A Jackpot of Clues, Part 1


Russian Dancer inscriptionA picture may be worth “a thousand words,” but the actual words on the back of this photo have yielded a trove of clues about Ursula Cheshire. First off, we have confirmation that this young girl’s name is Ursula, as the Yeoman’s in the Fork bookseller mentioned before I bought the album. We also learn that not only was she a dancer, but also a singer and an aspiring Shakespearean actor—all at age 11! The slacker.

Using the clues this photo revealed (this is so exciting!) and poking around on the Internet, I have deduced that Ursula most likely lived in or near Los Angeles at the time this photo was taken, sometime in 1911 or later.

Ursula as Russian Dancer

Ursula at age 11 the day she performed a Russian dance at the Hotel Virginia in Long Beach, CA

This picture shows Ursula in costume for a Russian dance she performed that day at Hotel Virginia in the burgeoning seaside resort community of Long Beach, California, about 25 miles south of LA. You can still see the foundation of this grand hotel at Ocean Blvd. and Chestnut Ave. It had marble columns, a curved staircase, decorative oriental rugs and mahogany European furniture. Hotel Virginia became too expensive to operate during the depression era and closed in 1932. It was demolished in 1933, the year of the Long Beach earthquake (I’m not sure if the two events were related).

You can read about the construction and history of Hotel Virginia (including its inauspicious beginnings) in a fascinating passage about Long Beach’s tourism, recreation and leisure, circa 1885-1967, on page 56 of a historical statement published in 2009 by the city. (That’s where I found this color image of the hotel.) It’s amazing what you can learn from the interwebs in the comfort of your own home!

Hotel Virginia

Hotel Virginia

I have discovered a lot about the other morsels of information offered up in the inscription, but, speaking of morsels, I’m really hungry and need to eat dinner, so I’ll tell you more this weekend!

 

Who Was Ursula Cheshire?

YardSaleBanner

The Leiper’s Fork yard sale was held near historic downtown Leiper’s Fork, Tennessee

This past Saturday, my husband and I went to the Leiper’s Fork yard sale. Dozens of dealers—including regular folks, collectors and, ostensibly, Mike Wolfe of “American Pickers” and Antique Archeology fame (I didn’t see him, but other people were staffing his booth)—were selling their trash and treasures in Marty and Bruce Hunt’s humongous front yard just on the edge of town.

Album-copy1.jpg

The antique album featuring Ursula Cheshire and her family measures about 8 1/2″ x 11″ x 4″

Among the sellers that sunny October day was Yeoman’s in the Fork, “a rare book & document gallery.” As I was sifting through a pile of old, forgotten photos at their table, the woman standing next to me picked up a worn, maroon, velvet-covered book about four inches thick and decorated with metal scroll and flowers and the word, “Album” on the front cover.

The vendor walked over and explained that he’d recently bought the album at an estate sale. Full of old black and white photos, letters and aged newspaper clippings, it centered around Ursula Cheshire, he said, a dancer who was born in the early 1900s and died too young at age 41. Peeking over the woman’s shoulder as she perused the album, I spied a photo of a pretty teenaged girl in costume, posing dramatically on one knee with her head tipped back. It intrigued me and I hoped the woman would gently set the book back down and move along. I was itching to look at it.

Eventually, after peering at the pages and looking at the price tag one last time, she sighed and gave up possession of the book. My turn.

Ursula in Nero Retouched copy

This is the photo I saw while sneaking a peek over the woman’s shoulder at the yard sale booth

I looked at the first few photos and clippings—enough to feel the album contained a story I wanted to discover. But, ooh, at $150 it was a bit pricey for me. Should I buy it or not? I felt I was on the verge of a mysterious and exciting adventure. “Would you take $100 for it?” I asked the man. A pause. “I could do $125,” he responded.

Sold!

I brought the album home, but haven’t looked through it yet. I want to discover its contents slowly and piece together the story it weaves. I have a million questions. Who was Ursula Cheshire? Where did she grow up? Did she dance professionally, or just as a school girl? Did she have siblings? Did she ever marry or have children? What caused her death at age 41? Whom had the album belonged to? Will it offer enough clues to reveal a coherent narrative? Will I be able to research information to fill in some blanks? Are any of her relatives still alive, and do they know more intimate details of her life? Once I open the book, where will the pages lead me?

I can’t wait to find out, and I thought it might be fun to share my experiences—discoveries, insights, road blocks, surprises—and bits of the album as I attempt to unlock its mysteries. Hence, the Mystery Dancer blog is born. I hope you’ll join me for the journey.