by Paul R. Spitzzeri
The sudden, startling wealth that accrued to the Temple family when oil was brought in starting in summer 1917 on the Montebello-area ranch they leased to Standard Oil Company of California afforded them many opportunities that were impossible to envision before. A key one for Walter P. Temple and Laura Gonzalez Temple was to provide their four surviving children (a daughter died in infancy) private school educations.
Over the next dozen years, the Temple children attended elite schools in greater Los Angeles, the Bay Area and New England (there was even serious talk and investigation about sending the quartet to England.) While times were good and revenues continued to flow from oil royalties, this could be done in conjunction with Walter’s growing investment in his own oil prospecting and real estate development projects, in addition to extensive expenditures in renovating and improving the Workman Homestead, including the expensive and time-consuming construction of La Casa Nueva.
As has been stated in previous posts here, oil production at Montebello declined rapidly as the Twenties wore on and Walter’s other prospecting endeavors did not reap the intended rewards, while his real estate development work was done on project on top of another, including the major investment in his Town of Temple, renamed Temple City in 1928. With La Casa Nueva’s price tag rising steeply, as well, financial strains were showing by 1926. The result was the issuance of bonds for both Temple City and other development projects, chiefly in Alhambra, where his last construction endeavor, the Edison Building was finished the following spring.
Even, however, as the economic picture was dimming rapidly, Walter was determined that his children should continue their elite educations, likely believing that it would just take one big strike of crude in one of his prospecting projects, such as in Ventura, and all would be made right. In summer 1926, the family took an extended vacation took the family’s ancestra home state of Massachusetts and enrolled the three boys, Thomas, Walter, Jr., and Edgar, at Harvard Law School (where Thomas earned his juris doctorate degree) and Governor Dummer (yup, Dummer!) Academy (now Governor’s Academy, the oldest continuously operating [since 1763] private school in the nation, where the younger boys finished high school.)
Daughter Agnes, though her father hoped she might attend Wellesley or another top-notch women’s college, elected to remain at Dominican College, a Catholic all-girls (it’s now co-wed) school in San Rafael, across the Golden Gate from San Francisco and where she’d just completed her first year. For the previous two years, the four children were in relatively close proximity, with Thomas completing his undergraduate studies at the University of Santa Clara near San Jose and the younger boys attending the Belmont School in the town of that name north on the peninsula.
Though she was no longer somewhat close in distance to her brothers, Agnes did have the advantage of being much closer to home, so, while the boys only returned home for summers in 1927 and 1928, she came back to the Homestead for Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas, as well. Despite her more frequent visits, however, Agnes was no more “in the know” about their father’s increasingly precarious financial position than her brothers, as tonight’s highlighted object from the museum’s collection reveals, this being a letter she wrote from Dominican to her father on 10 March 1928.
Her missive began with an admission that “my, it has been ages since I last wrote to you,” though she acknowledged receipt of her father’s telegram, his preferred method of communication until, apparently, the cost led him to resort to writing letters. She told him that she was “glad to know that you are going to the springs for a rest.” For some years, a favorite retreat for Walter was Soboba Hot Springs, a golf course resort operated by the Soboba Indians at San Jacinto near Hemet. In fact, his stay in a Tepee-shaped cottage there inspired him to build a replica as a home office and retreat next to La Casa Nueva, both of which were completed just several months before late in 1927.
As Agnes approached the end of her junior year, she added, “I wish I could be there with you, for I certainly feel like a rest would be the best thing for me. I always feel like this, rather worn out, at this time of the year,” though she noted that it could have been mere “spring fever.” She further reported that little was newsworthy at Dominican, though there was a recent retreat “that helped break up the monotony.” She told her father that “some old missionary gave the retreat, and oh, what a giving! I’ve never heard anyone like him for putting the fear of God into one.” She concluded this by observing, “if we don’t leave college with a few good fundamentals, I don’t know whose fault it will be.”
Then Agnes turned to her true passion in life, informing Walter that “I’ve been practicing [piano, the main of many instruments she played and which her late mother, who died in late 1922, played and taught] awfully hard lately—my teacher is preparing me for a recital some time in May.” Agnes’ proficiency was such that she, who majored in music with a Spanish minor, was often called upon to play for guests and VIPs visiting the college, much as she had when she was at St. Mary’s Academy in Los Angeles. She added, “you don’t know what pleasure I get out of my music. Thank God I have something worthwhile to be interested in.” She then noted, “I don’t see how so many girls can go around aimlessly without a serious thought in their heads.”
