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As Dynasty Evolved, So Did Power in L.A.

A DYNASTY, A CITY

The Chandlers, who owned The Times, were a potent force in shaping the city. But in a diverse metropolis, such sheer clout no longer exists.

March 26, 2006|Peter H. King and Mark Arax | Times Staff Writers

In the days after he paddled into the Pacific to help scatter his father's ashes, 52-year-old Harry Chandler returned to his Hancock Park home and began rummaging through old family papers and photographs. He was looking, in a sense, for his legacy, picking through artifacts of a family dynasty that had dominated Los Angeles for generations.

In one file he rediscovered a forgotten Christmas card from his father, dated Dec. 17, 1994. Inside was a handwritten note of congratulations, a message that, in the context of his quest, was freighted with new meaning.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday March 30, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 103 words Type of Material: Correction
Power in Los Angeles: An article in Sunday's Section A about the Chandler family identified the director of the Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University as Franklin Guerra. His name is Fernando Guerra. Also, the name of the New York Times' Sulzberger family was misspelled as Sulzburger. A caption with the article, under a photo of men looking over plans for Mulholland Drive, misspelled the name of engineer DeWitt L. Reaburn as Raeburn. The caption also indicated that the photo was taken in 1932 by Sue Reeves. It was taken in the early 1920s by an unknown photographer.

At the time the card was sent, Harry had just left a successful career in film and computer ventures to hire on at what his father called "the family store," taking an office in The Times' executive lair as director of new business development.

"To have you, at last, on The Times as an executive," Otis Chandler wrote, " ... makes me even more proud of you, and I feel an even deeper love for you. Now I have a son to carry on my life's work. This was the ONE AREA of my life that was not fulfilled, and I have been quite depressed by this reality. So, onward and upward!"

The elder Chandler closed by offering assurances that within three years his son would succeed him on the family and corporate boards, that if all worked out Harry would, by implication, step up to take his turn as the latest in a long line of Chandlers to lead the Los Angeles Times and its related enterprises.

"I look forward to that day," Otis wrote in closing.

It was a day that never came.

*

This is a story about power in Los Angeles, and how one family -- patriarch Gen. Harrison Gray Otis and three generations of Chandlers who succeeded him -- seized it, wielded it, nurtured it and eventually forfeited it. From their empire's rough-hewn beginnings to its peculiar, drifting end, it was extraordinarily intertwined with the city itself.

For both the family and Los Angeles, the arc of power has unfolded in a series of overlapping stages: an early epoch of boomers, speculators and goatherds; a long run of clubby white capitalists, who, one generation removed from their goats, liked to think of themselves as "old money"; a latter-day installment of corporate elites, whose moment was crowned with the 1984 Olympics they sponsored; and, finally, a splintering off into many pieces.

Those who study Los Angeles today employ terms like "horizontal" and "diffuse" to describe the city's power structure. They talk of a power vacuum and note that, with so many of its old Fortune 500 companies dissolved, bought up, relocated, Los Angeles has become something of a "branch city." Whether this represents a good or bad development is open to interpretation.

"Today there is no single node of power in the city," said Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. "It's diffused geographically, diffused among important stakeholders -- business, labor, for instance -- and also racially and ethnically.... There is a devolution of power today that is more grass-roots and more focused on specific neighborhoods."

Indeed, if the skyscrapers of downtown symbolized a certain era of influence in Los Angeles, so too do the small phalanxes of pro-union demonstrators who now converge beneath those gleaming towers, waving picket signs and chanting, "No justice, no peace," sometimes in Spanish, sometimes in English.

Of course, the social architecture of any city is always far more complicated than it might seem in newspaper accounts or political speeches, and that has certainly been the experience in Los Angeles. The city's rapid transition from backwater to major metropolis has become a rich and active minefield for a new corps of scholars eager to poke at the myths and long-accepted analyses.

"The story," said one of them, historian William Deverell, "is never quite as seamless as everyone seems to think it is."

The course of the Chandler dynasty also defies easy telling, in part because it too has been embroidered with so much mythology. What can be said is that the members have mainly disappeared from the circles of power in the city that, at least according to municipal gospel, they "invented."

"The Chandlers and the extended family," Harry said, "continue to play a significant philanthropic role, but we don't wield the leadership and power that we once did."

And what of the newspaper, now in its 125th year of publication? Once the family's instrument of influence and fountainhead of wealth, it has followed the "branch operation" pattern. It has become a subsidiary enterprise, owned and controlled by Tribune Co. of Chicago.

A Remarkable Collapse

Power, like its first cousin fortune, cannot be passed along as an heirloom forever. Families fracture. Bloodlines thin. Connections to the past grow tenuous. This has happened to many dynastic newspaper families across America.

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