Ursula’s Excellent Adventure (Part 2)

Ursula Cheshire at Chateau Cabrieres

Ursula on the Grand Front Terrace at Château Cabrières, France (Photo published in “Themis” of Zeta Tau Alpha)

Last week, I posted part one of Ursula’s European adventure—written by Ursula, herself! Here’s part two, a richly detailed account of studying and living at famous opera singer Emma Calvé’s castle in southern France. Ursula’s travelogue was originally published in her sorority’s quarterly journal, Themis of Zeta Tau Alpha, in March 1925.

[Part two]
Studying and Traveling Abroad
By Ursula Claire Cheshire

“Château de Cabrières, the home of Mme. Calvé, is in the southern part of France, on one of the highest peaks of the Cevene mountains, miles away from any real city. The castle is old Roman style with large round towers, and dates back to the year 1050 A.D. Huge iron gates are at the entrance of the grounds, which are surrounded by thick stone walls, while at the entrance of the château there are two ancient iron bolted doors, one leading into an open court and the other into the hallway.

Château Cabrières

Château Cabrières

The rooms of the château are all exquisitely furnished with things from all parts of the globe. Three rooms appealed to me particularly. First the ancient guard room (now used for the dining room) with its original stone floor, ceiling and fireplace; next the salon with its large carved furniture, and then the Louis XIV bedroom with its heavily handcarved Louis XIV bed.

The castle was an ideal place to study. There was nothing near to bother us. There was nothing near to hear us. We could sing to the many mountain peaks on all sides, with only the sheep on the hillside, or the oxen in the valley, to hear the echoes of our voices.

Jean Henri Fabre

French naturalist Jean Henri Fabre

Yet sometimes this tranquility was broken, for we had guests from near and far—musicians, artists and even reporters. When from our heights we would see an auto turn off the main highway below and start to climb the mountain road, that was our signal to prepare for company. Also at different times we would give concerts in the near-by towns, which necessitated short trips, and again our studies would be put aside for a while. One very interesting program was given at Rodez, the capitol of the department of Aveyron, to raise funds for a monument to the great French naturalist, Henri Fabre.

bon_bonsI will never forget my first soirée at the château. Guests came from all around to give us a fête, bringing with them pastries, bonbons, wine and champagne, and a grand feast was spread. The evening was spent in dancing and singing and I had a rather interesting time trying to converse with our guests with my then small French vocabulary.”

To be continued…

 

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Ursula’s Excellent Adventure (Part 1)

Among the many reasons I love working on this blog is the rush of excitement that comes when I discover a hidden “gem” that I know will enrich the treasure box that is Ursula’s story.

Ursula Cheshire at Chateau Cabrieres

Ursula on the Grand Front Terrace at Château Cabrières, France (Photo published in “Themis” of Zeta Tau Alpha)

I experienced such a moment after finishing my May 19 post on Ursula’s time studying at opera star Emma Calvé’s castle in southern France.

At that time, I decided to cast one more line of inquiry into the “intergoogle,” not expecting much in return. I was curious to see if there were any written accounts by one of Madame Calvé’s other “young songbirds” of that period—perhaps in the memoirs of someone who found later fame.

Lo and behold, my search returned a result that indicated Ursula, herself, had written a report of studying with Madame Calvé and traveling abroad! It was published in her sorority’s quarterly journal, Themis of Zeta Tau Alpha. I couldn’t believe my luck!

I clicked on the link, but was frustrated to find that I couldn’t access the journal online. I dug around a little more and found that there was one available copy of the journal—in a library storage facility located at the University of Michigan. So, I contacted my local public library and arranged to receive a digital copy of the report via interlibrary loan.

A couple days later and voilà!—a digital scan of the article appeared in my e-mail inbox. My heartbeat quickened as I clicked on the PDF. And then there they were: Ursula’s own words, painting a vivid portrait of her glorious time in France and beyond. I was elated, and felt almost like I was being reunited with a long-lost friend.

Studying and Traveling Abroad, By Ursula Cheshire

Ursula’s account of her European travels appeared in the March 1925 issue of “Themis,” Zeta Tau Alpha’s quarterly journal

I will post Ursula’s story in three parts, with part one (below) covering her departure from the United States and arrival in France, and her experience of Paris before journeying south; part two (next Tuesday—special edition of Mystery Dancer!) describing her time studying at Château Cabrières; and part three (another special edition, on June 30), covering her European travels with Mme. Calvé and the other “songbirds.” Enjoy!

