Rivers in the Desert

It was William Mulholland, the subject of this biography, who built the Los Angeles Aqueduct— siphoning water from the Owens Valley 250 miles to the north and 4,000 feet above sea level to turn part of the Southern California desert into Los Angeles, City of Angels, urban sprawl with so many million inhabitants. His story involves, appropriately enough, Water and Power—the title of Mulholland’s Department—and it is immensely to Mulholland’s credit that he foiled the financial manipulations of his friend Fred Eaton, who attempted to corral the whole lucrative market in Owens Valley water for himself.

But there were bigger powers interested in water than Eaton, and Mulholland was unable to prevent the syndicate known as the San Fernando Mission Land Company from buying up the northern end of the San Fernando Valley dirt-cheap, acting on inside information about the project. Members included Henry Huntington, Edward Harriman, Joseph Sartori, and publishers Harrison Otis of the TIMES and Edwin Earl of the EXPRESS.

Davis describes Mulholland’s building of the Aqueduct, his building of the St. Francis dam, and its subsequent collapse, neither sparing Mulholland nor failing to honor him: he was a giant of a man. And she manages this with vivid attention to detail—the “rag camps,” the tunneling, the unionizing, even the doctor’s use of canned tomatoes for the relief of drunkenness. She chronicles, too, Mulholland’s rise to heights of popular acclaim, his investigation and clearance by Committee on the charges of murder arising from the St. Francis dam disaster, his subsequent abandonment by those who had adored him, his final years in voluntary obscurity.

Roman Polanski’s film, CHINATOWN, gives Los Angeles’ (that is, Hollywood’s) own definitive version of the story, replete with incest: it is deservedly a classic. Davis is writing a biography, not a script, yet her telling of the historical events that underpinned Robert Towne’s brilliant screenplay finally proves as fascinating as the film itself.