JULY 15, 2011
Illustration: General Harrison Gray Otis
This is part one of Mike Davis’s biography of Harrison Gray Otis, the first of nine episodes, which will be serially published in the Los Angeles Review of Books. Future installments will include Otis’s interlude as “emperor of the Pribilofs,” his military atrocities in the Philippines, his bitter legal battles with the Theosophists, the Otis-Chandler empire in the Mexicali Valley, the Times bombing in 1910, the notorious discovery of fellatio in Long Beach, and Otis’s quixotic plan for world government.
EPISODE ONE: BROOM OF DESTRUCTION
General Harrison Gray Otis is the wrathful gargoyle with a walrus moustache and Custer goatee who glowers down on us from the battlements of Los Angeles’s Open Shop era. The proprietor of Times-Mirror Company from 1882 to 1917, he was recently hailed in a PBS documentary as the “inventor” of modern Los Angeles, both as an individual and via his descendants, the Chandler family.
Yet his eminence in the city’s history is cast almost entirely as shadow. Five or six serious books have been written about the Los Angeles Times and the Chandlers, but there is no published biography of the dynasty’s founder and leviathan. This is a major missing thread in the narrative tapestry of the current renaissance of Los Angeles history, but given the archival and literary obstacles in any potential biographer’s path, it is not surprising.
First, no one has yet excavated the pharaoh’s tomb. Rumors abound, especially in the tearoom of the Huntington Library, about family archives kept in a San Marino vault. But it is also possible that son-in-law and successor, Harry Chandler, destroyed many of Otis’s private papers when he ordered his own files burned after his heart attack in 1944. (Chandler might have been reacting to the literary and cinematic assaults on fellow-publisher and chief competitor, William Randolph Hearst.)
Second, any biographer has to tackle the fact that Otis was probably the most hated man in Ragtime America. His enemies ecumenically spanned a spectrum from evangelists to citrus growers, socialists to robber barons. Although chiefly remembered for his relentless crusade to destroy the labor movement in Los Angeles, Otis waxed most savage in his attacks on reformers within his own Republican Party. Progressive Republicans, in turn, repaid his vitriol with eloquent interest.
Thus Teddy Roosevelt acidly observed that he was “a consistent enemy of every movement of social and economic betterment,” and that “the attitude of General Otis in his paper affords a curious instance of the anarchy of soul which comes to a man who, in conscienceless fashion, deifies property at the expense of human rights.”
Hiram Johnson, the target of almost daily Times slanders, famously told a cheering audience of Los Angeles Progressives during the 1910 election:
In the city of San Francisco we have drunk to the very dregs of infamy; we have had vile officials; we have had rotten newspapers. But we have nothing so vile, nothing so low, nothing so debased, nothing so infamous, in San Francisco as Harrison Gray Otis… . He sits there in senile dementia, with gangrened heart and rotting brain, grimacing at every reform, chattering impotently at all things that are decent; frothing, fuming, violently gibbering, going down to his grave in snarling infamy.
But a gangrened heart and snarling infamy, as poets and novelists know, make for an interesting narrative only if they arise from some dramatic contradiction in character: a tragic fall from grace, a monstrous inner drive, or a Faustian handshake with the devil. Hearst, for example, was immortalized in Aldous Huxley’s roman à clef After Many a Summer Dies the Swan, and again in Welles and Mankiewicz’s Citizen Kane, because of the inevitable fascination with his metamorphosis, from a crusading young publisher and friend of labor into the reactionary old ogre alone in his Xanadu. Citizen Kane, said Jorge Luis Borges, opens a labyrinth.
Otis, in contrast, has always been stereotyped as self-constituted greed without any redeeming complexity or lost youth. No Rosebud to riddle. No labyrinth of character to explore. He occupies the stage like villainous prop, a character devoid of development or conflicted motivation. A robber baron from IKEA, with little assembly required.
But this stereotype of General Otis is no longer sustainable. Even if his tomb remains sealed, we now have vivid glimpses of a young man very different from the old, one who embraced causes that the Times would later vehemently oppose. Indeed, all who seek the secrets of Chinatown will now have to start with his wife Eliza Whetherby Otis’s Civil War Journal (edited by the able Ann Condon) and Otis’s military record (mined from the archives and interpreted by Darl Stephenson).
More is at stake than parochial Los Angeles history. Otis’s revised biography provides important clues to the larger mystery of how the Radical Republicans, once courageous advocates of human equality and free labor, ultimately became geriatric strikebreakers and jailers of dissent. Long before he became the embittered commander-in-chief of L.A.’s elites, Harry Otis was Eliza’s sweetheart and an Abolitionist knight on horseback.
