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Podcasts California City
A Man with a Dream
California City
Episode 3
38:41
A Man with a Dream
The vision that Ben Perez was sold in 2017 began in 1958, with one man's dream to build a utopian desert city from scratch.
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The vision that Ben Perez was sold in 2017 began in 1958, with one man's dream to build a utopian desert city from scratch.

CALIFORNIA CITY
Episode 3 Transcript: A Man with a Dream
Note: California City is a podcast for a reason. You can read the transcript below, but the story is meant to be listened to. The host and a team of producers worked hard to make the podcast sound its best, and this transcript can’t capture all the voices, emotion, intonation and atmosphere in the original audio. If you’d like to quote this podcast, please check the corresponding audio first.

MUSIC

EMILY GUERIN: Previously, on California City:

BEN PEREZ: That’s actually my 5 years savings. I work 5 years just to save that $30K.

EMILY GUERIN: That’s your five year savings?!

BEN PEREZ: Yeah.

SAKO SIGNE: Somehow they got our name, probably from the Fillipino grocery store.

MARIAN DUCREUX: I don’t know, maybe I have the charisma? laughs

EMILY GUERIN: So when you first saw the Yelp reviews, like how did you feel?

BEN PEREZ: I said, oh my god, this is a scam.

EMILY GUERIN: I told Ben Perez I would try to figure out what happened to him. How he spent so much of his money on a slice of empty desert land that he somehow believed would make him rich one day.

But in order to do that, I had to understand where this belief came from. Who started it? And what was this town anyway?

The man who started California City was named Nat Mendelsohn.

Nat Mendelsohn was a real estate developer who 60 years ago, decided to build a city from scratch in the Mojave Desert. But what were his intentions? Was he really trying to build a city, or was he just trying to make as much money as possible?

Intention matters.

Intention, this professional poker player once told me, is really the only difference between a dreamer and a con artist. And when someone is dead, like Nat Mendelsohn is, it can be really hard to figure out what his intention really was.

I realized I had to talk to the people who knew him well.

But that made things even more complicated, because talking to them made me realize that there are so many versions of Nat Mendelsohn.

By all accounts, Nat was whatever you needed him to be.

There was Nat, the prophet.

KATHRYN EFFORD: Nat believed with all his heart that God gave him the vision for the city.

EMILY GUERIN: There was Nat, the dad.

ALEX MENDELSOHN: I remember calling him up and asking him if I could ask him if I could call him Daddy.

EMILY GUERING: There was Nat, the founding father.

PAT GORDEN: He was a dreamer. But he made dreamers of us all in the beginning. He lit our torch.

EMILY GUERIN: And there was Nat, the scoundrel.

DALLON COX: If you profit at the expense of people who are being duped then you're evil. Literally, there's an evilness to that.

EMILY GUERIN: Who was this guy, really? And did his vision for California City begin as a dream, or was it always a deception?

I’m Emily Guerin, and welcome to California City, episode two.

BREAK

Let’s start with the weirdest version of Nat. Nat, the prophet.

EMILY GUERIN: Ok. Are we recording?

DAVID RODRIGUEZ: Yes.

JAMES KIM: No, we’re not recording.

EMILY GUERIN: Yeah we are, yeah we were, yeah we were. Yeah we are.

JAMES KIM: Ok.

EMILY GUERIN: Ok

SOUND OF CAR PASSING

EMILY GUERIN: The woman who told me Nat Mendelsohn got his vision from God is named Kathryn Efford.

She was one of his earliest disciples.

EMILY GUERIN: “I feel like a princess.”

EMILY GUERIN: In June 2018, I went out to California City to meet her with producers James Kim and David Rodriguez. We met her at her real estate office on California City Boulevard. It’s a small house that’s painted the color of grass, and it's totally surrounded by dirt. In the driveway, Kathryn’s silver minivan was parked in the shade of a spindly tree. It had a bumper sticker that read, Trump 2016.

SOUND OF KNOCKING

EMILY GUERIN: Hello?

