Best Book of the Year
The Los Angeles Times • The Washington Post
Los Angeles was the fastest growing city in the world, mad with oil fever, get-rich-quick schemes, and celebrity scandals. It was also rife with organized crime, with a mayor in the pocket of the syndicates and a DA taking bribes to throw trials. In A Bright and Guilty Place, Richard Rayner narrates the entwined lives of two men, Dave Clark and Leslie White, who were caught up in the crimes, murders, and swindles of the day. Over a few transformative years, as the boom times shaded into the Depression, the adventures of Clark and White would inspire pulp fiction and replace L.A.’s reckless optimism with a new cynicism. Together, theirs is the tale of how the city of sunshine went noir.
|Publisher:||Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.40(d)|
About the Author
Richard Rayner is the author of Drake’s Fortune, The Cloud Sketcher, The Associates, and several other books. His writing appears in The New Yorker, the Los Angeles Times, and elsewhere. He lives in Los Angeles.
Read an Excerpt
The Mystery Is Announced
"CHARLIE CRAWFORD AND EDITOR SLAIN!" screamed the headline in the Los Angeles Illustrated Daily News. The date was Thursday, March 20, 1931. At about 4:30 P.M. the previous afternoon the fifty-four-year-old Crawford, nicknamed "The Gray Wolf" because of the silvery-gray hair that waved and curled across his head, had been gunned down in his office on Sunset Boulevard. Also killed was Herbert Spencer, a veteran journalist who'd been with Crawford in the room. "EX-BOSS FALLS TO LONG-FEARED GUNMAN BULLET," the News went on. "Crawford, kingpin politician, lived until 8:32 P.M. last night, a little more than four hours after the shooting. He died without revealing the identity of his assailant, according to detectives . . ."
Crawford had been, and many believed he still was, a "boss," a key player in what was known as "The System," a low-profile but all-powerful syndicate that ran the gambling, prostitution, and bootlegging rackets in Los Angeles. "He was the most feared and dictatorial power in the city, its behind-the-scenes czar," wrote Beverly Davis, who ran an upscale brothel for Crawford. "You could get away with murder under his wing." This was L.A.'s brand of gangsterism: Crawford used officers of the Los Angeles Police Department to collect the take from the underworld captains. He worked behind the scenes with Kent Kane Parrot, a fixer who'd had George Cryer, the mayor of Los Angeles from 1921-29, pretty much in his pocket. It was a discreet yet effective arrangement that had been in place since Crawford and Parrot contrived to get Cryer elected. As far as the rackets were concerned, L.A. had been a closed town ever since, locked down by Crawford and The System. "It was the most lucrative, the most efficient, and the best-entrenched graft operation in the country," News city editor Matt Weinstock wrote later. Now somebody was monkeying with that operation, trying to destroy it perhaps, or take it over.
"Racketeer bullets declared open warfare in the Los Angeles underworld yesterday," said the L.A. Examiner. "MAN HUNT ON!" An announcement went out over the newly perfected LAPD radio system: "Wanted for murderan American, about six feet tall, weighing between 150 and 175 pounds, and between 35 and 40 years of age. Hair, brown. A small black moustache. Dressed in neat blue suit and wearing sailor straw hat."
Was this the killer? It seemed so.
"The political structure rocked precariously while everybody tried to imagine who could have fired the fatal shots," wrote Leslie White, a young detective working in the investigative unit of the District Attorney's office. For White, the case had a particular significance, a poignancy almost. He'd met Charlie Crawford several times and had liked him. "Despite the unanimous opinion that the murder of Crawford was a piece of civic betterment, I felt a pang," White wrote. "Would his death improve the city in any way? I doubted it. A new boss might be less efficiently corrupt. The King was deadbut who would seek the throne?"
White worked downtown, in the Hall of Justice, a new building opposite the even newer white tower of City Hall. On that morning after the shootings, White was in his small cubbyhole of an office, talking with colleagues, trying to figure out who could have pulled the trigger when his boss, Blayney Matthews, the burly and genial head of the D.A.'s investigative unit, came in with the news.
"We're looking for Dave Clark," Matthews said.
Leslie White blinkedunable, for a moment, to believe his ears. "Our Dave Clark," he said.
