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The king who didn't want to be known

In the heart of California, an empire is run by the most reticent of barons. But once other tongues were loosened, so was his.

October 27, 2003|Mark Arax and Rick Wartzman | Times Staff Writers

In the middle of California, in a county called Kings, his empire rises from the bottom of an old lake.

It was once the largest body of freshwater west of the Mississippi, a land of 10 million geese. In the spirit of his forebears, he sucked the lake dry and made the rivers run backward, carving out the biggest cotton farm in the world: 150,000 acres of pancake-flat earth.

Three epic migrations -- peasants from Mexico, Okies from the Dust Bowl and black sharecroppers fleeing Jim Crow -- had trekked across the landscape to work his family's fields.

He changed a 200-year-old American institution, altered the way cotton was grown, picked, ginned and marketed, yet hardly anybody outside Kings County knew his name.

And that's exactly how Jim Boswell wanted it.

He was the last land baron of the West, the biggest farmer in America, the King of California -- and he was determined to keep the whole thing wrapped in secrecy.

We, though, were equally determined to tell his story.

Like many a journalistic inspiration, ours began over a couple of cold beers. It was August 1997, and we were sitting around in a backyard in Fresno, marveling at what a wide-open saga the Great Central Valley was.

As we nursed our longnecks that summer evening, the conversation kept circling back to one name: J.G. Boswell. Both of us knew from our reporting that nobody epitomized the valley's wealth and power like he did. We also knew that nobody more embodied a privacy obsession.

We decided to reel in Boswell by sending him an earnest letter, describing our plans to write a full-blown account of him and his family and all that they had built with the help of those migrants. This wasn't going to be some hatchet job, we assured him.

"We are not blowing smoke, Mr. Boswell.... The two of us are committed to this book and to getting the story right."

He never bothered to write us back. We followed up with a phone conversation a few days later. It lasted but a couple of minutes. The old guy wasn't rude, but he got to the point: Buzz off and leave me alone.

So we started digging without him.

Yet even coming up with names was tough.

The newspaper archives on Jim Boswell were dreadfully thin. His company had been the subject of numerous stories over the years -- nearly all of them dealing with one hot-button issue or another: fat crop-subsidy checks or water wars. But the only time Boswell had said more than a few words to a reporter was in 1989, to Forbes magazine.

We mined for clues wherever we could. Around the San Joaquin Valley town of Corcoran, on the edge of the Tulare Lake bed where Boswell had the bulk of his holdings, people knew the basic threads of his story. We followed them, one by one, all the way back to Greene County, Ga., the old cotton kingdom from which the Boswells hailed.

A stab-in-the-dark phone call to the local library in Greene County led us to E.H. Armor, Jim Boswell's octogenarian cousin and one of his last kin still left in Georgia. Armor turned out to be a fount of information about a clan that had been made wealthy by cotton long before it headed West.

On a visit to Georgia, we found Armor living in the same house where he had been born and raised. A husky man with a long face, he had made one room a shrine to Dixie, and he genuflected at the shelves that bore the memoirs of Robert E. Lee and a first-edition copy of "Gone With the Wind."

Armor recalled the three Boswell brothers who had moved to California, chased westward by the boll weevil in the 1920s: J.G. Boswell (Jim's uncle and founder of the empire); Bill, Jim's dad; and Walter, the oldest.

As the months rolled on, we kept writing to Boswell, hoping that our sheer persistence might win him over.

*

Oct. 16, 1997

Dear Mr. Boswell:

It is certainly not our intention to be adversarial. But you should also know that we aren't simply going to fold up and go away, either.

We can only hope that over time -- as we prove to you that we are serious about this project and have no hidden agenda or preconceived notions -- you will at least agree to get together and share some of your memories with us.

*

Boswell's reply was the same as before: Go to hell.

Still, we kept scratching at the story, turning our gaze toward the Boswells long dead, especially Jim's uncle J.G.

An imperious military man known as the Colonel, J.G. had launched the company from the back of his Buick and had married into one of the most elite families in California, the Chandlers of Los Angeles.

The Colonel and Ruth Chandler -- the daughter of Los Angeles Times publisher and real-estate baron Harry Chandler -- lived in a 12,000-square-foot mansion in San Marino while he milked the land around Corcoran. The estate was so grand that Barbra Streisand would bound through it in the film "Funny Girl," calling out to Omar Sharif: "It's the perfect home for a millionaire."

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