A GHOST TOWN
Like the City of the Angels, Blue Sulphur Springs in Greenbriar County, West Virginia has yet to exorcise Otis’s demon.
A well-known health spa in the 1830s and 1840s, its waters were advertised to cure “Yellow jaundice, White swelling, Blue Devils, Black plague, Gout, Colic, and Hydrophobia.” Early visitors included Andrew Jackson and the young Robert E. Lee.
But Blue Sulphur — like its many sisters, Green Sulphur, Salt Sulphur, Red Sulphur, and so on — was rapidly eclipsed by the rise of White Sulphur Springs as the premier health resort and bride market for Virginia planter elites. In 1859 Blue Sulphur’s bankrupt owners sold the property to the Baptists who converted it into Allegheny College, a divinity school with a church and residential cabins.
The residents fled in 1861 when western Virginia became a civil war within a civil war, and Union troops burnt and scourged the region. The Baptists, for whatever reason, never rebuilt their college. For 150 years Blue Sulphur Springs has remained one of the classic ghost towns of the War of Secession.
The grand hotel for two hundred guests (designed by an architect whose brain, according to a knowledgeable visitor, was “obfuscated by mint juleps”) is long vanished, but the Greek Revival pavilion that protects the springs has survived intact, and according to the National Register of Historical Places, looks more or less exactly as it did in its 1840s heyday. In the face of the suburban sprawl that has devoured so much of the Civil War’s landscape in the border South, it is a small miracle (or, perhaps, a symptom of West Virginia’s poverty) that such haunted ruins, with the spectral patina of a Mathew Brady albumen print, still endure and have not been replaced by shabby shopping malls or rusting auto junk yards.
The original auteur of Blue Sulphur Springs’s desolation, most deserving of credit for its romantic and melancholy ambience, was none other than the young Harry Otis. Tracking Confederate irregulars, the 26-year-old second lieutenant marched into the place in November 1863 with a newly formed squadron of elite Union scouts. His men were volunteers from three veteran regiments, nominated by their comrades for proven valor and wilderness skill. They were the first unit in American military history organized for the sole purpose of counter-partisan warfare. Otis, a brave soldier who had won his commission in battle, was considered by his commander, Colonel White, to be smart, nervy, albeit somewhat tyrannical, and therefore a good choice to lead men into the hostile mountains.
Unlike many of the guerrillas whom they were hunting (and who hunted them), the scouts wore uniforms, even if Otis, experienced enough to know that bushwhackers always aim first at officers, had wisely removed his epaulets. Blue Sulphur Springs was occupied without resistance, but his men found some graffiti and discarded clothing in the two-story Baptist church. Otis interpreted this as evidence of a recent Rebel billet. He ordered the building torched.
Southerners punctually howled about the outrage against the Baptists, but Lieutenant Otis — lately a devout Unitarian — was unrepentant. There were no pews, he said, in the so-called “church.” In any event, his action was justified retaliation for Rebel persecution of the poor mountain evangelicals who had rallied in large numbers to the Union. Otis was acting well within standing orders.
The federal Army of West Virginia, much needed in the coming spring offensive in the Shenandoah Valley, was being nibbled to death by ambushes and hit-and-run attacks by an estimated 3,000 rebel guerrillas, regularly aided by Confederate cavalry led by the formidable John S. Mosby.
Otis’s Independent Scouts, authorized to carry out reprisals and summary executions, were part of the inevitable Union response to fierce unconventional enemies such as “Devil Bill” Parsons, “Devil Anse” Hatfield (who killed a pro-Union McCoy and started the most famous feud in American history), the formidable Thurmond brothers, and the legendary Nancy Hart, a young mountain beauty who seduced and murdered Union soldiers and ultimately led her own 200-strong band of nightriders.
Both sides openly acknowledged the cruelty of the conflict, and the many encounters with Southern atrocities had hardened Otis’s men. In an incident in the spring of 1862, for example, bushwhackers “murdered a Federal courier, severed his head, and wedged it into what was left of his gutted torso” (O’Brien, Mountain Partisans). In other cases, Union corpses were found bound to trees, naked and tortured.
If Confederate dispatches denounced the Scouts as “the terrors of the Lick Creek region,” Otis preferred a biblical boast: they were the North’s “broom of destruction,” a necessary implement of what Ulysses S. Grant so accurately called “hard war.”
