Yda Addis and Charles Dudley Warner: A Woman Writer’s Battle for Authorship, 1886-1890

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

After the heavily publicized and very sensationalized media coverage of the purported love affair, marriage proposal, and breach of promise of the same involving the poet and writer Yda Addis and former California governor and Los Angeles capitalist John G. Downey, Addis returned to Mexico, where she spent much of her youth and adult life.

Some of her work included being a journalist for a newspaper in that nation’s capital, where her purported romantic liaison with its editor led to a very public divorce filing by his wife and the naming of Yda as the classic home wrecker.  More on that later, but it is also important to note that Addis continued her fascination with the rural peoples of Mexico and it led to one of her most prominent published articles.  Even here, though, controversy ensued between her and another powerful man.

The research Yda conducted involved the creation of an iridescent pottery by native peoples living in a remote mountainous area in Michoacan, west of Mexico City, and, when she submitted her piece to the widely read Harper’s Monthly Magazine, its well-known editor, Charles Dudley Warner, did not believe that such artistic work could come from the Mexicans Addis featured.  Determined always to stand her ground, professionally or personally, Yda insisted on the quality of both the artisans’ work and the quality of her article.

Yda image The_San_Francisco_Examiner_Mon__Feb_20__1899_
San Francisco Examiner, 20 February 1899.

Warner responded by sending a representative to Mexico to verify her claims and, not only did he do so, but this individual insisted that Yda’s article be published.  When it appeared, however, it was calculated to appear as if Warner was the author.  Addis was justifiably furious and fought back.

In its 30 June 1889 edition, the Los Angeles Herald reported that, “In ‘Harper’s Magazine’ for August, Miss Yda H. Addis, formerly of this city, but now of the City of Mexico, will have an article, illustrated, on ‘Iridescent Pottery’ and how she discovered it, with an introduction by W. C. Prime.”  Prime was the figure sent down by Warner to investigate the authenticity of Addis’ claims.

The paper continued that “Mr. Charles Dudley Warner, one of the editors of the Magazine, expresses the opinion that ‘it is a most important artistic and historical discovery; and that it will attract attention all over the world.”  The Herald concluded that Addis’ friends in the City of Angels were waiting for the release of the magazine with great interest.

Yda Warner Harpers article Los_Angeles_Herald_Sun__Jun_30__1889_
Los Angeles Herald, 30 June 1889

As noted above, however, when the issue appeared the article, titled “Mexican Lustred Pottery,” had a byline of “edited by William Cowper Prime.”  In the 24 August issue of Harper’s Weekly Magazine, there is brief mention of Addis:

Miss YDA ADDIS, the discoverer of the place of manufacture of the iridescent Mexican pottery, and of the process by which it is made (described in the HARPER’S MONTHLY for August) is a well-known newspaper writer on the Pacific coast, is a good Spanish scholar, and has spent several years in Mexico.  She is living now in Chihuahua.

Obviously, Warner did not feel that her work merited an assignment of authorship because he sent Prime down to verify the claim about the artistic endeavor as well as to edit the manuscript.

So, the Herald, of 13 September issued an account under the heading of “Paimam Qui Meruit,” though the Latin phrase is missing the last word “ferat,” which is rendered as “let whoever earns the palm bear it.”  This just happens to be the motto of the University of Southern California, opened about a decade prior, so this appears to explain why the paper used the truncated phrase as a headline.


Yda Warner Los_Angeles_Herald_Fri__Sep_13__1889_
Herald, 13 September 1889.

In any case, it reported that Yda “has a scorching letter in the ‘Nation”, of New York, in which she shows up Mr. Charles Dudley Warner and Dr. Prime in no enviable colors for, as she claims, falsifying and interpolating her manuscript” to credit Warner for sending Prime to search for the verification of her claims.  It summarized her lengthy statement about her discovery of the art form done by especially “shy” natives in the very remote region and concluded “Miss Addis pluckily stands up for her rights, and she does it in an admirable spirit and in a most thorough manner.”

