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Griffith Jenkins Griffith (English)

(December 14, 2015)


Griffith Jenkins Griffith - Mr Hollywood

Hollywood sign; image Sten Rüdrich
Hooray for 'Griffithwood'? The famous sign in Griffith Park
Photographer Sten Rüdrich

As have many people with roots in Britain and Ireland, the Welsh have contributed to the development of countries throughout the world. But their contribution as distinct from the English, Scots and Irish is almost invisible in history. This is the complex, but wonderful story of Griffith Jenkin Griffith, a Welshman who left a massive impression on the USA. Matthew Rees, another Welshman who is creating an impression of his own on American television, discovered the massive Griffith Park when he arrived in Hollywood.

Griffith Jenkins GriffithGriffith J Griffith in 1872

Griffith was born in Betws, near Maesteg, Glamorganshire, in 1850. Rejected by his parents, he was brought up by his grandparents, but they died when he was only nine years old. He found work with the railway in Maesteg. He was unable to read or write, but learned these skills to pay his way for the rest of his life. In two years he had saved enough to buy a ticket to America. He left Liverpool for New York, then travelled to Danville, Pennsylvania, where he found a Welsh enclave. He found work with a family who paid for his education for a short period then he left for New York for further study. He found a post as a Press Officer with a brewery to pay for his education, which paid very well. He managed to save $3000 and decided to spend time visiting European cities. He also visited Betws to see his family where he received news that his bank had become bankrupt and had lost all his money.

Griffith returned to America. Travelling to San Francisco he became a correspondent for a local newspaper. When his boss mentioned mining Griffith told him he had mining experience and, as one of the first mining correspondents, his salary was $1000 a day! He invested in various companies using information gained in his job and moved to Los Angeles, where he lived for the rest of his life. Griffith sold his interests, realising another fortune, and decided to invest in a booming Los Angeles. He bought a huge ranch outside the city; the land rights were sold for another fortune, the ranch thriving with new farming methods. The main road constructed between the ranch and the city is now known as Sunset Boulevard.

Cerflun Griffith J Griffith ym Mharc Griffith, delwydd Minnaert
Griffith J Griffith's monument in Griffith ParK
Photographer Minnaert

Griffith married Christina Mesmer and they had a son. Griffith bought a large tract of land, which he designated as a park and gifted it to all in the city, along with Griffith Hills (now known as the Hollywood Hills). When he donated the land - over 3000 acres (12.20 km2) - on 16 December, 1896 he told the Los Angeles City Council, "It must be made a place of rest and relaxation for the masses, a resort for the rank and file, for the plain people. I consider it my obligation to make Los Angeles a happy, cleaner, and finer city. I wish to pay my debt of duty in this way to the community in which I have prospered." They called it Griffith Park in his honour.

Arsyllfa Griffith; delwedd Matthew FieldGriffith Observatory, Photographer Matthew Field

Griffith, however, had a dark side. He would drink a quart of whisky daily, which brought on psychotic episodes, and began to mistreat his wife... eventually he shot her. He was imprisoned for two years and Christina divorced him. After Griffith's imprisonment the name of Griffith Park's highest point, Griffith Peak, was changed to Mount Hollywood.

Griffith Observatory and the downtown LA skyline; image David Iliff
Griffith Observatory and the downtown LA skyline
Photographer David Iliff

After his death in 1919 he left a bequest to the city to build, among other things, a theatre and an observatory. This is the story of a Welshman who made more than one fortune, and left his mark on Los Angeles and Hollywood.

Mike McGrane, December 2015


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