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(This is Part 2 of a two-part post. Need to catch up? Read Part 1 here.) When I first thought of writing about the photograph of Ursula and Clara at Continue Reading →
The next news we have of Ursula since her singing on KFWB radio comes from the “Society” column in the March 27, 1927 issue of the Los Angeles Times. Apparently, Ursula was a guest of honor at a luncheon and bridge party given by “Mrs. and Miss Everhardy,” who were longtime friends of the Cheshires. The first mention I found of them in my research was when Ursula’s parents attended a party at their house in February 1909. In June 1916 when Ursula was 14 years old, she was among about “fifty or more of the younger set” who were invited to a surprise dance party for her friend Elizabeth (“Miss Everhardy”).
Sixty-four people were invited to the 1927 luncheon, described as “one of the lovely affairs of the month.” Ursula’s mother, Clara, assisted the hostesses with the party, which included prizes for card games.
Light on fact checking, the news article noted that Ursula had “just returned from several years in Paris, France, where she has been studying voice culture…” As we know, Ursula did study voice culture, but it was in Southern France, and she was abroad just from May 1924 through June 1925, possibly returning to Paris briefly in 1926 to appear in divorce court.
Held at the Elks lodge in Los Angeles, the Everhardys’ event featured lovely décor:
“A spring motif was charmingly carried out in the table decorations, and the tall blue tapers were tied with fluffy bows of yellow tulle, following out a blue and gold color motif, while the place cards were hand-painted sketches of spring maids in all the dainty French colorings.”
Constructed just two years earlier, the Elks’ Art Deco building was later transformed into a luxurious hotel, the Park Plaza, which, according to its website, still stands but is used “exclusively for events and filming.”
Until next time…
Given Ursula’s dramatic and singing activities in Los Angeles in 1926 and 1927, I assumed she settled there after she and her mother, Clara, returned from Europe. Now I have proof: A 1926 voter registration list showing her address as 1967 North Bronson Ave., situated in L.A.’s Hollywood neighborhood, the world’s “film capital” at the time. That year, studio newcomer Greta Garbo starred in her first silent Hollywood film, Torrent, a Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) production.
Registered as Republicans (can you imagine what they would think of Donald Trump?!), Ursula and Clara lived together at that address at least through 1934, according to voter registration lists from subsequent years. Clara’s occupation was listed as “housewife,” while Ursula’s was “singer.”
That is no surprise, given her studying voice in France with opera star Emma Calvé and singing on the radio in L.A. But now we know that Ursula thought of herself as a “singer.” I didn’t know it at the time I started this blog, but apparently “Mystery Singer” would have been a more apt title (although it doesn’t have quite the same ring and intrigue as “Mystery Dancer”!).
Fun fact: The original “Hollywood” sign actually said “Hollywoodland” (erected 1923) and was an advertisement for a new suburban housing development. If you’re interested in this iconic sign’s history, check out this nifty website.
Paging through the photo album a while back, I found a newspaper clipping that reported on an upsetting, life altering change for Ursula and her mother, Clara. The timing wasn’t right to share it on Mystery Dancer then, but our story calls for it now.
June 19, 1913 was a sad day for Ursula and Clara. Ursula’s father, Alfred Dudley Cheshire, had been ill for several months and died on that day, just 10 days after Ursula’s 11th birthday. Even though Ursula lived more than a hundred years ago, and I didn’t know her (duh!), I feel so sad for her losing her father at such a tender age.
According to the article that appeared in The Morning Union (a daily newspaper covering Grass Valley and Nevada City, California between 1908 and 1945), Alfred was born in Hamilton, Canada, and emigrated to the United States “when a mere youth.” I know from census records that he was born around 1853 and would have been about 60 years old at the time of his death.
Alfred first settled in Michigan and became an expert cabinet maker before relocating to San Francisco in 1830. There, he began a career in undertaking and eventually came to own the California Undertaking Co., which he sold “in splendid advantage” around 1903. Alfred and Clara married in 1899.
