Some few years ago I wrote here about one of the peculiar advantages to growing up in California – that one could be aware of “all the other layers behind the glitzy modern TV and Hollywood, West Coast/Left Coast, surfing safari/Haight-Ashbury layer that everyone with an awareness level above that of a mollusk knows. But peel that layer back, and there is another layer; the pre-World-War II layer, of Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles, of sleepy little towns buried in orange groves, Hollywood Boulevard a dirt track and Beverley Hills a wilderness”. This book intrigued me when offered for review because it appeared to offer an account of how one layer of California – the early 20th century layer of Hollywood and suburban Los Angeles was laid down upon a gentle temperate land of orchards and farms, written by a descendent of a man who was largely responsible for it. Surely there would be some family stories handed down, to spice up the story?

Well yes, all of that, but “The Father of Hollywood” is definitely not quite in the serious and fairly impersonal social-studies, carefully researched, local history way which I had expected, and which I still think would make a fairly interesting book. This is a more personal narrative, albeit about a talented and hardworking land developer named Hobart Johnstone (HJ) Whitley, who had set up communities all across the western states, was a good friend and neighbor to Teddy Roosevelt in his western-ranch days and married a pretty girl half his age, Margaret Virginia Ross, called ‘Gigi’. At the turn of the 19th century HJ brought his young wife and two small children to Southern California, and for the rest of his life busied himself there with establishing a community which would eventually become Hollywood. Early western movies were filmed on HJ’s land, he and Gigi socialized with many of the early moviemakers – he was truly one of the founding fathers.

The writer appears to have drawn heavily on Gigi Whitley’s memoirs and letters, to the point of adopting her ‘voice’, so this book emerges as a rather endearing period piece; a Victorian woman of the upper-middle class – sentimental, gushy, a bit of a snob but wholly devoted to her family and with a fund of family memories and incidents. Rather than a history of a town, it is more a portrait of a marriage between an able but rather distant man, and the charming southern belle of a wife who adored him. The vein of anecdotes about the early days and the pictures of various locations will make this worthwhile to local history buffs. More about the Whitleys is at the authors website
“The Father of Hollywood is available here from and from the publisher,

Sgt. Mom is a free-lance writer who lives in San Antonio and blogs at The Daily Brief. Her current book “To Truckee’s Trail” is available here. More about her books is at her website

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