As Hollywood wraps its collective mind around the latest scandal — the sex-trafficking arrest of registered sex offender and financier Jeffrey Epstein — it’s useful to remember that this is only the newest in a sordid string that goes back to the beginnings of the entertainment biz in Los Angeles.
Indeed, if one were to try to avoid every movie and TV show made by, financed by, or featuring someone who has done unsavory things, or came to a bad end … good luck with that.
And it’s not just showbiz. Dig into the history of many municipalities in the U.S., and you’re bound to find every degree of rascal, scoundrel and scalawag. Many towns and cities in the U.S. were founded by people who had to leave somewhere else, sometimes in a great hurry and for good reason.
Indeed, one of the most interesting things about watching HBO’s Deadwood — inspired by the real mining town in South Dakota — was witnessing pimps, saloonkeepers (which was sometimes the same thing), thieves, murderers and ragtag, drunken miners slowly evolve into a semblance of town fathers … which sometimes was as much a surprise to them as anyone else.
It’s also true that many of the richest people didn’t get that way by being nice. That didn’t and doesn’t stop them, though, from doing good works (indeed, many did and do good works to try to expunge their personal peccadilloes). Every day, people enjoy museums, libraries, parks, universities, hospital wings and other institutions founded or funded by people with skeletons in their closets.
Take, for example, the story of Griffith Jenkins Griffith, born in 1850 in a small, undistinguished town in Wales. He came to America and became a journalist and later, a mining and real-estate magnate.
He bequeathed land to the city of Los Angeles which later became Griffith Park, and also left money that funded the park’s Greek Theater and the famed Griffith Observatory.
Griffith also shot his wife in the face in 1903 and spent two years in prison.
Take a look at this recent video by Chris Lloyd, who hails from Griffith’s hometown:
Today, with the 24/7 news cycle and the unblinking eye of social media, people’s lives are exposed as never before. There seems to be a mania for tearing people down, along with everything they ever touched. That leaves one to wonder how perfect the people doing the tearing down are, and whether they will one day suffer the same fate as the person they denounce. These things have a way of coming around.
And if living people or the legacies of the dead are to be destroyed because of character flaws or bad behavior, where does that leave redemption?
So, what are we to do with the public legacies of imperfect, even scandalous, people? Each situation is unique, and that’s ultimately a question for each person and community to answer. But it is helpful to remember a pithy saying by Oscar Wilde, a man who sinned much, suffered much, and left an enduring literary legacy (along with becoming a Catholic on his deathbed).
Every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future.
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