‘Battle for Beverly Hills’ Details Birth of Celebrity Politics

August 3, 2018

The title of “The Battle for Beverly Hills: A City’s Independence and the Birth of Celebrity Politics” by Nancie Clare (St. Martin’s Press) is not merely metaphorical. On Feb. 26, 1923, at a tense moment when Los Angeles was campaigning to annex the city of Beverly Hills, the pro-annexationist editor of the Beverly Hills News opened a package that contained a bomb.

“Why on earth would the suggestion of joining the City of Los Angeles spark such violent outrage?” muses Clare, a veteran L.A.-based journalist and now a historian with a winning style of storytelling. “Beverly Hills was remote and geographically tiny with a population of less than a thousand; it had only been incorporated as a city for nine years.”

The answer goes to the very heart of what Beverly Hills symbolizes, then and now. Even in the silent-film era, it was home to the royalty of the motion picture industry. During Prohibition, Clare points out, the fact that Beverly Hills boasted its own small police force contributed to “the privacy to drink cocktails and throw the occasional orgy.” That’s one of the reasons why the opponents of annexation were led by Mary Pickford and the “Beverly Hills Eight” — including Douglas Fairbanks, Tom Mix, Will Rogers and Rudolph Valentino — who were among “the first generation of movie stars” and established a precedent in American politics that endures to this day: “What they did,” Clare writes, “was so successful that it became a model for generations of celebrities to intervene in political causes that caught their fancy.”

Clare reaches back into history to show us the origins of the privileged enclave that became Beverly Hills. The municipal boundaries, she points out, “are almost exactly those of Rancho Rodeo de las Aguas, or the Ranch of the Gathering of the Waters,” awarded to the Valdez family for its support during Mexico’s war of independence from Spain. The Valdez family, we learn, lived in a pair of adobe houses at the intersection of what are now Alpine Drive and Sunset Boulevard. The matriarch of the family, Maria Rita Valdez Villa, was “ambushed” by a band of Native Americans “in a scenario that would become a staple in Westerns
filmed in nearby neighborhoods some fifty years later.” 

Later, she sold the land to Benjamin Davis Wilson (after whom Mount Wilson is named) and Major Henry Hancock, the namesake of Hancock Park. By 1906, when land developers took title to the ranchlands, “Beverly Hills was born,” and the new town was incorporated in 1914 as “a sixth-class city under California law.” Clare dismisses as “urban legend” the various stories about how Beverly Hills came to be named. How, why and by whom the name “Beverly Hills” was chosen, she shrugs, “will probably remain a mystery.” 

Some aspects of its history are deeply ironic in light of what Beverly Hills is today. The first houses to be developed were subject to legal restrictions “that prevented non-Caucasians and Jews from owning, leasing, inheriting or renting in the city.” Real estate agents were also warned not to sell to “picture folk.” Yet, it was the founding generation of the motion picture industry, many of them Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, that followed the example of Douglas Fairbanks, the first movie star to “set up housekeeping in the young city of Beverly Hills.” As an example of the fascinating details that ornament Clare’s book, we learn that “Fairbanks’ father was Jewish, a fact that haunted him, and to be fair, the rampant anti-Semitism of the time reinforced his desire to keep his religious background just that, in the background.” 

Like much else in the history of Southern California, the battle over annexation — “Beverly Hills’ close brush with oblivion,” as Clare puts it — was fought over water. A more abundant water supply essential for its survival, “and the emerging glitterati of the motion picture industry … weren’t helping, what with their grand homes that included not just lush gardens and fully grown trees, but waterfalls as well.” The Rodeo Land and Water Company, which had promised to supply water when Beverly Hills started out as an exercise in real estate speculation, now wanted to solve the problem by turning it over to Los Angeles. “If a community wanted to be part of the [City of Los Angeles] water system, the solution was simple,” argued William Mulholland, the man who brought water to Los Angeles. “Become part of the city, pay city taxes and enjoy city services.”

Clare draws an unbroken line from Mary Pickford to Ronald Reagan, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Donald Trump — all media celebrities who played on their fame to win public office.

Mary Pickford figures crucially in the story that Clare tells. “[A] poor girl married to a half-Jew who had worked her way to the pinnacle of Beverly Hills, a new city unencumbered by a Social Register,” the actress “couldn’t possibly have had much to fear from the Rodeo Land and Water Company.” And she recruited her fellow stars to the cause — “the magnetism of her husband Douglas Fairbanks, the sex-appeal sizzle of Rudolph Valentino, the wit of Will Rogers, and the comic relief of Harold Lloyd.”

Clare draws an unbroken line from Mary Pickford to Ronald Reagan, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Donald Trump — all media celebrities who played on their fame to win public office.

She also fills in a blank in the storied history of Beverly Hills.

Like many millions of Angelenos, I have passed the monument that stands on the traffic island at the intersection of Beverly Drive and Olympic Boulevard without realizing it was erected to commemorate the crucial moment when “eight stars battled to keep their city free.” Now that I have had the pleasure of reading “The Battle for Beverly Hills,” I will never look at it again in quite the same way.

Jonathan Kirsch, attorney and author, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.

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