The Mirage Factory: Illusion, Imagination and the Invention of Los Angeles examines three historical figures who forged the development of Los Angeles as a metropolitan epicenter between 1900 and 1930. Krist, a journalist for the New York Times and Esquire, argues that three “visionaries” from L.A.’s storied past (city engineer William Mulholland, film director D.W. Griffith and evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson) ultimately ignited the technological, artististic and spiritual zeitgeist that became the foundation of this modern city.
The book pursues a chronological approach to events, beginning with William Mulholland and Frederick Eaton exploring the Owens Valley and details the story (now familiar to most Angelenos) of diverting the Owens River to Los Angeles, and the crisis it stirred throughout California. It was Mulholland’s radical technological vision that resulted in the Los Angeles Aqueduct, and against all odds, allowed Los Angeles to grow into a city that could be a player on the world stage.
The narrative then shifts to the birth of the ‘flickers’ with David Wark Griffith’s serendipitous career transition from actor to director culminating in the creation of his controversial masterpiece, The Birth of a Nation (1915) and its follow-up, Intolerance (1916). Griffith’s artistic vision forever changed the economic growth of Los Angeles and the fledgling movie industry that made its home within the burgeoning city. Popular perceptions of the film industry shifted almost overnight as movies began to assert their financial clout, establishing an industry that would define Los Angeles in the eyes of the world. In just under thirty years Los Angeles had gone from a town with “no dogs or actors” signs pasted in boarding house windows to one that threw a parade for actress Gloria Swanson when she returned as both figurative and literal Hollywood royalty.
Finally, the arrival of Canadian transplant Aimee Semple McPherson, and her Pentecostal religious fervor that straddled the line between religion and entertainment concludes Krist’s hypothesis. McPherson would usher in a kind of spiritual anarchy that flew in the face of expectations, not only on religion but women's roles, within religious practices. Every week McPherson did not simply deliver a sermon, but injected her religious proclamations into a lavish theatrical production. McPherson offered a carnival of unorthodox spirituality to a town that was transfixed with all things larger-than-life, and Krist contends that she sowed the seeds that allowed eccentric theology to flourish within Los Angeles.
By the late 1920s this trio would each meet their proverbial Waterloo: Mulholland and the St. Francis Dam; Griffith’s series of commercial failures; and McPherson’s kidnapping/disappearance. These events were catalysts in the fall from the heights each had ascended. By the 1930s all three would be relatively forgotten in the ether of time, but each had forged a path that would permanently mark the city forever.
The stories of these three individuals probably won’t be news to Angelenos who know their history, but Krist’s thesis is intriguing and makes revisiting these stories worthwhile. His writing is vivid and captivating, putting energy back into stories that have circulated fairly regularly in Los Angeles history circles. The chapter recounting the St. Francis Dam disaster is easily among the most exciting examples of storytelling ever written about that event. Overall, the book is an engaging and entertaining way to acquaint oneself with some milestones in L.A. history, and with three of the personalities who helped to shape and influence the city's history.