INTRODUCTION TO THE HOLLYWOOD HISTORY BOOKS
I was born on the birthday ofZachary Taylor,36 hours after the assassination of 35th President John F. Kennedy. My great-great-great grandmother, Emily Simpson, was the aunt of the 18th President,Ulysses S. Grant (born Hiram Ulysses Grant). The earliest years of my life were spent in the same Lafayette Park neighborhood of Detroit where U.S. Grant lived in a white house when President Taylor was poisoned by cherries on America’s 74th July 4th in 1850. Still, I never gave Grant much thought growing up because my parents named me after Tennessee sportswriterGrantland Rice, to whom I am not related; he was the Grant everyone asked about.
In 1967, my folks moved eight miles north to Grosse Pointe where I graduated from public high school. I followed my Simpson roots east to Maine, fell in love with American Studies at Colby College, and enrolled in the History of American Civilization Program at the University of Pennsylvania. I earned a doctorate from Brandeis University (1994), joined the faculty at The Ohio State University (1995), and publisheda bookon the Fourth Estate (1997) with the University of Chicago Press. Then I became an administrator at Tufts University (1999) and Harvard Law School (2001) before taking a job as vice president for the graduate school at the Claremont Colleges (2006).
The California job did not pan out. Compelled to remain in Los Angeles, I rented a townhouse a block from Muscle Beach where a 5-story portrait of Venice founder Abbot Kinney loomed over my front door like the Doctor T.J. Eckleburg sign in The Great Gatsby. It refused to let me go. I started digging around in archives, where I stumbled upon the Sawtelle Tragedy in microfilm reels of the Los Angeles Herald. PearspoisonedMaria Dionisia Jesus Garcia de Valdez at her family’s annual New Year’s supper in 1910. She died of ptomaine (Latin: “The Fall”), along with her children and grandchildren.
Dionysus (Greek god of celebration) Garcia was the matriarch of the first European family to settle themost valuable 6,656 acresin Los Angeles. When she died, her half-brother, Pascal (Latin: Easter/Passover), was in court challenging two recent immigrants from Canada who were stealing his land to build homes for Civil War veterans. One of the brothers owned the town newspaper, which blamed the victims for their deaths. The other ran the local drug store.
The more facts I gathered about the Garcia family’s last supper, the more the Sawtelle Tragedy began to resemble a real-lifeChinatown (1974). It is the non-fiction crime drama at the center ofSOUTHLAND, my history of Los Angeles before Hollywood. Assembling L.A. facts from various archives, I could no longer ignore Taylor and Grant, because the former was the president who brought California into the United States and the latter relocated to the Golden State after living in Detroit.
Taylor’s death also read like fiction. According to textbooks, cherriespoisonedthe 12th President on July 4, 1850 after he dedicated the Washington Monument to California.Zachariahwas an Old Testament prophet murdered next to a monument. Sticking to facts, it did not take me long to finger the criminal behind the holiday poisoning of Taylor in 1850 because the United States imprisoned the same man for orchestrating the Good Friday murder of Abraham Lincoln in 1865.
Over a decade before, President Taylor vowed to redeem America for theMexican Warhe led but personally opposed by admitting California to the United States without compromising with slave politicians. They were led by Taylor’s estranged ex-son-in-lawJefferson Davis. When President Taylor won the battle to admit California to the Union without slaves, Davis conspired to invade Cuba to make it a slave state instead. When Taylor discovered the plot, he promised to hang Davis for treason, before succumbing to cherries days later.
Within three years, Taylor’s First Lady and son-in-law (White House Chief of Staff William Wallace Bliss) both passed away from sudden illnesses in the same Mississippi town where Davis gathered filibusters to invade Cuba. The second Mrs. Jefferson Davis admits in her memoirs she was in Pascagoula on Independence Day in 1853 and witnessed Taylor’s son-in-law“Perfect” Blissfall fatally ill. War Department records say he died a month later in August. Yet U.S. Grant says in his memoirs Bliss died July 5th!
It was too much coincidence; also déjà vu with the Sawtelle Tragedy. Lo and behold, I discovered the ex-confederate president founded a Davis Land Company days before he died in 1889 to support his wife and daughters. The last Davis sons, William and Junior, supposedly died decades before the Sawtelle Tragedy in 1910. Yet Billy and Junior both died of illnesses on the same day of the year: October 16th, which was the former’s birthday and the anniversary of theHarper’s Ferry Raid. Their mother died the same day.
I caught on to the Davis game with holiday dates, cherries and pears, andHOUSE OF DAVIS became the East Coast precursor to my West Coast history. For the first time in my academic life, I began to suspect the American history I learned in schools had been tampered with. How else could a century-long coast-to-coast crime spree so central to the story of America bealmostmissing from the record?
Politics, as it turns out. The post-Civil War United States had a vice president who forced the resignation of the nation’s attorney general, disbanded the U.S. Conspiracy Court convened to prosecute President Lincoln’s murderers, and deported Davis to Canada. Worse, after escaping an impeachment conviction in the Senate by a single (likely spurious) vote, Andrew Johnson was not removed from office. So he got to pardon almost all the Davis insiders including the Kentucky spies who had prepared John Wilkes Booth.
