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Monrovia's Most Notable Socialist

Author and one-time California gubernatorial candidate Upton Sinclair (1878-1968) lived a private life in Monrovia during his later years.

Driving by Upton Sinclair's former house in Monrovia, one might expect to see something larger, more palatial, or fancier, for a world-famous author of more than 90 books, but the Spanish-Colonial dwelling, at 464 N. Myrtle Avenue, in many ways reflects the man who lived there. Designed by California architect Frederick H. Wallis, and built in 1923, it is has an elegant austerity about it, containing just six rooms and a large garage, where the author stored his papers. Sinclair lived in the house with his second wife, Mary Craig, and later his third wife, "May" Willis, on and off from 1943 until 1966.

Sinclair's legacy is particularly relevant in this 2010 election season, which has seen an inordinate amount of political mudslinging and shrill demagoguery. Sinclair himself was a Democratic candidate for California governor in 1934—a controversial election that many historians cite as the first widespread use of attack ads in politics.

In a recent interview with Kevin Ferguson on KPCC's "Off-Ramp," author Greg Mitchell, whose newly-reprinted book "The Campaign of the Century" describes Sinclair's bid for governor, claimed that had Sinclair's Republican opponents not "invented the modern political campaign as we known it," he "unquestionably would have been Governor." 

The campaign against Sinclair by incumbent Republican Frank Merriam was aided by media and entertainment giants William Randolph Hearst, MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer, and famed producer Irving Thalberg, who produced a series of fake newsreels called "California Election News," that depicted Sinclair supporters variously as uninformed yokels, Communist sympathizers, or unemployed vagrants from out of state looking a free handout. Every daily newspaper in California, including the Los Angeles Times, came out against Sinclair, and sniped at him with headlines like "Swat the Radicals!"

Sinclair had no small number of supporters in his camp, however. Charlie Chaplin, a close personal friend, made one of the few political speeches of his career in support of Sinclair, while Theodore Dreiser, author of "An American Tragedy" and "Sister Carrie," praised him in an Esquire magazine article (Esquire was ironically published by the Hearst Corporation). Actor James Cagney also publicly campaigned for Sinclair, but later had to rescind his endorsement to protect his career.

Ultimately, Sinclair could not surmount the vicious and misleading smear campaign that exploited the fears of a Communist takeover (despite the fact that many actual Communists viewed his positions as too capitalist), and portrayed Sinclair as an "atheist" who would shut down churches—an absurd claim, considering he later wrote books like "What God Means to Me" and "A Personal Jesus," and had several times rejected atheism.

Though he lost the election, he garnered 37.75 percent of the popular vote, and his "End Poverty in California" platform energized many future political leaders. Former Attorney General and California Supreme Court Justice Stanley Mosk later said that EPIC was "the acorn from which evolved the tree of whatever liberalism we have in California." Sinclair made other notable contributions to California's progressive organizations as well, including helping to found the California chapter of the ACLU in 1923.

Sinclair's later years in Monrovia represent a quieter chapter in his life. A Pasadena resident for more than 25 years, Sinclair moved to Monrovia in 1943, the same year he won a Pulitzer Prize for his novel "Dragon's Teeth."

In his biography of the author, "Radical Innocent" (Random House, 2006), Anthony Arthur explains that until the 1940s, Sinclair's life had been "filled with incident," but that "for most of the following eighteen years, he would lead a restricted and nearly solitary existence, with only his wife for companionship […] Sinclair's later years reveal the texture of a personality that continued to grow more withdrawn, more complex, and, in some respects, more appealing."

Sinclair continued to engage with the outside world after moving to 464 N. Myrtle; through numerous correspondences with friends like Carl Jung and Albert Einstein, the occasional public appearance and interview, and subscriptions to 50 different weekly and monthly magazines, with which he stayed informed on current events and cultural trends. ("They get drunk and write crazy poetry," he said of the Beat Generation in 1961.)

He also continued to write at a staggering pace, averaging a thousand words a day until the late 1940s, and churning out 19 books between 1943 and his death in 1968. One of his books was even adapted into a Disney musical in 1967. Sinclair remained a vital figure in American political and cultural life, though he sequestered himself behind a tall fence and gate, which Western Union messengers had to surmount by tying their deliveries to rocks and throwing them over the top.

The main reason for Sinclair's move to Monrovia was his wife's failing health. "Craig," as he affectionately called her, had an enlarged heart and breathing difficulties, and Pasadena's smog had worsened her condition. It was at her insistence that the high fence and gate were built around their property. A plot had come to light in the wake of the 1934 election, in which a businessman had purchased a gun and vowed to kill Sinclair if he won. Ever since, she had been terrified that someone might try to assassinate her husband.

The Sinclairs rented out their house in 1950, and moved for a short time to Corona, to be closer to Craig's brother Hunter, then to the town of Buckeye, AZ, where they lived until 1954, before moving back to Monrovia.

Sinclair had few visitors during this period, but one acquaintance, the historian and literary critic Van Wyck Brooks, called on Sinclair in the mid-1950s. He later described the visit:

"He stood at the gate of his big Spanish house with the sun beating down—there were no trees, there was nothing to shade it—and, on this bright spring day, he received me in a darkened room with all the window-shades closely drawn. Deeply shrouded electric lamps, with bowls of pink camellias, stood in every corner of the room, while his wife, who was scarcely able to move, so frail her heart was, sat in the semi-darkness like a heroine of Poe." ("From the Shadow of the Mountain: My Post-Meridian Years," by Van Wyck Brooks)

Craig died in 1961, and Sinclair remarried later that year at the age of 83, to Mary "May" Willis, the 79-year-old sister of Scripps College president Frederick Hard. Willis was a free-spirited woman who indulged in endless games of Scrabble with her husband, and accompanied him to the White House when president Lyndon Johnson signed the Wholesome Meat Act into law in 1967, a nod to Sinclair's famous indictment of Chicago's meatpacking industry, "The Jungle."

The two of them moved to Washington D.C. in 1966, where she died the following year. Sinclair himself passed away in a nursing home in Bound Brook, NJ, on November 25, 1968.

Sinclair's Monrovia home was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1971, with the concise explanation: "This was the principal home of Upton Sinclair (1878-1968),  one of the most influential American novelists in the area of social justice."

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