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Prince of the city

The Culture Broker Franklin D. Murphy and the Transformation of Los Angeles; Margaret Leslie Davis; University of California Press: 492 pp., $34.95

September 23, 2007|Jim Newton | Jim Newton, The Times' editorial page editor, is the author of "Justice for All: Earl Warren and the Nation He Made."

Margaret Leslie Davis' ongoing examination of Los Angeles through the lives of its civic and cultural leaders is a grand project, deserving of generous praise. More than any writer of our time, she is methodically supplying this city with an understanding of itself.

Davis' devotion to the task is evident in her choice of subjects -- previous biographies were on William Mulholland and Edward Doheny, of water and oil fame and infamy -- and in the rigorous research that is her signature. She is amassing a body of work without peer and, in the process, is delivering subtle lessons for today's leaders -- or what's left of them.

Davis' latest addition to that oeuvre is "The Culture Broker: Franklin D. Murphy and the Transformation of Los Angeles," and it is a significant, if imperfect, contribution.

Murphy, who as UCLA chancellor, arts patron, philanthropist and head of the Los Angeles Times' then-parent company helped shape modern Los Angeles, proves a delicious and elusive subject. One of a host of Midwesterners who would come to define the City of Angels, Murphy was born in Kansas City, Mo., in 1916 to a medical professor and a concert pianist. He trained as a physician and gained national attention in his early 30s with his campaign to bring doctors to rural Kansans. At age 35, he became president of the University of Kansas, where he presided over an expansion of its artistic endowment but also clashed repeatedly with the state's envious, cost-cutting governor. UCLA eventually beckoned, and Murphy went west in 1960, charged with turning the university, then a mere adjunct to UC Berkeley, into a world-ranking institution.

Those earlier years -- of Murphy's adolescence and rise to influence in the Midwest -- are given short shrift as Davis rushes to bring him to Los Angeles, the central object of her concern. That's her prerogative, of course, but her book pays a price -- we don't see Murphy's character develop.

The author views him with detachment: She tells us of his intellectual prowess and subtle alienation from his wealthy contemporaries without letting us feel much of it; she acknowledges his extramarital affairs but gives little hint of the passion or angst those must have entailed; when Murphy dies, he slips away mid-paragraph, with barely a hint of momentousness. It was, Davis blandly concludes, "the end of an era." That sense of remove begins with the decision not to chronicle his young life and pervades the entire book. As a result, Murphy leaves this narrative much as he enters it: intriguing and influential yet distant.

But these weaknesses are balanced by fine reporting and flashes of insight. Davis' description of Murphy courting J. Paul Getty and his heirs for their art collection, for instance, is superb, and she displays a steady command of complex and varied material. Murphy led an extraordinarily diverse life. Understanding him thus requires broad and deep expertise, and Davis consistently delivers in fields as varied as high finance and Renaissance art.

It is in analyzing Murphy's role at Times Mirror that Davis supplies the more exciting element of her story, its compelling subtext. For as much as "The Culture Broker" is a story about the formation of modern Los Angeles, so too is it a jolting reminder of how much this city's cultural and corporate leadership has changed and how far it has strayed from the days of Murphy's dominance.

This story predates Murphy, whose civic influence would peak during his 18-year tenure at Times Mirror, a company whose ascent began before his arrival. The rise of Times Mirror and its signature property, The Times, can be pegged to a single moment -- the passing of the publisher's mantle from Norman Chandler to his son, Otis, in a dazzling ceremony at the Biltmore Bowl on April 11, 1960, an event wonderfully described by Davis.

And yet Chandler's gift was a mixed blessing: The paper at that juncture was something of a laughingstock, devoted to local coverage but devoid of grand ambition.

"The rigid conservatism of the Times and its provincialism -- there were no foreign bureaus and scant coverage outside of Los Angeles -- were an embarrassment and a poor image for the booming city," Davis writes. "The younger, more educated workforce of the future expected a newspaper of quality and substance."

Otis Chandler would see that they received it, and Murphy, who joined the company in 1968 as chairman and chief executive, would bolster Chandler's drive with his own supple intellect and devotion to the arts. Readers of The Times and the company's other newspapers responded to the turn toward excellence by subscribing in ever-increasing numbers, and advertising grew as never before. Times Mirror under the watch of Chandler, Murphy and various others became one of the nation's most respected communications companies and, not coincidentally, an enormously profitable one.

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