“In a city awash in sin and suffering, Clifford Clinton was a righteous man,” writes John Buntin in his book, L.A. Noir.
In the 1930s, the City of Los Angeles was teeming with vice. It was controlled by what Buntin calls the Combination, a loose alliance between the underworld, the LAPD and City Hall, under the exceedingly corrupt leadership of District Attorney Buron Fitts, Police Chief James “Two Gun” Davis and Mayor Frank Shaw. And it was brought down by the most unlikely of crusaders: a 37-year-old cafeteria owner named Clifford Clifton.
He was born in Berkley in 1900, the third of ten children. His parents, Edmond and Gertrude, were missionaries, captains in the Salvation Army. Edmond owned a chain of restaurants in San Francisco, which gave the Clintons the resources to travel around the world and spread the word of Christ. They all lived in China for two years, from 1910 to 1912, volunteering at a Christian orphanage for the blind.
Clifford dropped out of high school at the age of 15 and went to work for his dad’s restaurant chain. Ten years later he was the supervising manager, and then a partner. He moved to Los Angeles in 1931, along with his wife Nelda and their three children, to start a new kind of cafeteria on 618 S. Olive St. in downtown Los Angeles.
John Buntin writes:
Cafeterias were to 1930s Los Angeles what coffee shops were to 1930s Seattle – ubiquitous, wildly popular, and very profitable… In 1931, Clinton took the basic idea and gave it a fantastical twist by opening Clifton’s Pacific Seas, which featured a giant waterfall, jungle murals, and a Polynesian grass hut inspired by his explorations of the South Pacific, as well as a meditation garden inspired by the Garden of Gethsemane.
Clifton’s (a portmanteau of Clinton’s own name) also became known as the “Cafeteria of the Golden Rule.” Clinton, after all, was a deeply Christian man who believed, above all else, in helping the poor. As the country plunged into what would be called The Great Depression, it was written policy at Clifton’s Cafeteria that “No guest need go hungry for lack of funds.” In its first 90 days, it served 10,000 free meals. Author Ray Bradbury is said to have taken advantage of the policy, and Charles Bukowski mentions the restaurant, in his novel Ham on Rye, thusly:
Clifton’s Cafeteria was nice. If you didn’t have much money, they let you pay what you could. And if you didn’t have any money, you didn’t have to pay… It was owned by some very nice rich old man, a very unusual person.
Clinton got involved in politics almost by accident. In 1935, LA County Supervisor John Anson Ford asked him to investigate food operations at County General Hospital. Clinton’s report was shocking: patients were being served low-grade, often spoiled food, while, according to Buntin, “waste and favoritism were costing the county $120,000.”
All of a sudden, Clifton’s Cafe was hit with random health inspections and food poisoning complaints. Outraged, Clinton resolved to fight back. In 1937, he got Ford to get him appointed to the county grand jury. Buntin writes:
The county grand jury was the wildcard in Los Angeles politics. Every year, the county’s fifty superior court judges appointed nineteen people to the jury, which had broad leeway to investigate wrongdoing.
Of course, many of the grand jury members had been appointed by judges that were in the pocket of the Combination. They wanted nothing to do with Clinton’s crusade. And so Clinton went rogue. D.J. Waldie writes:
Clinton responded by taking the reform fight directly to the public, rousing enough reaction that Mayor Shaw reluctantly allowed Clinton to assemble a committee of his own to examine vice in Los Angeles. He found it: 600 brothels, 1,800 bookies, and 300 gambling houses.
But Mayor Shaw had made a tactical error. Clinton now had the resources to expose the bribery, kickbacks and systematic abuse that flourished at City Hall with the connivance of Police Chief James Davis, District Attorney Buron Fitts and the editorial pages of the Los Angeles Times.
The grand jury refused to publish the report, but Clinton had an ally – Judge Fletcher Bowron (who had appointed Clinton at the urging of Ford), who overruled the grand jury. And so the report was hastily published. Buntin writes:
The report was scathing. It found that “underworld profits” were being used to finance the campaigns of “city and county officials in vital positions.” In exchange, local officials from all three of the principal law enforcement agencies in the county, the district attorney’s office, the sheriff’s department, and the LAPD, “work in complete harmony and never interfere with the activities of important figures in the underworld.”