"That's right," Matthews said, and White rocked back in his chair.
Dave Clarkknown to the press as "Debonair Dave" or "Handsome Dave"was a crusading litigator and former assistant district attorney who was now running for judge. He was a war hero with matinee-idol looks. He was, moreover, Leslie White's friend.
"Had the chief suddenly accused me of the crime, I couldn't have been more astounded," White wrote.
Sorry to see Dave Clark's name in any way connected with this sensational crime, White hoped for the best, believing that at any moment Clark would arrive at the Hall of Justice and clear his name. But hours went by and nothing happened, and White himself became involved in the unavailing search for the suspect. Dave Clark had vanished, nowhere to be found.
A great crime saga had been set in motion, with toothsome details that Raymond Chandlerwho, at the time, was an executive in L.A.'s oil businesswould soon feed directly into one of his very first works of fiction, the short story "Spanish Blood." Chandler, when he turned to writing, wrote what he knew, and he knew Los Angelesnot just its map and climates, but its history of corruption and violence. Like James M. Cain, Horace McCoy, and others who wrote in and about L.A. during the years of the Great Depression, Chandler drew material from the headlines and bullet-prose of the tabloids. True crime tells the story of how L.A. got hardboiled and noir.
Flash back to 1910, when the population of Los Angeles was 310,000 or thereabouts, many of them Spanish-speaking. "There were more cows than people," says the writer and historian D. J. Waldie, and he might not have been joking. Ten years later, in 1920, the population was 576,000. By 1930 the figure would rise to 1,250,000, and L.A. Countywhich gathers together various unincorporated cities, including Santa Monica, Beverly Hills, Venice, and Culver City, as well as the city of L.A. itselfwould be home to almost 2.5 million souls.
Throughout this astonishing period, L.A. was the fastest-growing city in the world. In America only San Francisco had ever grown so fast, during the years of the Gold Rush following 1849. But by the 1920s, San Francisco's boom was long done. New York, Boston, and even Chicago had never known an explosion like the one that was happening in L.A. Every working day throughout the 1920s, builders started more than fifty new homes. Each week a new hotel went up. The year 1923 alone saw the construction of 800 office buildings, 400 industrial buildings, 150 schools, 130 warehouses, 700 apartment buildings, and more than 25,000 single dwellings. Property prices doubled, tripled, quadrupled, eventually rising sixfold through the decade. The city began to spread, amoeba-like, in search of its suburbs, although in those days L.A. still meant downtown, thriving with business and residences. In 1923 a Saturday Evening Post article about the boom ran a photo showing the district, chockablock with office buildings, all about twelve to fifteen stories tall, as high as the earthquake regulations would then allow. "Most of these buildings are less than a year old," said the caption.
L.A. was "a civilization that will not need to hang its head when the Athens of Pericles is mentioned," wrote the New Republic in 1927when L.A. seemed like a strapping youth, foolish and violent at times, bursting out of its skin with exuberance. Within a few years the New Republic's pronouncement would seem bizarre and deluded. By 1931 the depression gripped California. Capitalism was in crisis and people no longer spoke of L.A. as a utopia with the added luxury of a voluptuous climate. Rather, for a while the whole social fabric was stretched and tattered and in danger of being torn in two. L.A. still had the sunshine, but it could be a lonely and hellish placerife with crime, riddled by corruption, and drained of civic and moral purpose. Banks failed, thousands of businesses went to the wall, foreclosures hit epidemic proportions, and empty lots awaited the rush of investment that had until recently seemed so certain. People blew their brains out, gassed themselves, hanged themselves, took pills and poison, slit their wrists, or walked into the ocean. Southern California became America's suicide capital, an amazing phenomenon on which Edmund Wilson would report for the New Republic, driven to revise its previous optimism. In 1931 alone there were over 750 suicides in L.A.; so many threw themselves from the handsome Colorado Street Bridge crossing the Arroyo Seco Canyon in Pasadena that the city first appointed a special police detail to guard the bridge and, when that didn't work, erected high fences of barbed wire to stop people from jumping which remain to this day.
