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'The Last Great Newspaperman'

He hunts, surfs and rides a Harley. But Otis Chandler made his name transforming the Los Angeles Times into a journalistic powerhouse. The paper's sale this spring marked the end of an era.

Photo: Art Streiber

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By Alex Beam

The news shook Southern California like an earthquake: Los Angeles Times, family owned for 118 years, was being sold to Chicago-based Tribune Co. "I feel as if I was gut shot," said novelist and California chronicler John Gregory Dunne. Times columnist Patt Morrison wrote: "It felt like I woke up and heard that the Pacific Ocean had been sold." On March 11, there were three great American newspaper families: the Sulzbergers of the New York Times, the Grahams of the Washington Post and the Chandlers of Los Angeles's Times Mirror Co. A day later, there were two.

The rise of Southern California has been inextricably linked to the Chandler family and to the Times. The family patriarch, Gen. Harrison Otis, bought the newspaper in 1886. In the succeeding years, he and his son-in-law, Harry Chandler, bought most of Southern California -- at least the parts worth having. At the turn of the century, it was an Otis-Chandler syndicate that quietly purchased tens of thousands of acres of parched farmland in the San Fernando Valley, knowing that the fix was in to steal water rights from Owens Valley farmers 200 miles to the north.

As the Chandlers and their newspaper gained influence, every up-and-coming politician in the Southland made sure to kiss their ring. Richard Nixon owed his career to favorable notices in the Times. Harry's son, Norman, and his activist wife, Dorothy, transformed Los Angeles into a cultural mecca, creating the Los Angeles Music Center and luring world-class talent to play there. "No Easterner can understand what it has meant in California to be a Chandler," David Halberstam wrote in a famous run-on sentence from his media history, The Powers That Be, "for no single family dominates any major region of the country as the Chandlers have dominated California, it would take in the East a combination of the Rockefellers and the Sulzbergers to match their power and influence."

Otis Chandler, the family's last great newspaperman, is sitting across the table from me inside his Vintage Museum of Transportation and Wildlife in Oxnard. It's an astonishing mélange of antique automobiles and motorcycles, jumbled together with huge stuffed trophy kills from Chandler's peripatetic hunting expeditions. A 10-foot-tall Kodiak bear ("October 1985; Record Size; Alaskan Peninsula"), paws and claws extended, looms behind Chandler's head. Behind me -- dead, thank heavens -- stands an equally gigantic polar bear ("Kotzebue, Alaska; Record Book Size; February 1964") that Chandler shot, then gutted on an arctic ice floe before he and his guide dragged the 300-pound carcass back to their tiny plane, 5 miles away.

Chandler, '50, sucks in a deep breath as he recalls the sudden sale of the Times. In theory, he had been away from the paper for quite a while. He relinquished the title of editor in chief in 1985 and left the board of directors two years ago. But in fact, he keeps in close touch with his contacts at the paper and lives and breathes the daily vicissitudes of the Los Angeles Times. "[Washington Post publisher] Donnie Graham called me when he heard about the Tribune sale and said, 'Aren't you just wiped out? How can you get up in the morning?' I said, no, I feel fine. This is the right thing for us to do for the future of Times Mirror."

"Do I feel regret? Sure, I'm going through that right now," he explains during our meeting, about three weeks after the deal was announced. "I spent 50 years at the Los Angeles Times, plus going down there as a little kid when my dad would take me to see my grandfather. I'd slide down a chute from the mail room with the bundles into the trucks. I grew up with ink in my blood. So, sure, I'm sad. I'm sad for the city, I'm sad for the employees, I'm sad for the fact that the Chandlers have nobody to carry on beyond me. I'm human. It's sad, but it's the only thing to do."

Chandler knows the new owners personally, admires the Chicago paper and is hoping for the best. So far, the Tribune Co. has made all the right noises about preserving the Times's autonomy, and most people believe them. A mini-board of directors, dominated by younger Chandlers, will have some say in how the Los Angeles paper is run. The new editor, John Carroll, hails from the Times Mirror empire (he ran the Baltimore Sun).

