Through the Viewfinder: The Rise of George E. Cryer to Mayor of Los Angeles, 1875-1921

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

The Roaring Twenties was an exceptional period of growth for greater Los Angeles with the population booming, heavy industry becoming a force, the film industry maturing dramatically and the real estate market hot—at least until the end of the decade when the Great Depression began.

In the Angel City, the mayor for almost the entire ten-year period of the Twenties was George E. Cryer (1875-1961), who was a nearly ubiquitous presence at events, functions and other public happenings, but who was also seen as largely a puppet for political mastermind Kent Parrott and his so-called “City Hall Gang” during a time of rampant corruption throughout Los Angeles, including the police department, city hall, county district attorney’s office, county sheriff’s office and elsewhere.

Still, he managed to win three times (two-year terms in 1921 and 1923 and the first four-year term when a new city charter was passed in 1925) as the city’s development seemed unstoppable, as was Republican control of politics locally and through most of the country. After criticism of Parrot’s purported domination of city government ramped up as the 1929 election approached, Cryer decided not to run for reelection, though he mounted a failed campaign four years later.

It was actually remarkable that he got to the pinnacle of Angel City politics because it hardly seemed as if he was a likely candidate. Born to English immigrants John Cryer and Elizabeth Grange at Waterloo, Nebraska (maybe 1929 was his own Waterloo, if a half-joking Napoleonic reference applies) west of Omaha, Cryer and his family migrated to Los Angeles in 1885 (perhaps for someone’s health) just as the Angel City was about ready to make its direct transcontinental railroad connection that would drive much of the resulting Boom of the Eighties.

Los Angeles Herald, 31 March 1898

Cryer attended local schools, including Los Angeles High School, and then resided in the San Bernardino County town of Redlands in the last years of the 19th century, where he secured appointment as a letter carrier and enlisted in the volunteer California 7th Infantry Regiment during the Spanish-American War of 1898, mustering out at the end of that year as a quartermaster sergeant and being given a gold watch as appreciation of his leadership.

In fall 1900, Cryer went to the University of Michigan to attend its law school and was at the top of his class, earning a prestigious place with the Michigan Law Review, which was widely read by attorneys and jurists around the country. At Ann Arbor, he also became fast friends with fellow law student John W. Shenk (who lived in Omaha for part of his youth), as well as Isabel Gay, who was a graduate at the university and who married Cryer in 1906.

Los Angeles Express, 13 May 1898.

After completing his degree, Cryer returned to Los Angeles and went into private practice with E.W. Tuttle, though he does not have appeared to have had much of a public profile for the first several years of his practice. In fact, in August 1911, when he was selected to be first assistant to the federal district attorney in the Angel City, the Los Angeles Times simply labeled the decision as “wholly unsolicited and unexpected.” While Cryer was acknowledged as a distinguished student at Michigan, he was considered young, at 36 years, it turned out that the U.S. District Attorney, Aloysius I. McCormick, was a Los Angeles High classmate.

His tenure at the federal office, however, was all of about four months because Cryer resigned early in 1912 to become the assistant city attorney after trial lawyer Edwin R. Young left and another obvious connection led to this change in jobs because the city attorney was none other than Schenk, who told the Times that he felt Cryer was a valuable addition, even as he lamented that the city did not offer more “inducements,” probably a code word for money, for those to join the department.

Los Angeles Times, 10 August 1911.

The following year, Shenk mounted a campaign for mayor of Los Angeles and recommended his protégé to be his successor for the 1913 election. Running as a Democrat, Shenk won the early May primary with 45% of the vote, 5% less than needed to win outright, while Republican Henry H. Rose barely fended off Socialist Job Harriman for second.

At the early June election, however, Rose turned the tables and bested Shenk (who went to serve 35 years on the California Supreme Court) by over 9 points, with Shenk boycotted by Black voters unhappy with a decision he made in a case of price discrimination against an African-American man.

Times, 16 January 1912.

