Creating advocates for history through the stories of greater Los Angeles.
by Paul R. Spitzzeri
1923 was the peak year of a massive boom in population and economic growth in greater Los Angeles (something in which Walter P. Temple, owner of the Homestead, was fully invested as a real estate and oil developer) and fervent activity was seemingly everywhere in the region, including in the thriving newspaper business.
While there were several established daily newspapers at the time, including the Times, the Express, the Herald, and the Examiner, a new entry made its debut on this date, the Los Angeles Illustrated Daily News.
The tabloid-style paper was the brainchild of Cornelius Vanderbilt IV, the great-great grandson of the famed railroad and shipping tycoon. Neil, as he was known, was born in 1898 and dismayed his family by enlisting in the United States Army during the First World War, serving in Europe as an orderly and driver for three months before returning home before the cessation of hostilities.
Vanderbilt then further alienated his parents by going into journalism, working in short stints with the New York Herald and the New York Times. Promoted as the youngest newspaper publisher in America, he was 25 when he launced the Illustrated Daily News, along with papers in San Francisco and Miami, using his inherited wealth to get the three tabloids off the ground. Vanderbilt was warned by his powerful rivals, William Randolph Hearst, of the Examiner, and Harry Chandler, of the Times, to rethink his aim of forming the News, but was hardly deterred.
The paper’s debut was on 3 September 1923 and the Homestead’s collection includes a copy of that first issue. The big news highlighted on the front page was the massive earthquake the struck Japan and wreaked havoc on its capital city, Tokyo. The quake, which took place on the 1st, led to a 40-foot tall tsunami and massive fires, and some 140,000 people died in the disaster.
As for local news, the issue was notably scanty in any significant coverage of events. There was a brief mention of the absence of Mayor George Cryer, who was on vacation, and the temporary assumption of mayoral duties by City Council President Boyle Workman, who was William Workman’s grand-nephew.
A photo and caption alluded to the shortage in lumber affecting the enormous demand needed for the building boom underway. There was also a column of short news items of a variety of deaths of several types. Finally, there was a short, but sensational, piece on alleged Chinese vice involving the “slavery” of young women in secret abodes and dens in the Chinatown, situated where Union Station was later built.
It seemed clear, though, that in the rush to get the paper going, not much had been done to develop regional news stories.
There was, however, plenty of self-congratulation on the editorial page, as explanations for how and why the paper was launched were given in detail. Naturally, a number of adverstisers took the opportunity to congratulate the News on its debut.
A rotogravure section with lots of photographs about the paper’s emergence included one of Mayor Cryer inspecting the presses, a cute image of a couple of children perusing the debut issue, and another showing the headquarters of the paper, a converted parking structure at the corner of Los Angeles and Pico streets south of downtown.
As for other sections, there were two pages devoted to women, mostly in the gossip and society areas, although there was a small feature devoted to “The Girl in Business.” The arts pages focused largely on happenings in the film world. The sports sections covered the baseball game the previous day involving the Vernon Tigers, one of three local teams in the Pacific Coast League.
From the beginning, the paper was dogged by a number of pressing (!) issues. One was that the management of the newsroom was poor and the quality of the journalism was lacking. Another was that Vanderbilt could only devote so much attention to the enterprise when he had the San Francisco and Miami papers to oversee, as well.
The biggest problem, however, was that pressure from its rivals kept advertisers from patronizing the News. Without those precious dollars from advertising, which always forms the lifeblood of a paper, there was no real chance of success, regardless of journalistic ability and editorial success.
Vanderbilt sunk approximately a million dollars into the News in its early days and insisted that his hand-picked editor take over. The generally liberal tone of the paper changed abruptly when that happened and circulation, which had been respectable, plummeted. In spring 1926, a request to Vanderbilt’s father for a few hundred thousand more dollars to keep the paper operating was rejected and receivership.
The News was then acquired by a group of shareholders and Manchester Boddy installed as publisher. Boddy turned towards city corruption, of which there was plenty of fodder to exploit from city hall and the notorious LAPD. This proved to be a ticket to success and matters improved dramatically. The paper went on, through ups and downs and many changes, to survive until the mid-1950s, as discussed previously in this blog.
As for Vanderbilt, his newspaper adventures were a debacle that ruined his inherited fortune. He went to work as asociate editor of the New York Daily Mirror and kept busy writing articles and feature columns for newspapers and magazines . He was also a busy writer of novels, a biography of his mother, and his two autobiographies. He returned to military service in World War II as a major in the U.S. Army Intelligence Service, but poor health led to an honorable discharge.
Married seven times, but without children of his own, Vanderbilt spent most of his time in the Reno, Nevada area and died in Miami in 1974 at the age of 76.