Harris Newmark: The Jewish father of L.A.


With resolute eyes, a large portrait of the Jewish pioneer businessman and chronicler Harris Newmark gazes across a hall in the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles. It’s a space dedicated to how L.A. became a great city, and with this image, Newmark welcomes visitors to trace the story of his remarkable influence on the development of Southern California.

This year marks the centennial of the death of the wholesaler, real estate investor and tzedakah enthusiast, who died April 4, 1916, at 81. Yet the formal portrait, while it conveys a quiet dignity, does not allow the viewer even a glimmer of Newmark’s verve and acumen. Hanging by his side, an equally impressive portrait of Sarah, Harris’ wife, who died in 1910, completes the image of a couple who helped bring to life several Jewish institutions still with us today, among them the city’s first Jewish cemetery and a home for Jewish orphans. The couple also are the patriarch and matriarch of several lines of descendants who to this day strive to keep their memory alive.

Harris Newmark (r) and his wife, Sarah.

Harris Newmark’s great-grandson, Dr. Harris Newmark III, is a student of his ancestor’s achievements; he loves to talk of how his great-grandfather was “influential in early Los Angeles history,” and “very prominent as a businessman and in real estate.”

“He was involved in civic activities and in Judaism,” said Newmark, a Los Angeles radiologist, who maintains a collection of books, clippings and family photos documenting his heritage.

One day before the 100th anniversary of his great-grandfather’s death, Harris Newmark III (friends and family call him Nick), pausing from his review of family memorabilia, decided it was time to pay his great-grandfather’s gravesite a visit. On that bright spring day, Harris III and his wife, Carole, and son, Harris Kent Newmark IV, took a drive to the Home of Peace Cemetery in East Los Angeles, bringing along this writer. After a brief stop at the cemetery office and listening to the director’s instructions of “you can’t miss it,” the Newmark family headed to the center of the memorial park, past headstones and memorials, until they came to a small, temple-like stone structure, a mausoleum engraved with the name “Newmark.”

Home of Peace is the final resting place for many famous historic Los Angeles Jews. However, on a Wikipedia list of “notable interments” at the cemetery that includes Rabbi Edgar Magnin, Jack L. Warner, Louis B. Mayer, Carl Laemmle, Fanny Brice and two of the Three Stooges — Curly and Shemp Howard — as well as 19th-century merchant Solomon Lazard, Harris Newmark’s name has somehow been lost.

After so many generations and layers of asphalt, have Newmark’s contributions to L.A. vanished from our memories, as well? A small continuation high school, recently relocated to the Belmont High School campus, bears his name, but unlike other Los Angeles pioneers, among them Prudent Beaudry — L.A.’s 13th mayor, from 1874-76, who has a downtown thoroughfare named after him — no major street, post office, courthouse, park or square has been named for Newmark, except a one-block, very pedestrian street mall in Montebello.

Nevertheless, his legacy builds.

He “was one of the leading figures in developing the city,” said an April 5, 1916, obit in the Los Angeles Times. Harris Newmark “was one of a thinning band of pioneers who helped so materially to make Los Angeles what it is,” and “he was a remarkable man in many ways and proved it by rising from the bottom of the commercial ladder here to its top,” reported the same piece. Upon his passing, the city’s leading Jewish newspaper of that time, the B’nai B’rith Messenger, said, “For the last twenty years or so, when institutions for benevolence began to increase and multiply in our midst, Mr. Newmark was always among the first and most liberal contributors.”

Newmark was born in 1834 in Loebau, West Prussia. Having received a letter from his brother J.P. Newmark asking him to join him in San Francisco, Harris arrived first in New York, in 1853. From there, en route to California via steamer, he traveled to Nicaragua and crossed the isthmus on foot, mule and horseback. Arriving at the Pacific coast, he then took a steamer to San Francisco, stayed a short time, and then, finding there was no stagecoach line to Los Angeles, took another steamer down the coast, reaching San Pedro on Oct. 21, 1853. When he arrived, he was 19 and spoke neither Spanish nor English.

Harris Newmark (left) with his son Marco and his wife, Sarah in 1905.  

While getting established, Newmark contributed to the business life of the young city as one of the organizers of Los Angeles’ Chamber of Commerce. To aid that commerce and the overall development of the city, he promoted to Collin P. Huntington of the Southern Pacific Railroad, a route that would bring the railroad to Los Angeles. Having an interest in bookstores, libraries and periodicals, Newmark helped found the Los Angeles Public Library, as well as the Los Angeles Library Association, in 1872.

