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Catherine Mulholland dies at 88; historian wrote key biography of famed grandfather

After leaving Southern California partially due to a complex family history, she returned to L.A. and probed William Mulholland's life for what she saw as a fairer, more balanced biography.

July 07, 2011|Elaine Woo, Los Angeles Times
  • At left, Catherine Mulholland and her brother, Richard, with their grandfather, William Mulholland, at their ranch in the San Fernando Valley, circa 1927. At right, Catherine Mulholland in 2000.
At left, Catherine Mulholland and her brother, Richard, with their grandfather,… (Unknown and Brian van der…)

Catherine Mulholland, a historian whose biography of her grandfather William Mulholland sought to correct the image of the man who was sometimes vilified for his central role in bringing water to Southern California, died of natural causes Wednesday at her Camarillo home. She was 88 and had been in decline for several months, her family said.

Mulholland was one of the last two grandchildren of the rugged Irish immigrant who oversaw the construction of the 230-mile aqueduct that carries water from the Owens Valley to Los Angeles. It is one of the greatest engineering feats of the 20th century and a continuing source of controversy for the water wars it provoked.

In high school, a teacher suggested that Mulholland read what historian Carey McWilliams and other writers had said about her grandfather. She was "sobered and perplexed" by their accounts, which cast him as one of the "exploitative overlords" of Southern California.

Probing forgotten records and family memories of a past that she said haunted her for years, she wrote "William Mulholland and the Rise of Los Angeles" (2000) to provide what she believed was a fairer, more nuanced view of the family patriarch, a ditch tender who rose to chief of what is now the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.

William Mulholland, she said, had been "falsely accused of conspiring with vested interests in the San Fernando Valley in building the aqueduct." She portrayed him as a "pragmatic progressive" who was driven by a vision of public works for the greatest public good.

Securing the region's water future with the 1913 opening of the aqueduct made him such a hero that local leaders named a road after him — Mulholland Drive, which runs along the crest of the Santa Monica Mountains.

He was not beloved in other parts of the state, where farmers and other residents believed they had been swindled out of a precious resource.

The water engineer's career ended in infamy when another of his projects, the St. Francis Dam northeast of Castaic, collapsed in 1928, killing more than 400 people in the worst manmade disaster in California's history. Although the cause of the collapse was not clear, he accepted the blame and died a dispirited and silent man several years later.

History was not kind to him in the ensuring decades. From historians such as McWilliams to the 1974 film "Chinatown," he was portrayed as a figure ensnared in a conspiracy to steal water from the hapless residents of Owens Valley. The movie was loosely based on actual events but became so widely accepted as fact that strangers meeting his granddaughter would react by calling her "Mrs. Mulwray." In the film, Hollis Mulwray was the water department's chief engineer.

She conceived the book after moving back to the San Fernando Valley from the Bay Area in the late 1970s after an absence of several decades initiated in part out of a desire to distance herself from a complicated family history.

Born in Los Angeles on April 8, 1923, she grew up on the 600-acre Mulholland family ranch in the west San Fernando Valley with mother, Addie, the daughter of Calabasas homesteaders, and father, Perry, who was William's oldest son. She said her parents' desire for the best education made her an academic vagabond. She attended at least three different elementary schools before going to North Hollywood Junior High School and Marlborough School for Girls. She graduated from Canoga Park High School in 1940.

Writing in The Times in 1999, she said that when she left home to attend UC Berkeley she "welcomed the anonymity of a place where my name had no particular significance."

She had a bohemian urge for experiences at odds with her background. During a break from college to recover from an illness, she moved back to Los Angeles and convinced her parents to let her study musical improvisation with Lloyd Reese, a master jazz teacher. Reese's connections led her to a lifelong friendship with Charles Mingus, who was destined to become a legendary bassist and composer.

Under their tutelage, Mulholland explored the jazz haunts of Central Avenue and came to understand the racial restrictions of the time. She had long conversations about life and music with Mingus, who was black, but their talks usually took place "on the streets of East Los Angeles in the front seat of my mother's car (the only place we felt an interracial pair could safely talk without being rousted by a cop)," she recalled in 1999.

An English major, she earned a bachelor's degree from UC Berkeley in 1945 and a master's from Columbia University in 1947. She returned to Berkeley for postgraduate work and became friends with some of the era's leading avant-garde poets and writers, including Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. She had a brief romance with San Francisco Renaissance poet Jack Spicer before marrying Gerard T. Hurley, an English professor, in 1949.

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