When author Upton Sinclair swept the California gubernatorial primaries in August 1934, he achieved a phenomenal feat. Until then, Democrats in California had been a marginal presence, but Sinclair’s End Poverty in California (EPIC) campaign “brought a Democratic party into existence,” as Baltimore Sun reporter Carey McWilliams recalled in 1982, and was ”the acorn from which evolved the tree of whatever liberalism we have in California,” according to California Supreme Court Justice Stanley Mosk.
But EPIC itself never came to pass. McWilliams remembered that ”[Sinclair] was waging this astonishing campaign, but as he was not going to win, the establishment would close in on him.”
Sinclair’s Republican opponent Frank Merriam received support from some of the state’s wealthiest businessmen—among them newspaper giant William Randolph Hearst, L.A. Times publisher Harry Chandler, film producer Irving Thalberg, Sunkist chairman C.C. Teague, and MGM Studios head Louis B. Mayer.
With the help of Chandler and Mayer, the Republican State Central Committee enlisted Chicago advertising firm Lord & Thomas, who had previously helped elect Republican president Warren G. Harding in 1920, to craft an anti-Sinclair battle plan. Lord & Thomas teamed up with San Francisco public relations firm Whitaker & Baxter Campaigns—established in 1933 as the country’s first political campaign management firm—and began to plot Sinclair’s downfall.
Run by husband-and-wife team Clem Whitaker and Leone Baxter, Whitaker & Baxter were to politicians what the Pinkerton Detective Agency was to businessmen and corporations. “They would start by doing research on their own client, on the opposition, and on the issues,” explains Robert V. Friedenberg in Communication Consultants in Political Campaigns: Ballot Box Warriors (Greenwood Publishing Group, 1997). “Using that research, they would develop an overall strategy keyed to a simple theme. They would then help the candidate develop speeches, play a critical role in determining where the candidate should speak, create and place advertising in the 700 daily and weekly newspapers published in California as well as on the radio.”
Whitaker and Baxter spent days going over Sinclair’s writings looking for damaging quotes that could be reprinted out-of-context. “We had one objective—to keep him from becoming governor,” Baxter told Harper’s Magazine in July 1959. “Because he was a good man, we were sorry we had to do it that way.”
Meanwhile, Lord & Thomas produced their own anti-Sinclair radio serials, complete with titles like “The Bennetts” and “Weary and Willie.” The agency hired thirty-five actors to perform in the serials, and ran them nearly every day until the end of the campaign.
Louis B. Mayer, a Russian-Jewish immigrant who had helped build MGM Studios into a major powerhouse, was also one of the most conservative figures in Hollywood. Chairman of the California Republican Party, he also proudly kept an autographed picture of Benito Mussolini behind his desk, and insisted on celebrating his birthday on the Fourth of July.
Mayer paid to have a huge billboard erected on Wilshire Boulevard depicting Sinclair as an apelike creature dripping blood from his fangs, and paid for newspaper ads, as well as his own anti-Sinclair radio ads, written by screenwriter Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Worst of all, Mayer threatened to lift money from his employees’ paychecks unless they donated to Frank Merriam.
Mayer’s partner, producer Irving Thalberg, hired Carey Wilson, screenwriter behind the 1925 silent version of Ben Hur, and Felix E. Feist, son of MGM’s chief sales executive, to produce a series of fake newsreels that would damage Sinclair’s image. Titled “California Election News,” the reels depicted Sinclair supporters as uninformed, slow-witted rustics, or communist sympathizers. “Upton Sinclair is the author of the Russian government and it worked out very well there, and I think it should do here,” said one. Other reels depicted tramps and hobos hopping the rails for California to live off Sinclair’s programs for the unemployed.
93% of the state’s newspapers endorsed Frank Merriam, and the Los Angeles Times warned that all-out war would ensue if Sinclair were elected. “Matches and rocks and clubs are easily procurable and arson, and riot, violence and murder will follow as surely as night the day,” wrote Times columnist Chapin Hall on October 11, 1934. When Turner Catledge, a visiting journalist from the New York Times, asked L.A. Times political editor Kyle Palmer why coverage in the paper appeared so biased, Palmer responded: “We don’t go in for that kind of crap you have in New York of being obliged to print both sides. We’re going to beat this son-of-a-bitch Sinclair any way we can. We’re going to kill him.”
