The Man Who Seduced Hollywood
The Life and Loves of Greg Bautzer, Tinseltown's Most Powerful Lawyer
By B. James Gladstone
Chicago Review Press Incorporated Copyright © 2013 B. James Gladstone
All rights reserved.
In 1898, San Pedro, California, was on the verge of major expansion. The town was only ten blocks long and four blocks wide, but beyond its waterfront, a mess of mud and shacks, was a harbor of untold potential. San Pedro Bay had been discovered in 1542 by the Portuguese explorer Joào Rodrigues Cabrilho, who promptly claimed it for his employers, the Spanish Empire. Three centuries later, the area was in private hands, and the US government wanted it for a port of entry. There was, however, a conflict: Collis Huntington, president of the Southern Pacific Railroad, wanted the Port of Los Angeles to be located in Santa Monica, where he could monopolize trade. Senator Stephen White thought Los Angeles deserved better and supported the San Pedro Bay location. A battle ensued in Congress, the Free Harbor Fight of 1896. When it was over, San Pedro was designated the site of the future port. In 1898, construction of a breakwater began, the first step toward the magnificent Port of Los Angeles. The town of three thousand people was suddenly significant — especially to a young man in Missouri.
Edward H. Bautzer was twenty-two and a payroll clerk. He had graduated at age seventeen from the University of Missouri, spent a year teaching school in Jefferson City on the Missouri River, and then joined the engineering department of the Missouri River Commission. He was a robust, ruggedly handsome, and thoughtful young man. He was also ambitious. Taking note of reports of San Pedro's expected growth, he headed west. When he arrived, he surveyed its businesses. The San Pedro distributorship of the Los Angeles Times was being operated at the corner of Sixth and Beacon Streets by a man named Sam Bennett. Edward and a business partner named McGee acquired it. This distributorship was a small version of a general store: in addition to newspapers and magazines, it sold tobacco and sundries. On occasion, Edward provided news stories to the Times.
The up-and-comer's interest in civic affairs had come from his father, Edward F. Bautzer. The senior Edward was born in Wiesbaden, Germany, in 1845. He married Nancy C. Benson on December 17, 1874, in Linn, Missouri. "Nannie," as she was called, was of Scotch-Irish ancestry and traced her American roots to before the Revolutionary War. The Bautzers had three children: Edward H., born in 1876; Cecile, born in 1878; and Paul, born in 1882. Edward Sr. supported his family by working in the local government of Osage County, Missouri, where he held the post of circuit clerk from 1879 to 1890. His duties primarily entailed copying official legal documents by hand. His penmanship was impeccable.
His son Edward H. prospered in San Pedro, becoming both politically and socially active. Within a year of his arrival, he was serving on a jury. He soon joined the Republican Party and became a member of the Elks Lodge. Within three years, he was being mentioned in the newspapers he sold. In August 1901, he and his brother, Paul, who had also come to San Pedro, were being described as "our popular young businessmen." The Times wrote that Nannie and Cecile Bautzer were visiting them.
The article did not say that mother and sister were there because father had abandoned them a year earlier. He had moved to Clayton, Missouri, and become publisher of the St. Louis County Advocate. Edward Sr. was bombastic, critical, and contentious. Self-described as "a fighting editor," he even challenged a rival paper's owner to a duel over accusations that he had mishandled corporate finances. "I fought several duels while attending the University of Heidelberg and would not be a stranger on the field of honor," he told a reporter, but no duel occurred. Nannie and Cecile eventually returned to Missouri, and never saw Edward Sr. again. Paul stayed in San Pedro and became a bartender.
In 1902, Edward Jr.'s standing in San Pedro increased when President Theodore Roosevelt appointed him the city's postmaster. He was soon elected secretary of the District Republican Convention and campaigned for Roosevelt's second term. Edward furthered his political connections by becoming secretary of the San Pedro Chamber of Commerce and "Exalted Ruler" of San Pedro Elks Lodge No. 966. By 1905, he was representing his local government in a successful fight to keep the state from taking control of the harbor. He also lobbied Congress for a federal grant to dredge the harbor so bigger ships could enter. In 1907, his efforts were rewarded. The Los Angeles City Council created a Board of Harbor Commissioners, setting in motion the annexations that created the Port of Los Angeles.
Edward was an effective administrator. During his term as postmaster, postal revenue increased from $5,000 to $11,000 (approximately $300,000 in today's dollars). In 1909 he introduced improvements that included four mail carriers delivering mail twice a day, a new post office at Seventh and Beacon, and twenty-one mailboxes. Prior to this, people had to drop off and collect their mail in person at the post office. Perhaps concentrating too much on his career, the postmaster had yet to start a family.