Although Otis left the Scouts later in 1864 to serve in a veteran regiment of the line — the famous 23rd Ohio, whose ranks included future Republican presidents Rutherford B Hayes and William McKinley — the ruthless West Virginia campaign left an indelible mark on his life. At least that’s the considered opinion of Darl Stephenson, whose history of the Independent Scouts, published in 2001, has been much cited by Army War College types intrigued by parallels between the military dilemmas of West Virginia in 1863 and those of Afghanistan today.
“Harrison’s attitude to his adversaries,” Stephenson writes, “was to take no prisoners”:
Many probably do not realize that some of the forces that drove Harrison Gray Otis may have been formed in the Independent Scouts, fighting guerrillas in West Virginia. Here, truly no quarter was given and none expected among combatants. The Union man could expect a sudden bullet from the darkness of thicket, and the bushwhacker, if caught, could expect an immediate firing squad or, more likely death by hanging.
Stephenson’s hypothesis is probably both insightful and too simplistic at the same time, which is why it must be carefully weighed against Eliza Otis’s diary.
THE RADICALS OF 1860
The woman’s civil war has long been viewed through the diaries of plantation mistresses like Mary Chesnut, Kate Stone, and Sarah Morgan, who kvetch endlessly about Yankees killing chickens, the growing arrogance of slaves, and the scarcity of French silk. Eliza’s Journal invites the reader into a different and more admirable moral universe.
Otis, despite an illustrious genealogy, was a poor farmer’s son, four years younger than Eliza, with ink-stained hands and only a smattering of formal schooling. Moreover, he was exceptionally restless, with itchy feet that from age 14 had kept him moving down the line from one small newspaper to another.
Eliza, in contrast, was the daughter of a Congregational minister and sometime woolen manufacturer who’d moved from New Hampshire to found the Wetherby Academy in Lowell, Ohio where Otis studied for a few months. She was a published poet with an excellent New England secondary education, one that undoubtedly stood out in a state that had only recently emerged from the log cabin era. Eliza married Harry in 1859 when she was twenty-six. In her introduction to the Journal, Ann Condon hints that it was an act of considerable insubordination toward her father and stepmother.
Her carte-de-visite, probably taken around the time of her marriage (see page 45 in Stephenson’s book), confirms a fine-featured beauty, both sensuous and melancholy. She was a haunting young woman, roiled equally by tragic and ecstatic tides, and acutely aware, as her journal reveals, that behind her back she was often dismissed as “a strange girl.”
Proletarian Harry had little to offer his bride: only a frugal honeymoon in a cheap Louisville boardinghouse while he struggled to launch a newspaper career in yet another town. But, as Condon emphasizes, the mismatch of their prospects was more than compensated by the incandescent communion of their beliefs. They were yearning, fierce and militant, especially in their hatred of slavery, but also in defense of the rights of women, oppressed nations, and the poor. In important ways, strange as it may seem now, they might be described as the 1860 counterparts to the New Left of 1960.
Eliza, says Condon, was a fully “enthralled” Transcendentalist whose journal entries frequently paraphrased Emerson and Thoreau. She shared their rapturous relationship to seasons, rocks and clouds, as well as their uncompromising opposition to the South. Harry, on his side, had grown up in Marietta, a crucial hub of the Underground Railroad, across the Ohio River from slave-owning Virginia. Years later he’d boast that his family home was a regular way-station for the escaped slaves that Harriet Tubman and other “conductors” led north to Canada.
As a teenage printer, moreover, he was apprenticed to the craft culture that had invented the modern trade union and he soon became what he would later most despise: a labor agitator. When a publisher in Rock Island, Illinois refused to recognize the union chapel he had organized, Otis walked out with fanfare and principle. (His relationship with the International Typographical Union was renewed after the Civil War when he became an active member of the District of Columbia local; he officially stayed on the union’s rolls until he locked out his own printers at the Los Angeles Times in 1890.)
In Louisville, where Eliza’s journal begins in January 1860, the young couple took careful measurements of a dying social order. Spending “much of her time touring Louisville with women lodgers from the boarding house,” Eliza wrote in her journal about poignant encounters with the victims of slavery, misfortune, and madness. She thrilled at the prospect that the coming election might produce a biblical showdown between “the mighty hosts of evil, and the opposing battalions of Freedom and of right,” but fretted whether she could ever translate her own commitments into meaningful action. “Our inner life makes the world no better, be it ever so high and holy, unless we embody it in deeds.”
She and Harry energetically window-shopped for God, attending a Baptist revival, a Catholic cathedral, a Black church, and a synagogue, before settling in with the local Unitarians. More importantly they baptized themselves in the Lincoln movement. Otis, already a Fremont enthusiast in 1856, quickly became a dynamo in the local Republican Party (whose statewide leader was the original Cassius Clay), and was then elected a Lincoln delegate to the historic May convention in Chicago. But pro-slavery mobs, still enraged by John Brown’s raid, were already driving Republicans out of their homes across Kentucky, and Eliza was sent across the Ohio for her safety. Harry followed later and quickly enlisted as a private in an Ohio regiment.
