A brash Republican leader with real estate expertise, questionable ethics, a gift for snarky nicknames, and a stunning political victory over a heavily-favored opponent three years earlier, sued a liberal newspaper for libel in a fit of pique after the publication mocked the leader’s failed business dealings.
It happened one hundred years ago in San Diego.
In March, 1920, Mayor Louis J. Wilde sued the San Diego Sun, owned by Eucalyptus tree-hugging E.W. Scripps, after the paper published a sarcastic editorial about Wilde’s failing community oil project.
Below is a picture of the March 5, 1920 edition of the Sun:
Let’s Just Get Along…
The “Republican” reference above is only to highlight the uncanny superficial parallels, NOT to start a political argument about whose team is better, who cheated or should’ve won, or whether my Dad can beat up your Dad.
100 years ago
- World War I “just” ended (November, 1918)
- San Diego’s Panama-California Exposition was a recent memory (1915)
- It would be almost a decade until the Great Depression (1929).
Louis J. Wilde
Louis J. Wilde was born in Iowa City, Iowa on July 16, 1865. For historical reference, that’s three months and a day after Abraham Lincoln was assassinated.
Wilde moved to Southern California at age 18 and saved enough from his jobs as elevator worker and clerk in Los Angeles to invest in the 1880s SoCal real estate boom.
And lose it in the consequent bust.
Wilde moved to Minnesota, flipped farmland, became a banker, and made riches investing in Texas oil fields. Remember that last part…
He arrived in Los Angeles in 1902 but was only there a year before heading south. The Sun’s article, as you’ll see, gave the impression that things didn’t go well in LA.
Wilde arrived in San Diego in 1903 and undertook a quickly successful business career which included the following accomplishments:
- Built San Diego’s first modern apartment building
- Constructed the Pickwick Theater
- Funded completion of the U.S. Grant Hotel
- Donated the stunning fountain in Horton Plaza. That fountain was among the first to contain water and electricity in the same feature and cost $10,000.
Wilde successfully lobbied to have “D” Street changed to Broadway, though some historians attribute his motive as the desire for a fancier address. He lived at 24th and “D.”
He was charged, and acquitted, of embezzling funds from an investment in the Oregon Trust and Savings Bank of Portland in 1910.
Wilde was plain-spoken, some would say vulgar, and his antics made him interesting to cover for the press and popular with a portion of citizens.
He ran for office in 1917 against heavily favored George Marston, of Balboa Park fame, in what would later be called the “Smokestacks versus Geraniums” election. Wilde wanted industry, as represented by his campaign’s image of a huge smokestack bellowing smoke (to signify industrial success). Marston wanted more green space downtown, and Wilde took the opportunity to nickname the venerable and respected businessman “Geranium George.”
Wilde won the election by a significant margin and remained a colorful figure in the press after the election.
For example, he physically assaulted at least one rival and injured himself doing so. He refused to work at City Hall after the incident and arranged for a messenger to and from the U.S. Grant hotel, his new “fave” office.
The Community Oil Project
In July, 1919, Wilde formed the Community Oil Project, as a vehicle to jump into the SoCal oil frenzy, and decided San Diego County would be the next hotspot. He was selling the same thing every San Diegan had hoped for since someone spotted petrol in Pico Canyon almost 60 years earlier.
Wilde sold shares in the company to “Subscribers” for $100 per share. He was clear that the drilling venture was a “jazzcat gamble,” and reminded potential subscribers: “your $100 gamble could be worth upwards to $20,000.”
Jazzcat was slang for a long-shot.
On August 2, 1919, John D. Spreckels purchased 5 shares for $500 in total. The San Diego Union, owned by Spreckels, highlighted that investment in the next day’s edition.
- “Not since he announced his community oil project has Mayor Wilde been more pleased than he was yesterday… The mayor was smiling all over his face when he stacked this substantial check up with hundreds of others and announced that his plan is meeting with fully as much success as he had expected… The mayor says he is giving a great deal of his time to the enterprise and doesn’t ask a cent for his services. He has subscribed $1,000 of his own money, being the first subscriber, but will reap no greater benefits from the oil, if it is struck, than this amount calls for. Every investor, the mayor declares, will share in the proceeds according to the amount invested and there will be a fair deal for all concerned… ‘If there is oil here, we are going to find it.’”
“The mayor says he is giving a great deal of his time to the enterprise and doesn’t ask a cent for his services.”
I’m sorry, but what’s happening here… shouldn’t the mayor be devoting a prohibitive amount of time fulfilling his mayoral responsibilities? Why on earth would he publicly admit otherwise?
And… “doesn’t ask a cent“? It was his project! Was “not asking for more money” the standard of economic stability in 1920?
“You know our company is successful because the CEO hasn’t demanded anyone reimburse his expenses.”
What makes less sense is that anyone would have drilled for oil after this March 16, 1916 letter from W.S. Miller, Vice-President of the Standard Oil Company to a Mr. Wm. Clayton, V.P. and Managing Director of the Union Building in San Diego:
“My dear Mr. Clayton:
I have had a talk with Dr. Starke, the head of our Geological Department, in regard to the land near San Diego that you spoke to me about.
