How the World’s First Movie Stars Made Sure Beverly Hills Didn’t Become Part of L.A.

The birth of Beverly Hills was also the birth of celebrity politics

Next time you look at a map of L.A., note the area almost in the geographic middle of the metropolis. It’s the city of Beverly Hills. An independent municipality incorporated in 1914, the city would, of course, go on to become one of the world’s first enclaves famous for its celebrity residents and its wealth.

But nine years after coming into existence, Beverly Hills almost gave up its cityhood and became part of Los Angeles. The reason was water; vying for water rights had shaped much of the region. When plans emerged for the city to give up its independence, though, the ensuing battle marked the birth of something entirely new: celebrity politics. Today, listening to a star advocating a cause, endorsing a candidate, or even declaring his or her candidacy doesn’t raise an eyebrow. That wasn’t the case when silent screen stars Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks helped lead the charge when it looked as if their city, Beverly Hills, might vote to become part of Los Angeles. This is the story of how the stars and the city aligned to make sure that turn of events would never come to pass.

The Beverly Hills where Fairbanks bought his house in 1919—a hunting lodge in which he could have assignations with Pickford—was not too far removed from the days when the area was a Mexican land grant belonging to Vicente Villa. Called Rodeo de las Aguas, or the “gathering of the waters,” the 4,449-acre spread was named for the intersection of two underground streams that coursed under Cañada de las Aguas Frias (Coldwater Canyon) and Cañada de los Encinos (Canyon of the Oaks, which became Benedict Canyon) and joined approximately where the Beverly Hills Hotel sits today. When Villa died in the 1830s, the land went to his wife, María, who lived with her family in two adobe houses at what is now the intersection of Alpine Drive and Sunset Boulevard, running cattle and horses and doing her best to cultivate crops with the capricious water supply.

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Even though the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the Mexican-American War, permitted Villa to keep the land after California became part of the United States in 1848, by 1852 she had had enough. She sold Rodeo de las Aguas to Benjamin Davis Wilson (after whom Mount Wilson in the San Gabriel Mountains is named) and Major Henry Hancock (Hancock Park’s future forefather) for $500 in cash, $500 in notes, and the promise of an additional payment of $3,000. Other owners of what was renamed Morocco came and went, grazing cattle and sheep, growing grain, enduring devastating droughts, and unsuccessfully drilling for oil. Then in 1900 the land was sold to Amalgamated Oil, a partnership that included some of the region’s wealthiest citizens: oilmen and real estate developers Charles A. Canfield, Burton Green, and Max Whittier; railroad magnate Henry E. Huntington; and businessman William G. Kerckho.

Dubbing their purchase Morocco Junction, they were no more successful than anyone else in finding abundant deposits of oil, but they did find groundwater. In 1906 Green and his partners reorganized into the Rodeo Land and Water Company, named their new community, and entered the world of land development. Beverly Hills was born.

It was Huntington who kick-started the idea of a residential development by placing an ad for it in the October 21, 1906, edition of the Los Angeles Times. He even built one of his Los Angeles Pacific Railway “Dinky” lines to the young community, which was difficult to get to in an era when most people were living in or near downtown and depended on horses and public transportation. Instead of streets laid out in a grid, the roads of Beverly Hills were designed to be curvilinear, resembling, some said, early silent screen siren Theda Bara’s torso. And each of the residential streets was lined with one variety of tree to help create a parklike setting.

None of that was enough at first. Real estate sales were slow to the point of non-existent. As of 1910 only six homes had been built north of Santa Monica Boulevard, the area where planners had created spacious lots. The developers needed a showpiece that would wow prospective homeowners as well as provide a comfortable place for them to spend time while they shopped for lots. Taking a page from what Hollywood had done with the Hollywood Hotel, the partners decided to build a hotel that would be a regional attraction. Completed in 1912, the Beverly Hills Hotel would become the heart and soul of the new city, with indoor and outdoor entertainment as well as restaurants, a school, and a place of worship. The hotel gambit had its intended effect: Home construction picked up, and in early 1914 Beverly Hills became an incorporated city, giving it the power to levy taxes as well as the responsibility to provide services such as police, fire, schools, and zoning.