KATHRYN EFFORD: Hello.

EMILY GUERIN: Kathryn?

KATHRYN EFFORD: Yeah, yeah, that’s me.

EMILY GUERIN: Her office was covered with books and there were children’s games everywhere. And in the middle, there was a big table, with a map sprawled out on it.

KATHRYN EFFORD: That happens to be a map of California City back in 1980.

EMILY GUERIN: Ok.

KATHRYN EFFORD: Ummm. She is now a little over 200,000 square miles. 200,000 acres.

EMILY GUERIN: She? You call her she?

KATHRYN EFFORD: Yeah. Well all cities are female, come on. All, you know.

EMILY GUERIN: laughs. Ok.

EMILY GUERIN: She was 79 when I first met her. And she was regal, sitting in her high-backed office chair like it was a throne. She sat so straight it made me conscious of my slouch. And I don’t even have a slouch. Her pink shirt matched her pink toenails, and her white capris seemed untouched by Mojave desert dust. She had this black chihuahua named Minnie that slept on her lap, and it did not get up once. The whole scene reminded me of oil paintings of 18th century French queens and their papillons.

EMILY GUERIN: Just to back up for a second.

KATHRYN EFFORD: Sure.

EMILY GUERIN: So you knew Nat Mendelsohn?

KATHRYN EFFORD: Yes, very well.

EMILY GUERIN: How did you meet him?

KATHRYN EFFORD: Um. laughs.

MUSIC

KATHRYN EFFORD: The first time I met him was 1958. We had a mutual friend. And like I said, I thought the guy was crazy.

EMILY GUERIN: You thought Nat was crazy?

KATHRYN EFFORD: Yeah! When he said, you know, someday we're going to have a city here. This is 1958. No four-lane highways, no anything. And I said why here?

EMILY GUERIN: The way Kathryn tells it, in 1958, she was pregnant with her second daughter, and she was married to her first of five husbands. She was taking classes at Northwestern University.

KATHRYN EFFORD: And I had a friend who was an investor stock guy, type person, okay. And he called me up one day and said, how would you like to go to California for a day or two? I said a day or two, California? I said, Yeah, why not?

EMILY GUERIN: Kathryn told me her friend’s name was Al. And that Al been approached by this real estate developer named Nat Mendelsohn, and that Nat was looking for people to help him build California City.

KATHRYN EFFORD: And we came out here, we flew out on the early, early flight. He was telling me about this development and this man who had this vision of building a city and why.

EMILY GUERIN: So Kathryn and Al drove out to California City, same way I drove in. Same way Ben Perez did. But back in 1958, I don’t know, it was different. The Mojave Desert felt even more remote and desolate than it does today.

The Marines had just quit using the area as a bombing range, but the rocky buttes they’d been using as targets were still pockmarked and shattered. Otherwise, there wasn’t much there. Just cotton and alfalfa farms. No trees, except these wispy salt cedars the farmers had planted as windbreaks. There weren’t many people, either, except the Basque shepherds who herded their sheep to and from the high country in the Sierra Nevada. Nights were cold, days were hot, and the wind blew nearly all the time.

Kathryn and Al stopped at an intersection, and they turned right on a road that Nat Mendelsohn would later call California City Boulevard.

When they saw Nat, they got out of the car.

KATHRYN EFFORD: Well, I'll tell you who he sounded like, was Donald Trump.

EMILY GUERIN: What do you mean?

KATHRYN EFFORD: The New York, the New York accent, kind of a deep voice. Not high. Not high shrilled….

EMILY GUERIN: Does he remind you of the president in any way? Nat?

KATHRYN EFFORD: Yes.

EMILY GUERIN: Really?

KATHRYN EFFORD: Trump reminded me of Nat the first time I saw Donald Trump.

EMILY GUERIN: Really. What, what about him?

KATHRYN EFFORD: Well first of all, the way he carries himself. There’s no heads down with him. Okay. He’s not looking at a floor, any time, anywhere… Very much aware of people around him and their plight. Never cheated anybody out of a dollar that I am aware of, and I gotta tell you, I saw a lot of money come through here.

