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Descanso Gardens Blossomed Along With L.A. Newspaper

June 06, 2004|Cecilia Rasmussen | Times Staff Writer

Elias Manchester Boddy loved newspapers partly because he believed they could do good and partly because they'd kept him warm when he was poor. He became a powerhouse publisher in Los Angeles.

His newspaper is long gone, but his other legacy thrives: Descanso Gardens in La Canada Flintridge, where he lived once he no longer needed newsprint as a blanket.

For nearly three decades, the Illustrated Daily News -- later just the Daily News -- used its peach-colored tabloid pages to champion the downtrodden and castigate political graft and vice.

Boddy's publication, no relation to the present Daily News published in the San Fernando Valley, was a union newspaper in a nonunion town. He billed it as "The Only Democratic Newspaper West of the Rockies."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday June 09, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 45 words Type of Material: Correction
Ernie Pyle -- The L.A. Then and Now column in Sunday's California section said war correspondent Ernie Pyle was entertained at publisher Manchester Boddy's lakeside cabin on his Descanso Gardens estate. Pyle was a guest at the estate before the cabin was built in 1949.

He often used his pages to embarrass the powerful, such as with a photo of a city official picking his nose. He also mocked publisher William Randolph Hearst, who, along with Los Angeles Times Publisher Harry Chandler, represented Boddy's competition.

Boddy bought the Descanso Gardens property in 1936, building a two-story, 22-room English Regency mansion. Designed by architect Joseph Dolena in 1938, the home overlooked an oak forest and thousands of flowers.

As Japanese nurserymen were being taken off to internment camps during World War II, Boddy bought 50,000 camellias for 25 cents each. The plants flourish in the gardens to this day. (Years later, when the paper's profit declined, Boddy's critics hinted that he had spent it on camellias, which he denied.)

"The gardens will be remembered long after the Daily News and all the other newspapers in Los Angeles, perhaps, are forgotten," Boddy said in a 1964 interview on the TV program "Ralph Story's Los Angeles."

The lavish gardens were nothing like Boddy's original circumstances. Born into poverty in 1892, he grew up on his parents' potato farm in the Lake Tapps region of Washington state. He walked five miles to school.

He took some classes at Washington State University and the University of Montana, then he worked his way across country as a ditch digger, janitor, miner and door-to-door aluminum dishware salesman.

He arrived in New York in 1915, getting a job as a subway guard. It didn't pay much, and sometimes he had to sleep on subway cars, using newspapers to keep warm. "That," he said, "was when I first learned to love newspapers."

Fancying himself more a salesman than a guard, he began selling encyclopedias door to door.

While browsing in the book section of Gimbel's department store, he met a clerk, Bernice, who would become his wife. They were married in 1918, the day before he set sail for France to fight in World War I.

Boddy came marching home with four medals and lungs burned by mustard gas. He began delivering the New York Times to newsstands, but a bout of double pneumonia nearly did him in. He headed west.

In 1920, the itinerant bookseller opened his own company, supplying textbooks to public schools. Eventually The Times bought him out. He briefly headed the newly formed Times-Mirror Book Publishing Co.

Meanwhile, New York socialite and millionaire Cornelius Vanderbilt came west and launched the Illustrated Daily News in 1923. Housed in a car dealership at Los Angeles Street and Pico Boulevard, the paper was dedicated to "clean journalism." It contained no crime, no sex and no scandal. But when its first issue went to press, saboteurs planted a page with "a graphic sex story about [Charlie] Chaplin." The page was hastily reprinted at great cost.

By 1926 the "clean penny newspaper" was clean broke and $3 million in the hole. With $750 and the backing of investors, Boddy bought the Daily News, turning it into a gossipy, reader-friendly liberal paper.

Boddy touted his own front-page daily editorial, in which he attacked underworld activities and corrupt government.

As the only avowed Democratic paper in the state's largest city, the paper wielded influence beyond its circulation of 200,000. The Democratic landslide of 1936 owed part of its Southern California vote to the newspaper's ardent editorials.

It was as much fun to work at the Daily News as to read it.

"It may be that few of us were perfectly sober when we put the Daily News to bed, but it was a wonderful paper, full of humor, youthful energy, good writing and irreverence," wrote the late Times columnist Jack Smith.

During World War II, Boddy suggested in an editorial that the Allies smuggle rubber out of Malaya for the war effort. They followed his advice -- to the tune of 300 tons -- and Spencer Tracy and Jimmy Stewart starred in a 1949 movie, "Malaya," based on Boddy's screenplay.

With the money he made on the film, Boddy added a lakeside house at Descanso Gardens, where he entertained such notables as war correspondent Ernie Pyle and Gen. Jimmy Doolittle.

Boddy tried his hand at politics in 1950, challenging Rep. Helen Gahagan Douglas for the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate. She won the primary but lost the general election to an up-and-comer named Richard M. Nixon.

Boddy retired as editor and publisher in 1952. The next year, he sold Descanso Gardens to Los Angeles County for nearly $1.2 million and moved half of his camellia collection to his new ranch, Wilderness Gardens, in northern San Diego County.

In December 1954, The Times purchased the Daily News, merging it into the afternoon Mirror. The unionized newspaper's employees found themselves jobless and without severance pay just before Christmas.

Boddy died in 1967 at age 75.

Today, Descanso Gardens is a world-renowned jewel among the region's public parks. The former Daily News building is a garment factory.

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