It was during these early years, when Beverly Hills was taking shape, that the nascent movie industry had begun to relocate from the East Coast and coalesce out west. In 1911 David and William Horsley moved their Nestor Studios from Bayonne, New Jersey, to establish the first permanent movie studio in the Los Angeles area. Within three months Hollywood was home to 15 or so studios.

The conventional wisdom is that they were drawn here by the sunlight and mild weather. That’s far from the whole story. The migration west was also a financial and creative reaction to Thomas Edison’s heavy-handed enforcement of the patents he controlled, including those for almost all of the early cameras and projectors. The West Coast was a five-day train ride from Edison’s purview.

Heading to Southern California brought its own set of challenges for the moving picture industry, though. Hollywood, which became an incorporated city in 1903, was founded by devout, teetotaling Christians Harvey and Daeida Wilcox. Harvey had made a fortune in real estate in Topeka, Kansas, where he met Daeida. After marrying, they settled in Los Angeles, and Harvey entered the growing field of land speculation just in time for the real estate boom that began in 1886. The couple bought parcels of land in what was then known as the Cahuenga Valley. Harvey mapped out their new subdivision, and Daeida supplied the name: On a trip back to her native Ohio, she reportedly met a woman who called her estate in Illinois “Hollywood.”

The first ordinance Hollywood passed when it became a city banned the sale of alcohol. Morality Leagues, churches, women’s clubs, and other organizations viewed the young people pouring into Hollywood as sybarites who were setting a bad example for the rest of the youth of America. Landlords did their best to discourage what they perceived as the ne’er-do-wells who made up the filmmaking community from renting. NO MOVIES and NO JEWS accompanied NO DOGS on FOR RENT signs.

The newcomers were also greeted by a city where paved streets, readily available public transportation, and electricity—things movie industry denizens took for granted in New York—were far from universal.

Chief among those newcomers was Mary Pickford. Preternaturally savvy, she was known for roles as a plucky, determined young woman who used her wits to turn seemingly insurmountable obstacles to her advantage. Pickford would evolve from “The Biograph Girl”—Biograph was one of the country’s first movie companies—and “The Girl with the Golden Curls” to “America’s Sweetheart.”

She took her first trip to Hollywood in 1910 to work with D.W. Griffith and described the future capital of moviemaking this way: “Our studio consisted of an acre of ground, fenced in, and a large wooden platform, hung with cotton shades that were pulled on wires overhead. On a windy day our clothes and the curtains on the set would flap loudly in the breeze. Studios were all on open lots—roofless and without walls, which explains the origin of the term ‘on the lot.’ Dressing rooms being a nonexistent luxury, we donned our costumes every morning at the hotel. Our rehearsal room was improvised from a loft which Griffith rented in a decrepit old building on Main Street. A kitchen table and three chairs were all there was of furniture. Mr. Griffith occupied one of the chairs, the others being reserved for the elderly members of the cast. The rest of us sat on the floor.”

By the time Pickford was making movies there, it was already clear to Hollywood officials that the city could not sustain itself. Mud and debris would pour down from the hillsides during the rainy season, flooding streets and burying the rail lines. Property owners who wanted to subdivide didn’t want to accommodate the need for septic tanks. And the more people who moved there, the greater the strain on the limited supply of groundwater. The idea of joining the city of Los Angeles, which had been anathema to the early residents of Hollywood, began to seem more appealing. Encouraged by land speculators—including General Harrison Gray Otis and Harry Chandler of the Los Angeles Times, both of whom had skin in the game in William Mulholland’s endeavor to bring water from the Owens Valley to Los Angeles—the city of Hollywood voted itself out of existence. In short order taxes and assessments levied on property by Los Angeles made continuing to maintain the citrus orchards that occupied much of the land in the area impractical. Agriculture and “rural refinement” as a way of life was over.