EMILY GUERIN: By the time Kathryn met Nat, he’d formed the California City Development Company and he started quietly buying up a ton of land up here. There was no city. No town to speak of. Nat knew it was desolate, but so was Las Vegas before it boomed. It was the location that mattered.

KATHRYN EFFORD: But Kathryn you realize with your education, location location location. I said right. He said, California City is the perfectly located city to build a new city in. Zone it, design it to be less congested, more available, and more welcoming to the population as a whole. Okay?

EMILY GUERIN: But when you went, was there anything there at the time?

KATHRYN EFFORD: No! No! It was just dirt.

SOUND OF ROAD, CARS, MUSIC

EMILY GUERIN: But Nat didn’t see it that way. Nat saw the city he would build. He saw a huge, new, meticulously planned city.

California City would be 200 square miles. Bigger than Vegas. Bigger than Denver. More than twice the size of Baltimore.

SOUND OF CITY LIFE

In Nat’s city, Kathryn’s children could walk to school safely, because he designed the roads to slow down traffic. She could push them in a stroller down the winding green belt that Nat would build. Her husband could play golf on the 18-hole golf course, or take a class at the University of California campus Nat claimed was coming. She could shop at the Aspen Mall or picnic by the man-made waterfall, in a park that would rival Central Park.

Nat was a masterful salesman. I’m pretty sure he could sell shit to a diaper.

KATHRYN EFFORD: And at that point when you talk about indoctrinating somebody, Nat had the talent for doing that like nobody else I've ever known in my life...

EMILY GUERIN: Indoctrinating. That word jumped out at me as soon as Kathryn said it. Because typically, real estate developers sell, they don’t indoctrinate. But Kathryn talked about Nat like he was a prophet.

KATHRYN EFFORD: I always believed that God gave Nat the vision that he gave him. Because not only did he give him the vision, but he gave him the investors and the reality of life to invest the money to make it happen.

EMILY GUERIN: So God gave Nat the vision and the resources…

KATHRYN EFFORD: And the resources.

EMILY GUERIN: … to execute it.

KATHRYN EFFORD: Absolutely. And I picked that off in 1958.

EMILY GUERIN: You felt like back then you could tell God gave Nat the vision?

KATHRYN EFFORD: Oh yeah. Oh yeah. Oh yeah. Absolutely came from God. And I still believe that.

EMILY GUERIN: So the people who didn't believe Nat or thought he was running a scam, I mean they're disagreeing with a man who has God's vision.

KATHRYN EFFORD: That's right. That's right.

MUSIC

EMILY GUERIN: On the edge of the Wasatch Mountains in Utah, there’s this state park called This is The Place. And it’s where, in 1847, the Mormon leader Brigham Young first saw the empty desert basin that would become Salt Lake City.

“This is the right place,” he proclaimed from the back of his wagon. It was where the Mormons would finally settle, where they would finally be free of persecution. It was where they would make the desert bloom like a rose.

When I think about Kathryn and Nat, standing there on the side of that empty road in the Mojave Desert more than a century later, I see Nat make a similar proclamation.

I see him take off his Homburg hat and mop the sweat from his forehead with a pocket square.

I see him sweep his arm across the landscape and say, “This is the place.”

And I see Kathryn, with her red hair tied up in a bun, wearing a long jacket to hide her baby bump.

I see her looking up at Nat, in awe of this man with a dream.

EMILY GUERIN: Why did you believe it?

KATHRYN EFFORD: There’s some real simple truths. One, God keeps making babies and doesn't make any more land. That's it. As crowded is Los Angeles is, you still have people coming. In by the millions. Where are those people gonna go?

EMILY GUERIN: They were gonna go to California City.

Because, when Kathryn was growing up, after World War Two, cities were done. Urban planners were turning their backs on Los Angeles, New York and Chicago. They were polluted, they were crime-ridden, over-crowded, and they could be nuked by our enemies any day. But in the deserts of the West, there was still tons of open land. Why not just buy it up cheap and start over?

