INTRODUCTION TO HOLLYWOOD HISTORY BOOKS
I was born on the birthday of Zachary Taylor 36 hours after the assassination of JFK in 1963. My great-great-great grandmother, Emily Simpson, was the aunt of Hiram Ulysses Grant. The earliest years of my life were spent in the Lafayette Park neighborhood of Detroit where Ulysses Grant lived when President Taylor was poisoned by cherries on America’s 74th birthday. Still, I never gave U.S. Grant much thought growing up because my parents named me after Tennessee sportswriterGrantland Rice,to whom I am not related; he’s the Grant I was always 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 back 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, receiving a doctorate in American Literature from Brandeis University (1994). I joined the faculty at The Ohio State University (1995), published a book on truth telling and the free press (1997), and became a full-time administrator at Tufts University (1999) and Harvard Law School (2001) where Dean Elena Kagan promoted me (2004). Then I became a vice president at the graduate school for the Claremont Colleges (2006).
My California job did not pan out. Compelled to remain in Los Angeles to enforce my employment contract, 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 local archives to learn more about Kinney and that is where I stumbled upon the Sawtelle Tragedy on old microfilm reels of the Los Angeles Herald. Truth read like fiction. Indeed, pearspoisoned Maria Dionisia Jesus Garcia de Valdez at her family’s annual New Year’s supper in 1910 and she died of ptomaine (Latin: “The Fall”) with twelve others, including her children, grandchildren, and friends.
Mother Mary Jesus Christ! She was right out of the New Testament. Dionysus (Greek god of celebration) Garcia (most common Hispanic name) also happened to be the matriarch of the first European family to settle the most valuable 6,656 acres in Los Angeles. The half-brother of Mrs. Valdez, Pascal (Latin: Easter/Passover) Marquez (Spanish: Nobleman), was in court at the time fighting two “Gillis” brothers from Canada who wanted the Marquez family land to build homes for aging Civil War veterans. Junior owned the local newspaper, which blamed the victims themselves for their deaths. Billy ran a nearby drug store that literally had his name on it.
The more facts I gathered about the Garcia family’s last supper, the more the Sawtelle Tragedy became Chinatown (1974), only in real life. It is the non-fiction crime drama at the center ofSOUTHLAND, my history of Los Angeles before Hollywood. Assembling L.A. facts from the archives, I could no longer ignore Zachary Taylor and U.S. Grant, because the former was the American president who brought California into the United States and the latter served under General Taylor before moving to Detroit. Weirdly, just like Garcia, Taylor’s tale read like incredible fiction in the end. Indeed, cherries poisoned 12th President Taylor only hours after he dedicated the Washington Monument to California on July 4, 1850. As fate would have itZachariahwas the name of an Old Testament prophet murdered by a monument in Jerusalem.
The biblical parallels pulled me up short. What were the chances? Sticking strictly to verifiable facts, I was able to finger the villain behind the Independence Day poisoning of Zachary Taylor in 1850 because the U.S. government imprisoned the same man for orchestrating the Good Friday assassination of Abraham Lincoln in 1865. Abraham was the name of another Old Testament prophet, the founding father of a multitude of nations andcovenant between the parts.Imagine my disbelief to learn “The End” was the Latin middle name of their murderer.
Over a decade before Abraham’s rule, Zachariah vowed to redeem America for the Mexican War (1846-7) he led but personally opposed by preventing the crime of slavery from reaching the West Coast. President Taylor’s estranged ex-son-in-lawJefferson Davis, meanwhile, fought to make Southern California a slave state. When Taylor won the battle, Davis conspired to invade and annex Cuba as a slave state instead. When Taylor found out about the conspiracy, he promised to hang Davis for treason before dying of a sudden illness himself.
Soon afterwards, Taylor’s First Lady (sudden illness in 1852) and White House Chief of Staff (sudden illness in 1853) died unexpectedly too. They passed away in the same Mississippi town where Davis gathered filibusters to invade Cuba. In her memoirs, the 2nd Mrs. Davis says she was in Pascagoula the second time around and saw Taylor’s son-in-law William “Perfect” Bliss fall fatally ill on Independence Day too. “Official” records say he died a month later. Yet U.S. Grant says in his memoirs Bliss died on July 5th.
It was too much historical coincidence; also déjà vu with the Sawtelle Tragedy. Lo and behold, Davis founded a firm called the Davis Land Company to develop six thousand acres for his children days before he died in 1889. Eureka! Officially, the last surviving sons of Jefferson Davis, William (sudden illness in 1872) and Junior (sudden illness in 1879), were dead decades before the Sawtelle Tragedy of 1910. However, Billy and Junior both died on the same day: October 16, the former’s birthday and the anniversary of John Brown’s Raid; and so did their mother.
That was too much happenstance to be real history, statistically speaking. Matching photographs proved it. I caught on to the Davis family game with holiday dates, pears and cherries, and HOUSE OF DAVISbecame the East Coast prequel to my West Coast collection of incredible facts. For the first time in my life, I began to suspect the U.S. History I learned in school had been tampered with somehow. I mean, how else could a century-long coast-to-coast family crime spree so sensational and so central to the story of America be[almost]completely missing from the public record?