In its early days, L.A. attracted lower middle-class and middle-middle-class retirees from the American Midwest, people drawn to the life of relaxed ease promoted in the booster ads of L.A.'s Chamber of Commerce. A further growth spurt came with the development of an industrial base in the 1920s. At the same time the recently arrived movie business began to attract a different sort of young personattractive, ambitious, driven. One could argue that L.A. needed and invented Hollywood in order to provide itself with a different demographic and to achieve maturity. Then yet another element was thrown into the mix. After 1929 the character of immigration changed again as the roads into California filled with the armies of the indigent and the unemployed, riding in battered jalopies or hitchhiking. At the height of the Depression 1,500 arrived daily, many of them boys, said The Nation, "who beat their way out on freight trains and are in danger of becoming hopeless tramps or criminals."
In this defeated atmosphere, the expressionless blue of the sky and the unchanging rhythm of perfect days that followed each other one after the other added to the melancholy. "Outside the bright gardens had a haunted look, as though wild eyes were watching me from behind the bushes, as though the sunshine itself had a mysterious something in the light," wrote Raymond Chandler.
Cities have characters, pathologies that can make or destroy or infect you, states of mind that run through daily life as surely as a fault line. Chandler's "mysterious something" was a mood of disenchantment, an intense spiritual malaise that identified itself with Los Angeles at a particular time, what we call noir. On the one hand noir is a narrow film genre, born in Hollywood in the late 1930s when a European visual style, the twisted perspectives and stark chiaroscuros of German Expressionism, met an American literary idiom. This fruitful commingling gave birth to movies like Double Indemnity, directed by Vienna-born Billy Wilder and scripted by Raymond Chandler from a James M. Cain novella. The themesmurderous sex and the cool, intricate amorality of moneyrose directly from the psychic mulch of Southern California.
But L.A. is a city of big dreams and cruelly inevitable disappointments where noir is more than just a slice of cinema history; it's a counter-tradition, the dark lens through which the booster myths came to be viewed, a disillusion that shadows even the best of times, an alienation that assails the senses like the harsh glitter of mica in the sidewalk on a pitiless Santa Ana day. Noirin this sense a perspective on history and often a substitute for itwas born when the Roaring Twenties blew themselves out and hard times rushed in; it crystallized real-life events and the writhing collapse of the national economy before finding its interpreters in writers like Raymond Chandler.
In this book I evoke the time when Los Angeles came of age and found a defining tone. Many peoplesome famous, others notwill feature in an urban mosaic in which everything and everybody seems to be connected, and, in one way or another, is corrupt, is seeking corruption, or is trying to escape it. But, for me, the story belongs most prominently to two very different young men, both long dead and largely forgotten: Leslie T. White and David H. Clark. White, as we've seen, was for a while a D.A.'s investigator. In time he, like Raymond Chandler, would transform himself into a writer. For Clark, the veteran from WWI and high-flying attorney, the future would be very different. White, who was small and slight and peered at the world through horn-rimmed spectacles, proved himself undauntable. The tall and suave Clark, with his movie star looks and his huge promise, went wrong in a most spectacular way. These contrasting trajectories have much to say about Los Angeles, and maybe about America. The two men are symbols of light and dark, linked emblems in a city's scandalous process of becoming.
In 1928 the boom ran full tilt and the leaks in L.A.'s destiny had yet to appear. Nobody guessed yet that depression and a haunted future were around the corner, waiting to wash bright hope away. Leslie White was living in Ventura, about fifty miles north of the city. He was in his mid-twenties, recently married, and had his own photography business. Murder, and indeed Los Angeles itself, were far from his mind.
Ventura had a population of fewer than 15,000. It had a Main Street, a courthouse, one of the original Spanish missions, and two small newspapers. On an average afternoon, its air was thick with the smell of citrus. But this country town was being transformed by oil fields that had been discovered nearby. Several of these gushers had been brought in by Ralph Lloyd in partnership with Joseph Dabney, the former a friend of Raymond Chandler's and the latter who happened to be his boss in 1928. The existence of these Ventura fields, and a dispute concerning revenues from them, would be of great and surprising significance for Chandler's career as a writer. But that was in the future.
