Clifford Clinton
Clifford Clinton

“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 at 618 S. Olive St. in downtown Los Angeles.

More: Pistol shooting tips.

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 to 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 underway 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.

Frank Shaw
Mayor Frank Shaw, left, with a boy scout troop, sporting a Hitler mustache back when that was ok (1933)

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.

Clifton's CafeteriaClifford 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. On 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.

The LA Times Terrorist Attack

On October 1, 1910, at 1:07 am, a suitcase bomb packed with 16 sticks of dynamite went off outside the Los Angeles Times’ building on 1st and Broadway. The explosive was actually supposed to have been triggered at 4:00 am when the building was empty, but the timing mechanism had failed, and the bomb went off early, while there were still 115 people inside working. Making matters worse was the presence, unbeknownst to the bombers, of a natural gas line under the building.

The resulting blast could be heard from 15 miles away. Printers’ metal became shrapnel; the entire building was soon engulfed in flames. 21 employees died, most of them burned to death.

General Harrison Gray Otis, the owner of the Times, and the head of LA’s powerful business elite had no doubt as to who the perpetrators of the attack were: unions.  He wrote this in his paper:

O you anarchic scum, you cowardly murderers, you leeches upon honest labor, you midnight assassins, you whose hands are dripping with the innocent blood of your victims, you against whom the wails of poor widows and the cries of fatherless children are ascending to the Great White Throne, go, mingle with the crowd on those street corners, look upon the crumbled and blackened walls, look at the ruins wherein are buried the calcined remains of those whom you murdered…

General Otis loved a good fight.

The bombing of the LA Times was but the latest incident in an all-out war for the soul of Los Angeles between capital and labor. First, there was a typographers strike. Then, in 1894, a railroad strike brought all inter-city commerce to a halt. Six infantry companies were called in to restore law and order.

General Otis (he was technically a brigadier general, but more of a self-styled general) led the fight on the side of the capital. As David Halberstam writes in his absolutely majestic book, The Powers That Be:

After the railroad strike ended in 1896, he united all the town’s business and industrial leadership in one group, the Merchants and Manufacturers Association, or M&M as it was known, whose basic pledge was to employ no union man, to break all unions, and to make Los Angeles the greatest open-shop city in the world. Any employer who dealt in any way with labor, who employed union men, or who seemed even partially sympathetic to labor’s cause, came under total pressure. Owners were first urged and then threatened; the banks, who were, of course, central to M&M, cut off credit. All of this was the work of Harrison Gray Otis. He loved it; this was a battle; this was life. From 1907 to 1910 a state of war existed in the city. At the height of the struggle, Otis took to riding around Los Angeles in a huge touring car with a cannon mounted on it.

When Otis’ headquarters was obliterated by terrorists, he immediately accused the unions. The unions said it was a gas leak, or perhaps the work of Otis himself – a frame-up job. The crime gained national attention, and Otis went on a country-wide lecture tour.

Seven months after the attack, a private detective named William J. Burns (working on the promise of a $75,000 reward – $25,000 from the city and $50,000 from the M&M) and his son tracked down Iron Workers union member Ortie McManigal and J.B. McNamara to the Oxford Hotel in Detroit, where they were arrested under false pretenses. Unfortunately for them, police found dynamite, blasting caps and alarm clocks in their hotel room.

Burns took the two of them to the home of a Chicago Police Sergeant proceeded to put the screws to them. McManigal broke first, and in exchange for a lighter prison sentence accused McNamara of the bombing and McNamara’s brother J.J. of supplying the equipment. J.J., who just so happened to be the secretary-treasurer of the Iron Workers. J.J. was arrested, and the McNamara brothers were taken by train to Los Angeles to stands trial.

The national labor movement was galvanized in defense of the brothers, who had been, after all, illegally arrested and, in the mind of many union leaders (including Eugene Debs) framed by Otis. American Federation of Labor President Samuel Gompers convinced the greatest labor attorney in the country, Clarence Darrow, to defend the McNamara brothers, for which he was promised $350,000 (or $7.4 million in 2007 money).

There was just one problem. The McNamaras were guilty. Halberstam writes:

Darrow had a spy in the prosecution camp and became intimately knowledgeable about the case that was building against his clients. He sent his own hired investigators to check out the prosecution’s evidence and each time he did he was appalled by how well the prosecution case stood up; there was evidence and it was very strong. The Burns detectives had been trailing McManigal and McNamara long before the Times explosion. One day Darrow, dejected and dispirited, walked into the McNamaras’ cell and said, ‘My God, you left a trail behind you a mile wide.’