Even on Sinclair’s home turf, local newspapers were largely unsympathetic. The Monrovia News-Post called him “devoid of sympathy with American institutions and ideals,” the Verdugo Record-Ledger labeled EPIC “the stepping-stone to State Socialism or other form of collectivism,” and the Pasadena Star-News queried: “Who is there among us that does not believe that election success for Mr. Sinclair would cause rejoicing in Russia and in every other communistic stronghold?”
Only a few papers, including the Los Angeles Daily News and Pasadena Post gave even-handed coverage to the election, though neither paper endorsed Sinclair.
Other, more subtle tactics were alleged to have been used by Sinclair’s opponents.
In mid-October, 1934, Progressive Party candidate Raymond L. Haight claimed that Merriam officials had attempted to bribe him to leave the race. “Half a dozen of my county and district chairmen are ready to so testify,” he told a United Press reporter on October 17.
On October 19, 1934, the Pasadena Post reported that Superior Court Judge Frank C. Collier of South Pasadena was issuing an order challenging the voter registration status of 24,136 people in the San Gabriel Valley. Though ostensibly a non-partisan investigation, Collier’s political leanings were evident. Several weeks before, he had headed an anti-communist rally before the La Cañada Community Voters’ League, in which he accused the ACLU of defending “the right of a person to advocate murder, assassination or overthrow of the government.”
Three attorneys, including John C. Packard of Pasadena, immediately challenged the suit, claiming that it was “instituted by the state Republican administration for the purpose of injuring the chances of the Democratic party at the coming election.”
The tactic was common among Sinclair’s GOP opposition. One front group called “United for California,” which was funded by Standard Oil, Sunkist, Southern Pacific, Pacific Mutual Life Insurance, and the L.A. Times, initiated similar suits, and paid for millions of anti-Sinclair flyers and thousands of anti-Sinclair billboards.
Their campaign was so negative that even Frank Merriam himself tried to intervene, suggesting an approach that would emphasize his qualifications, rather than denigrating Sinclair. In response, the director of United for California, Asa Call, told Merriam: “You’re a tough guy to sell, and we’re going to do it our way. We’re going to continue to say that Upton Sinclair is a no-good son of bitch, and we’re going to spend a lot of money for that [...] That’s what we have planned, and that’s that.”
Sinclair did not have the money to fully counter the attacks made against him, but what he lacked in financial backing, he nearly made up for in enthusiastic promoters of his cause. One tireless campaigner was La Cañada resident Irving Pichel, an actor known for his roles in such films as An American Tragedy (1931), Oliver Twist (1933), and Dracula’s Daughter (1936). Pichel was the son-in-law of Jackson Stitt Wilson, former socialist mayor of Berkeley, California, and an unflagging supporter of Sinclair in the Pasadena area. In the month leading up to the election Pichel gave speeches at Pasadena Democratic headquarters, and even lent his acting talents to a benefit show of Sinclair’s EPIC-themed play Depression Island, performed at McKinley School.
When it came time to vote, polls showed a 5-1 lead for Merriam in Pasadena. During a final speech at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium on November 2nd, Sinclair made a plea for support, but finally concluded: “It’s your poverty, not mine. I’m hard up right now, but if you elect Merriam on November 6, I’ll again be a writer.”
Despite having emerged from the August 1934 primary election with more votes than all the other candidates combined, several months of relentless propaganda and bogus lawsuits damaged Sinclair’s popularity. On election day, he lost to Frank Merriam by roughly 260,000 votes.
Though Sinclair failed to get elected, EPIC pushed forward a new era in politics. “Nationally, EPIC wrought its influence on the New Deal,” explains Kevin Starr in Endangered Dreams: The Great Depression in California (Oxford University Press, 1996). “In California, it convinced a near majority that utopia was a serious option.”
Furthermore, twenty-six EPIC-backed candidates were elected in California. These included Augustus Hawkins—later California’s first black congressman—who won a seat on the state assembly, and John Anson Ford, elected to the L.A. County Board of Supervisors, who went on to help found the L.A. County Arts Commission. Culbert Olson, chairman of the California Democratic Party, was elected to the state senate, and would become Democratic governor of California in 1939, while Sinclair’s running mate, Sheridan Downey, served eleven years in the U.S. Senate.
More important than those elected was the lasting, almost mythical imprint of the campaign itself. As Carey McWilliams recalled: “I remember six or eight years after the ’34 campaign way in the wilds of northern California, written on rocks or on approaches to bridges, you could see this slogan in chalk: ‘End Poverty in California.’”