In honor of President’s Day, I thought it would be fun to take a look back to the very first visit by a chief executive to Hollywood. For more than a century, Hollywood has not only been a memorable stopping off place for presidents it has also been home to at least two future ones, Ronald Reagan and Richard M. Nixon. When it comes to the movies, presidents have long proven that they can be just as starstruck as any giddy teenager. Even the outwardly dour but really very witty Calvin Coolidge was a big fan of the movies and had to see Hollywood for himself on a western visit in 1930, taking in Warner Bros., United Artists, Fox Studios and MGM all in one whirlwind day. When not visiting the area personally, presidents often bring Hollywood to them, with screenings of the latest films, usually accompanied by the picture’s stars and directors, a long time White House tradition.
The honor of being the first president to come to pay a call on Hollywood itself was supposed to have fallen to William McKinley in 1901. Hollywood was on the president’s official itinerary, but a delay at the Soldier’s Home in West Los Angeles caused the side trip to be canceled. His assassination later that year put a permanent end to any chance he might reschedule. It wasn’t to be for another eight years, October 12, 1909 to be exact, that the first sitting president of the United States, William Howard Taft, made his way to Hollywood albeit very briefly.
Although remembered today more for his sizable girth (300+lbs.) than any of his accomplishments in office (1909-1913), William Howard Taft, the 27th president of the United States, was, like all presidents, a remarkable man. An able administrator and jurist, Taft holds several notable records including being the only president to ever serve as chief justice of the United States Supreme Court, a post which accorded him the unique honor of being the only former president to swear in a president (Coolidge. 1925 and Hoover. 1929) as well as being the only member of the Supreme Court to serve with members he himself had appointed to the bench. Taft’s notable tenure on the Supreme Court (1921-1930) was more than twice as long than his time as president and in many ways, much more successful.
Taft may have been forgettable as a president, but it wasn’t because he was a bad one. Not at all, really. It was, it seems, all about public relations. The quiet, no drama Taft had the toughest act in the history of American politics to follow – Theodore Roosevelt – a human comet ablaze with white-hot charisma, a born showman whose energy and dynamism thrilled the public and raised their expectations of how their leaders should behave. His own daughter, the cuttingly brilliant Alice Roosevelt Longworth summed up Teddy perfectly by declaring he wanted to be “the bride at every wedding, the corpse at every funeral and the baby at every christening.” And wherever Teddy went, he was. In a public relations matchup, poor William Howard Taft didn’t stand a chance. Well aware of this deficiency, Taft seemed to intentionally cultivate the opposite persona, never grandstanding and even steering away from press conferences and photo ops whenever humanly possibly. Taft believed that concentrated, quiet attention to details was the key to a successful presidency. He was wrong.
Taft’s one term as president ended in a painful and bitter election defeat at the hands of none other than Teddy Roosevelt, his predecessor and former mentor, who had since turned on Taft and ran against him, mounting an “insurgent campaign” under the banner of the Bull Moose Party. Roosevelt’s attack successfully split the Republican vote allowing a comfortable victory for Democrat Woodrow Wilson. Taft, the incumbant president of the United States, came in a humiliating third. It was the single worst defeat in American history of a president seeking reelection. But that unpleasantness was all in the future when Taft arrived in California in October 1909 as part of a crowded western tour that included the groundbreaking ceremony for the Panama Pacific Exposition in San Francisco. Part of the itinerary included Los Angeles, a place he was well familiar with, it being the home of his sister Frances and a stopping off place as early as 1891.
At almost exactly its 1:00 PM scheduled arrival time, the flag-bedecked Presidential Special, preceded by its pilot train, rolled into Los Angeles’ Arcade Depot at Fifth and Central on the afternoon of Monday, October 11, 1909 to the sound of thousands of cheering Angelenos. Inside, a throng of distinguished citizens all clad in frock coats and top hats, led by Mayor George Alexander, were on hand to greet the president as he alighted from his private car, the Mayflower. After a short welcoming ceremony, the Presidential motorcade consisting of 14 cars swung out of the depot and headed towards downtown for a rousing parade through the business district. With the tragic event in Dallas some half century later in mind, it seems almost inconceivable to imagine a president, especially one as distinctive as Taft, able to safely make his way in an open car down the artificial canyons of a major metropolis lustily doffing his top hat to the scores of people hanging out from every window cheering his progress.
