Chandler said. “We’re hurting all over.”

At Times Mirror headquarters, these daunting external dynamics were creating a spiral of sell-offs, forced retirements, strategy reversals and persistent demands from members of the extended Chandler family to protect their assets. Publishers came and publishers went, and none was named Chandler.

Times Mirror, “in my mind, went through an extraordinary period in its last 10 years,” said David Laventhol, Times publisher from 1989 to 1994. “Every time things seemed to be getting better, here we would go again, and the Chandlers just didn’t want to bother with that. They wanted their money.”

The fault lines that ran between branches of the Chandler family received a jolt in 1996 when Otis, in a Vanity Fair article about his disappearance from the dynasty, ridiculed his relatives.

“The Chandlers — I hope I’m an exception — are elitists,” he remarked. “They get bored by the problems of AIDS and the homeless and drive-by shootings; they want to ignore them and turn back the clock.”

To not have followed his parents’ wishes that he become publisher, he went on, to pursue other, less taxing paths, would have been “the easy way out. To me that would have been a wasted life. I would have been a coupon clipper like most of my relatives are.”

The comments infuriated voluminous ranks of cousins and uncles. There were threats of lawsuits. Chandler went prone, apologizing individually to seemingly every member of the extended family he could find.

He also surrendered his seat on the boards that controlled the Chandler Trusts, instruments the first Harry Chandler had created to ensure that the empire would remain under family control for many generations.

Trust rules would not allow a sale of the company without a unanimous vote of these boards, which were composed of members or representatives of each branch of Harry Chandler’s heirs.

Otis, therefore, would now have no vote should the family, increasingly nervous about Times Mirror’s prospects, decide to bail.

A year before the Vanity Fair article appeared, a new chief executive had been hired to run Times Mirror. Mark Willes came from General Mills, where, according to a Chandler biographer, he once said he had “reinvented” Cheerios.

In short order, he began to “reinvent” Times Mirror. He believed the company should focus on its core business: newspapers. He ordered layoffs and cutbacks. Times Mirror stock rose.

Still, there was friction with the family. Some influential members were put off by what they considered Willes’ imperious nature. They also were troubled by the consolidation strategy, which would make Times Mirror dependent on an industry that seemed to be hurtling toward treacherous waters.

Willes, who declined to comment for this story, made himself vulnerable when a journalistic scandal arose over an undisclosed financial arrangement between a special issue of the Los Angeles Times Magazine and Staples Center.

According to Laventhol, Warren “Spud” Williamson, a Chandler cousin, emerged in this period as a family leader. Williamson, Laventhol said, “felt that Mark Willes was more of a handful than he could handle.” Williamson’s “solution was to sell the company.”

Laventhol, who is writing a book about his Times experiences, later interviewed Williamson about the decision to sell: “As strange as this may sound, he said, ‘Well, we didn’t know what else to do. We had never run the paper. We never had any experience with running the paper.’ ”

Otis Chandler, who did have experience running the paper but who had been ostracized, would not have a say in the matter.

“Otis did not play a part in the decision,” said a former Times executive familiar with the backroom negotiations.

But did he make his opinions known?

“Again, Otis played no part in the decision.”

On Monday, March 13, 2000, the sale was announced. Otis called Dennis McDougal, a former Times reporter who, in preparing to write a biography of Chandler, had become his friend.

McDougal did not answer, so the last Chandler to lead the empire left a message on the answering machine: “The family business has been sold. We sold the family store.”

‘Lots of Ghosts’

Luxurious, airy, modern, bathed in soft light that slants through a glass ceiling, the sixth floor of what was once called Times Mirror Square sits mostly idle these days. With the corporation sold, there is no longer much need for this lavish executive inner sanctum, known as the Atrium.

A retired Times Mirror executive maintains a small office off one corridor. From time to time, outside consultants can be found working behind one of the desks.

The dominant sound is the soft bubbling of a Japanese fountain, dedicated to Buff Chandler, and the quiet can compel visitors to adopt funeral parlor manners.

“They do movie shoots here now,” whispers a secretary who knew the floor in its glory days.

One by one, she points out office suites once occupied by top Times Mirror leaders. Here was the publisher, over there the house lawyer and in that corner the chief executive who presided over the last days. All the suites have been converted into conference rooms, but they remain empty more often than not, lights dimmed, curtains drawn.

“Lots of ghosts,” the secretary whispers.

There are other reminders of the realm scattered about the Southland, a regional designation that itself is an artifact of the Chandler era. The cascades still carry Owens River water into the Valley. At the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, the operas play on.

This newspaper survives, still reflects Otis Chandler’s reaching vision — though industry analysts now describe it as a financial drag on Tribune Co.

And there are still members of the extended family around, their names popping up on museum boards and charity donor lists. No one, though, suggests they are Los Angeles power players any more. The days of dynasty are done.

“It didn’t have to be that way,” says Harry Chandler, Otis’ son.

Harry was actually the last Chandler to leave The Times’ executive suites, and his experience suggests a poignant epilogue. Growing up, he always believed that his older brother, Norman, would assume their father’s place, so he charted a career for himself outside the newspaper.

But one day Otis Chandler announced that he did not believe his eldest son was right for the job, and not long after, Norman was diagnosed with a brain tumor from which he never recovered.

Harry went to work at The Times in 1994 as a mid-level executive whose role, as he put it, would be to “sort of champion the Internet.” He lasted five years, departing one year before the Tribune takeover.

“He had a lot of Internet and media experience,” Laventhol said, “and it’s interesting to play the what-if questions about Harry.”

His father’s message of encouragement, contained in that recently rediscovered Christmas card, never did translate into any tangible upward movement. The pair would talk from time to time about the business. Harry recalls once even discussing whether the time was right for Times Mirror to buy Tribune Co.

And yet, for reasons of corporate protocol and, perhaps, because of the awkwardness that can develop between a father and a son — the things left unsaid, the erroneous assumptions born of silence — they never addressed head on the question of whether Harry might be groomed for a greater role.

“Dad, I think, was happy that I was there,” Harry says now. “But still, he wasn’t going to push along my career, even if he had any influence left.”

And he didn’t. Otis Chandler’s rifts with the relatives had left him stripped of power. Then Willes arrived, just nine months after Harry came aboard.

Whatever his agenda, it was clear that the man from General Mills had not come west to coddle Chandlers or cultivate the next family prince. Willes, Harry surmised, regarded him as “a Chandler threat.” Moreover, Willes demonstrated little interest in the Internet, deeming it a distraction from his push to fortify the core business.

Frustrated, Harry made a bid for a seat on the family board, seeking to instigate a coup of sorts against Willes. He was rebuffed. He angled for a greater role within the corporation. Nothing came of it.

At an institution raised up by generations of Chandlers, he had hit, this last Chandler would later say, “a glass ceiling.”

And so he too left.


For a bibliography of books reviewed in preparing this story, visit


Contributing Writers

Also reporting on this story were Times staff writers Cara Mia

DiMassa and Bill Sing and Times researcher Nona Yates.

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