I have been reading a fascinating book -- Final Verdict by Adela Rogers St. Johns. It is a memoir about her father, Earl Rogers, a California superstar defense attorney in the early part of the 20th century.
St Johns was a highly successful and wonderful writer, screenwriter and journalist. What really sets this 1962 book apart from anything I have read before is her unique perspective on her protagonist -- her brilliant, charming, but, of course, flawed father. She didn't come to know her father as most children do; after work, on weekends, and so on, a child gradually pulling a father into focus along the way to maturity. As a very young girl -- her feet still didn't touch the floor under her chair -- Adela Rogers became what is best described as her father's professional confidante. While her peers were in classrooms, she was very often in court rooms and her father's law offices. Earl Rogers valued her "child sight"; she could not have been happier with her place by his side, none of which struck her as all that unusual at the time.
I was moved to write about the book because of two pages that interrupt a series of chapters devoted to Earl's cases and the complex Rogers family story. Taking a pause to set the historical scene, circa 1909 in Los Angeles, California, St. Johns writes of an America that is not just unrecognizable today in terms of technology and other unimaginable changes that have taken place since, but she also writes of a space, an opportunity, for the development of an American personality that no longer exists.
It was a space the state had not yet invaded.
At this time, public interest in national politics, affairs and activities was so small I have difficulty believing it myself. Most of us knew most of the time who was President but I can't say we cared much. Days -- weeks -- could go by without a story from Washington on the front page of any California paper or any mention of the President's name. When William Howard Taft beat William Jennings Bryan , and Eugene Debs got 402,000 votes as the Socialist candidate, California had ten electoral votes, way out there beyond the Rockies, and nobody paid much attention to her. We probably knew who our congressman was because we wrote to him for seeds and sometimes got them, and our senators on account of their being orators on the Fourth of July. The federal government, as a great centralized power running all forty-six states, hadn't occurred to any of us. There had been no big wars, only Remember the Maine and Dewey Has Captured Manila, which were storybook affairs, fought by the regular Army and a few hotheaded volunteers with less than four thousand casualties. Nobody would have believed a draft or military service or millions on our casualty lists. War really had nothing to do with us. As De Toqueville said in his Democratie en Amerique, a book my father knew by heart, this was the true place for the first real experiment in democracy because, protected by our vast oceans, we didn't need any other foreign policy than the Monroe Doctrine, which simply said the American states were never to suffer the Old World to interfere in the affairs of the New. The only thing De Toqueville was wrong about was the vast-ocean theory -- he did not foresee nor did anyone else that the oceans would soon become a few hours' wide. No wars, no draft, no income tax. Our main knowledge of Washington concerned high or low tariff, which was always the main item in a party platform.
While tariffs ring a bell due to the unexpected resurrection of "fair trade" / "America First" by Donald Trump in 2016, the world St. Johns has described seems much farther away than the early 20th century. In fact, I am quite amazed such a world still existed that late in time, and would never deny its appeal, especially now. It's not just peacefulness and quietness that St. Johns conjures; above all, it's the glorious freedom from the state. One hundred ten years later, we have no such freedom. The state is deep inside our daily lives, our families, our minds, our future. With mask mandates, it is present with every breath we take.
Here is more of St. Johns' America, the beautiful:
Our daily lives were tied into and affected by state, county, and city politics; the distances had not been bridged with the rest of the country in either transportation or communication. If you got a telegram you asked a friend to stand by while you opened it. A long-distance telephone call was almost impossible. No radio or TV or even movies seen by all of us bound us together as, for instance, Mary Pickford did when she became America's Sweetheart. No air mail of course -- a letter to Washington or New York took at least a week -- to Europe a month. No chain stores. We had our own Emporium in San Francisco and Hamburger's in Los Angeles until Woolworth wove the country together with the five-and-ten. Though we flocked to see Ethel Barrymore in Captain Kinks of the Horse Marines and Southern and Marlowe in If I Were King, our own stock theaters were more important to us, week after week, than those road companies. If New York had its Weber and Fields, we had our Kolb and Dill. Only vaudeville, to which Papa and I went every Monday, was national. Our own writers, Jack London, Frank Norris, Ambrose Bierce, George Sterling, Mary Austin, interested us most. Above all, Henry Ford, who changed the map, customs, habits and character of the United States more than any other man who ever lived in it, had only just begun to manufacture the Model T and put America on wheels. In my teens, there wasn't a foot of paved road in California. On the whole we stayed home a good deal.
A land where independence of mind was not only possible but likely.
Ninety per cent of the news in locals papers was local news. Ninety-five per cent of the pictures were home-town figures. We had no syndicated columns of any kind. With no movie or TV stars, no glamour boys in Washington, no real tie with New York, we created local idols.
Easterners would have called this provincial. And so it was, by definition. But imagine the infinite possibilities in a land of such riches and such sunshine, with liberty protected by the Constitution, and where the notion of the federal government "as a great centralized power running all forty-six states hadn't occurred to any of us." Hadn't occurred. The psyche refreshes.
St. Johns goes on to describes how her own father, the legal virtuoso, thrived in this same world.
Earl Rogers as political boss, courtroom star of sensational murder trials, was a bigger popular favorite than one man could be today in any city of state. Known by sight to more people than a Vice President or Attorney General, whose names we had probably never heard and whose pictures we had certainly never seen. When, on a night of a big fight, he walked down the aisle of Uncle Tom McCareys' Vernon Arena, dressed to kill, they started to cheer him the moment they saw him and kept it up after he was in his rignside seat. Always he had a court wherever he went, an entourage of his own, and also groups of admirers, hangers-on, hero worshippers, and while autographs hadn't come in then they "just wanted to shake your hand, Mr. Rogers." He divided the pedestal as No. 1 Matinee Idol with Lewis K. Stone, who was leading man at the Belasco, and once with an unknown young actor, Miss Barymore's little brother John. All this was heady stuff for any man.
In my book, freedom from the central state, from its repressive diktats and noxious personalities, from the collective culture encased in an amniotic sac of technology, is heady stuff for anyone. It seems clear the tyranny, rioting and flames engulfing our country nearing Election Day are calculated to destroy all vestiges of it.
Here are some pictures of what my home town of Los Angeles looked like circa 1910-1919.