“The Side of the Cloud That is Turned to Heaven”: Condolences on the Death of Laura Gonzalez Temple, December 1922-January 1923

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

When Laura Gonzalez Temple died on 28 December 1922 at age 51, she left four surviving children (a daughter died as an infant) ages 12 to 18 and her husband Walter. The couple, though married just under twenty years, had a clandestine teenage romance in the 1880s when Laura was employed at the Workman Homestead with Walter’s older brother, Francis. During most of the first decade of their marriage, the couple lived at the Temple Homestead in the Whittier Narrows community of Misión Vieja, or Old Mission, where the original site of Mission San Gabriel was situated and where the Temple family lived since the early 1850s.

In fall 1912, however, Walter and Laura acquired land just to the west on the bank of the Río Hondo, the original San Gabriel River, and on a corner of the adjacent Montebello Hills (in what they called “Temple Heights”) and sold the Temple Homestead. Less than two years later, their eldest child, Thomas, discovered oil on those hills that, in summer 1917, resulted in the first of many oil wells brought in on their lease to Standard Oil Company of California. This sudden surge of wealth allowed the Temples to move to a fine home in Alhambra, purchase the 75-acre Workman Homestead (which they expanded to 92 acres), send their children to private schools, and for Walter to parlay the oil revenue into his own petroleum prospecting as well as real estate development.

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In the five years since they moved to Alhambra, Laura became a well-known fixture in that city as well as in San Gabriel with community work, membership in Alhambra’s Wednesday Afternoon Club, and activities at the venerable old mission. In the summer before she died, the family took a vacation of nearly a month through México and were so inspired by the sights there that, upon returning home, Laura and Walter immediately embarked on plans to build a large adobe mansion with architectural and decorative elements redolent of family and region history, however romanticized. Sadly, the house had just begun construction, after plans were drawn by the prominent Los Angeles architectural firm of Walker and Eisen, when Laura’s colon cancer worsened and, along with an intestinal blockage, culminated in her passing.

In addition to the crushing personal loss experienced by her husband and children, Laura’s death appears to have upended a balance kept between her cousel and Walter’s keen enthusiasm for oil and real estate speculation. Decades later, in the 1990s, her middle son, Walter, Jr., told me, with tears welling in his eyes, that, had his mother not died, the financial crisis that later engulfed the Temples would not have happened. It was obvious in her son’s mind that Laura possessed a great deal of common sense and was grounded about the family’s financial fortunes—something that could be seen when she was a teenager handling many supervisory duties at the Homestead when Francis Temple was away seeking respite from the tuberculosis that killed him.

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In the Homestead’s collection are several dozen condolence letters, notes, telegrams and cards sent to Walter Temple in the days and weeks following Laura’s passing. A sampling shared here show a range of family, friends, acquaintances and associates from varied walks of life and all testified to the many good qualities of Laura and what she meant to the senders as well as what they saw with her and her family.

Some of the condolences came from the businesses that the Temples patronized, including the prominent Los Angeles clothing store of Harris and Frank, the earliest iteration of which dated to the mid-1850s as Jews became an important element of the small frontier town’s commercial class and which lasted until 1980, and Desmond’s, which began in the Angel City as a haberdashery just several years after Harris and Frank was established and then expanded to clothing for everyone, existing until 1981. Both letters were very brief and general in expressing their condolences.

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From the financial world was a letter from Herman Stern, partner in the prominent Jewish investment and securities house, Alvin H. Frank and Company, with Stern saying he hard of Laura’s death from Temple’s business manager, Milton Kauffman, and from Hugh F. Stewart, vice-presdent of The Farmers and Merchants Bank of Los Angeles, whose founder, Isaias W. Hellman, was a former banking partner of Walter’s father, F.P.F. Temple, and grandfather William Workman. Whereas Stern had his letter typed by a secretary and offered his condolences as more of an acquaintance, Stewart wrote his own missive and had a more personal approach in offering his feelings.

