Otis Chandler Hemingway could have invented him
Los Angeles — A desk is too tame for him. Ideally we should be doing this interview not across his surfboard-sized desk at the Los Angeles Times, but across the back of a yak 16,000 feet up in the Himalayas. Or from the crest of a curling blue wave off Malibu. Or through the windshield of an 800-horsepower Porsche at Le Mans.
For Otis ("Oats") Chandler is the Golden Guy of the West, the supersportsman and sun king of a $1.4 billion communications empire which includes not just the gilt-edged money-maker the L.A. Times but also the Times Mirror Company, whose more than 40 operations have made it one of the largest publicly held publishing companies in the US.
The Times Mirror is a vast communications conglomerate which includes a brace of newspapers (among them the Dallas Times Herald, Long Island's Newsday, and three Connecticut papers, including the Hartford Courant), two TV stations (the company is now acquiring five more), 66 cable TV systems in 13 states, six magazines (among them, Popular Science, Outdoor Life, Sporting News), four arts and graphics companies, seven book publishing companies (Harry N. Abrams, New American Library), five information services (the Times Mirror Press prints the mammoth L.A. phone directories), and a newsprint and pulp company that owns 331, 000 acres of Oregon timberland.
It was Otis Chandler who took over the family dynasty as publisher of the Times in 1960, who turned the Times and its parent company, the Times Mirror, into the communications colossus it is now. Bit Oats thinks big, and has cast his empire in his own image.
When he strides out of a meeting to shake hands, it is like looking up at a California redwood. He is a massive but handsome man, 6'3', 220 well-muscled pounds that come from years of body building, first as a world-class shot putter at Stanford University on through the Air Force officer training program, later maintaining his strength through years of pumping iron in the L.A. Times health club or his own private gym. Today he holds the world record in his age group for the shot put and discus, and can paddle a surfboard three miles, out-hunt his hunting guide, bench-press 300 pounds.
But he is not Mr. America playing "Citizen Kane." There is too much intelligence in that well-bred face with its wide aqua eyes, patrician nose, narrow mouth. He has a blond tan and blond hair that dips in a faint surfer's wave at the temple. He wears a gray, blue, and white striped tie with pants cut frontier style in a tiny blue and white check. At first sight he is a formidable man, dwarfing even his large office in the tan art deco building that looks out over the palm trees and skyscrapers of Times Mirror Square.
That walnut-paneled publisher's office smacks of a trophy room, with its color photos of his exotic hunting trips, his $4 million antique and racing car collection, his surfboards and dirt bikes. There is something about him that suggests if Otis Chandler hadn't existed. Ernest Hemingway would have created him. Chandler seems the epitome of the rugged Hemingway hero, the macho man who pits himself against the bull or the big fish of Kilimanjaro.
Here he is talking about how he met his wife, Missy, at Lake Arrowhead: "She saw some large character dive off a water tower into the lake. Nobody had ever jumped or dove from that height before. She asked somebody who . . . was that character. That was me. And we met later that night."
He thinks of himself as aggressive, competitive, a driver. And he doesn't like to lose. "I don't like to do anything unless I, hopefully, can do it in the context of being the very best at it . . . . That's my goal to be in the top few percentiles, whatever I undertake -- whether it's the reputation of the Times, the listing of the Times, which is now always in the top three [papers] in the country . . . ."
Or bringing back the best trophy, the Marco Polo sheep shot at 18,000 feet in the Kush of Afghanistan, or the nylla, a species of antelope from the high mountains of Ethiopia. "So I not only go to rare places, but I go after the rarest and the biggest and the best, and that's part of my competitive urge," he explains. "I am not your average hunter . . . . So I go to Afghanistan [before the invasion], to Outer Mongolia, Botswana, to the jungles of Brazil . . . . And I have accumulated, I guess, one of the best collections of record class animals in the world."
He says it all as though he'd never heard the phrase "endangered species." Those who know him well and defend him is -- his mother and his hunting friend Howard Gilmore -- Suggest there is an element of competitive altruism in his big game hunting, that he does it to establish world trophy records and that he helps maintain wildlife habitats through contributions, safari club memberships, and publicity. (He does, after all, own Outdoor Life, and golfing and skiing magazines.)
