Dreamers and schemers : how an improbable bid for the 1932 Olympics transformed Los Angeles from dusty outpost to global metropolis

This book follows the machinations of Los Angeles real estate mogul William May Garland as he attempts to bring the 1932 Olympic Games to Los Angeles. Barry Siegel, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and UC Irvine Professor, rewards the reader with an enjoyable account of a winsome individual with a dogged determination to bring an international spotlight to a city that was still struggling for recognition.

William Garland, like most early Angelenos, was a transplant, in this case from Maine. He arrived in Los Angeles around 1890 and became involved with the real estate business which segued into a role within the booster community to help “sell the sunshine” narrative of Los Angeles. He ingratiated himself among the ranks of the Los Angeles oligarchy eventually becoming an important figure in L.A. civic life. Garland became particularly close to Harry Chandler of the Los Angeles Times who would prove to be an influential ally in times of crisis. As part of his booster obligations, Garland would zero in on what he felt would be the ultimate booster event that would sell L.A. to the masses: the Olympic Games.

When USC athlete Fred Kelly walked away with a gold medal at the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, boosters began circulating the idea of bringing the games to Southern California. The problem was that the Los Angeles of the 1910s and 1920s was nothing more than a “dusty outpost” making the prospect of hosting a colossal event like the Olympics a far-fetched fantasy. Garland was nevertheless convinced that the games could bring Los Angeles the international attention that boosterism was struggling to wrangle in. The games were an international spectacle that would bring in more publicity than any of the cheap ephemera that the Chamber of Commerce was churning out ad nauseam. Garland proceeded to take the proverbial bull by the horns and began his quest to charm, schmooze and cajole anyone and everyone who stood between the Olympic Games and the City of the Angels.

For each step Garland took forward, a litany of setbacks seemed poised to stop the process in its tracks. As he was negotiating with Olympic committee officials, Garland was sideswiped by scandals that caught national and international attention including the murder of film director William Desmond Taylor; Asa Keyes prosecution of all five County Supervisors on bribery charges; Edward Doheny’s involvement in the Tea Pot Dome scandal; the murder of Ned Doheny; the LAPD’s bumbling of the Walter Collins kidnapping and the illegal detention of his mother, Christine--just to name a few. Garland managed to navigate past these very public snafus, and was able to charm the International Olympic Committee members until an unprecedented and seemingly insurmountable roadblock hit: the stock market crash that brought on the Great Depression. Five months prior to the games not a single country had accepted the invitation to participate and “groceries not games” protests were beginning to grow from everyday people throughout Los Angeles. Talk of abandoning the 1932 games altogether became serious.

The denouement of the book is a given. Los Angeles did, of course, host the 1932 games but much of the meat in Siegel’s story resides in the account of how the Los Angeles oligarchs of yesteryear were able to force Los Angeles into the role of a modern metropolis that the Olympic Committee would recognize in a very short period of time. In particular, Garland’s ability to overcome the elephantine impediment of the Great Depression, and effectively negotiate with business and civic leaders to make the games a reality is truly remarkable. Garland left no stone unturned and called upon every imaginable resource within Los Angeles’ arsenal of civic holdings to ensure that the world would know that Los Angeles was the venue best suited to host the 1932 games.

It’s worth mentioning that the book does not talk around the games without actually recounting the events themselves. Siegel details the outcome of the individual events and focuses on many of the “star” athletes who emerged like uber-athlete Babe Diderikson, hurdler Evelyne Hall, as well as swimmers Helene Madison and Clarence “Buster” Crabbe. Siegel details how the “against all odds” stories of many of these athletes helped to craft a narrative that the ‘32 Games were a rousing success.

Siegel’s journalistic slant in relaying the story makes the book engaging, accessible to the average reader and helps to overcome what could easily be a dry, overly academic read. The book should be of interest to those who appreciate sports history and how sporting events have shaped international and domestic politics. More than that, the book is a welcome addition to books on the cultural history of Los Angeles and puts a long overdue spotlight on a compelling character from L.A's past, William Garland.