[Part one]
Studying and Traveling Abroad
By Ursula Claire Cheshire

 “Last May, after the closing of college at Berkeley, I left California, accompanied by my mother, to study with Mme. Emma Calvé in her castle in France.

Zeta sisters and friends bid us bon voyage as our train left the Oakland station and after a very enjoyable trip across the continent and a two weeks visit in New York, we found ourselves sailing out of New York harbor. As our steamer passed the Statue of Liberty my thoughts began to wander, and I wondered what my new life in the old world held for me.

Cherbourg, where we disembarked, was the first little French city to come before my eyes, and I remember how quaint I thought it was. There is a high stone wall at the waterfront with a straight line of French shops rising behind it, while the harbor was filled with small sailboats. Sitting on the wall or leaning over it were any number of French lads watching our steamer come in, and the streets were filled with two-wheeled carts, pulled by the horse, the oxen or the peasant.

After a long ride on the small French train with its many compartments, through the beautiful open country of Normandy with its fields of wheat and red poppies, we arrived at Paris to the ‘toots’ of taxi horns—and I thought ‘so this is Paris,’ as many others have thought before me. The buildings are not high like our American skyscrapers but what they lack in height they make up for in beauty, for they are all decorated.

The Parisian life is very gay and the shops and cafés hold much interest for the visitor, while even more alluring are such places as the Louvre with its galleries of art, Notre Dame with its rose windows, Eiffel Tower, the Triumphal Arch, and the Champ Elyseés. I loved Paris, its beauty and its life, and I hated to leave it, but it was necessary to go to Cabrières to study.”

To be continued…

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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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Brave Young Woman in a Brand New World

Wheeler Hall, the UC Berkeley building at the center of the College of Letters and Science, in which Ursula was enrolled

Wheeler Hall, the UC Berkeley building at the center of the College of Letters and Science, in which Ursula was enrolled

It was the fall of 1919 when Ursula began her freshman year as one of 5,250 students enrolled in the College of Letters and Science at the University of California, Berkeley. Just one year before, as World War I was ending, the University was contending with the Spanish influenza epidemic of 1918, according to a fascinating article in the Chronicle of the University of California. Almost a quarter of the campus community had contracted the disease, which took the lives of 20 students. The story reports:

“The most serious influenza epidemic to date would witness university buildings converted into make-shift hospitals, a segment of the campus quarantined, women students working as assistant nurses and “flu mask” manufacturers, public activities curtailed, classes canceled and spring semester delayed.”

By the time Ursula embarked on her college career, the Berkeley campus was back to normal. But that didn’t mean the drama was over; for Ursula — leaving home and donning her new independence — it was just beginning. In fact, the drama for her commenced two weeks before the start of school. As the Oakland Tribune reported on August 26, 1919:

From the "Oakland Tribune," August 26, 1919

From the “Oakland Tribune” 

“For three weeks the social fate of many of the freshman co-eds at the University of California has hung in the balance, but now the strenuous rushing season is over, and the sororities have mailed the bids to the successful ‘rushees.’

It is the custom of the women’s organizations to ‘rush,’ or entertain, a number of freshman co-eds for two weeks prior and one week after the opening of the college semester…”

Upon paging through an online digital scan of UC Berkeley’s Blue and Gold yearbook covering the college year 1919-1920, I discovered that Ursula was one such rushee. There on page 523, row 6, I saw her face peering out from among more than 40 other young women. She had apparently passed muster (I’m not surprised), and was one of several freshman women accepted into Zeta Tau Alpha (ZTA).

Ursula's photo is among the Zeta Tau Alpha member portraits for the academic year 1919-1920

Ursula’s photo is among the Zeta Tau Alpha member portraits for the academic year 1919-1920

This national sorority was founded in 1898 at the Virginia State Female Normal School. The UC Berkeley chapter’s handsome, two-story house was located just north of campus at 1700 Euclid Avenue; the cost of board and lodging would have been between $30 and $50 a month.

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

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

A 2012 article in the Daily Californian noted that the chapter had participated in such service projects as volunteering in all-campus Red Cross drives during World War I and “adopting” a French orphan, which entailed sending funds to an overseas organization for the child’s care.

ZetaTauAlphaSeal_1921yrBookThe ZTA charter states that the sorority’s purpose is “to intensify friendship, promote happiness among its members, and in every way to create such sentiments, to perform such deeds, and to mould such opinions as will conduce to the building up of a nobler and purer womanhood in the world.” I imagine and hope that, as a freshman entering a new and exciting world, Ursula found such friendship and happiness during her time with ZTA.

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