November 19, 2018

‘Mirage Factory’ Sharpens View of L.A. History

I recently bought (and often wear) a baseball cap with the following phrase embroidered in gold thread on the front: “CALIFORNIA LOCAL 1949.” Since that’s the place and year of my birth, I wear it with pride. And yet, even as a native and a lifelong resident of Los Angeles, I was wholly fascinated by Gary Krist’s lively and penetrating account in “The Mirage Factory: Illusion, Imagination, and the Invention of Los Angeles” (Crown). 

“This corner of Southern California — often bone-dry, lacking a natural harbor, and isolated from the rest of the country by expansive deserts and rugged mountain ranges — offered few of the inducements to settlement and growth found near major cities in other places,” Krist writes. “[T]he ‘gigantic improvisation’ that is modern Los Angeles” was the result of “a process rife with awkwardness, incongruity, and surprising moments of grace.” 

That’s a clue to the idea that runs through “The Mirage Factory” — Los Angeles is a “grand metropolis that never should have been” and “a certain amount of contrivance, or even trickery, would be required to bring resources, population, and industry to a place that lacked them all.” Since the streetscapes of Southern California have been deeply, even subliminally familiar to generation upon generation of movie-goers around the world for more than a century, we might assume at first that Krist is thinking of the movie business when he writes that L.A. is “an audacious projection of human will, imagination and vanity.” But much more than movie magic is on display in “The Mirage Factory.”

“[T]hree icons — an engineer, an artist, and an evangelist — both embodied and, to a unique extent, drove the three major engines of the city’s rise from a provincial player to world-class star,” Krist writes. He is referring to William Mulholland, who brought (or some would say stole) water from the Owens Valley; D.W. Griffith, the director who “almost single-handedly transformed the motion picture from a vaudeville-house novelty in a major creative (and fabulously lucrative) industry,” and Aimee Semple McPherson, a “pioneering radio preacher who, courting both scandal and fanatical devotion, founded her own religion and cemented Southern California’s reputation as a national hub for seekers of unorthodox spirituality and self-realization.”

Krist has specialized in writing best-selling biographies of American cities, including Chicago (“City of Scoundrels”) and New Orleans (“Empire of Sin”), and it seems almost inevitable that his eye has fallen on Los Angeles. He points out that L.A. started as an unpromising outpost of the Spanish empire when 44 settlers — “most of them of mixed African and Native American ancestry — arrived here in 1781. A century later, the population was still under 10,000. Only when Mulholland first delivered water from the Owens Valley in 1913 did Los Angeles begin its improbable transformation into an iconic world city as thousands and then millions of newcomers sought their destiny in Southern California.

Of course, the movie industry and its publicity machine played a leading role in exciting the imaginations of outsiders, but so did “the colorful labels … pasted on the crates of oranges and almonds they saw at their local grocers,” as Krist writes, and the radio broadcasts of McPherson, who was convinced that “Los Angeles was to be her Jerusalem, and she was to be God’s messenger here.”

The California dream has always had its dark side, of course, and Krist points out the racism that infected some of the most celebrated Hollywood movies, the bombings that were intended to stop the building of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, and the scandals that tainted both movie stars and evangelists. Even the phenomenal growth of Southern California in size, scale and sprawl came at a high price. Director William DeMille, brother of the famous Cecil B., was moved to compare Hollywood in its early days to what it soon became: “A more terrifying city full of strange faces, less friendly, more businesslike, twice as populous — and much more cruel.”

“That this megalopolis had grown up in such an unlikely place was, in retrospect, little short of miraculous — a bravura act of self-invention rooted in a culture of titanic engineering and cunning artifice.” — Gary Krist

Krist comes to a similar and highly ironic conclusion: “That this megalopolis had grown up in such an unlikely place was, in retrospect, little short of miraculous — a bravura act of self-invention rooted in a culture of titanic engineering and cunning artifice,” he writes. “Beginning with its conjuring of an oasis in the desert, an achievement itself made possible only through a campaign of deception and elusive intentions, the city had attracted the population it needed by selling another mirage: a lifestyle of leisure, health, easy prosperity, and spiritual fulfilment, all in a place where it never rains or turns cold.”

The three parallel life stories that Krist tells in detail in “The Mirage Factory” — Mulholland, DeMille and McPherson — reach an end-point in 1928, a benchmark year in which the city of Los Angeles boasted a population of 1 million. Still, he looks ahead to “the noir L.A. of the 1930s and 1940s, rife with all of the urban anxieties, municipal corruption, and social conflicts immortalized in the literature of the period.” He prefigures the titanic events of World War II, when Los Angeles finally became “a true world-class city.” 

Krist acknowledges the criticism that has been directed at Los Angeles, starting in the 1920s and continuing without pause thereafter. As recently as the 1980s, he points out, one urban theorist named Edward Soja dismissed Los Angeles as “a gigantic conglomeration of theme parks, a lifespace composed of Disneylands.” Surely Soja saw something very different on the streets of Southern California than the rest of us do. And Krist himself dismisses all of the doomsayers who regard the City of Angels as the ultimate dystopia. “[S]hort of some kind of disaster scenario recalling a Hollywood blockbuster,” he writes, “Los Angeles is not going to disappear anytime soon.” n 

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