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A Man Who Found Peace in the Hills

L.A. Scene / The City Then and Now

October 02, 1995|CECILIA RASMUSSEN

As historian Kevin Starr has argued, California's most distinctive contribution to the American spirit may be the insistence that the work ethic and the good life are not mutually incompatible.

And among Los Angeles' pioneers, there were few who managed to blend commerce and the life of the mind quite as harmoniously as Henry O'Melveny, the man who lent his considerable talents in equal measure to his law firm, fishing and his flower garden.

Today, the law firm that still bears his name--O'Melveny & Myers--is not only one of the nation's largest, but also one of its most distinguished. Its illustrious alumni include former managing partner Warren Christopher, now Secretary of State. But a century ago, Henry O'Melveny was known not only as an accomplished attorney and shrewd businessman, but also as a leading apostle of a movement that urged Angelenos to take to the nearby hills to cultivate their minds and spirits.

O'Melveny established a mountain refuge he called "The Crag," a pristine piece of San Gabriel Canyon that one day would be submerged under the waters behind Morris Dam. There he and his cohorts met regularly from 1895 to the early 1930s--the decades known as the "Great Hiking Era"--cogitating on the eternal verities and the vagaries of cards and game fish.

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A native of Illinois, O'Melveny came to Los Angeles at age 10. His father, Harvey K.S. O'Melveny, was one of the city's first judges. O'Melveny graduated in Los Angeles High School's first senior class, went on to UC Berkeley and read law on his own, all by age 19. Too young to be admitted to the California bar, he set sail for Hawaii, where he spent two years as a tutor before returning in 1881 and passing his oral exams to become an attorney.

In 1885, there were 80 lawyers in Los Angeles and O'Melveny became the junior partner in a two-lawyer firm founded by Jackson Graves. They worked out of two rooms in a building on a section of Main Street that was the center of the town's legal world, but now is buried under the Santa Ana and San Bernardino freeways.

With his legal footing secure, he built a growing banking and corporate practice, representing the forerunners of Union Bank, Bank of America and Southern California Gas Co.

O'Melveny went into practice by himself in 1904, slowly adding lawyers over the next several decades, including Louis W. Myers, a former California chief justice, who would join in 1927.

Apart from the law, O'Melveny's greatest passion was nature. He fell under the spell of the San Gabriel Mountains as he hiked their ridges and fished their streams. For the fishermen whose hopes rose annually in the heady days of spring, O'Melveny organized the Creel Club.

Every spring, it was customary for Creel Club members to file a fictitious divorce case, such as "Minnie Fish vs. Ezra Fish" or "Trout vs. Cardwell." (Billy Cardwell happened to be a club member and a court reporter.) All the attorneys would appear in court to let the judge know that the trial should take about a week. The judge would look at his busy calendar and ask counsel to agree on a trial date. Fish vs. Fish would then be marked on the calendar and of course, the courtroom would be dark that week.

In 1897, O'Melveny bought 350 acres, abundantly forested with alders, sycamores and oaks and bisected by tumbling waters, as an escape from his hectic city life. He built the retreat he called the Crag on the west bank of the San Gabriel River, seven miles north of the railroad tracks in Azusa.

He planted 325 daffodils, 200 tulips, fields of barley and orchards of apple, plum, apricot and persimmon. It was there he spent his next 36 birthdays.

Clients, friends and law partners stayed in a dormitory-style room and ate dinners cooked outdoors on evenings that usually were capped with a poker game. It was a fisherman's paradise, where anglers pulled hundreds of trout out of the river.

Occasionally, the law firm's entire staff gathered at the informal mountain retreat, where their host took them on hikes or handed them shovels to cut trails. He was so found of the outdoors and exercise that he once walked from Lincoln Heights to his Azusa hideaway, about 25 miles.

O'Melveny also played host to members of the secretive Sunset Club, an inner circle drawn from the California Club--then as now Los Angeles' most exclusive social organization.

According to one of its founders, the group's "aim and object was to bring together 30 or 40 active, intelligent men who are interested in other things besides money-getting, and who read something more than the daily newspaper, to discuss subjects of general human interest."

O'Melveny continued to entertain at the Crag until 1933, when he was obliged to relinquish the property for the building of Morris Dam.

As one of his inscriptions in the Crag guest book shows, O'Melveny's affection for the site never flagged: "I marvel more and more over the wonderful fascination of this place. As I write, the view from the front door is full of the browns, the grays, the coppery reds and all the shades of green even in this midsummer. . . . It's good to have, it's good to work for, it's best to divide with our friends."

Henry O'Melveny was 81 when he died in 1941 after practicing law in Los Angeles for almost 60 years. "I know of no man who has lived a more perfectly balanced life," one columnist wrote at the time. "His flowers are as widely known as his lawsuits."

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