Reading Between the Lines in Letters from Thomas W. Temple II to Walter P. Temple, Sr., 29-30 August 1923

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Having access to Workman and Temple family documents, photographs and other material in the Museum’s collection is, of course, enriching, fascinating and illuminative and we’ve certainly come a long way from the late 80s and very early 90s when we had a significantly fictional Temple family to talk about at La Casa Nueva because there simply had not been an adequate amount of research done, nor were there enough donations to provide enough of a bedrock on which to build an interpretation of them.

Over the years, however, there have been some enormous changes on both fronts, with increasing family gifts broadening our understanding in conjunction with research in public records, newspapers and other source to widen the scope and scale of what we know about them. This post, another in a series that discusses family letters, comprises letters written on consecutive days by Thomas W. Temple II to his father, Walter, but they came from separate donations eight years apart (2009, from the daughter of the second husband of Thomas’ window, and 2017, from Thomas’ niece, Ruth Ann Michaelis.)

As the title of the series indicates, there is the surface content of the missives, but also the context that we get from “reading between the lines,” and there is the benefit of both as we look at what Thomas wrote and then get some of the broader issues of the time beyond the specifics in the letters. The pair were penned on 29 and 30 August 1923, not long after Thomas returned to Santa Clara University for his second year of college and came after a period of tremendous tragedy and turmoil.

The centerpiece of this was the death of Laura González Temple at the end of the prior year. The family traveled in México during the summer of 1922 and were inspired to begin the design and construction of La Casa Nueva. Obviously, this should have been a project, of which we are now commemorating the centennial, for Laura and Walter to work closely together and to share the excitement with their children. Her death, of course, left a shattered family reeling and questioning whether to continue with building the home.

For Thomas, who’d just completed a very challenging first semester at the California Institute of Technology, where he’d intended to study chemical engineering with an idea of helping his father in the petroleum prospecting business, his mother’s passing led him to a deep search for his purpose. Just a week after she died, the young man turned 18 years old and all of the inherent challenges of transitioning into adulthood were greatly complicated by his grief and struggle for what to do in the wake of the terrible tragedy.

He found comfort and familiarity by returning to where he’d gone to high school, the preparatory program at the University of Santa Clara. Not only had he been at the northern California institution for four years, but it provided him religious solace and meaning in dealing with Laura’s death. Moreover, as a Jesuit school, Santa Clara gave him the intellectual stimulation and guidance he also needed at this particularly difficult time.

Here, then, is at least some of the context for these letters, which also show that Thomas was increasingly assuming more of an adult role in terms of his younger brothers, Walter, Jr. and Edgar, as well as his concerns about his father’s business activity and the future of La Casa Nueva, even as the missives only hint at some of the general issues in these and other areas.

In the first letter, from the 29th, Thomas began by acknowledging the receipt of the usual “wire,” or telegram, which was his father’s preferred method of communicating with his children when they were away at school, especially as they moved further from the San Gabriel Valley. It was not for another five or so years that Walter, Sr. began to write letters, which was a great delight to Thomas, who was diligent in his weekly written missives.

After mentioning that he had a minor cold, Thomas then wrote “I can imagine Maudy working over time to get those kids to school” and this refers to another aspect of the Temple family that was reflective of ambivalence for the children. Modesta (Maud) Romero Bassity helped care for Laura in her final days and then stayed to help with the devastated family. In summer 1923, it may not have been decided that she would stay permanently, but Thomas was clearly grateful for her presence in helping to stabilize a difficult situation. Later letters, however, showed another side, understandable as the idea of Maud remaining and becoming Walter, Sr.’s partner brought conflict for the children.

Thomas then turned to the question of his younger brothers and their performance at school, something that would occupy much of his writing to his father over the next six or so years. While he and his sister, Agnes, were excellent scholars, always posting good grades, especially Thomas whose studies were often rigorous, such as at Harvard Law School from 1926 to 1929, Walter, Jr. and Edgar just were not as academically strong. Instead, as many young men were, they loved sports, as well as being musically inclined, but their classroom endeavors were of enduring concern.

Consequently, Thomas, after observing that 1923-1924 would be “their last year at Pasadena,” where they attended the Pasadena Military Academy on the west end of town (Thomas went there before going to Santa Clara), wrote, “I trust that Edgar can make up his work.  That he can do if he only tries.  He is no longer a kid and must realize what you as a father are doing for him.” Edgar was twelve years old, what we now call the “tween” years,” so his elder brother obviously felt it was high time to take his responsibilities seriously.

Walter, Jr., was fourteen years old, but was held back once so that he and Edgar were at the same grade level. Whereas Edgar was outgoing, even boisterous on occasion, so that, when he was going to school at Dummer (uh huh, that was the name for almost 250 years!) Academy in Massachusetts he was known as the “Roaring Sea Lion of Catalina Island,” Walter, Jr. was reserved and shy and quite a talented artist. This led Thomas to write, “Walter I know is sensible, quiet yet thoughtful and does appreciate what his father, out of duty and kindness, commands for his own good.”