The newspaper reports that:
“Everyone who knew Alfred Cheshire esteemed him as a man of the strictest integrity and honorable in every sense of the word. He made friends readily and always retained them.”
The full article appears below. Rest in peace, dear Alfred.
So, I have a theory about how Ursula’s parents, Alfred and Clara, met. And, based on a historical tidbit I discovered today, I have another, related theory about how our Mystery Dancer came to be named Ursula. In my version of events, it all started with two secret societies: the Odd Fellows and the Native Daughters of the Golden West.
Through several mentions in The San Francisco Call, I have learned that Alfred was quite active in the Independent Order of Odd Fellows fraternal organization, which is similar to the Freemasons with its degrees, symbols and ritual. He belonged to the society’s Yerba Buena Lodge No. 15, instituted in 1853, and was elected its Noble Grand (the lodge’s highest office) in 1896. (Fun fact: “Yerba Buena” was the original name of San Francisco.)
While the Odd Fellows was (and is) a benevolent association undertaking various charitable projects, it also provided a social network for its members. For example, a newspaper article from 1895 reported that the Buena Vista Lodge threw a festive bash (with Alfred in attendance) for members and friends, featuring music performances, recitation, singing and a humorous address, which “for half an hour kept the audience convulsed with merriment.” To top off the evening, the hall was cleared of chairs and “dancing was indulged in until midnight.”
According to voter registration records from the early 1890s, Alfred was five-foot-nine with dark hair, a dark complexion and blue eyes. Did those eyes spy Clara among the ladies and gentlemen on the dance floor at a club event like the one described? Perhaps she was one of the “friends” invited. It’s possible.
You see, Clara belonged to a similar organization: the Order of Native Daughters of the Golden West, a fraternal and patriotic organization of California-born women. While Clara was active in the group’s Manzanita Parlor No. 29 of Grass Valley, she no doubt had friends, or at least acquaintances, in the San Francisco parlors, as she was a delegate to the 1896 Grand Parlor meeting held in Napa, and served as an elected officer in 1898. The Native Daughters and Odd Fellows worked together at times, for instance in 1897 organizing San Francisco’s Carnival of the Golden Gate, the purpose of which was to attract visitors to the city. Perhaps one of Clara’s Native sisters invited her down for the event and she met Alfred then. It’s just a theory, but I like it!
In any case, they did meet each other, and married in 1899. Clara became pregnant with Ursula in 1901. My second theory related to the secret societies is that, while thinking of names for her impending baby, Clara was inspired by the history of the Native Daughters of the Golden West, the group she devoted time and energy to in the years leading up to her marriage. I was thrilled to learn today that when the Native Daughters group was founded in September 1886, its charter members selected for its first Parlor (akin to a Lodge) the distinctive name of “Ursula” (meaning “little she-bear”—suggestive of courage and strength)!
While researching Ursula and her family via the Library of Congress’s “All Digitized Newspapers 1836-1922” website, I discovered a bit more about their Baker Street home in San Francisco, where Ursula lived as a little girl. My previous post included a link to the deed for the lot on Baker Street that Clara’s father, Alfred, bought in 1903. When I initially read the deed, I had been puzzled that Alfred bought the lot for just $10. It didn’t make sense that it would be so cheap, unless perhaps the house hadn’t been built yet. Maybe the real estate records stating the house was constructed in 1902 were wrong, and the Cheshires had the house built in 1903. But that didn’t make sense either—$10 still would have been a ridiculous price for the lot.
And now I know why. The $10 must have been just a legal formality to purchase the lot, because Alfred actually paid $9,250 in August 2003 for the new 2,400 square-foot, 2-flat house, as I learned from the Real Estate section in The San Francisco Call. According to the article, residential properties were in strong demand at the time.
$9,250 was no small potatoes back then. According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s inflation calculator, if he had paid that amount 10 years later in 1913 (the earliest date for which statistics are available) it would be worth about $219,000 in today’s dollars. Since he paid the amount in 1903, it presumably would be worth even more today.
Compared with present-day real estate prices, however, Alfred paid peanuts for 715-717 Baker St. He would be laughed out of the real estate office if he bid $219,000 for the house today—almost exactly two years ago, this hot property sold for $1,635,000!
