Uncovering the racism, sexism and apparent redemption of Venice’s founding father

By Matt Hormann

Abbot Kinney in 1884. Photo by John R.  Hodson, courtesy of the Santa Monica History Museum.

Abbot Kinney in 1884. Photo by John R.
Hodson, courtesy of the Santa Monica History Museum.

His grey-bearded visage looms large in murals and street art.

His name gilds the signs marking GQ magazine’s “Coolest Block in America.”

Abbot Kinney, the tobacco millionaire and real estate developer who birthed Venice out of a swamp nearly 110 years ago, has been reborn in the popular imagination as the icon of its creative spirit — the original hipster who started
it all.

In city histories he’s described as a utopian visionary, conservationist and staunch advocate for Native American rights.

But a different side to Kinney lies buried in history like the first Venice canals he dug, paved over to make way for the automobile just a few years after his death in 1920.

The man who welcomed all to enjoy his paradise by the sea, hosted Susan B. Anthony for a women’s suffrage rally, brought African Americans into his inner circle and granted the franchise to create Venice’s first black-owned business was — at least in the books and newspaper columns he wrote — decidedly less progressive when it came to racial prejudice, immigration, women’s rights and labor issues. Some of the ideas he proffered were ugly, inflammatory and by today’s standards deeply offensive.

Beginning in 1883, Kinney penned a blistering series of tirades against Chinese immigrants, whom he labeled “an ignorant and venal population” (“Under the Shadow of the Dragon,” Overland Monthly, 1883) and “an incubus and a curse to the country and to whites” (Los Angeles Saturday Post, June 20, 1903).

In “The Conquest of Death,” a book he wrote on sexual education in 1893, Kinney declared the brain of a white American was superior to that of a “negro American” (p. 120), that Jewish people were “more wanton and lustful” than other races (p. 129) and that the abolition of slavery had degraded black intelligence (p. 36).

In the same book, Kinney advised young men to avoid marrying women who did not appear biologically able to have children. “The standard of beauty in women is really based on their physical fitness to become mothers. A woman not capable of being a mother cannot be a beautiful woman,” he wrote (p. 122).

In a column opposing women’s suffrage, Kinney wrote that “we cannot afford to thrust upon women dangers and duties that human evolution has required thousands of years to relieve them from” (Los Angeles Herald, Aug. 30, 1896).

In a separate Herald op-ed, Kinney claimed that women’s suffrage would lead to “late marriages, more divorces, more unmarried, fewer children […] sex aberration, prostitution, sterilization of the society and death” (June 30, 1895). He even blamed the suffrage movement for the “unnatural sex abuse of the [Oscar] Wilde case,” the author having just been prosecuted for sodomy.

A captain of industry, Kinney was no less bilious when it came to organized labor. In the Los Angeles Saturday Post, a weekly newspaper he owned, he denounced labor unions as “a menace to the American” (Aug. 31, 1901). He railed against minimum-wage legislation and claimed that an eight-hour workday law would “limit mature men’s free action” and “undermine the initiative, self-reliance and responsibility” of workers (Nov. 9, 1902). He also argued that labor strikes should be outlawed (Nov. 2, 1901).

His labor positions were largely self-serving. At a New York cigarette factory he ran with his older brother Francis, the Kinneys had paid workers as little as 40 cents per 1,000 cigarettes rolled, which by rough calculation would be around $3 to $4 an hour today. When workers — “about 400 women and girls and 150 men and boys,” according to a May 2, 1883, article in The New York Times — went on strike demanding 80 cents per 1,000 smokes, the Kinney brothers refused.

A Change of Heart?

These examples of Kinney’s writings can hardly be considered visionary by today’s social norms, or even progressive for the time.

But save for Los Angeles Herald reports on performances of minstrel shows (the donning of blackface by white actors) at Venice charity events in March 1908 and August 1910 — which he may not have had anything to do with — evidence of any sexist or racist views held by Kinney dries up about two years before the July 4, 1905, grand opening of his Venice of America.

Could it be that, in the process of creating Venice, Kinney had a change of heart?

Sonya Reese-Greenland, granddaughter of original Venice of America town decorator and head of maintenance Arthur L. Reese — an African-American man to whom Kinney later granted the exclusive franchise to conduct gondola rides and other concessions for the original Venice canals — thinks so.

“I don’t think he stayed in that place,” says Reese-Greenland, vice president of the Venice Historical Society. “His interaction with all these different ethnic groups probably changed his opinions.”

As Reese-Greenland tells it, Kinney hired her grandfather as a janitor for the Venice Pier in 1905 and, admiring his work ethic, quickly promoted him to head of maintenance before also putting him directly in charge of the town’s decorations. It was Reese’s idea, she said, to bring a Mardi Gras celebration to Venice, for which he crafted iconic papier-mâché heads.

Reese-Greenland treasures original letters that Kinney wrote to Reese after granting him and his brother Edward the exclusive contract to operate the gondola concession, particularly one in which Kinney thanks Reese for extending free gondola rides for life to Kinney.