There is also a letter from the wife of William Harmon Taylor, a former manager of the estate of “Lucky” Baldwin’s daughter Anita and an oil company executive who worked with exploration in Huntington Beach wells in which Walter Temple was a major investor, was off on a trip to San Francisco. Temple’s self-named oil company acquired a lease in that coastal community in the late 1910s and it was first assigned to the West Whittier Oil Company, of which Kauffman was manager, until that firm was taken over by Argonaut Oil Company, of which Taylor was an executive. Mrs. Taylor wrote that “to know your wife, was to love her, so there will be countless friends and loved ones who will grieve with you in your loss.”

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Another more personal business letter came from Giovanni Piuma, operator of a large wholesale and retail grocery business in the Plaza area of Los Angeles, where many Italians had successful businesses, especially with wine production and sale before the onset of Prohibition. In fact, Piuma’s start was at the Old Mission community where he and Paolo Briano had vineyards and began their modest winemaking business in the 1880s. Later, Piuma rented out the Temple family adobe at their Homestead from Walter and his younger brother Charles and remained at that location for perhaps fifteen years or so before relocating to Los Angeles. His letter stated that he had just returned from northern California and “with regret I found out the lost [sic] of your beloved companion” and also that he was sorry that he was away and “could not attend and pay my respect at the grave” at Laura’s funeral.

There were a number of missives from community organizations with close ties to Laura and the Temple family. The board secretary of the Temple School, recently renamed thanks to a donation by Walter Temple after long being known as La Puente School and which was founded on land donated by F.P.F. Temple in the early 1860s, wrote to say that he and his wife had just returned home from the funeral and added that they and their daughters felt sorry at the death of Laura and hoped “that this [letter] may be a source of a litttle comfort to you.”

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Emma Eby, a long-time teacher at the school who lived in Puente not far from the Homestead and who taught the Temple children at the school before the oil money came in, wrote on the 31st that “Mrs. Rowland [likely Walter’s sister, Margarita who lived in a house at the west end of the Homestead] told me at church this morning of your great sorrow,” adding “I heard it rumored yesterday, but could not believe it was true.” Eby told Walter “she [Laura] has spoken to me several times of what a comfort and joy her children were to her” and hoped this would assure the family that “you were always a blessing to her and not a source of worry.”

Hetty Winter, the nurse at the Pasadena Military Academy, which the three Temple sons attended during the First World War One years and shortly afterward and which was located where the Annandale Country Club is today, offered her “deepest sympathy” while adding her “many affectionate wishes” to the younger boys, Walter, Jr. and Edgar.

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The Wednesday Afternoon Club, though its corresponding secretary, Una Turner, wrote to say that “Mrs. Temple will be greatly missed and to all who knew her and loved her, she leaves a blessed and a happy memory.” Turner continued that “hers was a life of service in the hme, her church, and among her many friends” and that “with her always was the thought to bring happiness and comfort to others.”

The Dominican Sisters of the Mission San Gabriel, where the Temples were very active and family connections went back to the 1840s, wrote to say “we are deeply grieved by the news of your bereavement, and beg to accept the expression of our profound and heartfelt sympathy.” The note concluded “we also ask God that you may find consolation in the thought, that some day, in God’s own time, you shall see her again.” The Ladies’ Altar Society at the mission sent a card informing the family that a mass would be said for Laura on the 11th of January.

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One of the stranger letters came from Dr. Emily K. Siegmund, a native of Germany and a resident of Alhambra who not only wrote Walter to express her sympathy and condolences in a brief note, but appended a three-page letter stating “there is no time like the present time, that’s why I take the Liberty to offer my Servise [sic] to you. You have Children that need the best of care from a person of expierence [sic] & quality.” Noting that she was trained as a governess at a Notre Dame Convent before she married and was widowed young and then became a physician with two decades of experience in Chicago, after which she came to California for the health of a daughter, Siegmund continued that “I am capable to take care of Children, there [sic] Body, as wel as giving all the aid in there School work, look after there Clothing” and so on.