Harris and Sarah Newmark sit on the steps of their summer home on Ocean Avenue in Santa Monica in the early 1900s.  Photo courtesy of  Western States Jewish History

When, on July 2, 1884, the Hebrew Benevolent Society of Los Angeles was incorporated for the purpose of procuring land to establish a Jewish cemetery, Harris Newmark’s name appeared on its charter. Sarah Newmark, his first cousin, whom he married in 1858 (on the ketubah we find that Newmark’s Hebrew name was Tzvi), had planned a new Southern California Home for Jewish Orphans (what today is Vista Del Mar Child and Family Services), and after her death, Newmark donated the land for the building and broke ground for it, turning the first shovelful of earth.

Beyond making Los Angeles history, Newmark, the chronicler, has helped shape forever the way we see the city. A century after his passing, his book of reminiscences, “Sixty Years in Southern California,” remains an invaluable account of early California life. (It is available as a reprint from Forgotten Books.) 

“When I came, Los Angeles was a sleepy, ambitionless adobe village with very little promise for the future,” Newmark wrote. In the more than 700 pages of the book, which was edited by his sons Maurice and Marco (sources agree that advisory editor J. Perry Worden also played a substantial role), we follow chronologically Newmark’s anecdotes, observations and re-enactments. He shows us how a village of adobe and outdoor plumbing transforms into a city of bricks and water mains. How, over time, gas lamps become electric.

A village of only around 1,600 when Newmark arrived, we watch Los Angeles grow into a city of nearly 500,000, stretching from the mountains to the sea, with a port and a railroad. Although the built environment is vastly different, through Newmark’s eyes we recognize the terrain and conditions we know today. Newmark describes for us the devastating floods, and years of drought. He tells us about days of blazing sunshine, and a rare day when hailstones rattle windows. Like us, he enjoyed his summer days in Santa Monica, although he spent his at his summer home. Of the earthquake on July  11, 1855, he wrote a line that still gives us the shakes: “Almost every structure in Los Angeles was damaged.”

Newmark’s book “fills a big gap in the historiography,” said Karen Wilson, historian and graduate career officer in the UCLA History Department, speaking of the period that “Sixty Years” covers, from 1853 to 1913.

On the nightly news nowadays, we see L.A. as a place for smash-and-grab robberies, gang violence and freeway chases; from Newmark’s time in the mid-1800s, we see Los Angeles as a place where desperadoes and “banditos” attacked, runaway horses galloped through downtown streets, and frontier justice was dispensed at the hands of a lynch mob. Los Angeles was a dangerous place, according to the book, including gunfights on the streets. “Human life at this period was about the cheapest thing in Los Angeles, and killings were frequent,” Newmark wrote. Not so unlike the celebration of the new year in certain areas of the city today, the first New Year’s Eve Newmark spends in L.A. “was ushered in with the indiscriminate discharging of pistols and guns.”

It was also a time when Los Angeles, like today, was a very bilingual place. When Newmark opened his first business, selling dry goods in 1854 — after working as a clerk for his older brother, Joseph Phillip (J.P.) Newmark, whom he bought out after 10 months — Spanish was very much one of the languages of commerce. It was a town where in some public schools, the instruction was in Spanish and English, and public notices were posted in two languages. To get ahead in business, Newmark learned the languages of his customers and got to know their needs.

“He could function in Spanish and other languages, as well,” in a place where “bilingualism was important,” said Wilson, who curated the 2013-14 “Jews in the Los Angeles Mosaic” exhibition at the Autry Museum. Newmark was also multicultural and cosmopolitan, she added. In “Sixty Years,” we find the German Jew expressing his fondness for fiestas and his admiration of “tamales, enchiladas and frijoles,” and discovering part of his business success comes from successfully trading with Christians and Mormons, as well as Jews. He is a Mason and an Oddfellow, as well as a droll observer of the odd characters he finds on the streets.

He saves his profits, does his own books and sweeps up. At different points in his business career, he sold clothing, dry goods, hides and wool, and bought and sold real estate. He often worked with partners, and opened H. Newmark and Co. in 1865 in response to a boast by Prudent Beaudry “that he would drive every Jew in Los Angeles out of business.” Initially selling “flour, sugar, potatoes, salt and other heavy staples,” Newmark eventually became a major wholesale grocer, putting Beaudry, a competitor, out of business in the process. His book mentions his associations and business dealings with several early pioneers whose last names read like a gazetteer of Southern California: Phineas Banning, William Mulholland, Isaac Lankershim, Isaac Van Nuys and Pio Pico.

“He was known as an honest person and evenhanded guy. He became very wealthy,” Wilson said. However, “he was not what you would call a leader,” she added.

