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The Cafeteria of the Golden Rule
In 1931, Clifford Clinton opened his first self-serve restaurant, telling his customers to “Pay what you wish.” Seventy-two years later the chain is still around, and its founder is remembered as one of the city’s great reformers
OF HIS MOVE to Los Angeles when he and the 20th century were both 31 years old, Clifford Clinton would later write, “I was frightened.” He had reason to be. He had a wife, three small children, and a grubstake of $2,000. His business partners in San Francisco were firing him, for cause, from the restaurants they oversaw, the cause being that they considered his notions impractical in the extreme. The L.A. location to which he was contemplating transplanting those notions was, as he charitably put it, “suffering.” It was a moribund cafeteria in the heart of downtown losing $6,000 a month, so “old and worn” even the bottoms of its pots were burned through. Suffering, too, was his prospective clientele. “This was not the booming city I had visited to study five years before,” Clinton wrote. The Great Depression had hit Los Angeles in a tidal wave of red dust and misery, rolling out of the east at jalopy speed.
Considering that he had “only … dreams for sale” and considering the tatterdemalion property he was intent on renting, the negotiations between the young restaurateur and the landlord had a spectral quality. “We were both trading in elements of questionable practical value, certainly,” Clinton wrote. Yet “I was still tantalized by the idea of an independent place of my own, to test my own ideas, unconventional as I know them to be.” So he took the place, and spent his money on new pots and table linen and trumpeted the first of his unconventional ideas right on the cashier’s bill for every customer to read. Later, when he renovated, he put it in bright neon over the door, next to the name of the place. The neon blared PAY WHAT YOU WISH. The name of the place, which he derived from an accordioning of his own two, was Clifton’s. Customers called it the Cafeteria of the Golden Rule.
In its first three months of business, in the summer of 1931, Clifton’s served 10,000 meals to patrons who, paying what they wished, paid nothing whatsoever. With that, Clifford Clinton was on his way to becoming one of the city’s wealthiest restaurant owners, and decidedly its most powerful. By the end of the decade, in the estimation of some of his admirers and in the fears of his prominent enemies in city hall and the city’s newsrooms, he was on his way to dominating Los Angeles politics. They called him “Dictator Clinton” and “Der Los Angeles Fuhrer” and equated him with Stalin. He had plans to take his unconventional ideas national, plans to save the world from hunger and want and to save L.A. from traffic and crime and social anomie. And he’d proved he could not be stopped by threat or by force, by fists or imprisonment or dynamite, for those had been tried and found wanting, nor by common sense.
Of his move to Los Angeles Clifford Clinton would write, “I tried to face into my panic, rather than run.” After he arrived, Los Angeles learned that the one thing Clifford Clinton seemed incapable of doing was running. He invented the New Deal before the New Deal, pioneered fast food before there was a fast-food nation, fantasy theme venues before Disneyland or Universal City Walk, political talk radio before Rush, and the use of the recall before any Gray ever met a Terminator. Pearl Buck wrote a novel, God’s Men, loosely based on his life, and Fritz Lang made a film, The Big Heat, derived as loosely from his travails. If Raymond Chandler and Nathanael West didn’t write about him, they nevertheless finished their respective masterpieces during a year saturated with headlines screaming “Clinton” above articles whose L.A. noir and nihilism exceeded any novel plot.
To what degree he succeeded in converting Los Angeles, and even the nation, to his special vision, and to what degree Los Angeles succeeded in thwarting Clifford Clinton, is an open question. As with other questions of a religious nature, there is a mother church where this one can best be asked. Clinton died in 1969—remarkably, of natural causes and by all accounts a happy man. Just as remarkably, his Cafeteria of the Golden Rule remains in business. It still makes money with notions that might seem impractical. It’s still in the heart of downtown.
