The Big Dig


Plain as day, my maternal great-great-grandfather stares out at me from my computer screen. Bald, in a high collar, his small eyes piercing through pince-nez, John A. McNaughton exudes stodgy satisfaction—not surprising, given that he was an L.A. macher who cofounded the Los Angeles Union Stockyards in Vernon in the 1920s. His son, my great-grandfather, was clearly a cad, with at least one sordid divorce (from a flapper) that made the society papers. McNaughton’s grandson, John, who was my grandfather, worked at the family stockyards after leaving Stanford University, until, at 23, he died of a heart attack at his grandparents’ big house on Westmoreland Avenue near MacArthur Park.

I’ve been mining this heritage (with the help of library databases and because my son, Isaac, has become fascinated with the family tree. “Mom, where did you grow up?” he is asking. “Can I see your old house? And what about Dad, and your mom and dad, and his mom and dad?” I was around ten, like Isaac is now, when I first asked my parents about our forebears. Maybe that’s the age when you start seeking your roots: As you sprout, you want to know what’s attaching you to the world. For so many of us, it’s our families who keep us from falling over.

Before we could explore our heritage online, I relied on a huge, handwritten family tree I’d assembled with my dad decades ago. His people were from rural Texas, dirt farmers mostly, but we could still trace their line to 1700s England (which helped explain why this Valley Girl would become such an Anglophile). My mom’s side, however, was less delineated until my recent sleuthing (and yes, I’ve got plenty of holes to fill). Her predecessors were old-money Chicagoans who came to L.A. early in the 20th century. Of course I knew of her small immediate family, which included her uncle, the actor Dick Sargent, who played the second Darren on Bewitched. Mom always said we could connect her line to the Mayflower if we dug deeply enough. The first night I signed onto Ancestry a couple of months ago, I was dumbfounded: I could click back on her family tree to 1500s England, which gave her family two centuries on Dad’s.

One recent morning on the way to work, I looked for the house in which my grandfather John died in 1933. The site is occupied by an ugly apartment complex in Koreatown that I’ve driven by a hundred times. In “Secret L.A.,” we reveal the nooks and crannies across the city that often go unnoticed. My family history traces back to an L.A. that is so long gone, it’s all but secret, not just to the new arrivals but even to natives like me. It’s clear we’ve all got a lot of mining to do.