California, with all the skaters and hot-rodders and hot dogs and
grotesque people. In those days Ocean Park and Venice, which was
next to it, were sleepy little Southern California communities of
little, old-fashioned summer cottages. My mother and my father
would rent one of these, and my mother would bring me over to spend
the summer playing on the sand in the wonderful Southern California
sunshine. I learned to swim and to play on the beach and in the
breakers. That was great.
That was a great adventure, because it took perhaps thirty
days from Shanghai on a coal-burning ship to come to the West
Coast. You went to Japan and Hong Kong, and then set out on the
long voyage across to Hawaii. In Japan, you would stay for a few
days while they made provision for the next stage of the voyage.
And they loaded coal on these ships from huge barges full of coal.
The coal was lifted into the hold of the ship by women, many of
them with babies on their backs, handing these baskets along up
into the bowels of the ship. And then we would go to Hong Kong.
So I saw a lot of Japan. When there 'd be time enough, you
could go to Tokyo and have some pictures taken in front of the
great hotel in Tokyo built by Frank Lloyd Wright - the Imperial,
whatever you call it. Can't think of the name of it now.
The Imperial Palace or something?
It came down in the great earthquake in Tokyo,
I've read about it.
Yes. The Imperial, that's the name of it.
And, of course, has
So that was a very pleasant and happy existence. My parents
were much interested in me and devoted to me, so I had lots of love
You started to tell me about school too.
O'Brien: Yes. Well, we had American teachers - missionaries, no doubt.
There was a very strenuous curriculum. I had a better education
that missionary school, I guess, than any other school I ever
attended, although I went to an excellent high school when I came
back. But there was no kidding, you were there to learn things,
and it was run very cordially but very firmly, and you were
expected to achieve something. You were not putting any beads on a
string, and you were not fooling around when you were in class. So
without really being conscious of any effort, I fell into the habit
of learning things.
Hicke: Was it enjoyable?
O'Brien: Yes. I enjoyed school. I liked it.
They didn't make it very difficult?
No, there wasn't any great austerity or discipline or anything of
the sort. I didn't go home for lunch; I was fed in the school, and
then we had periods of play and recess, and then regular periods of
exercise and games. I learned to love to play soccer. So it was
really an excellent school. The amazing thing is that there are,
in this area, a tremendous number of people, the descendants of all
those missionaries, who attended that school at one time or
another. .As a matter of fact, they have an association. I didn't
graduate from the school. I wasn't there long enough to graduate
from the school.
Hicke: You mean in San Francisco there are a number of -
O'Brien: Oh, around the western United States, and in the East. There's a
marvelous book, an enchanting book, written by a fellow named
Espey, who attended that school. I can't think of the name of it,
but it's full of the most entertaining, delightful stories. His
father and mother were missionaries, and they lived on the other
side of the river, the other side of the tracks, if you like. He
grew up learning to speak, as his young sister did, Chinese of an
absolutely astonishing profanity. Listening to all of the Chinese
people around him, he came to have a superb repertoire of profane
Shanghaiese - the Chinese have a gift for colorful profanity. And
this book has really delightful stories about his life and his
little sister's life in what was pretty largely a Chinese
community. They lived in a missionary compound, but their whole
life was spent among the Chinese, because their parents, bless
their hearts, were trying to convert the heathen, which at this
distance seems like a ludicrous and perhaps even a melancholy way
to have to waste your life.
But it was a great school. I can think of a number of
people - one of them comes to mind who's a good friend of mine:
Davy Napier, who graduated from that school. He became an ordained
minister himself - a somewhat controversial chaplain at Stanford.
He was a Yale Fellow and the Master of Calhoun College at Yale; I
had a card from him just a few days ago. But the world is
sprinkled with graduates of that missionary school, which had a
marvelous, well-deserved reputation.
That's one thing they did right.
Move to Oakland
O'Brien: Then I don't know what happened. Something happened in my father's
company. Whether there was a change of signals, whether he fell
out of favor, whether they began to suffer losses, or what, I don't
know, but we packed up and came back to California.