ON BROADWAY, on the block between 6th Street and 7th, early morning belongs to the dispossessed. The tambourine preachers take the corners, and the Tourette’s- and tic-ridden pace the pavement, and the least lucky of the panhandlers settle down against the security grates gripping their cardboard curricula vitae, peddling their misfortune to others hardly more fortunate. Gradually the commuters and the shopkeepers arrive. The itinerant vendors set up makeshift displays of tchotchkes—toy ponies, bobble-headed dashboard dogs—in the entrances of the deserted once-grand theaters, music begins blaring from the sneaker shops, and the steel grates go up on a blinding storefront sunrise, a solar flare of gold watches and necklaces, baubles and rings. In a city as big and as centrifuged as Los Angeles, the well-off and the less so generally exist over the horizon from each other, and the barrier separating privilege from penury is so vast as to be measurable by GPS. On Broadway, in the jewelry district, it’s as thin as a pane of glass.
On a morning in mid September, near the intersection with 7th, I encountered an old American Indian man sitting on the sidewalk waiting for a handout. His name was Frances duBull, “of Sitting Bull’s family” Lest any doubt arise regarding that heritage, he wore a headband cut from a corrugated box, on which he had lettered with a dull pencil FULL-BLOODED LAKOTA SIOUX, and he’d stuck a bedraggled pigeon feather in his gray hair. His sign explained that his prostate cancer had spread beyond cure. His truck had broken down as he passed through Los Angeles, he told me, and he’d sold it for a sum sufficient, he thought, to buy him a bus ticket home, home being South Dakota. He hadn’t reckoned on inflation. Now he was trying to gather the extra $150, while getting poorer every day. When the stores opened and the security guards arrived, he would move down the street to do more of the same on yet another corner. It struck me that another corner was as far as Frances duBull was ever likely to get.
“Had any breakfast?” I asked him, nodding toward the establishment adjacent.
He threw a glance haloed with glaucoma at the marquee proclaiming CLIFTON’S and the gilt script in the doorway saying BRING THE FAMILY and finally shook his head. “Couldn’t afford it,” he decided. He was dearly new to the neighborhood.
“If people come in and they’re in their right mind and seem to be sober and not high on drugs and present a need, we give them food,” Robert Clinton, Clifford’s grandson and Clifton’s president, told me later that day. “I’ll do that myself. I go back to the counter and get some food and put it in a to-go container. Or if they’re presentable they’ll sit in the dining room. We still follow the philosophy that Clifford Clinton had, of treating others as we like to be treated. So we still offer food to people who can’t pay for it.”
Clifton’s paying customers run the demographic gamut. Brookdale (as the cafeteria is also known) is a place where L.A. breaks bread with itself, where customers with Montblancs peeking from their dress-shirt pockets chat animatedly with customers of the sort who drag wheeled luggage carts even though they aren’t on a trip. They talk about the horses, about politics. Once in a while, those who know the history talk about the Clintons. At lunchtime on this day the Clintons talked about themselves. The room’s corner table was filled with family: Robert; his father, Donald, who ran the company until 2001; and Donald’s sister, Jean Clinton Roeschlaub, the company’s former vice president.
It was apparent from what they said that far from being tolerated in Clifton’s, Frances duBull would have been one of Clifford Clinton’s favorite customers: not wealthy, not white, not from here, and hungry.
“Clifford did not like to see people put down and held down,” Don Clinton told me. “That’s why he started the policy of no guest need go hungry for lack of funds. He was trying to put his ideals, his personal ideals, in a business format. He wanted to prove that that would work.”
“He intertwined his spiritual beliefs with his business practices,” Robert said. “He was really committed to that and wasn’t going to let profit keep him from fulfilling those beliefs.”
The beliefs and the business came so early in Clifford’s upbringing as to be naturally conjoined. His father, Edmond Jackson Clinton, owned restaurants in San Francisco. E.J. and Gertrude, Clifford’s mother, were both captains in the Salvation Army, and the restaurants (which were transparently high-minded—their names were the Puritan and the Quaker) fueled their humanitarian endeavors, notably trips to China, where the whole family, young Clifford included, worked in the famine fields in the dire years after the Boxer Rebellion.
There the young boy was apprenticed in courage. One time his father tied a rope to him and lowered him down a well to grab a child who’d fallen in; on occasion their lives were threatened by white-hating villagers. China imprinted on him an indelible image of desperation. He would later recall the time his father applied an oatmeal poultice to the sores of a sick man, whose relatives later ate the poultice and left the patient to die.
