Reading Between the Lines in Letters from Jeanette Friend de Temple to Laura González and Walter P. Temple, 1906-1908

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Yesterday’s “Reading Between the Lines” post highlighted 1890s letters, donated by the estate of the late Josette Temple, written to her grandmother Laura González and great-grandmother Francisca Valenzuela by her great-grand aunt Jeanette “Nettie” Friend de Temple. Nettie, recently widowed upon the early 1892 death of her husband Thomas W. Temple, eldest child of Antonia Margarita Workman and F.P.F. Temple, moved to San Francisco from Los Angeles and, during a severe national economic depression, was in dire financial straits.

Her letters to Laura and Francisca are notable, not just for the despair she felt over her situation with money, but for her expressions of grief over the loss of her husband and friendlessness. These missives also vividly display her concern over not being liked by Laura’s future husband, Walter, and his younger brother Charles, while also asking about other Temple siblings, including daughters Lucinda Temple de Zuñiga and Margarita Temple de Rowland.

Jeanette “Nettie” Temple’s enumeration, line 10, in the 190 federal census at San Francisco.

It may be that the precarious economic condition Nettie experiences abated and she was able to better fend for herself. In the 1900 census, she was still in San Francisco, working as a housekeeper and rooming in a building near the Tenderloin and Lower Nob Hill sections of the city. By the time she wrote the next letter in the recent donation, however, she was back in Los Angeles after fourteen years.

The missive, dated 25 April 1906, was simply addressed to Walter Temple at El Monte, though he was residing at the family homestead in the Misión Vieja, or Old Mission, community where his parents moved over a half-century earlier after being given half of the Rancho La Merced from his mother’s father, William Workman. Walter and Charles inherited the 50-acre parcel, with the family’s early 1850s adobe house and a circa 1870s brick French Second Empire style dwelling as well as outbuildings.

Nettie’s listing, below the detective agency at the lower left, in the 1916 Los Angeles City Directory.

At one point, Charles occupied the northern portion of the property and Walter the southern, but a series of legal troubles (which we’ll cover in future posts) led Charles to sell his interest in the homestead to Walter. On Thanksgiving Day 1903, some sixteen or so years after they became teenaged lovers, Walter and Laura married and had a son, Thomas W. II, named for his uncle. Earlier in 1906, a daughter, Alvina, was born, but she was likely premature because she died within two weeks.

Nettie’s letter began with the statement that a Mr. Pearson told her that Walter had not forgotten his sister-in-law and then she talked about what brought her back to the Angel City:

I thought I would write you and let you know I passed through the awful calamity safely with only the clothes I was wearing. I walked ten miles over hot bricks in danger of being crushed with falling buildings some sixteen stories high and through it all I brought two little canaries for I would not leave them to burn.

The disaster was the great San Francisco earthquake and fire of a week prior, when the estimated 7.9 tremor struck not long after 5 a.m. and lasted a minute. Devastating as the tremor was, the resulting fire was a four-day inferno with total damage between the two involving the loss of a staggering 28,000 buildings at an estimated cost of some $350 million. While official figures stated there were 700 deaths, it is believed the toll was actually more than four times higher and about a quarter million people were left homeless.

Nettie’s migration down to Los Angeles led her to move to a residence in the South Park area Los Angeles southeast of the University of Southern California and Exposition Park. She continued in her missive that she was happy to know that Walter married and had “a dear little son,” but said “I do not know who you married, but she must be all that is good and true, or you would not have given her your name.” Obviously, she would soon learn it was Laura, but she may have thought a nuptial between the two so many years after their first romance was unlikely.

The missive ended with regret that Nettie would not see Lucinda and she told Walter, “I want you all to come & see me for you surely come to the City often.” After giving her address, she added, “tell Charley I want him to come & see me, the first time he is in the City”—the youngest Temple then was residing in Santa Monica. Finally, Nettie issued another postscript, “pardon this short note, but as the days pass, I realize more & more all I have lost and am really not quite myself.”

