Mike Davis takes on Harrison Gray Otis

hgotis.jpgMike Davis, the historian of Los Angeles and other topics whose work some love and some don't trust, is serializing a biography of the former L.A. Times patriarch Harrison Gray Otis on the Los Angeles Review of Books website. Part one went up Friday, to be followed by future installments to include "Otis’s interlude as 'emperor of the Pribilofs,' his military atrocities in the Philippines, his bitter legal battles with the Theosophists, the Otis-Chandler empire in the Mexicali Valley, the Times bombing in 1910, the notorious discovery of fellatio in Long Beach, and Otis’s quixotic plan for world government." From the opener:

First, no one has yet excavated the pharaoh’s tomb. Rumors abound, especially in the tearoom of the Huntington Library, about family archives kept in a San Marino vault. But it is also possible that son-in-law and successor, Harry Chandler, destroyed many of Otis’s private papers when he ordered his own files burned after his heart attack in 1944. (Chandler might have been reacting to the literary and cinematic assaults on fellow-publisher and chief competitor, William Randolph Hearst.)

Second, any biographer has to tackle the fact that Otis was probably the most hated man in Ragtime America. His enemies ecumenically spanned a spectrum from evangelists to citrus growers, socialists to robber barons. Although chiefly remembered for his relentless crusade to destroy the labor movement in Los Angeles, Otis waxed most savage in his attacks on reformers within his own Republican Party. Progressive Republicans, in turn, repaid his vitriol with eloquent interest.

Thus Teddy Roosevelt acidly observed that he was “a consistent enemy of every movement of social and economic betterment,” and that “the attitude of General Otis in his paper affords a curious instance of the anarchy of soul which comes to a man who, in conscienceless fashion, deifies property at the expense of human rights.”

Davis is at UC Riverside these days and a contributing editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books.

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