“They were not missionaries so much as helpers in a mission that was an orphanage,” Don said. “Many children, especially girls, were being abandoned because their parents could not feed them. My dad’s job each morning was to circle the city, to walk around the town wall where little girls were abandoned and left outside to die. He would collect as many as he could and bring them back to the orphanage. This experience lasted with him.”
For one thing, it left him with an abhorrence of waste, to the point where even late in life he was trying to break himself of his penchant, which he found unattractive, for saving envelope backs and bits of string. Back in San Francisco, Clifford, at age 14, left school and joined the family business. While busing tables and washing dishes, he began putting together his own ethic of how a business should be run, based on the Christian precepts he’d learned at his father’s knee. He compiled these into a bound manual and three notebooks. “It was what you’d call a business plan,” Don said. “I call it a business plan. He called it a ‘manual of operation’ and it was unique, radical for the time.”
Clifford dedicated the resulting volume to his father, his “constant source of inspiration.” His father, presented with Clifford’s business ideas, fired him, as his partners would years later.
So, Clifford came south, notebooks in hand. The opportunity was an old Boos Brothers cafeteria at 618 Olive Street, near what is now the Central Library. The cafeteria format had been going strong in Southern California since 1905, when Helen Mosher had opened a tray line in her saloon on Hill Street. The Boos Brothers were Mosher’s professional descendants, but by 1931, they had sold their holdings to a national chain that then unloaded one of them on Clifford Clinton.
It seemed no climate in which to undertake any except the most conservative of business plans, but Clinton immediately set out with a host of innovations. Along with the offer to serve anyone who couldn’t afford the tab went a guarantee of full satisfaction: DINE FREE UNLESS DELIGHTED, the check promised. Clifton’s provided free newspapers for the use of its breakfasters; free sherbet (from a “sherbet mine”) for the kids; free punch, which clients dipped from a constantly flowing beverage stream; and a tour bus that would give them a sight-seeing spin around L.A. for a fee that grew from gratis to 15 cents as costs rose. Customers could also avail themselves of a free “Guests’ Exchange Service,” a sort of personals listing for lonely hearts; a “Clifton Hospitality Bureau,” which offered tickets to theater shows and studio broadcasts; and Clifton’s “Personal Problem Guidance,” in which diners could discuss their life dilemmas with the restaurant brass, including the boss.
The boss’s wisdom was on display on every table in a weekly newsletter called Food for Thot, which aired, among other things, complaints from dissatisfied customers about greasy trays or cold coffee, followed by Clinton’s mea culpas or defense. Food for Thot also broached more serious issues. Clifton’s integrated dining room drew praise from many but not all. “I have always liked Clifton’s,” one letter from 1944 began, “but yesterday two Negroes came and sat at my table…. After that the food tasted like sawdust.” Clinton responded that he would not violate Christianity, the Constitution, and his own conscience by treating blacks as second class and invoked wartime patriotism. “If colored skin is a passport to death for our liberties,” he wrote, “then it is a passport to Clifton’s.”
As well as his “guests” were treated, his employees fared even better. “Except we don’t call them employees,” Don corrected me. “They’re associates.” The lowliest associate had a stake in the company, which was run by two coequal voting boards, one of rank and file, the other of managers. Clinton’s manual of operations stipulated a fully paid medical plan for his workers, something unheard of at the time. “He went to a local doctor in the Subway Terminal Building and said, ‘Dr. Seals, would you accept $300 a month to take care of our 150 people on the payroll?’ And the doctor said, ‘Sure,'” Don told me. “So the associates had free hospitalization, free doctor, subsidized dental. I think we paid the medications as well from the local pharmacy. Recuperation was in our own home. Anyone coming out of the hospital after an appendectomy could stay in the house for a week or two.”
Jean Clinton Roeschlaub’s memory of the recuperation wing of her childhood home is especially vivid. Her father supplied her with a tailored nurse’s uniform when Jean was an adolescent for her to wear while administering to ill associates. Clinton’s 18-room mansion in Los Feliz was open to all associates at all hours. If they weren’t recuperating from one thing or another, they could just come by and swim in the pool, no appointment necessary.
