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Governor James Rolph and the Great Depression in California
by James Worthen

After serving an unprecedented five terms as mayor of San Francisco, Rolph went on to win California’s 1930 gubernatorial election. However, he had severely underestimated the challenges he would be up against as a Depression-era governor. A genuine love of people and desire to help had gotten him as far as the governor’s office but could do little to help him solve the new problems he found. Lack of a firm agenda coupled with an unrealistic (or perhaps idealistic) governing style left him at odds with the legislature and found his chief lieutenants forming into warring cliques. Ultimately, Rolph--in spite of good intentions and a love of civil service--was unable to translate his mayoral triumph, with all its charm and style, into a gubernatorial success.

This biography relies heavily on primary sources such as contemporary newspaper articles and firsthand recollections. Beginning with Rolph’s mayoral career, the book enumerates the qualities which led to his phenomenal success as San Francisco’s top politician. The work then examines the criticisms levied against Rolph as governor and the ways in which these complaints were, and were not, justified. The unfortunate historical timing of Rolph’s governorship is also discussed.

In many ways, Rolph’s attempt to translate from prosperous '20s mayor to Depression-era ’30s governor was simply ill-fated from the very beginning. A detailed bibliography and index is also provided.


"It is one of the great ironies of California history that its relentlessly upbeat politician James Rolph, best known as ‘Sunny Jim’ for his charming disposition, was also one of the state’s greatest tragedies—or so James Worthen ably recounts in his new and much-needed biography of the long-serving mayor of San Francisco and single-term governor of the Golden State….


This story of a man’s political life is at the heart of Worthen’s work, and it is a curious and fascinating story….When Rolph decided to run for governor in 1930 he, along with the rest of the country, had experienced serious financial setbacks.  Yet he entered the job with the same limitless energy and style with which he had governed San Francisco.  Unfortunately, he had no real vision to bring to the state, and his style did not work well in Sacramento….


This account of Rolph’s life is thoroughly engaging…"


    - Review from California History, Fall 2007


"James Worthen's biography of Rolph is a good read, full of details about life in California at the turn of the twentieth century. We know where we are headed in this story--to a denouement where Rolph's personal, heroic style of politics is tested by the bleak demands of the depression, but on the way we learn about early California before the Valley girls and freeways. Rolph loved people, dogs, horses, food, flying--as well as eating well and carousing with women. The book includes nicely chosen photographs of Rolph engaged in most of what he loved to do."


     - Pamela E. Berger, Ph.D., J.D.

Photo Credits:
Rolph portrait, California History Room, California State Library
Rolph with Jimmy Walker, Nancy Welch Collection

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