Gaylord Wilshire

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This is Kevin Roderick with LA Observed for KCRW.

I was surprised recently, as I drove on the 405 freeway between the Valley and the Westside, to see a sign marking a stretch of the pavement as the Nathan Shapell Memorial Highway.

Now I’m sure Nate Shapell was a heck of a guy.

I knew of him mostly as a politically connected developer and the chairman for many years of the state’s Little Hoover Commission on government efficiency.

He was also an Auschwitz survivor and a major philanthropist. Even though I think the naming of things in LA has gotten out of hand, I have no real objection to honoring Shapell.

I still call it the San Diego Freeway, and probably always will.

It’s just that -- from the perspective of a writer about Los Angeles history -– they just don’t find colorful figures to name things after like they used to.

For sheer entertainment value, it’s hard to beat the story behind the name that has come to convey -- worldwide -- a solid, quintessentially Los Angeles image.

Gaylord Wilshire made his lasting mark on L.A. by carving up a barley field in 1896 into a wide boulevard that originally ran for just four blocks.

Wilshire Boulevard was intended for horses, not for cars. It was an exclusive neighborhood of mansions for industry titans and newspaper publishers.

Banner image: H Gaylord Wilshire from his book Socialism Inevitable, published 1907 by the Wilshire Book Company. Gaylord Wilshire did not lack the wealth or personal connections to name a major street for himself. He was born to money in Ohio and grew up across the street from the future president Taft.

He traveled widely, lived rich and counted as longtime friends the writers George Bernard Shaw, H.G. Wells and Upton Sinclair.

Admirers -- and there were many -- believed Gaylord Wilshire to be one of the most well read men they knew, possessed of a keen wit and a piercing intellect.

Others saw him as a failure, a charlatan so notorious they tried to take his name off the famous boulevard.

You see, Gaylord Wilshire was a devoted socialist with an exaggerated craving for the spotlight. He once said that he classifies all men into two great classes – fools and Socialists.

He pursued various lives as a grapefruit grower, gold miner, billboard mogul, inventor and real estate developer. But his most successful venture was as the publisher of Wilshire’s Magazine, the country’s best-read socialist journal in the early 1900's.

He was known around the U.S. and in Europe as “the millionaire socialist.” He ran for office in three countries and two states -- and always lost.

He wasn’t an easy man to dismiss lightly, but the Los Angeles Times tried as early as 1895, snubbing him as “a flamboyant self-promoter.” Other publications called him a “social eccentric” and “a highly esteemed fraud.”

Even so, Wilshire enjoyed mainstream credentials. He helped form the exclusive Los Angeles Country Club and the California Club, which is still a hangout for the downtown business establishment in LA.

The final thing to know about Gaylord Wilshire is that he didn’t really have much to do with Wilshire Boulevard becoming the major institution it is in today’s Los Angeles.

He lived in New York and London during the boulevard’s formative years. By the time he came back, none of the city’s new real estate moguls wanted anything to do with him.

When he died in 1927, Wilshire was peddling electric belts that he claimed would cure cancer and baldness. He died with the American Medical Association in hot pursuit.

For all this, there have been occasional attempts to strip his name off the boulevard.

One proposal suggested naming the city’s unofficial main street Marine Boulevard, to honor our fighting men.

But it never took. After all this time, Wilshire’s place in the annals of Los Angeles seems secure. If always a little entertaining to talk about.

For KCRW, this has been Kevin Roderick with LA Observed.

Banner image: H Gaylord Wilshire from his book Socialism Inevitable, published 1907 by the Wilshire Book Company