When I first met him, Chandler vented extraordinary anger at former Times Mirror chairman Mark Willes ("he will not go down in the annals of newspaper history as anything but a failure"). Chandler clearly blames Willes for weakening the company to the point where it became takeover prey. But when I checked in with him a few weeks later, his mood had improved. On their first formal visit to L.A., Tribune Co. vice president for publishing Jack Fuller and incoming publisher John Puerner took Chandler to dinner in Beverly Hills and solicited his opinions. After years of cold-shoulder treatment from Willes, Chandler was flattered to be back in the loop. "This has been the greatest week of his life," says his friend John Thomas, referring to Chandler's meetings with the Tribune brass. "All he wants to do is help. He just wants to make it the best damned newspaper in the world -- and he'll want that until his dying day."

Otis Chandler, now 72, remains a larger-than-life figure. At 6-foot-2, he claims to have shrunk an inch, but he still towers over most visitors. He has a full head of tawny hair and the Johnny Weismuller physique that earned him the nickname "Shoulders" at Stanford. I had toyed with the idea of asking him to arm-wrestle, because I knew that an angry Canadian musk ox had torn his right shoulder from its socket and impaired his upper-arm mobility. I mention the arm-wrestling idea while we are touring his museum and confide that I'm having second thoughts about it, musk ox or no. He looks like he could take me. Chandler glances down at my comparatively undeveloped 6-foot frame and grunts, "Yeah. Probably."

As someone once remarked of Davy Crockett, there are a hundred stories about him, and fully 95 of them are true. There is an amazing tale of how Chandler was thrown from a horse at age 7 and knocked unconscious. His pulse started to fall. His mother, Dorothy, rushed him to a hospital, only to have the attending physician tell her: "Lady, your son is dead." "He is not," she snapped, and they drove to another hospital.

Chandler lived, of course, and lived large. He was captain of the legendary Stanford track team that included two-time Olympic decathlon champion Bob Mathias, '53. Chandler, a world-class shot-putter, would have gone to the Olympics himself if not for a sprained wrist. Chandler's teammate and Delta Kappa Epsilon frat brother Merritt Van Sant, '51, sketched me a cameo portrait of their campus life: "Oh, no, we were not sober! We did wild things, although it's all kid stuff by today's standards. When the girls came around to sing Christmas carols, we would launch a water balloon bombardment from the top floor of DKE, right in the middle of their song. It doesn't sound so terrible today, but it was a big deal then."

By the time he finished Stanford, Chandler was hooked on motorcycles, surfing, bodybuilding and hunting. A year after graduating, he married Marilyn (Missy) Brant, '51, who shared his enthusiasm for sports and outdoor recreation. After a stint in the Air Force, he and Missy returned to his parents' house in 1953 with their two young sons. Chandler, bright and hard-working, was thinking of becoming a doctor. But Norman and Dorothy had other plans. One evening before dinner, his father handed him a seven-page memo, in effect Otis's marching orders for the next seven years. Otis Chandler was going into the newspaper business.

Despite the fact that he was the boss's son, Chandler literally worked his way up. When he grew into the top job at the Times, he was that rarity among publishers -- a manager who understood every aspect of the business. He had worked as an apprentice pressman and in the mail room, engraving department, mechanical and electrical shops and advertising. He knew how the circulation guys farmed out their routes to subcontractors and how the ad salespeople collected their commissions. Chandler also spent time in the newsroom. He knew how reporters frantically typed their stories before deadline, how editors grunted over the copy, or shipped it to rewrite, or cracked a half-approving grin when they read lively prose. Chandler knew all this because he had done it, and when, late in the Willes regime, he finally decided to speak out against the failed stewards of his legacy at the Times, his most bitter accusation was: They didn't know what they were doing.