Sometimes I think the reason Kathryn fell so hard for Nat and his pitch was timing. She was just old enough not to be timid, but too young to know any better.

EMILY GUERIN: Did he know you were 17?

KATHRN EFFORD: No. Oh heavens no. My drivers license, first of all, said I was 20-something.

EMILY GUERIN: Kathryn had been lying about her age for years. Her mother drank too much, her father worked all the time, and she was already starting to feel distant from her husband. In retrospect, all this instability, it kind of makes me think Kathryn was the perfect mark for a con.

MUSIC

So, when I was her age, I was also enchanted by a man who I thought was a prophet.

There were two men actually. Two, beautiful brothers who I met in a foggy trailer park in New Zealand, where I was traveling alone.

So, you have to know, I was a prep school kid. I was logical, I was rational, I did not just believe things, I didn’t have blind faith.

But over fire light, they told me about their past lives. They told me about the Mayan calendar. They told me they believed the world was ending in 2012. And they wanted me to believe those things too.

So I was naturally skeptical, but they had answers to all of my questions. They gave me a timeline of when I would fall in love and how deeply. They knew a ton about me, even though we’d just met.

And I was… totally captivated by their confidence. I had never met anyone like them. And so for a few weeks, I just hung around, and I lapped up their every word.

I think Kathryn must have felt the same way towards Nat.

But unlike Kathryn, I got a bad feeling from them eventually. They were trying to get me to stay. They wanted me to become a priestess. One of many priestesses who worshipped them. And, yes, slept with them. So one overcast afternoon, I snuck off, and I never went back.

But Kathryn stuck by her prophet. She was willing to say, or do anything, to defend Nat and his vision.

KATHRYN EFFORD: I wore a size 12. I was very pretty. Nat loved it, because, he said it's so great Kathryn, to have you, I said well. He said I need to do a real PR shoot at the airport. He says, why don’t you go put on a bikini and a cute dress so we can take PR shots at the airport. And I'd do it.

EMILY GUERIN: Wait, did you do it?

KATHRYN EFFORD: Oh yeah.

EMILY GUERIN: You did bikini shots for Nat Mendelsohn?

KATHRYN EFFORD: Oh yeah! Oh yeah! We put them in the magazine. “This is California City!”

EMILY GUERIN: Wait wait wait. So you were part of the marketing.

KATHRYN EFFORD: Yes.

EMILY GUERIN: Interesting.

KATHRYN EFFORD: I did it all. Are you serious?

EMILY GUERIN: So it didn’t surprise me when she answered this way.

EMILY GUERIN: Do you think that Nat also genuinely wanted to build a city or do you…

KATHRYN EFFORD:: Absolutely!

EMILY GUERIN: … that the city was a way for him to make money.

KATHRYN EFFORD: No. Absolutely. Anybody who says the only reason he developed the cities was strictly to make money, didn't know the man. Okay? When … It's like a woman who decides one day with her husband that she wants to have a child. And she has a vision for that child. And then she gets pregnant. Most women would die for that child. That's the kind of vision that Nat had. And he worked at it not once a week, not once a month, but every day of his life. And he instilled that vision in other people. That's why we have the city we have today.

EMILY GUERIN: Kathryn said this without a hint of irony in her voice, as if the city we have today is some gleaming metropolist. And it just isn’t.

But I talked to someone who knew a different side of Nat Mendelsohn. Meet Nat Mendelsohn, the Dad. That’s after a break.

BREAK

ALEX MENDELSOHN: My name is Alex Mendelsohn, and I am the adopted daughter of Nathan Mendelsohn.

EMILY GUERIN: I mean, is that how you would actually describe…?

ALEX MENDELSOHN: I don't know.

EMILY GUERIN: ...your actually relationship to him? I mean, I just...

ALEX MENDELSON: No...but I guess for this. I thought maybe I should. No, I would, I would say, you know, Nathan Mendelsohn was my father.

