Who Was Ursula Cheshire?
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Traces of Ursula

For this post, I’m taking a detour from the narrative timeline of Ursula’s story to share my experience of finding a gem of a photograph taken when Ursula was either a little girl, or not yet born…

Clara Uphoff Cheshire

Ursula’s mother, Clara Cheshire, and father, Alfred Cheshire (at back in bowler hat), Stockton, CA

I open the Cheshire family photo album and pick up a loose, tiny (2″ x 1.5″) photograph affixed to a thin, textured mat board. It takes me a moment to realize who is in the picture: Sporting a beplumed hat and light-colored ruffled dress, Ursula’s mother, Clara, smiles playfully while looking ahead, as her bowler-hatted, grim-faced husband, Alfred, looks on from behind.

It strikes me that most of the other pictures in the antique album, while beautiful, are carefully posed and static. But, taken on a bustling street, this one captures a candid moment full of life. Its off-kilter angle lends it a sense of energy, and I imagine the sound and movement of Clara and the other people in the street. At the right of the frame, the man in a ruffled shirt and pinstriped suit looks to be in mid-sentence, perhaps talking to the photographer, who stood so close to his subjects that I feel as if I could step into the scene and join the crowd. I love the storefront window with its blocky lettering and wavy reflection of nearby buildings, and the classic edifice across the street.

I turn the photo over. Above the photo studio’s elegantly printed logo, three lines of hand-written script run across the back. They read: “Dr. Burroughs took this of Mother in Stockton during a parade.”

Inscription on back of the photograph

Inscription on back of the photograph

A blend of warmth, excitement and melancholy washes through my belly as I realize that Ursula, herself, wrote these words. I am holding an object she held. I see the same image she saw. I touch the ink that flowed from her fountain pen, and know traces of her fingerprints linger on the cardstock. In Ursula’s invisible presence, I wonder how it can be that I feel so connected to—even love for—a woman who died before I was born, whose blood I do not share, and whose only link to me is a dusty, antique, maroon velvet photo album.

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KFWB Presents…Ursula Cheshire

Hollywood AM radio station KFWB featured Ursula on its program in February 1927

Hollywood AM radio station KFWB featured Ursula on its program in February 1927

After Ursula’s turn in the play The Sin of David in May 1926, and her divorce decree three months later, the next mention of her found in my online research appeared in the January 29, 1927 publication of Radio Doings, the “Red Book of Radio.” A weekly guide to programming for the Pacific Coast, Radio Doings ran feature articles, news briefs, ads, Q&A, “DX Club” (association of radio hobbyists) correspondence, a “Woman’s Page,” broadcast timetables, and detailed programs.

Radio Doings ad

1927 ad in “Radio Doings,” a weekly guide to programming for the Pacific Coast

The programming page for KFWB, an AM radio station out of Hollywood, California, announced that Ursula Cheshire would be featured on Friday, February 4 from 9 to 10 am, along with Merrill Oslin and the Warner Bros. String Trio.

Launched in 1925 by Sam Warner, KFWB was owned by the Warner Bros. Motion Picture Studios. The radio station, which operated with 500 watts of power, still exists, now as an all-sports station known as The Beast 980 and running with 5,000 watts.

I assume Ursula sang on the program, but have no record of what. I believe her co-guest was the same Merrill Oslin who was an ensemble cast member in the 1929-1930 Broadway musical comedy Sons O’ Guns, which played at the Imperial Theatre in midtown-Manhattan (where Les Miserables is currently showing). And, perhaps the musicians in the Warner Bros. String trio were some of those who performed in the “Vitaphone” shorts that the movie studio produced to promote “talking pictures.” (Vitaphone was a sound film system used for films from 1926 to 1931.)

The Jazz Singer souvenir program

1927 souvenir program cover for “The Jazz Singer,” starring Al Jolson

Here’s some historical context for you: The world’s first “talkie” (synchronized-sound feature film), The Jazz Singer (starring Al Jolson), was released in 1927—the same year Los Angeles listeners heard Ursula’s beautiful singing voice resounding through their radio speakers.