The Chandler family -- with Otis's blessing -- hired Willes away from General Mills to run Times Mirror in 1995. Three months later, Willes fired 750 Times employees. At a paper long known as "the velvet coffin," that move earned him the nickname "the cereal killer." Soon his agenda became clear. Willes was promising nothing less than a reinvention of the newspaper business. He spoke of doubling the Times's circulation to 2 million. But reaching that goal required drastic structural changes, Willes said. At most newspapers, there is a "wall," with the writers and editors on one side and the business staffers who sell advertising on the other. The division, an ethical given among journalists, exists so that reporters can write about people and companies without regard to the paper's financial interests. Willes vowed to tear down that wall. "He had no interest in the past" is perhaps Chandler's biggest criticism of Willes. "He never asked anybody, 'How does this work? How do circulation or advertising work?'" Willes's deputy, publisher Kathryn Downing, was a lawyer "who had never seen a newspaper, practically, never delivered a newspaper, never worked at a paper," according to Chandler. It was Downing who blundered into the notorious Staples Center controversy that contributed mightily to her and Willes's downfall.

On the face of it, co-publishing a special magazine about L.A.'s new Staples Center sports arena with the arena itself doesn't seem so heinous. In fact, other newspapers had put out similar magazines. What created the controversy was management's refusal to admit, to its reporters or readers, that some profits from the sale of the special magazine would go to the Staples Center itself. The wall had come down; the journalism, by definition, lacked editorial integrity. The magazine was funded, in part, by the arena itself.

When the news leaked out -- and made the front page of the New York Times -- it rocked the paper's newsroom. Reporters, already disenchanted by the Willes regime, demanded an investigation and a public apology from Downing, which she gave. The scandal also shook Otis Chandler, prompting his first public comment on Times management in almost a decade. A few days after learning of the Staples debacle, he phoned veteran political reporter Bill Boyarsky and dictated a memo. After some back-and-forth polishing, Chandler asked Boyarsky to read the memo out loud in the newsroom. Over his editors' objections, Boyarsky went ahead. "I couldn't have lived with myself if I hadn't read it," Boyarsky later said. "[Chandler] was a great man who made this paper what it was. We wouldn't be working here if it weren't for him."

So on November 3 at 6:10 p.m., more than 100 employees gathered around the city desk to listen to a philippic written by a man most of them had never met -- one of the last bona fide legends in their rapidly changing business. And the legend did not disappoint. In five withering pages, he blasted Willes's and Downing's "unbelievably stupid and unprofessional handling of the Staples special section," calling the scandal "the most serious single threat to the survival and growth of this great newspaper during my more than 50 years of being associated with the Times."

"The statement was quintessential Otis," wrote L.A. Times media critic David Shaw in his postmortem analysis of the Staples affair: "He would be the first to admit that he's neither an intellectual nor a sparkling stylist nor a spellbinding orator, and his statement -- repetitive, rambling, at times willfully blind to the paper's ethical shortcomings under his predecessors -- was far from being a model of classic rhetoric. But it was honest, blunt, plainspoken and filled with passion and conviction, and after several years of listening to the bromides of corporate-speak, the newsroom embraced the style as well as the substance of Chandler's remarks. . . . Almost immediately afterward, 8-by-10 photos of Chandler began showing up in the newsroom, posted on pillars and desks and bulletin boards."

Downing fired back in a brief statement, part of which appeared in the next day's Times. "Otis Chandler is angry and bitter," she said, "and he is doing a great disservice to this paper. And that's too bad, because when he was publisher, he did wonderful things. It's too bad when some people get old, they get bitter."

Times Mirror spokeswoman Martha Goldstein said neither Willes nor Downing would comment for Stanford. "Why continue to pile on?" she asked. "Otis has really been out there attacking Mark and Kathryn in a mean-spirited way. Mark is beyond being touched by anything Otis would say."

The Otis Chandler era at the L.A. Times began on April 11, 1960, when his father introduced him as the new publisher. "You are assuming a sacred trust and grave responsibilities," Norman Chandler told his 32-year-old son in front of several hundred invited guests in the auditorium of the Hotel Biltmore. "This trust is dearer than life itself." Otis's first word as publisher, uttered into a lightning storm of exploding flashbulbs: "Wow."