The Beverly Hills lily pond, circa 1915

Courtesy the Bison Archive

When Pickford returned to Los Angeles in 1913 with her mother and moved into a Crafstman bungalow on Western Avenue, she was a star. But it was World War I that opened her eyes to the scope of her influence. The country needed to raise money for the war effort. Treasury Secretary William McAdoo asked Pickford, Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin, and Broadway actress Marie Dressler to help by going around the country on what was called the Liberty Loan Drive, to encourage people to buy war bonds.

Front-page coverage followed Pickford, Fairbanks, and Chaplin in 1918 as they traveled from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., on a train dubbed “The Three Star Special.” Leaflets were dropped from airplanes over cities, and patriotic parades were held on Main streets across the country. While Fairbanks and Chaplin often addressed crowds in the tens of thousands, Pickford handily outdid them. In one hour in Chicago, she sold $2 million worth of bonds.

If the tour underscored the power of celebrity, it also enabled Pickford and Fairbanks to travel openly together. Their affair was into its second year, and secrecy, especially for Pickford, was paramount. The double standard of what men and women could get away with in their private lives was very much in force. Pickford had been separated for several years from her husband, the Irish actor Owen Moore, who was an abusive alcoholic jealous of his wife’s growing fame. But if word got out that she was a “loose woman”—not to mention an unfaithful wife—Pickford believed, being the most famous woman in the world wouldn’t protect her from the repercussions.

Fairbanks, meanwhile, was still living with his wife, Beth; they’d moved to Los Angeles in 1915 with their son and wound up leasing a two-story home on North Highland Avenue in Hollywood. Pickford wasn’t his first affair, but for Beth the publicity about her husband and Pickford traveling together was the breaking point. As the weeks-long tour continued, she announced their separation to the press, confirming that Fairbanks had confessed to falling in love with someone else. Facing relentless questions from reporters about his personal life, Fairbanks initially claimed that the news about the separation was pro-German propaganda. Unable to handle the stress, he returned to Los Angeles and was soon back at work, appearing in one of the many films that Hollywood churned out at the government’s request to support the war effort.

Pickford prevaricated, too, when faced with questions from the press, saying she had no idea why her name was being mentioned in the matter. But unlike Fairbanks, she saw the tour to its end. Pickford was a one-woman war-support machine: Returning home, she, too, starred in pro-war films, posed for photographs kissing the American flag, signed receipts that were sent back to donors to the Red Cross, and was made an honorary colonel of the 143rd California Field Artillery, whose members wore her photo in lockets.

Separated from his wife, Douglas Fairbanks made the move in 1918 to Grayhall, a Beverly Hills estate that included tennis courts, a swimming pool, stables, dog kennels, and a view of the Pacific Ocean. The following year, he paid $35,000 for a secluded six-room hunting lodge north of the Beverly Hills Hotel on Summit Drive. The property lacked electricity and running water, but the point wasn’t necessarily to move—at least not yet. Fairbanks was looking for a spot out of the public eye where he could woo his paramour.

Pickford and Fairbanks had met for the first time at a party in New York in 1915 but didn’t become involved until the following year. An athletic, good-natured lady’s man who didn’t drink to excess and didn’t gamble, Fairbanks was born Douglas Elton Thomas Ullman on May 23, 1883, in Denver. His father, Charles, was the son of German Jewish immigrants who settled in Pennsylvania. His mother, Ella March, was a self-described Catholic Southern belle. Her first husband, John Fairbanks Sr., had died, and her second, Edward Wilcox, was an alcoholic whom she divorced. Charles Ullman had been her lawyer, and when he learned that Ella had been cheating on him, he left. Ella had to raise Douglas and his brother Robert on her own. She retaliated by assuming the last name of her first husband, but she struggled; there was never enough money.

