Friday, June 8, 2012

Norton Simon in Orange County—Tom Rogers' terrific "chopper" yarn—and Arlene Hoffman

Jennifer Jones
     He was a rich industrialist (Hunt-Wesson, Avis) and art collector who ran for Republican candidate for the Senate (in 1970), married actress Jennifer Jones (1973), and is most remembered today for his impressive art museum.
     I'm talking about Norton Simon, Republican.
     He was born in 1907, in Oregon. He died in 1993.
     Susan Stamberg of NPR did a great little piece about Simon and his museum a year or so ago: The Best Museum You Haven't Visited.
     The piece was occasioned by the publication of a book by Sara Campbell, the museum’s senior curator, who has some interesting stories and comments about Simon:
     The successful industrialist approached his art museum with a businesslike efficiency. When he came to visit, he would inspect his collection, but never linger, Campbell recalls: "He would make a circuit of every single work of art and walk as fast as he could."
     Simon hired Campbell 41 years ago [1970] as a typist. She remembers him as a wonderful boss who solicited opinions about art from everyone.
Norton Simon
     "He asked everybody what they thought about the collection," Campbell says. "He would ask me, he would ask the most prestigious museum director, and he would ask his cook."
     But after gathering the information so democratically, Simon would do whatever he wanted, Campbell says.
     SIMON COMES TO OC. Simon quit college (UCB) in 1925 to start a sheet-metal business. In 1927 he paid $7000 for an orange juice bottling plant in Fullerton, named Val Vita Food Products Co. The company soon expanded into vegetable juices and then canning. By 1943, Simon was in charge of Hunt Foods after its merger with Val Vita.
     Evidently, Simon was a pioneer of aggressive marketing, placing ketchup ads in upscale magazines. By 1945, Hunt Foods was a household name and the company slogan, “Hunt for the best,” was familiar to everyone. I recall the slogan from my youth.
     So Simon was an Orange County guy, in some sense.
     I found this picture of workers at Val Vita in Fullerton (see at right)—probably in the 30s. Very cool. (I briefly worked at the Hunt-Wesson factory during one summer, circa 1974. As I recall, the whole placeeven the interiorseemed covered in oil.)

At Val Vita, Fullerton
     TOM ROGERS' YARN. Do you recall Tom Rogers? I’ve written about him recently—in connection with Tom Fuentes and his mentor, the decidedly hinky Mr. Ronald Caspers, the OC Supe who died in 1974.
     Rogers, who died about six years ago, was an OC landowner and rancher who became involved in OC Republican politics starting in the early 60s. He served as OC GOP chair starting about 1968just before things went all to hell. By the 80s, he became alienated from the GOP establishment and was a leader in OC’s “slow growth” movement, which, sadly, failed miserably in staunching the tide of ruinous development, which continues.
     Despite his having supported right-winger John Schmitz, all things considered, Rogers seems to have been an admirable guy. (See Straight-shooting conservative Tom Rogers on Caspers, Harber, and what they portended.)
     Well, I’ve been rereading Rogers' important book (Agents’ Orange—I seem to have the only copy that's left) and I came across the following terrific story about the Norton Simon campaign of 1970:
Actor George Murphy
     In 1970, [conservative Senator George] Murphy was up for reelection, and a surprise opponent appeared, vowing to contest the Republican Primary [—namely, industrialist Norton Simon of Fullerton]….
     It was clear to most observers that Simon was in the race as a stalking horse [i.e., not a serious candidate] to discredit Murphy. He had scads of money, and would be formidable in weakening Murphy in the primary campaign.
     Given the scenario, I [as OC GOP chair] was at the Registrar of Voters office in Santa Ana on the last day for filing papers, a practice that I had followed for several years. My purpose was to scout the opposition, and to dissuade any “ringer” from jumping in on the GOP side of the ticket. To solve any problem which might arise, I had three of my most trusted interns assist me at the Registrar that particular day.
     At about 3:30 P.M. a stranger came in looking somewhat harried. It was obvious that he did not know the procedures, so I approached him and asked if he needed help. Grateful, he told me he was from the Norton Simon campaign, and when they tried to file their papers with the LA Registrar, they were told that because Simon had listed an OC address as his place of residence (Hunt Foods in Fullerton), the papers would have to be filed in OC. They were also told that the papers would require the signatures of 30 local residents.
     I took the man in the gray suit over to the counter, and helped him obtain the forms. When I asked him how he was going to get signatures at such a late hour, he told me that they had a roomful of local Republican employees ready to sign, and he was on his way to gather the signatures and would return to Santa Ana before 5:00 P.M.
     It was after 4:00 by the time he had everything, and when he left the building I called one of the interns over, filled him in on the situation and directed him to follow the man’s car to the Grand Avenue on-ramp, and to rear-end him on the ramp. My orders were to insist that the Highway Patrol be called, and this [delay] would effectively end Simon’s bid since any delay would cause the papers to be filed too late. It would have been close even without the fender bender.
     The young staffer, always loyal and unquestioning, jumped into his wreck of a car, and took off in hot pursuit.
     I could not believe my great good fortune. I had pulled off the coup of the decade, and even called Murphy headquarters to let them in on how brilliant I actually was. In what seemed a rather short time, the intern came back, out of breath and red in the face. I was concerned that he had gone too far and had actually caused a real wreck.
     “What happened?” I asked.
     “I jumped into my car, and the man got into his, but he drove across the street to the orange grove. He got out and ran, and I followed him on foot.” His story stopped while he caught his breath.
     “Then what?”
     He responded, “The man ran to a clearing past the grove, and jumped into a helicopter which was waiting for him—he jumped in and they took off and I tried, but I couldn’t stop the chopper.”
     Simon’s man got back in time with the papers, and the business tycoon spent millions in a campaign, which did nothing except discredit George Murphy.
     Murphy lost to John Tunney….
(pp. B-18-B-20)
     Now that’s a great yarn. I believe every word of it.
     (You’ll recall that the Robert Redford movie, The Candidate (1972), was loosely based on the Tunney campaign.)

