Striking a Chord While Reading Between the Lines: A Pair of Letters from Vocalist Louis Gaston Gottschalk Written From the Pico House, Los Angeles, October 1873

by Helene Demeestere

A landmark of 19th century Los Angeles, the Pico House hotel was completed in 1870 by Don Pío Pico, former governor of Mexican Alta California and a compadre of the Workman and Temple families who is interred at the Walter P. Temple Memorial Mausoleum at El Campo Santo Cemetery at the Homestead. Don Pío built his hostelry on the south end of the Plaza, the historic heart of Los Angeles, in an effort to keep that section of town viable, while, next door, William Abbott constructed the Merced Theatre (named for his wife Merced Garcia), an early venue for the performing arts in the growing city. While neither was ultimately successful in their aspirations, the structures survive as part of El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument, though the futures of both remain uncertain.

More than a decade ago, the Homestead acquired a rare early Pico House artifact, a 22 October 1873 letter, in French, from singer Louis Gaston Gottschalk, brother of the renowned pianist and composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk, to his wife Louisette Boucher. Gottschalk was in the Angel City during a tour swing through southern California, but did not perform at the Merced, but, rather, at the Turnverein Hall on Spring Street. Recently, a chance comment led to the discovery that Roger Genser, a print dealer, collector, and chair of and local historian for the Santa Monica Landmarks Commission, happened to have a letter from the hotel by Gottschalk to his wife from 18 October.

This led to contacting Helene Demeestere, a native of France and historian and curator at Historically Correct and who has researched and written on French immigrants, Los Angeles and California history, food history, historic preservation, film history and other topics. A graduate of the Sorbonne and the Université Paris 8 Vincennes-Saint Denis, Helene agreed to translate the two missives and provide some historical background on Gottschalk. So, many thanks to Roger for sharing his letter and to Helene for her expertise in translation, research, and writing. Enjoy!

Los Angeles Star, 16 October 1873.

These two letters bearing the letterhead of the Pico House, which was at the time one of the largest hotels in Los Angeles, are dated October 18th and 22nd 1873. Written in perfect French and signed under the name Gaston, they are addressed to his young wife Louise, affectionately referred to as Louisette in his letter. Louise had stayed behind in New York with their infant Alfred, born a few months earlier (referred to as “M. B”. in the letters).

Gaston and Louise, bearing two names as typically French as camembert and the Eiffel Tower, were actually both born in the United States and despite their American citizenship, they still communicated in French. Gaston, born Louis Gaston Gottschalk in New Orleans in 1843, His mother, also born in Louisiana, not long after it was purchased by the United States from France, in a creole family from Saint Domingue who were refugees from the 1791 Haitian revolution and a British father who had moved to the United States as a tradesman.  His wife, Louise Boucher, was born in New York where her French father had immigrated in 1822 to teach music and singing lessons.

Los Angeles Herald, 17 October 1873.

If the name of Gottschalk is familiar to music aficionados, it is important to note that this refers not to Gaston, but rather to his brother, the pianist and composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1829-1869). As a gifted teenager, Louis Moreau was sent to Paris in 1841 to continue developing his musical skills. Six years later he was joined there by his mother and then toddler brother, Gaston. At the time when the Gottschalk family was living in Paris, French society was producing the biggest names in music: Gounod, Berlioz and Bizet, among others. As a child, Gaston had the opportunity to meet Gounod, who was a friend of his older brother Louis Moreau. You could argue that music was practically a second language for the little Gaston during his 14 years spent in France.

At the age of 16, after the death of his mother, Gaston returned to the United States under the tutelage of his older brother, who left earlier to launch his career in music. In New York at that time, Louis Moreau was in the midst of a very successful career as a pianist and composer, and he was busy with a string of concerts. He wrote in English to his sisters in Paris that his little brother was “French all over, frenchified down to his spine and unfortunately ignorant and niais [stupid or inexperienced] as only the French can be.”

Herald, 19 October 1873.

Louis Moreau then decided to send Gaston to a military school in order to teach him discipline and eventually better his English to ensure he could at least hold an office job in the future. However, Gaston turned out to be an idealist and dreamed of joining the Confederate side while the Civil War was being waged in 1864. As expected, his older brother was vehemently opposed to this and told him to get a civilian job. 

