San Diego has become an overbuilt theme park, a hollowed-out pleasure dome noisy with professional sports teams and the brouhaha of drug- and booze-fed street festivals generated for tourists, conventioneers, and high-tech moguls. Unemployment is absurdly low, and the city's economy, fueled by tourism, biotech, cell phones, and the stream of cocaine that crosses the Mexican border, simmers at near-boil.
In the middle of Balboa Park, once the city's finest public asset, a hulking parking garage is planned for the San Diego Zoo, which has become a bastion of commercial exploitation, hawking its wares on the Internet and hosting loud private parties for convention-going revelers. "Many visitors from out of town have difficulty finding the Zoo entrance," the zoo complains on its website, bolstering its argument to gobble up more park land with PR doublespeak. "An improved entrance that brings the Zoo out to Park Boulevard would enhance the Zoo's presence and relationship with Balboa Park." Instead of a renovated central library, the city will soon have the finest baseball stadium money can buy, with state-of-the-art skyboxes for the wealthy to entertain their friends and business partners, courtesy of local taxpayers. While Mission Bay grows crowded and polluted, the city council continues to buy up millions of dollars of unsold football tickets from Alex Spanos, the Stockton developer who owns the San Diego Chargers. The sour deal was pushed by City Manager Jack McGrory, who quit after taxpayers got wind of the fleecing. But instead of doing penance for his football-ticket folly, McGrory, who also championed the baseball stadium, is now employed by that project's chief beneficiary, Padres owner John Moores.
Moores, McGrory, Spanos. Those are the men who run San Diego. The mayor and city council have become minions, carrying out the orders of those who have enough money to buy their way into power. With only one daily newspaper remaining and the radio and television stations owned by national monopolies, participation by average citizens in the city's affairs is virtually nil. They seem content to sit on their couches, enjoying their drug of choice: television, cocaine, or the Union-Tribune.
Was this the San Diego envisioned by Joseph E. Dryer? Probably not. But Dryer's handiwork laid the groundwork. Back in 1951, he was president and founder of the Heaven on Earth Club, an organization devoted to attracting as many newcomers to San Diego as it could by touting the area's weather. Although it was then a sleepy town with cows still grazing in Mission Valley, San Diego, he said, was a paradise awaiting a fabulous future. A furniture-store owner, Dryer devoted much of his time to urging his fellow San Diegans to send postcards to their relatives in the east touting the healthful benefits of continuous sunshine.
Dryer became the first Mr. San Diego on December 15, 1951. The award was given by the Grant Club, described in a 1947 story by the San Diego Union as "a coterie of men meeting every noonday in the Grant Hotel lobby." In its early years, the club was said to be "principally interested in partisan politics.... Hangers-on at club gatherings include local lobbyists anxious to find some fulcrum to move their projects through local legislative halls. They are tolerated but not accorded real membership. Political writers are encouraged to attend, but, like children, they should be seen and not heard.
"Every day for more than 20 years," the paper reported, "Grant clubbers have been served by the same waitress, Florence Fain. Most of the club members place no food orders with her but eat what she brings them, so well acquainted has Florence become with their tastes. Alcoholic drinks at the tables are taboo."
By 1951 the club was seemingly more interested in boosting the local economy than its political dialogue, hence Dryer's award. "This is the nicest Christmas present you could give me," Dryer reportedly told the lunchtime crowd at the Grant. "If you try to do some good for the community, you do good for yourself. The best assets you can have are a lot of friends. San Diego does not owe me a thing. I owe everything to San Diego. I am a lucky Joe."
If Mr. San Diego was full of small-town schmaltz, he reflected his constituency. Next year's Mr. San Diego was Harley E. Knox, a "prominent dairyman" who had recently finished two terms as mayor. Ever the gladhander, Dryer presented the award to Knox and announced, "In all these years, including the eight he served as mayor, I have never yet heard anyone say an unkind word about Harley Knox." Knox had actually been the target of critics who accused him of rigging city projects so as to benefit his dairy business. Still, it was all very small-town stuff, and Knox became a local hero for his battles with the federal government over the city's right to Colorado River water.
