Striking a Chord: Leona Walton Neblett (1896-1965), Los Angeles Musician

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

It has happened frequently that an artifact has been acquired for the Homestead collection that has a surface reason or reasons of interest, but a little poking around finds more beneath that surface and often of far more interest.

That is certainly the case with this entry in “Striking a Chord” which highlights museum objects with a connection to music in greater Los Angeles.  The item in question is a portrait photograph of Leona Neblett, a violinist of note in the city for at least thirty years.

A portrait photograph by Norman Buttemere, whose surname is intrusively added to the left side of the subject, of violinist Leona Neblett, taken in Los Angeles about 1921.  The date is not on the photograph, but is gleaned from the next image below.

Born Leona Walton in 1896 in Silver City, New Mexico to an attorney, whose wife was the daughter of his law partner, Leona remained in the old mining town in the southwestern part of the territory, which became a state when she was eleven years old, until she married another lawyer, Virginia-born William H. Neblett.

Neblett served in the U.S. Army during World War I and was decorated for bravery for his work with an artillery battalion on the front in France.  After the war, he and his wife, moved to Los Angeles, where their only child, son Norman was born in 1921.  Neblett dramatically expanded his law career by becoming a partner of William Gibbs McAdoo, son-in-law of President Woodrow Wilson, Secretary of the Treasury under his father-in-law, and twice a candidate for the Democratic Party nomination for president (1920 and 1924.)

The same Buttemere image of Neblett above used to accompany a short notice of a series of club performances by her, Los Angeles Times, 4 December 1921.

Meanwhile, Leona, who became a virtuoso on her instrument, was developing her own career in music in Los Angeles at around the same time that the Philharmonic Orchestra was formed and musical culture was expanding.  In 1922, just two years after the radio made its debut in Pittsburgh, Leona was one of the first musicians featured in performances on the medium in Los Angeles and achieved some renown through her playing on local stations.

She also was a frequent performer in programs sponsored by such companies as the furniture store, Barker Brothers, and the Southern California Music Company as well as in the Philharmonic Auditorium, for club groups and others.  She also performed on tours up and down the Pacific coast.  She was praised for her evocative and sympathetic approaches, as well as her strength, on her instrument.

An ad for a Barker Bros furniture store sponsored radio performance list, including for Neblett, Times, 13 July 1922.

Finally, Leona was a noted teacher, operating several of her own studios over the years and, for a time in the 1930s, working in a Beverly Hills-based arts studio where drama, dance and other disciplines were taught.

However, a major fissure developed in her marriage as Leona’s musical career grew and so did her husband’s lucrative law practice.  In 1927, divorce proceedings were initiated and courtroom battles ensued both over alimony and custody of their son.  Leona won $50 per month maintenance for the child plus incidental costs and kept full custody.  William, however, did not give up in his quest to secure custody.


An article with photos of Neblett, her former husband, their son, and William Neblett’s current wife on a messy custody and support trial, Times, 7 July 1934.

Seven years later, he instituted a new suit, claiming that his wife’s career pursuits not only cost him dearly financially, but also made her unsuited to care for their son.  He also claimed that, with his son approaching his teen years, he needed to be raised by a man.  Leona counter-sued and requested that her monthly alimony/child support be increased eight times to $400 per month, asserting that her husband’s purchase of a new car and an airplane (which he claimed were needed for business) warranted it.  After the boy testified that he preferred to stay with his mother and that his father drank too much at parties on the weekends he visited him, a judge ordered the boy remain in the custody of his mother, but also denied her request for more maintenance money.

Leona continued her career in concert performance and instruction, sometimes with her son accompanying her recitals on piano, until at least the early 1950s and her associations with local institutions remained intact well into the prior decade.  After about 1952, however, mention of her in local newspapers essentially ended and she passed away at age 69 in 1965.

Neblett’s Violin Choir in an ad for a performance at the Barker Bros Auditorium at their flagship store, Times, 5 June 1938.

Leona was a particularly successful woman in the greater Los Angeles music world from about 1920 to 1950 at a time when the pressures of motherhood and music were undoubtedly frequently difficult.  Notably, the tradition of music in the family continued.

Her son Norman, who flew over 140 missions in Asia during the Second World War (another tradition following his father in wartime battlefield service), intended to become a commercial airline pilot.  His background in piano, however, led him to begin tuning the instrument at a local piano store.

He went to USC and earned a degree in piano performance and then worked for 40 years as the head piano technician at the school.  In addition, he was a tech at Warner Brothers for over six decades and at Capital Records for nearly 35 years.  Finally, he served as piano technician at the Music Center for a decade upon recommendation from the legendary Jascha Heifetz, for whom his wife was an assistant.  An expert on piano tone, Norman consulted frequently with manufacturers on instrument design.  Finally, he was well-known in his field for his teaching skills and his abilities in rebuilding pianos.

Neblett listed as one of the faculty at the Artists Academy of Beverly Hills, Times, 27 January 1935.

Then, there was Norman’s daughter, Carol, who was born in 1946 and raised in Redondo Beach.  Although she was introduced to the violin by he grandmother Leona, she proved to be a precociously talented soprano opera singer, encouraged to pursue a career by Heifetz.  She studied voice locally, became a professional vocalist with a chorale while still in her teens, and then joined the New York City Opera in 1969, remaining with the company for a decade before working for another ten years with the Met.  While she performed her signature role as the figure in Tosca some 400 hundred times, her best-known moment was when she disrobed and performed in full frontal nudity as part of her performance as a courtesan in Jules Massenet’s Thaïs in 1973.  She also was a frequent guest on “The Tonight Show” and was profiled in a feature article in “People” magazine in 1975.  Her physical attractiveness, however, sometimes got as much or more attention than her vocal abilities

About a dozen years ago, Carol retired from performing to pursue teaching and was an artist-in-residence at Chapman University in Orange, where she mentored many young vocalists at the school.

What makes this post more poignant is that Carol died just a few days ago at the age of 71, a fact not known until a little further investigation was being done on her grandmother for this post.  So, again, whatever surface-level stories are there for museum artifacts, it is frequently very surprising to find out what lurks beneath and this image of Leona Neblett is a particularly notable example.

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