A Star Is Born

3-month-old Ursula and her parents

Alfred D. and Clara Cheshire pose with daughter, Ursula, on September 14, 1902, when she was age 3 months, 5 days

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, 1 month old

Ursula at one month old

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.

Ursula, age 1

The many faces of Ursula, at 1 year old

Ursula at age 1, with Mama Clara

Mama and 1-year-old Ursula

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.”

Ursula in the role of Locusta in the play "Nero"

Ursula in the role of Locusta in the play “Nero”

The Ghost of Ursula Cheshire

A card sent to Ursula's father in 1890

A card sent to Ursula’s father in 1890

At first, I was planning to write a post about Ursula’s beginnings, as the album holds several pictures of her as an adorable baby. But something happened tonight apropros to Halloween, so I decided to write this instead:

While paging through the album again, I discover a small, cream-colored envelope trimmed with a thick black border, postmarked 1890 from Ypsilanti, Michigan and accented with a red 2-cent stamp. Addressed in fountain-pen ink to Mr. A.D. Cheshire in San Francisco, it contains a small, thick card, also bordered in black. I know Mr. A.D. Cheshire is Ursula’s father because several pages earlier is a 1913 newspaper clipping that mentions him, his wife and “little daughter, Ursula.”

I reach into the envelope and slowly slip the card out. “In Loving Memory,” it says on the cover. I open it carefully, wondering why it is so thick. My stomach jumps slightly and I gasp. I feel as if the card were a jack-in-the-box and a surprise has burst out. There in center of the card are three thick locks of hair—brunette, blond and gray-brown—each tied with thin string and wrapped loosely in tissue paper.

AD Cheshire Card2Wow! This hair grew on the head of someone—perhaps Ursula herself—who is long gone. Maybe it is all Ursula’s hair, cut from her head at different stages of her life and slipped into the card for safekeeping years after it was sent to Mr. Cheshire. If this is true, I actually have part of Ursula with me. I feel a tug, as if there is a long, long string attached to the hazy, black and white Ursula of the past and extending into the Technicolor present, attached to me, who is unearthing and telling her story. It’s eerie.

But do you know what’s eerier? Just last night, my husband and I finished the first season of a dark, Canadian crime series called “Durham County.” In it, the serial killer cuts locks of hair off his victims’ heads—a blonde and brunette—and keeps them as macabre souvenirs. And, get this, the quote on the card, which is a remembrance of Mr. Cheshire’s mother (who “fell asleep in Jesus” the previous month) is a perfect script for a serial killer to leave behind at the crime scene:

“Safe, safe upon the ever-shining shore,
Sin, pain, and death, and sorrow, all are o’er,
Happy now and evermore.
‘Washed in the blood of the Lamb.’”

Ooh, creeeeeppy! (Do you think I watch too many crime dramas?)