A few weeks after the birth of a son, Harrison Jr., Otis marched off with thousands of other Ohio and Indiana volunteers to defend the loyal Unionists in western Virginia who had rebelled against the Rebel government in Richmond. These farm boys and clerks from the flat glacial outwash plains of the Western Reserve were astounded by the wild landscape and primitive society of Appalachia. Ambrose Bierce, a private in one of the Indiana regiments, described West Virginia as “an enchanted land … how we reveled in its savage beauties.”
At Scary Creek in mid-July, Otis’s regiment, the 12th Ohio, together with its faithful brother in combat, the 23rd Ohio, skirmished with a Rebel line commanded by Captain George Smith Patton. For the next three years, the Ohioans would repeatedly collide with the tough Virginia troops led by the grandfather of the World War Two general (a Pasadena native). In August, to block any Rebel advance into the strategic Kanawah Valley, the Ohio regiments entrenched themselves in breathtaking mountain scenery at Gauley Bridge. Their work parties, teamsters, and couriers, however, were so terrorized by Confederate guerrillas that orders were given to “burn, plunder and destroy all property belonging to the bushwhackers and those who aid and assist them.” (A year later, the colonel commanding the 23rd — future president Rutherford B. Hayes — authorized the immediate execution of any suspected bushwhacker “whether found in arms or not.”)
Eliza, meanwhile, was back in Lowell, exulting in motherhood but worrying about her infant’s health. Premature death, that Victorian spectre, had already sickled down her mother, two brothers, and two sisters. In Louisville the adorable daughter of their landlady became frail and quickly passed away, as later did a young cousin. If soldiers in the mountains feared the spring thaw, when roads were cleared and great offensives launched, mothers knew that death was usually a winter visitor. Baby Harry died of pneumonia in early 1862.
Eliza hibernated in grief for the rest of the winter, anguishing in her journal about a remote, unfatherly God and a beloved, but absent husband. In the spring she was able to begin visiting Harry at his encampment outside of Charleston and quickly became a muse to the regiment, befriending enlisted men and officers alike. She listened carefully to their grim accounts of poisoned wells, cowardly ambushes, and invisible snipers. This stirred the Cotton Mather in her bereaved New England soul, and she called in her diary for the “utter and entire extermination” of the “traitors” in the mountains.
Returning to Ohio, she began to write regularly to some of the soldiers. Harry was dashing and decorated, but as evinced by the letters and diary entries that Condon has appended to Eliza’sJournal, he wrote in a hurried, telegraphic style, his affection expressed in homilies rarely spiced with candor or wit. Other officers, however, were delighted to engage in clever, sentimental correspondence with this formidably eloquent and deep-thinking woman. On her part, Eliza undoubtedly felt that she had finally found a way to turn her feelings into patriotic deeds by nursing the hearts of Harry’s brave comrades.
But these friendships, presumably noble, ignited a scandal and Eliza’s stepmother branded her with the scarlet letter. Condon speculates that the cause might have been as innocent as her ardent correspondence or her habit of traveling unescorted in easy rapport with ordinary soldiers. And her parents probably resented that “in this period of desperation [after her baby’s death] she turns to Harry’s comrades for comfort rather than her own family.”
But as Condon admits, all that we really know is that Eliza’s parents excommunicated her for an alleged disgrace that was located somewhere on the spectrum between innocent informality and adultery. In any event, posthumous sympathy belongs entirely to Eliza as Penelope, a bereaved young mother with a husband lost somewhere in the mountains of war.
Harry’s reaction was extraordinary, especially in light of his own difficulties. In late summer 1862, Lee had crossed the Potomac, sowing panic throughout the North, and the Division of the Kanawha had been rushed to the defense of Washington. A few days later, the veterans of West Virginia became the spearhead of a risky frontal attack on Lee’s defenses atop South Mountain, a rugged ridge east of Sharpsburg, Maryland. It was the prelude to the carnage at Antietam a few days later.
Six Ohio regiments, bayonets fixed, charged the entrenched positions held by five North Carolina regiments. Colonel Hayes of the 23rd – an affable lawyer in private life, but a berserker on the battlefield – screamed himself hoarse: “Keep coming. Give the sons of bitches hell!” The Confederate line was finally broken after several hours of some of the most savage hand-to-hand combat in the Civil War. Sergeant Otis was in the thick of the gore.
