Books by Margaret Leslie Davis

Released: Nov. 15, 2008

"An evocation of a time when America's leaders were proud of their 'elitist' cultural tastes and fearless about inviting the citizenry to share them."
Davis (The Culture Broker, 2007, etc.) chronicles the surpassingly popular 1962-63 exhibition of Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa in Washington, D.C., and New York. Read full book review >
Released: Nov. 1, 1998

California historian Davis (Rivers in the Desert: William Mulholland and the Inventing of Los Angeles, 1993) revisits Teapot Dome, the cause cÇläbre that began in the time of Warren Harding, to tell the story of one of the scandal's prominent actors, now largely forgotten. As the Gilded Age turned into the Jazz Age, Edward Doheny, hitherto a feckless prospector, peered into the La Brea tar pits and saw a fortune. He punched the first hole for oil in the city of Los Angeles. Successful, he turned to wildcat drilling in the jungles of Mexico. Gusher followed gusher and the shrewd Doheny became wonderfully rich, the master of a great mansion, a private railroad car, and all the accoutrements of great wealth. It was a world of puissant bigwigs, of powerful cronies, extravagantly mustachioed. It happened one day that the oilman transmitted $100,000 in cash to a cash-poor old crony, Albert Fall, who was then Harding's secretary of the interior. He called it a loan. Just about the same time, the Department of the Interior granted Doheny's company favorable leases in fields dedicated to naval oil reserves. Harry Sinclair, another oilman, obtained similar leases in a field known as Teapot Dome for its odd rock formation. When the deals came to light, a battle between conservationists and exploiters erupted. A Senate investigation turned the transactions into scandal, and civil and criminal trials followed. Fall took the Fifth, but was jailed anyway. Sinclair did time, too. Doheny, though, was found innocent of any criminality. His story and that of his family and friends is told expertly, though with a clearly sympathetic bias, while some questions remain (e.g., why was the "loan" made in cash?). Drawing on a new-found trove of Doheny's personal correspondence, and well researched and narrated, this revisionist biography is an interesting addition to the social history of the times. (50 b&w illustrations, not seen) Read full book review >
Released: July 28, 1993

Sluggish account of the financial and political maneuverings that marked efforts to bring water to the arid Los Angeles Basin at the turn of the century. Realizing that their drought-plagued city's growth would be checked unless immense supplies of water could be made readily available, officials of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (headed by engineer William Mulholland), in conjunction with local politicians, devised a plan to divert the water of northern California's Owens River through a monumental system of aqueducts, canals, tunnels, and reservoirs 250 miles south to L.A. When word of the plan spread, a land boom resulted, particularly in the desertlike San Fernando Valley. Once the conduit system was in place—after an incredible effort involving thousands of workers and six years of backbreaking labor—irate residents living near the Owens River, deprived of the water essential to their agriculture-based economy, tried to sabotage the system with derringers, dynamite, and demonstrations. The tense situation continued until March 12, 1928, when a major dam in the system collapsed, causing millions of dollars in property damage and more than five hundred deaths. During an official inquiry, Mulholland took responsibility for the catastrophe but was cleared of criminal charges. He died in 1935, a broken man—and in the years since, the Colorado River has replaced the Owens as L.A.'s water source. All this should have made for an engrossing narrative (Mulholland's debacle formed the basis of the film Chinatown), but Davis writes with little color or inflection. Though she centers her narrative on Mulholland, she never gets beneath the surface of his obsessive, autocratic personality—nor does she supply insights into the boomtown boosterism that pervaded official L.A. circles and prompted the grandiose plan in the first place. Exciting when detailing the harrowing dam collapse, but this episode isn't enough to energize an otherwise lackluster presentation. (Thirty b&w photographs—not seen) Read full book review >