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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Fire! From Wildcat Canyon to Zeta Tau Alpha

The Zeta Tau Alpha house where Ursula lived with her sorority sisters

The Zeta Tau Alpha house where Ursula lived with her sorority sisters on Euclid Avenue in Berkeley, California

Monday, September 17, 1923 began like any other day. In her last year at UC Berkeley, Ursula Cheshire likely had breakfast with her sorority sisters at Zeta Tau Alpha house at 1700 Euclid Avenue before walking to classes on campus. But little did she know she would never step foot inside that house again.

As the hours passed, the day grew hot and windy, with low humidity. At noon-time, about three miles north of Berkeley, a gale blew down a high-voltage wire in Wildcat Canyon, starting a grass fire that steadily spread to a grove of eucalyptus trees.

“[Then,] sweeping over the grassy dry hills, fanned to a tremendous speed, the flame soon devoured the obstacles in its path, and hurled itself over the brow of Hangman’s peak to the top-most houses on Shasta street…” (From The Daily Californian, September 19, 1923)

The September 17, 1923 fire that swept down the hills to Berkeley was big news in the bay area. According to The Daily Californian, "Beautiful homes, spacious fraternity houses, apartment blocks, and business structures were razed, leaving thousands of University students and townspeople homeless and destitute.”

The September 17, 1923 fire that swept down the hills to Berkeley was big news in the bay area. According to The Daily Californian, “Beautiful homes, spacious fraternity houses, apartment blocks, and business structures were razed, leaving thousands of University students and townspeople homeless and destitute.”

Between 2 pm and 6 pm, the fire swept down the hillside toward the bay and the university, laying waste to residential districts in the northern section of Berkeley, including Cragmont and Euclid Avenues. Described in the San Francisco Chronicle as the worst fire the east bay had ever known, the conflagration raged for hours despite the efforts of 7,500 fire fighters from Berkeley and surrounding communities (including San Francisco) to distinguish it. (Below is a video from the Prelinger Archives with incredible footage of the fire and people trying to save their possessions.)

Thousands of UC Berkeley students and other Berkeley townspeople had also “thrown their force into the battle.” A row of homes at the edge of the fire zone had even been dynamited to stay the spread of flames. While male students helped fight the fire, the women of the university banded together to form relief units, providing the men with sandwiches, coffee, cigarettes and first aid.

The Daily Californian (September 19, 1923) attributed the speed of the fire to a fierce north wind that “carried sparks and blazing embers for blocks,” and a lack of water pressure in the hillside districts. Around 4:30 pm, a sudden change of wind slowed the blaze and helped the fire fighters wrestle it under control.

The remains of an apartment building at Euclid Avenue and Ridge Road, just a couple blocks from Zeta Tau Alpha house. (September 1923. Photo courtesy of Berkeley Public Library.)

The remains of an apartment building at Euclid Avenue and Ridge Road, just a couple blocks from Zeta Tau Alpha house. (September 1923. Photo courtesy of Berkeley Public Library.)

While the flames spared the university campus, they devoured nearly 500 homes north of it—including some of the city’s finest—rendering 3,000 people temporarily homeless. Among the residences destroyed were those of Benjamin Ide Wheeler, president emeritus of the university, and architect John Galen Howard. More importantly to Ursula, Zeta Tau Alpha house was one of 18 fraternity, sorority and club houses burned to the ground that day.

According to the Berkeley Daily Gazette (September 20, 1923):

“Personal losses of clothes and furnishings were felt by all members of the various houses. Some students barely escaped with enough clothing to enable them to make an appearance on the campus. Many are now wearing borrowed clothes.”

A reporter for The Daily Californian offered this description of the streets that evening:

“…consuming flames showed some mercy to goods stored in the open streets…[The] streets and vacant lots are littered. Phonographs, chairs, dressing tables, pictures, a baby’s crib, a handsomely carved teakwood cabinet, a washing machine, three cups and saucers set along a cement retaining wall, bed clothes…On the street below, a grand piano stands in isolated grandeur…”

Picking through the rubble in north Berkeley. (September 1923. Photo courtesy of Berkeley Public Library.)

Residents pick through the rubble in north Berkeley. (September 1923. Photo courtesy of Berkeley Public Library.)

Perhaps that piano was the one belonging to the sisters of Zeta Tau Alpha, the one they saved, as Ursula notes in this story that appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle two days after the fire:

“One of the first Greek-letter sorority houses to be rebuilt in Berkeley will be the Zeta Tau Alpha house. There at the scene of wreckage yesterday the girls of the sorority poked about in the ruins, bringing to light pieces of broken china bearing the crest of the national sorority and twisted, melted pieces of silver upon some of which could be still traced the shield and crest. According to…Miss Ursula Cheshire, senior, the girls of the house saved the greater part of their clothing and the piano. The rest of the house furnishings were burned. The building did not belong to the Berkeley organization. The chapter plans to rebuild immediately upon a new lot already owned by it next door to the present Theta Chi house on Le Conte avenue.”

Or, perhaps the piano Ursula played and sang along to with her sisters at ZTA was the salvaged upright piano spiritedly played by a young woman at the 4:37 mark in this rare footage of scenes during and after the fire:

Ursula was lucky: her mother still lived in their family home in San Francisco. I imagine Ursula inviting some of her sisters to stay with her there until they could find alternative living arrangements. Thankfully, few students were hurt and nobody died that day, but it sure was a dramatic start to Ursula’s last year as a college coed!

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The Graduate…Or the Graduate Student?