“My dad never locked the front door,” Don said. “We had a sign out front that read OUR DOOR’S UNLATCHED FOR EVERY GUEST. LET HE WHO ENTERS FIND PEACE AND REST. The door stayed open. It was symbolic. He didn’t turn people away.” Off in the front corner of the yard, at the elbow intersection of Los Feliz and Western, Clinton erected a concrete bench where passersby could stop and rest, with a water fountain next to it.
Clifford Clinton had chosen Los Angeles as a place where his ideas had a better-than-elsewhere chance of meeting success. He admired the local embrace of unorthodox business models. More broadly, as writer Bruce Henstell put it, he had an “intuitive command of Los Angeles’ deep-seated taste for the strange.” Even here Clinton’s sense of charity may have been too strange by half; his racial inclusiveness and his encouragement of poorer classes did not fit the local tenor of the times. In the years when he was fledging his cafeterias, the Los Angeles Police Department had detailed 136 L.A. cops to a “bum blockade” posted on the state border to stop cars arriving on state highways and interrogate their occupants. Any traveler not displaying adequate funds was turned away or arrested for vagrancy. In 1931, Los Angeles deported 12,600 Mexicans.
What put Clinton most out of sync with his new city was his general approach to business. “We see no reason why our other interests and ideals should not be a part of our business,” a Clifton’s pamphlet read. “We believe that everything that contributes to a better life should be applied to business. It is only when the best fruits of religion are assimilated into our business, our pleasure, our politics, our lives that they have complete moral and spiritual justification.”
“A lot of people thought he was crazy,” Don said. Among them was a barrister who came for lunch one day in 1931, looked at the DINE FREE UNLESS DELIGHTED promise on the check, and told Clinton, “I am on the bench in bankruptcy court. I give you just one year, and then I expect to see you before me as a defendant, young man.”
The prediction wasn’t wild. Clifton’s early popularity with indigent customers almost swamped its paying business. In response, instead of abandoning the golden-rule approach, Clinton expanded it. Within a year and a half of opening his first cafeteria, he debuted a new one a few blocks away where every meal cost one cent or could be had by redeeming merry-go-round tickets, which he sold to people who wanted something other than money to hand out to the needy. His Penny Caveteria (so named because it was located in a basement) served a reported 2 million people over the next two years. It caused some consternation.
“We have been severely condemned for our operation of the Penny,” stated a Clifton’s brochure, which listed among the complaints the fear that “it would cause more drifters to remain in our city” and the suspicion that some who were “undeserving” were being fed. “But why should the deserving go hungry because of this, and the mingling with these good folks has taught us what we did on faith, was really the right thing.”
The approach also gathered admirers, including many who came through Clifton’s and paid extra to support the effort. In this way, his charity began to bear fruit. A regular supporter of the Penny Caveteria, who commonly bought whole rolls of redeemable tickets, called Clinton one day to offer him a chance to take over another downtown location, in a desirable building he owned on Broadway. Clinton converted the space into Brookdale, then the largest commercial cafeteria in the world.
The conversion produced perhaps the greatest sylvan fantasy since the Brothers Grimm. After a trip back north Clinton came home with some hollowed-out redwood logs, which he wrapped around the structural pillars in his new dining room. Then he installed a noisily babbling waterfall and a wraparound craggy rock mezzanine (with a balcony where associates would gather to sing for the diners), and he set a prominent muralist loose on the walls, the result being a convincing forest clearing. The popularity of the renovation among his customers required that he redecorate the original Clifton’s to compete, so that was converted, too, into Clifton’s Pacific Seas, a tropical paradise reflecting the popularity of Dorothy Lamour’s sarong. Here the waterfall cascaded several stories over the front entrance, down a facade plastered to resemble a basalt precipice and planted with tropical trees. The interior was a garden of bamboo and neon, with caged birds singing amid blooming neon orchids and waving neon palm trees, in a tableau Los Angeles Times columnist Jack Smith celebrated as “a triumph of Polynesian kitsch.” Every 20 minutes, in a room called the Rain Hut, it rained. And thundered. Several times a night, leis of gardenias were hung around the necks of lucky guests, and impromptu concerts staged. An organist serenaded the assembled from a rattan balcony. “They were and are wondrous places,” The New Yorker enthused in a 1948 profile of Clinton and his enterprises. Even the Penny Caveteria, for all its rescue mission austerity (clients bused their own tables, and the only silverware was spoons), boasted a piano contributed by the Starr Piano Company and a five-piece orchestra, courtesy of the musicians union.
