“She Has Touched the Imagination of General Public Opinion as no Other City Has Touched the Millions”: Purple Prose Boosterism in “Why Los Angeles Will Become the World’s Greatest City,” 1923, Part One

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

There are boosters who are enthusiastic about promoting the potential and prospects of the city in which they live in and then there are the likes of Sherley Frank Hunter (1886-1937), an advertising copy writer who used his talents in that frequently florid field to the heights of purple prose in his rather remarkable style in the 1923 publication, “Why Los Angeles Will become the World’s Greatest City.”

It should also come as no surprise that the large-format 42-page pamphlet was published by H.J. Mallen and Company, Inc., which self-identified as “advisors and representatives in finance” and which was led by its flamboyant namesake Harry J. Mallen (1882-1954), whose colorful career during the enormous boom that took place in greater Los Angeles peaked in 1923, but who wound up with a checkered future—more about that later!

Los Angeles Express, 7 June 1922.

In short, Hunter and Mallen were kindred spirits in the promotion of Los Angeles because the former was a snappy writer of rhetoric that promoted whatever needed to be sold, while the latter used the talents of the ad man to promote his financial services business with the idea that what was good for the region was good for his business.

The fact that the breathless style employed by Hunter suited the purposes of Mallen is no different than any other efforts to praise greater Los Angeles to the skies, whether it be from newspaper articles and editorials, the innumerable publications of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, magazines, or other media publications. This one, however, is pretty tough to beat when it comes to the writing.

Los Angeles Times, 17 July 1923.

Mallen was born in Wellsville, Ohio on the Ohio River across from the northern tip of West Virginia and very near the border with Pennsylvania. He resided for much of his youth in his father’s hometown of Philadelphia, but wound up in the 1910s in Denver, where he worked for a motor express company and then became an oil promoter. In the early Twenties, he was one of the hordes of new migrants to Los Angeles and he opened his financial services office.

He quickly made news with announcements of splashy deals, his prowess as a deep-sea fisherman, and for spending $30,000 on a yacht he named for his namesake son and which was said to be used for taking children out for sailing trips. In 1924, it was reported that he went on a dee-sea fishing excursion with film studio owner Mack Sennett, so his circle included at least one big-name celebrity.

Times, 10 March 1911.

As for Hunter, he was born in Osceola, Nebraska, near the Platte River east of Omaha, though he spent part of his childhood in Cedar Falls, Iowa, northeast of Des Moines. After his mother’s death while Hunter was in his teens, he appears to have left home and wound up in Ontario during the first decade of the 20th century, where he wrote advertisements for an iron works company.

By 1911, Hunter was the chief copy writer for F.B. Silverwood, who owned a chain of men’s clothing stores in Bakersfield, Maricopa, Long Beach, Los Angeles and San Bernardino and wrote some breezy ads for the company. In 1914, he left for México to report on the political and military turmoil in that nation along with human interest stories, while still writing copy for Silverwood’s.

Los Angeles Illustrated Daily News, 19 June 1924.

Before 1918, he went out on his own as a freelance advertising writer working for such clients as the Los Angeles Express newspaper and Wanamaker’s department store branch in New York city, but was then drafted to serve in the American Expeditionary Force fighting for the allies in the First World War. While on the front lines in France in the last few couple of weeks of the horrific war, he was one of the many victims of poison gas attacks that were used profusely and then outlawed after the conflict ended. He returned home in May 1919, but then went to New York City and then to Chicago, where he worked for a major advertising firm.

After a few years, Hunter came back to Los Angeles to resume his work as an independent ad copy writer and one of his early clients was Mallen, who employed him to write the jazzed-up text for the publication featured here and which the Homestead has in its collection. There are 29 pages of Hunter’s distinctive writing and this post will confine itself (mercifully?) to just some representative samples, as his style can be a bit . . . much. For example, here are some of his opening lines:

Los Angeles has touched the imagination of America. She has become an idea . . . a longing in men’s breasts. She is the symbol of a new civilization, a new hope, another try of ambition.

Los Angeles is an Ideal that has been presented the gray monotony of living through years of calling, pleading, promising. A clean-cut example of the accumulative power of persistent advertising.

Referring, without saying so, to his own wartime experience, he added that the conflict meant that “we were goaded to think upon realities and particularly the greatest of all realities, MAN.” He went on to observe that “we found ourselves in a tragic demonstration of having remained, through thousands of years, CHILDREN, with a childish ignorance, playing at LIVING.” As for the postwar period, Hunter claimed that “we decided to be Men . . . back into the pursuits of peace, [and] prayed for a new and more human and contented civilization for all classes . . . with MAN the master, in his manhood, and no longer the slave of the inventions of a childish ignorance.”

Express, 1 September 1923.

Anyone reading this who has perused some of the posts featuring the letters of J. Perry Worden, hired by Walter P. Temple around this time (1923) to write a history of the Workman and Temple family that went unfinished, will recognize in the seemingly interminable italicizing and capitalizing of Hunter’s writing style something of Worden’s overheated prose. The difference is that Worden was a chronic complainer in private letters to his patron, while Hunter’s exuberant positivity is of another species of exalted writing.