He is also the man who owns eight Porsches, seven more than any single man can drive at one time. The ones he races at 200 m.p.h. cost over $100,000 each. He points to a racing picture on the wall: "That one is myself racing at Watkins Glen in the World Endurance Championships last year. Six hour at Watkins Glen, and I got third the first time out!" There is a sudden, boyish smile, a hint of something hidden behind the myth and the muscle.
For a man who appears to have everything -- fortune, fame, power, sun-drenched good looks -- he is curiously wistful. During the course of a long interview, the only times he seems genuinely happy are those moments when he is talking, in his methodical way, about the sports he loves so much. The wistfulness is particularly pronounced when he speaks of his childhood as heir apparent to the California publishing dynasty begun in 1882 by his great-grandfather, Colonel Harrison Gray Otis (for whom he was named).
According to Otis Chandler, it was not a gilded childhood. His father, Norman, whom he later succeeded as publisher in a family coup engineered by his mother, was "very strict. We had to work hard . . . . There were no free weekends to go to the beach with your friends. I worked in the citrus orchard [ on their Sierra Madre ranch] weekend after weekend -- lots of lemons, avocados, peaches, pears. And my father used to have a dump truck come in from Santa Anita track regularly with the cleanings from the horse stalls, and I would put that carefully around the trees to keep the moisture in the ground. Then I would irrigate the trees, and cultivate them. For several years when I was young enough to be still living at home, i don't remember having much fun with my friends from school, because I went to school in Pasadena, and this was 15 miles away . . . . So Friends would not drop by the house after school or on weekends . . . . I learned to enjoy some activities on my own -- sports the beginnings of my interest in hunting. I used to go out with my gun and ping away at dove and quail. And I started to get interested in cars and motorcycles to amuse myself more than to be amused . . . ."
Chandler denies that the subject of his being raised as the heir apparent ever came up, implicitly or explicitly, during his boyhood. But someone who knows him well suggests that even in childhood "they put too much pressure on him to [prepare to be heir]. And he loved sports. He wanted the freedom to be one of the boys, and they wouldn't let him do it." Later, "he wanted to be publisher, but he didn't care about being seen at the right places; he'd rather be one of the guys."
His mother, Dorothy Buffum Chandler, known as "Mama Buff" to the family, says he was a "very conscientious little boy, never any problem." Buff Chandler is the grande dame of Southern California, not in the sense of a society queen (although she is that) but as a cultural mover and shaker and a major power at the Times Mirror. It was she who singlehandedly raised $19 million to help build the Los Angeles Music Center (which includes the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion).
And to understand the pressure on Otis Chandler, you have to know a story this determined woman tells. It's about the time Otis, at six, riding a pony over some jumps, was thrown and badly injured. Mama Buff scooped him up, jumped in the station wagon, raced to the emergency room of a nearby hospital, and was told her son was dead. She refused to believe it, rushed him to another hospital, and insisted on a particular doctor, who revived him. "I saved his life," she explains. "If I hadn't done that he wouldn't be here today. He was supposed not to go, just to take charge here [at the Times]. It was my strength and my will . . . ."
It is almost eerie talking to Mama Buff after interviewing her son, because their perceptions of him are congruent, like triangles that fit over one another. She sees him as strong, kind, ambitious, not for himself but for the Times, not the spoiled son of a wealthy family. She calls him a compassionate, warm, loving person, very close to his family.
In interviews he is sometimes described as aloof, distant, controlled. When Otis Chandler is describing himself at one point his voice drops very low, becomes vulnerable and bruised, and he says, "I don't agree with some adjectives or some connotions -- the Halberstam book ["The Powers That Be"], for example, that says I have a moat around me, and I'm not an introvert . . . . I am industrious and hard working; I'm not part of the spoiled rich . . . . I think I'm a friendly person . . . . And I think i'm a loving person. I love my family, and I love certain people. And I love life."
He says "I'm a loving person" gently, almost defensively, as though there were someone in another room who'd accused him of lacking that quality. There is a certain sadness as he talks.
