Author and historian Catherine Mulholland, the granddaughter of one of Los Angeles' most discussed historical figures, the water legend William Mulholland, died today of natural causes at her home in Camarillo. She wrote two non-fiction books about her family's life in the west end of the Valley, "Calabasas Girls: An Intimate History" and "Owensmouth Baby: The Making of a San Fernando Valley Town," and has been an esteemed figure in the local historical community since moving back to Los Angeles in the 1970s, after living many years in places where her name did not trigger such passionate responses.
It was her 2000 biography for UC Press, William Mulholland and the Rise of Los Angeles, that introduced her work to a wider audience. Friendly but scholarly, the book reframed his legacy in a more nuanced way than other works that portrayed him as an imperial force who ensured water for the arid city by exploiting the Owens Valley to build the Los Angeles Aqueduct. Her book also undercut earlier claims that William Mulholland was responsible for the 1928 St. Francis Dam collapse in San Francisquito Canyon, above Castaic, that killed hundreds.
Catherine Mulholland had Angeleno roots that are becoming more uncommon — and an interesting life. From the L.A. Times obituary:
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.
Councilman Tom LaBonge, in a statement, called Mulholland "a dear friend, a joy to communicate and correspond with over the years." The Department and Water and Power, which was founded by her grandfather, paid tribute in a press release.
We are very saddened to learn of Catherine Mulholland’s passing,” said Ronald O. Nichols, LADWP General Manager. “Ms. Mulholland was well known to the LADWP family through her gracious participation in events that celebrated her legendary grandfather, William Mulholland, a revered figure here at the Department. We are all going to miss her and the link she provided to our historic past.”
Video after the jump: Mulholland at UC Santa Barbara in 2008.
Photo: City of Calabasas website