Without completing high school, Douglas moved to New York to act on Broadway and got his break in 1902. He married Beth Sully in 1907. The year he began his a air with Pickford, 1916, Fairbanks played one of his most memorable roles, as “Coke Ennyday”—the cocaine-addicted detective based on Sherlock Holmes—in the comedy The Mystery of the Leaping Fish and one of his most serious, as Lo, the titular character in the western The Half-Breed.

If Fairbanks began in straitened circumstances, the early life of Mary Pickford was filled with death, disease, and despair. She was born Gladys Louise Smith in Toronto, Ontario, on April 8, 1892. When she was five her father, who yo-yoed in and out of the home, died of a head injury sustained at his job with Niagara Steamship. After that her mother, Charlotte, worked in a grocery store during the day and took in sewing at night. The family’s neighbors frequently provided food for Mary and her younger sister and brother, Lottie and Jack.

Her introduction to acting came when a stage manager living in the family’s home suggested she and Lottie appear in his theater company’s next production. After eight performances, the girls each received $10, which they gave to Charlotte. By 1906, after touring with stock companies throughout the United States, Pickford and her family landed in New York, where she appeared in a play written by William C. de Mille, brother of Cecil B. When the play’s producer insisted Gladys Smith create a stage name, they settled on Mary Pickford, cobbled together from Marie—the middle name given to her when she was baptized Catholic during a bout of diptheria—and that of Charlotte’s father, John Pickford Hennessey. Charlotte went so far as to change the family name to Pickford.

The young actress was formidable. Even as a child of seven in Toronto theaters, she asked for bigger parts and more money. In April 1909 Pickford did a screen test for D.W. Griffith at the Biograph Company. By the end of the same year she had appeared in more than 50 films. Pickford was just 17 at the time. After a trip to shoot movies in California the following year, she returned to Broadway but in 1913 moved into that Craftsman on Western with her mother and settled on making movies exclusively.

Pickford went on to negotiate deals with producers that provided the framework (guaranteed salaries with a percentage of the gross) still in use today. She was also a pioneer when she teamed up with Fairbanks, Chaplin, and Griffith to form their own production company, United Artists, in order to control distribution and maximize their film revenue. By the middle of the second decade of the 20th century, Pickford was among the highest paid—by some accounts, the highest paid—actor working in film.

The late teens and early twenties was a rolling time of progressive and regressive changes coming along practically hand in hand. Hard on the heels of the ratification of the 18th Amendment, which outlawed alcohol, came the 19th Amendment, giving women the right to vote in national elections. Reactionary forces were doing their best to hang on to the last vestiges of the Victorian era’s suffocating propriety while new technologies like projectors and Victrolas were delivering movies and music to the masses.

True believers and sanctimonious hypocrites alike decried the outsize influence movies had on the young and impressionable. Every city, it seemed, had at least one committee in place to review the content of films and judge their appropriateness.

Mary Pickford (in scarf) and Harold Lloyd (in glasses) at the 1959 dedication of the sculpture honoring the Beverly Hills eight

Something that was acceptable in San Francisco could be anathema to Pittsburgh. The fact that most of the men who ran the movie studios were Jewish only fueled the criticism. The question that roared from pulpits coast to coast was: How could Jews possibly uphold Christian morals?

Then there were the actors and actresses themselves. If they were frowned upon as bad influences, they did little to help their own cause. They partied often, and they partied hard. Beautiful and restless young men and women, they were unfettered by supervision, with hopes of fame, fortune, and adventure fueled by the proliferation of movie magazines. They had no blueprint to follow, no code of conduct.

