Margaret Leslie Davis. The Culture Broker: Franklin D. Murphy and the Transformation of Los Angeles. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007. 495 pp. $34.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-520-22495-7.
Reviewed by Emily E. Straus (Department of History, State University of New York at Fredonia)
Published on H-Urban (February, 2008)
Murphy's Modern Metropolis
One wonders if Margaret Leslie Davis meant to evoke "the power broker" Robert Moses when choosing a name for her biography of Franklin D. Murphy, the influential "culture broker" of Los Angeles. From 1924 to 1968, Moses was arguably one of the most, if not the most, powerful New Yorkers, working to build public works in the city and state. Moses shaped New York City despite the fact that he was never elected to an office, but rather because he was appointed to a variety of positions. Like Moses, Murphy worked from 1960 until his death in 1994 in nonelected positions to wield his influence over his city. For Moses, power came through implementing public works, while for Murphy power came from defining culture. Despite their obvious differences, both are case studies in the history of power and how this power can be achieved, not only in the spotlight but also behind the scenes. To this end, Davis makes a compelling argument for why people interested in the development of cities and American high culture, in general, and Los Angeles, in particular, should become acquainted with Murphy. In this well-researched biography, Davis explores the growth of Los Angeles as a cultural center and argues convincingly that Murphy, through his various roles in local and national positions of power, played an integral part in transforming the city into a modern metropolis.
That Murphy would play such a key role in Los Angeles is surprising given his childhood and early adult years. In fact, Murphy was not a native of Los Angeles; he was born and bred in Kansas, where he began his professional life as a medical doctor. Murphy became head of the medical school at the University of Kansas and was quickly tapped as chancellor for the entire university. From this position, he took the chancellorship of the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA). Murphy's years in Los Angeles proved remarkably prolific.
This book is organized chronologically and into four major parts, reflecting the different positions that Murphy held in Los Angeles: chancellor, chairman, trustee, and steward. In addition to the chancellorship of UCLA, he successfully held many powerful posts, such as chief executive of the Times Mirror Company, as well as a trusteeship and membership on many boards, including (but certainly not limited to) the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), the Ahmanson Foundation, the National Gallery of Art, and the Ford Motor Company. Through his work, he also formed personal and professional relationships with many of the nation's wealthiest men, including Robert Ahmanson, Walter Annenberg, Henry Ford II, Paul Mellon, and Nelson Rockefeller.
Murphy's extensive network yielded benefits that reached far beyond the institutions for which he toiled (though he always took his jobs very seriously). According to Davis, Murphy had another goal: "to bring the enrichment of art into the lives of all Americans" (p. 290). To reach that goal, he "was the measured diplomat when it came to dealing with rich and powerful donors" (p. 253). Davis shows that Murphy's incredible array of roles allowed him to leave his mark on the worlds of academia, journalism, and cultural institutions. Indeed, Murphy's work not only transformed Los Angeles but also reached far beyond its borders.
The Culture Broker is filled with examples of Murphy's role in the transition of Los Angeles, as Davis puts it, "from a cultural backwater to a vibrant center for the arts" (p. xi). One of the most effective examples of this change is Murphy's behind-the-scenes work procuring collections for museums. The story of Murphy's failed attempt at securing Armand Hammer's collection for the LACMA stands out. Davis describes the elaborate negotiations and false promises that occurred over many years, as well as Hammer's surprise announcement to build his own museum. Another fascinating account is that of the Getty Center, in which Davis traces the process of building both Getty museums. Stories like these reveal the potentially broad audience for this book, ranging from museum historians to any resident, visitor, or scholar of Los Angeles interested in knowing the complicated history behind the Getty Center, perched so high on its hill. The stories of both the Hammer collection and the creation of the Getty illustrate Murphy's extensive involvement in shaping museum collections.
To narrate Murphy's life and to build her argument about his influence, Davis conquered a large task. Murphy left an enormous amount of material, including ninety-one boxes of over ten thousand papers and numerous oral history interviews. It is quite evident from the text and lengthy footnotes that Davis mined these vast resources to give the reader an understanding of why Murphy made certain decisions about his own career as well as about the places in which he worked. Though Murphy's own documents appear to be bountiful, Davis did not limit her research to these materials. Instead, she delved into newspaper accounts and the papers of people around Murphy, and conducted over thirty oral history interviews. By broadening her research beyond Murphy's own words, Davis gives herself and the readers a certain distance from the biographical subject.
Still, Davis does fall into the trap of a biographer who, in the words of historian Jill Lepore, "loves too much." For example, Davis seems to forgive Murphy for many of his faults, such as his bad temper, which he often took out on his employees. She also glosses over his extramarital affairs. While these characteristics and moments do not impinge on Davis's larger argument about Murphy, the ease with which she describes them leaves the reader wondering what other parts of Murphy's life she might be giving the same treatment. More important, Davis's work suffers from her inattention to the other type of culture inherent to Los Angeles, that of the film industry. She keeps her focus on the fine arts, great books, and classical music. Davis explicates the wheeling and dealing of the elite in the city as they negotiated the world of high art, but ignores the film industry's kingmakers who also helped to shape the metropolis.
Nevertheless, Davis's book will be of interest to urban historians, especially those who study how decisions are made in cities and how individuals can help shape these decisions (and their cities). She not only tells the history of Murphy, but also gives insight into the histories of such disparate subjects as Dorothy Chandler, the Ford Motor Company, the Nixon presidency, and UCLA. In doing so, Davis shows the interconnectedness of journalism, culture, politics, business, education, and money, and she illustrates how personal relationships and connections played central roles in the workings of all of these. Only by understanding these bonds do we get a full understanding of the complicated position of being a culture broker and the importance of Murphy.
. Echoed in Davis's title is Robert A. Caro, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York (New York: Vintage Books, 1975). For another discussion of controversies surrounding Moses, see, for example, Hilary Ballon and Kenneth T. Jackson, eds., Robert Moses and the Modern City: The Transformation of New York (New York: W. W. Norton, 2007).
. Jill Lepore, "Historians Who Love Too Much: Reflections on Microhistory and Biography," Journal of American History 88, no. 1 (June 2001): 129-144.
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Emily E. Straus. Review of Davis, Margaret Leslie, The Culture Broker: Franklin D. Murphy and the Transformation of Los Angeles.
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