When politicians publish their memoirs, they too often bore readers with safe accounts of their triumphs, skimming or ignoring the bad stuff. Not Richard J. Riordan. In his enlightening book, “The Mayor”, he tells of the tragedies in his life and of his extra-marital affairs, divorces and drinking. These details add a very human touch to his story of the eight successful years he served as mayor of Los Angeles.
Riordan and I will talk about the book, written with Los Angeles Weekly journalist Patrick Range McDonald, and his years as mayor on Saturday at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books at USC. It will be at 1:30 p.m. at the Norris Auditorium and given our prickly, friendly and volatile relationship over the years, it should be fun.
Two of his children died—a son in a scuba diving accident, a daughter of illness related to anorexia. A brother was killed in a storm-induced landslide while reading in his Los Angeles home. A sister died of burns after her nightgown caught fire from a fireplace. “Too many martinis which led to flirtations at the bar” doomed his marriage to his first wife, Genie. Alcohol led to two arrests for driving under the influence and another for interfering with cops trying to arrest a friend in a bar. And that’s just by page 59.
Beyond that, Riordan provides an interesting look at his time as mayor. His first big crisis was the earthquake early in the morning of Jan.17, 1994. He tells how “The Bel Air home of my future wife, Nancy Daly, shook so violently that I was jolted out of bed and found myself lying on my back on the carpeted bedroom floor,” he wrote. The phones were dead. He headed for city hall, dropping Daly off at her mother’s retirement home, maneuvered onto the Santa Monica Freeway, was sidetracked by the collapsed La Cienega overpass. He finally made his way downtown on city streets, taking charge of the city’s emergency command center.
That established him as mayor. He also reveals details of his efforts to take over the Los Angeles Unified School District, his successful campaign for a charter revision that increased the power of the mayor and his efforts to increase the size of the Los Angeles Police Department. Unfortunately, he is a staunch defender of the department under his administration and of its then secretive, micromanaging chief, Bernard Parks. He, like Parks, treated the Rampart scandal as if it were an annoying station house screw-up instead being an example of major corruption. He still hates the federal decree that forced LAPD reform.
Riordan reminds us of other accomplishments—the Alameda rail corridor, which promoted harbor growth, and his part in the Staples Center and Disney Hall projects, major components of the downtown revival.
When he was mayor, he was a perfect subject for my Los Angeles Times column and I followed him around L.A. in search of anecdotes. Occasionally, he’d invite me to breakfast at his downtown diner, the Original Pantry, and berate me about the Times’ shortcomings over deliciously unhealthy breakfasts. Afterward, we’d walk around the block, while he puffed on a cigar and continued his negative thoughts on the paper. When I criticized him in a column, he’d call my home early in the morning to complain and I would argue back. During a huge fire, I blasted him for praising Los Angeles firefighters and ignoring the many others who had come from all over the state to fight the flames. I said he was acting as if he were a provincial small town hack. The next morning, the phone rang. “I read your column this morning,” Riordan said. “Oh,” I said, preparing for a fight. “You were right,” he said.
He was and is a quirky, unconventional character and hopefully he’ll show some of this when we talk at the book festival Saturday.