Then I don't really know, but it was the beginning of very
considerable tensions between my mother and my father. My father
seemed to be out of work and looking for things to do, and
gradually the situation got more and more acute, and finally there
was a total rupture, and he left and went off to Cuba. My mother
and I were left in a flat, in a very wretched, poor part of
Oakland - below San Pablo Avenue - which in those days was full
of impoverished blacks, Italians, Irish, Spanish people.
I went to school at the Durant School, which was on about 30th
and West Street, just above San Pablo Avenue, and I walked back and
forth to the school from where we lived. But my father took a
position with the Wells Fargo again in Cuba, and became, I guess,
the manager of their operations in Cuba. He was headquartered in
Camaguey, which is in central Cuba, and he and my mother
corresponded. But their relationships, at least on his side, were
rapidly changing, and he finally asked her for a divorce, which she
resisted with all her might. In the end, she and I went to Cuba;
we got on a train in Oakland, California, and went to New Orleans
by train, and caught a boat to Havana, and from Havana we got on a
train and went to Camaguey. We spent a month there while they
tried to solve their problems, unsuccessfully. Eventually they
were divorced. And so my mother and I were kind of high and dry in
a tough part of Oakland, and so life took another turn. I climbed
out of my Little Lord Fauntleroy clothes and turned into a street
kid that had to fend for himself.
Hicke: What a complete turnabout.
O'Brien: Yes, it was quite a turnabout. But my mother was in terrible shape
emotionally, psychologically, and I was about her last resource.
Ve were living on a shoestring, so as soon as I was able, I had to
do some things to help.
Hicke: You were still only about ten or eleven.
O'Brien: Ten, or eleven, yes, twelve. I graduated from Durant School when I
was twelve. Yes, that's right. I graduated from high school when
I was sixteen. So she and I lived there in that place. My older
brother, Harry, lived with us part of the time. My older brother,
George, who was my father's older son, went to Cuba and joined him
and worked for the Wells Fargo Express Company there.
Hicke: You started to tell me that you were going to help your mother out.
Did you get a job?
O'Brien: Oh, I did everything that a little boy could do. I mean, I sold
newspapers, and I can remember marching through the streets - in
those days even the first crystal sets had not yet arrived -
walking through the streets at night with extras, shouting to sell
extras, and distributing programs for the local movie house, which
was on San Pablo Avenue at about 27th or 28th Street, and washing
windows, and doing, you know, all sorts of little chores that
people could afford to have done - not much - but I don't recall
being the least bit discouraged about life.
My mother was really in terrible shape. For a while we used
to go to the movies every night of our lives. It was before sound,
so there was this little movie house with a piano player there, and
I'm not sure she ever saw much of what was flashing on the screen,
but it kind of helped her over a tough time. I'd wake up in the
middle of the night and she'd be wandering around the house,
looking out the window, and all that business. So it was a very
But I reveled in school, although I had to learn to take care
of myself and, as usual, there were a couple of guys that were
bigger than I was who were kind of the school bullies, who
naturally had to take me on. And I had my share of the fights.
Fortunately I was befriended by a good-sized kid.
Hicke: Oh, that's good.
O'Brien: But there is a certain ritual about all this. I had to stand up to
them or I would have never made it, you know. So finally we had a
regular fight. We went off the school yard to the basement of some
abandoned house and fought with gloves. And my second was my
larger friend; he made sure I didn't get clobbered with some dirty
trick. I guess, you'd call it a draw, but at least I established
my willingness to fight, so I never was bothered after that. Oh,
once I wanted to play the violin, and we somehow managed to put
together enough money to buy a three-quarter size violin, which was
my size. Naturally carrying a violin around that part of town was
not the form. So I finally busted that violin over somebody's
head, you know, in one of those kind of brawls.
Hicke: They were teasing you about the violin.
Yes, sure, and pushing me around. But I got into the swing of
things. I could take care of myself, and there were kind of street
gangs in that part of town - little kid gangs, you know. They'd
go to a vacant lot and dig a big tunnel, and that would be kind of
like a fort. And you'd take some potatoes from home, go down
there, and build a fire, and bake potatoes. There 'd be another
gang two blocks away, and each had its turf. It was kind of an
innocent thing. The worst thing that ever happened was they threw
a few rocks at each other or something like that, but none of the
sort of big, serious, knife fights that you read about in the
What happened to these kids as they grew up?