By age thirty-three, though, he knew it was time to find a wife. Not surprisingly, his romantic prospect came from a civic connection. He was introduced to the young woman by a fellow Elk, a dentist named Verne A. Goodrich. In 1905, Goodrich and his wife, Martha, had been visited by her cousin, Blanche Buckhout, a twenty-one-year-old schoolteacher from Kalamazoo, Michigan. Two years later, the college-educated woman was living with the Goodriches and teaching school. Three years after moving in with the Goodriches, she was engaged to Edward.
The wedding ceremony took place on May 13, 1910, in the Los Angeles chambers of a justice of the peace named Ling. Only the Goodriches attended. There was no explanation for why the popular couple chose not to have a wedding party. The absence of family and friends from such an event was odd. Still, the wedding was covered in the Los Angeles Times with a well-placed photograph. Edward and Blanche appear perturbed with the photographer, but they make a handsome couple. Blanche is slim, with a heart-shaped face and dark, soulful eyes. Her brown hair is piled on top of her head under a wide-brimmed hat topped with a feather. She wears a light-colored jacket and skirt rather than a wedding dress. Edward wears a somewhat-wrinkled tan business suit, a celluloid collar, and a snap-brim hat.
"Did you stop to think that this is Friday the thirteenth?" a registrar asked the couple.
"We don't believe in hoodoos," replied Edward.
Despite their lack of superstition, bad luck did follow. Edward's father was facing difficulties. For three years he had been the editor of a newspaper called the Squib. In early 1910 he was fired and sank into depression. On May 27, exactly two weeks after his son's wedding, Edward Sr. took himself to Forest Park Highlands, an amusement park in St. Louis. At 8:40 PM he was sitting at a table near the bandstand, drinking a glass of beer. He suddenly slumped forward. The waiter who had served him thought he was drunk. Then Edward Sr. fell to the ground, an empty bottle of carbolic acid at his side. He had mixed the poison with his beer. He was taken to a hospital, but pronounced dead on arrival. An unsigned note was found in his coat pocket. "It's time to go," it said. "Will not some kind brother Masons of mine bury me? It is night but let there be light." He was sixty-five.
Edward Sr. had been a stranger to his family for years, a man with a difficult personality at best. His penchant to challenge others to a fight was the only notable thing he passed on to his descendants. Few tears were shed over his passing.
Upon returning from their honeymoon traveling to Detroit, where Edward attended an Elks convention, the couple took residence at 478 Eighth Street, a small apartment building three blocks from the San Pedro waterfront. On April 3, 1911, eleven months after their wedding, Blanche gave birth to a son, Gregson Edward Bautzer.
Shortly before Greg's birth, the expectant father had resigned his position as postmaster and enrolled in the University of Southern California College of Law. In 1913, he was one of seventy-six people who applied for a license to practice law in California. The semiannual examination was given by the California District Court of Appeal on January 23, 1913. Sixty-six applicants passed. Edward was one of them.
At that time, there were almost no lawyers in San Pedro. Edward worked as deputy city prosecutor for two years before striking out on his own. His offices were located in the Bank of San Pedro building at 110 West Sixth Street, a block from the waterfront. The three-story structure, capped with an ornate clock tower, was the most impressive business edifice the town had to offer. He had space on the second floor along with a physician, a dentist, a realtor, and a tailor. The cases he handled were not lucrative. Two are preserved in the appellate record. In one, he represented a man seeking to avoid paying a commission to a real estate agent who had not negotiated the actual sale. He lost the case. In the other, he defended a truck owner against repossession. He won that one. Blanche, meanwhile, was teaching at the Fifth Street School.
Despite the seemingly ideal small-town existence, the Bautzers were dealing with a family problem: Edward's brother Paul was an uncontrollable alcoholic. To escape scrutiny, he sometimes traveled across the Mexican border for a binge. In the summer of 1914, Paul returned from one such trip in terrible shape. Blood poisoning from wood alcohol was the likely cause. Edward sent him home to Missouri for medical treatment, but he died a few days after arrival. His death certificate was succinct: "Alcoholism (years)." The examining doctor noted that various internal organs showed telltale signs of fatty degeneration. The deceased was thirty-two.
By 1921, Edward had lived in San Pedro for more than twenty years. He had seen its population grow from three thousand to thirty thousand. Though only forty-five, he was considered a founding father. Anyone of importance knew him on a first-name basis. He was a valued member of the community and was beginning to reap financial rewards. He and Blanche were building a house in the new suburb of Point Fermin. Greg was a popular boy and doing well in fifth grade. But everything was about to change.
On December 1, Edward was driving to watch some boxing matches in Point Fermin. He had just passed an electric trolley car on Pacific Avenue north of Twenty-Sixth Street when he came to a jog in the road. A car was parked in the narrowing lane. He crashed into it.