“We’re making a poor man’s nightclub,” Clinton told his wife, regarding the Pacific Seas. The cafeteria’s Christian roots were not abandoned to the glitz, though they were sequestered. Clinton installed a meditation room in a cellar with a diorama of the Garden of Gethsemane; a plaster sculpture of a kneeling Jesus kept vigil through the dark hour of his disciples’ desertion. A pressed button cued up a recording of an essay Clinton had commissioned called “The Influence of One Life.” Brookdale was marginally less devotional, but it did have a small chapel in a stone grotto entered via a wooden door with a bench for two and a vista through a small arched window into a bosky dell. On the roof of the Little Stone Chapel shone a small neon cross.
Observance and service to humanity had never seemed less penitential, more fun, more extravagantly… Los Angeles. Clifton’s turned coleslaw and meat loaf into a full dispensation from the despair of the Depression and, later, from the terror of the war years. In return, customers and employees brought a gleeful enthusiasm to the feel-good-and-feed-yourself phantasmagoria, and for some, the glee verged on a conversion experience. Jennie Chiarro was a salesgirl in a Montgomery Ward in Grand Junction, Colorado, when she visited Los Angeles to see her sister and first encountered Clifton’s. “It was June 1942,” she told me. “Right in the middle of the war. I went in there and went upstairs and listened to the organist. I sat up there two hours and never did go down and get anything to eat. I listened to the singing, the music. They were giving away free sherbet. And everybody seemed so nice. I just liked the atmosphere, because everything was so glum, with the war. The girl was coming down the aisle with a coffeepot and saying, ‘Coffee? Coffee?’ And she was helping people help themselves. I was fascinated.
“I went out and went back and told my sister, ‘I’m going to work at Clifton’s.’ I hadn’t talked to anybody there, you know.” Chiarro rode the bus back to Colorado, quit her job despite her boss’s offer of a raise, and two days later was speaking with a manager at the Pacific Seas. “He said, ‘Come back tomorrow morning at 5:30.’ And I stayed 20 years.
“And the Clintons were so good to me,” Chiarro added. Every morning, she remembered, Clifford arrived with a box of hibiscus blossoms he’d picked himself, and she’d take one for her hair.
Others were less enamored of Clifford Clinton’s way of doing things, the reverse transubstantiation with which he turned the blood and body of Christian virtue into the wine and wafer of worldly success. In his morals, they smelled moralism. Clinton “was a man of almost evangelical temperament, inclination,” one of his city hall critics wrote. “He always wanted to reform something, to correct something, and Clifford Clinton was always right and everyone else was always wrong.” Clinton would agree, in part, and attributed his “inclination” to the turmoil of his childhood in China. “The feeling which still possesses me in times of crisis, or problems, is the urge, the necessity to enter in and have a personal part in putting things right. Unrest and insecurity overwhelm me; where there is disorder or lack of plan, I cannot be relaxed, nor quiet within myself.”
With such a man, feeling such a way in such a place as Los Angeles, trouble was bound to follow. It didn’t help diminish the ultimate intensity of that trouble that Clinton’s antagonists were the town’s biggest newspaper, its chief of police, and the mayor.