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New Drama for Ursula Back in the States

Ursula Cheshire

Ursula in costume for “The Sin of David,” a play by Stephen Phillips (Los Angeles 1926)

As befitting a young woman whose life had thus far largely centered on the theater, Ursula experienced plenty of personal drama in the space of just over one year. Between May 1924 and mid-June 1925, she graduated from the University of California at Berkeley; studied at a castle in France with famous opera star Emma Calvé; toured parts of Europe with her fellow students; began an Italian romance, got engaged and married; separated from her new husband; and returned to California with her mother.

In the year between her homecoming (June 1925) and the issuance of her divorce decree (August 1926), Ursula returned to her steadfast love: the theater.

Gamut Club

1926 photo of the Gamut Club (Los Angeles), where Ursula acted in “The Sin of David.”

Both Ursula and her mother acted in the United States premiere of The Sin of David, a play by Stephen Phillips, who was the author of “Nero,” the college production in which Ursula danced and played the poisoner Locusta. Produced by Ursula’s esteemed childhood Shakespeare teacher Florence A. Dobinson, the play opened on May 17, 1926 at Los Angeles’s Gamut Club, a men’s musical and arts society.

Ursula Cheshire

Ursula in costume for “The Sin of David”; photo taken on Browning Blvd, Los Angeles, 1926

Set in the seventeenth century during the English civil war between Charles I. and the Parliament, The Sin of David is based on the Biblical story of King David and Bathsheba. (In a nutshell: From his rooftop, David spies on Bathsheba bathing, summons her, has sex with and impregnates her [his “sin”], and sends her husband to his death. David and Bathsheba marry; their son dies in infancy. They conceive a second son, Solomon, who eventually succeeds David as King of Israel.)

I don’t know whom Ursula played in Sin of David. The principal female character strums a mandolin towards the beginning of the drama, but even though Ursula was photographed in costume holding some sort of mandolin (in the outdoor photo), she did not play the lead role (Miss Mary Isabelle Alpaugh had that honor).

While L.A. Times drama critic Edwin Schallert offered a less-than-stellar review of the play, he did note that the actors included “the youngster Ursula Cheshire, whom the audience enjoyed exceedingly.” Go, Ursula!

The Sin of David play review

“L.A. TImes” review of “The Sin of David,” May 19, 1926

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The End of the Affair

Alas, I’m sorry to tell you that Ursula and Sidney’s marriage was short-lived.

On August 21, 1926—little more than a year after their wedding—the Associated Press announced that the Paris courts had granted divorce decrees to four American couples, Ursula and Sidney among them. Several newspaper outlets across the country picked up the news, including the Los Angeles Time. From the wording, it appears that Sidney initiated the split:

Divorce announcement

Divorce announcement in the Los Angeles Times (August 23, 1926)

Apparently, Parisian courts were more liberal than those in the United States at the time, and traveling there for a relatively quick divorce was becoming more common. According to a 1927 Miami News article, the number of American divorces granted in Paris had tripled from 88 in 1924 to 232 in 1926. Ursula would have had to return to Paris for a month or so, and then appear together with Sidney in front of a judge, who was “obliged by law to ask them if they have firmly decided to sever the matrimonial bonds.” I imagine it was a trying time for Ursula.

Interestingly, I learned in an LA Times news brief that Sidney’s great aunt Nellie Hopkins had died in Naples a few weeks before the divorce announcement, and had bequeathed $100,000—about $1.3 million in today’s dollars—to Sidney and his mother, Pansy Edna Bartlett (Nellie’s niece). It made me wonder if the two events were related…maybe Pansy didn’t like the idea of sharing the wealth with Ursula.

Sidney Lanier Bartlett (Photo from the American Field Service archives)

Sidney Lanier Bartlett (Photo from the American Field Service archives)

We will continue Ursula’s story in future posts, but here we will say au revoir to Sidney, who went on to lead an interesting life. According to a brief bio in a U.S. Department of State Register, Sidney attended the University of Paris through 1927; served as a lieutenant (junior grade) in the U.S. Naval Reserve; was assistant manager of a travel bureau in Paris; became a salesman for oil companies in France and the U.S.; drove an ambulance for the American Field Service in France during World War II (1940); and was appointed vice-consul at Casablanca on April 23, 1941.