The real estate listing from 2011 describes the building as consisting of two large, remodeled, full-floor Victorian flats with period details, beautiful wood floors, high ceilings, bay windows and fireplaces. I wonder if the new owner would be interested in learning about the first family to walk across his home’s wood floors, play piano in the parlor, peer out the bay windows and warm themselves by the fire.
I’ve been having fun researching Ursula’s early life, and have found several mentions of her and her parents in early 1900s San Francisco and Los Angeles newspapers, mainly in the “Society” columns. I feel like I am on a treasure hunt, and for me, the clues I am discovering are the individual coins, gems and jewels that are amassing one by one in the chest that holds Ursula’s story—the ultimate treasure.
I was particularly thrilled when I came across this announcement of Ursula’s birth in the San Francisco Call’s “Births—Marriages—Deaths” column. It confirms
she indeed burst into the world on June 9, 1902, which I had earlier deduced from the penciled caption on the back of the baby picture at left, which noted the photo was “taken Sept. 14th, 1902, baby age 3 mos., 5 days.” Another copy of the same photograph announced that Ursula weighed 12 pounds (!) at birth.
At the time of the 1900 Census, Ursula’s parents, Clara and Alfred Cheshire, were living at 516 Jones Street in San Francisco (just three blocks south of where my husband and his ex-wife lived in the late 1980s!). The Cheshires may still have resided there at the time of their daughter’s birth, but in August 1903 when she was one year old, they bought a lot on the west side of Baker Street, just north of McAllister. I discovered this in the “Real Estate Transactions” column in the San Francisco Call, which let me to an index of deeds, and then to the deed itself (which I found at familysearch.org).
The inscription written on the back of the photo below of the interior of the Cheshires’ home confirms their residence as 715 Baker Street, where they lived when Ursula “was small.” According to San Francisco property records and a contemporary real estate description, their house—which still stands!—was a Victorian dwelling built in 1902. As you can see from the picture, Clara and Alfred decorated it in typical ornate Victorian fashion. You can see what the exterior and interior of the home look like today, including some period details, in photos appearing on a 2011 real estate listing.
The Cheshires lived within walking distance of Golden Gate Park and I can just imagine Clara, Alfred and little Ursula visiting there from time to time. (In fact, a couple of the pictures in the album may have been taken there, although it’s impossible to say for sure because they have no captions.) According to the Encyclopedia of San Francisco, “At the turn of the century, Golden Gate Park was the free Disneyland of its time, with attractions ranging from animals and birds to lush plantings and numerous types of recreational and athletic activities.”
I just want to say I am having a ball with this blog and everything it entails, and I hope you’re having as much fun learning about Ursula as I am! Until next time…
On Monday, June 9, 1902, the local newspaper welcomed to San Francisco thousands of Shriners from “all parts of the Union,” who were gathering there for a weeklong convention. Elsewhere in the city that day, Clara and Alfred Cheshire, who had been married for two and a half years, welcomed baby daughter Ursula into their lives. At ages 30 and 49 respectively, Clara and Alfred were older-than-average first-time parents.
Ursula was born in the era of silent film; just two months before her birth, the first permanent movie theater opened in Los Angeles. Women would not gain the right to vote for another 18 years, and it was not uncommon to read of lynching in the daily news. Earlier in the year, a great workers’ strike in the anthracite coalfields of Pennsylvania had threatened to shut down winter fuel supply to all major cities until President Theodore Roosevelt got involved. At the same time, the United States of America was enjoying a continued “period of unbounded prosperity,” and its “place must be great among nations,” according to the president’s December 1902 State of the Union address.
In an uncanny coincidence, the date of Ursula’s birth also happens to be the date of the Roman Emperor Nero’s death by suicide nearly 2,000 years earlier. That in and of itself would not be worth mentioning but for the fact that in 1922, Ursula played the role of Nero’s wife, Locusta, in a college production of the English dramatist Stephen Phillips’s tragedy, “Nero.”