Leslie White came to Ventura in 1922. Born on May 12, 1903, he'd been raised in Canadain Ottawa, Ontario. His father died when he was seven years old; his mother and aunts, strict Methodists, took the young boy to church three times a week, doing their best to point him in the ways of the Lord. He left school at fifteen, prone to ill health, and with an earnest and highly moral worldview. In Northern Canada he worked in a lumber mill and as a railroad fireman. He claimed, too, that he'd tried his hand as a prizefighter and traveled with a carnival. Certainly he loved adventure, and all his life he would be restless, searching for the next interest. On arrival in Ventura he secured a job as a park ranger, saying he knew how to ride though he'd never been on a horse. Mounting for the first time, he slipped and fell, breaking a collar bone. After he recovered, he went back to work, protecting land that had been bought for rich hunters. He became a deputy sheriff, despite admitting that what he knew of the law was "gleaned from Conan Doyle and motion pictures." His superiors called him "The Kid." He was touchy about his physique and youth, and he had a firecracker temper. Once he arrested a man for having carnal relations with a cow. On the lonely fog-swept promontory of Point Magu, he watched rumrunners armed with machine-guns bringing their crates of bootleg booze ashore. Gung ho, he was about to steam in to make some arrests when his superior warned him off, pointing out that the trucks into which the rumrunners were loading their stuff were driven and guarded by cops from the LAPD. This early brush acquainted White with how things worked in the big bad city where, as he would later write, "brains and money, or, better still, a combination of both, could sabotage the machinery of justice at will."
White shifted jobs frequently. The 1926 Ventura County directory lists him as a driver for Shell Oil and has him living on Poli Street, close to the courthouse. By 1928, however, he was married to Thelma, his first wife, and had opened the Leslie White Studio on Main Street. He loved gadgets and machines and had transformed himself into a photographer. He made portraits, or pictures of weddings and christenings, and did fingerprint and identification work for Ventura's newly inaugurated police force. His business did well. A wall-sized blowup of one of his street scenes is still featured in the main Ventura library. He was also learning to fly and was a fan of Clara Bow, whose film Red Hair finally reached Ventura in March 1928. White was a member of the Chamber of Commerce, the Rotary Club, and the Breakfast Club (at one meeting of which he caused a rumpus by releasing, as a prank, a tame circus lion!).
Leslie White was a success, and if truth be told, more than a little bored; but that was about to change.
Table of Contents
Cast of Characters xi
1 The Mystery Is Announced 1
2 Dam Disaster 7
3 A Hero Named Clark 16
4 Angel City 25
5 The Gangster Goes Down 35
6 Oil, Law, and Scandal 42
7 Oup Detective Learns the Ropes 50
8 Shots in the Night 55
9 Beverly Hills C.S.I 60
10 Covep-Up 68
11 Good Time Charlie 76
12 Systems Under Siege 88
13 Reach for a Typewriter 98
14 Raymond Chandler - Oil Man! 103
15 Entrapment of a News Hound 110
16 Running with the Foxes 115
17 Zig-Zags of Graft 121
18 Red Hot Bow 131
19 The Gutting of Clara 138
20 Hard Times in Lotus-Land 148
21 Double Death on Sunset 154
22 The Ballad of Dave Clark 163
23 They Can Hang You 175
24 Telling It All 183
25 Verdicts 193
26 A Hooker's Tale 201
27 Music of the City 206
28 Black Mask Merry-Go-Round 212
29 Sad Song 219
30 Lives Go On 224
31 A Personal Note 230
A Conversation with Richard Rayner, Author
A BRIGHT AND GUILTY PLACE
Q: Crime fiction and crime itself are a huge part of this book. Have these always been fascinations of yours?
Bluntly, yes. One of my very first memories is of a policeman arriving at our family's house in Yorkshire in the North of England, asking for my father. At various times in his life he was a crook in a minor, white collar sort of way. When I was eleven he embezzled a large sum of money and vanished, not reappearing until many years later. By which time I'd already read Dostoyevsky, Agatha Christie, Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and was beginning to think that criminality is a hidden, or not so hidden, part of all of us. Crime is more than a fascination for me, I suppose - it's a way I think about character and the world. Criminals always have their reasons - like Dave Clark in A Bright and Guilty Place.
Q: How did you go about doing your research for A Bright and Guilty Place?