When we reach the end of the interview and he is asked routinely if his wife will talk with me about him, he shifts uncomfortably. There is a pained silence. "Uh, no. She and I are probably going to go through a divorce, which is very unfortunate after 28 years.
"That's one of those awful things that's happened to me . . . It happens to people. I never thought it would happen to me. But it's happening to me now . . . . I have great regard for her. I think life is tough on marriages today. She's a career woman . . . . It's tough to combine my life and the expectations that I have for a wife and for her to have a career too. She's an urban planner , has her own architectural and urban planning firm . . . ."
Those who know him intimately suggest that he's very upset by it, that the failure of this marriage is the biggest blow he's ever had. They wonder if the very competitiveness Otis Chandler thrives on has been a factor in the breakup. He used to delight in picking Missy up, hoisting her over his head as if she were a barbell, says one acquaintance. "I don't know what she thought of it . . . ."
"Did you ever see their Christmas card?" asks another Chandler watcher. "He and Missy and thewhole golden- haired family with their surfboards . . . ."
The family includes Norman 27, now in his fourth year as a Times management trainee, learning the business as his father did before, from janitor to general assignment reporter, in the hope of succeeding his father. "It's my career goal ," he says. "I'm going for it, in California lingo." His brothers and sisters include Harry, 26, Cathleen, 24, Michael, 21, and Carolyn, 16.
Norman Chandler describes his father as "multifaceted, powerful -- in more ways than one -- and fatherly . . . . He always spent enough time with us. His escape for many years was his family. Now that's changed. He taught us all to ski, surf, camp, hunt, swim -- all five kids. He loved being a parent. And," Norman says proudly, "he's the world's most powerful surf nazi -- that's a southern California term for somebody who's into something.
Surf nazi. There ought to be a Beach Boys record -- maybe like their unmistakably Californian "Good Vibrations" -- playing in the background while you read about Otis Chandler. In order to understand Otis Chandler, the force behind the Times Mirror empire, you have to understand that as a Westerner he looks at the East with a certain amused contempt. But he realizes that the ultimate decision on whether any publishing empire is truly great still comes from the Eastern establishment. That is why the Los Angeles Times has been quietly taking full-page FYI" ads in the prestigious Eastern papers to run excerpts of its most ambitious stories -- to show the preppy Eastern kids that they don't have all the marbles, all the mibsies on the block.
It goes back in a way to the fact that Otis Chandler was shipped off as a boy away from his beloved California, to a prestigious Eastern prep school, Phillips Academy, Andover.
Mama Buff makes no bones about the reason why this heir to one of the most wealthy and powerful families in southern California was sent East. It was partly Andover's reputation for an academic excellence she felt didn't exist in California prep schools then, but also because "no one knew who his father was there; he had to make it on his own."
When Otis Chandler talks about Andover, he says with a half laugh, "I didn't choose it . . . . They [his parents] felt I should be challenged more." Looking back, he calls it "a sobering and beneficial experience" that taught him true competitiveness, academically and in sports. He was the only kid from California, which was considered the Wild West at the time, so he was something of an outsider, learning to be independent, beefing up his aggressiveness and competitiveness. Again, he was apart, wanting to be one of the guys, and it may have reinforced what one detached observer calls "his need to prove himself . . ., to go the extra mile."
His longtime friend, racing car driver John Thomas, calls Chandler "super-competitive." Thomas, says of the sportscar and dirt bike racing they do together, "We're both 15 years old mentally -- he has that kind of enthusiasm and energy." They became friends years ago, when Chandler wandered into a Porsche repair shop with a problem, and Thomas remembers it wasn't until they'd spend a day roaring through the desert on dirt bikes that he found out what Chandler did for a living: published the L.A. Times.
It was Thomas who taught Chandler race car driving. "The guy really takes in all the knowledge and uses all of it. He listens, and that's rare." Chandler, in turn, taught him how to surf. "He runs a pretty tough wave," says Thomas of the California aristrocrat who'd rather gulp down a chiliburger at "Tommy's Hamburger" than nibble pate at a society party that would, as Chandler snorts, land him in "Women's Wear Daily."
