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Monday, May 19, 2008

Surprise! James Frey’s Sense of Accuracy is Skewed

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James Frey’s debut novel Bright Shiny Morning has been both lauded and vilified. While the book tells the story of modern day Los Angeles through fictional characters, Frey interweaves the narrative with bits of Los Angeles history.

Problem is, he gets many of these wrong.

You would have thought after his public humiliation on Oprah he would have learned to double-check what he wrote.

Here are a few examples:

Frey says "in 1873, the city's first newspaper, the Los Angeles Daily Herald, opens."

What Frey Gets Wrong: He’s off by many years. The Herald was hardly the first newspaper. The Los Angeles Star and the El Clamor Publico started publishing in the 1850s.

Frey says that in 1895 all of the 23 incorporated banks in Los Angeles County are robbed at least once and one bank was robbed fourteen times.

What Frey Gets Wrong: My book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California, focused on one of those banks, the Farmers and Merchants Bank, and I found no evidence it was robbed in 1895. A search of the Los Angeles Times Historical Newspaper Index does not support Frey’s claim either.

Frey says that by 1895 there are 135,000 people living in Los Angeles. (Not! See below) He goes on to say that “in an effort to sustain the Los Angeles River as the city’s primary source of water, William Mulholland, the commissioner of the Los Angeles Water Department, institutes a metering system to regulate overall water use."

What Frey Gets Wrong: In 1895, Los Angeles did not own its own municipal water supply. Drinking water was provided by a private company, the City Water Company, owned by Isaias Hellman and run by William H. Perry. Mulholland was an employee of the private water company, not the city. The metering was not started until 1904.

Frey goes on to say that in 1901 “Harrison Otis, the publisher of the Los Angeles Times newspaper, and his son-on-law Harry Chandler, purchase large chunks of land in the Owens Valley … City Water Commissioner William Mulholland hires J. B. Lippincott .. to survey the land… Otis then uses the newspaper to create hysteria in regard to the dwindling water supply, and to promote a bond initiative.. ..When the bond passes, they sell the Owens Valley water rights to the city of Los Angeles at a huge profit.”

What Frey Gets Wrong: Frey conflates events here and gets his dates wrong. After years of wrangling with the private water company, the City of Los Angeles finally passed a bond initiative in 1901 to buy out the private water company. The city did not pass a bond initiative to start the Owens Valley Aqueduct project in 1901. At that point, and only at that point, did Mulholland become a city employee. He started warning about the inadequacy of the Los Angeles River in 1904, after another spike in population.

Also, Otis and Chandler made scads of money, not by buying up large tracts of land in the Owens Valley, but in the San Fernando Valley.

Frey says that “in 1874, Judge Robert Widney builds a two and a half mile horse-drawn railcar line leading from his Hill Street neighborhood to Downtown Los Angeles. Within two years there are similar lines in Santa Monica, Pasadena, and San Bernardino .. In 1898, the Southern Pacific Railroad buys the Los Angeles Consolidated Railway Corportion … it rapidly and greatly expands the LA rail system…. “

What Frey Gets Wrong: Widney did indeed build a horse-drawn trolley, not rail line, in 1874, but the rapid expansion happened in downtown Los Angeles, not outlying cities like Pasadena and San Bernardino, as Frey suggests.

In 1898, a syndicate made of up Henry Huntington, his son, his uncle, Collis Huntington, and the banker, Isaias Hellman, bought up five trolley lines and consolidated them into the Los Angeles Railway, known as LARY. The Southern Pacific Railroad had nothing to do with the acquisition. However, after Henry Huntington and Isaias Hellman had a disagreement about whether the rail line should pay dividends or reinvest profits back into the rail line, Hellman in 1904 sold his share of another rail line, the Pacific Electric, to Edward Harriman, who had acquired control of SP in 1901. Hellman sold Harriman his share of LARY a few years later.

Throughout his historical sections, Frey gets the population of Los Angeles wrong.

He says the population is 1865 was 14,000 people. In fact, by 1870 the city population was only 5,728 people.

Frey says that between 1880 and 1890, the population grew from 30,000 residents to 100,000 residents. The population was actually 11,000 people in 1880, shot up to about 100,000 in 1887 during the height of the Los Angeles boom, and fell to 50,000 in 1890.

He then writes that the population grew from 175,000 people in 1900 to 1,750,000 in 1925. The population was 104,000 in 1900 and it grew to 577,000 in 1920 and reached 1.2 million in 1930,

What Frey Gets Right: I am glad to report Frey got one historical fact correct. He writes that in 1871 John G. Downey and Isaias Hellman formed the city’s first incorporated bank, the Farmers and Merchants Bank. That’s right!

6 comments:

Tracey said...

Yippee Frances. Great post. Send it to the Times and tell Huffington Post the news! I think they would be interested.

Don't you think this reflects badly on the publishers as well as Frey? Lackluster fact checking, inability to promote a book... I mean how exactly do they earn their money?

sptrain98 said...

Mr. Frey obviously studied history and research methodologies with Don DeNevi, another author whose distortion of the facts with respect to railroad history are quite easy to refute.

Alas, who really cares in this land of ours except for the few who will be branded freaks, nuts, crackpots, and other far less flattering terms.

Rebel Girl said...

Terrific post Frances!

Frey reminds me of a student of mine who, last week, after he plagiarizes a research project, asks (without hesitation!) if he could re-write it for a better grade.

Of course, I said no - but some people said yes to Frey, didn't they?

Edward Humes said...

Great post, although it grew a bit painful to read the litany of errors. Almost made me feel sorry for Mr. Frey... almost. I look forward to reading Towers of Gold.

Lupe said...

I used to live in the Hellman building on 4th & Main in downtown LA. At night I would prowl in the basement of the Farmers & Merchant bank. Didn't find any ghosts or buried treasure. I did rescue a cat who I named Marlon, as in Marlon Brando, The Wild One.

Guess now I'll read your book.

Frances said...

Lupe, I would love to hear more about the Hellman building. I've only seen plans for it as an office building. There were dozens of small rooms and I have always wondered what the developers did to it to make them livable. And how did you get into the basement of the bank? It had a three-story high vault that started in the basement!