A short time after putting Reese in charge of decorations, Kinney hired one his workers — Reese’s cousin Irving Tabor — as his personal driver, a job that later led to Tabor working as his butler and personal confidant. Kinney became known for his egalitarian relationship with Tabor, refusing to stay in hotels that would not lodge him.

On the opposite side of the ideological spectrum, a 1902 edition of Kinney’s Los Angeles Saturday Post contained an editorial by “The Captain” — a nom de plume that appeared with some of the paper’s more extreme editorials — stating that “even in slavery there was a better personal relation between the races. The removal of responsibility is bringing out the savage in the Negro and is degrading and not raising the race.”

When Kinney died, he willed his Venice home to Tabor — a strong statement to say the least in early Venice, where housing covenants established by elected town leaders prevented black home ownership outside the Oakwood neighborhood and, according to Los Angeles Times reports, a branch of the Ku Klux Klan operated from at least 1922 to 1925. The house currently stands at 541 Santa Clara Ave., where Tabor had it moved after a Kinney son-in-law and town leaders argued that Tabor wasn’t granted ownership of the land under the house.

For Reese-Greenland, actions speak louder than words.

“It’s hard for me to put a lot of stock in what he wrote [before founding Venice].
I think he was trying to be intellectual, but science and opinions were so primitive in the 1800s,” Reese-Greenland says.

“He was living with [Tabor] 24/7, so those views couldn’t have remained in his head. He obviously evolved,” she says.

Support for Women’s Suffrage

Kinney also appears to have changed his views on voting rights for women.

The Herald reported that on Aug. 1, 1905, Kinney’s brand-new 3,600-seat auditorium on his Venice Pier (later lost to fire) hosted a women’s suffrage rally headlined by the premiere women’s rights activists of the day — Susan B. Anthony, the Rev. Anna Shaw and Caroline Severance.

Delores Hanney, chief staff writer for the quarterly journal of the Venice Historical Society, finds further evidence of Kinney’s support for women’s suffrage in the Venice Daily Vanguard, a local paper of the day.

With a measure to give women the vote in state elections on the 1911 California ballot and a few other states already giving local voting rights to women, “a tiny piece from the Aug. 3, 1911, issue of the newspaper reports that when turned away by Los Angeles, Kinney extended an invitation to hang a banner [reading “California Next”] on Windward Avenue in Venice,” Hanney writes in a fall 2011 article for the Venice Historical Society.

According to Hanney’s research on Kinney, while in Venice he had a longstanding affair with a mistress and fathered two children with her. They later married after the death of his first wife, and Kinney adopted the children.

However, “he didn’t think women were lesser than,” Hanney says. “He liked smart women. He respected them.”

Kinney’s eventual embrace of women’s suffrage was a far cry, she says, from the anti-suffrage views Kinney had expressed some 15 years prior.

“His [early] philosophies seemed pretty abhorrent, but his [public] behavior wasn’t,” Hanney says.

‘Truth and Grand Things’

Perhaps due to historians choosing to focus on his time in Venice, Kinney’s early racism has been largely overlooked and all but lost to history.

The tenacious mythos of Kinney as egalitarian, forward-thinking intellectual and social authority may also have thrived because, at his best, Kinney was undeniably one of the better writers of his day — as evident in an eloquent speech he gave on forestry before the State Board of Horticulture in November 1885:

“The solitude and quietness of the forest have always had their charms and delights for mankind. Its repose is tempered by the gentle movement of the rustling leaves. The tall, straight stems and the beautiful lines of the trees lead the mind insensibly to the contemplation of truth and grand things. So we find the first assembly places of men to worship God were under trees” (Pasadena and Valley Union, Nov. 20, 1885).

Indeed, it was Kinney’s passionate writing on forests, complete with astute scientific predictions about their ecological importance (in regulating climate, for instance) that would in part cause President Benjamin Harrison to establish the San Gabriel Forest Reserve in 1892 — the forerunner of today’s Angeles National Forest.

Due to his considerable writing talent, Kinney had the ear of governors, congressmen, even presidents. A letter he wrote to California Congressman H.H. Markham in 1885 urging protection for forests prompted Markham to respond: “I wish your letter might be extensively circulated. I believe it would have a beneficial effect upon those who consider our timber lands of little value, except for wood and timber.”

Likewise, an 1883 report on the conditions of the California Mission Indians that Kinney co-authored with Helen Hunt Jackson (further evidence he appreciated intelligent women, Hanney says) influenced Congress to pass the Mission Indian Relief Act of 1891.

When Kinney’s passions aligned with his pen, few people questioned the soundness of his judgments, whether on citrus-growing or the superiority of Anglo-Saxons. This would prove extraordinarily detrimental to Chinese immigrants in Pasadena, where Kinney lived from 1880 to 1886.

‘He Has No Chinese’

Today, along the eastern stretch of Colorado Boulevard in East Pasadena, Kinneloa Avenue marks the approximate southern boundary of Abbot Kinney’s former 530-acre Kinneloa ranch. The ranch is gone, but Kinney’s name lives on in Kinneloa Mesa, Kinneloa Canyon Road and Kinclair Drive.

When Kinney came to California for health reasons in December 1879, after a three-years’ journey around the world, he decided to settle in what is now East Pasadena and Sierra Madre, building a lavish house and developing a vast citrus ranch and vineyard.