But Harrison Gray Otis had a problem too. This was an election year. Mayor George Alexander was being challenged by a socialist – a socialist! – named Job Harriman, who just so happened to be Darrow’s assistant in the upcoming trial. The average working man was starting to think the whole mess was Otis’ dark plot to destroy the labor movement; public opinion was undeniably tilting towards Harriman. Dangers abounded– Darrow, after all, was a force to be reckoned with in the courtroom. But even if Darrow lost and the brothers were hanged, they could become martyrs, rousing the labor movement and throwing the election to the socialists – the socialists!

Enter Lincoln Steffens, the legendary muckraking journalist, author of The Shame of the Cities, in town to cover the trial. Steffens spoke with the McNamara brothers and became convinced they were guilty. Steffens then began to broker peace talks between Clarence Darrow and General Otis’ son-in-law, Harry Chandler.

Whereas Otis was an angry, spiteful man, always looking for a fight, Harry Chandler was a businessman, “a pirate visionary,” in the words of Halberstam. He writes:

He had come to the General first as a young circulation distributor, quietly taking over the General’s circulation lists without the latter knowing it, until he had one made the General an offer he could not refuse, at which point he became the business manager of the paper. Thus a dynasty, conceived in no small way, in a kind of commercial blackmail. Shortly afterward, in the way that these things are sometimes done, Harry Chandler also became the General’s son-in-law.

Darrow, convinced of his clients’ guilt, wanted to spare them the death penalty. Harry Chandler, worried about the election of an actual socialist as mayor, wanted the whole thing to go away quickly. Through Steffens, Chandler and Darrow worked out a deal: the brothers would plead guilty – before the election. J.B. would get a life and J.J. would get 15 years. To sweeten the pot, the AFL would agree to end their strike against Los Angeles employers.

When Chandler told Otis of the grand bargain, the old man was apoplectic. “Over his dead body would there be a deal,” writes Halberstam. “He would see those sons of bitches hanged for what they did.” But Chandler calmed him down, convinced him that the plea bargain would paint the labor movement as terrorists, would turn the public’s sympathies away from labor and away from Harriman. Otis relented – a kind of passing of the torch, the beginning of a new business elite in LA, softer, shrewder, and more powerful than ever.

Halberstam writes:

On December 1, 911, four days before the election, Darrow, never telling his deputy Harriman of what was happening, pleaded the McNamaras guilty in court. Overnight Harriman’s campaign ended; the next day the streets of Los Angeles were littered with Harriman buttons and badges; he was beaten by 30,00 votes.

Job Harriman’s political career was over. The labor movement in Los Angeles did not recover until the 1950s.

Clarence Darrow was pilloried by labor as a sellout. Even worse, he was indicted on charges of jury tampering for allegedly trying to bribe a juror in the McNamara trial before the plea deal was struck. When Darrow asked Samuel Gompers for financial assistance, Gompers turned him down. Darrow was eventually acquitted, and would later reinvent himself as a criminal attorney, going on to become the most famous lawyer in America defending Leopold and Loeb, and later John T. Scopes in the Scopes Monkey Trial.

Another 55 members of the Iron Workers were arrested on conspiracy charges for helping to transport the dynamite used by the McNamara brothers. 38 of them were convicted, including President Frank Ryan.

J.B. McNamara was sentenced to life in prison at San Quentin. After the trial he was quoted as saying, “You see?… The whole damn world believes in dynamite.” He never filed a single request for parole, and died on March 9, 1941. His brother, who did 15 years in San Quentin with him, died almost exactly two months later on May 8. He had rejoined the Iron Workers as an international organizer.

Otis Chandler died in 1917, at the home of his son-in-law.

As for Harry Chandler, he established a dynasty that would rule over Los Angeles for the next half century. He played a central role in the plot to bring water from the Owens Valley to Los Angeles, as dramatized in the film Chinatown. He built an empire of unimaginable wealth that included investments in almost every sector of the L.A. economy — banks, tires, aerospace, oil, agriculture, shipping, railroads and the largest land holdings in Southern California. His daughter-in-law, Dorothy, became the feudal lord of LA culture, while his grandson, Otis, turned the LA Times into one of the top national newspapers.