Tuesday, October 20, 2009

When History is a Mystery

One of the things that is both interesting and frustrating about writing books set in what is the relatively recent past is that you get a taste for just how malleable history can be. When you look back, for instance, on things that happened during the Restoration or the Renaissance or any time in the more or less long ago, enough time has passed that there is some historical agreement. With more recent history, sometimes you discover that the amount of time that has passed is so brief, no one has yet had a chance to get concerned about the things that are missing and the big decisions that are still to be made.

Let me give you an example. The third Kitty Pangborn novel, the book I’m currently calling Death Was in the Blood, takes place -- as all books featuring Kitty have and will -- in Los Angeles in 1931. This time out, some of the action takes place against the backdrop of Olympic preparation, as the Olympics, of course, took place in Los Angeles in 1932.

They were, in many ways, ground-breaking Olympics. On that there is agreement. For one thing, it was the height of the Depression. A number of countries pulled out, as they just couldn’t afford to send their teams on such a big trip. Less than half the number of participants of the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam competed in Los Angeles in 1932.

Those 1932 Olympics in LosAngeles was the first time in history that an Olympic village was built to house the athletes. It was apparently really fantastic, with dining halls and entertainment centers and even a screening room where the athletes could watch moving pictures of their performances of the day. Movie stars would drop by every night and give impromptu shows (so L.A.!), but it was all for the men. The women athletes were housed in a hotel on Wilshire and got left out of all the fun though, in fairness, 1206 men competed and only 126 women.

So all of this is known absolutely: we have first-hand accounts, we have photos and even film. What we don’t know exactly is where this village was because it was dismantled right after the Olympics and, near as anyone can tell, beyond one structure that ended up -- and still stands -- at the police academy in Elysian Park, the rest of that ground-breaking 1932 Olympic village is gone without a trace.

There is agreement that the village was located in the Baldwin Hills, but it might have been in the Blair Hills, an area that’s now actually part of Culver City. Or it might have been near Crenshaw and Vernon in the View Park area and, according to the Baldwin Hills Park Web site, “One account places the village in the Crenshaw or Angeles Mesa district, in the hills to the west of Crenshaw Boulevard south of Vernon Avenue. The roads Olympiad Drive and Athenian Way in this area commemorate its history.”

From the same source:
The village comprised between 500 and more than 600 two-room dwellings and included post and telegraph offices, an amphitheater, a hospital, a fire department, and a bank. The village was built on between 250 and 331 acres that was loaned by the heirs of the estate of Lucky Baldwin. The buildings were removed after the games.
This account is pretty consistent with what I found in other sources: references to developer and stock market speculator Elias Jackson “Lucky” Baldwin, who died in 1909 but whose fortune -- by the early 1930s -- was still largely intact. Mentions of the Olympic village being constructed at great cost during the Depression, then mysteriously disappearing right after the games.

But there are enough things not mentioned or hinted at that if you’re of a certain disposition or mindset, your mind fills in the blanks. The construction of a whole village during the Depression -- one that needed to look good, yet not be required to stand the test of any significant amount of time? That would have been a plumb contract. A multi-million dollar contract, even in the dollars of the day. One worth killing over? Well, perhaps you’ll wait and see.

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