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Angels of LA

Catholic Bishops

by John Tracy Ellis
Michael Glazier/The Liturgical Press, 182 pp., $8.95 (paper)

The Powers That Be

by David Halberstam
(out of print), 1,071 pp.

1.

James Francis Aloysius McIntyre, Roman Catholic archbishop (and eventually cardinal) of Los Angeles between 1948 and 1970, is remembered today, if at all, as a cartoon of an ecclesiastical tyrant. It was McIntyre’s misfortune to be an old man, although more or less a vigorous one, when the winds of change stirred by Pope John XXIII and Vatican Council II whistled through the Church. Over forty years a priest, set in his ways and satisfied with Catholicism’s existing chain of command, McIntyre was not happy about changes in the Church. What he did not think broke, he did not want fixed, and he had the will to thwart those given both to fixing and, worse, to suggesting a degree of clerical independence and priestly collegiality that he would regard as a challenge to his governance.

In his own diocese, a bishop (or ordinary, as he is called in canon law) has virtual Caligulan powers; his word is law, and if, unlike Caligula, he cannot ordain a horse, there is little else not within his power and the reach of his discipline. McIntyre opposed many of the Council’s liturgical reforms, most persistently the replacement of the Latin mass with one in each country’s vernacular; his argument essentially was that the vernacular should be left to the Protestants. In the Council proceedings of 1962, he contended that a congregation’s verbal participation was, in his words, “frequently a distraction,” and warned that “grave changes in the liturgy introduce grave changes in dogma.” Only after Rome’s sternest urgings did McIntyre finally allow the vernacular English language mass in his diocese.

In Los Angeles, the last decade of the cardinal’s episcopate was marked by a series of undignified and unnecessary public disputes that McIntyre seemed to encourage less for canonical reasons than to establish the absoluteness of his prelacy. He fired a teaching order of nuns from diocesan parochial schools because the sisters wished, among other things, to make the wearing of their habit optional (in accord with the Council) and to require that classroom nuns be properly credentialed as teachers (many only had a high school diploma). An encounter that should have been settled quietly instead festered openly for three years until the nuns chose to become unaffiliated with the archdiocese.

The most egregious discordance occurred in 1964 when William DuBay, then twenty-nine, an activist civil rights priest, petitioned Pope Paul VI to remove McIntyre for “gross malfeasance in office.” The cardinal, according to DuBay, both was indifferent to the virus of racism and had mounted a campaign of intimidation against priests who disagreed with him. Always a loose cannon, DuBay was a difficult proposition even for the cardinal’s most energetic critics. He was the kind of priest, Garry Wills later wrote, who “makes one sympathetic with any superior who had to deal with him.” McIntyre’s response was to order official chastisement. As 231 priests looked on, he forced the mutinous DuBay to kneel before his throne and kiss the episcopal ring in submission to his authority. The message was not lost on the audience, but it was perhaps not the message the cardinal intended. Younger priests believed the chancery would blight their futures in the Church if they spoke out, joined a march, or climbed an anti-war barricade. While this belief could not be proved, the hemorrhage of priests from the archdiocese into the laity showed how deeply it was felt.

At every sign of opposition, real or imagined, McIntyre exhibited inflexibility. What makes his last difficult decade with the ordinary’s crozier so poignant is that had he stepped down in 1961 when he was seventy-five, the Vatican’s approved retirement age for bishops, or had he died, his memory would wear the garlands denied him by his later pastoral intransigence. If not as churchman, then as social engineer (a title he would have despised), Cardinal McIntyre actually deserves considerable attention, for in the years after World War II it was he and Dorothy Buffum Chandler, wife of the publisher of the Los Angeles Times, who to an astonishing (and usually uncredited) degree helped to effect the transformation of Los Angeles from a remote outpost on the Pacific, vaguely known to the rest of the country as the home of the motion picture industry and the Rose Bowl, into an international metropolis.

2.

To comprehend the impact of Cardinal McIntyre and Mrs. Chandler, the reason why they were the right people at the right time, it is necessary to understand the particularity of Los Angeles, its climate, its newness, and especially its ruling class, the broad outlines of which became familiar to the rest of America via a literature and kind of film unique to the city, the style called noir. In this genre, corruption metastasizes under the pitiless sun, the fix is always in, the weak never prevail, the powerful are always victorious, the status quo endures. Though the form is “exotically compelling,” Norman Klein shrewdly points out in The History of Forgetting: Los Angeles and the Erasure of Memory, “it is nevertheless often utterly false in its vision of the poor, of the non-white in particular.” There have been exceptions to this criticism, the most notable being Walter Mosley, whose novels about the working-class black private detective Easy Rawlins take place in postwar South Central, that part of Los Angeles characterized by William Parker, the city’s police chief from 1950 to his death in 1966, as the home of “jungle life.” But from Raymond Chandler to James Ellroy, and in screenplays such as Robert Towne’s Chinatown, the prototypical noir protagonist and noir writer have been white. “Despite its origins as social realism in Hammett,” Klein writes,

the hard-boiled story cannot help but operate, very fundamentally, as white males building a social imaginary…. The crime on dark streets stands in for the fears about foreigners, jobs, speculation, and cheap hype. It puts the white, usually Protestant, shamus against a world that is utterly transient, as if no poor communities exist except as a hangout for crooks and addicts.