Did they form more
No, I don't have any consciousness of that, because when I got to
be just high school age, I decided that I wanted to go to Oakland
Technical High School. That was at about 41st and Broadway, and it
looked like the capital of the world as far as I was concerned.
It's a lovely old building with columns; it's quite a handsome
So by golly, we up and moved to a little flat right across the
street from the school, and in many ways that was the happiest time
of my life, because I lived right next to school. I was still
small, I was twelve years old, and I hadn't begun really to grow
up, and yet I played in the school yard,
used to play basketball in the evenings.
The industrial leagues
I got good enough to be
invited to play for one of the industrial teams, and I played with
their shirt on, you know, some plumbing company or whatever it was
in the industrial league.
School was wonderful. I had a straight one average for four
years of school, and I enjoyed it all. It wasn't very hard work,
except for Latin - I got a poor start in Latin with a very nice
woman who didn't know much Latin herself.
Hicke: Oh dear.
O'Brien: But I was rescued in the second year of Latin by a very tough woman
who knew Greek and Latin, and who taught in a very old-fashioned
way. You were severely examined every day on the lessons, and your
seat in the room was switched each week. She made some sort of a
cryptic notation every time you answered a question or something,
and at the end of the week, you shifted. If you were a dunce, you
sat in the back of the room, and if you knew your stuff, you sat in
the front row.
Hicke: Oh, that's where that expression comes from, "You go to the head of
the class." Literally.
O'Brien: Right. Literally. Right. I was not about to sit in the back row,
so I began to learn some Latin.
Anyway I enjoyed that school very much, and there were some
exceptional teachers. I had at least one very exceptional teacher
when I was in this Durant School. She was a tall, gaunt, pioneer-
looking woman, with her hair done in an old-fashioned knot on the
top of her head named Henrietta M. Jones. Among most school kids
she was a terrifying sight; she was severe and blunt and so on, but
she really was a marvelous teacher.
Hicke: And what did she teach?
O'Brien: The fifth grade or the sixth grade or the seventh grade or
something like that. She told me then that I should try to be a
Hicke: Is that right?
O'Brien: Yes. And that school was a pretty tough school. I didn't realize
it, but the language that was being used was usually quite profane.
It didn't mean anything to me; I adopted all the words without the
slightest idea of what they meant. Apparently it was finally
reported to her that I was swearing like a Prussian trooper, and
she asked me about it. I think she was quite persuaded of my
innocence, that I really didn't know what these words meant. But
anyway, I do remember her, and I do remember being sent to the
principal once with my good friend for being sassy or something of
this sort, and he said, "I want you to be back here tomorrow
morning with this scene from Shakespeare memorized. You be Brutus
and you be Cassius, but be here at nine o'clock and recite the
whole thing." Which we did.
Hicke: Now that makes a lot of sense to me.
O'Brien: Does to me, too.
Hicke: I mean, it taught you something in more ways than one.
O'Brien: Yes, right. As a matter of fact, for years after that, I carried a
little, tiny edition of Julius Caesar in my pocket, and at one
time, I thought I knew the whole thing.
Hicke: Just in case?
O'Brien: Yes. But I was interested. I can still say some of the lines from
that scene. You know, that sticks in your mind like lots of tags
Hicke: Well, that was a very good way for him to discipline, I think.
O'Brien: Right. So I graduated from high school in 1928, and I was tied
with a young girl by the name of Clarissa Young. I think she had a
perfect score, too.
Hicke: Oh, tied for the school graduating class?
O'Brien: Yes. But I was chosen as the valedictorian. We had a combined
graduation ceremony with the other Oakland high schools at the
Oakland Auditorium. I spoke - gave the speech - and I could just
barely be seen over the top of the lectern.
Office Boy at PM&S; E. S. Pillsbury and Alfred Sutro
O'Brien: And so that summer I worked at PM&S.
Hicke: Well, how did that come about?
O'Brien: That came about because one of the principal clients of Alfred
Sutro - one of his favorite clients, I should say - was the
Railway Express Agency, which was the successor of the Wells Fargo
Express. The vice president in charge of the affairs of the
Railway Express Agency in the West was the senior officer in
contact with Alfred Sutro.