Beverly Hills became a safety zone of sorts for them. There were even insinuations that movie censor-in-chief Will Hays suggested the rising stars make their way west to Beverly Hills—far enough to provide a buffer from the restaurants, clubs, and speakeasies of Los Angeles, as well as the legions of press who trawled such locations for juicy tidbits. In contrast to the sprawling, honeycombed-with-corruption Los Angeles Police Department, Beverly Hills had at most three police officers in the first three years of the 1920s; patrolling by either bicycle or motorcycle, they were discreet. As for the wild parties where underwear and shoes were thrown on the lush lawns, Charlie Blair, who in 1927 became the city’s first police chief, would ask the hosts to “quiet it down a little bit,” according to an account from Beverly Hills’ first city engineer. Blair would then have a couple of drinks at the soiree, and the volume of the festivities would abate. He never arrested anyone or drew his weapon.

This was the sleepy, star-filled city Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford decided to call home when they married in March 1920. Weeks later the couple left on a honeymoon that would hold more than a few revelations for the newlyweds. Their fame had gone global in a way that was completely new; there had never been anything quite like the pandemonium they caused wherever they went. As Pickford and Fairbanks traveled across the continent to New York to catch the boat to England, thousands waited to greet them and see them off; thousands greeted them when the ship docked at Southampton. Fairbanks would have to extricate his terrified bride from the throngs that reached into the open cars in which they traveled, trying to touch America’s Sweetheart. In one instance, Fairbanks carried Pickford on his shoulders to separate her from the crushing crowd.

When the couple returned from their honeymoon, they weren’t the first wealthy people to settle in Beverly Hills: Harry and Virginia Robinson of J.W. Robinson’s Department Store, Beverly Hills Board of Trustees president Silsby Spalding, and razor mogul King Gillette preceded them. They weren’t the first movie people either. Charles Ray and Corinne Griffith were, but Pickford and Fairbanks were the biggest. They were the undisputed king and queen of all that they surveyed. Their marriage was the stu of dreams and legends, and so was their home, Pickfair.

Given to Pickford as a wedding gift from her husband, the house was designed by Wallace Neff, California’s first homegrown starchitect. It was a mock-Tudor mansion perched on a hilltop and surrounded by 18 landscaped acres, complete with stables, tennis courts, servants’ quarters, garages, a guest wing, and a swimming pool large enough for Pickford and Fairbanks to paddle around in a canoe.

Wanting to live near Fairbanks, his best friend, Charlie Chaplin soon moved to the city. He was followed in rapid succession by a slew of others, ranging from Will Rogers to Harold Lloyd to Rudolph Valentino, along with studio moguls Louis B. Mayer, Carl Laemmle, and Thomas Ince. The glitterati built outsize manses on sprawling acreage with swimming pools, lush gardens, even waterfalls.

The problem was that as Pickfair came into full swing, the city was running out of fresh spring water. At least that was what the Rodeo Land and Water Company’s o shoot, the Beverly Hills Utility Company, claimed. In truth, the Rodeo Land and Water Company just wanted out, and even though it learned from local hydraulic engineers that there was potentially enough water for up to 30,000 residents, this fact was not shared with the citizens of Beverly Hills. The course of action Rodeo Land and Water proposed? Let Los Angeles annex the city so it could share in the bounty of the fresh Owens Valley water provided by the Los Angeles Aqueduct.

It seemed to be the only way to access Los Angeles’s supply. All through 1913, the year Mulholland’s project was completed, smaller cities were holding out hope that the water would be available to them. Mulholland wasn’t necessarily opposed to selling water, but he didn’t think that building a supply infrastructure for other municipalities was the responsibility of Los Angeles. “If a community wanted to be part of the [City of Los Angeles] water system,” he said, “the solution was simple…become part of the city, pay city taxes, and enjoy city services.”

Los Angeles did not go out and solicit cities and unincorporated territory to be annexed; the process had to start in the community that wished to join Los Angeles. So to become part of the larger metropolis, Beverly Hills would have to vote to be annexed and wait to see whether Los Angeles voters wanted them. Only then would Beverly Hills’ residents find out how much the move would cost them. At the time, Los Angeles had more than $80 million in outstanding bond debt. As part of Los Angeles, Beverly Hills would have to assume some of that debt, but how much was an open question. In addition Beverly Hills might face costs in the form of special assessments and fees.