George A. Scott was next in the early line of Mr. San Diegos. Owner of a small department-store chain called Walker-Scott, the nattily attired Scott told interviewers he had been "adopted" at the age of 16 by R.M. Walker, a kindly department-store mogul from Los Angeles, who took him on extravagant tours of Europe. In 1935, the legend goes, just before he was to open a branch of his mentor's chain on San Diego's Broadway, the old man died, leaving Scott to fend for himself in the little Navy town. Scott became the city's mercantile king, building its first shopping mall.
In 1954, Douglas Young, a hospital president and Unitarian church trustee, was Mr. San Diego, followed in 1955 by Fred Rohr, a sheet-metal worker who made the gas tanks for Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis and had gone on to found his own company, Rohr Aircraft. In 1955, it was Andy Borthwick, a congenial banker. Then in 1956 came James S. Copley, along with his ready-made legend.
Copley, the story went, had been adopted from a Chicago orphanage by Colonel Ira Copley, the wealthy owner of a chain of Illinois newspapers he had assembled to help him campaign for Congress. Ira, said the legend, walked into the orphanage and asked for the weakest boy there, so that he could build him into a man. Jim went home with Ira, and 40 years later inherited his newspapers, including the Union and Tribune in San Diego.
Jim Copley was a friend of Richard Nixon, and in later years would frequently boast that in the 1960 presidential election he had "delivered" San Diego for Nixon by slanting the coverage of his papers. It was an important achievement, Copley pointed out, given that Nixon carried California, his home state, by a razor-thin margin. If not for the votes he picked up in San Diego, Copley said, Nixon would have lost California and any subsequent chance of picking up the pieces for another presidential try.
On the occasion of Copley's becoming Mr. San Diego, his papers reported he "has publicized San Diego not only here but elsewhere through his displays of a relief map of the county and a photo exhibit called 'City Alive.' " Copley, said a report in the Union, "deeply appreciated the honor being conferred on him. He said he has been doing what he believes will help San Diego and the entire southwest corner of the United States. He termed the area 'the most important corner in the country.' "
Copley would live to see Nixon -- who took to calling San Diego his "lucky city" in honor of the fawning pro-Nixon coverage in the Union and the Tribune -- ultimately become president. Copley staffers such as Herb Klein and Gerald Warren, who in the past had been frequently "lent" by the newspapers to Nixon as campaign operatives, took jobs in the Nixon White House, and Copley would frequently play host to Nixon and his friends at Fox Hill, Copley's sprawling La Jolla mansion.
Copley died of cancer in October of 1973, just as Nixon began the long slide that would end in his ouster from the presidency less than a year later. He left his newspaper empire to his second wife Helen, his former secretary with whom he'd had a long affair while still in his first marriage. After taking command of the newspapers, Helen vowed to rid them of what critics derisively called Jim Copley's "sacred cows," friendly biases toward establishment institutions such as the San Diego Zoo and local politicos favored by Jim, but her promises were never implemented and soon forgotten. Years later, editorial writers would discreetly brag that the Union-Tribune had foisted the Chargers ticket guarantee and an expensive and unnecessary new downtown baseball stadium on a gullible public just as Jim Copley had boosted Nixon to the presidency.
After Copley in the line of Mr. San Diegos came Murray David Goodrich, described by the Union as a "merchant and industrialist." He actually owned a military surplus shop and a small aluminum smelter. Goodrich would later run unsuccessfully for mayor. Next was Fred A. Heilbron, a plumbing contractor, ex?city councilman, and chairman of the county water board who was credited, along with Harley Knox and others, with bringing in the Colorado River water that fueled the city's explosive development.
No one took more advantage of that growth than C. Arnholt Smith. In December of 1960 he was named the tenth Mr. San Diego. A one-time Depression-era bank teller born in Walla Walla, Washington, Smith had built a San Diego empire of tuna boats, banks, taxi cabs, hotels, real estate, stock brokerage, and even an airline. He also owned the minor-league Padres. Smith's grand induction as Mr. San Diego was feted by "300 civic leaders," according to an account in the Union. The cozy days of the Grant Club's intimate lunches had long since past. The city was verging on the big time, or so Smith said.
"I have lived most of my life here and want to see our city grow and become a major playground of the world," Smith said in his acceptance speech. "I hope we create a harbor that will make it the most beautiful playground of the West. Also, I hope our future bay development and planned San Diego face-lifting will bring more and more industry to our shores."
