My L.A. Times colleague Elaine Woo has a first-rate obituary on Catherine Mulholland, author of “William Mulholland and the Rise of Los Angeles.”
One reason Mulholland took on the biography was to provide what she viewed as a more balanced portrayal of her grandfather. I haven’t read the book (I bought it the other day at the Last Bookstore) so I’ll refrain from commenting.
But it is worthwhile to note that the story of the Valley conspiracy, as told in Morrow Mayo’s “Los Angeles,” is so embedded in Southern California’s world view that it is indestructible.
Not that scholars haven’t tried. While researching the 1910 Times bombing last year, I stumbled across a wonderful article by one of my favorite historians, W.W. Robinson, on “Myth-Making in the Los Angeles Area,” published in the March 1963 issue of Southern California Quarterly.
Robinson says (Pages 90-91):
The myth of the great San Fernando Valley “conspiracy” should not be overlooked. According to its development by the Morrow Mayo-Carey McWilliams school of myth-makers, a syndicate (or perhaps two syndicates) of leading Angelenos conspired with the water board or the Department of Water and Power to initiate the construction of a 25o-mile-long aqueduct. This would bring water to San Fernando Valley for the purpose of enriching the conspirators as holders of Valley real estate. Usually, Harrison Gray Otis and Harry Chandler are named as the leading conspirators. They would be the obvious villains because of the anti-labor stand of their newspaper, the Los Angeles Times.
Actually, there were two syndicates. One was the San Fernando Mission Land Company, headed by L. C. Brand, which bought 16,000 acres of Valley land in 1904 — long before the Owens Valley aqueduct plan was worked out — with the hope of profiting from the building by Henry E. Huntington of an electric railway from Los Angeles to San Fernando. The other syndicate, the Los Angeles Suburban Homes Company, whose financial leader was Otto F. Brandt, bought 47,500 acres of Valley land from the Van Nuys group, in l909-1910, hoping to benefit by water from the aqueduct then being built, provided annexation of the San Fernando Valley to Los Angeles was possible. Counselor Henry O’Melveny advised that annexation was feasible.
Both syndicates were speculative ventures by speculative-minded men. Both paid off-with the passage of years. The second syndicate is said to have made eight dollars for each dollar invested, a profit that would not seem overwhelmingly large in the light of later and recent Valley transfers. My account of the “conspiracy” is based on a personal examination of the minutes of the board of directors of San Fernando Mission Land Company, and of the mountainous files of the Los Angeles Suburban Homes Company, discussions with some of the principals, and a close study of public records and of newspaper stories. Historians and writers continue to stub their toes in the San Fernando Valley when dealing with questionable source material.*
*W.W. Robinson, “The Story of San Fernando Valley,” (Los Angeles, 1961), pp-37-38, 40.