There was also concern about the quality of the city services residents would receive. Los Angeles’s bureaucracy was over-extended. New York had grown in fits and starts from a 17 th-century Dutch trading post at the southern tip of the island of Manhattan. Los Angeles, on the other hand, had exploded almost entirely between 1910 and 1920, spawning, among other things, a massive oil industry (by 1920, the city and its adjacent communities produced almost 25 percent of the world’s petroleum) as well as a reputation that was less than savory, thanks to the city’s unique juxtaposition of high and low life.

Had the Rodeo Land and Water Company sought to persuade voters to annex Beverly Hills before World War I, the conventional steps of hiring public relations professionals and putting out ANNEXATION OR STAGNATION signs and banners would have probably been the extent of their efforts. But the anti-annexationists had more ammunition at their disposal than they might have initially been aware of. They had Mary Pickford.

Why would Pickford care one way or the other if Beverly Hills was annexed by Los Angeles?  For one thing, she always kept her eye on the bottom line. Annexation to Los Angeles looked to her like Beverly Hills would be signing a blank check. For another, she had to consider the blowback from recent celebrity scandals that hit close to home. These were no ordinary tales of people behaving badly; alcohol, drugs, and sex were involved, resulting in more than one death.

After a night of partying in 1920, Pickford’s sister-in-law, the actress Olive Thomas, died after accidentally drinking the mercury bi-chloride that Mary’s brother, Jack Pickford, used as a topical treatment for syphilis. A year after Thomas’s death, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle—one of Hollywood’s most popular and successful comedic actors—was arrested in the death of Virginia Rappe. They had been partying when she fell ill; after she died of a ruptured bladder days later, another woman claimed Arbuckle had raped Rappe. Tried three times, Arbuckle was found innocent, but not before another scandal hit: Actor-turned-director William Desmond Taylor was murdered in his home in February 1922, laying bare all his secrets, chief among them that he was a homosexual. There was a maelstrom of bad publicity, and Mary Pickford did not like bad publicity. Living in a separate city where she and her husband exerted considerable influence—a city where the police force wasn’t in the habit of cracking down on c lebrities or talking to the press—could help protect them from unwanted publicity.

So by her reckoning, it was to her advantage to do everything she could to ensure that Beverly Hills remained an independent city. She set out to reassure her neighbors that as an independent city, Beverly Hills wouldn’t run out of water, and she underscored how residents could be facing a large bill if they voted to join Los Angeles.

As a producer, Pickford knew the power of a great cast. To spread the word, she and Fairbanks enlisted six marquee names: Will Rogers, Harold Lloyd, Conrad Nagel, Fred Niblo, Tom Mix, and Rudolph Valentino.

Nagel had decided to try his luck in the moving pictures within a few years of graduating from college, and studio executives were sold on his wholesome Midwestern good looks. Not long after the annexation vote, he would head a movement, joined by Fairbanks, to build a wall around Beverly Hills to keep the outer world at bay.

Harold Lloyd, who developed the character “Glasses,” became one of the most successful, and richest, comedic actors of the silent film era. His magnificent home, Greenacres— complete with a waterfall and a meandering creek—was in the planning stages at the time of the proposed annexation.

Tom Mix, who essentially invented the celluloid cowboy hero archetype, wielded so much clout in the early days of Hollywood that Fox Film Corporation built “Mixville,” a 12-acre indoor-outdoor set on the grounds of the Edendale lot in what is now Echo Park. Full of bravado, Mix hung a giant “TM” in neon lights above his Beverly Hills mansion and had a fondness for alcohol. At least one of the Mixes was drunk when his wife shot him in the arm during an altercation in 1924; the bullet lodged next to his spine.

Even though Will Rogers, the other cowboy of the group, moved to a Pacific Palisades ranch in the late 1920s, he was the honorary mayor of Beverly Hills. Famous for his wit and his rope tricks, Rogers wrote a syndicated newspaper column starting in 1922, the year before the annexation vote, until his death in 1935, using the city as the dateline.

