Reading Between the Lines With a Tourist’s Letter from the Roosevelt Hotel, Hollywood, 19 February 1929

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

From the late 19th century and well into the 20th, greater Los Angeles was increasingly popular as a destination for tourists and health-seekers, sometimes both combined. Tonight’s highlighted artifact from the museum’s holdings appears to be an illustration of this, being a letter written on 19 February 1929 from the recently opened Roosevelt Hotel, situated on Hollywood Boulevard across from Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood.

The missive was written by [Thaddeus] Ellis Minshall of Cleveland, Ohio and was addressed to his wife, India Early Minshall, who was staying at the Hotel Lincoln in Columbus. Ellis opened his letter by calling his wife “Dearest Girl” and, while it was obvious, noting “Your Poppie finally has a rented machine and can dash of letters to you instead of sending the night letters.” Not only did this reduce expenses but there was “no wear and tear on the frazzled nerves writing longhand.”

Expressing how much he missed his wife, noting that ‘I don’t know whether I can stand it out here alone until the middle of March” while “I sure to hate to think of the rotten weather” back home, Minshall reported that he was “doing the routne stuff of going to various of the many eating places for dinner each night, and an occasional show or movie afterward.” He added that he spent a lot of time with a couple and their two children and “have motored practically every direction, north south east and west,” and running out of trips.” There was one planned to see the famous orange show at San Bernardino.

Minshall also reported that he ran into someone he knew from service with the American Expeditionary Force during the First World War. Minshall, who was in his late thirties, joined the military and served as a captain in a quartermaster unit for supplies (he noted that Bill Sellers, who was staying next to the hotel in a bungalow court and lived in San Bernardino, was “Captain in the Train,” presumably meaning the supply train) and was in France during 1918.

The correspondence continued that someone named Jess enjoyed her short visit to Hollywood with a couple of families inviting them for meals, with Minshall reporting he “I of course reciprocated with entertainment in kind.” The young woman talso spent time “with her Hollywood friends” and he aded that, when he and others took Jess to the train station, “she had quite a send off.”

This was because

Gary Cooper was on the platform, being loved to death by Lupe Velez, who was leaving for the east, after announcing their engagement. I wonder how long that marriage will last.

Cooper was not yet a film legend, but his turn in 1927’s Wings earned him a lot of platitudes and attention as did Lilac Time, with Colleen Moore, the following year. Later in 1929, his all-talking The Virginian catapulted him into stardom. Vélez was a major star, as well, one of a cohort of popular Latinx actors at a time when racism against Latinx people was rampant and growing, including soon-to-be mass deportations of many to México. The tempestuous relationship between the two young stars, however, ended bitterly before a marriage could take place and it was reported that she tried to shoot Cooper as he boarded the train after their breakup.

Minshall joked to his wife “[I] am seeing a lot of your movie friends from time to time, but do not get the kick out of it that you do.” He reported, for instance, “the other night, down stairs in the large dining room, where I was eating with Len and Verna, we have Charley Paddock and Bebe Daniels on one side of us, and Helen Costello and some sheik on the other.” He added, “Helen C. has a wonderful figure but is not nearly so good looking as Dolores.” Continuing with the gossip, Minshall wrote “they say she is more careful and does not take her ‘boy-friend’s’ fun seriously as often as does her more famous sister.

Charles Paddock, as has been noted in this blog previously, was a local-bred track star and Olympic champion, especially in the 1920 games at Antwerp, Belgium, though he won a silver medal in the 200 meter sprint at Paris four years later. In 1926, Paddock appeared in the film, The Campus Flirt, starring Daniels, and two were soon engaged. While that was called off, they obviously remained friends afterward.

Helen Costello is not much remembered now, but she was briefly a starlet during the late Twenties, though her voice did not work well for talkies and she had drug and alcohol problems that plagued her until her death at age 50 in the late 1950s. Her sister, Dolores, had a relatively short career, as well, partly because she married renowned actor John Barrymore and bore two children, one, John Drew, being the father of Drew Barrymore.

Minshall, not being as star-struck as his wife, went on to give her “the real but of news” which was that “your Poppie has done something his Mommie did not want him to do;” namely, “he has went and gone and flew to Agua Caliente and back.” Agua Caliente was a recently opened hotel and casino in Tijuana, built to lure Americans over the border to enjoy, among other delights, alcohol (this was not long before Walter P. Temple and his friends and business partners Milton Kauffman and George H. Woodruff invested in a similar project in Ensenada to the south).

Continuing with his story, Minshall added

I just couldn’t resist the temptation, and I sure was crazy about it. It was as safe as a church, in the big 14 passenger tri-motored Ford plane, and we never went higher than 2000 feet, which is the same altitude as our home in Cleveland [a joke, apparently!]. Now this flying business is something that you are going to be just as crazy about as I, if you once go up . . .

Obviously, air travel by passengers was still quite new and Minshall promised his wife he’d take by plane to Detroit in the spring “and maybe after that we can do lots of it.” He gushed about the fact that “we went out over the water about a half mile sota we could see the sure [shore] line. The day was wonderfully clear and warm, and I never in my life saw such beautiful sights.” He went on tht he left the prior day and earlier that afternoon.

Minshall added, “Poppie did not drink hardly anything,” a nice turn of phrase to be sure, and then informed his wife that he “actually won eighty dollars shooting crap[s!], without any system or anything. Boy, I had ’em all watching me at the crap[s] table when I had the dice once and just couldn’t lose them. I must have made forty or fifty passes, and the other players were all following my lick and with me against the house.” The bashful gambler then implored, “Mommie won’t be angry with him, will she, for he really is watching his step every minute, and there was no danger at all on the trip.”

