Category: History Fridays

Aggie Underwood: The Newspaperwoman

All Agness Underwood ever wanted was to be a housewife.

“I am no feminist,” begins her wonderful 1949 memoir, Newspaperwoman. “If I were asked what I regard as the woman’s place, I’d probably give the old-fashioned answer: In the home.” Aggie would have stayed there if not for the simple want of a pair of silk stockings. And she would have returned, except, she wrote, “I got a bear by the tail and I couldn’t let go.” And so, instead of remaining at the home, she would go on to become a celebrated crime reporter, and later, the first female city editor of a major american newspaper.

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Clifford Clinton: The Cafeteria Kid Who Toppled City Hall

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.

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Griffith J. Griffith: LA’s Original Celebrity Wife-Murderer

Griffith Jenkins Griffith is fondly remembered today as the namesake of a massive urban park and an enchanting observatory lying therein. But the redundantly named philanthropist was infamous, in his day, for something else: he was the O.J. Simpson of his day – the first celebrity in Los Angeles to try to murder his wife.

Born in South Wales in 1850, Griffith immigrated to America, penniless, at the age of 15. He eventually settled in San Francisco and got a job as a reporter, covering mining for the Alta California.

Mining was big business in 1870s California, and Griffith decided that, rather than writing about it, he’d prefer to get in on the action. And so he used inside information he learned on the beat to invest in various companies about to strike it rich. It took him less than four years to amass a great fortune. By the time he moved to Los Angeles in 1882, at the age of 32, he was a millionaire.

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The Adventures of Horace Bell: Lawman, Filibuster, Journalist, Gadfly, Angeleno

“The line of demarkation between rebel and robber, pillager and patriot, was dimly defined.” – Major Horace Bell

Los Angeles in the early 1850s was almost certainly the most dangerous place in America. Between September of 1850 and September of 1851, in a tiny pueblo with a population of around 1,600, there were 31 recorded homicides. That’s one murder for every 52 people. (In 2010, there was one murder for every 12,770 people.) According to the historian John Boessenecker, this is the highest reported homicide rate in American history – and of course, it leaves out lynchings, deaths from fighting, and other unreported mayhem.

In Reminiscences of a Ranger, the first hardback book ever published in Southern California, Horace Bell writes:

During the years of ’52 and ’53, it was a common and usual query at the bar or breakfast table, ‘well, how many were killed last night?’ then ‘who was it?’ and ‘who killed him?’

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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.

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Ghosts of DW Griffith: LA’s First Epic Visionary

D.W. Griffith said, “Get me a peacock strutting on the green/and spreading his glory to
the sun.” He had a faraway look on his face and said nothing further.

Karl Brown, Billy Bitzer’s assistant took a camera, film and tripod and went off to rustle
up a peacock. He spent an entire afternoon chasing peacocks around an estate on Sunset
Boulevard, waiting for one to spread its tail for him in exactly the right light. If you worked for Griffith, this was just what you did.

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Faulkner in Los Angeles

Of all the legendary novelists to try their hand at screenwriting, none hated Los Angeles more than William Faulkner. “They worship death here,” he once told a friend, according to the absolutely wonderful book City of Nets by Otto Friedrich. “They don’t worship money, they worship death.”

Faulkner first came to Hollywood in 1932. He was no fan of cinema, but he needed the money. His first four novels, including The Sound and the Fury, had sold an average of two thousand copies. And so he signed a  $500-a-week contract with MGM and moved to Culver City.

Here’s Otto Friedrich on one of Faulkner’s first encounters with the industry:

M-G-M’s story editor, Sam Marx, asked him to start work on a wrestling story for Wallace Beery. “I want to write for Mickey Mouse,” said Faulkner, quasi innocent. When informed that Mickey Mouse belonged to Disney studio, Faulkner said, “Then what about newsreels? I like cartoons and newsreels.” Marx sent Faulkner to a projection room to watch Wallace Beery in The Champ and asked an office boy to go along with him to answer any questions. Ten minutes later, the boy returned and told Marx that Faulkner had disappeared after asking only one question: “How do I get out of here?”

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Jerry Rubin, The First Yuppie

“All money represents theft… To steal from the rich is a sacred and religious act. While looting, a man to his own self is true.” – Jerry Rubin, 1970

“Wealth creation is the real American revolution. What we need is an infusion of capital into the depressed areas of our country.” – Jerry Rubin, sometime later

After their trial, the members of the Chicago 8’s lives diverged spectacularly. Abbie Hoffman was arrested on drug charges and went on the lam. Tom Hayden became a member of the California State Legislature. Rennie Davis became a follower of the 15-year-old new age cult leader named Guru Maharj Ji (later Prem Rawat).

And Jerry Rubin became rich.

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Eden Ahbez, the First Hippie

Nat King Cole and eden ahbez

He had a beard and long hair. He wore sandals and white robes. He was a vegetarian, slept mostly outside– often under the first ‘L’ in the Hollywood sign, and told people he lived on three dollars a day. His name was eden ahbez, and he insisted that his name be spelled without capital letters, claiming that only the words ‘God’ and ‘Infinity’ (and possibly ‘Love’ as well– accounts differ) were worthy of capitalization.

Born George Alexander Aberle, in 1908, one of 13 children in a dirt poor Brooklyn family. Most of the Aberle children were given up for adoption or sent to live elsewhere. ahbez was taken in by a Kansas City family.

“So eden read books on Far Eastern cultures and philosophies and adopted the concept of a Universal God,” wrote Pearl Rowe (ahbez’s sister-in-law) in a 1977 LA Times article. He moved to Los Angeles in 1941, at the age of 33 or so, and got a job playing piano at the Eutropheon, a health food store / raw food restaurant on Laurel Canyon.

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