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10/26/2010 09:22 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Dispatches From Incredible 1934 Campaign: A Murder -- And Death Threats Against Upton Sinclair

Greg Mitchell on Tuesday started filing daily campaign dispatches, but with a unique twist -- the campaign took place 76 years ago. Why? In an amazing 1934 upset, ex-socialist author Upton Sinclair -- leading one of the great grassroots crusades in our history -- swept the Democratic primary for governor of California and appeared headed for victory in November. To prevent that, his opponents invented the political campaign as we know it today. It also marked Hollywood's first all-out plunge into politics and the creation of the first "attack ads" on the screen -- thanks to Irving Thalberg at MGM. Mitchell calls it "The Campaign of the Century" (the title of his award-winning book, just published in a new edition), and the political and economic parallels to 2010 are profound. These daily reports for HuffPost match the same date in 1934, as one of the dirtiest, most influential -- and most entertaining -- campaigns reached its final days. (Read last Monday's intro piece here and catch up with previous days here. )

October 26, 1934 -- The movie industry came under attack today when Upton Sinclair's campaign manager, Richard Otto, charged that the Inquiring Cameraman shorts contained faked or slanted footage. He characterized the films as Merriam propaganda and identified film overseer Will Hays' associate, Charles C. Pettijohn, as the engineer of a political conspiracy.

"These trailers," Otto said, "are made up in the form of newsreels and depict a newsreel cameraman walking through the streets of Los Angeles, getting firsthand slants on the governorship contest from the man in the street." To produce a "decided trend" toward Merriam, the Inquiring Cameraman selected certain subjects and colored or created copy "to suit himself."

The most surprising aspect of Otto's statement was the name of the editorial genius who had allegedly created the trailers: not the reactionary Louis B. Mayer, the ruthless Harry Cohn, or the reckless Joseph Schenck, but the refined Irving Thalberg.

Upton Sinclair joined in the protest. He informed FDR's political boss, James A. Farley, by telegram that Charlie Pettijohn had taken over three suites at the Roosevelt Hotel and, claiming to speak for Farley and the White House, was raising funds for the Merriam campaign, thereby violating the Hays Office code of impartiality in political campaigns.

More bad news for Sinclair: The Literary Digest reported Frank Merriam with a two-and-a-half- to-one lead over Sinclair, based on 67,208 ballots sent in by any reader who felt like it. This was taken seriously since no scientific polls existed at the time. The results seemed highly suspect. The Digest had Merriam beating Sinclair two-to-one even in Los Angeles, which was patently absurd. Still, the survey results might start the Merriam bandwagon rolling, meaning that its projection of a landslide, however dubious, would be self-fulfilling.

Out in normally sleepy Sierra County, Dick Martin, the oldest living peace officer in California, took his son, Gil, into custody around noon today. Summoned to the Clover Valley Ranch, the constable found his son sitting on the running board of an automobile holding a .30-.30 rifle. A few feet away an older man, apparently dead, lay sprawled on his stomach in the dirt. The victim, the constable learned, was Robert Leighton, a sixty-four-year-old ranch hand. Gil Martin was superintendent at the ranch, located two miles from Loyalton, a lumber town.

Both men had been drinking. Ranch hands had previously witnessed the two men arguing over the governor's race, but today the conflict escalated. According to Gil Martin, Leighton finally said, "Well, there is no other way to settle it, so we might as well shoot it out." Martin claimed it was "him or me."

An examination of Leighton's wounds -- a small hole in the left side of his back and a fist-sized gap over his heart -- indicated that Martin had shot him in the back.

Billy Wilkerson, in his "Tradeviews" column in his magazine, The Hollywood Reporter, blew the lid off Hollywood's crusade against Upton Sinclair. "When the picture business gets aroused, it becomes AROUSED," Wilkerson observed, in an unusually excited manner, "and, boy, how they go to it!"

"The campaign against Upton Sinclair has been and is DYNAMITE. It is the most effective piece of political humdingery that has ever been effected, and this is said in full recognition of the antics of that master-machine that used to be Tammany. Politicians in every part of this land (and they are all vitally interested in the California election) are standing by in amazement as a result of the bombast that has been set off under the rocking chair of Mr. Sinclair. . . .

"Never before in the history of the picture business has the screen been used in direct support of a candidate. Maybe an isolated exhibitor here and there has run a slide or two, favoring a friend, but never has there been a concerted action on the part of all theatres in a community to defeat a nominee. And this activity may reach much farther than the ultimate defeat of Mr. Sinclair. It will undoubtedly give the bigwigs in Washington and politicians all over the country an idea of the real POWER that is in the hands of the picture industry.


"Sinclair is not defeated yet," Wilkerson said, after thanking Mayer and Thalberg, "but indications point to it, and California should stand up and sing hosannas for their greatest STATE industry, MOTION PICTURES. . . ."

The most outrageous statement of the day came from a higher (or possibly, in California, a lower) power. The normally placid George Hatfield, GOP running mate for Frank Merriam, noted that Upton Sinclair had recently warned that his enemies might assassinate him, and the bad guys knew exactly where to hire gunmen willing to carry out the deed "for as little as two hundred dollars."

This evening, Hatfield took exception to that statement. He asserted that the egotistical Sinclair had put much too high a price on his head. There were men in California, he revealed, who would charge even less than two hundred dollars for the pleasure of shooting Sinclair. Even so, Hatfield confessed, he personally "wouldn't give six bits for a dozen Sinclairs, alive or dead."

A new edition of Mitchell's book on the 1934 race, The Campaign of the Century, winner of the Goldsmith Book Prize, has just been published. He writes the popular Media Fix blog for The Nation. Contact him at: epic1934@aol.com.

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