Hicke: The vice president was the contact?
O'Brien: He was the contact for legal matters affecting the Railway Express
Agency with Alfred Sutro, who represented them.
Hicke: And what was your contact with him?
O'Brien: Well, he had been a contemporary of my father's. And Mr. Graham -
his name was Clarence Graham - and his wife were friends of my
mother. They knew we were having a tough time. So Mr. Graham
undertook to speak to Alfred Sutro, and asked him whether he needed
an office boy for the summer - an office boy who claimed he was
going to be a lawyer, someday.
Hicke: Now have we finished that part?
Hicke: Okay. Well, maybe we should get back and find out how, when, and
where you decided to become a lawyer.
O'Brien: All right. I had said that from the time I was a child, I don't
know quite why, whether I read some story, but I can remember even
in China when I used to vow I was going to be a lawyer. My father
and mother were always great when they entertained people. I was
always invited to join the festivities, at least briefly. If they
had a cocktail party, the servants always gave me a drink that
looked exactly like those that were being served to the guests.
Hicke: What fun.
O'Brien: Yes. So I somehow fastened on the idea when I was a very small boy
that I was going to be a lawyer. And I never really departed from
that notion. I thought at the beginning that that was what I
wanted to do. By age twelve I had been a caddy and a lot of other
things to earn money, so when the opportunity came to work as an
office boy in a law office - "to polish up the handle on the big
front door" - I -
Hicke: "Never go to sea.".
O'Brien: Yes. I accepted with alacrity.
Hicke: Did Mr. Sutro interview you?
O'Brien: No. No, I don't recall that.
Hicke: Tell me about your first day.
O'Brien: Well, I don't really remember. I can tell you a lot about the
office. There was an office manager by the name of Bill Draycott,
who was a garrulous, ineffective, good-hearted guy. The whole
office occupied just part of the nineteenth floor of 225 Bush. The
whole thing has been turned around so much it's hard to quite
Above: View from O 1 Brian's house in Shanghai
with bridge, park on left.
Left: Jim O'Brien (age 8 or 9) . In front of
the old Imperial Hotel, Tokyo.
Below: The O'Brien family. Left to right:
George Fitzgerald, James E. , George Augustus,
Alice, Harry B. Ca. 1918.
understand, but if you get off of the elevator now at the
nineteenth floor, the entrance into the office is now right
directly in front of you. In the early days, the entrance was
where the receptionist sits now, and you walked in that door.
Hicke: This was in 1928?
O'Brien: Yes. There was a counter there, and the office, including the
bookkeeper, the telephone operator, the vault, the office boys, and
so on, was behind that counter. The telephone switchboard
consisted of a unit about this big. [gestures with hands]
Hicke: Three feet, maybe two feet?
O'Brien: Yes, two or three feet. And there was a telephone operator by the
name of Billie, who was practically a lieutenant general. She knew
everything, she knew everybody, she knew everybody's business, she
knew where everybody was, she ran a magnificent intelligence
system - no doubt from listening in on the phone calls.
Hicke: Well, being a telephone operator was the right spot for that, I
gue s s .
O'Brien: Right, right. She sat over in one corner of the office. There was
a lineup of offices down the hall. If you begin at 1906 - I don't
really know who's there now - that was the beginning of the Gold
Coast, if you will, and Felix Smith sat in that office. Next to
him was Vincent Butler. Next to him was H. D. Pillsbury, then
E. S. Pillsbury. I haven't fitted Oscar Sutro in there, but it's
my recollection that he had an office on the nineteenth floor,
although he had just recently joined the Standard Oil Company as
vice president in charge of their legal affairs. Down at the very
end of the hall was Mr. Alfred Sutro. It's my recollection that
John A. Sutro had an office next to him. And Marshall Madison.
And then in the very corner was Frank D. Madison. And all of them
were in the office, busy lawyers all the time.
Mr. H. D. Pillsbury was also president of the telephone
company [Pacific Telephone & Telegraph Company] at the same, but he
was also a partner in PM&S, and he kept an office there. And
Mr. E. S. Pillsbury came to the office only rarely.
