Today we're talking with Gaelyn Whitley Keith, author of The Father of Hollywood.
FQ: HJ was an exemplary example of what a young man raised in the Victorian era was expected to be. If you were to inherit one of his characteristics, which one would you choose and why?
HJ Whitley strived to live a practical and useful life from which others could benefit. To accomplish that goal he invested a large effort in studying other successful men and imitating them. He wanted to be successful so that he could give back to society in a way that would change the world forever. He knew the power of education and sharing ideas. He was instrumental in establishing schools in many of the towns he developed. Lots of timeless wisdom can be learned from HJ. His legacy lives on in the contributions he made to the world. He taught us all that if one advances towards ones dreams success will be in the near future. That is the main characteristic I have used. I keep a list of written goals I plan to obtain in my life time. Writing “The Father of Hollywood” can now be checked off that list.
FQ: Many families have archives, large and small, available to them in the form of diaries, photographs, letters, etc. When did you become interested in the legacy of Gigi and Hobart Johnstone Whitley (HJ) and what spurred you on to delve deeper into their lives?
I discovered my longing to be a writer when I was a child listening to my mother’s true imaginative stories about Hollywood. I began writing the story in the 1980 but found it very difficult to organize the pieces of this amazing saga as computers were not as efficient as they are today. So I put the diaries, photographs and business journals back in the garage and let twenty years pass. My mother passed away in 1996 and her words seem to haunt me, “Someone needs to write the early history of Hollywood or the truth about its founding will be lost forever.” Once again in 2000 as my children were now headed to college I pulled out the diaries and yellowed brittle pictures. Fortunately many advancement in computer programming had occurred and the task was at last manageable.
FQ: You briefly mentioned that the book took you ten years to complete. This amazing work was obviously a labor of love. Can you give us a glimpse into the process involved. Don’t be afraid to talk about the times you wanted to throw everything into the circular file!
To begin with I reviewed what I knew about my family’s history. With my Father’s help, I built the story from the ground up, using witty sayings, fantastic stories, and hundreds of yellowed, brittle, black-and-white photographs that, under his watch, I handled like treasure found on an archeological dig. The number of pieces of information I dealt with was astonishing. They were little flashes of his life that were bright, quick, and inspiring, a sliver of truth echoing from the past. As I dug through the historical facts I just placed the information in what I thought was the appropriate section and continued to research. This time I was determined to have a finished book. The first edition of the book that my husband and I printed was about 200 pages long. We still have it and some day I am sure we will read it again and laugh with tears running down our checks. Truthfully it wasn’t very good. Thankfully I have a kind family and friends who helped out with the initial editing. It took an additional four years from the first book until I had the final copy. I visited two book clubs and enlisted their help. Their suggestions, questions and criticism were priceless.
FQ: Gigi apparently had the gift of prescience. In your book a scene was described in which she forbade HJ and others from going into the Los Angeles Times Building, a building that was blown up in a terrorist attack the next day. Were there any more incidents such as this one documented in the family archives? Was this gift handed down through the generations?
I have the gift to some degree. It was very useful when I had teenage children. They would quip, “Mom how did you know?” and then a bright smile would cross their face. I have always slept very peacefully realizing that I would some how know if things were not right.
FQ: Several of the photographs the reader will see in your book are simply “average” looking family photographs, yet in retrospect looking at a panoramic vista of where Hollywood would once lie is quite stunning. Talk to us about how you selected photographs for this book and what was available to you?
Photography has advanced over the years but the pictures I have were often of very low quality and of low resolution. Unlike today were everyone has a digital camera pictures historically were not snapped at every event. The pictures that were taken were often done by professionals. That is why there are so many family portraits. Initially I put one picture in each chapter and tried to have it relate to the story line. The publisher decided to place the picture in the center of the book. Some pictures and chapters were edited out.
FQ: When HJ talked about Hollywood to potential developers, you stated that “He described for them the vision of a dream city.” If you were to describe your dream city, what would it be like?
My dream town is right on the ocean where the hustle and bustle of city life is left far behind. It is safe, clean, prosperous and pretty as a post card. It is a town that caters to families and everyone feels welcomed. The sights and sounds of the waves crashing on the beach, the mating calls of the birds and wildlife and the leisurely pace of the population are breathtaking. There is less traffic and the laid back atmosphere allows one to recharge and rejuvenate. There is a free bus that takes travelers around the city. There’s even a dog park where pets can roam free without being on a leash. And yet, the glitz and glitter of Hollywood and its multitude of attractions is less than 45 minutes away! This is my dream town.
FQ: After you began your research we’re assuming when you went to Hollywood you looked at it through new eyes. What impressed you the most about HJ’s achievements and what were you anxious to look at the most?
For the first time I saw the complete picture not just bits and pieces. It is almost overwhelming to realize the great impact one man had on Hollywood. His influence has made the town world renown. My favorite spot to visit is my great-grandparent’s home nestled in the Hollywood hills.
FQ: HJ always thought that Gigi should be a Victorian “angel in the house,” but she was into the women’s movement long before it was a passing thought in most women’s minds. Have you got any fond memories of this amazing woman you’d like to tell us about?
The greatest lesson I learned from Gigi is that each and every day we must look for goodness in others and share it when it is offered to us. Over the years, she experienced intense, passionate love with HJ but often it lasted for only a month, week, or day here and there. The manner in which she chose to love perplexed and intrigued me. Perhaps this was because it very graphically symbolized a basic truth I preferred to overlook: love was as much a matter of releasing as it was of joining. She taught me that I could neither own nor forever hold the ones I loved exactly as I wanted. Love was the gift shared when the opportunity arose. I have now learned to enjoy love more intensely when it is offered.
FQ: Many times people of high accomplishment seem to fall through the cracks of time and are forgotten. You state that “… HJ had been a leading force in the creation of Hollywood and the business genius of the project.” This book was an excellent tribute to him, but can you think of any other way people could honor his memory?
Can you help us get H J Whitley into the California Hall of Fame? We are asking everyone to submit his name. The more the better (do it at work and on your home computer).
CA Hall of Fame Candidate Information
H J Whitley
Whitley was the “Father of Hollywood.” He was able to convince the majority of producers, directors and actors to settle in Hollywood forever branding it as the film capital of the world
1. Whitley was the “Father of Hollywood.” He was able to convince the majority of producers, directors and actors to settle in Hollywood forever branding it as the film capital of the world.
2. First movie filmed in Hollywood filmed on Whitley Estate October 26,1911.
3. Whitley built Sunset Boulevard.
4. Whitley had the first electric lit sign in Hollywood and came up with the idea for the Hollywoodland sign.
5. Whitley built the towns of Hollywood, Reseda, Canoga Park, Van Nuys, Corcoran and 100 others.
6. Whitley brought the cotton industry to California.
He never forgot a favor; nor did he fail to note a kindness. His prime directives were to always do what he felt was right and to keep his word.
You can cut and paste the answer into the museum website form. Thanks for your help.