The Doctor tells me that he has been all over San Diego County… and that he feels very positive indeed that the formations in that entire district would mean that there is no oil there… He seems quite positive… that there would be no use in spending any money in drilling wells.”
I don’t understand how San Diegans convinced themselves otherwise, but Mayor Wilde did.
The Offending Article
Drilling started in early 1920 and had a highly publicized opening. Mildred Harris Chaplin, wife of screen legend Charlie, busted the ceremonial champagne bottle at Wilde’s first derrick, in San Clemente canyon.
Months into the work, the Community Oil Project had found exactly nothing. The San Diego Sun, owned by John D. Spreckels’ arch-nemesis E.W. Scripps, poked enormous fun at the leader’s failing venture.
“Reports that oil had been struck south of city hall were wildly investigated by a reporter… He discovered that a seepage… from the mayor’s twin-eight Rolls Royce had caused the report, the machine having been parked there overnight.”
On March 1st, 1920, the Sun went too far for Wilde.
“[The author is] from a northern city where one of your city officials is only too well known [implied Los Angeles where Wilde had lived, and failed in real estate in the 1880s and ‘90s]…
[Your northern neighbors] were surprised you ever put him in office dumfounded at his re-election and amazed beyond measure that you continue to put up with him. San Diego must be virtuous if patience is anything to go by; but there comes a time when patience ceases to be a virtue…
The ungentlemanly remarks and foul language he allows to come in print above his name must disgust even the worst…
[Y]our mayor is to be pitied rather than censured, but it is a shame that your lovely city must be the goat and suffer such humiliations. You are laughed at, but what can you expect with your jazz cat gambles and brain storms? You have an exceptional county, get rid of your Wild mayor and San Diego will take her place at the top ranks.”
Wilde responded with a lawsuit alleging libel. Keep in mind that if Wilde’s “subscribers” (aka investors) got nervous, they might start asking for their investment, or “subscription”, back.
On March 5, 1920, both the San Diego Union and the Sun, owned by bitter rivals Spreckels and Scripps, respectively, both ran cover stories regarding Wilde’s suit.
Their coverages were as different as Fox and CNN.
Wilde used a full page ad in the Union to reach out to his “Community Unit Holders.” He didn’t mince words in his post-script.
“P.S. – if the 20 years of faithful, consistent services to this city that I have rendered has no compensation other than libelous attacks from those who have never done a solitary thing for you or for the upbuilding of the city – then love’s labor is lost and ingratitude is full payment for reputation and life’s work. Civic slackers and prosperity killers can go plumb to hell. The oil game will go right along regardless of the suicidal wave made glorious by the Sun…”
The Sun wanted a look at Community Oil’s books. The court refused to order an audit, so the paper “published their own appraisal and found that Wilde had collected over $120 thousand from subscribers and spent about $48 thousand. The largest line item was for land and leases on oil prospects in Texas.”
An April 21, 1920 article in the San Diego Union announced “Resolutions Uphold Wilde and Condemn Sun’s Action.” The paper also published an editorial that placed the blame for the venture’s recent failure to finalize a partnership with Pacific Oil & Gas Company entirely on the shoulders of the San Diego Sun’s “campaign of abuse.”
On April 26, 1920, Wilde dug in deeper with this letter in the San Diego Union.
“This is a letter to Community Unit Holders. It is an exposition, not an explanation… One always finds quitters in peace times and deserters in war times, but why worry?… They shall not be among us…
I tried to make the advertisements all so ridiculously plan that there would be no cause for a misunderstanding and that the money was to be sent to this jack-pot without any strings to it whatever…
I want game fighters and backers and only those who are well able, can and are willing to lose a few hundred dollars in this jack-pot fund and not cry about it; and with this kind of 100% Americans, red-blooded and true-blue loyalty, back of us, who will stand hitched to the finish…
Any subscriber who has heretofore withdrawn, cannot be reinstated again, under any circumstances. If this thing looked good when you went in, it looks better to us now and we want to develop the plan into a large company or trust, very shortly. Therefore, every unit holder who can well afford it, and who can well afford to lose it and forget it, is invited to send in One Hundred Dollars for another new unit to help keep the fight…”
Subscribers who financed the venture went from frustrated to angry and accused Mayor Wilde of bad faith, including using his own land for drilling sites, and profiting from their losses.
The Mayor quietly dropped the lawsuit and didn’t run for another term, plagued as he was by another scandal prior to the next election months later.
He moved back to Los Angeles and died unexpectedly a few years later. He was 58.
Wilde’s general approach to criticism can be gleaned from two San Diego Union headlines:
- December 26, 1920: Horace B Day, water commissioner, asked Council to oust Louis J. Wilde from office of mayor on the grounds that he is a resident of Coronado and not of San Diego.
- December 30, 1920: Mayor Wilde removed Day from Water Commission; “temperamentally unfit,” says Mayor.
The more things change…
Thanks for reading and stay tuned!!
And a special thanks to the very helpful folks at the San Diego History Center!