I overlooked the Midwest it turns out. I learned the post-Civil War United States of America had a rogue president who forced the resignation of his nation’s attorney general, disbanded the U.S. Conspiracy Courtconvened by Republicans to prosecute the conspirators behind the Civil War and Lincoln assassination, and released the criminal “mastermind” behind both monstrosities from prison (deporting Jefferson Davis to Canada). Worse, because the U.S. Senate failed (by a single vote) to remove impeached 17th President Andrew Johnson from office, that same Tennessee Democrat was able to pardon virtually all the Davis insiders.
Louisville newspaperman Walter Haldeman, the Davis PR man, led that cabal of conspirators from inside his Pewee Valley compound outside Kentucky’s largest city. Haldeman went underground when U.S. Grant retook the White House for Republicans in the Election of 1868, carried out eight years ofReconstruction, and snuffed out theKu Klux Klanfor nearly a half century. Yet Haldeman came back after the 18th President left office following the contested Election of 1876. Indeed, one rumor says Haldeman was the turncoat Democrat who traded his party’s claim to the White House for the end to Reconstruction.
When Federal troops exited the South, Haldeman launched a media blitz designed to flip the truth about the Civil War. Led by his editor Henry “Marse” Watterson, the Lost Cause of the Confederacy campaign was so successful by 1893 that Haldeman was able to dig the Davis corpse out of its forgotten crypt in New Orleans and ship it to the“Graveyard of the Confederacy” in Richmond. Haldeman promoted the first Hollywood spectacle with his newspaper, which gave the Davis insiders, most lawyers, the cover they needed to erect confederate statues across the South; they even put some up in the North. The Southern Poverty Law Center says those attorneys got away with murder because half of America’s grey monuments were put up in the years that followed, half in front of courthouses.
Meanwhile, Haldeman assembled the largest history archive in Kentucky, founding both the Louisville Public Library and his own private Filson Club. That gave Haldeman control over the facts about the national conpsiracy he hatched for Davis and later covered up. Ironically, it was inside the Filson Club that I noticed decades of truths were missing for Haldeman’s oldest son William. He all but disappeared after becoming a Texas lawyer in the 1870s. Evidence said he did not return to Kentucky full time until 1917 when he seized and sold his father’s newspaper and dedicated the so-called national monument to the confederacy in Fairview.
William Haldeman never admitted to playing Los Angeles Times publisher “Harrison Gray Otis” in real life. No matter; he worked alongside dozens of incredible characters. They all belonged to a private society Haldeman founded next door to the Los Angeles Times building in 1895. SUNSET CLUBexposes that original Hollywood cast. It was led by the Wizard (William Haldeman a.k.a. L.A. Times owner “Harrison Gray Otis”), Scarecrow (Davis spy leader Thomas 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 inspector Jacob Thompsona.k.a. L.A. Chamber founding president “Edward Jones”) from the Wizard of Oz (1939).
Do not believe me, believe Dorothy, who lies in bed below that cabal in the black and white ending to Hollywood’s most famous film. Professor Marvel leads the cast. Remember Dr. Marvel? No one ever does. He’s the magician who chats up Dorothy inside a poppy-lined circus wagon in the black and white beginning to Victor Flemming’s Technicolor film. Dorothy’s final act is to identify Marvel as the Wizard; she also fingers Hickory (“Scarecrow”), Hunk (“Tin Man”), and Zeke (“Lion”) as her friends from Oz. “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!”
Railroads were called “yellow brick roads” by racists back then because the Asian Americans who died building them were often buried in their grades. Why is it impossible to believe Marvel drugged Dorothy with opium (commonplace at the time) and twisted her by steam engine to L.A. where he had a colorful time with her and his friends? Even Aunt Em looks away from conspiracy/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 is left chanting, “There’s no place like home,” because everything has been taken from her and irony’s all she has left.
Pure Hollywood fiction! Sure, that is what I believed too. Then I learned the principal scriptwriter of The Wizard of Oz (1939),Florence Ryerson,was the daughter of the front man for the Sunset Club. 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) authorL. Frank Baum himself. Incredible!
“Real scenes of early California exceed in strangeness any of the mere products of the brain of the novelist.” Lieutenant Grant spoke the truth because he left Detroit at the height of the Gold Rush and in 1853 took the place of Colonel Bliss on the West Coast. The job did not pan out. Grant was forced to resign, a black mark footnoted by Jim Crow historians. Meanwhile, Grant came back after Davis began the Civil War in 1861 on Good Friday. America’s top general by 1863, Grant forced the Palm Sunday surrender of Robert E. Lee in 1865 . . . before Davis had Lincoln murdered five days later on Good Friday. ThenUlysses(Latin: Odyessus) stepped up again as America’s 18th President, delivered Reconstruction to the South, and wiped out the Ku Klux Klan . . . until Hollywood’s paramount blockbuster,The Birth of a Nation (1915),brought it back for its sinister rerun.
Around U.S. history goes, without justice, which is how and why James Baldwin knew “American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful, and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it.” Can you believe the“Founder of Tinseltown”responsible for the return of Jim Crow was born less than a mile from Haldeman’s Kentucky house? There’s no place like home when it comes to Hollywood!
(Top)–Map of Hollywood, California the year it was founded