by Paul R. Spitzzeri
For last year’s “Flirting With History” program, which incorporates readings in the Workman House and La Casa Nueva for Homestead visitors of Temple family letters from the 1840s through the 1920s dealing with romantic and familial love, one of the more interesting missives was an April 1887 letter from Walter P. Temple to Laura Gonzalez, written when the two were teenage lovers hiding their romance from his family members.
That event was repeated last weekend using the same documents and I had the pleasure to again be reading that remarkable piece of correspondence in the Workman House basement, chosen for the location because young Walter used the cellar as a place to meet with his grandmother, Nicolasa Workman, to talk about how to deliver his impassioned letter to Laura.
His missive was filled with sentences longer than a Monday morning line at Starbucks and flights of fancy that even Hallmark couldn’t match, but it’s an amazing example of high Victorian romantic letters complete with poetry, especially from a teenage boy with Cupid’s arrow squarely lodged in his rapidly beating heart.
This Valentine’s Day we share another love letter from Walter to Laura, though it is far more restrained than the other. Dated three months later, on 5 July 1887, the missive is more somber and appears to show something of a concern for the continued secrecy about the romance, especially because Laura worked for Walter’s brother, Francis, at the Homestead and the elder Temple was decidedly against the clandestine love affair.
Walter begins his letter in a way that seems like he was playing up the tension and anxiety Laura had felt during a period of silence between the pair, opening with, “knowing that your anxiety to hear from me can no longer be contained within limits, I have availed myself of this late opportunity to answer your letter, as I have detained you for so long in waiting for it.”
The reason for the delay? He did not want to contact her before a ball held on the 1st of July, probably located in the Misión Vieja (Old Mission, where the original Mission San Gabriel was situated) community where Walter and Laura were born and where they grew up or maybe in Puente, which was formed only two years before. So, because he “expected your attendance on said occasion, so as to participate of a few enjoyable hours,” he held back on writing to his true love.
Laura, however, did not go, so Walter wrote that “as I was unexpectedly disappointed” by her absence from the dance, he determined “to continue our letter writing.” In doing so, though, he was sure to add, “you must excuse me for having overstepped the bounds of propriety in not answering your letter sooner.”
He then launched into some of the emotional pyrotechnics manifested in some of his lengthier expressions:
It is really inexpressible how much joy your kind favor added to the anxiety with which I awaited your letter, as I had judged from your silence that you had entirely left me in oblivion, but never losing hope of occasionally seeing your sweet face, as the following lines illustrate it
The more I see you, the more the heat
Of your love to my heart does beat
Despite his several-page missive of April with its page-long sentences and bursts of passion and emotion, Walter then claimed that “I don’t write you long letters, because they are too wearisome.” He then ended this briefer missive with the expectation that “I shall close hoping this will find you well, as it leaves me.” Prosaically, he adds the almost universal statement found in so many pieces of correspondence: “I am enjoying excellent health.”
Walter then added a postscript, asking “Laurenza, do you think I am improving in the envelope writing?” While most of the letter is written in a hand that is slanted slightly to the right, the postscript and address on the envelope, the latter reading “Senta [Señorita] Lorenza Gonzalez / La Puente / Los Angeles / Co.” are written in a decidedly different and straighter style.
The reason for this is because, Walter concluded in his postscript, “I suppose Frank hasn’t suspected anything about it, I hope not.” As with the April letter, in which he asked Laura to tell his brother that the missive he sent came from her relatives in El Monte (really, Old Mission), here he thought that, by inscribing in a different way, it would appear that the letter came from a family member or friend, especially with the use of “Señorita”!
The need to keep things hidden, however, wasn’t just because of Francis. There was a story related in an interview with a longtime family friend, Leonora Zuñiga Hartnell (who had connections to the Temples through her parents–her mother Carmel Davis was from a family that worked for the Temples while her father, after Carmel died, married Walter’s sister, Lucinda) that flowers were once delivered to the Temple home at Old Mission for one of the younger boys, Walter or Charles. When their mother Antonia Margarita Workman de Temple, greeted the deliverer, she grabbed the flowers, threw them to the floor and stomped on them, stating that the sender was not to send such gifts.
With such protectionism from Mrs. Temple and with Francis’ discountenancing of the romance between his brother and Laura, it is no small wonder perhaps that it was not for over fifteen years that Walter and Laura finally married. They tied the knot on Thanksgiving Day 1903, when Walter was 34 and Laura, at 32, was in the age range of what was commonly denoted as an “old maid.”
Remarkably, after nearly fifteen years of marriage and residence at Old Mission, the successful production of oil on the Temples’ property at what became known as the Montebello Oil Field, three years after their nine-year old son Thomas found indications of crude on their land, Walter and Laura were able to buy the 75-acre Homestead.
Three decades after these love letters, Laura and Walter owned the Workman House where they indulged in their forbidden romance (with the complicity of grandmother Workman) and then, in 1922, started to build La Casa Nueva next door. Sadly, Laura had colon cancer and died at the end of that year, with the building barely started. Still, the house was dedicated in her memory a year after her passing and it remains a legacy of hers in many ways.
The story arc of the romance of Walter Temple and Laura Gonzalez, from their teenage love affair in the 1880s to the planning and building of La Casa Nueva in the 1920s, is one of the more remarkable interpretive elements of the broader story of family that we tell at the Homestead. Future posts will include more about Temple family letters dealing with romantic and familial love, so stay tuned.