I love doing research. Reading books, following leads in footnotes and bibliographies and indexes that lead to other books and scholarly articles, making trips to libraries and other institutes of learning, So that's a part of it. But when I was doing lots of work for the New York Times Magazine I had an editor there who assigned me to stories (about cops, about the military, about illegal immigrants) that meant hitting the streets and cop cars and bases and barrios with my notebook and doing interviews and getting sweaty and dirty and seeing how it all was on the ground. Therefore these days, in writing the books, I try and track down witnesses, relatives, or visit the actual places that are featured in the events I'm writing about. All this feeds into the texture. Then there are the court documents. Nothing better than finding boxes full of original trial transcript - a whole sequence of events springs to life for you, always in a different, fresher way. And in the case of A Bright and Guilty Place'I relied on a lot of newspaper archives. Los Angeles had a dozen or so daily newspapers back in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Lots of different editions every day, each paper with its own style and its own particular angle on each story. Spectacular writing!
Q: Do you think the California of today is markedly different than the one you discuss in the book?
In the 1920s Los Angeles still acted and thought like the small town it had been only a decade before. In some ways this is still true. The corruption that I write about in my book happened when political fixers got themselves between City Hall and the cops and the crooks. That led to something called the "Los Angeles System," which was slowly taken over by the Eastern mob in the 1930s. The beginnings of that struggle and the ascension of Guy McAfee over Charlie Crawford are what dragged Dave Clark down, because he got involved with it. Corruption in that way doesn't seem to exist here anymore, although the relationship between crime, cops, and politics always remains close. California is today very much markedly different. It's a land of innocence betrayed, I think - and yet the promise is still there, drawing different groups who have, nonetheless, the same aspirations as those who arrived 100, 50, 20 years ago. It's America's place for transformation, however much it morphs.
Q: Do you think there is a parallel to be drawn between the Dave Clark case that you discuss in the book and some of the recent political scandals we've seen, those involving Elliott Spitzer and John Edwards for example, where an incredible level of hubris leads to a spectacular moral downfall?
It comes down to a fascinating issue - why do people of bright promise wind up committing actions that they must know, at some level, will destroy them? Answer: they can't help or stop themselves. Pride, hubris, does indeed often come into it. Certain people have such a sense of their own power and glamour that they seem to think they're above being caught. In the case of Dave Clark, I think that he was representative of Los Angeles (he was a native, born and raised here, educated at USC) in that he felt he was entitled to a great and golden career, and he was going to have one, but, fatally, he wanted it all a little too quickly. He saw less talented people achieving more and was tempted therefore to take short-cuts. He was drawn into the world of the rackets, step by step, until those murky waters rose around his neck and he found himself in a small Hollywood office, armed with a gun, in a situation where the only way out seemed to be to shoot two men. What a trajectory!
Q: What's next for you?
Various ideas are floating around in my head, all of them relating to crime in one way or another. I seem to be stuck with that subject, or it's stuck with me.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
If you appreciate the old vintage black and white detective dramas,such as The Big Sleep and the Maltese Falcon, this is the book for you. It goes into the crime history of LA from the turn of the century. For example, the plot for the great film Chinatown is based on an actual scandal. There are probably several other movie plots lurking in the book. Anyhow, it was a quick, easy read.
This was a really fun read. I have grown up in Los Angeles and did not know that this city had so much history. What I like most about this book is the light, pulpy kind of feel to it. It was not dry history - it was actually a page turner. So why the 3.5 stars? The author has a tendency to wander off on random rabbit trails of facts that don't relate to the main story line. I found this to be somewhat irritating. I found myself scanning forward and skipping paragraphs at times. It did not happen much, but when it did it irked me. The storyline was fascinating and well documented.
Imagine all the corruption, full characters and intertwined stories that read like noir fiction -- but it's real.
Narrative non-fiction is a rare gift and this book was like Christmas. Rayner makes believable the mystique and mythology of LA noir, which inspired a whole genre of writing (pulp fiction) and film (film noir), through his exhaustive research and the retelling of the lives of two lesser known historical figures whose destinies are interwoven with the glamour and corruption that was LA's messy coming of age.
A gripping account of an obscure time in Los Angeles' history, the corrupt Twenties.