The next missive, also to Walter, is from more than a year-and-a-half later, dated 5 December 1907, and from the same address. Though she did not ask for financial assistance in her previous correspondence, Nettie began with “I am going to ask a favor of you, and I hope you can grant it. The Wholsale [sic] House I work for is going to close for a month.” She continued that she had found work and can make a living, “but I need $6.00 (six dollars) to get the material,” which sounds as if she was going to be a seamstress.

She asked “can you lend me this until the 1st of February? If you can, send it in a letter, and I will return it in the same way.” She then repeated her desire to see Walter, Laura “and the Babies,” now including the four-month old daughter Agnes and asked that he give them and “Doña Pancha,” this being Francisca, her love. She closed by expressing the hope that “you will not feel offended at my troubling you.”

It should be noted that, as in 1893, there was a severe depression in the United States that year, beginning in mid-October, and which was the worst to date in American history (the Great Depression greatly surpassed it almost a quarter-century later.) The problem emanated from the shadowy operations of New York trust companies seeking to corner the market on stock in a copper company, but the panic spread. As this Federal Reserve history states, the conditions were very similar to those of a century later and the 2008 panic.

Two months later, on 7 February 1908, Nettie penned a letter to Laura (one wonders how she took the news that Walter and Laura had at last married?) and began with “I received the card that Tommy sent me and shall keep it always.” The eldest child of Walter and Laura was but three years old and, obviously, had a little help in preparing that correspondence!

Nettie then added, “tell Walter I am still out of work,” as so many people were during the economic downturn, “but as soon as I commence, I will return the money you so kindly lent me.” She went on that “times are very [economically] dull here. I hope Walter is not troubled financially.”

She went on to express concern that Walter and Laura “would think it was neglect on my part, if I did not write” and she continued that she would soon go out to the Temple Homestead to visit, also noting, “I am so anxious to see the Babies.” Nettie also observed, “I can hardly realize that every thing is so changed at the Old Homestead,” though it is unclear what she meant.

Perhaps, an earlier reply told her of occurrences at the ranch, including a fire that burned down the brick house and the adobe residence—Walter, earlier in the decade, built a frame dwelling on the south portion when he occupied that section. In any case, Nettie concluded by saying that she hoped to see the family soon “and that I have not inconvenienced Walter.”

On 10 May, she wrote to Walter and started with “I suppose you and Laura think I have forgotten the favor you did me, but I have not [for] I have been out of work.” She continued that “in the fifteen years I have taken care of myself,” since her husband’s passing, “I have never before been idle more than a week.”

She said, though, that “I am now going to take subscriptions for a very high grade work” called “Stoddard’s Entertainments,” though Nettie might have meant a ten-volume series, with five supplements, of the lectures of John L. Stoddard, published by Balch Brothers of Boston. Stoddard traveled the globe and wrote these highly popular works, so Nettie’s further description that what she sold comprised “picturing and describing the whole world” seems to mean this set.

She added that she was assigned to sell the work, on a commission basis, in Downey, so she wrote that she would stop by and stay a day with Walter, Laura and the two children, and went to that “I am in hopes that you and Laura can suggest some people that it would be advisable for me to see” and noted, “I know you will do that much for your Brother’s wife.” After closing, he wrote a postscript inviting the family to visit her, if convenient.

Lastly, Nettie corresponded with Laura two weeks later, on the 24th, and said she was sorry to learn, in the reply to her last missive, that Francisca was sick and that “I think by this time Walter’s hand must be better,” though she did not want to go out to Misión Vieja “until every one is well.” She thanked Laura for the kindness shown by her and Walter and hoped to repay it, while adding, “dear little Tommy, it sees as if he belonged to me, on account of his name.”