Among the "messages of good will" received by Smith, according to the Union, was one from then?vice president Richard Nixon. "We of the Republican party have leaned heavily on you. We wish to thank you. And we offer congratulations on your being named Mr. San Diego." The Union noted that Smith "has served as director of the Convention and Visitors Bureau and as a delegate to several GOP national conventions."
Smith and Nixon, friends since Nixon's days as a congressman from Whittier, would share a common fate. Smith, who was present in Nixon's New York hotel suite when Nixon won the Republican nomination in 1968, piggybacked on Nixon's political successes. His grandly named United States National Bank grew to become a regional power, and his baseball team was made part of the National League. A relentless campaign in Jim Copley's newspapers, led by sports editor Jack Murphy, overcame traditional public resistance to the notion of a taxpayer-supported stadium. Both Copley and Smith contributed heavily to Nixon; it was later revealed that Smith had laundered hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Nixon presidential campaigns as well as other Republican causes.
But when Nixon began his downfall, Smith's fortunes also reversed. Protected by Nixon's cronies from the prying eyes of federal regulators, Smith, it was later revealed, had systematically looted his bank of millions of dollars by making bad loans to companies controlled by himself or his friends, many of them connected to the Mafia. The notoriously mobbed-up La Costa Resort was financed largely by money from Smith and the Central States Teamsters Union pension fund. But as Nixon's hold on power weakened in the fall of 1973, auditors finally blew the whistle. The bank, with nearly a billion dollars of deposits, collapsed in October 1973. It was, to that date, the biggest bank failure in United States history.
Smith, whom his friend Jim Copley once dubbed "Mr. San Diego of the Century," lived a long and comfortable life after his fall from grace. He spent just eight months in a county halfway house in 1984 after being convicted in 1979 of state income-tax evasion and grand theft. Years earlier, a friendly plea bargain had kept him out of jail on federal bank-fraud charges. He died in a Del Mar nursing home in June of 1996, not far from his own century mark at age 97.
After Smith, the shoes of Mr. San Diego seemed to become harder to fill. In 1961, Fred Forward, a retired title-company executive, got the honor. A year after that, Allen J. Sutherland, another banker, received it. Then, in December 1963, it was the turn of Smith's closest crony, John Salvario Alessio. "His rise from shoeshine boy to millionaire sportsman is the stuff of which movies are made," wrote the Union the day before Alessio's induction ceremony at the Grant Hotel.
Born in West Virginia in 1910, Alessio had come west with his family at age ten. Alessio later said his father bought a downtown pool hall and put him to work at a shoeshine stand out front. According to legend, Alessio met Smith while shining his shoes, and in 1929, Smith gave him a job as a messenger boy at his Banco del Pacifico in Tijuana.
Four years later Alessio was running Tijuana's Caliente racetrack. Not long after, he was indicted in San Francisco in an embezzlement case connected to an allegedly fraudulent loan that the Tecate brewery had gotten from Banco del Pacifico. Alessio escaped prosecution on the charges and in the process met San Francisco district attorney Pat Brown, a Democrat whom he helped become governor.
For years, stories circulated that Alessio, who served on the board of Smith's Westgate California Corporation and associated with the same mobsters Smith did, was Smith's bag man in Mexico. He also owned the Hotel Del Coronado and the Kona Kai Club, along with Mr. A's restaurant, located in a penthouse that overlooks downtown and the airport. In 1970, six years after becoming Mr. San Diego, Alessio, along with three of his brothers and his son Dominic were accused in the United States of laundering money through a Mexican bank in order to avoid $1 million in federal income taxes. Alessio blamed the case against him on a vengeful Richard Nixon, who Alessio claimed still held a grudge against him for supporting Pat Brown against Nixon in the 1962 California gubernatorial race.
Convicted of the charges, Alessio did a two-year stretch in federal prison; one of his brothers, Angelo, spent a year in prison and paid a $10,000 fine. His son Dominic was later convicted of trying to bribe a federal prison official to influence the treatment of his father. Johnny Alessio died a very wealthy man in April 1998 at a La Jolla hospital.