Making a brief stop at the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, the president was somewhat taken aback when he turned a corner and came face to face with “Jumbo,” the huge walnut encrusted elephant on permanent display there. Back in his Pierce Arrow limousine, the very first presidential limousine, Taft continued his tour of the downtown district, pausing at both Los Angeles and Polytechnic High Schools to receive the enthusiastic greetings of some 10,000 Los Angeles school children. Turning south on Figueroa Street, the motorcade proceeded to the fashionable West Adams district where the presidential party was given a driving tour of the ultra exclusive Chester Place and St. James Park enclaves before finally coming to a stop at 2600 West Adams Boulevard, the home of his sister Frances and her husband Dr. W.A. Edwards. For the next few hours, the president was able to get at least a semblance of a break from his hectic schedule before making his way to the elaborate and overwinded banquet held in his honor at the Shrine Auditorium. Sometime before midnight, a no doubt exhausted president was finally allowed to retire to his sister’s place on West Adams to hopefully a good night’s rest. While he slept, the Edwards home was kept secure by a contingent of thirty secret service agents who kept constant vigil throughout the night.
At exactly 9:00AM on Tuesday, October 12th, a refreshed President Taft boarded the luxurious private VIP car El Viento of the Pacific Electric Railway at Sixteenth and Arlington and began proceeding westward on the start of another event-filled day. On board was a stellar group of prominent Los Angeles men including “General” Harrison Gray Otis of the Times, “General” Moses Sherman of the Pacific Electric, as well as several real generals, E.P. Clark of the Pacific Electric, Senator Motley H. Flint, L.A. pioneer Jackson A. Graves, as well as the president’s “shadow,” Taft’s trusted and devoted aide, Captain Archie Butt, who would later die tragically on the Titanic. At 9:20 the El Viento stopped briefly at Sawtelle to greet an enthusiastic crowd headed by distant relative S.H. Taft and then proceeded to the Soldier’s Home in West Los Angeles where he was surrounded by 2,500 enthusiastic veterans. Unlike McKinley, however, Taft was able to resist tarrying too long with the vets and within 15 minutes he was off again, passing the site of the new location of the Los Angeles Country Club where, on a second visit in 1911, he would be made an honorary member, a real treat for the golf-loving president. After passing through Beverly Hills and Sherman, the El Viento made its approach into Hollywood, which at that time was its own city.
And Hollywood was ready. Thrilled to be part of the president’s itinerary, pretty little Hollywood pulled out all the stops with virtually every building both residential and commercial along the route down Prospect Avenue (Hollywood Boulevard) gayly bedecked in a sea of red-white-and blue. Every student in Hollywood including the girls of the Immaculate Heart convent at Western and Franklin were released from class and lined up along Prospect, with each carrying an American flag provided to them for the occasion. The Hollywood Board of Trade had asked each and every citizen who could get away to come out also and to bring a flag. As the El Viento crossed over onto Prospect at La Brea it assuredly looked as if everyone in town, and then some, had come out to cheer their president.
Taft appeared to delight as he made his way at reduced speed down the boulevard, a veritable sea of waving flags, children and adults alike screaming themselves hoarse, separated only by a phalanx of secret service agents walking along warily on either side of the plush private car. At the Hollywood Hotel, the El Viento stopped and the president stuck his head out of the front of the car to the thunderous ovation of a throng of wildly enthusiastic Hollywoodians who practically engulfed the presidential car from all sides.
After giving the crowd one full minute of his very valuable time, the President was on the move again, continuing down Prospect acknowledging the crowds all the way. At Ivar, the El Viento began picking up speed and in a flash the president was gone from Hollywood, speeding off to continue his crowded journey and into the Hollywood history books.
One interesting sidelight on Taft is that William Jennings Bryan, the Democratic firebrand who was handily defeated by Taft in the 1908 presidential election also came to Hollywood – and he stayed longer than a minute. Bryan would spend months at a time at the home of his daughter who lived in Spaulding Square at 1520 North Ogden Drive, a home which miraculously still exists and which, in this writer’s humble opinion, should be made a historic landmark. If you want to take a peak at the home’s spacious interior, check out the website from its recent sale here.