In his book FDR’s 12 Apostles: The Spies Who Paved the Way for the Invasion of North Africa, author Hal Vaughan describes Sidney as a “problem vice-consul.” He writes: “Bartlett fell desperately in love with a sultry French lady in Casablanca—later proven to be the Vichy-German spy named ‘Nikki.’” Another vice-consul accused him of “spilling” State Department Cables to her; he was sent home in July 1942. How’s that for intrigue?

Until next time…

 

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Trouble in Paradise?!

Oakland Tribune article

June 13, 1925: The “Oakland Tribune” stokes rumors of the demise of Ursula’s marriage

Uh, oh. Right between “Stone Laid for $61,000 Baby Home” and “Court Lifts Citizen Ban for Ex-Foes,” the headline of a prominently placed article in the June 13, 1925 issue of the Oakland Tribune trumpeted “Summer Tour or Divorce?…U.C. Co-Ed Singer Returning Minus Artist Husband.” A big photo of Ursula in her “Nero” headdress accompanied the article, and the newspaper identified her as the “University of California girl, who took leading feminine role in international courtship.”

Just a few months after saying “I do,” it appears the couple may have been saying “I don’t.” The paper reported that Ursula and her mother were en route back to California—without Sidney.

The article muses, “Is Mrs. Sidney Bartlett enjoying a belated and solitary honeymoon? Or have dreams of a career reawakened to displace the fireside?” It goes on to say:

The "Oakland Tribune," June 13, 1925

“What the plans of the young woman may be, will not be learned until after her arrival…

“Now it has become known that Bartlett is continuing his work in the Paris university. Rumors of incompatibility of temperament are preceding the young bride to the coast…”

Poor Ursula! I feel for the heartbreak she must have felt over the failed relationship, and embarrassment over her personal life being exposed for all to read in the city paper.

Of course, that’s assuming the paper got the story right. But did Ursula and Sidney really split up, or was this article mere speculation? Tune in next time to find out!

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Ursula Gets Engaged, and You’ll Never Guess What Happens Next! (Sorry…)

Ursula Cheshire wedding announcement

The March 29, 1925 edition of the “Oakland Tribune” announces Ursula and Sidney’s wedding

Once Ursula and Sidney were engaged, they couldn’t wait to be married. What was the hurry? In the flapper era of shorter skirts and “petting parties” among the younger generation, was Ursula a “nice” girl who considered sex outside of marriage scandalous? Perhaps she truly loved Sidney and wanted to spend the rest of her life with him, or perhaps she mistook lust for love. Short of finding her diary (one could only hope!), we will never know. It seems their romance was intoxicating enough that they were married just a short time later—one week, in fact!

Not only that, but, according to the Oakland Tribune, they also eloped! Apparently, a week after they were engaged in Florence, Ursula and Sidney:

“…left the Cheshire apartment for a luncheon. A message that they had been married in London on February 27 was the next word Mrs. Cheshire had from her daughter.”

Another article in the Tribune, published on March 29, reported that the couple was spending a honeymoon in London, “where the marriage occurred.”

They may have had a ceremony in London, but I discovered that Ursula Claire Cheshire and Sidney Lanier Bartlett were legally married later—on April 16, 1925 in the Chiaia district of Naples, Italy by Barone Michele Chiaranda. Behold, their “Certificate of Marriage,” issued by the Consular Office of the United States of America:

Ursula Cheshire Marriage certificate

Marriage certificate for Mr. and Mrs. Bartlett, April 16, 1925

Naples

1920s postcard depicting a scene in Naples, Italy

At 20 years old, Sidney was considered a minor, and required written permission from his mother, Pansy Edna Bartlett, which she evidently provided.

Whatever will happen next? Stay tuned…

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Meet Ursula’s Fiancé, Sidney Lanier Bartlett

Passport photo

Passport photo for Sidney Lanier Bartlett and his mother, Pansy Edna Bartlett

When we left off, it was February 1925. Ursula had just gotten engaged to a young man after their whirl-wind romance in Florence and Rome. At this point, we know a lot about Ursula, but who was this man to whom she planned to vow, “I do”?

