by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Two years ago, the Homestead received a donation of Temple family letters, mostly from the 1920s, by descendant Ruth Ann Michaelis, whose father Edgar, was the youngest of the four surviving children of Walter P. Temple and Laura Gonzalez, owners of the Homestead at the time.
These letters are fascinating to read on their own merits as original surviving documents from the family, though sometimes the contents don’t necessarily have the earth-shaking import we’d like them all to have. Occasionally, one of these missives, though, will refer to something tangential that does have an interesting slant on life at the time. Today’s highlighted artifact consists of one of these recently-donated documents: a letter from Ruth Ann’s aunt, Agnes, to her uncle, Thomas, and written in January 1925.
The letter is on Agnes’ printed letterhead from St. Mary’s Academy, a Roman Catholic girls high school in Los Angeles, from which she graduated that spring. St. Mary’s was established in 1889 by the Order of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet and is the oldest continuously operating Catholic high school in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.
The first campus was at Grand Avenue and 21st Street, south of downtown, and the school moved in 1911, seven years after the 20-acre site was purchased, to Slauson Avenue and Crenshaw Boulevard in what was a rural area. At the time, St. Mary’s had a grammar school as well as high school and, for the latter, there were three types of diplomas offered (Latin-Scientific, Academic and Elective), though there were also special ones for music for students who played the organ, harp or piano.
Agnes was one of those who specialized in music and, though it was said she could play many instruments with proficiency, she was primarily a pianist. Her parents donated an organ to the school and she was the student of choice to play recitals on piano for special occasions and distinguished guests.
She also boarded at the campus, which had room for about 200 resident students, though day students also attended. For the fall semester of 1925, St. Mary’s added another building for college courses, which paved the way for the later creation of Mount St. Mary’s College, which opened in 1931 and has a campus at the former mansion of oil magnate Edward L. Doheny (who was recently profiled in this blog) and a main one near the Getty Center in Brentwood.
In 1966, St. Mary’s moved to its current location a few miles to the southwest in Inglewood across from Inglewood Park Cemetery, and it will be celebrating its 130th anniversary this year.
The letter, while written at the school, was postmarked on 13 January 1925 from the post office at Puente. That was a Tuesday, so, presumably, Agnes returned to the Homestead for a weekend visit and left the letter to be dropped off at the post office for mailing to her brother, who was then in his junior year at Santa Clara College (now the University of Santa Clara), a Catholic college near San Jose.
She began the missive by reporting that she’d been confined to quarters because of the flu or “so Sister [one of the nuns] said.” Whether or not it was the flu, she went on, “it made feel far from good.” She reported that “Maude and the boys were out to see me Thursday,” this being Maud Bassity, who’d cared for Laura Temple in her last illness before her death a little over two years prior and stayed on at the Homestead becoming Walter Temple’s significant other, and the younger Temple sons, Walter, Jr. and Edgar.
Agnes added that her younger brothers “are leaving this evening [probably Sunday the 11th—see below] for some reason,” a little humorous aside followed by “I guess Dad got it into his head that school opens Monday. Get back there, you churups!” This last word was a little nickname the family had for Walter, Jr. and Edgar, who took the train north to Belmont, south of San Francisco, where they attended the Belmont School for Boys, a Catholic institution now a parish school called Immaculate Heart.
Agnes added that a classmate named Gretta “beams every time I see her” because “she has a picture of you in her prayer book (of all places,” for which she was given lots of ribbing by her fellow students. It was added that Gretta “promised me she wouldn’t go around publishing the doings of the Temples on their Christmas Vacation of 1924” out at the Homestead. Too bad there are no other known sources of the goings-on during the holiday.
As for her older brother, Agnes admonished him that “when you have your picture taken for the annual [the Redwood at Santa Clara College] keep your hair short and where [wear] a tie [here Agnes drew a tie] not a [drawing of a bow tie]—bar tender—.” This kind of joking banter was standard fare for Temple family letters and Agnes followed up by asking “I wonder if our high brow parientes [Spanish for “relatives”] in Boston are still shoving coal in the Mayflower,” a reference to the fact that the Temples had been in Massachusetts since 1636.