Hicke: He was already retired. I think he retired in 1923.
O'Brien: Yes. Right. But in 1928 he was still around, and when he arrived,
it was usually with an entourage of people carrying lap robes and
so on. I occasionally witnessed this arrival in those days. A big
car would pull up in front of the Standard Oil Building, and a big,
beefy, flat-footed guard, a ruddy Irishman, would run out, fling
open the door, and help Mr. Pillsbury, who would do his best to
evade this guy, all the time swearing at him to take his hands off
him. He didn't want to be helped. Then he would be escorted up to
I think that the old gentleman by then was getting close to
being blind. I say that because of one personal experience I had
with him. I went in his office - I was naturally anxious to be a
good office boy and meet all the requirements of good Horatio
Algier hero with a sharp pencil and a clean shirt and shoes
Hicke: And a smile?
O'Brien: And a smile. And so I went into his office one day to look around
for some reason, or to deliver something there, and I thought his
desk was a mess. So I put a new blotter on it, arranged it all in
a perfectly handsome way. Apparently the next day he came into the
office, led in and followed by the usual train bearers. He plunked
down in his chair. I gather he knew precisely where everything
was, because the first thing he did was to reach out and plunge his
hand in the inkwell where I had put it.
That almost was the end of my legal career.
Hicke: Oh, that's a great story.
O'Brien: I was taken to a quiet room and told not only to never change ..
his blotter again, but never to go in that room again.
I had a somewhat similar experience with Alfred Sutro.
Naturally I wanted to say to him that I was grateful to him for
having given me the job for the summer. I was very timid about all
that, and he obviously didn't know me from Adam, and he was a very
One of the first times I went into his office, he was working
away on a draft of a brief. He had a whole handful of pencils
there, and without looking up - so I really didn't have an
opportunity to say, "I'm James O'Brien," et cetera - he said,
"Please sharpen these," without turning away from his work. So I
took them, and I went down the hall to the outside office. I
sharpened them and took them back, put them down where he had had
them, and marched back down the long hall.
As I marched down, I could hear - they had a buzzer system
for the office boys, you know, every office had a number - and as
I walked back toward the office, I could hear one buzzer that was
just going, going, and not stopping. When I got into the outside
office, they were all running around like somebody had kicked their
anthill, because it was Mr. Alfred Sutro's buzzer, and he
obviously was in a state. They were all kind of terrified of him
So under the classification of "last man out, the first man
in," I was wheeled around and sent down the hall to see what was
going on. I walked in, and Alfred was sitting there with his
thumb in his mouth. Obviously he had stuck himself with one of
these pencils. He said to me, gravely, "Young man, did you think
these were surgical instruments?"
Hicke: That's a wonderful anecdote!
O'Brien: Oh, dear. So anyway, I had a very happy summer.
As for the office and the library, if you now go in the main
entrance on the nineteenth floor, turn left, and walk down about
three or four offices, the library occupied the rest of what was
then the south side of the whole nineteenth floor before they
built the new wing. The library occupied that south side of the
nineteenth floor. On the other side, there were no offices at
all. There was a big bay, and the office boys used to repair to
that big open room to play catch. There were two or three
characters among those office boys.
Hicke: Do you recall any of their names, or any stories about them?
O'Brien: There was a fellow named Jerry, who was a big, round fellow with
kind of a butch haircut, pear-shaped, heavy, horn-rimmed glasses-
- really kind of an entertaining fellow. There was another one,
whose name I can't remember, who really had a checkered career in
the office. He was given the job of taking care of some of Mr.
Smith's private affairs, and I think he made off with a lot of
Hicke: Oh, dear.
O'Brien: In addition, Mr. Pillsbury had a tall, slender fellow, who was
kind of his personal assistant; I've forgotten his name now. And
then there was a whole string of lawyers: Mr. Smith was in 1906,
and then there was a string of lawyers down the hall. Woodson
Hicke: He was an associate then?
O'Brien: He was an associate. He was a Rhodes scholar from Iowa. A very
deliberate speaker, a very low-key fellow, worked principally on
Standard of California affairs. There was Henry Hayes, who was a