Here is what I’ve found out by researching various online resources, including Ancestry.com, a digitized year book, historic newspapers, and more:

When Ursula met Sidney Lanier Bartlett, he was 19 years old going on 20—three years her junior. He was born on May 8, 1905 in Los Angeles, California, to Pansy Edna Bartlett and Lanier Bartlett, a prominent and well-to-do couple.

A young Sidney with his mother, published in the society column of the Los Angeles Herald (May 30, 1909)

A young Sidney with his mother, published in the society column of the Los Angeles Herald (May 30, 1909)

A seemingly sardonic item published May 30, 1909 in the “Society News of the Week” column of the Los Angeles Herald described Sidney’s mother as:

“A charming young matron who has entrée to the exclusive social circles of Los Angeles, but finds it far more interesting and engrossing being the mother and companion of a sturdy young son who has not yet attained to the dignity of five summers…”

The article goes on: “Neither Mrs. Bartlett nor her talented husband care at all for society, choosing rather the life of the literati.” (It’s funny that a large photo of Pansy and her “little son” Sidney dominated that day’s society column.)

Sidney's father, screenwriter Lanier Bartlett

Sidney’s father, screenwriter Lanier Bartlett

Sidney’s father was a Los Angles Times reporter and prolific Hollywood screenwriter, with many westerns and other dramas to his credit. Sidney’s namesake, Sidney Lanier, was his father’s cousin, and a poet, novelist and musician. Sidney’s grandfather, W. S. Bartlett, served as president and later chairman of the board of LA’s Union Bank of Savings. The Bartletts were said to be an “old southern family.”

Sidney’s parents divorced in 1919 when he was almost 14 years old. The summer after he graduated from Los Angeles High School in 1923 at age 18, Sidney and his mother set sail for Europe from the port of New York, on board the Conte Rossa. According to Pansy’s passport application, they planned to travel to the British Isles, France, Italy, Denmark and Sweden. Sidney would study art at the University of Paris.

Pansy Edna Bartlett's 1923 passport application

Pansy Edna Bartlett’s 1923 passport application

Because he was considered a minor, Sidney did not have his own passport. Rather, he had to travel under Pansy’s auspices, appearing with her in her passport photo (at top of post).

If we went by only this post’s two photos of young Sidney, we might think he was a “Mama’s boy,” but a year-and-a-half later, he met the woman of his dreams. I wish I had found a photo of Ursula and her fiancé from that period, but suffice to say she was charmed and smitten by him—and vice versa.

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Isn’t It Romantic?

Ursula Cheshire

Ursula Cheshire as a young woman

Penning her travelogue in Rome, Ursula’s final thought for her sorority sisters was that she was “beginning to realize what riches and splendor the old world holds for us!”

It turns out the “old world” held more for Ursula than magnificent landscapes and splendorous sights, as I will share with you over the next couple of posts.

We know that Ursula spent the summer of 1924 with several other young women studying “the…arts of singing and of living,” under the tutelage of famous opera singer Emma Calvé. They studied in the countryside of southern France at Mme. Calvé’s castle and in a villa by the sea. They took an excursion through Spain on the way to the French Riviera, and explored the highlights of Italy, including the Italian Riviera, Genoa, Pisa and, finally, Rome.

I am not sure when or where Ursula’s study program ended—perhaps in Rome, or back at Mme. Calvé’s Château Cabrières. But, according to a story in the Oakland Tribune, “When the course was concluded, the prima donna urged Miss Cheshire to continue her studies after the other students had departed.”

Sidney Lanier Bartlett

Sidney Lanier Bartlett at age 18 (detail of passport photo). Hailing from Los Angeles, he was nearly 20 when he and Ursula met in Florence.

Alas, it was not to be. For, in February 1925 in Florence, Italy, Ursula met a handsome young man named Sidney Lanier Bartlett—and a whirlwind romance ensued. Needless to say, Ursula’s mind was not on her studies!

The Oakland Tribune tells us in June 1925:

“Here romance interrupted the plans of a career. Miss Cheshire met Bartlett in Florence, Italy last February. When she returned to Rome, the University of Paris art student followed. A week later they were engaged.”

How romantic for Ursula to have found not just wondrous sights, but also love in the “old world”!

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