Yet, in moments of careful calculation, Harris Newmark led the way. He was a major investor in a real estate deal that led to the founding of the city of Montebello, so much so that at first, the area was called “Newmark.” In 1875, he sold 8,500 acres of Rancho Santa Anita (while he owned the property, he had a cattle brand made with his initials), which he bought for $85,000, to Lucky Baldwin for $200,000.

In 1877, Newmark purchased a parcel of land called the Temple Block, which in 1909 he sold to the city of Los Angeles so it could be used for the “nucleus of a city center,” he wrote. Today, that’s where L.A.’s City Hall stands.

He could also act on a whim. In 1869, while walking down Spring Street, Newmark saw a crowd. It was a property auction, and he heard a bid of “seven dollars.” Once, twice and “in the spirit of fun,” since he “did not even know what was being offered,” he raised his hand and bid “Seven dollars fifty cents.” “Sold to Harris Newmark,” said the auctioneer, who was actually the mayor. For “fun,” it turns out, he had bought 20 acres of what eventually would become the Wilshire District.

In 1887, Newmark was president of Congregation B’nai B’rith (it later became Wilshire Boulevard Temple), which Joseph Newmark, a lay rabbi and Harris Newmark’s uncle and father-in-law, organized in 1862.

In a Newmark family history and genealogy published in 1992, “The Harris Newmark Family: 1913-1993,” Fannie Emily Nordlinger Abrams, a great-granddaughter born in 1908, recalls that, “Harris always wore a yarmulke [though many photos show him without one], and I didn’t know what it was at the time. I thought it was just a little black hat and that he was the only one who wore one!”

He was also interested in advances in technology, taking note of the telegraph, stereopticon and velocipede (an early form of a bicycle), and advances in transportation. In 1882, when the telephone was introduced in L.A., H. Newmark and Co., an early subscriber, is issued number 5. He also wanted the city to have a free public drinking fountain, so he built one 7 feet high, and even got the water company to donate the water.

An astute trader and always looking for a more efficient way of doing business, he was also, at times, unable to pass up a bargain. When there was a railroad rate war between Southern Pacific and Santa Fe, he bought several carloads of coal in Chicago and had them shipped for a dollar a ton to give to his, by then, adult children to use in their homes.

At his passing, Newmark was survived by five of the 11 children born to him and Sarah. Today, many of his descendants continue to live in his carefully chronicled Southern California. Barbara Gordon, a psychotherapist and great-great granddaughter of Harris and Sarah Newmark, lives in West L.A. She calls her forebears a “typical German-Jewish family, who had “a sort of heaviness to them,” though they “were very close as a family.” They also had a “very dry sense of humor,” she added.

Warren Scharff, a great-grandson of Harris and Sarah (descending from their son Marco), lives in Ventura County. He says though he only once or twice has been recognized as a descendant, on one occasion it came in handy. While on a date at the Charles Loomis House (Loomis and Newmark were close friends), he was able to impress his date by pointing with pride to a plaque in the house’s yard that had, among others, his great-grandfather’s name.

Linda Levi, an artist living in in West L.A and a great-great-granddaughter, has connected with Harris and Sarah by collecting family albums, photos and documents and then donating them to the Autry Museum. She has augmented one of the photos, an 1894 image of the Newmark family at Yosemite, reaching across the generations, creating her own anachronistic image by inserting herself into the picture.

During our recent visit to Home of Peace, the Newmark family, standing before the mausoleum, carefully swung open the heavy bronze doors, revealing two side-by-side columns of family vaults, including those of Harris and Sarah Newmark, and Sarah’s parents, Joseph and Rosa Newmark. After a few quiet minutes and the recitation in English of the traditional El Male Rachamim (God Full of Mercy), the Newmarks prepared to depart, observing that many other descendants of their family have been buried in the general vicinity. On the ride home, obviously moved by his encounter, Harris Newmark III began taking stock. “Most of those people I’ve read and heard about, and now you see them,” he said. “You’re hit with it all at once,” and it “makes you think about life.”

Three years before he died, ever the city booster, Harris Newmark, to conclude his book, made, for its time, a startling and often-quoted prediction. Citing as evidence for his conclusion the completion of the Panama Canal, and the goods it would bring to L.A. Harbor, he wrote: “I believe that Los Angeles is destined to become, in not many years, a world-center, prominent in almost every field of human endeavor.”

Driving home on the freeway packed with trucks and cars; past another freeway that led to one of the country’s busiest ports; past an exit to USC, one of the nation’s great universities, whose footprint dwarfs the campus of Newmark’s time; and passing a cityscape punctuated by construction cranes, rising skyscrapers and new light-rail lines, with Los Angeles City Hall in the distance, Newmark’s vision could not have seemed more alive today. 

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