Val Vita Foods, Fullerton
P.S.: Arlene Hoffman—& Simon—& Harber—& Cella
     At the time of the "chopper" incident, Simon's secretary was one Arlene Hoffman.
     Remember her? From 1972 until 1974, she was the office manager or secretary for Fred Harber and Associates. Harber was the “genius” political consultant who, starting in the late 60s or early 70s, assisted the infamous Dr. Louis Cella (partner of Richard O'Neill), who essentially controlled Orange County politics (or at least the Board of Supervisors) during the mid to late 70s. 
     It was the worst scandal in OC's history.
     Among the OC Supervisors Cella owned was Ron Caspers, for whom Tom Fuentes was chief assistant (Fuentes had also been made a "consultant" to Caspers S&L).
     Both Caspers and Harber mysteriously disappeared off the coast of Baja California in June of 1974—in the famous “Shooting Star” incident.
     After that tragedy, Ms. Hoffman worked at Cella's hospital and was eventually (1976) compelled to testify before a grand jury about Cella's political and business activities. 
     Some (in the DA's office) believe that she lied on the stand to protect him.
     Then, from 1978 through 1991, she ran her husband’s office (he was a probate referee).
     Late in 1994, not long after her husband's death, at the recommendation of Lyle Overby [who, incidentally, disembarked the Shooting Star just before it left for its doomed voyage], she was employed by newly-elected OC Supervisor Jim Silva, a Republican. When, one day late in December, she didn’t show up for work, Silva had the police go to her Laguna Niguel home. They found her dead body near the entry. She had been killed with an arrow, possibly from a cross-bow, the night before. The arrow was not found on the scene. Nothing was.
     Evidently, nothing had been taken from her home; it had not been ransacked. Her dog was still with her when the police arrived.
     The murderer has never been identified.
Unsolved 1994 murder in Laguna Niguel
OC Register
May 10, 2006
Police, fire, courts LAGUNA NIGUEL

     Orange County sheriff's investigators continue to ask for the public's help in finding the person who killed Arlene Hoffman nearly eight years ago [sic?—eleven and a half years ago].
     Hoffman, 57, was found dead in her Laguna Niguel home Dec. 30, 1994. She may have been killed with an arrow or a similar instrument.
     Anyone with information about the case is asked to call (714) 647-7055.

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