As he wrapped up, Minshall wrote that the tab at the Roosevelt was about $250 (close to $4,000 now) and then told India not to worry about the costs of “Lulu’s operation,” this being her mother “for if anyone should have everything she wants it is she, and I am only happy that we can do this for her.” He added that India was not “economize on anything, either for her or yourself, for the lord knows we are not spending more than a third of our income any year, and we sure can’t take it with us, and the nephews and nieces will have more than they ever expected, so what the Hell, Bill, what the Hell.”

Feeling fully warm to the topic, Minshall continued, “I don’t ever think of expense any more and there is no reason why you should, and why you should not have everything that your heart desires. I ean this, so go it and get any darn thing you want for either you or Lulu.” He mentioned something about “the business back in Cleveland is going crazy overy Gyro, and we have more than we could ever spend if we did not have a nickel in Pocahontas. So that’s that, and its nobody’s business but our own.” After ending with the note that a missive from Willie was enclosed and telling “Mommie darling” that his “has been quite a letter,” Minshall signed off with “Poppie.”

Willie was the son of Minshall’s brother, William, an attorney back in Ohio, and was a student at the University School, on whose letterhead his letter to Minshall was written. William, Jr. was almost eighteen and wrote in a breezy, slang-filled style that his uncle found “most amusing,” as it referred to Minshall’s consorting with “Hollywood damsels” who were “getting a treat” with “a good looking fellow” like Uncle Ellis, seeing the sights in an eight-cylinder Packard, and potentially buying a Cris-Craft boat.

The missive also referred to “Blue Flashing” and that the young man didn’t “know if the Blue Flash will do your prophecied thirty miles plus next summer” as well as the news that the “P.O.C. is going strong and that Gyro is sure great stuff, no knock, no smell and lots of pep.” When William, Jr. observed that he had all his friends using it and that his uncle “sure had the best ad at the auto show,” there seemed to be some clues as to who Minshall was and what he did for a living.

It turned out that Minshall was born in Chillicothe, Ohio, south of Columbus and west of Cincinnati (and just south of Circleville, where Charles M. Jenkins, featured in last weekend’s posts was born) in 1879. His father, Thaddeus A. Minshall, was considered to be perhaps the town’s most prominent figure as a lawyer and judge and he crowned his legal career by serving as chief justice of the Ohio Supreme Court before he died in 1908.

[Thaddeus] Ellis Minshall’s passport application, including his business letter and photo, January 1921.

Like his two brothers, William and Addison, Ellis trained for the law, graduating from Ohio State University and passing the bar exam at the turn of the century with his father doing the honors of formal admitting him to the bar. Yet, Ellis decided to pursue other professional paths, including being general manager for the Early Car Company, owned by India’s father, Dr. Lewis M. Early, who was an integral figure in the development of x-rays (exposure to radiation caused his “early” demise in 1912) and co-owner of the Artura Photo Paper Company, purchased for over a $1 million by Kodak.

Minshall then was a manager of an Erie, Pennsylvania iron works and was an importer and exporter of machinery, tools, oils, resins, paints and varnishes, and other products while and after he served during World War I (his father was in the Union Army during the Civil War) and then, in 1921, chartered the Pocahontas Oil Company (hence, “P.O.C.” and his reference to having “a nickel in Pocahontas.”

The firm quickly made a name for itself in Ohio oil circles and “Blue Flash” was the brand name of gasoline sold by the company. The success of the P.O.C. enabled Minshall to sell his interest, as well as India’s, as she was a director, and cash out in 1928, just before he came to Los Angeles. This explains why he was so quick to take an expensive airplane trip to Baja and to exhort India to remember that there were no financial worries. His reference to “frazzled nerves” is suggestive that the winter excursion to California was likely for his health, especially after selling out of a company that was perhaps a stressful enterprise for him.

Cincinnati Enquirer, 26 August 1921.

Eight months after the missive was sent, however, came the crash of the stock market in New York and the ushering in of the Great Depression. Whatever the reasons, Minshall returned to work and his enumeration in the 1930 federal census showed him employed as an “operator [of] gas stations.” Just two months to the day later, however, Minshall, who was just 50, died in his sleep of a heart attack and it was reported he’d been ill for some time with heart disease. This lends further credence to the idea that his sojourn in sunny southern California was for health reasons as well as to enjoy the fruits of his selling out his share of the Pocahontas Oil Company.

His widow survived him by thirty-five years and, not long after Ellis died, India continued and expended on the hobby of collecting Russian art objects and antiques, including material associated by Czar Alexander II and other czars, works by Carl Faberge, such as some of the Faberge eggs that have become world-renowned, and more. She left the Faberge collection to the Cleveland Museum of Art and other materials to the Western Reserve Historical Society, also in Cleveland, shortly before her death.

As to young William E. Minshall, Jr., he went on to become an attorney, served in the Ohio House of Representatives, joined the Army in late 1940 and served in Europe during World War II, earning a bronze star and mustering out as a lieutenant colonel. Returning to the law, he was a special assistant attorney general for Ohio for four years, followed by two years as general counsel to the federal Maritime Administration in Washington. In 1955, the Republican was elected to the House of Representatives from Ohio’s 23rd district and served almost two decades, retiring in 1974. He died in 1990 just shy of his 79th birthday.

Akron Beacon, 11 June 1930.

This letter is interesting for its discussion of Hollywood movie stars and other notables and the exciting excursion to Agua Caliente during the late Prohibition era as well as its association with the Roosevelt Hotel, which still operates today, and a figure of some note in the Buckeye State.

Leave a Reply