In Krist’s account, as in life, water comes first. Joan Didion, living in Los Angeles, once described revering the water she drew from her faucet so much that she kept tabs on where it was: “I particularly like to imagine it as it cascades down the 45-degree stone steps that aerate Owens water after its airless passage through the mountain pipes and siphons.”
What Didion called “Owens water” was brought from the Owens River, north of the city, to her Malibu home by the Los Angeles Aqueduct, an enormous public works project. The aqueduct’s 233-mile path also forms the narrative spine of Krist’s book. Completed in 1913, with Mulholland as its chief engineer, it opened flood gates both literal and figurative. At the opening ceremony, as a deluge of water came gushing down onto the dusty spillway below, Mulholland told the gathered crowd what to do with it and the future it represented: “There it is. Take it!”
“Los Angeles could finally feel confident that the greatest obstacle to its growth had been removed,” Krist writes, even if the exuberance would only last as long as the respite before the next drought. A decade later, the growing city started pumping groundwater from the Owens Valley, whose resentful residents retaliated with angry editorials and, on occasion, dynamite. “By mid-July 1927, the aqueduct had been bombed no fewer than 10 times.”
Nineteen twenty-seven was also the first year in more than a decade that David Wark Griffith hadn’t released one of his grandiose films. Having achieved spectacular critical and commercial success with “The Birth of a Nation” (1915), his racist paean to the South — described by James Baldwin as “one of the great classics of the American cinema” and “an elaborate justification of mass murder” — Griffith struggled to keep up with changing tastes and the advent of the talkies. The Hollywood he helped create had changed: There was more money churning through, along with more scrutiny from the money men.
Krist expertly weaves together the stories of Griffith, Mulholland and McPherson, the charismatic evangelist from rural Canada who moved to Los Angeles to attend to the city’s spiritual needs. She shows up in “The Mirage Factory” almost halfway through — arriving at the tail end of 1918 with her mother, her female assistant and her two children in tow. McPherson’s congregation bloomed with the city, and after surviving a (possible) kidnapping and multiple fallouts with her mother, her ultimate downfall, when it happened, came tragically and too soon.