For the next 20 years, Chandler would wow them, all right. The newspaper he inherited was very like the California of its time -- fat, parochial and happy. The paper had some habits that seem a little strange now. In political contests, the Times declined to cover the Democratic candidate; it let the liberal newspapers handle that chore. While some major papers, most notably the New York Herald Tribune, decided to compete with the increasingly popular newsmagazines and television by adding lifestyle features and interpretive reporting, the Times ran reams of dull wire-service copy. In the East, the land of bad weather and high sophistication, the paper was a laughingstock. New Yorker wit S.J. Perelman wrote of being on a cross-country train ride and stopping in Albuquerque, N.M.: "I asked the porter to get me a newspaper and unfortunately the poor man, hard of hearing, brought me the Los Angeles Times."

Those jokes died out quickly once Chandler took over. Richard Nixon, one of the paper's favorite sons, learned to his immense chagrin that the Times intended to assign a reporter to John Kennedy's presidential campaign. In 1962, when Nixon lost his bid for the California governorship and made his vituperative comments about the press not having "Dick Nixon to kick around anymore," he singled out the unexpectedly tough coverage by the Times. Suddenly, everything was different. The Times hired away the Herald Tribune's veteran Washington bureau chief and tripled the size of its D.C. staff. Chandler's crew published a scathing assessment of the hate-mongering John Birch Society, a popular and influential force in Southern California and among his Chandler cousins. An investigative series -- unusual in itself -- broke national news about the Teamsters Pension Fund even before attorney general Robert Kennedy's racket-busters climbed on Jimmy Hoffa's back.

Chandler spent money to make money and was well rewarded. He started a successful wire service with the Washington Post that competed with the renowned New York Times Syndicate. When the New York Times started a West Coast edition on his watch, he beat it back. (He once confided to Tom Johnson, his handpicked successor as publisher: "Together, we are going to push the New York Times off its perch.") When the time came to fold the family's money-losing afternoon tabloid, the Mirror, the Chandlers cut a sweet deal: in return for closing the Mirror, which competed with the Hearst Corp.'s afternoon paper, the Chandlers got Hearst to shutter the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, the Times's morning rival.

In 1962, Times Mirror decided to go public, the first of the major family-owned papers to do so. The Chandlers kept enough stock (they owned almost 30 percent at the time of the Tribune sale) to control the company. Eventually, Chandler used the proceeds to snap up quality papers in other markets: the Dallas Times Herald (later sold), the Baltimore Sun, the Hartford Courant and Long Island's Newsday. He plunged into related businesses, like book publishing, broadcasting and forest products, and created a formidable, diversified conglomerate: the Times Mirror Co.

The company's stock rose, and the Chandlers prospered. Circulation grew, as did the Times's prestige. Time magazine once called it one of the nation's 10 worst newspapers. By 1983 the paper was on Time's 10-best list. Chandler attracted top talent with his reputation for standing by his staff. Reporters loved him. His own mother, and the business allies who contributed to her beloved Music Center, pressured him to fire the Times music critic, Martin Bernheimer. The writer's sin? He was not properly worshipful of the center's acoustics and its Main Man, Los Angeles Philharmonic conductor Zubin Mehta. Bernheimer described Chandler's reaction in an interview with Vanity Fair: "He told them in effect to go f -- -- themselves."

Which is not to say there weren't setbacks. In the early 1970s, Chandler became embroiled in an embarrassing stock scandal involving Jack Burke, '52, an old pal from Stanford. Burke was accused of using Chandler's influence to promote an oil company stock and paying him a finder's fee for moneys raised. The stock tanked, and the deal attracted the attention of the Securities and Exchange Commission. "Wealthy Acquaintances of California Publisher Evidently Lost Bundle," read the page-one headline of the Wall Street Journal on August 11, 1972, followed by the subhead "Chandler 'Opened Doors' For College Pal Who Ran Oil Fund, SEC Now Probes." Securities charges against Chandler were eventually dismissed, but he suffered a very public black eye. "I discovered my trust in a close friend was misplaced," Chandler told STANFORD in 1978.

