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How Beverly Hills became — and stayed — an independent city

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It has all the elements of a classic Hollywood movie: water rights, film stars and cutthroat politics.

If you look at a map of the city of Los Angeles, you'll spot Beverly Hills, an island in the middle of the civic ocean. How it got that way is a story with all the elements of a classic Hollywood movie: water rights, film stars and cutthroat politics. 

Nancie Clare explores the details in her new book "The Battle for Beverly Hills."

Cover of "The Battle for Beverly Hills" by Nanci Clare
St. Martin's Press
Cover of "The Battle for Beverly Hills" by Nanci Clare

Setting the scene

In the 1910s, Beverly Hills was a tiny, unassuming place while Los Angeles was booming after William Mulholland brought water to the city.

"[Beverly Hills] was the middle of nowhere: coyotes, bobcats and lima bean fields... It was wilderness and farmland. It was essentially treeless and it was dry and arid and not a lot of people."

Then came the movie business. As film studios moved out west, so did actors. Eventually, they settled in Beverly Hills. Clare says that back then, actors weren't in it for the fame because films were a young, risky industry.

"They were all this first generation of stars and they didn't go into it for the same reasons that actors go into wanting to be movie stars now. I think they just wanted to make a living, and they took a chance on these 'flickers.' No one knew if they had staying power or not."

Water Woes

By 1923, Beverly Hills had a problem. It was running out of water. The proposed solution was to join the city of Los Angeles, which had plenty of water to spare, Clare said.

A special election was called with a ballot measure to let Beverly Hills residents vote on whether or not they wanted to be annexed into Los Angeles.

Some residents, including local influencer Silsby Spalding, were against the idea of annexation, Clare said.

"[Spalding] felt that Beverly Hills would get more bang for its buck as an independent city. They would have more control over their schools, more control over land use, many of the arguments that are still used today, 100 years later."

But the threat of running out of water was enough to convince many residents to join L.A. How would the anti-annexation camp win over the voters? Enter the Beverly Hills Eight. 

Star Power

The Beverly Hills Eight were a group of film stars: Mary Pickford, her husband Douglas Fairbanks, Will Rogers, Harold Lloyd, Conrad Nagel, Fred Niblo, Tom Mix and Rudolph Valentino. They were big names and they used their celebrity to fight hard for the anti-annexation cause.

"They went door to door. They had picnics. They signed pictures. They signed scripts. They took selfies or the 1920s version of selfies. And I never found it, but I heard a rumor that there was a photo-op with Rudolph Valentino going door to door with his literature explaining why Beverly Hills should not be part of Los Angeles."

Clare said she thinks the Beverly Hills Eight were the force that tipped the scale against annexation. Pickford, in particular knew how to leverage the public's admiration for her into political power.

"Celebrities, most of whom are actors or people that attract attention, understand the relationship between themselves and the person who's looking at them. They inhabit roles and the better they are at it, the better they are as influencers. I think [Mary Pickford] got it. I think she understood the extent of her influence and by extension the influence of other motion picture stars."

The Final Act

When the annexation vote finally rolled around, the 'nays' had won out and Beverly Hills remained independent. Clare believes that moment set the stage for celebrity intervention in politics. 

To solve their water troubles, Beverly Hills bought the Sherman Water Company in 1928 from a city that eventually became West Hollywood. In 1941, Beverly Hills started receiving supplies from the Metropolitan Water District.

A monument to the Beverly Hills Eight, called "Celluloid," stands in the middle of a traffic circle at the intersection of Olympic Boulevard and South Beverly Drive. The bronze and marble obelisk is a tribute to the political battle that kept Beverly Hills independent and a reminder of what star power can do.

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