Otis Chandler is seen in his museum with his Duesenberg LeBaron Special Phaeton. Credit: Los Angeles Times.
Otis Chandler died at his home in Ojai, California, on Monday, February 27th.
Building a Great Newspaper
He was 78 and was born into a family that had used their ownership of the Los Angeles Times to promote their own financial schemes and the cause of union-busting, right-wing Republican politics for three generations. Otis had a different view of the world than his family. It pained him that California, and especially Los Angeles, were portrayed in the elite Eastern media as inhabited by airheads, and he set out to do something about it. In his period as Publisher of The Times, from 1960 to 1980, he built a laughable newspaper into a giant enterprise that influenced national and international events. Perhaps his greatest epitaph was written by David Halberstam in Halberstam's 1979 book about media moguls, The Powers That Be, "No publisher in America improved a paper so quickly on so grand a scale, took a paper that was marginal in qualities and brought it to excellence as quickly as Otis Chandler did."
The End of the Chandler Times
During those twenty years and five further as Editor-in-Chief, Chandler took the paper from two foreign and domestic bureaus to thirty-four and The Times won ten Pulitzer Prizes along the way. The Times was universally recognized as one of the three or four best papers in the country. Unfortunately, when he left his position, the rot set in, culminating in the Staples Center scandal in 1999. The Times printed an edition of its Sunday Magazine that was entirely devoted to the about-to-open Staples Center sports arena and entertainment venue. Unbeknownst to the editorial department, the business side of the paper had constructed an elaborate arrangement where advertising revenue was shared with the Center. This was a clear violation of the independence of the editorial department, which had written the content. When Chandler criticized the paper's management, his still-conservative family had had enough and the paper was sold to Chicago's Tribune Company in 2000.
Otis Chandler takes a break during his racing days. Credit: Los Angeles Times.
A Car Guy at Heart
Chandler's avocations made almost as many headlines as his newspapering. He just missed the U.S. Olympic Team as a shot-putter, "the biggest disappointment of my life", was charged by an elephant and trampled by a musk ox while big game hunting, practiced both deep-water and fly fishing and was an accomplished surfer. He was also one of us, a lifelong car and motorcycle guy. He was involved with the grand classics and his cars were seen on the lawn at Pebble Beach including a 1973 Best of Show with his Mercedes 540K Special Cabriolet. In his fifties, he became an accomplished racer, driving a brutal Porsche 935 in professional IMSA races and the legendary ex-Donohue Porsche 917-30 Can Am car in vintage racing. He was also seen cowtrailing his motorcycle or making long, fast two-wheel desert runs.
His first car collection was assembled by buying and selling, and Chandler's profits showed that he knew his stuff. It was partially liquidated after a highly-publicized divorce that was final in 1981. Ten years later, he had rebuilt it with new interest, from Grand Classics to muscle cars. Several of his antique motorcycles were part of the Guggenheim Art of the Motorcycle exhibit. His tastes would continue to change throughout his life and his collection's turnover reflected that. The cars, motorcycles and hunting trophies were ultimately installed in The Otis Chandler Vintage Museum of Transportation and Wildlife in Oxnard, California.
Even in his seventies, Chandler remained restless, still surfing, hunting, bicycling and riding motorcycles. He still liked projects, and with his second wife, Bettina, he progressed through three homes in Malibu, another six in Hancock Park, Ojai and Rancho Matilija, and two in Oregon. He ended his days in Ojai, about thirty minutes from his museum.
With his blond good looks, bodybuilder's physique and fast cars and motorcycles, Chandler exemplified many of Los Angeles' signature motifs. While his other contributions to the life and culture of Southern California are paramount, the automotive and motorcycle communities have lost one of their best.