Meanwhile, Cryer was called by the Times the “Earl candidate,” meaning he was avidly supported by the rival Los Angeles Express, which was owned by Edwin T. Earl, and the former was pleased to note that Cryer made a “distressing showing” by finishing third behind Albert Lee Stephens (another distinguished jurist at the state and federal levels over a very long career lasting until his death in 1965) and the Socialist candidate Charles P. Morgan.

For its part, the Express claimed that Cryer was so busy with his work in the city office that it was “impossible for him to build up the acquaintance that constitutes so valuable an asset in any political campaign.” The paper added that “his very devotion to duty counted indirectly against the success of his candidacy” and noted that Stephens was supported by a coalition called the “Municipal Conference” backed by the Times, the Los Angeles Examiner of William Randolph Hearst, and others. The Express concluded “Mr. Cryer ran a manly contest” and stood by its support “of an honorable man and faithful official.”

Express, 9 May 1913.

Two years later, in June 1915, Cryer, after being again in private practice, was appointed chief deputy district attorney for Los Angeles County under Thomas Lee Woolwine and the Express, not surprisingly, lauded the decision calling Cryer “one of the best known lawyers in the city” and “a man of exceptional ability and of irreproachable character.”

Shenk, then a Superior Court judge, told the paper “I first noticed Mr. Cryer’s ability and capacity for work in the class room” at Michigan and added “I decided he was the man I must have for first assistant” when Shenk was city attorney. Saying his efforts “were entirely satisfactory,” the jurist went on to say “he had full charge of all litigation and he was splendidly successful in his work.” With that testimonial, Shenk concluded, “I believe the appointment is a very fortunate one for the district attorney.”

Express, 25 June 1915.

Over the next few years, Cryer did get some substantial publicity for reporting on many cases he brought forward in his capacity, including prominent ones against local elected officials, such as Council member John Topham, convicted for receiving money from plumbers in transactions with the city and a campaign against three county supervisors, which yielded a conviction, an acquittal and a dismissed charge.

In early 1919, Cryer enthusiastically endorsed having more women jurors (they were only recently allowed to serve in this capacity), which may have bolstered his future political prospects with a large portion of the greatly expanded electorate, as he stated, “women on grand juries will really be of great benefit . . . because cases . . . which probably will contain women now will be first considered by women grand jurors.” He added, “women trial jurors have proven themselves to be fully as competent as men.”

Venice Vanguard, 26 August 1920.

Within a few months, however, Cryer stepped down and, while there were rumors of a rift between him and Woolwine, Cryer released his resignation letter to tamp down these comments. He once more went back to his own firm, but soon set his sights, or, if accounts are to be believed, was induced by supporters and friends, on a higher judicial position, specifically, in spring 1920, a state appellate court judgeship.

That failing to materialize, Cryer, in the summer mounted a campaign for a Superior Court judge position as there was a clamor by some to break up a “judicial ring” at that level. The Venice Vanguard of 26 August reported that a poll found that “a majority of the lawyers of Los Angeles county are in favor of retiring several of the incumbent judges now in office and seeking reelection.”

Los Angeles Record, 26 October 1920.

After this, “a committee waited on Mr. Cryer asking him to run for the office,” but, reportedly, he demurred, suggesting “he is not a politician and knows nothing about boosting himself.” Still, so it went, he yielded to the entreaties and “is making a speaking tour of the county to meet as many of the voters as possible” before the election.

Ads were taken out, including one that linked him to two other candidates out to “Break Up the Judges’ Combine” by defeating four incumbents (not including Shenk.) The more liberal Los Angeles Record, which was a major supporter of unions, unlike the notoriously pro-business Times, ran an ad that said that union labor supported Cryer and the other pair.

Times, 7 November 1920.

Yet, when the primary election returns came in, Cryer finished 15th out of 18 and candidates, though he managed to continue on to the general election, where he finished 13th out of 17. Clearly, he did not have a great deal of public support for the few campaigns he mounted, but that did not stop him from making the attempt in 1921 for the mayor’s seat.