The grand jury foreman, John Bauer, called Clinton “out of control” and “Public Enemy #1,” and derided him as the “Cafeteria Kid.” The LA Times followed suit.
Things soon turned violent. When a notary named Frank Angelillo appeared before the grand jury to testify that Bauer was a Shaw crony, Bauer and District Attorney Buron Fitts showed up and Angelillo’s house flanked by a squad of detectives, who proceeded to beat the poor notary so badly he had to be hospitalized.
On the night of October 28, 1937, a bomb exploded in the basement of Clifford Clinton’s home at 5470 Los Feliz Boulevard. Miraculously, no one was hurt. The LAPD suggested that the bomb was planted by Clinton himself to get more publicity; according to Buntin, “a car seen speeding from the scene had license plates that tied to the LAPD’s intelligence division.”
Two and a half months later, on the morning of January 14, 1938, a private detective named Harry Raymond started up his car. It exploded. Raymond was a former vice squad officer who’d had a falling out with one of Mayor Shaw’s minions. After he uncovered evidence linking the Shaw administration to the underworld, Raymond tried to blackmail the Combination. Big mistake.
Except that somehow, despite suffering 186 shrapnel wounds, Raymond survived (the Combination’s assassins were clearly incompetent). He took his story to the Los Angeles Examiner, and placed the blame on LAPD Captain Earl Kynette, who’d been spying on Raymond. The DA was forced to open an investigation. In a letter to Senator Hiram Johnson, chamber of commerce director Frank Doherty described the situation thusly: “a near psychopathic district attorney is investigating a crooked police department.”
Kynette was arrested for attempted murder. The trial got under way in April of 1938. Buntin writes:
The evidence against Kynette was damning. He had personally purchased the steel pipe used in the bombing. The trial also revealed that Kynette had been running a secret spy squad – on that routinely used wiretaps and dictographs to gather information on opponents of the Shaws’ political machine. Among its targets were county supervisor John Anson Ford (who had run for mayor, unsuccessfully, against Frank Shaw in 1937), Judge Bowron, Hollywood Citizen-News publisher Harlan Palmer, and fifty other prominent Angelenos.
When Police Chief James “Two Gun” Davis took the stand, he defended the intelligence program. When pressed as to why certain men were surveilled, Davis admitted that some of them were simply “attempting to destroy confidence in the police department,” which was presumed a crime worth investigating. Kynette was convicted, and Davis was disgraced.
Clinton and his band of reformers demanded that Shaw cut Davis loose. Shaw refused. Without Davis, the City Hall / underworld alliance would fall apart. And so Clifford Clinton went after Shaw himself. Under City Charter, a mayor could be recalled by gathering enough signatures and calling a special election. It had never been successfully done before – not in Los Angeles, not in any major American city. Despite constant police harassment, Clinton and his band of reformers gathered 120,000 signatures to put the recall on the ballot.
To run against Shaw, Clinton turned to his old ally, Judge Fletcher Bowron. In September, Bowron defeated Shaw in a landslide, 233,427 votes to 122,692. Bowron forced Davis to resign. The mayor’s brother was later convicted of 63 counts of selling civil service appointments and promotions. Fitts was defeated in the next election. The Combination was smashed, and organized crime figures fled to Las Vegas en masse.
Although Bowron was hailed by many as a reformer, he was a disappointment to Clinton, who decided to run against Bowron (after serving three years in the Army during World War II, working in mess halls) in 1945, losing badly. Bowron would serve as mayor for another two terms, until he finally incurred the wrath of the Chandler family and the rest of the business establishment by trying to build public housing in Chavez Ravine. The Chandler-backed candidate, Norris Poulson, defeated Bowron in 1953, and instead of public housing, a Chavez Ravine became the site of Dodgers Stadium. Today, there’s a square named after Bowron catty-corner from City Hall.
Clifford Clinton stayed involved with politics, if only at the fringes. He continued to open cafeterias, and he founded Meals for Millions, a non-profit dedicated toward feeding hungry people around the world. One November 20, 1969, Clinton died peacefully in his Los Angeles home.
His cafeterias would close one by one, until finally, only the original Clifton’s on Olive street remained. It is currently undergoing major renovations.