It's not that Chandler is adverse to publicity for his paper; he calls himself a salesman for the West Coast. It's the false image of California in print that bothers him. When he talks about the Eastern misconceptions of California life, it's as though he's talking about a planet that aliens don't appreciate.
"I think there has to be an absolute jealousy on behalf of quite a few people who downgrade California. They think there has to be something wrong with an area that has so many opportunities -- as we do -- to create an interesting lifestyle, something wrong with anyone that likes to have this kind of weather [ in the winter]. It's almost a masochistic tendency . . . . 'We have to suffer on the East coast, and we really don't like all you characters out there that are playing tennis in January. And we know you have the Armand Hammer and the Getty and Norton Simon and all these great private art collections, but we do not like to admit it. We'll die before we admit that really, secretly we'd like to live in southern California.'
"So there's a lack of knowledge about California, about what it represents. There's a jealousy. There's a lac of information and, I think, an attitude that's hard to describe -- it's almost that life should be more difficult than one finds it in southern California, that there's something to be said for the long, hard winters, and that it's almost not fair for you Californians to have so much in your favor . . . ."
It's almost not fair for Otis Chandler to have had so much in his favor, you might think, unless you remember that remark about his divorce -- "It's one of those awful things that's happened to me." There have been a few awful things Otis Chandler feels have happened in his life, his son Norman suggests. For Otis Chandler, one of those was missing out on the Olympics, although his shot put record was second best in the world, because he sprained his thumb. The other was the Geo Tek scandal, in which he became involved through his longtime friend Jack Burke, when he helped Burke find investors for exploring oil reserves that Burke said totaled $25 million but Chandler later learned were worth only $5 million. The company was bankrupt. The case dragged on from 1972 through 1975, and Chandler was among those charged by the government with making false and misleading statements about the investments. Chandler, protesting his innocence, spent over $1 million in legal fees, and that charges against him were finally dropped in 1975.
In his book "The Power That Be," David Halberstam explains the Geo Tek scandal in detail, noting, "It was a humiliating moment, particularly for a man who had been the handsome young hero of American journalism, who cared so much about his image . . . . It seriously affected his position in American journalism.
But not his paper success. The Times is the second largest paper in weekday circulation in the nation (1,057,611) and the first in advertising lineage (153, 604,296). It is the most profitable newspaper in the world; 1979 revenues for the Times Mirror Corporation's six newspapers, including the L.A. Times (reportedly responsible for 27 percent of the total net revenues of the Times Mirror), amount, to $750 million. In 1977 the Times Mirror, rich with profits, began a $500 million program of expansion and acquisition of the dozens of operations mentioned above, from art supplies to cable TV.
It was press critic A. J. Liebling who once suggested that freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one. Does Citizen Chandler agree?
"No. I really don't." He points out that when the Times Mirror went public and increased its capitalization, the Chandler family gave up its controlling interest, and now owns only 30 percent of the stock. "I don't think that today those few families that own their own newspapers are the only ones that, in one sense, have true freedom to write or comment about anything they care to . . . . There are more and more responsible publishers and newspapers that take very seriously the whole issue of freedom of the press and don't use the press for their own benefit. Rather, they use it for the benefit of the people they can influence, to hopefully bring about meaningful improvement and changes in our society."
When Otis Chandler took over the L.A. Times in 1960, it was considered one of the worst papers in the country, a parochial one that favored the conservative wealthy among Chandler friends and interests, and acted as an organ for the Republican Party in southern California. Chandler himself is proud of taking the Times, in his words, "from a reasonably adequate local paper to a paper of national and some international importance . . ., developing the editorial product all the way from almost a WASP paper" to what it is now.
Under Chandler the paper has gone from one foreign correspondent to 20 overseas bureaus (and 11 in the US). It has expanded its once-small Washington bureau to 26 correspondents with a $2 million budget, and further expansion is planned when the bureau moves into its new International Square headquarters with three times as much space, including amenities like a dining room and showers.
Washington bureau chief Jack Nelson says the single most important thing Chandler has done as publisher is to live up to what he promised when he took over: "To spend the time and the money and the effort to make us the best newspaper in the country . . . . It's all part of Otis's wanting to have a presence on the East Coast and wanting the country to know . . . what the Los Angeles Times is."