EMILY GUERIN: Everyone seems to have a story of being charmed by Nat Mendelsohn. This is Alex’s.

ALEX MENDELSOHN: He married my mother when I was about five. And actually, the story goes that I was the one that asked him to marry her, or us, because he charmed me.

EMILY GUERIN: Alex’s mom, Sylvia, met Nat just as he was beginning to sell land in California City: it was 1958 or maybe 1959.

Sylvia was in her late 20s and she was Jackie-O pretty. She was raising Alex alone in a one-bedroom apartment in Santa Monica. She met Nat at a party, and even though he was 13 years older than her, she was very enamored of him. So was Alex.

ALEX MENDELSOHN: He was always reciting little limericks and poems and made some very fun playful faces. You know, he was maybe a little bit like a grand, a playful grandfather. He had a great laugh. Hah! Hah! Hah! Like a Santa kind of laugh but lower.

EMILY GUERIN: That’s great.

EMILY GUERIN: It only took three months for Alex to fall in love with the idea of Nat as her father. So, she asked him to marry her mother. And he said yes.

ALEX MENDELSOHN: And I actually got a little pinky ring also.

EMILY GUERIN: Really?

ALEX MENDELSOHN: Yeah, yeah.

EMILY GUERIN: So Alex and Sylvia moved in with Nat into his house in the Hollywood Hills. It was a big house, it was a Spanish style estate, and it was perched on the edge of a very steep and winding street. It had high ceilings, french doors, and a massive window in the living room. There was a piano, and while Sylvia played, Nat would dance with Alex around the living room. They played chess. They went on family trips to colonial cities in Mexico, where Nat couldn’t stop talking about how the streets were laid out.

EMILY GUERIN: Did you feel like you were father and daughter?

ALEX MENDELSOHN: Yeah. Yeah. And in fact, when I was about 13, I remember calling him up asking him if I could, ugh, asking him if I could call him Daddy. Would he mind? Like I had called him Nathan before that.

EMILY GUERIN: Really?

ALEX MENDELSOHN: Yeah, I'd never called him Daddy. And he, he got really choked up on the phone. I was kind of choked up too. And he said yes, I would love that.

EMILY GUERIN: Alex slowly absorbed bits and pieces of Nat’s life story.

ALEX MENDELSHON: I know that he came to this country as a child. They were very poor.

EMILY GUERIN: Nat moved to New York City from Czechoslovakia in the 1920s. He grew up in a tenement, but he landed a scholarship to Columbia, where he took classes in rural sociology. During the war, he moved out to California and he worked for the federal government as an economist. His agency kept prices from sky-rocketing and they rationed tires, sugar and shoes.

ALEX MENDELSOHN: Well, I just remember as a kid thinking it seemed like he had done absolutely every kind of job that was available.

EMILY GUERIN: Nat told her stories about his time as a professional dancer. Stories about how he got into real estate. There was money to be made selling suburban tract homes in Southern California to returning soldiers. Or, in Nat’s case, selling them vacant land with the promise that this desert would become a city one day.

ALEX MENDELSOHN: He’d say, "Honey, this is just gonna be so wonderful. You know, this is going to be a terrific community for people and it's going to bring people together and the streets are going to be rounded and there are going to be parks so that you know, people have a sense of community and they come together and it's going to be wonderful."

EMILY GUERIN: Nat was always talking about the beautiful new future and he liked to throw parties with Hollywood blacklisted types and self described “thinkers.”

ALEX MENDELSOHN: He gave himself a middle name of Karl with a “K” after Karl Marx who he admired tremendously and was constantly reading.

EMILY GUERIN: Okay, so this really surprised me. Because convincing thousands of people to buy land in a speculative desert city seems like the kind of thing Marx would hate.

But, then again, a lot of things about Nat Mendelsohn surprised me.

Like the fact that he never lived in California City.

ALEX MENDELSOHN: It's funny now that you mentioned that, no. I mean, and I never, you know you would think maybe he'd say, “we're going to build a house here,” and no. Uh uh.