Louisville newspaperman Walter Haldeman, the confederate president’s PR man, led those spies from inside his Pewee Valley compound outside Kentucky’s largest city. Haldeman was forced underground when Grant retook the White House in the Election of 1868 and carried out eight years ofReconstruction. Haldeman returned when Grant left office after the contestedElection of 1876. One rumor says Haldeman was the turncoat Democrat whotraded his party’s claim to the White Housefor an end to Reconstruction.
Haldeman launched a media blitz designed to turn the truth about Davis upside down. Thanks to his editor,Henry “Marse” Watterson,the, the Lost Causecampaign Haldeman used to hide the Davis conspiracy was so successful by 1893 he was able to dig the Davis corpse out of its crypt in New Orleans and ship it to Hollywood Cemeteryoutside Richmond, Virginia. Haldeman heavily promoted the first Hollywood spectacle, which gave Davis insiders–mostly lawyers–the cover they needed to erect confederate statues on courthouse lawns across the South. The Southern Poverty Law Center says they got away with murder: half of America’sgrey monumentswere put up in the twenty years that followed.
Meanwhile, Haldeman assembled the largest U.S. history archive west of the nation’s capital by founding the Louisville Public Library and Filson Club. That philanthropy gave Haldeman control over the truth about the conspiracy he created with Davis and later covered up. Ironically, it was inside the Filson Club I noticed decades of facts were missing for Haldeman’s oldest son. William never admitted to playing the part of Los Angeles Times wizard“Harrison Gray Otis” in real life.No matter: Haldeman worked with a troupe to create Tinseltown and all their photographs reveal the same truth.
SUNSET CLUB exposes that original Hollywood cast. Incredibly, it was led by the Wizard (William Haldeman a.k.a. L.A. Times owner “Harrison Gray Otis”), Scarecrow (Davis spy team leaderThomas Hines a.k.a. L.A. Chamber secretary “Frank Wiggins”), Tin Man(City Point terrorist John Maxwell a.k.a. Times Mirror silent partner “A. Wiggins Francisco”), and Lion (ex-confederate army inspectorJacob Thompsona.k.a. L.A. Chamber founding president “Edward Jones”) fromThe Wizard of Oz (1939).
Do not believe me, believe Dorothy, who lies in bed below that sinister cabal in the black and white end to Hollywood’s most famous color film. Marvel leads them. Remember Marvel? No one ever does. He’s the Midwest magician who chats up Dorothy inside a poppy-lined circus wagon in the black and white beginning of the film. For her final act, Dorothy fingers Marvel as the Wizard and identifies Hickory (“Scarecrow”), Hunk (“Tin Man”), and Zeke (“Lion”) as her “friends” from O.Z. (a city known by initials like L.A.). “It wasn’t a dream—it was a real place,” Dorothy insists. “You—and you—and you—and you were there . . . and I remember some of it wasn’t very nice!”
Aunt Em refuses to believe in any conspiracy or confederacy (they mean the same): “We dream lots of silly things.” Uncle Henry puts Dorothy in her place with sarcasm: “Of course we believe you.” Dorothy ends her story chanting “There’s no place like home” because everything has been taken from her and irony is all she has left.
Hollywood fiction! Sure, that is what I once believed too. Then I learnedFlorence Ryerson,the Paramount scriptwriter behind MGM’s The Wizard of Oz (1939), was the daughter of the front man for the Sunset Club founded by Haldeman. What were the chances? I obtained a photograph of Ryerson’s father “Charles Dwight Willard” and I found myself staring through the spectacles of The Wizard of Oz (1900) authorFrank Baum himself!
“The real scenes of early California exceed in strangeness any of the mere products of the brain of the novelist.” U.S. Army Lieutenant Hiram Grant spoke the truth because he left Detroit at the height of the Gold Rush to take the place of Taylor’s son-in-law “Perfect” Bliss on the West Coast. The California job did not pan out; Grant was forced to resign. It became a black mark later exaggerated by Jim Crow historians.
Meanwhile, Grant came back to the U.S. Army when Davis began the Civil War on Good Friday in 1861. America’s top general by 1863, Grant accepted the Palm Sunday surrender of the confederacy’s top general . . . before Davis had President Lincoln murdered on Good Friday in 1865. Following the impeachment of Johnson, Grant was elected the 18th President, delivered Reconstruction to the South, and eradicated the Ku Klux Klan . . . until the first Hollywood blockbuster,The Birth of a Nation (1915),brought it back.
Around history goes, without lasting justice, which is how James Baldwin knew “American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful, and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it.” Speaking about that conspiracy, who would guess the“Founder of Hollywood”was born less than a mile from Haldeman’s Kentucky address? There’s no place like home when it comes to Hollywood.
END OF THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939)
(Top)–U.S. GRANT HOUSE IN DETROIT, MICHIGAN (1963|2016)