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Remembrance of California Past

Granddaughter to the master engineer who brought water to Southern California, Catherine Mulholland sees the region's history through the prism of memory.

August 14, 2000|SUSAN SALTER REYNOLDS, TIMES STAFF WRITER

Native Angelenos speak in mirages. "Over there," they'll tell you, gesturing like a civil engineer, "used to be orange groves." (They inhale deeply. You inhale deeply and gag through the smog.) "And there, my father tried to grow avocados." (Everyone's father tried to grow avocados.) Clear eyes and a complete set of desert crow's feet scan the horizon. They look, in fact, like the portrait of William Mulholland, Los Angeles water czar in the early part of the last century, on the cover of his granddaughter's new book, "William Mulholland and the Rise of Los Angeles" (University of California.)

Mulholland, mastermind behind the 240-mile aqueduct that brought the water from the Owens Valley to a questing metropolis, wears a tweed suit and a watch chain in this photo. He is surrounded by men, some with their backs turned to him. The only unstable thing in the picture is the ground beneath Mulholland's feet--dusty, uneven, parched.

The past, in Los Angeles, is a mirage, and it has gotten many a noble historian into trouble. The temptation to make sweeping statements and create studio-worthy scenarios has tangled up minds as fiercely creative as that of Carey McWilliams in the '40s and, in the last decade, Mike Davis. For those who grew up here, convincing the rest of us that a strip of mini-malls and gas stations used to be a ranch must be a thankless chore. Their pasts are erased in their lifetimes, beneath their feet, as though the grim reaper was scything behind, rather than in front of them.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday August 23, 2000 Home Edition Southern California Living Part E Page 3 View Desk 2 inches; 40 words Type of Material: Correction
Mulholland family--An article Aug. 14 on Catherine Mulholland misstated the family status of Christine and Rose Mulholland. Christine is Catherine's niece; Rose was Catherine's aunt. Also, the names of Catherine's former husband, Gerard, and writer Louis Adamic were misspelled.

None of the homes William Mulholland lived in, from 1877 to 1936, is still standing. The school that Catherine Mulholland, now 77, remembers most fondly is a parking lot across from the Hollywood Bowl. The house where she lives in Chatsworth is just blocks from the 700-acre ranch she grew up on, now completely covered in concrete. "I don't go there, no," she says without sentiment. "It's a bit like haunted land."

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"Come around midday," she says, graciously giving the leeway to be late that is part of native etiquette. (By horse or by car, arriving on time in L.A. has never been easy.) When I arrive, it is almost the heat of the day. Mulholland, in a linen shirt and flat shoes, has her grandfather's downcast eyes and his direct gaze. She does not stand outside, but herds me in quickly, offering homemade lemonade with mint.

Her book is surprisingly dispassionate for a book by a granddaughter. She spent the last decade meticulously researching sources ranging from the journals of lawyer Henry O'Melveny, to newspaper archives, to Mulholland's papers at the Huntington Library. If memory can be unreliable, written records in L.A., according to Catherine, are even more elusive. "Certain primary sources are simply no longer available, gone by attrition," she says.

Mulholland was born in Belfast in 1855, and his granddaughter encountered similar research problems overseas. "It's a bit like being Alice in Wonderland,' she says. "You have to move two times as fast." There's also the simple fact of travel: Commuting downtown from the Valley is hard enough for money, much less love.

In the course of this digging, she uncovered no lost relatives or shocking revelations. She did find additional evidence to contradict the familiar "Chinatown" myth. Letters to friends gave his granddaughter a deeper appreciation for how poetic the master builder was on paper, in contrast to the gruff power monger and land-grabber created by Roman Polanski and company.

Catherine was 12 when her grandfather died in 1936. She remembers clearly a once-proud man broken by the 1928 St. Francis disaster, when 400 people were killed by the collapse of a dam that Mulholland had designed and built. She remembers a family trip around 1930 when the car backed into a hydrant and her grandfather, the man who brought the water to the pueblo he first settled in, stood helplessly watching the torrent rushing down the road. She remembers her father, Perry, all but ordered by his father to man the Mulholland ranch, becoming the sort of manager who would fire men who let precious irrigation water go to waste.

Mulholland's most famous remark is his grand statement when the first wave of water rushed through the aqueduct to Los Angeles. "There it is. Take it." Less well known is his deeply moving, tremulous response to the middle of the night phone call informing him of the dam disaster. "Please, God," he muttered. "Don't let people be killed."

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