Los Angeles is suffering from a serious case of centennial overload. On New Year’s Day in 1919, the city boasted neither a state university nor a well-funded symphony orchestra. It had no expectation of a major private library and art museum, still less any movie studios explicitly dedicated to quality above profit. It lacked even a decent restaurant booth where you could get drunk and grouse about all the cultural amenities you were missing.
How on earth did these five enduring L.A. institutions enter the world within just months of one another? Arguably more important, can the Huntingtons and Chaplins of 2019—the philanthropic founders of today—learn anything from their example?
The late pontiff of modern California historiography, Kevin Starr, called 1919 the Southland’s “takeoff year,” though he left uncharacteristically few clues as to why. Nationally, the easy answers are just economic. The end of the First World War had brought an oversupply of deferred capital sloshing back into the economy, together with enough labor to make it multiply. It’s easier to found and fund durable institutions if you have plenty of money and a surplus of able-bodied, recently demobilized workers around to underpay.
President Woodrow Wilson had recently spearheaded the passage of the modern U.S. income tax, too, along with that most useful of innovations, the charitable deduction. Better to redistribute your own income toward music, art, and literature—went the philanthropic thinking—than to let Wilson redistribute it for you.
But economics without psychology is, at best, a half-told story. Mustered out after years of trench foot and mustard gas, American doughboys in 1919 were reasserting their pent-up life force with a vengeance. The “economic consequences of the peace,” as the economist John Maynard Keynes called them in his namesake 1919 book, included a surge in consumption—of food and drink, of high culture and low, even of university-level education. The world after the Great War had seen enough death to last it a lifetime, hadn’t it?
But why L.A.? World wars end, or at least subside, at more or less the same time everywhere. World War I officially ended even more synchronously than most, at the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918. Why, then, did L.A. experience a cultural annus mirabilis in 1919 compared with (totally arbitrarily, of course) New York City? The only souvenirs that our gentle neighbors back East have to show for 1919 are the Harlem YMCA, the New School, and the New York Daily News—which, sadly, will be lucky if it sees 101.
So what was in the water in 1919? In L.A., of course, what was in the water was partly the water itself. In the earlier half of the decade, engineer William Mulholland had turned on the taps of his new, taxpayer-financed Los Angeles Aqueduct, helping irrigate yet another of L.A.’s recurrent booms.
But beyond the water, the stupid, obvious, inarguable explanation is that L.A. was new. New Yorkers already had a symphony. Their city had a couple of good universities and saloons aplenty—a few of the latter in highly welcome proximity to the former. Until L.A. broke the Big Apple’s monopoly, New York even had the movie studios.
Perhaps the only area where Southern California had gotten a jump on Manhattan was with an endowed, world-class private library. For that, New York would have to wait until 1924, when J. P. Morgan Jr. tried to make up the ground he’d lost to Henry E. Huntington, who had erected his own—in 1919, of course.
Fascinating topic, rivalry among startup cultural institutions. Competition for posterity’s gratitude thrives today no less than in 1919, as the cranes currently swiveling above L.A.’s Miracle Mile and Exposition Park well show.
Later this year, if the river don’t rise—or the construction costs, or the water table, or the neighbors—the intersection of Fairfax and Wilshire will welcome the new Academy Museum of Motion Pictures. Non-Angelenos can be forgiven for thinking of the AMMP as simply the Oscar Museum, though its founders aspire to nothing less than “the world’s premier institution dedicated to the art and science of movies.” Locals, so far, can see just a skin of scaffolding surrounding their beloved 1939 May Co. department store—now with a glass bubble stuck to its back, reminiscent of the rocketship-mounted biodomes in the (Oscar-ignored) science fiction classic Silent Running.
Meanwhile, across town, in the shadow of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, the spaceship-shaped Lucas Museum of Narrative Art should land in about two years. According to founding president Don Bacigalupi, who lapsed only slightly into mission-statement-ese, the idea behind the LMNA is to focus “on the storytelling power of art throughout history and world cultures—without the traditional and artificial boundaries of ‘high and low’ or ‘fine and popular.’ ” In other words, the LMNA’s stock-in-trade will be stories, whether on the canvases in founder George Lucas’s art collection, or on film, or on computer and phone screens. These stories will range from Norman Rockwell’s amazingly narrative still images to the founder’s own hyperdriven moving ones. To hold all this bounty, the sleek, titanic LMNA doesn’t just have a huge footprint; it looks like one. It’s a great big sneaker sole, waiting, like any listener to a good story, for the other shoe to drop.