When she ended her letter, signing off as “Nin,” her nickname, she added “Yours in haste or I’ll be late for Church—quotation from Dr. Worden—Hawkeye.” This was a reference to the fussy and demonstrative Dr. J. Perry Worden, who was hired a few years prior to write a history of the Workman and Temple families, and whose address in Pasadena was on Hawkeye Street, but appears to have been adapted as a nickname by the Temple children. The statement about church might indicate that Agnes wrote the missive on Sunday before heading to St. Joseph’s in Puente for Mass, then later returning to Los Angeles and St. Mary’s.
The other piece of information in the letter that is notable is when Agnes wrote Thomas that, while she was confined to her room at school because of the flu:
however I did hear about the two sweet young things that climbed out the dormitory window last Monday morning about 4 A.M. and made their way to L.A. You no doubt have read the whole thing in the paper, well one of the girls went up to San Francisco “to see life.” Such is life in a convent! This is surely a School for Scandal.
That last reference is a play on the title of the famous comedy of the 18th century by Richard Sheridan. The incident was covered in the local press, with the Los Angeles Times of 8 January 1925 reporting from a San Francisco dispatch that:
Somewhere in San Francisco is Iris Bennett, 15 years of age, a fugitive from Hollywood, and seeking “to make her own way in the world” with what is left of $3 after living two days. The girl, who fled from the exclusive St. Mary’s Academy at Los Angeles Monday night, was traced here by her mother, Mrs. Suzanne Bennett, a Hollywood woman, who arrived here today accompanied by private detectives to make a vigorous search for her daughter.
The article noted that Iris and a friend, identified only as Elsie, “climbed over the academy wall at 3 a.m. Monday to seek their fortune alone in San Francisco.” Elsie, however, got cold feet, though she promised to sell a diamond to fund their liberation, and went to the home of a friend.
Undeterred, Iris sold her watch and a toilet set (brushes, mirror and other grooming items) for $20 and took a bus north, arriving in the City by the Bay the next morning. Though the detectives hired by her frantic widowed mother tracked her down in terms of arrival, Iris was still not to be found, though she bought some items and paid for a cab ride, reducing her worldly assets to $3. As for her mother, she lay prostrate at a hotel, sick from worry and “an automobile accident in which she was injured while searching the beach cities on the south coast” after Iris skedaddled.
On the 9th, the Times published the conclusion of the affair under the headline “Scorns Riches to Earn Way.” In the piece, the paper reported that Iris, said to be “daughter of a wealthy Hollywood family,” escaped from St. Mary’s and went to San Francisco, where she found a job as a nursemaid for a family’s baby because “I’d rather be poor—and free.”
Iris was found at the home of Charles Block and family just across the street from Golden Gate Park and returned to her mother at the hotel where the latter stayed while detectives scoured San Francisco looking for the wayward teen. Mrs. Bennett was said to have requested her daughter to “complete her education before seeking her freedom and her own place in the world.”
Young Iris was quoted as replying, “that’s all that makes me willing to return. I hate being dependent, so Elsie Elliott, another convent girl, and I ran away together.” She added that, upon reaching San Francisco she secured “a cheap room” where she took “a stinging hot bath” and “went out for a job.”
She added that, with her newfound freedom, she “planned to make my own way; I could sew my own clothes, work days and study or attend lectures nights. I want to be an artist or an opera singer.” Though she secured the job caring for the Block’s baby, enthusing that she loved infants, she was going back to Los Angeles “for mother’s sake,” but concluded:
I’m sick of what it means—clothes, taxis, money, luxury. I hate it because it’s bought for me with money I haven’t earned.
Allowing for the probability that Iris Bennett’s adventure was the flights of fancy of a bored teenage girl, confined to a convent and clamoring for excitement in an adult world she hardly understood, there is something interesting about what this could mean for a young woman in a rapidly changing society during the so-called Roaring Twenties.
Expectations for young women of the middle and upper classes were still almost exclusively that they would get a high school, perhaps a college, education as a sort of “finishing school” and then get married and have children. We don’t know what was expected of Iris, but her comments to the Times are very interesting and would have reflected the yearnings of many other females of her age and social class (well, and likely, race.)
Five years later, though, Iris, who was twenty and at least two years removed from St. Mary’s, was still living with her mother. Moreover, the pair were residing in Santa Monica in a place rented for just $37 a month. Perhaps there had been better financial circumstances, if not riches, in 1925 and matters could have deteriorated significant by the time the census of 1930 was taken during the early stage of the Great Depression. Neither Iris or her mother had a job and the last that could be found of the young woman was her registration to vote in 1934, so it is unknown if she realized her youthful dream of independence and self-determination.