Ursula's Zeta Tau Alpha portrait that appeared in the UC Berkeley yearbook covering the 1923-24 school year.

Ursula’s Zeta Tau Alpha portrait that appeared in the UC Berkeley yearbook covering the 1923-24 school year.

When we left Ursula’s story, she was a senior at the University of California, Berkeley, class of 1923. She had helped plan “Senior Week” festivities, and starred as “Ellen” in the Senior Extravaganza “But it Wasn’t.”

In looking through the university’s yearbook covering the college year after she was supposed to have graduated, I was puzzled to discover Ursula appearing again and listed as a senior on the Treble Clef Society’s membership page. When I flipped to the “Dramatics” section in that same yearbook, I found that a write-up of the “Matchmakers LTD” musical comedy presented by The Treble Clef Society referred to Ursula as a member of the class of ’24. (She played “Roddy’s aunt” and was deemed “delightful” in her part.)

Hmm. Why was Ursula at Berkeley for an extra year? Did something prevent her from graduating in 1923? I scrolled through the 1924 senior portraits, but Ursula’s photo was not among them. Then I turned to the “Sororities” section and did find Ursula’s portrait among the Zeta Tau Alpha sisters. However, the membership page listed her as a “Graduate.”

Ursula is listed as a "Graduate" on the Zeta Tau Alpha page of the 1925 "Blue and Gold" yearbook, which covered the 1923-24 academic year.

Ursula is listed as a “Graduate” on the Zeta Tau Alpha page of the 1925 “Blue and Gold” yearbook, which covered the 1923-24 academic year.

That finding, coupled with information I found in the 1922 University of California Register, led me to believe it’s possible she graduated in 1923, but that she stayed on to take further courses, and was misidentified as a senior in the yearbook. The Register noted that:

“Graduate students are such graduates of the University of California…as may be authorized to pursue advanced or special studies under the direction of a faculty. Such students may or may not be candidates for degrees.”

But then I found another document online suggesting she did not graduate in 1923. It was a program for the class of 1923’s “Senior Week” events, including the Senior Extravaganza, baccalaureate sermon, senior “pilgrimage,” senior ball and commencement. While Ursula was named as a principal in the Extravaganza and a committee member of the event (which we already knew), her name was absent from the “Roll Call” list of graduating seniors. Then again, this was not the original document—it had been transcribed in 2013. Perhaps the transcriptionist mistakenly omitted her name. Who knows?

With this conflicting evidence, I can’t say for certain when Ursula graduated from UC Berkeley, just that she was there for an extra year: 1923-1924. And I do know that the fall semester of her final year there got off to a blazing start. But that’s a story for next time…

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Ursula Goes to College!

(Note: Starting today, I will be posting on a “two Tuesdays” schedule, with new posts coming on the 1st and 3rd Tuesdays of every month. I’m getting this one in just under the wire!)

Embroidered-Dress_DetailOn August 18, 1919, 18-year-old Ursula joined the ranks of more than 3,000 new students entering the University of California, Berkeley. That morning in the campus’s outdoor amphitheater, president emeritus Dr. Benjamin Wheeler welcomed the largest freshman class ever to enter the state university.

Illustration of the Campanile, from the 1922 "Blue and Gold" Yearbook

Illustration of UC Berkeley’s famous landmark, the Campanile, from the 1922 “Blue and Gold” Yearbook

“The peril of coming to college is the peril of liberty and freedom,” he admonished the students, as reported in that evening’s Oakland Tribune. “…You can go back to Oakland and speed along the boulevards if you wish and attend gay parties in San Francisco, but you will pay for it later. Americans must have hard work. If they have not, they go to seed under it. You had better leave college if you cannot do things with a zest.” Such serious words for the incoming “Freshies”!

I can’t wait to tell you about Ursula’s college years—I have found a trove of information and photos online in a few of the university’s “Blue and Gold” yearbooks from that period. We’ll start with a tour of the Berkeley campus, as Ursula surely did before enrolling. All of the black and white photos below are from the 1922 yearbook.

Sather Tower, aka “the Campanile” 

Completed in 1914 as a centerpiece for the UC Berkeley campus, the Campanile is the third-tallest bell and clock tower in the world, according to the UC Berkeley website. Visible for miles, this designated City of Berkeley Landmark is 107 feet tall and houses a carillon of 61 bells, on which you can still hear concerts played today.

The Campanile bell tower

The Campanile bell tower

Wheeler Hall

Home to the English department, Wheeler Hall was opened in 1917, just two years before Ursula entered the university. She surely took classes there as a student of drama, and perhaps gathered with friends under “Wheeler Oak,” a tree that once shaded a portion Wheeler Hall steps and was a favorite meeting place for students back then.

Wheeler Hall

Wheeler Hall

Doe Library

Doe Library, built in the Classical Revival style and completed in 1911, was (and is) the main undergraduate library.

Doe Library
Doe Library

Doe Library

Inside Doe Library (2008)

The Greek Theatre

A stage for many student productions (including some in which Ursula appeared) as well as professional actors, the Greek Theatre was built in 1903 on the site of a rough outdoor bowl already in use as an amphitheater since 1894. Modeled on architecture from ancient Greece, the theater was gifted to the university by William Randolph Hearst. Today, the Greek Theatre hosts The Berkeley Jazz Festival, pop, rock, and world music concerts, UC Berkeley graduation ceremonies, occasional addresses by noted speakers, and other events.

The Greek Theatre

The Greek Theatre

Stay tuned for more from Ursula’s UC Berkeley days, coming Tuesday, July 15…

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