Born Frederico Nobile, Fred Niblo directed Fairbanks in two of his biggest films, The Mark of Zorro and The Three Musketeers, and Valentino in Blood and Sand, but he’s perhaps best known as being the principal director of Ben-Hur, which became one of the highest-grossing silent films of all time.

If there was a dark horse on Team Anti-Annexation, it was Valentino. An intensely private and sensitive man who had endured suggestions of homosexuality and an arrest for bigamy before The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and The Sheik made him a household name, he was one of the biggest stars there was. It’s safe to assume that it was Pickford who asked him to join the effort, because Fairbanks was jealous of even the most cursory attention paid to her by any man, let alone the 1920s equivalent of the sexiest man alive. (“I never saw Douglas act so fast, and with such painful rudeness, as he did in showing Valentino that he wasn’t welcome,” Pickford recalled in her autobiography.) It didn’t matter that Valentino moved into his Beverly Hills estate, Falcon Lair, only after the annexation vote. Valentino even agreed to a photo-op while going door-to-door in the campaign against annexation. It was a brilliant move: Who wouldn’t open the door to Valentino or, for that matter, any of the other seven campaigning against annexation?

Movie stars going door-to-door seem like fun, but the election was serious business. At one fund-raising  but the election was serious business. At one fund-raising dinner alone, more than $52,000 was raised by anti-annexationists; in all, between the two sides, more than $75,000 (the equivalent of more than $1 million today) was spent on the campaigns.

Things got so heated, someone sent an explosive device to the Beverly Hills News in the early days of the battle. The thought of bombs at newspapers resonated in Los Angeles. On October 1, 1910, union activist brothers John J. and James B. McNamara placed a suitcase packed with 16 sticks of dynamite equipped with a faulty timer in an alley next to the Los Angeles Times building. Twenty-one Times employees were killed and more than a hundred were injured. The metaphorical reverberations were felt for decades.

So it seemed an alarming turn of events, to say the least, when Al Murphy, the pro-annexation editor-publisher of the Beverly Hills News, reported that a bomb had gone off in his hands on February 26, 1923. Accompanying the device was a note that read: “The Hour at Which You Must Make the Decision Has Arrived! Lay Off the Annexation Stuff or Our Next Move Will Be TNT.” It was signed “KKK.”

News of the incident was carried in five Los Angeles daily papers and picked up by papers across the country. The reports were full of drama and hyperbole. Murphy received only superficial burns, but he went to town giving quotes to any reporter of a Los Angeles paper who would listen, his hands and face still sporting bandages. An almost full-page photo of what was left of the device, including the message, dominated the front page of William Randolph Hearst’s Los Angeles Examiner. “I have received numerous threats, both by telephone and unsigned letters, in the past few weeks,” Murphy told the paper, “but this machine is the first actual attempt that has been made to do me bodily harm. I have armed myself and am ready for their next move.” The Los Angeles Evening Express reported that suspects had been named and there would be little difficulty in bringing “the guilty parties to justice.”

No one was ever arrested for the bombing. In fact, sheriff’s deputies determined there had never actually been a bombing. “What was at first believed to be an attempt to assassinate Al Murphy, editor of the Beverly Hills News, was classed today by deputy sheriffs who investigated the case as a practical joke,” the Los Angeles Evening Herald reported March 1. “The officers found the ‘bomb’ was made out of small firecrackers.” The whole story had been digested and reduced to a two-paragraph summary on the front page of The New York Times under the headline, “‘Infernal Machine’ Explodes; Firecrackers Injure Editor.”

