The Mirage Factory

The Hollywoodland sign, 1935

In The Mirage Factory, Gary Krist provides a lively history of Los Angeles in the early 20th century. In 1900 Los Angeles, then number 36 in order of American cities in population, was the whitest large city in the country. By the time he closes in the 1940s, Los Angeles is already number 5 and has become a diverse center of industry. While Krist nods to these trends, and to the booming economy that would make Los Angeles an urban presence on the world stage, his real theme is revealed in his title: Los Angeles as a product of the imagination.

Krist follows the life stories of three extraordinary characters. William Mulholland, Irish immigrant and self-taught engineer, arrived in Los Angeles in 1877. He had the vision of bringing water to Los Angeles, and as Superintendent of the Water Department, realized that vision with the 233 mile long aqueduct from Owens Valley. David Wark Griffith, already recognized as a creative genius of the movies, in the 1910s brought his production team to Los Angeles from New York. And Sister Aimee Semple McPherson arrived in 1918, bringing her work as an evangelist to the western city and soon establishing the Angelus Temple, hosting services for thousands every day of the week.

Conflict marked all of these lives. Mulholland’s aqueduct was the first of the Southern California water projects that allowed the desert city to grow into a metropolis. The resistance of people in Owens Valley to the Los Angeles system turned into a long-running conflict that included legal battles, peaceful occupations, and violent confrontations. Krist provides a fast paced narrative of the Water Wars of the 1920s. 

The movie industry had already become well-established by 1915 when Griffith released his impossible film, Birth of a Nation. The film prompted outrage and protest  over its racist depictions of African Americans and its glorification of the KKK and the violent overthrow of Reconstruction. But most Americans seemed ready for its story of northerners and southerners united. The film made its studio, and Griffith, wealthy, and gave him the freedom to follow other projects as he wished. 

Sister Aimee, went from triumph to triumph with her evangelical revivals, her growing church with daily services, her illustrated sermons, and her radio program. With time, though, Sister Aimee became a personality as much as a guide to Jesus. In the mid-1920s she became the star of her own scandal, a weeks-long disappearance that she claimed was a failed kidnapping. The papers could not stop following the story, and even today questions remain about what really happened.

For Griffith, Birth of a Nation marked the pinnacle of his career. He made other remarkable movies, known for their creative contributions to cinema. But he never had another big commercial success, and his failures mounted. Krist follows him to his end, living at the Knickerbocker Hotel in Los Angeles and drinking heavily. He died in 1948. 

Mullholland’s end came in 1928, well before his death. The St. Francis Dam, built to store water in the San Francisquito Valley reservoir, collapsed on March 12 and flooded the valley and continued on through Santa Clara. The final death toll is estimated at 431, and flood damages soared into the millions. Mulholland freely admitted that if the dam’s failure were due to human causes, “I was that human.” He spent much of the rest of his life in relative seclusion, dying in 1935.

Sister Aimee’s life did not suffer from repeated loss, or from a catastrophic failure. After the scandal of her disappearance, she continued life much as before. But she would come into conflict with more and more of those around here, especially her Mother who had managed the Temple and much of the church’s organization. But the Temple under Sister Aimee’s leadership provided relief services in L.A. during the Depression, and helped bond offerings during the war years. Sister Aimee continued her revival work until her death in 1944.

Krist, Gary. The Mirage Factory Illusion, Imagination, and the Invention of Los Angeles. Crown, 2019.