Harrison Gray Otis, “The General”

Ruby and Clarence had known their share of newspaper publishers, but no one quite like Harrison Otis, owner of The Los Angeles Times, the most influential newspaper in the city. Harrison Gray Otis was a leader among men. A survivor of two wars, the American Civil War and the Spanish-American War; he fought in 15 battles and was wounded twice in the first, and in 1898 at age sixty-one, he volunteered for the second. With good reason, Otis was quite proud of his wartime service. No one disputed his personal courage, patriotism, and passion for his hometown, which he hoped to transform into one of America’s leading cities.

Like many soldiers down through the ages, Otis’s military experience defined his place in the world. His home was “the Bivouac,” a military camp, and his key employees were “the Phalanx,” soldiers assembled and ready for combat. The architecture of the Los Angeles Times’ building resembled a medieval fortress. He was loyal to his Phalanx, and to his allies in the city’s business community and they returned his loyalty. Many viewed Otis as the leader of the city. Everyone -friends and enemies alike- referred to him as “the General.”

Sporting a sparkling white, walrus-like mustache and goatee, the General was a handsome man. In his prime, he stood 6’1” and weighed 215 pounds. Physically imposing, he cruised the streets of Los Angeles in his convertible limousine, equipped with a miniature replica of a cannon mounted on the hood. Men and women alike were attracted to his dynamism, personal history and ability to get things done. Otis was also an admirer of the writings of Frederick Nietzsche, the German philosopher known for his concept of the “Ubermensch,” the “Super Man.” The Ubermensch was thought to be a person of higher intellect, born to lead, knowing what was best for his followers.

Otis believed that he knew best when it came to the American Labor Movement. The General viewed unions as a plague on society that had to be eradicated. In running his newspaper, there was no pretense of impartial reporting on people and events in Los Angeles. Believing it was best for growth of his city, Otis had a pro-business agenda and was aggressive and combative, pursuing what serious news people and historians refer to as “fire-breathing journalism.” He had a bellicose prose style that blended politics and passion with half-truths and full-blown fiction. To General Otis, freedom of the press was an opportunity to mold public opinion in support of his notions of what was best for Los Angeles. Otis used his editorials to paint organized labor as the product of European socialists, “one of the most monstrous tyrannies that the world has ever seen.” This viewpoint not only generated both readers and enemies, but equally important to Otis, set the terms and tenor of the debate on most issues of the day in Los Angeles.

When the national labor movement helped instigate a city-wide general strike in the spring of 1910, the General was ready to wage war. The resistance which union organizers from San Francisco experienced prompted them to reach out to the Iron Workers Union for help of a different kind, help that led to violence, mayhem and death.