THE EVENT THAT WOULD SET in motion the confrontation that would change Los Angeles forever and so determine Clifford Clinton’s place in its history was a simple invitation. In 1936, a Los Angeles County supervisor, John Anson Ford, asked Clinton for help behind the scenes: Would he visit the County General Hospital and give an assessment of its problem-plagued food service? Clinton took the task seriously, examining everything from contracts to the contents of the garbage, and his subsequent summary was, Ford said, “one of the most comprehensive reports ever turned in by a layman.” It unearthed extravagant misappropriations, payments for supplies up to ten times their worth. As a result, the hospital director was canned and $120,000 lopped off the annual budget, and in gratitude for his service, Clinton was nominated in 1937 for the county grand jury and named chairman of the vice-investigating committee. He had no political resume or interest; the only official he knew in L.A. jurisprudence was the skeptical bankruptcy judge who lunched at the cafeterias. But he had a natural base of information. His cafeteria patrons informed him of brothels, bookmaking, and other illicit activity they’d stumbled on. His committee’s digging into these and other leads produced a portrait of a city riddled with mob-run vice, on a level and to a degree that would seem impossible to maintain without official protection. Clinton presented the information to the grand jury, giving the addresses of gambling joints and naming racketeers linked with high public officials, and petitioned for a broad investigation. To his naive surprise, the grand jury did nothing.
Because, of course, the grand jury was an integral part of the syndicate of politicians and mobsters then running L.A. A majority of the jurists seemed inclined to honor the instructions of the 1936 jury foreman: “Be a mill and grind up what they bring you.” Nine were directly or indirectly connected with the same hoodlums Clinton was trying to finger. The syndicate’s pinnacle was in City Hall, in the person of His Honor, Mayor Frank Shaw.
Shaw was a former greengrocer and reform Democrat—”reform” in that he’d won office as an anticorruption candidate behind the slogan “Throw the grafters out.” Once in the big chair, though, Shaw appointed his brother, Joe, a former navy lieutenant, as his secretary, and the main reforming the two did was a streamlining of corruption to better serve their purposes, Under previous administrations, city officials had been expected merely to look the other way while the crooks and the cops colluded. The Shaw brothers aspired to a more active management role in L.A. crime and expected a little higher compensation for their good efforts. From his office in City Hall (an office known to gamblers, who went there to get their activities sanctioned, as “the corner pocket”), Joe Shaw began selling city and civil service appointments and established an orderly kickback scale for city businesses: Houses of prostitution paid $25 per girl per week, bookies an initiation fee of $250, and casinos a sort of progressive tax based on their takings. Later, when Shaw had had his comeuppance, reporters would discover in the mayor’s official Buick a secret compartment beneath the rear floorboards where cash installments were stashed. The enforcement that buttressed this empire was ruthless: Transgressors were framed on morals charges, plagued with the unwanted attentions of police or city inspectors, or murdered.
The same awaited any reformers or political meddlers who might try to get in the way. The administration had among its assets the see-no-evil compliance of the Los Angeles Times (because Shaw was helpful to the land speculations of the Chandler family) and the brute force of the Los Angeles Police Department under the direction of Shaw appointee James E. “Two Gun” Davis. Joe Shaw organized within Davis’s department a Metropolitan Squad, which matured into the Special Intelligence Unit. The 18 members of the “Spy Squad,” as it was later popularly known, were assigned to rooting out subversive activity. The squad’s purpose appeared to be to use any methods—bugging, surveillance, kidnapping, extortion, verbal and physical threat, gun-play—to quash any criticism of the Shaw administration. One contemporary chronicler called it “perhaps … the most sinister organization in America.”
Clinton didn’t take the hint when the grand jury ignored his request for an investigation, and he didn’t back away. Instead he filed a minority report to the grand jury that the newspapers could not ignore and went on to found an organization that would investigate on its own what the public investigators wouldn’t. He called it CIVIC, an acronym for Citizens Independent Vice Investigating Committee, and staffed it with prominent community and religious leaders, and paid its expenses out of his own pocket. CIVIC volunteers canvassed the city, amassing evidence of 1,800 bookmakers, 200 gambling dens, and 600 brothels granted immunity by payoffs.
The reaction to Clinton’s obstinacy was immediate. His cafeterias were besieged by city officials “just doing their job”: They charged the Pacific Seas with sanitation violations and raised its taxes overnight by $6,700 a year. Clinton was refused his permit to operate Brookdale, whose renovation was already paid for, and refused a permit for a hotel he wanted to open. Then things got personal. Stink bombs were left in the lavatories, in the kitchen. Customers (or stuntmen, as Don Clinton called them) began “falling down the stairs” and filing complaints about food poisoning, prompting Clinton to open a first aid booth in the Pacific Seas and post a sign advising ENTER AT YOUR OWN RISK. Busloads of indigents were dropped off at his door, and busloads of blacks were brought up from Central Avenue to request service, a ploy so guaranteed to run off Clifton’s “respectable” clientele that Clinton would surely have to refuse them entrance and lose his saintly patina. Clinton didn’t blink. “He greeted the colored people cordially,” Supervisor Ford said, “and experienced no loss of patronage: In fact, it probably helped.”
