Inventing LA: The Chandlers and Their Times

Inventing LA: The Chandlers and Their Times

Wed, 04/06/2011 - 7:00pm
The Los Angeles Times was the city’s biggest booster, instrumental to the largest internal migration in U.S. history. Pictured: The Times newsroom, circa 1932.

Credit: Courtesy The Huntington Library

The epic saga of the most powerful family in Los Angeles history: the Chandlers.

Inventing LA: The Chandlers and Their Times, a documentary by Emmy-winning filmmaker Peter Jones, tells the story of the Los Angeles Times and the city’s most powerful family. For four generations, the Chandlers wielded unique influence through their newspaper. In their pursuit of personal agendas and civic ideals, they built the city of the future, but also exposed the dark side of the American dream. INVENTING LA: THE CHANDLERS AND THEIR TIMES, narrated by Liev Schreiber, with passages read by Academy Award®-nominee Hal Holbrook, encores Wednesday, April 6 at 7 p.m. on PBS World (cable 524/DT21.2).

“I’ve always wanted to make a film about Los Angeles — my home,” Jones says, “because of its unique history in the context of the rest of the United States. What better prism than the region’s most powerful family and the influential institution they controlled during the city’s formative years. In a very real sense, Los Angeles is an invention of the Chandlers and the Times.”

Jones negotiated unprecedented access to the family and the Times’ archives, which span the century during which Harrison Gray Otis, Harry Chandler, Norman Chandler and Otis Chandler stood at the helm of the newspaper and at the center of the city’s economic, social and cultural growth. One remarkable story at a time, this character-driven film traces the ruthless, ingenious and often self-serving methods by which four publishers employed the newspaper to turn a tiny town into a world metropolis. In the process, they made themselves among the wealthiest families in America.

During the paper’s first 50 years, a small cadre of empire-builders led by General Harrison Gray Otis made expansion the major business of Los Angeles. The constant influx of people with their new ideas, new energy and new capital was the hedge against which the promoters made their daring investments. No one was more bold or ambitious than General Otis and his son-in-law Harry Chandler. Among the tales told in INVENTING LA in which General Otis or Harry Chandler or both played crucial roles are the creation of Los Angeles Harbor; bringing water to the city and the Owens River aqueduct scandal (which inspired the film Chinatown); a 20-year battle against unionism that led to the 1910 bombing of the Los Angeles Times headquarters; and the aviation, high-technology, shipping and oil industries.

Harry’s first-born son, Norman, and Norman’s only son, Otis, inherited their destiny. From birth, there was no question that each would become publisher of the newspaper of record in a city that bore no resemblance to “America’s Great White Spot,” as envisioned by Harrison Gray Otis and Harry Chandler, a center of commerce free of crime, communism and, by implication, non-white races. Among the stories to unfold during the Times’ second half-century: the paper’s career-making influence on Richard Nixon; Norman’s wife Dorothy Chandler’s relentless campaign to turn Los Angeles into a world-class cultural center; Norman’s appointment of his son as publisher, causing dissension within the family ranks; the Watts Riots; the exploding Latino population; Watergate’s chilling effect on the cozy Nixon/Chandler relationship; and Otis Chandler’s historic transformation of the Times from an ultra-conservative newspaper into a legitimate Pulitzer Prize-winning rival of The New York Times and The Washington Post. This transformation disturbed right-wing members of the family, who wrested control of the paper from Otis and eventually forced the sale of The Times-Mirror Co.

Notoriously private, members from both sides of the family granted interviews to Peter Jones — a first for any project on the Chandlers. Primary sources also include original interviews with a distinguished and diverse group of journalists and historians, unreleased oral histories with the Chandlers, their colleagues and business partners, as well as never-before-seen home movies, photographs and correspondence.