Edward's injuries were minor — cuts to his face and head and a broken finger that required simple surgery. He was expected to recover quickly. However, eighteen hours later, while sitting in bed, talking to his wife and friends, he was seized with chest pains. In a matter of minutes he was dead. An autopsy revealed a heart attack. The cause of death was listed as an occlusion of the left coronary artery. Although alcohol may have been involved in causing the motor vehicle accident, after hearing evidence about the circumstances, the coroner's inquest determined that the crash had been unavoidable. Edward H. Bautzer was posthumously absolved of blame, his death labeled a tragedy.
Funeral services were held at the R. S. Goodrich Funeral Parlor, which was owned by a relative of Blanche's. The chapel was filled beyond capacity, and its doors were kept open so mourners outside could hear Reverend Grice's eulogy. Newspapers wrote tributes to Edward, recounting his commitment to justice and his devotion to San Pedro. Some articles remarked that he had often taken unpopular cases because he believed it was the right thing to do, even though he made enemies along the way. He was credited with helping the town become the largest port on the West Coast.
Gregson Bautzer was ten when his father died. In the years to come, Greg would seldom talk about him, and the exact tenor of their relationship is unknown. Nevertheless, it is apparent that he inherited many of his father's attributes — intelligence, industry, generosity, civic-mindedness, and leadership ability. Both were blessed with magnetism and the ability to make friends. Even as a boy, Greg was able to enlist support for any endeavor he began. His enthusiasm and goodwill drew people to him. As he matured, townsfolk asked him what he wanted to do in life. "I want to be a lawyer," he would answer, "like my father." As the only son of a well-known and highly regarded man, Greg undoubtedly felt the need to take his father's place in society, to complete his unfinished work.
By the mid-1920s, Greg and his mother were living in an apartment on Pacific Avenue. The widow and her only child grew closer. According to Jack Huber, one of Greg's childhood friends, Greg would sometimes seek her attention jealously; to prevent her from leaving the apartment, he would nail her shoes to her bedroom floor. Blanche continued teaching, even becoming principal of the Harbor City School, but her income was limited, and Greg had to pitch in with after-school jobs. He sold newspapers, hauled garbage off yachts, and waited tables.
The clean-cut, conscientious youth was a model student at San Pedro High School, the picture of propriety, but his teenage years also revealed a contradictory personality. Late at night, after a long day of classes, work, and homework, the tall, precocious fourteen-year-old would surreptitiously slip down to the waterfront. There he would play pool with sailors and drink Prohibition liquor. He would sometimes get into fights.
About the same time, Greg began entering national oratorical contests. The Los Angeles Times called him "one of San Pedro's crack debaters." His speeches vanquished every local student's. Once after winning a contest, he was given the choice of a twenty-five-dollar award for himself or a bust of Abraham Lincoln for the school. He chose the bust, which earned him the nickname "Lincoln" on the football team, where he was second-string quarterback.
In 1926, Greg won second place and a $250 prize in the West Coast division of the National Oratorical Contest. His address on the US Constitution was published on the front page of the Times, and he performed it on the radio:
We are living, friends, in a democracy that guarantees every citizen certain rights and privileges that are envied by the entire world. They have cost us nothing, and we forget the tremendous events that made them possible. ... Are we progressing? Yes. But are we taking advantage of this right of government that is given us? Evidence proves that fifty percent of us are not, for in our last election only fifty percent of those having the franchise voted....
And so, let us raise our conception to the magnitude and the importance of the duties that devolve upon us. Let our understanding be as broad as the country in which we live, our aspirations as high as its certain destiny. Never did there devolve upon any generation of men higher trusts than now devolve upon us. If our government fulfills these trusts, it is because you and I make it possible. If it fails, it is because you and I do not accept our responsibility. But Americans, true American citizens, will shoulder their responsibility, realizing that our forefathers have done their part.
When he returned to the same competition in 1927, he gave the Los Angeles Times an optimistic assessment of his chances. Referring to the boy who had taken first place the previous year, he said, "Herbert Wenig took three shots at the contest before he landed. So far, I have only had two, and in the first I managed a second. I have made considerable improvement during the year, and shall at least start with every confidence of winning." Despite his confidence, he did not do quite as well the second time. In a field of forty thousand entrants on the West Coast, Greg placed third. The girl who came in first went on to become the national champion. Though he didn't win, his accomplishment was still praiseworthy.
Greg's oratorical successes were due to a regimen. He spent three hours a day writing and practicing. He also spent time in the school gymnasium, doing exercises to improve breath control. He was blessed with a resonant voice, and he cultivated it. He also had a commanding physical presence. He was six foot two in an era when most men were five eight. His conventionally handsome features were enhanced by wavy hair and large brown eyes, which made it difficult to look away from him. His eyes gave him the power to gain attention, to hold it, and to persuade. (Continues...)
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