EMILY GUERIN: Things about Nat surprised Alex, too.

She told me about this one time in the early 60s, when she was a teenager, she saw Nat coming out of a restaurant with a young woman on his arm — a woman who was not her mother.

ALEX MENDELSOHN: And I was totally shocked. And he was totally shocked to see me on my bicycle on Hollywood Boulevard.

EMILY GUERIN: Alex never said anything to her mom. But Sylvia figured it out eventually, and soon enough, they were living alone in the Hollywood Hills, and Nat was the one in the small apartment in Santa Monica.

He started drinking more, drinking enough to scare Alex.

ALEX MENDELSOHN: Sometimes I'd go to visit him on a Sunday morning, spend the day with him. And he'd have a bloody mary that had a lot of booze in it. And he'd have a few of those. You know, I became concerned about his drinking. In fact, I used to try to indirectly, you know, get him away from drinking something and say let's go for a walk or you know, um, interrupt him as he was pouring a drink to try and stop him because I guess I didn't really like it when he drank.

EMILY GUERIN: Did it work?

ALEX MENDELSOHN: Occasionally, but not often.

EMILY GUERIN: When Nat got engaged to one of his new girlfriends, Helen, he told Alex to go buy a dress for the wedding. When she asked how she would pay for it, he told her to just walk into any dress shop in the city…

MUSIC

ALEX MENDELSOHN: “...and just tell them you're my daughter." But I knew Los Angeles is a big city, not everybody knows who he is. You know, I just thought he's lost connection with reality.

EMILY GUERIN: Hm.

ALEX MENDELSOHN: It just, it was an example to me of how his ego was just really getting weirdly bloated.

EMILY GUERIN: The Nat who had charmed Alex, the playful grandfather that she’d asked to marry her and her mother, that man was gone. Or maybe, Alex was starting to see Nat the way he’d been the whole time.

So that’s Alex, but for most of the people I met, Nat was a different kind of father figure. He wasn’t a prophet or a dad. He was California City’s founding father. A man who got you excited to come be a pioneer, and help him build a city from scratch. That’s the man Pat Gorden knew.

EMILY GUERIN: Okay, so why did you want to move out here?

PAT GORDEN: I love the desert. I just loved the desert. I love the beautiful skies and the open spot and I always wanted to have a house in the middle of a section of land, you know, by myself.

MUSIC

EMILY GUERIN: Pat Gorden is a small woman who reminds me of the homesteaders I met when I lived in North Dakota: polite, but no-bullshit tough. She was 83 when I first met her, and I got the sense that she considers herself kind of a living diary, the keeper of early California City memories.

In 1961, Pat and her husband TV — yeah, TV — were living in Orange County when they answered an ad looking for someone to run a grocery store in this new place called California City. Nat needed the things that make a town a town: kids running in the street, cars on the roads, a place to buy groceries. Because Nat wasn’t just building a city, he was building the idea of a city. A place you could picture yourself living.

EMILY GUERIN: A dreamer?

PAT GORDEN: He was a dreamer. But he made dreamers of us all in the beginning, he, he lit our torch.

EMILY GUERIN: How did he do it?

PAT GORDEN: Just because he was who he was. He was a very honest man, and he was educated and he had studied people movement, you know, so we had confidence in him.

EMILY GUERIN: And what did you think that the city was going to become?

PAT GORDEN: Well, we thought we were in on the beginning of a really good thing when people discovered our little secret out here about how wonderful it was to live here that they would all come.

EMILY GUERIN: In the beginning, California City was a small town, with just a handful of residents — they called themselves pioneers. And nearly all the pioneers knew Nat. He wasn’t just the founding father. He was everyone’s favorite uncle.

Nat ate mackerel with Judy Riggenbach’s parents on Sundays, and it would stink up the house. Judy’s dad was a quiet civil engineer whose job it was to survey property lines. He wasn’t buddy buddy with many guys, but he was buddy buddy with Nat.

Nat gave a college scholarship to the first boy born in California City.