Near midnight on October 28, 1937, an explosion destroyed the kitchen of Clinton’s mansion; someone had used his open-door policy as an invitation to come in and place a bomb. No one was hurt. The Los Angeles Times conjectured that it was a Clinton publicity stunt, but the description of a car seen leaving the scene fit one belonging to the Spy Squad. In fact, the squad had Clinton under surveillance and was recording his conversations with a Dictaphone. On a bright early morning the following January, there was a second explosion. Harry Raymond, a tough former police chief of San Diego and Venice employed by Clinton as one of CIVIC’s investigators, turned the ignition key of his car and blew himself, his car, and his Boyle Heights garage to pieces. Remarkably he lived, to spend the next several months having 150 pieces of shrapnel removed and holding a pistol at the ready under his hospital blankets.
The perpetrators were soon evident. “That’s too bad,” Earle Kynette was heard to say when he got the news of Raymond’s close call. “Next time we’ll do a better job.” Kynette was Captain Kynette, the “dough-faced, weak-eyed egomaniac” and “psychopath” (depending on which magazine one read) who headed the LAPD’s Special Intelligence Unit. Based on bomb parts found in his home and other evidence, he was eventually convicted of attempted murder and sent to San Quentin. Back home on Los Feliz Boulevard, Clifford Clinton summoned his wife and children and asked them the question that seemed to be hanging in the air with the smell of black powder. Should he give up the fight? The family said no, but the decision rested with the individual. In the public speculations of some, the bombing presented a moment when Clinton could perfectly respectably recuse himself, if he so chose.
Instead Clinton went on the offensive. Barred from most newspapers and broadcast studios, whose sponsors were threatened with violence if they advertised in any media that promoted CIVIC’s viewpoint, Clinton found a home on radio station KEHF, where he broadcast four times a day, indicting the corruption in city hall. After the attempt to kill Raymond, the programs opened with the sound of an exploding car bomb, and whenever Clinton came to the description of an alleged evildoer whose role was not yet proved, the name was drowned out by a loud gong. The show was known citywide by the shorthand “The Mister Bong Show.” It reached an estimated 300,000 listeners and became the most potent weapon in Clinton’s ultimate effort, the recall of Mayor Shaw.
The Shaw machine tried everything to slow down the recall. When Clinton mounted teams of signature gatherers, the mayor sent out his own fake team, which tossed out any names it gathered. City and police officials mailed out encomiums to Shaw and denunciations of Clinton as a communist (and fascist), as antilabor, as a political kingpin bent on controlling the city. But he got double the needed signatures, and on September 16, 1938, Shaw received 122,692 votes while his Clinton-picked opponent, Judge Fletcher Bowron, got 232,427. For the first time in American history, the mayor of a major city had been recalled.
THE AFTERMATH OF THE Shaw recall was a long one, for Los Angeles and for Clifford Clinton. Mayor Bowron fired a host of miscreants, including 23 of the LAPD’s high-ranking officers. His administration reigned until 1953 and was (and by some observers still is) lauded as the cleanest in L.A. history. Clinton ended up frustrated with Bowron’s foursquare, unimaginative approach. He saw new dangers for Los Angeles—traffic congestion, smog, and proliferating suburbs that would destroy the community that L.A. might grow to become. In a pamphlet he published in 1944, Clinton warned that it was “an ominous yardstick of our genius for democracy” that despite being a “feverish political center,” Los Angeles had “yet to produce its first statesman.” He may have envisioned himself as that statesman. The following year he ran for mayor against his old ally Bowron and lost. Reflecting the urgency of his concern for his adopted city, Clinton had titled his pamphlet The Clock Strikes Twelve. But Clinton himself was past his zenith. The war that had changed everything else about L.A. also changed its sense of who its heroes were. The crusading reformer so dangerous his enemies had slandered him (in the recounting of The New Yorker) as “a crackpot … a perjurer, a peeping-tom, an aspiring dictator, and, jeeringly, a White Knight in Rimless Spectacles” was now, at least politically, old hat.