After asking what toy the youngster would want, she insisted “now Laura, don’t bother to answer, until your Mother & Walter are well” because “I know and understand your anxiety and duties.” After closing with “kisses for the dear little children,” Nettie added two postscripts, with one saying,

I am going to keep Tommy[‘s] Postal always. Every thing I had, even Tom’s pictures, was burned in the San Francisco fire.

The other asked Laura to tell their sister-in-law Margarita to visit Nettie, because Maggie, as she was known, then lived with her husband Samuel P. Rowland and their young children in Los Angeles, only a couple miles west of where Nettie resided.

There are no other letters from Nettie in this collection, though some others have survived from later years. By 1910, she was residing, as she may have done prior, with her sister Emma Jamison, at the corner of Grand Avenue and, appropriately enough, Temple Street, near today’s Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels and the Ahmanson Theatre/Music Center complex. Her sister was a seamstress while Nettie was an inspector at a garment factory, likely where Emma was also employed.

Later, she resided on Beaudry Avenue across from what is now the Edward R. Roybal Learning Center, the long-troubled site formerly known as the Belmont Learning Center and built on the soil-contaminated site of the Los Angeles Oil Field, opened by Charles Canfield and Edward Doheny in the early 1890s.

Los Angeles Times, 9 December 1928.

Speaking of oil, once Walter and Laura realized, after summer 1917, a stunning turn of fortune when young Thomas discovered crude on the land they, five years prior, sold the Temple Homestead for and which was situated just west, they apparently regularly provided small sums of money to Nettie. She seems to have continued living with her sister on Beaudry Avenue until her death in December 1928 and she was buried in the Walter P. Temple Memorial Mausoleum in El Campo Santo Cemetery at the Homestead.

These letters are remarkable documents concerning the Temple family, but specifically a woman, widowed while still in her thirties and struggling to make it on her own for many years, who also went through the loss of the little she owned in the San Francisco earthquake and fire. We know that Walter Temple, especially after he came into his oil fortune, rendered financial assistance, though gifts or loans, to many family members and friends, and he extended this help to his sister-in-law for years and then provided her a final resting place at the Homestead.

2 thoughts

  1. Two things I think Nattie had done quite right – by purpose or by accident I am not sure but they must have something to do with her personality. Her persistence was remarkable. When she needed help she would directly ask with no hesitation. We all know that there’s no harm in asking, but most people are still confined by self-imposed restrictions and feel shameful or guilty to ask for help. In her multiple missives, she repeatedly and openly talked about her poverty and bluntly requested for an urgent loan of a given amount. I would say Nattie did own the character trait of sales persistence – so much so that she did take a sales job on commission basis in 1908, and in her letter to Walter that year she also didn’t forget to ask him referring some potential clients for her to visit.

    Her sense of propriety is another positive character. Although she kept mentioning in her letters that Walter and Charley didn’t like her, she never made explanations or elaborated that subject in any further detail. It’s not uncommon to see discord existing between siblings, and the hatred would often fade away over time if not having been reinforced to cause permanent damages. I did hold my breath when I read her letters to Laura mentioning Walter, and felt it was really a close call because Nattie didn’t have any knowledge that even Laura and Walter were forced to part, their love remained secretly connected. Evidently Nattie was not afraid to hit that button but she also knew where to stop, allowing herself to be protected with a buffer zone. Otherwise, she won’t have received temporary loans from Laura and Walter over the years, not mentioning later on the monthly $25 regular aid given by Walter after he made a fortune in oil.

    Initially, I thought Nattie was nothing but a lost cause. However as I read her letters over and over, I found some of her personal traits were very positive and very hard to find among other people.

  2. Thanks, Larry, we’re glad you enjoyed these posts about Nettie’s letters. They are certainly striking in a variety of ways, including her trials and tribulations as a widow. The fact that Walter supported her and then had her buried in the mausoleum at the Homestead seems to show that they definitely had a better relationship than it appeared to have been in earlier days.

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