It was by no means accidental that the most characteristic literature of Los Angeles came to be grounded in the notion of a Protestant fortress, for everything in its history had tended to this notion. Scarcely older than the century, Los Angeles was the first American city defined by the internal combustion engine. Its spectacular growth—a population increase of 1600 percent between 1900 and 1940—exactly coincided with the rise of the automobile. The volume and velocity of this migration set the tone. While older cities, spreading out from a core, were traditionally limited by both transportation and geography, Los Angeles assumed that its citizens on wheels could transcend even mountain ranges to move north and south and east at will; only the Pacific stopped the march to the west.

The immensity of the Los Angeles land mass makes the city the most inaccessible in America, its cultural determinant the mobility provided by the automobile and a tank of gas. Everyone was an alien, the newcomer never an exile. In such an environment, the idea of community did not naturally flourish, since community by definition is built on deposits of shared experience. Except for the beach, there is no shared public plaza, but the beach, from Trancas at the northern edge of Malibu south to the Orange County line, is nearly a hundred miles long.

Where the port cities of the East and the Gulf Coast attracted immigrants from the slums of Europe, Los Angeles was a magnet for emigrants already thoroughly Americanized, with roots going back several generations—hard-working, white, English-speaking Midwestern smalltowners seeking a Protestant Eldorado with a temperate climate and no foreigners fresh from the boat. “The prosperity of Los Angeles,” the local chamber of commerce wrote at the turn of the twentieth century,

is founded on the immutable forces of nature, combined with the inevitable needs of mankind; and it will remain, as the sea and the clouds and the mountains remain, and will increase as the nation and the race increases.

At county fairs in the heartland, Norman Klein writes, real estate speculators passed out brochures claiming that the clean, dry air of southern California could “cure tuberculosis, rheumatism, asthma, sleeplessness, even impotence.” The hard-sell imagination of the speculators was unbounded. To those Midwesterners with itchy feet and pulmonary problems, Los Angeles was presented as “the city for those with one lung.”

The place was a Luddite dream of Gotham: a farm town, without smokestacks, unions, or skyscrapers. The dream persevered. Until the end of World War II, Los Angeles County, even with its enormous wartime industrial expansion, remained the richest agricultural county in America. This in spite of the fact that nothing grew naturally. Los Angeles is a desert, a sand kingdom, its water pumped in, via an elaborate infrastructure of aqueducts, dams, and tunnels, from a county more than two hundred miles to the northeast. Growth was the eleventh commandment; a height limit of 150 feet for all buildings was maintained long enough to guarantee that the city would grow out instead of up.

By the mid-Twenties, the impact of the automobile was such that southern California had a car density (one car for every 1.6 citizens) that the rest of America would not achieve until the 1950s. No other American city was so white or so Protestant; in 1926, 90 percent of its 1.3 million people were of Western European descent; the other 10 percent was more or less evenly divided between Hispanics, Asians, blacks, and Jews, the first three with neither political nor economic leverage, the last associated with the motion picture industry—with money but without power.

Los Angeles had a municipal government whose main function was not to interfere with a fluid and ever- changing ex-officio group of rich, conservative downtown businessmen and entrepreneurs, called, to somewhat sinister effect, the Committee of 25, who pulled the strings at the end of which elected officials danced. Most of its members were self-made, Republican, and Protestant. One rare Catholic allowed to participate in their deliberations was the oil wildcatter, Edward Doheny, who had provided Warren Harding’s Secretary of the Interior, Albert Fall, with the $100,000 bribe that had set the Teapot Dome Scandal in motion, and sent Fall to prison. The bribe was not seen as a barrier to Doheny’s counsel, only as a sound business practice that had the misfortune of becoming public knowledge.

In the years of their hegemony, the Committee of 25 seemed to think that what was best for them was best for Los Angeles, and in the privacy of their clubs and conference rooms they used their power to get it, by fair means or foul. It was strong-arm stuff that lined their own pockets, but in truth their economic thuggery and political sleight-of-hand was not without benefit to the city of Los Angeles. Without water from the Owens Valley (a complicated swindle with a giant insider payoff), the city, with its finite and diminishing water reserves, could not grow. Without a harbor in San Pedro (obtained by annexing a corridor of land to the ocean and renaming the corridor Los Angeles), Los Angeles could not supplant San Francisco as California’s foremost city. That such ends justified the means was a controlling principle the Committee of 25 never doubted.

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