Clifford Clinton turned his attention back to food. His cafeterias became a chain—eventually the company operated eleven, all in the Los Angeles area—and he announced a plan to take the concept national, with a projected 400,000 associates serving more than 5 billion guests a year in 20,000 cafeterias, located in every town of any size in America, and relieving the country of hunger. He abandoned that grandiose plan, but only for another, in which he enlisted a scientist at Caltech to devise a miracle food, cheap and nutritionally complete. The soy mixture that resulted he named MPF, or Multi-Propose Food, and produced in bulk. He distributed MPF around the globe, to war-ravaged Europe and famine-plagued Asia, through a relief agency he founded called Meals for Millions. The agency is now named Freedom from Hunger. While he was alive it operated out of offices in Brookdale.
The empire of Clifton’s cafeterias that never materialized nationally has imploded here at home. Of the eleven locations, two remain (Brookdale and one in West Covina). “People’s tastes have changed. We are a bit of a dinosaur,” Robert Clinton said, surveying the Brookdale dining room. The world that could not be conquered by the communitarian cafeteria was conquered instead by the other Southern California innovation, the isolate drive-thru hamburger stand. In 1960, Clifton’s Pacific Seas closed its doors, and the restaurant, which had suffered in the car age because it did not have a parking lot, was demolished for one. Some of the Polynesian furnishings went into the family’s mansion, and the neon trees and flowers became curios in someone else’s backyard, though Don Clinton expects they’ve advanced to the junkyard by now. The plaster Jesus from the Garden of Gethsemane made the rounds for a while, a refugee savior. Before the statue came to rest where it remains today, on display in the Holyland Exhibition in Echo Park, just off the Glendale Freeway, it spent years in a fourth-floor storage room above Brookdale. Robert Clinton would sometimes climb the stairs to visit it there.
“It’s remarkable,” he said of Clifton’s longevity. “As we look back on it, it’s quite an achievement to have done that, and there’s obviously other forces at work that have allowed us to make it all these years.” I asked him once what it was like to try to conduct business in the modern age according to the golden-rule principles his grandfather instituted when he opened the original Clifton’s. “The golden rule hasn’t changed during these 70 years,” he replied. “But society and our culture have changed a lot.”
One testament to those changes can be found at the corner of Los Feliz and Western, where the former Clinton mansion still exists amid a bramble of pittosporum. The bench he erected by the corner for the weary pedestrian remains but is cut off from the sidewalk by a six-foot-high wrought-iron fence that surrounds the property. Burglar bars cover the windows, upstairs and down, and the entry that used to bear a sign saying OUR DOOR’S UNLATCHED FOR EVERY GUEST. LET HE WHO ENTERS FIND PEACE AND REST is now barred by a security gate and an Armed Response standard.
The sign itself is mounted on the wall of Brookdale, in the dining room. The room has plastic flowers instead of live ones now, but it retains its spirit. A giant moose head, lit from below by a Jell-O green floodlight, dominates the balcony where associates once serenaded guests. Ersatz redwood logs have been added to the real ones Clifford dragged out of the north woods, but only to hide the earthquake retrofit. There have been times when no one was sure Brookdale would make it, dinosaur that it is. With its demise would come the suspicion that, the restaurant having been conceived as something more than a business, something more than a business would be lost, that there would be one fewer person to circle the city, to take in its dispossessed. But for the moment it’s doing just fine, as popular with immigrants from Mexico and El Salvador as it once was with immigrants from Peoria. “We’re not making as much money this year as last,” Robert said. “But we’re making more than we were five years ago.”
Recently, with the popularity of lofts downtown, a new group of customers has been finding its way through the doors off Broadway. “It’s a trendier crowd, and they come in and tell us, ‘You know, this place is really hip!” Robert said. “Nobody’s ever called us hip before. We don’t know how to act with that, but we’re grateful.”