Yet the next evening, when Harry sat down to write in his diary, he had an entirely different preoccupation:
How full of suspense are these days to Lizzie, my Best and Dearest Love. And yet they, who would ruin her pure name, say she is not True! Palsied be the tongues of slander.
Two days later in the hell of Antietam’s sunken roads and thickets, Harry was slightly wounded in the shoulder. As he rested in a meadow with other minor casualties, Lee’s soldiers furiously banged away without any luck. In October the Kanawha Division was reviewed by President Lincoln and then sent back to West Virginia to resume the struggle against raiders and irregulars.
A MAY DAY IN WAR
Otis finally received a furlough. He surprised Eliza, sitting forlorn in her bedroom, just a few days after the anniversary of their baby’s death. She was probably apprehensive about his reaction to the charge of infidelity, but he brought only tenderness.
We talked over that evening all the trial that I had passed through since our last meeting, and Harry said that I shouldn’t go back again to Lowell where everything is so unpleasant.
This evening he folded me to his heart and said kissing me, “Lizzie you are my love,” and with that assurance I am content and forget all sorrow.
Her diary entry continues the next day.
How delightful to be with Harry again. I live in the sunshine.
Harry conspired to extend their sunshine by arranging for her to stay for a month at picturesque Camp Gauley, the fortified encampment of 12th and 23rd Ohio. As the war dragged on into 1863, officers’ wives were being allowed more extended visits to their husband’s bivouacs. Indeed, following the death of one of his children, Colonel Hayes of the 23rd had moved in his entire brood, mother-in-law included.
After enthusing to her diary about travelling through the sublime Kanawa Valley, with the mountains ahead “vast, frowning and majestic,” Eliza arrived at Camp Gauley with several other officers’ wives. The Union Army was fortifying the Allegheny passes in anticipation of a major Confederate offensive, and the camp was a bustling hive. It was the size of a considerable town and its amenities include a library and daguerreian studio (the whorehouses, however, were back in Charleston).
Harry and Eliza had a cozy little cabin where they slept on a bed of hay covered with a heavy army blanket. She decorated the fireplace with laurel boughs and wildflowers. Like the famous scene in John Ford’s Rio Grande (1950) where John Wayne’s troopers serenade Maureen O’Hara, Otis’s men played the guitar and crooned outside their door. When Harry had a Saturday without duties, they stayed in the cabin — presumably in their hay bed — all day. (From the beginning, her journal hints at robust marital sex.) She adored being in the wild Allegheny landscape, away from grief and accusation. “Our life here together,” she wrote “is a sort of a Mayday.”
There were, of course, more serious moments. They read newspapers and acclaimed the uprising in Poland, which Eliza saw as a part of the “worldwide revolutionary movement” inspired by Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation. She is appalled when the arrogant, finely dressed wife of a Confederate officer is allowed to pass freely through the line. And she and her friend, Mrs. Sherwood, another officer’s wife, devoted much time to the regiment’s reading room, helping young soldiers write letters home and discussing with them the meaning of the war.
But the presence of beautiful women inevitably infected Camp Gauley with gaiety. Without a trace of self-consciousness, Eliza celebrated the constant male attention, including polite but vivid moments of flirtation and infatuation. It was a game, moreover, that everyone appeared to enjoy playing.
One day, for instance, Harry went riding alone with Mrs. Sherwood, whom Eliza enjoyed for her “light curling hair hangs in ringlets, laughing eyes, and lips dimpling with mirth.” Accompanied by the dashing Dr. Graham, the regimental surgeon, Eliza, Harry, and Mrs. Sherwood larked in the clouds, picking wild strawberries. On another occasion, when they were lost in the woods, Mrs. Sherwood, laughing, leapt on Harry’s back when he volunteered to be her mule.
Eventually both Eliza and Mrs. Sherwood developed a crush on Dr. Graham and organized a vicarious conspiracy.
Mrs. Sherwood and myself felt amazingly as if we would love to get our arms around the good Doctor’s neck, and cover those tempting looking bachelor lips of his with genuine, heartfelt kisses. … Mrs. S. and I contented ourselves by kissing our husbands of course, fancying all the while that we were kissing the Doctor, which made the thing unusually delightful.
Images not of war, but of Brook Farm at play.
Alas, General Sherman, the new commander in the theater, was more interested in waging implacable warfare than watching his officers dance around the maypole. He called an abrupt halt to the idyll at Camp Gauley, ordering the wives immediately out of the battle zone. Another Confederate invasion was believed imminent. A few months later Harry and his new scouts turned Blue Sulphur Springs into their enigmatic epitaph.
(to be continued)