In the meanwhile, Gaston followed Louis Moreau to the New York City house of a Frenchman and music professor, Alfred Boucher, who entertained musicians, composers and impresarios in a salon on West 11th Street. There, Gaston discovered his taste for music and decided he would like to follow in his brother’s footsteps and start a career in that field. Little by little, under the guidance of Professor Boucher, Gaston took voice and singing lessons and for the first time, in 1870, sang on a public stage. The critics applauded his baritone voice and his career in lyrical interpretations blossomed. It was also around that time that he fell under the charm of Boucher’s daughter, Louise, whom he married in April 1872.

Herald, 21 October 1873.

It is presumably at one of these salons where he met the opera singer Madame Anna Bishop (1810-1884), who was lauded as one of the most widely traveled vocalists of the 19th century. She was particularly enamored with France, the homeland of her second husband, Nicolas-Charles Bochsa and, after his death in 1856, she married New York City diamond merchant Martin Schulz. She asked the young Gaston to join her music company for a farewell tour which started in New York in May 1873. This is how, by October, the young baritone found himself in Los Angeles for the performance of three concerts. The press announced “This great artist accompanied by the brother of the great Gottschalk, Alfred Wilkie, the English tenor, and Frank Gilder, the eminent pianist will arrive on the next steamer [in reading the October 18th letter we know Gaston missed the boat…]

The visit of the internationally acclaimed opera singer Anna Bishop coincided with the renaissance of the city. The transcontinental railroad made its way to the San Francisco area in 1869 and it incited former governor Pío Pico to build the Pico House that same year. The hotel boasted 21 rooms with baths and included the use of gas lighting. The city of Los Angeles was now ready to host a classy clientele and to offer them accommodations up to their standards. Now the city’s 11,000 residents were able to take part in musical and theatrical representations and have access to a more sophisticated and imported culture. Indeed, a local journalist wrote of his trip to Los Angeles: “Madame Bishop has given our streets quite a metropolitan appearance during the evenings.” The soprano, then 63 years old, was reputed to have a “remarkable preservation of her voice [that]makes her indeed one of the most wonderful artists in music living

Herald, 23 October 1873.

However, the concerts did not take place at the Merced Theatre, even though it was adjacent to the hotel where the company was residing. Some say that the acoustics were not up to par. They were held instead in a new building, larger and more appropriate for vocal and instrumental performance, the Turnverein, later known as Turners Hall. Situated on Spring Street, between 2nd and 3rd street, the venue was built a year earlier by the German-speaking residents of the city as a place of gathering to sing and engage in athletic activities.

The program varied each day in front of a full house and the audience enjoyed diverse genres of music such as Wollenhaupt‘s “Concert March,” as well as “Yankee Doodle,” and, of course, Italian operas such as pieces of  Verdi ‘s “Il Trovatore” and Donizetti‘s “Linda di Chamonix.” Aside from comments about Madame’s superb voice, Gaston, as a vocalist still upheld the credit of the name of Gottschalk, for “he possesses one of those deep, mellow voices that are so rare,” while “his rendition of ‘The Vagabond’ was full of pathos, and even better was his duet with Madame Bishop”. The Los Angeles Herald reporter added: “He is splendid in his perfect nonchalance of manner” and this remark echoes Louis Moreau‘s  earlier observation about his  young brother’s Frenchness.

A detail from the Gottschalk letter of 18 October, courtesy of Roger Genser.

After the departure of the company for San Diego, the Los Angeles Express published an editorial on the necessity of a music hall in this city. Later, music aficionados of Los Angeles had the chance to hear another French musician, Emile Sauret, considered by critics as the best violinist of the time and who gave four concerts at Turnverein Hall in June and July 1875.

In the end, Gaston did not return to Los Angeles being that his career sent him to Europe by ways of a contract with Covent Garden. He also sang in France and Russia, though his marriage to Louise did not survive these repeated absences. In 1889, he established The Gottschalk Lyric School in Chicago and at the age of fifty married a twenty-two-year-old young woman of German descent, Gertrude Meyer.  In his later years, Gaston lived in Portland, Oregon, but returned to the Windy City where he died at age 66 in 1912.

Another extract from Genser’s Gottschalk missive.

Gaston Gottschalk to Louise Boucher Gottschalk, October 18, 1873

Dear Louisette,

Arriving here I found your two letters dated October 5. Thanks to [Alfred] Wilkie’s villainy, I missed the boat that was supposed to land at 3 PM, arrived at 9 PM and stayed for half an hour. I went for a walk with Mr. Thomson [spelling?] Supreme Court judge, unfortunately, the boat did not fire its gun, as it is customary. [Bishop’s husband] Schultz [sic] pretended to look for me, but they all left without worrying about me, knowing that an ounce of intelligence could have given them the idea of using a steamer whistle to call my attention. As a result, I had to take the stagecoach, 21 hours sitting on the coachman’s side and the fatigue combined, it made me miss the concert. You can imagine the disappointment of the audience and the one of Madame, mad to see that they had come to listen to me. This morning, Schultz walked by me, pretending not to see me, it made me laugh and when I return to San Francisco, which will happen soon, I will just tell him to get off. My only worry is that he had paid for the boat fare, I will have to pay the 15 gourdes [a unit of currency used in the Dominican Republic until 1874 and still in use in Haiti] of the stage fare.