As for Agnes, Thomas only expressed the hope that she’d found the letter he left her when he left for Santa Clara and his concern was not about her scholarship, but, later, about his protectiveness when it came to single-minded boys seeking to take advantage of his sister. He did ask his father to tell Agnes and their cousin Loretta “Tootsie” Duarte (whose grandmother was Walter’s sister, Margarita Temple Rowland) to write him ” as I do get lonesome at times for more than a telegram from home.  Thomas also made mention of other relatives, including his aunts Margarita (Maggie) and Lucinda Temple Zuñiga, as well as the latter’s “hard working husband” Manuel, who helped take care of the Homestead, where Walter provided the Zuñigas and the widow Rowland houses on the western end of the ranch.

With respect to his studies, Thomas told Walter, Sr. that he was getting “down to bed rock in Elementary Law, and [I] plan to work harder than usual as it may be my last year at a Jesuit College.  [I] Have a very good course.” Even though he was a sophomore, Thomas was apparently readying for a transfer, though where was not mentioned. Later, there was talk of sending him to England, where his uncle William pursued post-graduate study in 1874 and 1875 before the imminent failure of the Temple and Workman bank led to his being recalled to Los Angeles to help with the rapidly deteriorating situation. Thomas did not leave Santa Clara, though, until he graduated in 1926 and then went to Harvard.

We always wish in these letters that there was more mention of the Homestead and of the building of La Casa Nueva, but the very brief reference here is pretty typical, as Thomas asked his father, “How is the Alamo getting along?” By this, he presumably meant La Casa Nueva, as he then wrote,  “I hear you have some tough-looking brick layers.” These were Pablo Urzua, the maestro de obra (master stonemason) and his crew, who were brought from Guadalajara, Jalisco, México each year to build adobe bricks for the house and associated elements. Thomas concluded by wisecracking,  “Give them a gun and [I] am sure the place would pass for a quartel [cuartel or jail].”

Covina Argus, 7 July 1922. A main player at the Didier lease was the George F. Getty Oil Company, whose young president and general manager, J. Paul Getty, later was the world’s wealthiest person and the art collector whose Getty Center and Getty Villa are in Los Angeles.

Walter Temple’s oil business included efforts in many areas of greater Los Angeles, including Whittier, Huntington Beach, Signal Hill and Ventura, but Thomas referred to an enterprise on the 1,150-acre Didier Ranch, northeast of Puente, owned by a family who intermarried with the Temples as Nellie Didier married Walter, Jr. about a decade later. Thomas wrote, “about the Didier well, I suppose if it comes in it will make some of the moss-back old Rancheros loosen up and lease.”

He then added that “something must be done to waken Puente” which was a small center of a walnut and citrus farming region and he insisted to his father that “you as So[uthern]. California’s foremost benefactor to small cities should see that the Home town of your predecessors gets some recognition in this line.” By this, Thomas seems to have meant that Walter, Sr.’s real estate development projects at Alhambra, El Monte and San Gabriel, as well as the recently inaugurated Town of Temple, should be extended to Puente. Walter did own the 1880s Rowland Hotel, but, otherwise, did not invest further in the town.

After noting that he had to write to the granddaughter of Elias J. “Lucky” Baldwin, whose foreclosure on a loan to the Temple and Workman Bank nearly a half century before involved his acquisition of tens of thousands of acres of family land, and asking about the new priest at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Puente, as well as informing his father that he was studying French, Thomas closed. In so doing, however, he stated, “my prayers are for you,” adding that “yesterday was 8 months that mama passed away” and reminding his father, “don’t forget [to put flowers in] the Mausoleum,” where she was interred.

While the first letter was addressed to his father at the Workman Homestead, indicating that the Temples had vacated the Alhambra house where they’d lived since late 1917, when their sudden windfall of oil royalties from the family lease at Montebello enabled them to purchase a substantial Craftsman house on a large tract at the east end of that city, and relocated to the ranch, the second was addressed to Walter’s post office address at San Gabriel, where he had his business office.

Thomas usually wrote weekly, but he sent this one just a day later than the previous missive, because, he excitedly wrote to his “Dadup,”

I just found out that our monthly vacation is next Friday the 7th till the 10th, Sunday.  Being Admission Day [California was admitted to the Union on 9 September 1850] we celebrate on Monday and this have 3 full days of vacation.  I can leave here Friday night and be home Saturday Sunday and Monday which I would like very much.  Not as a mere vacation from school but as a visit home before the children go back to school.  I inquired about rates and the fare south is $17.00 a round trip, which is very reasonable.

I trust you are in sympathy with this proposition as I would like very much indeed to see you all again.  I have as usual forgotten some things at home which I could well bring up during my visit and must talk to you over certain matters.

Even though he’d only been at Santa Clara for a short time, Thomas was obviously eager to go home for the reasons stated above, but, perhaps, there was the factor of his still dealing with his grief and feeling that being around his siblings and his father was still very much necessary in the healing process, especially given the anniversary he’d mentioned.

Whatever the motivations, Thomas added, before closing, “may this favor be granted by you, as I am dying to get home and as this splendid opportunity presents itself, I cannot bear to see it pass by.” He asked his father to telegraph one of the priests at Santa Clara for permission to return on Tuesday and requested a wire so that Thomas could speak to the cleric, as well.

These letters play their part in helping us better understand and interpret the lives of the Temple family during the 1920s, giving us a personal dimension to the story that is invaluable amid the financial records and reports, invoices and receipts and other material—only being a fraction of what once existed—that we have available, thanks to the generosity of family members in sharing these artifacts with the Homestead.


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