After the embarrassments of Alessio and Smith were spotlighted in 1973, the Grant Club stopped giving out the Mr. San Diego award. Before the halt, Alessio had been followed by contractor Morley Golden, airplane maker T. Claude Ryan, contractor Roscoe E. "Pappy" Hazard, prizefighter Archie Moore, aircraft pioneer Reuben H. Fleet, Admiral Charles Hartman, San Diego State University president Malcolm Love, San Diego Zoo director Charles Schoeder, and bankers Thomas Sefton and Philip Gildred, Jr.
In 1976, after a decent interval, the downtown Rotary Club revived the tradition of Mr. San Diego, but it was never the same. In the years since, with few exceptions, a motley selection of insurance executives, lawyers, developers, politicians, and socialites have become Mr. San Diego, reflecting the bland corporate nature of the city's official leadership.
No longer do San Diegans have a direct line to the White House or any apparent prospect of getting one anytime soon. Helen Copley, owner of the Union-Tribune, remains holed-up in her mansion on Fox Hill, avoiding all public appearances and proclamations. The town's biggest money player is Padres owner John Moores, a software titan from Texas with the apparent objective of owning all the real estate on the east side of downtown, courtesy of the taxpayers.
This year's Mr. San Diego was harmless enough: Union-Tribune columnist Neil Morgan, who as editor presided over the demise of the Copley-owned Evening Tribune five years ago, ending the city's days of competitive newspapering. Having learned the lesson of bygone days, the selection of Mr. San Diego seems carefully tailored to cover up the real nature of San Diego's edgy drug-and-money-laced economic and political culture.
FORTY-SEVEN YEARS OF MR. SAN DIEGO
1951 Joseph E. Dryer, created Heaven on Earth Club to promote San Diego
1952 Harley E. Knox, ex-mayor and "prominent dairyman"
1953 George A. Scott, department-store owner
1954 Douglas Young, dairyman and hospital president; Unitarian church trustee
1955 Fred Rohr, aircraft mogul; Spirit of St. Louis gas-tank maker
1956 Anderson Borthwick, bank president, harbor commission president
1957 James S. Copley, newspaper owner
1958 Murray David Goodrich, "merchant and industrialist," president Temple Beth Israel
1959 Fred A. Heilbron, ex?city councilman, water-board chairman, plumber, lawyer
1960 C. Arnholt Smith, banker
1961 Fred G. Forward, retired title-company executive, founder of the Mexico committee
1962 Allen J. Sutherland, banker
1963 John Salvario Alessio, Caliente "manager," Hotel Del owner
1964 Morley Golden, contractor
1965 T. Claude Ryan, aircraft maker, Spirit of St. Louis
1966 Roscoe E. "Pappy" Hazard, highway contractor
1967 Archie Moore, prizefighter
1968 Reuben H. Fleet, aircraft maker
1969 Charles G. Hartman, admiral
1970 Malcolm A. Love, SDSU president
1971 Charles R. Schroeder, zoo director
1972 Thomas W. Sefton, banker
1973 Philip L. Gildred, Jr., banker
1976 Edwardus Jessop, Jr., jeweler
1977 William E. Quirk, retired Pac Bell executive
1978 DeGraff Austin, ex?county supervisor
1979 Lowell Davies Attorney, Old Globe patron
1980 Ivor deKirby, ex?city councilman
1981 Albert L. Anderson, dentist, Republican leader
1982 Lee Hubbard, Jr.; cement contractor, ex?city councilman
1983 Philip M. Klauber, SDG&E board, merchant family member
1984 S. Falck Nielsen, contractor
1985 Orien W. "Junior" Todd, sportinggoods company owner, grand jury chair during Yellow Cab scandal
1986 Bruce Moore, insurance salesman
1987 Clair Burgener, ex-Congressman
1988 Roger Revelle, University administrator, real estate businessman
1989 Willis "Wig" Fletcher, insurance
1990 Ernest W. Hahn, shopping-mall developer
1991 James F. Mulvaney, attorney, Arnie Smith sidekick
1992 Everett and Eileen Jackson, painter and U-T society writer
1993 J. Dallas Clark, philanthropist, socialite
1994 Betty Jo Williams, "longtime civic and cultural giver"
1995 Bishop George D. McKinney, minister
1996 Pauline des Granges, retired city official
1997 Dr. Homer Peabody Jr., tennis buff
1998 Malin Burnham, real estate mogul
1999 Neil Morgan U-T columnist, ex-editor