She claimed “I have had hundreds of families trust there Children to me in Chicago, but I wish to say in Calif” and she offered references “from the best families & Business Men” in the Windy City. Making a point of saying her offer was not one “of big Salary,” the doctor added that she was used to “having had large Establishments untill [sic] my unfortunaate Husband lost a big fortune, which cost his life.” She ended by imploring Walter “please give me a chance, I am a Stranger in Alhambra, although my Children live here” and and she requested an interview to see “wether [sic] or not I would suit you.” Temple chose to have Maud Romero Bassity, who helped Laura in her last illness, stay with the family and the two became romantic partners.

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Walter also heard from Will H. White, a commercial photographer in Los Angeles, who, in sending his thoughts, took the opportunity to say that “It has occurred to me that you might be interested in the motion picture we took of the San Gabriel Pageant [from summer 1921], which, as you know, shows Mrs. Temple in lifelike action among others.” If Temple wanted the film for the family, White concluded by offering “to quote you a price on the same.”

Two other individuals who had a particularly interesting relationship with the Temples were Luther A. Ingersoll, builder of a historical collection housed at the Los Angeles Public Library and who was hired to help put together material for a published history on the Workman and Temple families, and J. Perry Worden, who was on retainer through the rest of the 1920s to work on that project, which, however, went unfinished. Ingersoll wrote that he heard of “the shocking intelligence of the sudden and untimely passing from this life of your beloved wife” from the secretary of Temple’s attorney and business partner, George H. Woodruff. He lionized Laura for her dedication of her family, her philanthropy, devotion to friends and “her charming personality that is typical of her people,” presumably this meaning that she was a Latina (though Walter, too, had Latino ancestry).

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As for Worden, he penned one of his many small poems, this one headed “In Memoriam / Laura Gonzalez Temple” and which reads:

She rests in peace, who never tired of doing,

Each moment making holden, in employ—

Through life to death, one fair ideal pursuing

To find, in thought for others, deepest joy!

Worden added that “Mrs. Worden & I are placing this little verse, written in honor of dear Mrs. Temple, among a few Pasadena flowers expressing, we believe, of our regard for her, & I wish you to have a copy.” A separate typed note, lacking the dramatic capitalizations and spacing that characterized much of his correspondence, noted that his wife “has just asked me to ad that she has something very affectionate and agreeable to tell you, as coming from Mrs. Temple . . . something Mrs. Temple said about you, which you will always be glad to remember and treasure.” Worden added that he “arranged for a more extended account of Mrs. Temple’s life and influence, to appear in the Alhambra “Post” last evening, and hope you will have found therein a special mention of her devotion to her family.” He ended “command me, if in any what whatever I can be of service to any of you.”

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As for other persons close to the Temples, there is a brief note from Thurston H. Pratt and his wife, who owned the Homestead from 1907 until they sold it to Walter and Laura a decade later. The couple, who lived with two sons in a neighborhood south of Exposition Park, wrote a very simple message “to extend to you our most profound sympathy in your great sorrow and loss.” A telegram was received from Antonio Orfila, who was married to a sister of the wife of Walter’s brother, John, and who asked Walter to “accept our condolence [on your] unexpected bereavement, we mourn with you, will attend funeral.”

Finally, there is a letter from Lucille Montenegro, who was the daughter of Joseph Workman, Walter’s uncle. Lucille, who recently divorced her third husband, Reuben Montenegro, wrote from a hotel in Santa Maria in northern Santa Barbara County and stated “just read in the paper the account of the sudden death of Laura” and “I want to extend my most heartfelt sympathy in your hour of grief.” She noted the difficulty of losing a wife and mother, as well as “the true pal that you had all through life, through sorrows, and care, and the dearest one of them all.” Encouraging her cousin to “try to bear up and fulfill your duty to the little family your wife has left in your care,” Lucille ended that she was “trusting that you will see the side of the cloud that is turned to heaven.”

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These samples of roughly forty pieces of condolence correspondence, donated to the museum almost a quarter-century ago, provide a very personalized perspective concerning the loss of Laura Temple and give us a notable context to a tragedy that, of course, shaped the Temple family’s direction for years to come.

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