In her letter in the Nation, titled “A Rectification,” Yda did, indeed, go into much detail about the controversy.  Specifically, she wrote in her attempt to overturn an injustice, the article claimed “my [Warner’s] attention was called by an American visitor to Mexico, some two years ago, to remarkable specimens of iridescent pottery which he had found at Patzcuaro” and that Yda “took up the clue.”

Addis added that, in 1886 (the year her father, Alfred, died), she mentioned the existence of the technique to Warner while he was visiting Mexico and noted that Warner imperiously insisted that she meant “high lustrous” pottery, as iridescent work was the province of European artisans.”  She said she was “nettled” by the editor’s attitude and assumptions and, after he visited Patzcuaro, she met him at a train station and reminded him that she would prove herself right.

Yda wrote that she spent a year in trying circumstances to trace the source of the pottery and averred that part of her paper explaining this was excised.  She admitted that she did not know the value of the pottery until Warner revealed it to her, “but it is equally true that I first told him, not he me, of its existence.”  Though she said the article made it sound as if she was employed to find the source of the pottery, Addis claimed that all expenses incurred in her work was borne by her with the only compensation being the usual pay rate for articles.

Yda WArner back in LA Los_Angeles_Herald_Tue__Oct_1__1889_
Herald, 1 October 1889.

Yda also claimed that she went to great trouble to send samples on request by Warner to him and Prime of the work, including a first batch that was broken by poor handling and that she traveled to El Paso, a lengthy journey, to get items to them.  Despite this, she continued, Prime merely wrote “they had been discovered by Mr. Charles Dudley Warner in a shop in a Mexican city.”  Yda cited the date of 7 February 1888 as when Prime acknowledged to her the receipt of the second set of pottery.

She went on to write that a first report sent to Prime was not received and she was delayed further by health problems, including an assertion by her doctors that she was “dying from lung troubles,” something she would cite in the travails she suffered with Downey.  As a consequence, “this delayed my paper’s appearance nearly a year.”  Yda professed puzzlement pertaining to Prime’s “liberties with my manuscript.”

Moreover, she said that Warner told her he was happy with what she submitted and, in any case, she was never advised of any need to alter it, “to which I most certainly would have consented.”  This was a matter beyond editorial function; it was calculated, beyond alterations of form, to “rob me of my just dues [and] to redound to his credit” through overt manipulations of the content.

Yda Warner dispute first part The_Evening_Express_Tue__Jun_24__1890_
Los Angeles Express, 24 June 1890.

Yda concluded that she’d written to Warner “to see that this wrong is righted,” but, failing this, “I appeal to the press to make known the facts.”  Because of her residing in isolated circumstances, “I beg that some lover of justice will forward to me anything which may be published in this connection, that my cause may not go by default.”

Los Angeles papers did not pick up anything with the dispute between Addis and Warner until late June 1890.  On the 24th, the Los Angeles Express published a lengthy piece titled “An Iridescent Trick” with a subheading of “What Kind of Plumage Does Charles Dudley Warner Wear?” and then asked “Are They Borrowed?”  That year, Warner published a travelogue of his sojourn in California called Our Italy, so he spent some time in Los Angeles, including during the time the article was composed.

The paper noted that the ugly fracas between Addis and Warner meant that “the result does not promise to add to the good reputation Mr. Warner has hitherto enjoyed” and that, unless he could properly explain his actions, there would be “much merited condemnation” from a broader public.  Calling them both “stars in the literary firmament,” the Express noted that, during her time in Mexico during the mid-Eighties, she gained renown for letters published in California newspapers, including the San Francisco Chronicle, though there were also some in the Los Angeles Herald. The paper colorfully noted that Yda was “on the war-path” and would not relent until “she has Warner’s scalp dangling from her girdle.”

Yda Warner dispute letter detail The_Evening_Express_Tue__Jun_24__1890_
Express, 24 June 1890.