Enough about them, let’s talk, darling. You made me laugh by the particulars you gave about Madame, you were so right and it did not take me too much time to get to know her and her maid-in-waiting. You are telling me that you are chatting with Mr. Smith, but you are not telling what about. From the newspaper, I gather he intends to return to Europe. What you said about the basso does not surprise me, as Mancusi was telling me recently that when he had the idea to create his current troupe, he had written to Italy and was told about this basso as having a very beautiful voice but being a beginner without a repertoire; as a consequence, he has decided not to hire him. You may have met Clara in New York, how was this first meeting? Send me some articles on La Rilly [spelling?] and English Opera. I forgot to tell you that I received the latter from Clara [Gottschalk’s sister] enclosed in yours on the third of this month, I don’t want to doubt a bit of what you told me regarding Haley running to the car and pulling the coat of the coachman, but I would like to see it.

Goodbye my love, I am exhausted and actually cannot write any longer today.

Kiss MB [their infant son, Alfred, born on 3 February] and . . . [writing illegible]

Give my regards to Madamde Cairolli [soprano Claudina Cairoli] and Mr. Sylva, whom I hope will still be in N.Y. upon my return.

Regards to Mr. Deso . . . [writing illegible]

For you, my treasure, many kisses on your dear beloved lips.

Yours who loves you,

Gaston

The first page, with the Pico House letterhead, of the Homestead’s Gottschalk letter, dated 22 October.

Gaston Gottschalk to Louise Boucher Gottschalk, October 22, 1873

My darling Louisette,

I had to ignore you yesterday, as I was telling you my intention was to write before the rehearsal that was supposed to take place at 11 AM, it was moved to 10 thus preventing me to write you more than a few words. Really, the more I think about it, and the more I think I should succeed in Europe after some earnest work, I seem to please always an audience who knows music well, that said without pride. You would be surpried to hear my voice now, without exaggeration, my voice is now twice as strong as it was before, thanks to the good climate we have here. Unfortunately, this will vanish when I return to the NY weather, and more than a bottle of liver oil will be emptied in my name!

Tonight, we will perform a few scenes from La Sonnambula [the 1831 opera by Vincenzo Bellini], if Wilkie does not look dapper in Elvino [a main character in the work] costume, I very much doubt about his own success. Yesterday, there was no performance, so I took this opportunity to sleep all day, I was exahusted to the point of collapsing. You have no idea how demanding it is to sing every evening as we do, although it seems that we are doing nothing, it’s pretty hard work [this was in English]. Tomorrow we are leaving for San Diego, which we will reach 20 or 22 hours later and sing the same evening; we will leave the next day by the steamer to give another concert here. Then again, we will take the stagecoach to San Bonaventura [Buenaventura], 60 miles [it’s closer to 70] away where we will give a concert, then 60 miles [actually, about 30] further to Santa Barbara, for another concert, then Visalia, followed by Santa Cruz and back to San Francisco where, I hope, we will be staying for a few days. In this heaven on earth which is the largest city of California, I hope the fog will allow my voice to perform as well as it does here, I will be all right [again, in English]. Anyway, it is 10 AM, here comes [Frank] Gilde on his way to the theatre for the rehearsal, I have o finish this letter, sie I am not high enough in his favor to afford to be la. Kisses to MB [little Alfred] and Fuerré on my behalf, send my best to Cairoli and Der . . . umbes and for you, my love, tousands of kisses, my dear beloved wife, see you soon.

Your husband who loves you,

Gaston

The remaining two pages of the Homestead’s missive by the singer.

These letters are fascinating documents with their association with the Pico House and brief references to Los Angeles, mainly its remarkable climate and beneficent effect on Gottschalk’s voice, but also about the rigors of the road for entertainers, conflicts between artists, and the anxiety of separation between the singer, his recently wedded wife, and their newly born son (who died when a an American ship sunk in 1918, there was also a daughter Clara [1877-1954]). We are again very appreciative to Roger for making his letter available and to Helene for her work in making these missives available to readers of the blog.

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