“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 Three

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Wrapping up this post on the large-format pamphlet, “Why Los Angeles will become the World’s Greatest City,” authored in a florid and emphatic style by advertising copy writer Sherley Hunter and published in October 1923 by “advisors and representatives in finance,” H.J. Mallen and Company, we look at the multitude of smaller-type comments at the bottom of each of the 29 pages containing Hunter’s breathless booster prose and then taking up roughly another dozen pages.

These comments include favorable comments by well-known local, national and international figures and a good deal of information, much of it financial but also including material on the film industry, the Port of Los Angeles, weather, labor and more. All of this is titled “Holding a Mirror to the Hard, Cold Facts of Today’s Los Angeles” and begins with a comments made in the early 1880s by New York Sun editor Charles A. Dana, who wrote, “Los Angeles has made great progress materially since the construction of the Southern Pacific railroad [line to the city in 1876.] A population of 22,000 is now claimed for it which, if correct, would show an increase of 100 per cent within a few years.” The 1880 federal census, in fact, tallied just over 11,000 persons, though these are almost always undercounts, though Dana may also have been given overly hopeful figures.

The newspaper figure was also reported as having uttered that there were so many new residents that there lacked enough houses, stores and hotels in the Angel City and “there is hardly a block in the town in which building is not in progress,” while his statement ended that “the suburbs are exceptionally beautiful.” More brief was a notable quote from Marshal Ferdinand Foch, chief of staff of the French Army during World War I, and who was said to have told Phillipe Poniatowski, descendant of Napoleon’s marshal Josef Poniatowski, “if I had to start life over again, I would go to Los Angeles. It is a magnificent country. It is the [French] Riviera—but greater.”

Amadeo P. Giannini, founder of the Bank of Italy, which, later in the decade, was renamed Bank of America, offered that “I like to talk about Los Angeles, and her near million population of today, and to clearly vision the fruits of self reliance that are coming to the well balanced community of men and women.” Then there was the famed humorist, actor and columnist (among other talents) Will Rogers, who wrote “Me for Los Angeles” for the Los Angeles Times and its edition of 1 July 1923. It was noted that the comedian had just left New York stage work “to come back to Los Angeles to the movies” and where he had a ranch that is now a state park.”

In his remarks, Rogers began by referring to Clara Phillips, known as the Tiger Lady for an infamous murder case discussed in a 2020 “Female Justice” presentation by my colleague Gennie Truelock, saying that “Clara Phillips and I arrived back here about the same time,” as she was captured in Central America after breaking out of jail in Los Angeles. He then continued,

I arrived in my hut in Beverly Hills just in time to keep real estate agents from plotting off and selling my front yard. They will sell you anything or anybody in the world as long as they can get a first payment.

Well, I have been away from here a year and a half and I never saw such a change in a place in my life. It used to be only Iowa that was out here; but now they have written back and they have three or four adjoining States interested and they are here, too. . . .

You buy lots in Los Angeles with the same frequency that you would newspapers in any other city. After buying it you put it back in the hands of the real estate agent, for don’t think you are are going to get away with that lot! It has to be sold three or four times that day . . .

Lots are sold so quick and often out here that they are put through escrow made out to the twelfth owner. They couldn’t possibly make a separate deed for each purchaser; besides, he wouldn’t have time to read a deed in the ten minutes’ time he owned the lot.

It’s the greatest game I ever saw; you can’t lose. Everybody buys to sell and nobody buys to keep. What’s worrying me is who is going to be the last owner.

Also of note was a prophecy from the Times, which, along with the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce and the Automobile Club of Southern California, among others, was one of the preeminent boosters of the region. The paper observed that, when founded in 1781, Los Angeles was on a grant of 28 square miles, space enough to contain millions given that Paris had almost 3 million people in 31 square miles and New York some 2.5 million in just 22.

Yet, with aggressive annexation in recent years, the Angel City comprised some 370 square miles, so the paper concluded, “it seems that for the city to become well rounded out there are still considerable areas that must be annexed, but it is not desirable that people be crowded together here as they are in the three [Berlin was also mentioned] above-named cities.” After all, packing people together too densely meant they could “not have the same chance to enjoy life as one living in a city where there is plenty of room to play as well as to work.” Future annexations, in fact, expanded Los Angeles to 469 square miles and its population is around 4 million.

Another short essay is “Fourth City of World in 1930,” which predicted that, by the end of the Roaring Twenties, the Angel City would be the fourth biggest metropolis on the planet and third in America. Walter S. Wheaton, said to be a foreign trade expert, asserted that 1.8 million people would live in Los Angeles by 1930 and discussed its exports of some $19 million in 1922 so that it “stands alone as the wonder city and is attracting the attention of the entire world.” He added that its port would be the largest on the Pacific and third among all harbors internationally.

