Harrison Gray Otis (1837–1917) was publisher of the Los Angeles Times for three decades, a powerful conservative force in turn-of-the-century Southern California , and an unrivaled promoter of regional growth.
Otis was born on a farm near Marietta , Ohio , and named after his uncle, a U.S. Senator from Massachusetts . At the age of 23, he was a member of the 1860 Republican national convention that nominated Abraham Lincoln for President. With the outbreak of the Civil War, Otis enlisted as a private in the Union Army, fought in 15 battles, and was wounded twice and cited for gallantry. Discharged as a lieutenant colonel, he worked at various jobs, including compositor in the government printing office and editor of the Grand Army Journal, before leaving for California . Like more than a few Civil War veterans, for the rest of his life, he liked to be referred to in military terms; first as Colonel, and later General, Harrison Gray Otis.
By one account, Otis came to California in 1876 to raise Angora goats. Historian Carey McWilliams described him simply as “a man without resources, a typical drifter of the period.” He ended up as editor of a Santa Barbara newspaper, the Press. When the publication failed, he took an appointment as a treasury agent on the Seal Islands off Alaska . In his book Newspapers of Los Angeles : The First Fifty Years: 1851–1900, Henry W. Splitter writes that Otis came to Los Angeles when he heard that its newest paper, the Los Angeles Daily Times, was for sale. The first four-page issue of the Times had appeared on December 4, 1881, but the owners faced financial problems. Scraping together $6,000, Otis bought a quarter interest in the paper in 1882 and became its editor, as well as editor of a sister weekly publication, the Mirror.
For a weekly salary of $15, Otis wrote the editorials and much of the local news. His wife Eliza, whom he married when he was 20, contributed columns about women, morals and religion. In 1883, Otis and entrepreneur H. H. Boyce became co-owners of the Times, now grown to eight pages, and formed the Times Mirror Company. Otis set about transforming the newspaper. As John Weaver writes in Los Angeles: The Enormous Village: “He dropped â€˜Dailyâ€™ from the Times masthead, ordered up livelier headlines, doubled the telegraphic news coverage, made room for letters to the editor and added a column, â€˜Political Pointsâ€™ which collected editorial barbs aimed at Democrats by other Republican journals.”
In 1885, the Times put out its first “Midwinter” edition extolling the climate and other virtues of Southern California, even as cheap cross-country railway fares, for a short time as low as $1.00, drew thousands of visitors and homesteaders to the area. Otis saw a glorious future for Los Angeles whose population totaled about 12,000 when he joined the Times. ” Los Angeles is in a transition state,” he wrote in an early editorial. “She has finally waked up from the dull lethargy of those old days when she was one great sheep-walk and cattle range. All she needs now is men of brawn and brains to grow up with her.”
To ease his workload, Otis hired Charles Fletcher Lummis as the Timesâ€™ first city editor. The flamboyant Lummis, Harvard drop out and editor of a small-town weekly in Ohio , had walked 3,507 miles from Ohio to Los Angeles in 143 days, writing a weekly series of letters about his journey for the Times. Otis met Lummis at Mission San Gabriel on February 1, 1885, and walked with him the last eleven miles into the city. Lummis became city editor the next day. “Col. Otis and I hit it off from the start,” he later wrote. “He hated anybody who was afraid of him. Because of his dominant and overbearing way a great many good people were afraid of him. One of the reasons he liked me was that I wasn’t.”
In 1886, Otis bought H.H. Boyceâ€™s half-interest in the paper and named himself president, general manager and editor-in-chief.
In his 1932 book Los Angeles , writer Morrow Mayo had this to say of Otis: “He was a large, aggressive man, with a walrus mustache, a goatee, and a warlike demeanor. He resembled Buffalo Bill, General Custer and Henry Watterson. The military bee buzzed incessantly in his bonnet. He was a holy terror in his newspaper plant; his natural voice was that of a game-warden roaring at seal poachers. He was politically ambitious all his life; though he never ran for an office, he asked for many. When McKinley, his former army commander, was elected President he asked to be appointed an Assistant Secretary of War, but Secretary Alger would not have him.” When the Spanish-American War broke out, Otis, then in his early 60s, volunteered for service and was assigned to the Philippines , at which time he was promoted to Brigadier General.