Running through her work and Warner’s decision not to give her proper credit for what appeared in Harper’s, the Express reprinted a letter from the previous day penned by Addis to Warner.  In it, she claimed that the editor agreed in August 1889, when the article appeared, “to rectify . . . misstatements which were given to the public over my signature by garbling of [the] manuscript intrusted [sic] by me to you, at your request, that you might allow Dr. W.C. Prime to consult it for notes for a paper to be written by him.”

Because Warner was in town and promised, she said, to discuss the matter with him, but, so far, had not, she had three questions for the editor:

First—On what grounds can you justify your alteration, as above stated, of my manuscript without my knowledge or consent?

Second—What were the conditions of instigating a trip made to Mexico by an intimate friend of yours, who went thither to forestall me in the discovery of iridescent pottery, on my advising you of its source, at the same time telling you that I would very shortly go thither to investigate the subject?

Third—Was it honorable or lawful for you to communicate to an Eastern firm of pottery manufacturers the process of the glaze, that they might patent the process before my paper should be published, after which it could not be patented by them?

She asked for “categorical answers” to the queries so that she could compare them “with data collected on this subject.  In an interview by an “annex,” whatever that meant, of the paper, she claimed “there’s a good deal of the Indian in me” as she battled “at the sacrifice of my health and almost of my life” in her intensive researches in Mexico.  She exclaimed “I do not intend to allow Mr. Warner to rob me of the fruits of my toil and self-sacrifice.”

Yda Warner dispute interview part The_Evening_Express_Tue__Jun_24__1890_
Express, 24 June 1890.

She related how she told Warner in spring 1886 of her finding the pottery, who she said insisted that the Mexican Indians “had no artistic instincts.”  She stated that she disagreed but the “supercilious” editor not only disdained their understanding of what they were doing but told her she did not whereof she spoke on the subject.  It was October 1887 when she finally was able to renew her search for the source of the pottery work.

Prime, she went on, then contacted her about writing an article for Harper’s.  Despite Warner’s purported attempts to send someone else to find the source without her, Yda went on, the Indians were so shy that they refused to divulge anything, except to her, though this came at the cost of her health.  She claimed doctors gave her just two weeks to live because of her lung troubles.

She sent a manuscript, but learned from Warner that it was never received and so she sent another copy, which was manipulated into the form in which it appeared in the magazine.  She referred to her letter in the Nation and added that “Mr. Warner wrote a blustering denial of my statements,” though when she responded that she had “corroborative proofs,” he apparently “changed his tune and promised to give me the benefit of a correction in Harper’s Monthly.”  Alas, he did not do so.

Yda Warner letter Los_Angeles_Herald_Wed__Jun_25__1890_
Herald, 25 June 1890.

Though she was in Los Angeles, but planning to return to Mexico, she decided to stay when she learned of his trip to the Angel City.  She “wrote to him in a most courteous and conventional way” to explain himself, but he proved evasive.  She asked instead for something in writing, but what was received, though “he conceded much,” did not satisfy her.  She again contacted him and Warner wrote from Coronado, near San Diego, “still yielding points to me but dodging the main issue.”

Showing her doggedness, Yda told the paper, “if Mr. Warner thinks he can weary me out he will find that he is mistaken” and demanded of him that he answer her questions “and I insist that he must not overlook or ignore them.”  The Herald of the 25th included what was a reprinting of the same letter, though the wording was quite different.  So, it is unclear whether she wrote two missives of substantially the same content and sent them off to the two Los Angeles dailies, but the basic thrust was the same.

There was nothing further found about this matter, so perhaps Warner was able to dodge the diligent Yda and return to the east to publish Our Italy and continue his career for several more years and then died in 1900.  As for Yda, she remained in the area and secured a contract to write a history of the central coast of California for Lewis Publishing Company of Chicago.  During her work on that tome, she interviewed the prominent Santa Barbara attorney and member of the state assembly, Charles A. Storke.  This led quickly to marriage and a rapid descent into chaos.  We’ll pick up the tale from there.


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