Furthermore, tensions started to surface within his extended family. Otis has an outsize personality, and it surely grated on some uncles and cousins when they saw Otis's face on the cover of the Atlantic Monthly, Otis hobnobbing with Jimmy Carter the day after the signing of the Camp David accords, and Otis generally taking the credit for turning around their newspaper. Over the years, some name-calling ensued. His relatives complained about the Times's liberal bent -- and he has occasionally suggested that they in turn were knuckle-draggers, out of touch with modern times. "He blasted all of them," recalls a bemused Howard Gilmore, '55, a longtime friend and hunting companion of Chandler's. "He didn't get any good press out of that. He never got the full credit he deserved for having taken care of the family. He made them a lot of money. He was the one on the firing line."

Now that the 100-odd family members are united behind the Tribune sale -- they stand to make about $1.5 billion -- Chandler dismisses the bad feelings as "political tension [that] goes back to my father's day. It wasn't that we disliked each other," he explains. "It's that when I was publisher, I took the Times from a WASP paper to a centrist paper, and I put in news that was important to put in in those days -- whether it be news about blacks or Jews, or whatever. The family was not used to that kind of paper. It was a shock to them."

Starting in 1985, when he gave up the title of editor in chief, Chandler wound down his involvement with the paper and with Times Mirror. In 1992, he resigned as chairman of the Times Mirror executive committee. He left the board of directors in 1998 at the mandatory retirement age of 70 and also resigned from the board governing the Chandler family trusts. Perhaps he hadn't pushed the New York Times off its perch. But he came close. His creation, the modern Los Angeles Times, was seated right up there with the nation's great newspapers -- the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal -- pecking away.

Yes, Otis Chandler is slowing down. His second wife, Bettina, is not particularly enthusiastic about his dangerous trips into the Great Beyond. He hasn't killed a bear in at least a couple of years. But slowing down is relative. Chandler works out at least every other day and competes in senior bicycle races. He keeps several motorcycles in running trim and commutes 30 miles each day across the mountains, from his ranch in Ojai to his museum office in Oxnard, aboard a glistening, custom-built Harley Davidson 1100 cc Softail. He still surfs off the Ventura County coast; in fact, he took his long board on the plane with him for his 20th wedding anniversary in Tahiti in May. He plans to attend his 50th Stanford reunion in the fall, where his son Harry, '75, and Harry's wife, Denise, '75, will be celebrating their 25th reunion. (Both of Otis Chandler's parents also attended Stanford, and a grandson named Otis Chandler graduated from the Farm in June.)

He clearly loves his Oxnard museum, with its incongruous dioramas depicting the "Grand Slam of American Sheep" -- Chandler bagged them all -- parked next to Joan Crawford's handmade Cadillac town car. (Crawford replaced all of the interior chrome fixtures with pewter so photographers couldn't take pictures of her distorted reflection in the door handles.) The museum is a private venture that buys and sells vintage cars and motorcycles and is open to the public just one day a month, by appointment only. On the day of my visit, Chandler was prepping the space for a large charity bash, which meant getting several dozen gazelle and impala heads off the floor and onto the walls, and ridding the men's bathroom of the girlie posters that invariably festoon the work areas of car and motorcycle aficionados.

Chandler is spending several hours each Tuesday with Dennis McDougal, a former Los Angeles Times writer who is preparing a biography of him to be published next year. It is not an authorized biography, and McDougal predicts that some of his work will probably anger Chandler. But he leaves little doubt about his opinion of Chandler's accomplishments in the profession that consumed his passion and energy for 50 years. "His reign at the Los Angeles Times was the newspaper's Camelot," McDougal says. "Otis Chandler is the last great newspaperman of the 20th century."

Alex Beam, a 1996-97 Knight fellow in journalism, is a columnist for the Boston Globe.

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