After intoning that “it was clear to the people of all nations that America had become the country of Destiny” following the end of the war, Hunter added that “Los Angeles remained the one ‘white spot’ [a common term of the era] through the ups-and-down which came in the first readjustment days. For those in midwestern and eastern cities who decided to pull up stakes to migrate to the Angel City, Hunter insisted that this reflected

The search for a new chance at LIVING . . . skeptical about Civilization having reached its highest peak in 1914 . . . a glimmer of hope that, in a fresh, new environment capital and labor might be allies and enjoy a better, fuller living, serving the world bigger and more efficiently . . . and the admittance that, for years, the word[s] LOS ANGELES had been impressing itself in the hopes of the man as a possible environment for such a CHANCE TO BEGIN ALL OVER.

He wrote in typical fashion of the migrants heading out by train and car and that “they learned why each was headed towards Los Angeles and California—they unbuttoned their hearts beside those campfires [on the road, for those who drove]—just as men did in the dug-outs of France months before. Consumers—who wanted to trust each other.” Not only this, proclaimed Hunter, “they were weary of being propaganded [a verb?], or let us say they exchanged expressions on the subject of being propaganded at.” What these migrants demanded, he went on, was “They wanted to make the most of their lives, and their families’ lives, and Americanism.”

The magic embodied in the Angel City means that there had to be a second canal at Panama (which, of course, never happened), more rail lines, and the expansion of water and energy supply along with houses, industrial facilities and office structures for those that “are coming, at the rate of 15,000 a month.” With rising bank clearings and the population of Los Angeles putting at fifth in the nation, it was clear that Los Angeles was the city of the future.

Here, Hunter asked the rhetorical question of who was coming to the city and region and he answered

It is a cosmopolitan community—men who have made quick fortunes in the oil fields, in mining, land and stock—German Jews, after accumulating great fortunes in forty years at an Oriental port—wealthy operators from Colombia and South America—Peruvian mine owners—millionaire lumber men from the heart of of Arkansas—farmers who sold at a big price in Iowa, Illinois, Nebraska—Canadians, cold-weary and wealthy—the poor and rich from everywhere—seeking a new view of life, a refreshed hope, very anxious to truly live.

For all of these, they trekked to this region “with a cross on the black dot of their maps beside the name ‘Los Angeles.” and they did so, “glad to be alive and in Southern California where living is better—a car a suit of khaki, a garden and their families.” He averred that many were somnolent in their previous places of residence, but, invigorated by the sunshine, were revived and he went so far as to suggest that the environment here was such that they “exchange greetings no matter what garb they wear . . . leaving every man to work out his own salvation as he wishes to, so long as he coordinates with the cooperative plans of the domain which work for the common good of all.”

Does anyone understand what the caption means?

There was something strange in Hunter’s insistence that the clothing did not define the person and asserted that a streetcar conductor might have $50,000 in securities at a safe-deposit box at the bank or that an aged security officer at that bank might earn four times his salary in investments—as if this was somehow known to the writer! He cited a journalist Bertie C. Forbes, of the Hearst syndicate (the Los Angeles paper being the Examiner) and founder of the financial magazine that is still with us, as writing several articles expounding on the massive changes underway in the region, while a colleague, George Wheeler Hinman, opined that the one reason for the incredible growth was that people here “have the will to prosperity, the determination to enterprise” with faith in business that will “make their dreams come true” and are “bulls on America.”

There was no question that Big Business found Los Angeles to be the hub of the Pacific Coast, having supplanted San Francisco, while the east coast of the United States and Europe were not where the future lay. Critics of the Angel City, Hunter continued, could not “erase the fact that California has developed the greatest oil fields in the world, the greatest irrigation system, the most perfected cooperative marketing methods and [Los Angeles] is growing faster than any city in the country, taking thousands away from New Yok City.”

Rising into the ether through the rapid tapping of his typewriter keys, Hunter rhapsodized that,

Deny it, no thoughtful person can—Los Angeles is rapidly, and very rapidly, approaching the position of being the greatest city in the world. Great Pan-Pacific buildings housing representatives of all Pacific powers, commercial and diplomatic representatives—great institutions with monster sample rooms displaying [the] produce of foreign lands and of American manufacture. She will be the financial Danae of all nations—dictating to New York and London and Parisit cannot be otherwise.

As New York was the financial center in connection with Europe, Los Angeles was to be for the “great Asiatic, Oriental and Australasian nations.” He added that “the great war taught industries to get away from monster units in congested areas” and that it “probed out enormous wastes in production and made clear the value of a better coordination between employer and employee,” while he castigated both “coal-barons” and “the tyranny of parasitical Union bosses.”

Buying wholly into the “open shop” philosophy propagated by the Los Angeles Times, the Chamber of Commerce and other business-first organizations, Hunter insisted that “the worker has discovered that it is pleasure to do his own deciding as to where he wishes to work and how hard h wishes to work.” Besides, he claimed, laborers were not that concerned about wages “if he cannot save some of them and must be hounded by snoops [union reps?] whenever he attempts to do a little tinkering about his own home.”

As to employers epitomizing a modern approach, they had “learned that a man deserves a little more from his work than a mere ‘living wage’ and that pride and loyalty are cheap, at a higher wage, than the dominance of union-snoops in his establishment.” Consequently, the battle “to keep ‘open shop‘ is the final victor in the day of a ‘start-over‘ by industrial employer and industrial employee.”

We’ll leave off here and return tomorrow with part two of this fascinating document, so be sure to come back then to read more of Hunter’s flights of fancy!

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