Under Otisâ€™ leadership, the Times became the regionâ€™s leading business promoter and its most strident Republican, conservative and anti-union voice. As George E. Mowry writes in The California Progressives: “It is possible that no man in all the United States hated organized labor more, and it is certain that few did more to obstruct its advance.” For years, the Page 1 banner of the Times included the phrase, “True Industrial Freedom,” while editorials and news stories reflected Otisâ€™ uncompromising opposition to the union shop. As John Weaver notes, labor leaders called Los Angeles “Otistown” because it was “the countryâ€™s most impregnable open shop fortress.”
Otis claimed that he never objected to “lawful or legitimate organizations formed and maintained by laborers in any branch of industry,” only to the “gross and mischievous abuse in the management of the organizations by the leaders of them.” In fact, he’d even been a member of the typesetters union — briefly. Nevertheless, the Timesâ€™ position as an anti-labor lightning rod led to the bombing of the Timesâ€™ 1st and Broadway building on Oct. 1, 1910. Twenty people were killed and 17 injured. The Times labeled the bombing “The Crime of the Century” and blamed it on “unionists,” even though labor leaders vehemently denounced the bombing. Two brothers, John and James McNamara (John was a labor union official), represented by legendary lawyer Clarence Darrow, later confessed to the crime.
Over the years, Otis and his son-in-law Harry Chandler became the cityâ€™s unrivaled power brokers, “the single most important force in Los Angeles aside from government itself” — in the words of historian Andrew Rolle. ( Chandler had joined the Times in 1885 as a circulation department clerk. He soon became circulation manager and, in 1894, husband of Otisâ€™ daughter, Marian. Chandler went on to become vice president and general manager of the Times before succeeding Otis as publisher.) Together they shaped the growth of the city and region.
In the historic struggle over federal funds to build a breakwater at San Pedro harbor in the late 1890s, a move opposed by the powerful Southern Pacific railway which favored building a new harbor in Santa Monica where SP had waterfront interests, the Times vigorously supported San Pedro. Its backing was instrumental in carrying the day for San Pedro, making Los Angeles a major west coast port, now the busiest in the United States .
Otis, Chandler and the Times were also early backers of a $23 million bond issue, approved in 1907, to build an aqueduct that would carry Owens River water to Los Angeles . The 225-mile aqueduct, built under the supervision of William Mulholland, delivered its first water in 1913.
By then, a 30-man syndicate that included Otis and Chandler had acquired 47,500 acres of grain fields in the San Fernando Valley from the I. N. Van Nuys family for $2.5 million. Anticipating both the arrival of water and Valley annexation to Los Angeles (which the Times also promoted), they divided the acreage into town lots, mostly suitable for small farms, and launched a sales boom that formed the foundation of the Chandler family fortune. Otis took 550 acres at Ventura and Reseda boulevards for a ranch home. The property was later sold to writer Edgar Rice Burroughs and became known as Tarzana. Otis also invested heavily in Mexican real estate.
Otis died on July 30, 1917, at the age of 80. He bequeathed his Wilshire Boulevard home to the city for use in “the advancement of the arts.” Until 1997, the site housed the Otis Art Institute, now re-located to L.A. â€™s Westside, and known as the Otis College of Art and Design. After Harry Chandler’s death, his son Norman became the newspaper’s publisher. Norman ‘s wife, Dorothy Buffum Chandler also played an important role in the life of modern Los Angeles .
Until Harrison Gray Otis’ great grandson, Otis Chandler, the son of Norman and Dorothy, became publisher of the Times in the 1960s, the Times retained its outspoken and openly partisan conservative voice. Afterward, under the younger Chandler ‘s leadership, the paper adopted a more balanced approach to the news, although some long time readers complained that the paper too often took a liberal editorial stance. It’s likely that “the General” would have agreed.
Directly across Wilshire Boulevard from the site of Otis’ former home, in a corner outside MacArthur Park , stands an imposing but often overlooked bronze statue of Otis in army uniform. Next to him is the statue of a young boy selling newspapers, presumably copies of the Los Angeles Times, which remains the regionâ€™s most powerful and internationally respected journalistic voice.
— contributed by Albert Greenstein, 1999