It’s amazing where writing a book can take you.
I just returned to Berkeley from Los Angeles, where I gave a lecture on my great great grandfather – and the subject of my biography – Isaias Hellman. It is the 125th anniversary of the founding of the University of Southern California, and the school asked me to talk about Hellman.
Hellman was one of three men who donated the land for school in 1879. He was a Jew, his partner, the former California governor, John Downey was a Catholic, and the other partner, Ozro Childs, was a Protestant. Methodists started USC, so from the beginning the school promoted a California-type multiculturalism.
I was touched and amazed by the response to the lecture, where I talked about Hellman’s life, USC, and the early history of Jews in Los Angeles. More than 300 people came to the Wilshire Boulevard Temple to hear me speak – and the waiting list was 200 people long.
People were eager to hear that Jews were among the early pioneers of modern Los Angeles, and how they created a distinct society and also mingled freely with people of other cultures and religions. They also wanted to know how Los Angeles – a city without a real port in the 1900s, no navigable rivers, and few natural resources – transformed itself into one of the world’s greatest metropolises.
I probably will never speak to so many people again. Most authors, including best-selling ones, don’t see huge crowds at their book signings or appearances. Just as writing can be a lonely life, so can selling books.
But for one night, I was gratified that an audience was interested in 19th century California and how waves of immigrants, particularly Jews, came to the west coast to forge new lives for themselves. Their arrival signaled the end of one culture – of the Californios, or native-born Mexicans, and the rise of another, the American businessman. The story of how California became such a dominant state is fascinating, and I love examining how Hellman contributed to the transformation.
One place that is promoting new scholarship on the west is the USC-Huntington Institute on California and the West. It is a partnership that brings graduate students and scholars from USC to the vast holdings of the Huntington Library and encourages them to reinterpret the western experience.
The institute, formed just a year ago, is headed by Bill Deverell, whose writings on Los Angeles and the railroads have earned him a national reputation. Bill and I went to college together, but he continued his history studies while I went into journalism. It was Bill who brought me together with USC, and the support and recognition has propelled me forward during many laborious hours of pouring through 19th century documents.
My only regret, of course, is that my book is not scheduled to be published before 2007, so I couldn’t sell any copies. But I sense that Los Angeles, home of Hollywood and everything new, is also interested in looking back at itself to see from where it came.