Chandler has reputation for hiring top editors and reporters and letting them do their jobs without interference, for being an innovative and supportive and supportive boss. He was a reporter and editor once himself, insisted on and wrote the tradition-shattering editorial backing a Rockefeller nomination in 1964 against Goldwater, which enlarged southern California conservative Republicans, conservative to the core, and brought a firestorm down on the Times.
As a reporter, he was most proud of a seven-part series he did on emotionally disturbed children. It is written with a sensitivity that would surprise some of his critics. Of Camarillo State Hospital he wrote, "The hospital is a city of red-tiled roofs, blue-denimed patients and misplaced memories."
There are those who regard Otis Chandler as a man with an ego as big as Beverly Hills and a lack of empathy for minorities. A story is told about some of the Times's shortcomings in coverage in its own backyard in the early days of civil rights demonstrations. It was the time of the Watts riots, and the late civil rights activist Louis Lomax went up to see Chandler. During their talk Chandler admitted he didn't even know where Watts was. Louis Lomax pointed out the window and said, "Over ther, where the smoke is -- that's where Watts is."
Another story about Chandler suggests that in the early '70s women's equality in the newspaper profession was than a pressing issue to him. At the time, women journalists were picketing the then all-male Gridiron Club for its discriminatory policies. Several people on the picket line remember seeing Otis Chandler roll up at the annual Gridiron dinner in black tie. He strolled over to blue-jeaned picketer Marlene Cimmons, an L.A. Times reporter, patted her on the back and said, "Hi, are you having a good time?" When Ms. Cimmons is asked about the incident she says, "I don't think he's like that any more -- his sensitivity [on women's rights] as dramatically increased since them."
But as late as last year, blacks and Chicanos were still complaining about lack of Times coverage. And the black community about lack of Times coverage. And the black community protested over the Times's indifference to the story of Eula Love, a black woman shot eight times by two policemen. When Esquire ran a piece on the complaints "Mr. Otis Regrets") three months later, the Time ran a front page story on the shooting. "I would be willing to make the investment on those communities," Time magazine quoted Chandler as saying, "if I felt knew how to do it. But i don't."
Otis Chandler sent six reporters and the Mexico City bureau chief out for six months to do a $2 million series on Mexico today, with "its new-found oil wealth and new president, its goals and challenges." He sighs, "Our own Latino population said, 'That's fine. You spent all that effort and time and money talking about Mexico. Why don't you write about what it's like to be an undocumented worker here in Los Angeles?'"
But he is proud of what he sees as the Times coverage of "every aspect of our environment and lifestyle," and he ticks off examples: a controversial series on what it's like to be Jewish in Los Angeles, a series assessing the Los Angeles Police Department, articles on homosexual rights, changes in the family, living together, and on what life in the '80s will be like.
It's ll part of a huge, rambling paper that resembles L.A. itself. If Otis Chandler chose to, he could build muscles lifting his Sunday newspaper. One day this winter it ran to 645 pages and couldn't be picked up with one hand. The daily often checks in at over 200 pages. The Times and he have come a long way from the days when, as Robert Hartmann (former Washington bureau chief and presidential adviser) says, "Otis was less secure than his father, a young man on the make . . . . Each [Chandler] son has had to outdo his father, make his own mark, and he has done it."
The editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, Ed Guthman (former national editor at the L.A. Times), praises him for breaking the Times "out of the mold of souther California wealth and conservatism, not following the customs and traditions, which created problems and hostility in his own family . . . . He really deserves a lot of credit for what he did. L.A. was becoming a major metropolitan city, the finance and corporate capital of the West, the political and power center of southern California, and the city needed a better paper. And he accomplished it in spite of all that opposition from the family."
Now Otis Chandler, who celebrates his 20th year as publisher of the Times in April, is looking around restlessly. There are stories that he may resign as publisher to become chairman of the Times Mirror company. He says he'd like more time to hunt, race cars, perhaps teach journalism. "I still have a lot of challenges in my life ahead, in terms of things I'd like to do," he says, and flashes a smile that suggests the hunt has just begun.