A Visitor from San Francisco

If you’re new to Mystery Dancer, welcome! The best place to start is at the beginning and go from there.

I LOVE EVERYTHING ABOUT CREATING AND SHARING “Mystery Dancer,” but one of my favorite aspects is the detective work. My husband is amazed by my research skills, and tells me I should work for the NSA. It’s true, I love watching a picture take shape and sharpen as I discover and connect the “dots,” but I think I’ll focus on Ursula for now.

While researching her time in Hawaii, I came across a curious if confusing news item in the July 15, 1928 Honolulu Advertiser.

Honolulu Advertiser clip

Was this news brief from the July 15, 1928 “Honolulu Advertiser” correct?

Continue Reading →

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…

European Adventure, First Stop: France

In addition to many photographs, the surprise discovery of a second Cheshire photo album yielded a gem of information in the form of a news clipping pasted onto the book’s suede interior back cover. The newsprint is a little worse for wear, but clearly legible, and features a photo of a beautiful and elegant Ursula.

Newspaper article on Ursula going to France in 1924

An article published in an April 1924 issue of the “San Francisco Chronicle” reports on exciting news for Ursula

“U.C. Girl to Visit With Mme. Calve; Invitation to Spend Summer With Singer Accepted,” announced the headline, revealing a major reason Ursula decided to travel to Europe two weeks after graduating from UC Berkeley in 1924. Noting that Ursula would set sail for France on May 31 with her mother, the article tells us:

A poster for Massenet's comic opera "Sapho," featuring French singer Emma Calve, Ursula's teacher

A poster for Massenet’s comic opera “Sapho,” featuring French singer Emma Calve, Ursula’s teacher

“So impressed was Madame Emma Calve, famous singer, with the voice of Miss Ursula Cheshire, University of California senior, when she heard her sing three years ago, that yesterday she sent the girl an invitation to come to her chateau in Southern France and study voice culture there during the summer.”

According to the article, in addition to “voice culture,” Ursula’s studies in France would include dramatics and dancing.

Naturally, I was curious to find out more about Mme. Calvé. Described by Wikipedia as “probably the most famous French female opera singer of the Belle Époque,” Emma Calvé (né Rosa Emma Calvet, b. 1858-d. 1942) was an operatic soprano who enjoyed international acclaim, particularly for her performances in the title role of Georges Bizet’s Carmen. According to Encyclopaedia Britannica, her interpretation of Carmen was noted for its dramatic realism and was long considered the model. She sang regularly at New York City’s Metropolitan Opera and London’s Royal Opera House. Her friend Swami Vivekananda wrote of her, “The rare combination of beauty, youth, talents, and ‘divine’ voice has assigned Calvé the highest place among the singers of the West.”

Emma Calve in ad for Victor

Operatic star Emma Calve in an advertisement for the Victor phonograph and records

To be invited to study with the eminent opera singer was high praise, indeed, for Miss Ursula Cheshire. At the time, Calvé would have been 65 years old, just three years older than when she made this recording (music starts at 15 seconds in), and one year before she retired from the stage to focus solely on teaching.

In my research, I discovered that Calve penned an autobiography in 1922. In the book, titled My Life, she wrote about the summers during which she “filled my castle on the hilltop with different groups of young girls who have come to study with me.” It offers a rare glimpse of what Ursula’s time there would have been like, about which I will share in the next Mystery Dancer post. Until then, adieu!

Ursula Completes Her College Career

Since I posted “The Graduate…Or the Graduate Student?” I have found yet another reference to Ursula’s being a “senior” in 1924, so I am going to take a leap and assume she graduated from UC Berkeley that year, and not in 1923.

Commencement took place on May 14, 1924 in the new Memorial Stadium, which was dedicated the previous November. This was the first time in 21 years that graduation exercises were not held in the Greek Theater, the striking scene of some of the dramas in which Ursula acted, sang and danced.


University of California, Berkeley commencement May 14, 1924, held in the new Memorial Stadium. Ursula was one of 1,227 graduating seniors.

According to the Oakland Tribune (May 14, 1924), a record-breaking crowd estimated at more than 20,000 people witnessed the conferring of degrees upon the 1,227 members of the graduating class of 1924, and 923 candidates for higher degrees.


Ursula (far right) and friends (sorority sisters?). This photograph and the next were obviously taken on a special occasion. I like to think they were taken during a celebration of Ursula’s graduation from UC Berkeley. Judging by their clothes, it’s the right season, and Ursula’s hairstyle, appearance and demeanor seem fitting for a 22-year-old woman just finishing her college career.

The ceremony kicked off with the processional march of the university orchestra, which then played the national anthem. The audience and candidates bowed their heads for the invocation, and then sang “America” (“My Country, ‘Tis of Thee”). During the song’s last strains, the first student speaker, Marion Janet Harron, stepped to the podium.

Ms. Harron told her classmates that ideals should count more than monetary values, saying “False gods of the market place lower the moral currency of the nation…They make democratic government despisable with undemocratic graft.” (Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, eh?!)


Back row: left to right, I believe these are Ursula’s Aunt Jeannette, Mother Clara, Grandmother Matilda, and Aunt Mathilde
Middle row: three of Ursula’s friends (possibly sorority sisters?) and Ursula
Front row: possibly Aunt Jeannette’s son, Randall Temby, who looks to be about the right age (13 or 14)

Her fellow speaker, Jack Lisgar Merrill, communicated a more upbeat message, urging the graduating seniors to take up the goal of using “such talents and such skill as we have for the betterment of those about us and to exemplify by our conduct and in our ambitions the ideal of service.”

What will Ursula do after graduation? Where will she go? How will she use her talents? Stay tuned—we’ll find out in the next “Mystery Dancer” post…

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!