The piece that follows is about C.C. Julian, the U.S. oil gazillionaire of the 1920s who died penniless in Shanghai in 1934. Julian was the
Bernie Madoff scammer of his time, living high, bilking tens of thousands of stockholders via Ponzi scheme for hundreds of millions of dollars before his jig was up.
Add to these: his escape from the law in dowdy disguise under a fake name, his pitiful failures to defraud the Chinese, something about a
mistress or two, and something about poison, and you can imagine how the news media sensationalized the story of C.C. Julian to captivate the public’s attention.
This is not that. This is a dramatized or narrative telling of the factual story. The narrator has a strikingly unprovocative voice; from
line to line we change our minds about whether he is “for or against” his main character. This elusive quality of the narrator compels as much interest as the story
he is telling.
The author is my father, Harold Renaud, who first appeared in Scene4,
when he died, having decades prior shared with me his DNA for living an examined life in the arts.
My father had a lifelong affinity for the work of F. Scott Fitzgerald (d. 1940). Here, he has melded a journalistic tale with a writing
perspective influenced by Fitzgerald. Even in their choice of subject, there are a lot of similarities between the fictional title character of Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby (1925), and Renaud’s version of the actual C.C. Julian. Gatsby and Julian both came from poor, uneducated backgrounds; both became financial moguls by their wits alone; both spent time under false names; both lived public lives of enormous extravagance, with people around them using them while wondering jealously how they were making all that money. Both came to a lousy end.
The phenomenon of such proverbial “self-made men” was certainly at the forefront of the public imagination at the time. But
beyond that, some of the specifics of Julian’s early trajectory might have struck my father as coincidental with his own: early years in the south followed by a move to
Los Angeles, his father’s work for both Douglas Aircraft and the California Stock Exchange, and so on.
So we find “Spring Street Barnum” at the coordinates of Fitzgerald, Gatsby, Julian, Renaud’s life and his father’s.
Another coordinate for a full picture of this story’s context is Hollywood of the 1930s. Yes, this is a story reported by a journalist, and a tale told by a storyteller.
It also has qualities of a film treatment. It opens with a scene that’s virtually a shooting script, goes on to outline each scene of a script for development, and
provides a narrator’s voice-over for cohesion. And then the title tips us off to the “atmosphere”: it’s all a big circus.
Photo from the Renaud estate
Spring Street Barnum
Many people turned to look, but a great many
more to stare.
“This is your table, Mr. Julian.”
“A menu, Mr. Julian?”
“A cocktail, Mr. Julian?”
By now all the diners had seen the great Mr. Julian, but between mouthfuls of chicken breast at five dollars the plate, they continued their minute but always slightly awed inspection.
This was in 1930; everyone knew C.C. Julian.
The orchestra leader, a Mr. Guy Lombardo, laid aside his
baton and stepped down deferentially from his dais.
“Good evening, Mr. Julian. How are you this evening, Mr.
Julian. ‘Sugar Stuff’? Why, it will be a pleasure.”
At such a moment Julian’s hand invariably rested in his wallet.
“Look, Mother, see? There now, didn’t I tell you? He does
give away hundred dollar bills.”
And truly enough, Mr. Lombardo had been the smiling
recipient of two or sometimes three one-hundred dollar bills. The orchestra halts suddenly at their leader’s signal. The
spotlight flashes for an instant. The diners applaud. Mr. Lombardo announces loudly that his “boys” will play “Sugar
Stuff” for Mr. C.C. Julian. The spotlight flashes again. Mr. C.C. Julian smiles tolerantly.
Had not all these things happened while he dined, the
amazing Mr. Julian would not have considered the evening truly one of his spectacles. Many people must turn to look and a great
many more to stare; had it not been so, he merely would have gone to a club where the prices were even higher. In so doing he
would have considered himself completely vindicated, and somehow he would have been. Mr. Julian had a facility for doing
the spectacular thing, the crude thing, the noisy thing—yes, all these but always, remember, the right thing.
Today on Spring Street many promoters, two years after
his death, still try to emulate his success, no one his background. Our Los Angeles financiers seemingly do not consider lower
middle class Canadian parentage to be particularly conducive to financial success and longevity. His mother may or may not have
been a prostitute, a fact which he is said to have bemoaned or considered noteworthy, only while intoxicated.
Altho he failed to complete our present equivalent to
junior high school, Julian did not, with the monotonous regularity of most “self-made” men who boast no formal
education, appear to be more than ordinarily informed on topics intellectual.
After several years in Canada as a singularly successful
insurance salesman, he evidently went to Chicago where his fortunes found no improvement and he operated, among other things, an elevator.
He turned once again to insurance, which he later left
permanently to organize an oil venture in Oklahoma. This probably completes his known history to the year 1925, known
only from his random conversations about himself (to which, incidentally, he was not at all averse). Subsequent to this, one
has no trouble at all in tracing his career. Each new venture, and his ventures constitute his career, may be found recorded in the archives of all the combined southern states.
After his salutary success in Oklahoma, he came to
California where he promoted over a space of four years such business structures as The Golden Eagle Aircraft Corporation
(later to become Douglas Aircraft), The Neon Light Corporation of America, The Monte Cristo Mines and its receiver, The
Nevada Holding Company, California Stock Exchange and radio station KMTR. In the meantime, he had built C.C. Julian Oil and
Royalties to such a position that money was pouring in by mail and private agent, from this source alone, at the rate of $30,000 per day.
All these things did Julian do, Julian the spectacular, the
magnificent, the man who toyed cleverly and easily with his problems until the sought for “angle” was found. This man was
illiterate, yet his business advertisements are still used in the University of Southern California’s School of Commerce where
they are held to be models of attractiveness and enticing ambiguity.
There is no part of the man’s character that is particularly
puzzling or paradoxical, that is, unless one considers a “barker” with a facility for organization paradoxical. Many people have
wondered about the $30,000 per day. From whom did it come? During the day Julian was the public’s financier, at night he
became their bon vivant. Investors considered him to be their protector and prophet, and while he was strong enough to fight,
he never failed them. As an example of their almost child-like faith in him one recalls when Lewis, that quietly operating man
of destiny, had finally thrown Julian into receivership and induced the Corporation Commissioner to indict Julian on
twenty-two counts of grand theft and three charges of infraction of United States postal rules, Julian was able to mail letters to
40,000 factory workers, waiters, barbers and butchers from whom he had taken $200,000,000 already, and collect from
these people $58,000 merely on his personal note, and send the information that he was in trouble with authorities who were
attempting to incarcerate him for crimes of which he was not guilty.
After legal encounters, writs, and proceedings had
continued for two and one-half years, he moved quickly to Oklahoma. Extradition proceedings drove him to Canada for a few short days before he was finally forced to China.
There, after a few poverty-stricken months during which
he tried to recoup, he died, having finally fallen victim to the fury of a temporary mistress.
C.C. Julian had lived forty-two years; during that short
span he had been many things, but never mediocre.
In 1934, news of his alleged suicide filled the headlines,
and as newsboys flourished their “extrys,” many people stopped to look but a great many more to stare. Had they not, I feel that
somehow the ghost of C.C. Julian would have arranged a more expensive funeral.
C.C. Julian on the lam in Shanghai
not long before his end, 1934
Photo above the title:
C.C. Julian, huckster