Though he technically lived outside city limits, he quickly became wrapped up in the civic affairs of early Pasadena and made fast and easy friendships among the founding fathers.

In 1882 he helped organize the city’s first public library, and served on the city’s Village Improvement Society. In 1883 he contributed an article on Pasadena to “A Southern California Paradise,” a booster guide in which he wrote: “In Southern California there is no spot so well situated sanitarily as Pasadena. … It has good water, good soil, and picturesque and historic surroundings.”

At some point around this time, Kinney also began a mean-spirited obsession with Chinese immigrants.

Throughout the 1870s and ‘80s, countless California towns expelled Chinese residents, often through arson and threats of lynching and sometimes through actual lynching. Separate massacres in 1871, 1885 and 1887 claimed dozens of Chinese lives in California, Wyoming and Oregon.

Few were willing to speak on behalf of the Chinese at the time, though author Mark Twain notably defended them in 1872 as “quiet, peaceable, tractable, free from drunkenness and […] industrious as the day is long.”

Kinney, by contrast, portrayed the Chinese as opium dealers and enslavers of women in his 1883 Overland Monthly article “Under the Shadow of the Dragon.”

“The effect of the Chinese in California has been to degrade labor, to weaken the political body, and to injure morally, in the broad sense of that word, both the rich and the poor,” Kinney concluded. “They are a most undesirable people for us to open our doors to.”

It was a peculiar attitude for a man who had traveled to China and otherwise demonstrated a relatively shrewd knowledge of Chinese culture.

“Let us have no more of a servile race. … The Indians and negroes [sic] are game enough for those who wish to cheat, defraud and misuse human beings. Those two races debase enough whites; let us not introduce a third race to increase the temptation,” wrote Kinney, seemingly blaming victimized groups for the social and economic injustices against them at the time, in a March 1884 article for Pacific Rural Press that was excerpted by the Pasadena and Valley Union in April 1984.

Just three months later, a Chinese man was lynched 15 miles east of Pasadena, his body riddled with bullets and left hanging from a tree. Then on Nov. 6, 1885, a white mob attacked and burned down Pasadena’s small Chinatown, which numbered between 60 and 100 residents. The following morning, the city fathers of Pasadena drafted a legal ordinance banning the Chinese from the city.

Kinney was attending a fruit-growers’ convention in San Francisco at the time. He apparently fired any Chinese workers he had employed upon his return, drawing praise for doing so in a Jan. 8, 1886, letter to the editor in the Pasadena and Valley Union. In March of that year, he launched into a polemic against the Chinese as keynote speaker for Pasadena’s annual Citrus Fair, held blocks from the city’s desecrated former Chinatown. A write-up on Kinney’s Pasadena ranch from the Los Angeles City and County Directory for 1886 reads: “He has no Chinese, having years ago decided against employing  them; he has — even sometimes at great pecuniary loss — steadily refused to have them on his farm or around his house.”

Kinney, according to the 1999 book “Venice” by Carolyn Elayne Alexander (in collaboration with the Venice Historical Society), would later include a Chinese pagoda at the base of his Venice pier, which he called “Underground Chinatown.”

As of this writing it remains unclear whether Chinese workers played any role in early Venice.

An early advertisement for Venice of America (in the June 25, 1905, edition of the Los Angeles Herald), however, contains the picture of the Rev. Ng Poon Chew — a Chinese newspaper editor and advocate for Chinese civil rights — among 26 speakers in a lecture series organized by the Los Angeles Fellowship Club on Kinney’s brand-new pier.

A man of his time?

The Venice that Abbot Kinney left behind was hardly the progressive bastion it is often characterized as today.

In addition to housing ownership restrictions isolating blacks to today’s Oakwood neighborhood and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s, town leaders in 1919 went to McCarthy Era lengths to root out suspected labor organizers and communists.

“A new organization was formed of patriotic men who assembled in the office of Police Chief Loomis to confer and make plans to keep the I.W.W. [Industrial Workers of the World union] or ‘Reds,’ as they were commonly known, out of Venice,” according to Alexander’s 1991 book “Abbot Kinney’s Venice of America.” “The object of the group was to investigate suspicious residents and to put a stop to any open-air meetings that might be held on radical subjects. They also were to be the means of the ejection of a few citizens who were already trying to organize a local communist party.”

If it’s fair to say that Kinney was simply a man of his time, it’s also worth noting that many in his time did not share his extreme views.

Kinney’s Pasadena neighbors, Owen and Jason Brown — the sons of abolitionist John Brown — for instance, advocated on behalf of the Chinese, and would not tolerate discrimination against blacks. Kinney’s neighbor, L.J. Rose, was even said to have sheltered and employed Chinese who were forced to flee downtown L.A. following the Chinese Massacre of 1871.

These men stood against the prejudice of their time; Kinney conspicuously did not.

But in the letters that Kinney wrote to her grandfather and the legacy he and her family share, Reese-Greenland finds another truth.

“To his credit, he did change and grow,” she says. “That is what we all aspire to.”

Managing Editor Joe Piasecki contributed to this story.