The city’s first Mayor, James Riley, he worked for Nat’s company. So did Councilman Sutherland and Councilman Loeffler. And so did the wives of Councilman Schulz and Truitt.

In California City, Nat was the pope, and there was no separation of church and state.

EMILY GUERIN: So, I'm just going to ask this out right and you can respond any way you want. But do you think Nat was running a land scam?

PAT GORDEN: No.

EMILY GUERIN: How come?

PAT GORDEN: No.

EMILY GUERIN: I mean, you…

PAT GORDEN: I never felt like he was a land scammer. Ever. Neither did my husband, my brother, my sister in law, those of us that worked hard in these small businesses. We thought he was a very sincere person.

EMILY GUERIN: But other pioneers had their doubts.

DALLON COX: Nat Mendelsohn. I knew him. I didn't like him.

EMILY GUERIN: Meet Nat Mendelsohn the scoundrel. That’s after a break.

BREAK

EMILY GUERIN: Herb Lee and Dallon Cox lived in California City from its inception in the late 1950s. And one Sunday night, I talked to them for three hours at the Ford dealership in the town of Mojave, where until recently, Dallon sold trucks. We sat in a little room off the showroom and drank car dealership coffee out of styrofoam cups.

MUSIC

If I saw them on the street, I would not expect them to have been best friends since they were 12, or even get along. Herb’s long grey hair hung heavily on his shoulders. He’s a shorts and Birkenstocks kind of guy, even in the winter. And his feet look like they’ve never seen the inside of a closed-toe shoe.

Dallon, meanwhile, is a short, clipped hair and baseball cap kind guy. Black windbreaker, so he looked like he just finished a round of golf. He smelled strongly of cigarettes.

Part of why they became best friends is there weren’t a ton of other options. Growing up, California City was was so small, it took every single kid in town to play a game of flag football — boys and girls.

HERB LEE: And Dallon’s big sister Rhonda was the terror. She was the fullback.

EMILY GUERIN: They spent a lot of time wandering around the desert, carrying sticks.

HERB LEE: I swung that thing and I whacked the cactus with it.

EMILY GUERIN: Or, making bonfires in the creek beds.

HERB LEE: Gee, probably there was more beer than soda at some of those events.

laughs

EMILY GUERIN: Did it feel like a lawless place? You know what I mean?

DALLON COX: No, it wasn't lawless. It was just that there was no law.

EMILY GUERIN: They would sneak onto the golf course.

They would cruise the artificial lake in paddle boats.

They would sneak to the top of the concrete waterfall.

All of those things were amenities that Nat Mendelsohn’s company built. And they were also props to sell land. I learned this from a professor who did his dissertation on architecture in California City.

I learned that Nat built a clay airstrip, where chartered DC-3s full of potential buyers would land.

He built these billboards shaped like cactus flowers. They didn’t say anything — they were just landmarks to help salesmen navigate the faceless desert.

And before Nat built a high school, or a medical center, or a police department, he commissioned a million-dollar city hall. It was designed by a famous German architect who called it “the eighth wonder of the world.”

But people in town didn’t want a German-designed city hall. They wanted a sewer. They wanted a city that worked. And when they questioned Nat about it, he publicly called them “cynics and doubting Thomases,” with “scornful” and “negative” attitudes. As if they were just a bunch of California City killjoys. The city hall never got built, anyway.

But some of the other props did, and they were beloved. The city pool being among the most popular. It was always crowded on hot days… which was most days in California City. The pool is where Dallon Cox first overheard the adults talking about Nat Mendelsohn..

DALLON COX: And most of the comments that I heard led me to believe that he was just kind of a slime bag. Literally. That was the kind of impression that I got from it.

EMILY GUERIN: Herb’s mom Marian Lee was one of the most outspoken of the pioneers. She’d been a nuclear physicist and she also taught encryption and decoding in the military.

HERB LEE: She was not to be denied. Ever…

DALLON COX: A very brilliant woman.

EMILY GUERIN: That very brilliant woman — she didn’t trust Nat Mendelsohn. She didn’t trust him because Nat was trying to get the current residents of California City to pay for the things he wanted built.