There would be almost double the population in the county that would be in the city and he prognosticated that Los Angeles “will be the hub around which much that is destined to influence the affairs of men and national will develop” because such a destiny “is foreordained by the gods” thanks to location, climate, fertile soil. With these essential characteristics, it was “now plain to be seen by all who have vision that there is now in the making the greatest city of which we as yet have any knowledge.” By 1930, Los Angeles was the fifth largest American metropolis and was more than a half-million short of Wheaton’s guess and, of course, there was the Great Depression underfoot, as well.

Editorials from the Times discussed the rising importance of the Port of Los Angeles in Pacific maritime trade, opining that “as time passes new lines of steamers will ply between Los Angeles and Liverpool and Havre. We shall have ocean liners as speedy and palatial as those on the Atlantic.” There was every expectation that business development was such that the Angel City would one day have “the greatest population and the greatest volume of trade of all the cities in America.” Also telling was the assertion that

it is well to remember that Los Angeles has grown in seventy years from an adobe village to the most populous city ever builded [sic] by the white races on the Pacific Ocean.

And our growth is just beginning. As the gateway between the Far West and the Far East destiny has placed us in a strategic industrial and commercial position where all things are possible to thrift and industry . . . As the ancients would say, we are favored of the gods; the measure of our growth will be that of our own industry.

Another offering by the paper declared that “advantages of ideal working conditions, [and] an abundance of cheap power and water are building up the industrial life of Los Angeles more rapidly than ever before.” Consequently, it was added, “the utilization of the great natural resources and advantages of the Southwest is providing the sinews of growth to make Los Angeles one of the greatest and most productive cities in the world” and the piece concluded that “the city is building surely and rapidly because its industries are growing and its productiveness increasing.”

Most of the rhetoric concerned generalizations of economic growth, though Hunter praised the capitalists as well as the “open shop” environment in which labor unions were limited in effect in the Angel City. A Boston news bureau piece from April 1923 observed that “bestowed years ago in derision by labor union leaders, Los Angeles accepted the title and proudly claims it today: ‘The Scab City.'” A nickname coined to mark the metropolis negatively “has been instead an implement for its marvelous growth.”

The argument was that “it is because Los Angeles is a ‘scab city’ that it has been able to take full advantage of its opportunities and achieve results that are dazzling even when compared with the history of the wonders of America.” 1909 was considered foundational for the “open shop” concept “after a bitter struggle with the labor unions” after which that label was applied, but which proved “to be the best advertising any American city ever had.” It was claimed that the result was that it became known that “there was one city where an honest and ambitious workman in any trade could make good to the full limit of his ability, unhindered by union rules, [and] unfettered by union shackles of any sort.”

So, the account continued, “there flocked to Los Angeles tens of thousands of the best mechanics in the country, disgusted with the petty tyrannies of labor-union bosses, looking for liberty and finding it.” Business owners came, as well, have been “driven to desperation by the hampering and harassing limitations by those same bosses.” Improbably, the piece claimed that “every resident of Los Angeles is ready to cite facts and figures to illustrate the advantages the city has reaped from its industrial freedom.”

Such examples were that in 1900 manufacturing produced some $15 million in goods, while that figure was $800 million in 1921. The city leaped from 37th in the nation in industrial production in 1910 to tenth a decade later. With wages said to be higher than elsewhere in the country, is was deemed to be “of immense significance—that, owing to its emancipation from the union rules operative elsewhere, Los Angeles gets a good deal more for its money than do other American cities.” The piece ended by noting that this “great story, a story for other cities to ponder” meant that the Angel City proudly embraced being called “The Scab City.”

A separate report on labor noted that “the supply . . . is at present plentiful .. . due to continual conversion of a great number of the tourists who come to the city into permanent residents” while unemployment was low and the “open shop,” it was stated, meant that “the keenest labor competition” was to be found in Los Angeles.

The dramatic growth of the Los Angeles Stock Exchange, bank resources of nearly a half trillion dollars and bank clearings that were approaching those of San Francisco (almost $7.3 billion in the latter and some $5.1 billion in the former, but with larger gains in the Angel City in the first quarter of 1923) and a host of details provided by Los Angeles banker Orra Monnette, whose newly established Bank of America merged with Giannini’s Bank of Italy in 1928, were to show the growing power of finance in the Angel City.

Los Angeles Record, 2 November 1925.

