Los Angeles worshiped citrus and bowed down to the automobile but in the 1920s it was "oil, oil, oil" that made "L.A. boil," as the official drinking song of a prominent booster club put it. Oil started gushing at Huntington Beach in 1920, and at Signal Hill and Santa Fe Springs a year later, enriching tycoon and tiny property owner alike. No wonder the population of Los Angeles would more than double in a decade.
Some have pictured the Los Angeles of this period as a kind of Oildorado. Others, such as Kevin Starr, call it Oz, an ordinary place "touched by magic" for those wearing emerald-tinted glasses. Carey McWilliams took a darker view, choosing as his L.A. metaphor the "mushroom": bright and attractive on the surface, but with a dark and ugly nether side.
Jules Tygiel's "The Great Los Angeles Swindle" somehow validates all three of these visions. It's a cautionary tale of oil promoters, dream weavers and bunco artists breeding civic and corporate corruption. But mainly it's the story of C. C. Julian, a flamboyant oil huckster who was part dreamer, part dream merchant. What has become known as the Julian Petroleum Scandal has never received a full-length study until now, and Tygiel, author of "Baseball's Great Experiment," an excellent biography of Jackie Robinson, gets it right (despite some serious flaws).
Courtenay Chauncey Julian, a Canadian who had worked in Texas as a rigger, arrived in Los Angeles around 1920 at the height of boosterism. Los Angeles was being sold as a commodity, and hundreds of thousands from out of state were buying it. Florida had its land boom, Oklahoma and Texas their oil booms, but in California everything seemed to explode at once, feeding the ballyhoo spirit. Many of the new arrivals--Midwestern farmers, retired businessmen, get-rich quick adventurers--were eager to invest in almost anything. This made L.A. ripe for what journalist Guy Finney called "heedless financial adventure."
When George Getty struck it rich at Santa Fe Springs in early 1922, C. C. Julian decided to become an oil magnate himself. There was only one hang-up: He didn't have any money. In Los Angeles in the 1920s this wasn't necessarily a problem. It could even be a solution! Julian borrowed from friends to buy some land and then went to "the folks" (as American historian Louis Adamic called them) to raise the rest.
Other promoters lured investors through the mail, or by passing out circulars, or chartering busses that took sightseers from Pershing Square right out to the oil fields for a look around. Borrowing a page from evangelists, they set up circus tents and welcomed the suckers inside.
But C. C. Julian did things differently. Advertising was just coming into vogue, and Julian recognized that he could reach more investors that way--in his own voice. And what a voice! In his daily ads in the Los Angeles Times (and later, on radio) the nattily dressed gentleman who drove a Pierce-Arrow addressed "the folks" on their own level, "just as if I was talking to them," he later explained. His most successful ad declared: "Widows and Orphans, This Is No Investment for You! . . . My appeal is addressed to people who can legitimately afford to take a chance. . . ." In a matter of days over 175,000 arrived at his door.
But he was only beginning. "You'll never make a thin dime just lookin' on," he preached. Julian appealed to his investors' gambling instincts, picturing himself as a race horse they should bet on. He begged them to "walk in and shoot me" if he ever betrayed their confidence--and may "buzzards pick my bones and the wind whistle 'Star-Spangled Banner' through my ribs."
Within five months, Julian had raked in close to a million dollars, and his two wells were pumping 3,500 barrels of oil a day. By the spring of 1923 many of his 40,000 backers were earning dividends and he had solicited another cool million. He incorporated Julian Petroleum and opened a chain of gas stations. This made him "the prince of oil promoters," Tygiel observes, and his newspaper ads "had become a Southern California institution."
By this point, however, Julian was spending most of his time trying to keep one step ahead of prosecutors, who suspected that he was cooking his books and watering his stocks. Withing a few weeks in early 1924 the L.A. Times stopped accepting his ads; Charlie Chaplin decked him with a punch at Cafe Petroushka; and he had to dodge three bullets fired at his Los Feliz mansion.
As one critic put it, Julian had done "all the extracting, but never put in the promised gold bridgework." With his oil operations a shambles and a federal indictment pending, Julian got out while the getting was good, selling his interests to a man named Sheridan C. Lewis for half a million dollars.