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The Mirage Factory

Illusion, Imagination, and the Invention of Los Angeles

Gary Krist

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With big dreams come rude awakenings, and the dreams that built a thriving metropolis in a remote corner of Southern California were bigger than most. Los Angeles was once a sparsely settled hinterland, isolated by desert and mountains, constrained by the trickling water supply of the Los Angeles River. As Gary Krist gently puts it in his new book, 'It was no sensible place to build a great city.'

Anyone even casually acquainted with Los Angeles has probably heard a version of that sentiment before. But then The Mirage Factory: Illusion, Imagination, and the Invention of Los Angeles doesn't pretend to overhaul our understanding with cutting-edge theories or historical bombshells. Krist, who wrote novels before turning to popular histories of Chicago ('City of Scoundrels') and New Orleans ('Empire of Sin'), marshals his considerable storytelling skills to capture Los Angeles at a critical moment: the period between 1900 and 1930, when an agricultural town of 100,000 people became a burgeoning city of 1.2 million, replete with new industries, a new identity and, crucially, newfound water.

But even 30 years of upheaval can get unwieldy, so Krist winnows the historical record even further. He directs our attention to three individuals whose restlessness and ambition bolstered - and exemplified - the city's transformation: the engineer and water czar William Mulholland, the filmmaker D. W. Griffith and the Pentecostal evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson. Three people over three decades: They were outsiders who sought their fortunes in Los Angeles, and whose stars burned bright before they flamed out.

Krist's efforts to curb the sprawl sound pat, but they work. And as self-contained as it is, the book opens up vistas to other books. For anyone uninitiated to what the historian Kevin Starr called 'the Great Gatsby of American cities,' The Mirage Factory reads like a well-curated sampler. You'll finish it entertained, informed and satisfied, as well as ready for more.

In Krist's account, as in life, water comes first. Joan Didion, living in Los Angeles, once described revering the water she drew from her faucet so much that she kept tabs on where it was: 'I particularly like to imagine it as it cascades down the 45-degree stone steps that aerate Owens water after its airless passage through the mountain pipes and siphons.'

What Didion called 'Owens water' was brought from the Owens River, north of the city, to her Malibu home by the Los Angeles Aqueduct, an enormous public works project. The aqueduct's 233-mile path also forms the narrative spine of Krist's book. Completed in 1913, with Mulholland as its chief engineer, it opened flood gates both literal and figurative. At the opening ceremony, as a deluge of water came gushing down onto the dusty spillway below, Mulholland told the gathered crowd what to do with it and the future it represented: 'There it is. Take it!'

'Los Angeles could finally feel confident that the greatest obstacle to its growth had been removed,' Krist writes, even if the exuberance would only last as long as the respite before the next drought. A decade later, the growing city started pumping groundwater from the Owens Valley, whose resentful residents retaliated with angry editorials and, on occasion, dynamite. 'By mid-July 1927, the aqueduct had been bombed no fewer than 10 times.'

Nineteen twenty-seven was also the first year in more than a decade that David Wark Griffith hadn't released one of his grandiose films. Having achieved spectacular critical and commercial success with 'The Birth of a Nation' (1915), his racist paean to the South - described by James Baldwin as 'one of the great classics of the American cinema' and 'an elaborate justification of mass murder' - Griffith struggled to keep up with changing tastes and the advent of the talkies. The Hollywood he helped create had changed: There was more money churning through, along with more scrutiny from the money men.

Krist expertly weaves together the stories of Griffith, Mulholland and McPherson, the charismatic evangelist from rural Canada who moved to Los Angeles to attend to the city's spiritual needs. She shows up in The Mirage Factory almost halfway through - arriving at the tail end of 1918 with her mother, her female assistant and her two children in tow. McPherson's congregation bloomed with the city, and after surviving a (possible) kidnapping and multiple fallouts with her mother, her ultimate downfall, when it happened, came tragically and too soon.

Deploying chapters that alternate between the three characters to build momentum and suspense, Krist inserts some social commentary here and there, but he keeps it minimal and to the point. Los Angeles's boosters, he says, were peddling 'the wealthy white man's version of the ideal city,' a place 'without losers - at least among those the establishment cared about.'

But above all Krist is a nimble scene-setter, and it's the indelible details he offers that give The Mirage Factory its mesmerizing pull. Recounting the collapse of the St. Francis dam in 1928, a disaster that would mar Mulholland's legacy, Krist describes the first moments of horror with terrifying immediacy. One survivor saw the 'seething wall of water as high as a 10-story building' before it crashed around him, 'tearing the clothes from his body and battering his head and limbs with stone and wood.'

Even the parenthetical asides are filled with well-chosen arcana: The actress Louise Brooks said that dancing with Fatty Arbuckle was 'like floating in the arms of a huge donut'; the director Cecil B. DeMille ventured into talkies with 'Madam Satan,' a 'blimp disaster musical.'

McPherson and the other transplants who flourished in Los Angeles, at least for a time, 'understood that an appealing story can accomplish so much more than the plain, unvarnished facts.' Krist understands this, too. In the last pages of The Mirage Factory, he can't resist a few telescoping shots into the future, like those scenes elaborating on the fates of a movie's characters as the credits roll. It's an ending that feels right, allowing us to linger a while longer before the house lights come on.

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