But the battle raged on. Of the two sides, the anti-annexationists certainly had more reason for concern about the outcome. The issue of adequate water for Beverly Hills, and where additional sources would be found, was front and center. The city had found a potential source, calling the site the Gold Seal Well. However, before it could drill, the quality of the water had to be assured, and pro-annexationists argued that the water wasn’t safe. The matter was taken up by the California State Board of Health in the state capital, where the first hearing on the viability of the well was set for April 7, 1923, a little more than two weeks before the special election was scheduled in Beverly Hills. If the board determined the water was unsafe so close to the election, that message might mean the death knell for Beverly Hills. The tension was ratcheted up even further when it turned out that the Board of Health hadn’t made a decision on the quality of water from the new well in that meeting and instead scheduled a public hearing to fall just four days before the annexation vote. Given that the outcome had the potential to deliver the election to one side or the other, the stakes could not have been higher. Both camps lined up teams of experts to testify before Dr. Walter M. Dickie, the secretary of the California State Board of Health, offering contradictory arguments about the quality of water from the Gold Seal Well. It was for naught: The Board of Health adjourned, postponing its decision on issuing a permit to drill the new well until May—after the annexation election.

Then, on Monday, April 23—the day before Beverly Hills voters were to go to the polls—pro-annexationists placed bottles containing water with a high and odoriferous sulfur content on every doorstep with a note that said, “Warning! Drink Sparingly of This Water, As It Has Laxative Qualities,” followed by “THIS IS A SAMPLE OF THE WATER WHICH THE TRUSTEES OF THE CITY OF BEVERLY HILLS PROPOSE AS A WATER SUPPLY FOR OUR CITY!” The label concluded with the official-sounding declaration, “An Affidavit certifying that this water is a true sample taken from the well the trustees propose is deposited at the First National Bank of Beverly Hills.”

 

Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks in their pool at Pickfair

Courtesy Bison Archive

Tuesday, April 24, dawned cool and clear. At last, as B.J. Firminger wrote in the Beverly Hills Citizen, “The shouting and tumult, the arguing and buttonholeing [sic] ended, the day of the great annexation election finally arrived.” According to the Examiner, “The campaign…was one of the most spectacular ever staged in California.”

As usual, coverage in the Los Angeles Examiner was the most colorful: “The motion picture stars who have helped to make the hills of this suburban Elysium blossom with their palatial piles nearly all voted early, and they did not overlook the very practical requisite of loading their cars down with an interesting miscellany of maid servants, chauffeurs, gardeners, chefs, and whatnot. The sentiment among these, it was reported, was unanimously against annexation.”

The paper was right. According to Firminger, about 90 percent of registered voters went to the polling place that day in what was “said to be the largest vote ever recorded in a single Los Angeles County precinct.” By one account 507 voted against Beverly Hills becoming part of Los Angeles and 337 in favor. Beverly Hills would remain an independent city. In spite of Prohibition, corks were popped and people celebrated with torchlight parades, police and fire sirens, and car horns. Otherwise staid citizens “commandeered the fire engine and had it driven up one street and down the other,” Firminger wrote.

After the defeat of annexation, Beverly Hills went about keeping the taps flowing, and the dire warnings of running out of water did not come to pass. In 1928 the city purchased the Sherman Water Company from the neighboring town (the future city of West Hollywood) and in 1941 began receiving deliveries from the Metropolitan Water District, which supplies cities throughout the region. Beverly Hills stopped relying on its own wells in 1976.

Though Pickford’s days of politicking ended with the election, she would go on to help found the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. She and Lloyd would also join the Committee for Honoring Motion Picture Stars, where, as the two surviving members of the Beverly Hills Eight, they helped lead an effort to honor their colleagues’ effort to keep Beverly Hills alive. The result of their efforts is a peculiar bronze-and-marble obelisk called Celluloid, installed on a traffic island at the intersection of Olympic Boulevard and South Beverly Drive. Surrounded by heavily tracked lanes, it’s far from the tourist attraction it was meant to be. If you’re looking at it, that means you are stopped at a light or stuck in traffic. But squint and you just might see the bas-relief on the plinth representing each of the stars in a signature role.

FromThe Battle for Beverly Hillsby Nancie Clare. Copyright 2018 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press.


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