In 1919, institutions didn’t need mission statements. When, in February of that year, Charlie Chaplin, D. W. Griffith, Mary Pickford, and Douglas Fairbanks founded the storied distribution company United Artists, defending themselves against an impending postwar studio monopoly was mission enough for them. It would take the narrative gifts of a Chaplin—and probably a 10-episode first-season order—to do justice to the byzantine plots and counterplots surrounding UA’s birth. Suffice it to mention that these rebel artists dispatched not one but two femmes fatales, known only as Operators 5 and 8, to the Alexandria Hotel to seduce visiting film executives.
None of UA’s founding foursome had a college education, but the fathers of UCLA somehow saw value in higher learning anyway. On May 23, 1919, over the long-standing and virulent objections of the University of California, a.k.a. Berkeley, the university’s Southern Branch was born. Housed in borrowed quarters on Vermont between Santa Monica and Melrose, the growing university would soon come close to devouring the fledgling Huntington Library. The smoky air from smudge pots in nearby citrus groves, not to mention a lack of sewers to flush away all that Bruin scat, persuaded the UC regents not to make the elderly Henry Huntington an offer for his San Marino estate. Huntington would likely have been cool to the idea, anyway. He had already promised his library, art collection, and grounds to the people of Southern California as a museum, gallery, and botanical gardens, and so they would become.
For all his munificence, Huntington was no softie. In August, the same month that he signed off on his gift, trolley workers and tracklayers staged a violent strike against his Pacific Electric Railway. A massive riot downtown ensued. Wheels were found greased, streetcars pushed over. In the end, Huntington gave workers a pay increase but forced them to accept scabs as coworkers.
Shortly after, Huntington retreated to the safety of his philanthropy. Both a tightwad and a genuine believer in the ennobling properties of literature and art, he knew all too well how little disposable income his and other workers had to spare for the finer things. He might be less than pleased today to see the Getty, the Hammer, and the Broad offering free admission daily, while his own institution manages it but once a month. Would that his namesake library at least honored the transportation empire that created it and ran a free shuttle bus the 1.4 miles from the nearby Metro Gold Line station to its front door.
Like the Huntington, the L.A. Philharmonic owes its birth to a second-generation fortune. Called by Mark Twain “as rotten a human being as can be found anywhere under the flag,” William Andrews Clark owned a piece of what became the fabled Anaconda copper mines. His ideas about labor relations usually involved a length of rope and a tree. Anaconda’s predatory business practices later helped make a lifelong Red out of a guilty Pinkerton it employed, one Dashiell Hammett. Because of Clark’s chicanery, his namesake son, like Collis Huntington’s nephew Henry, inherited quite a pile. In 1919, Junior put up $100,000 to found what even the New York Times has orotundly called “America’s Most Important Orchestra. Period.” (See “Sanctuary Symphony,” page 44.) Nowadays, of course, a hundred grand barely buys you a nameplate on the donor wall.
As the high-tech robber barons of today’s California—Northern or Southern—begin to ponder their legacies, can they learn anything from 1919 about building an institution to last? Any cultural organization looking to see 100 had better ask itself: Do we do something that nobody else does? Do we have a unique mission here, like UCLA or the L.A. Phil, or just a mission statement?
As for L.A.’s two new crosstown contenders—the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures and the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art—the academy has the easier task: to give the world’s moviegoers a shrine worthy of their love. The Lucas will have a tougher and more ambitious challenge: Can a museum both entertain and make the case for popular, archetypal storytelling (i.e., mythmaking) as a universal, unifying human force?
Nineteen-nineteen was L.A.’s hundred-year flood of new beginnings. If high culture were high water, we’d be due for another deluge about now. U-Hauls are bringing more people here lately than the Sante Fe Railway’s Super Chief ever did. For the first time in a while, as demonstrated by the recent passage of enormous bonds for transportation and housing, L.A. has shown a willingness to tax itself beyond just next week. Even without the need for a new symphony or university, conditions for cultural renewal in L.A. are favorable.
Everything could still blow up, of course. It may just. As in the 1920s, all the civic-mindedness in the world will prove no match against poor planning, rapacious speculation, or systemic political corruption.
But if the planets align after all, there’s one local institution that L.A. still pines for, fully a hundred years after the city started to grow up. Cincinnati has one. Mesa, Arizona, has one. California finally got a state-centric version of one in 1998, and for 96 years now New York has had one too. Could 2019 be the year L.A. finally gets a Museum of the City of Los Angeles?
David Kipen, a former NEA director of literature, teaches at UCLA and is the proprietor of the Libros Schmibros lending library in Los Angeles. His latest book is Dear Los Angeles: The City in Diaries and Letters, 1542 to 2018.