In Los Angeles in the 1920s, C.C. Julian and the Julian Petroleum Corporation were household words, and the Julian Pete swindle ranked with Teapot Dome as one of the great scandals of the era. It symbolized not merely what FDR would call "a decade of debauchery of group selfishness," but the failed hopes and dreams of the great boom of the 1920s. Indeed, no single story captures the essence of that decade in America--its boosterism and rampant speculation, its entrepreneurial mania for mergers, its overlap of business and politics, and its infatuation with wealth, whiskey, and Hollywood glamor--quite so well as the Julian Petroleum swindle.
The Great Los Angeles Swindle begins with a murder (the sudden courtroom shooting of banker Motley Flint, the debonaire movie financier and city booster), ends with a spectacular suicide in Shanghai (where C.C. Julian downs a vial of poison after a lavish champagne dinner), and, in between, takes as many unexpected twists and turns as any mystery novel. Jules Tygiel offers a gripping account of this wonderfully complex scandal, which features such legendary figures as Louis B. Mayer, Cecil B. DeMille, Charlie Chaplin (who decks Julian in a fistfight in Hollywood's posh Cafe Petroushka), Los Angeles Times publisher Harry Chandler, H.M. Haldeman (grandfather of Watergate's H.R. Haldeman), and pioneer radio evangelist "Fighting Bob" Shuler. Conmen, bankers, underworld kingpins, political bosses, a corrupt district attorney, bribed jurors, and other colorful characters round out the cast.
At the book's center stands the flamboyant C.C. Julian, a likable if unscrupulous promoter, whose life was flavored with controversy. Tygiel follows Julian to Los Angeles, where during the spectacular oil boom of the 1920s, his innovative newspaper advertising and early successes (Julian No. 1 still pumped oil decades after the promoter himself had died) won him a devoted following. Force to cut back production by major oil companies, he created Julian Petroleum, which he promised would soon rival Standard Oil. Dispensing "Defiance Gasoline" from its pumps, Julian Petroleum fought off the efforts of state regulatory agencies and federal investigators to shut it down, before Julian had to surrender ownership to oilman S.C. Lewis. Lewis and his crafty associate, Jacob Berman, over-issued millions of shares of counterfeit stock while pyramiding stock pools and loan schemes into a $150,000,000 fraud. The infamous Million Dollar Pool (which included Flint, Mayer, Haldeman, and other prominent Los Angeles businessmen) delivered lucrative profits to its elite members, while tens of thousands of small investors lost their nest eggs when Julian Petroleum collapsed in 1927. The aftermath of the scandal included the longest trial in the history of the county (which produced 99 volumes of trial transcripts, cost in excess of $250,000, and convicted no one), unseated a district attorney and a governor, enthroned a former Ku Klux Klansman as mayor of Los Angeles, and filled the courts with related cases and scandalous revelations well into the Depression decade.
The Great Los Angeles Swindle is a saga of the roaring twenties, with its glorification of business, its get-rich-quick mentality, and its paucity of government regulation, which bred speculation, corruption, and corporate chaos throughout the nation in a manner not dissimilar to the financial chicanery of our own era. Above all, it is a compelling story and swiftly moving narrative that readers will not soon forget.