Agnes then reported that “last night Rossing [Vladimir Rosing] the Russian tenor gave a concert here.” She felt that his voice was “not particularly beautiful,” but allowed that “he is very appealing and convincing in his singing.” She went backstage to meet the performer, who was then director of the American Opera Company in New York and said that she found him to be shy and modest. She then told her father, “a beautiful voice is something I’ve always wanted,” though she added, “I guess I should be satisfied with the talent her has given me—at least I can sing with my fingers.” Despite her prodigious talent and ability as a pianist, Agnes was not expected to, nor could she envision, pursuing anything in the music field and would, at the end of 1929, marry and raise a family in San Francisco, though she continued to play for pleasure.
After saying that she’d received a letter from Thomas and had yet to reply, Agnes confided that
It’s a terrible thing to be so far away from the boys and you. It doesn’t seem as though we’ve ever had any home life, being always away at school. But then, I suppose there will be plenty of time later for that sort of thing.
Similar sentiments were occasionally made by her brother Thomas, a consistent weekly letter writer to his parents, but Agnes’ remarks were plainer spoken and more direct than usual and it’s readily understandable. The children had been at boarding schools for about a decade by then and, while Agnes was the last to leave the greater Los Angeles area, the increasing separation, not just from home, but from each other, was obviously quite difficult.
Agnes then turned to telling her father that “”it seemed so good to see Mr. Woodruff, ‘Uncle George.’ We had quite a visit together though I can’t say it was entirely enjoyable. ” George H. Woodruff was Walter’s lawyer and fellow investor in real estate projects through the Temple Estate Company. While there was a close friendship between the Temples and Woodruffs, the growing difficulties with Walter’s business matters clearly came up during his visit and Agnes added, “I don’t know what to think about the state of affairs at home. Things seem to go from bad to worse” and she inquired “why should that be[?]”
The growing financial problems were made manifest to Agnes by the fact that she wrote, “I understand we are to use our insurance money as our allowance now,” and it was stated to me years ago by her younger brother, Walter, Jr., that the insurance was taken out by their late mother because she was concerned about the speculative nature of their father’s oil and real estate projects.
Agnes then became very blunt, telling her father:
It’s too damn bad someone couldn’t have informed us of the fact at the beginning of the month. I suppose we are mind readers and know every move that goes on down there. I wish to God we were down there then perhaps a few things wouldn’t move. However, that is neither here nor there.
What Agnes meant by “a few things wouldn’t move,” is not clear, though perhaps she was referring to the sale of properties or to the unwise expenditure of funds on speculative work. In any case, she added that she’d cashed some insurance checks at the beginning of March “not just to be cashing, but because I was broke.” Her frustration further showed when she ended this with “I can’t see why I should be in that state when it is not absolutely necessary.”
As the missive came to an end, Agnes, who signed off as Inezsita or Little Agnes, told her father, “I am still waiting for the pictures of the Tepee” and hoped that Walter was feeling better on his sojourn to Soboba. She added that, when she called the Homestead to check in on her father, she was told by “Madam,” this being Maud Bassity, Walter’s companion and who had nursed Laura Temple before her death, that Walter was bedridden with a bad cold. The reference to “Madam” shows the hot-and-cold relationship the children had with Maud, who they often thanked for her gifts while they were away, but who they clearly resented because of her romance with their father.
This remarkable letter reflects, to this reader, three core elements: the weariness of a college student nearing the end of a school year, a daughter and sibling missing her family, and someone clearly concerned, though out of the loop, about the worsening economic picture for the Temples. Her profound love of music kept her feeling invested in worthwhile pursuits and she looked forward to, a little more than year, reuniting with her family when all four children graduated from their respective schools. Moreover, she would soon be engaged to Thomas’ former Santa Clara classmate, Luis Fatjo, and entering into married life.
When she wrote, though, that “there will be plenty of time later” for enjoying a life at home with her family, no one, of course, could foresee the dual diaster of the Great Depression and the collapse of the Temple estate. Though Agnes married Fatjo, who inherited half of a large ranch and enjoyed a significant amount of wealth, the challenges ahead for the Temples were, as with so many Americans, enormous. That insurance money, incidentally, proved to be very important for her brothers, if not for Agnes!