Interestingly, Cryer was given support from the Times and wrote a thank-you to the paper, saying “I have never received an indorsement which I prized more highly” especially because it was “extended to me without suggestion or solicitation” and this “made it even more deeply appreciated.” He concluded by telling the paper that “I have been a friend and admirer of The Times and have noted with the greatest satisfaction its growing power and influence in the community.”

Express, 14 March 1921.

In March 1921, Cryer was urged by some 200 citizens to run for the chief executive office and one of his competitors was Boyle Workman, who’d previously served as assistant to his father William H., when the elder Workman was mayor in 1887-1888 and city treasurer in 1901-1907 and just completed his first two-year term on the City Council, serving as its president.

In his statement, reprinted by the Vanguard, Cryer stated, as usual, that “I have not sought the office” because “its acceptance will mean the sacrifice of other plans,” but he went on, “the expression of confidence manifested by so many representative citizens” who urged him to run. He added that “if elected, I will assume the office untrammeled and unpledged” and “since boyhood I have been identified with this city; its welfare is of vital interest to me.” He pledged that “if elected it will be my endeavor to retain that trust by an honest, fearless, equal and harmonious administration of the city’s affairs.”

Times, 5 June 1921.

Yet, when the results came in for almost all of the precincts after the 3 May primary election, Cryer managed to run a close second to incumbent Meredith P. Snyder, a Democrat who first served as mayor at the end of the 19th century and who was running his eighth campaign. Workman’s surprising poor distant third-place showing was largely chalked up to the fact that he was a “light wine and beer” candidate, a “wet” at a time when Prohibition was in its early stages and avidly supported by a large bloc of the city electorate.

With respect to the runner-up, the Express offered:

Mr. Cryer’s strength . . . far exceeded what even his most sanguine supporters had predicted. In political circles it was expected that Cryer would be second on the ticket, but there was no hint that he would run almost neck and neck with Snyder. His remarkable showing was the sensation of the day, and at the Cryer headquarters his supporters were jubilant and confident that he will be elected at the June election.

Parrott was said to have “begun to map out an intensive campaign, and he predicts an overwhelming victory for Cryer.” It was something of an amazing turnaround in Cryer’s fortunes and the momentum certainly picked up in the month before the general election was held on 7 June.

Los Angeles Record, 6 June 1921.

The Times became an avid booster for his campaign and ran a table “Here Are Their Records” with Snyder’s list mostly comprised of his seven prior mayoral races and his work in state governor and presidential campaigns, making it sound like the Democrat was purely a career politician (though he lost a son during the recent World War, which garnered him some considerable sympathy not long before).

As for Cryer, the table cataloged his service in the Spanish-American War (and receipt of that watch), studies at Michigan, private law practice, public service in the city and county attorney offices, and his active work in Harding campaign for president in 1920. This gave the impression of a redoubtable public servant and a patriot in great contrast, of course, to Snyder.

Express, 8 June 1921.

When the votes were counted, Cryer came out with a plurality of 6,000 over the incumbent. The featured photo from the Homestead’s collection for this post is a snapshot of a smiling chief executive, perhaps in his early days in office, walking from his car with his driver, identified only as Bartles.

Inscribed at the top is “MAYOR CRYER / ALWAYS HAD A SMILE” and this he was known for as he appeared at so many events in eight years in office, including the opening of the Coliseum and City Hall, national conventions, and much more, even as his administration was increasingly mired in controversy until he chose not to run for a fourth term in 1929.

Cryer once again went back to private practice and had other business interests, such as oil. Being relatively young when he left office, at 54 years of age, it is not surprising he lived for over three decades. In May 1961, the 86 year old was watering his garden when he tripped over a hose and broke his hip and he died after complications set in during surgery. He was lionized for his public service, though nothing was said about the controversies of his years as the Angel City’s chief executive, more of which will be covered in future posts.

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