Also featured was the dramatic growth in the oil and utility industries, even as a surplus of crude oil from overproduction (mentioned in posts on this blog) led to a drop in gross earnings of 11% in 1922 compared to the prior year. Notable, as well, especially for our conditions a century later, was the statement that

A period of approximately three years of intensive building operations equal to the present rate is still necessary before the [housing] shortage which accumulated during the war years is overcome and the present flood of population is accommodated.

A research effort by Security Trust and Savings Bank was quoted in great detail to discuss this issue and it was reported that “the present building rate is about $15,000,000 per month,” which was close to $7 million more than what was considered normal. Mathematically speaking, the rate of construction was to overcome the shortage in about three years given population growth levels.

Redondo Reflex, 6 August 1937.

This provides some context for the extraordinary amount of building conducted during the early 1920s in the latest development boom to take place in greater Los Angeles and Walter P. Temple’s establishment, in spring 1923, of the Town of Temple (renamed, in 1928, Temple City and which celebrates its centennial next year) is part of the environment of expansion which, however, did peak in 1923 and decline thereafter. A table showed population, monies spent on building and for the shortage and other information.

Other tables showed the amount of loans on county real estate for 1922 and the first quarter of 1923, the increase in the use of telephones, post office business/bank clearings/building permits and population, and the Angel City’s tax rate compared to fourteen other American cities including New York City, Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Pittsburgh and others. Another interesting table from Security Trust and Savings Bank’s research department also was cited to show that “California [is the] Richest of All States” as seen through industrial statistics in Los Angeles.

Los Angeles Times, 22 January 1932.

An interesting essay on the film industry, where 90% of all movies in the country were made, stated that the total value of pictures produced in the area was around $150 million in 1922. Some 15,000 persons had “steady employment” in the industry with the average movie production cost being around $150,000 of which 60 per cent was in salaries. Exported film in linear feet grew from almost 150 million in 1913 to almost 240 in 1920 and other information showed the growth and reach of motion picture making in Los Angeles and Hollywood.

Sol Lesser of Associated First National Pictures, Principal Pictures Corporation and West Coast Theaters, Inc., the movie house chain, stated that First National planned to spend $6 million on film production in 1923 and was quote as saying,

It has long been my aim to bring to this city the entire motion-picture industry. I cannot see why Los Angeles should not be the center of the distribution and releasing channels as well as the production. This is coming slowly but surely. The financial power is now located here in the medium of our banks and the production point is beyond question. It is due Los Angeles to enjoy the fruits of this great industry which she has mothered from infancy to the fourth greatest industry in the world.

Essays on the Port of Los Angeles discussed nearly $10 million spent and slated to be expended by the city for improvements, the growth of tonnage handled from about 2.4 million in 1919 to nearly 10 million just three years later, with another 1.1 million in January 1923 alone. It was observed that the famed Boston harbor was some 200 years old and that of Los Angeles was, effective, just 12 years old by a standard not cited, but “so rapidly do we progress here that the Los Angeles harbor now serves as many ports as does Boston, and in another 12 years comparison with other harbors of the world would all be in favor of Los Angeles.” Lumber, oil and fish products were cited and it was expected that military operations would center on the port area, though San Diego later supplanted the Angel City in much of this realm.

Times, 24 March 1940.

With such dramatic and distinctive prose by Hunter and a great deal of data supplied in these supplemental texts, “Why Los Angeles will become the World’s Greatest City” is certainly an interesting document, especially as it was published at the peak of the Roaring Twenties boom in the region. Hunter went on to continue work in advertising, including another stint with Silverwood’s and regular columns for the Los Angeles Record newspaper. By the Great Depression years, however, his wildly optimistic predictions were proven premature and his work was limited to columns called “Redondance” in the Redondo Reflex. He died in Redondo Beach in 1937 at just age 50 from effects of his being gassed on the front lines in France during the First World War and he spent the last months of his life at the soldiers’ home at Sawtelle and was buried in the veterans’ cemetery there.

As for Harry J. Mallen, his exuberant efforts in local finance subsided as the decade came to an end. Moreover, desperation or the delayed revelation of his methods led to his being arrested, tried and convicted in 1932 on grand theft charges as part of the operations of his City Bond and Finance Company. He then decamped to New Mexico, where, in 1926, he’d engineered a syndicate’s purchase of a large ranch, but, in 1940, he got into further trouble when he was indicted on federal mail fraud and Securities Exchange Act violations. After conviction and a stint in prison, Mallen migrated to México City, where he died in 1954 in conditions a world removed from his high-flying heyday three decades prior.

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