by Paul R. Spitzzeri
One of the more powerful narratives in the Homestead’s interpretation of the Workman and Temple family is how members dealt with adversity and the challenges that came with tragedy. Whether it was the 1876 failure of the Temple and Workman bank and the resulting suicide of William Workman, followed by the early death of his son-in-law and business partner, F.P.F. Temple; the loss of Workman’s wife, Nicolasa, their daughter Margarita and her eldest child Thomas to a flu epidemic in early 1892; or the loss of the Homestead by the brothers John and Walter Temple in 1899 and 1932, respectively, there is no shortage of ways we can explore how trauma affected the family, some of with which many of us today can relate.
Another pivotal event that offers many opportunities for discussing the myriad impacts of loss with the family was the death at the end of 1922 of Laura González Temple. Born in August 1871 in the community of Misión Vieja (Old Mission) in the Whittier Narrows near where the Temples long resided, she had a pretty remarkable arc of life as being born out of wedlock, employed by the Temple family at the Homestead with positions of responsibility for managing it when she was a teenager, and having something of a clandestine relationship with Walter Temple in the 1880s, though they did not marry until 1903.
At that time, Walter was owner of a part of the Temple Homestead at Misión Vieja and eking out what living he could as a walnut farmer, teamster and insurance agent as he and Laura raised their family of four surviving children of five. As oil discoveries were being made not far away in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in a belt from Los Angeles to north Orange County, Walter sold the Homestead and purchased, in fall 1912, about 60 acres just to the west (land, importantly, lost by his father F.P.F. to “Lucky” Baldwin after the bank failure).
Under two years later, the eldest of Laura’s and Walter’s children, Thomas W. II, breathless ran home from the hills that were part of “Temple Heights” with an astounding story of finding oil. Sure enough, there was black gold “in them thar hills” and Standard Oil Company (California) brought in the first of several gushers among about a couple dozen wells in late June 1917, fantastically ushering the Temples to almost instantaneous wealth.
At the end of November, Laura and Walter made two major real estate purchases, buying a substantial Craftsman house in Alhambra, which became their full-time residence, and the 75-acre (to which they soon added 17 more) Workman Homestead, lost by Walter’s brother John not quite two decades before and which, after extensive renovations and construction (not the least of which were with the Workman House and El Campo Santo Cemetery) became something of a weekend retreat.
For five years, that’s what the Homestead was: a second home “in the country”. An extensive vacation in México in summer 1922, however, fueled the inspiration to build a new house, a La Casa Nueva, as it became known, that Laura and Walter initially designed based on their own ideas and expressed to a Whittier contractor Earl Wheatland, who built the Walter P. Temple Memorial Mausoleum at the cemetery and which was finished the prior year. With finished plans by the Los Angeles architects Percy Eisen and Albert R. Walker, who were beginning to design commercial structures for Walter as he pursued real estate development, construction began during the latter part of that year.
Then came a diagnosis that Laura had colon cancer and her death took place just three days after Christmas, sending the reeling family into the grief and mourning that is expressed in the artifact from the Museum’s collection, donated by Ruth Ann Michaelis, daughter of Edgar, Laura and Walter’s youngest child, that is the highlighted item for this post.
It is dated a letter, on the letterhead of the “Workman Homestead Rancho” as the Homestead was then known, from Thomas to his departed mother 21 July 1924, a year-and-a-half after Laura passed away, but it vividly and movingly represents the loss that lingered, while also revealing just how close to and protective of his sister Agnes Thomas was. Naturally, this private document, written by Thomas to himself, really, is a way for us to better see the Temples as flesh-and-blood persons, not just historical “characters” in a story (or set of stories, actually) that the Museum tells.
From childhood to adulthood, Thomas never stopped calling Laura “Meema” and begins his letter “Meema Dearest” (rather than “Mommy Dearest,” which, of course, brings up associations with the actor Joan Crawford!). Thomas was in the midst of his summer vacation and home from the University of Santa Clara, where he was studying law as an emphasis for his liberal arts degree from the Roman Catholic school.
Yet, after he noted that he was home after two months, he admitted that
. . . so far—it’s the same old story—the same wayward boy stops in a moment of loneliness to think of you and tell you certain things . . . We all miss you so much—God knows how we manage along—forgetting you more and more each day.