So, in the early 1960s, California City was still Nat’s private development, which meant he paved the roads, he planted the trees, built the little city airport. But if California City incorporated, if it became official, Nat wouldn’t have to pay for these things anymore — the taxpayers would.

And Herb’s mom Marian, she didn’t like that idea. She thought Nat should finish what he started. He should make good on the things he had said were coming. And he should do it on his own dime. I mean, he was the one making the money.

EMILY GUERIN: Was she anti-incorporation?

HERB LEE: Yes.

EMILY GUERIN: And that was an unpopular opinion?

HERB LEE: Uh, it was a highly divisive opinion.

EMILY GUERIN: Marian Lee was literally the first mother of California City. People listened when she talked.

And Nat must have felt like he needed her support. Because he invited her to his home in the Hollywood Hills to try to convince her. And she brought Herb along.

HERB LEE: I was agog. I was standing looking out this wall of glass across the top of Los Angeles, and, and he's talking about building a new, wonderful city. And it was just all glorious.

EMILY GUERIN: Marian was having none of it. And back home in California City, she continued agitating. She talked to her friends at the monthly potlucks. She went to Sacramento to complain to politicians.

sigh

And then, the trouble began.

By the time Herb told this story, it was late. The bad coffee was now bad and stale. Dallon was out in the parking lot on his sixth smoke break. So Herb was alone with me and my producers.

HERB LEE: I didn't find out till several years later that my mother got phone call threats about the wellbeing of her children.

EMILY GUERIN: Who do you think was making the phone calls?

HERB LEE:. The threat appeared to come from the, um, high profit side of the negotiations.

EMILY GUERIN: What do you mean?

HERB LEE: Um. Corporate.

EMILY GUERIN: But like, from the development company?

HERB LEE: Yeah, seems like.

EMILY GUERIN: You think your mom was threatened by the California City Development Company?

HERB LEE: Or someone whose purpose was to eliminate the opposition to incorporation or whatever.

EMILY GUERIN: Because the company would stand to benefit by incorporating because they could pass the expenses off to the people. And so people who didn't want to incorporate threaten the bottom line?

HERB LEE: Yeah. The development company employed 35 or 40% of the people in town. They had a, a powerful political voice.

EMILY GUERIN: Here’s what Herb says happened next: Nat’s company bought their house. Nat’s company bought the building where his dad had his barbershop. Herb wouldn’t say it felt like they were getting run out of town, but he did say the need to leave felt very urgent.

Towards the end of the night, I asked Herb and Dallon what they think about Nat Mendelsohn now.

DALLON COX: I think Nat Mendelsohn was a con artist in a way. You have a, you have a vision and a dream, and you sell that vision and a dream to people, and make them believe in it. They'll spend their money. That's what con artists do. It doesn’t have to be anything that’s gonna come to reality, it just has to be a vision and a dream and you sell people on that vision and that dream and they’ll spend their money on it.

EMILY GUERIN: After hearing all these different versions of Nat, it seemed like he would be whatever you needed him to be — as long as it served him.

Nat was a pioneer to the people who craved the excitement of the frontier. He was a prophet to a woman who believed in miracles. He was a daddy to a little girl who needed one.

He sold all these people what they wanted to buy. A dream, a vision, a plan, a good investment, a sense that he’d take care of you. It was the same thing Marian Ducreux would do with Ben Perez 60 years later.

As for Nat’s intentions for California City, honestly, I’m still not sure. I mean, it’s clear to me that in the beginning, he had a dream, he had a plan, and he was optimistic and excited.

But it’s also clear to me, that at some point, Nat changed. He realized it was easier to sell the promise of a city than to build one. And so the dream became a scam.

Whatever his intentions, Nat Karl Marx Mendelsohn made a ton of money. He hired an army of salespeople and they made hundreds of millions of dollars.

It was an enormous operation.

How did he pull it off? The answer to that question is next time on California City.

This program is made possible in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people.