It is notable that he uses the word “boy” because Thomas was 19 years old, in that critical space between being a “teenager” and being an “adult,” and all the transitional elements that go along with that. Yet, his concern was not with himself, “wayward” as he may have thought that he was. Rather, he had other major concerns.
That is, he told his mother, “all is not well in the family” partially because “the children are very unruly” and “there are many things no doubt that have caused it.” Interestingly, though he just referred to himself as a “boy,” he means by “the children” his younger brothers, Walter, Jr. and Edgar. There was a clear separation between Thomas and Agnes, as the eldest pair, and their brothers as the younger duo.
As to what caused the unruliness among the younger Temples, who were definitely more athletic and less academic than Thomas, this was left unsaid, though the statement above about the family forgetting Laura, while missing her very much, appears to be indicative. Not having a mother, who, likely, was expected to run the household including the oversight of the children, could well have caused Thomas’ anxiety.
There was, however, another issue was that “Dad is not as close to us as he should be,” though, again, there was no explanation. Perhaps Walter, Sr.’s role, as he saw it, was to provide for the family and, once more, leave the raising of the children to his wife, but with Laura gone, there was no change in those ways. Maybe there was a formality in his fatherhood, as well, because in later years Thomas became ecstatic at receiving letters from his father, not just the usual weekly telegrams, which were, of course, far less personal.
Another matter had to do with the fact that “Maud is still with us and though she does all she can to help us, I can’t have any love her for her, no more.” Modesta (Maud) Romero Bassity helped take care of Laura in her final illness and stayed with the Temples, soon becoming Walter, Sr.’s girlfriend. It is not hard to understand the mixed emotions felt by the Temple children and this letter is not the only time she is mentioned with respect to appreciation, on one hand, for what she did for the family, but, on the other, a sort of resentment because, obviously, no one could replace the children’s mother.
The majority of the missive, however, is about Agnes and, here, Thomas poured out his concerns and anger about the attentions being paid to his 17-year old (well, her birthday was a couple of weeks later) sister by someone only identified as Sheehan. As noted above, Tomas and Agnes were very close and the number of surviving photos of the two alone shows that—not that they weren’t close with their younger brothers, but there was a special bond between these two eldest.
Thomas noted that “Inezita . . . is growing up” but he lamented her apparent infatuation with Sheehan, caustically continuing, “and you know Meema dear I hate him—as you yourself would hate him.” Professing that he could not control this feeling, he went on that “I would hate any one else who would alienate the affection of my sister” especially because, “I know him too well—for 2 years I went around with him—and he trifles with the hearts and devotions of young girls.”
With regard to this Lothario, Thomas added, as if he had years of experience in the matter of exposing the machinations of young Don Juans, “I have seen him pull that trick too many times,” but, “when it comes to pulling it on my sister it is too much.” He repeated that he just couldn’t help himself and added, “God knows you would also” and when he wrote, “Pray that an end may come to this,” it is unclear if he was asking for her to seek some divine intercession or if he was reminding himself to seek that remedy.
In any case, after noting that “Dad as you know does not approve of any such person,” Thomas warned that, if Sheehan though “he’s going to be sincere to a little convent girl,” Agnes was then readying for her senior year at St. Mary’s Academy, a Catholic girls-only school in southwest Los Angeles (though plenty of young women were marrying at that age or not long afterward), “he knows better than that.” After all, Thomas asserted, Sheehan “is no young chap, and ought to know better.”
To buttress his claim about his sister, Thomas continued that Agnes “is very young and though she seems to be older, yet her ideas and her ways are not mature,” at least, “not as mature as she thinks they are.” It seems clear that there was more to say, but this extraordinary letter suddenly comes to an end, which, of course, is too bad, because who knows what else would have poured out.
It is interesting to compare and contrast this missive to the entries in the diary that Thomas began keeping shortly afterward—perhaps the latter followed logically from the former as he sought another way to express his feelings?—and there is a four-part series of posts on these entries from July and August 1924 on this post. They reveal a sensitive young man, still in mourning over his mother and concerned about the situation with his family, particularly his sister, and they help us know more about Thomas and the Temples during one of our key interpretive periods, the Roaring Twenties.