Monday, April 9, 2018

The Most Trusted Citizen in 1850s LA was a Jewish Frenchman

Don Solomon Lazard

Imagine, for a moment, that it's the 1850s and you've just arrived in Los Angeles.

Los Angeles has only been part of the United States for a few years (and some would argue it's part of the US in name only). Theft and murder are common. There are no banks (yet). You're carrying a few pieces of jewelry and just enough money to rent a room and start a small business. The ship to San Pedro and the long ride into town weren't cheap, and you can't afford to get robbed.

Who can you trust?

If you asked law-abiding locals who they would trust with cash and valuables, the answer would probably be "Don Solomon".

Solomon Lazard was from Lorraine. After stints in New Orleans and San Francisco working for his cousins' business, Lazard Frères (which was a dry goods company at the time), he decided to open his own dry goods business in San Diego. Unfortunately, sleepy little San Diego was too small of a town to support even a modest shop. Following the advice of a well-traveled sailor, Lazard decided to move his store to Los Angeles.

By 1853, Lazard and his cousin Maurice Kremer had set up shop in Mellus' Row, near the western corner of Los Angeles and Aliso Streets. Aliso Street was a very active business district in the 1850s, and the two cousins also benefitted from residents of San Gabriel, El Monte, and San Bernardino taking Aliso Street into town.

Soon enough, Lazard was elected to the City Council. He was a Third Lieutenant in the Los Angeles Guards (a volunteer militia - Los Angeles didn't have a military base yet). Lazard served on the Committee on Police, Committee on Streets, Committee on Lands, the Library Association, and the Chamber of Commerce. In 1856, he served on the Grand Jury. Two years later, he was appointed to supervise the local election.

Lazard was active in the Hebrew Benevolent Society, heading the Society's Committee on Charity and eventually serving as its President. (The Hebrew Benevolent Society is now known as Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles.) When a deadly smallpox outbreak swept through Los Angeles in 1863 - disproportionately affecting Mexican and Native American Angelenos - the Committee on Charity, under Lazard's leadership, donated $150 (about $2900 today) and collected additional funds to help care for indigent patients.

Early LA didn't really have banks. The town was too lawless to appeal to most bankers, even when business was booming. But locals needed safe places to store money and valuables.

Lazard and Kremer were merchants, not bankers. But they had spotless reputations and a large safe. It didn't take long for their customers to ask if they could leave their gold and silver with Lazard and Kremer for safekeeping. Lazard later partnered with Timothy Wolfskill in a general store. A few years later, Solomon's brother Abraham came to Los Angeles and joined the family business.

Harris Newmark relates a story about Lazard's professional ethics: Austrian immigrant Mathias "Mateo" Sabichi had left $30,000 with Lazard. No one had heard from Sabichi in so long that Lazard's employees thought he would never come for it. But Sabichi eventually returned to town, and upon presenting the certificate of deposit, was able to claim every cent.

It's hardly surprising that Lazard was known as "Don Solomon". He was such a popular local figure that he often floor-managed balls and fandangos and served as pallbearer for at least one local industrialist's funeral.

Towards the end of 1860, Lazard was arrested in his native France. He had returned home to visit his mother, and, as French law dictated, had registered with the local police. Young French men were legally required to complete a term of military service, and Lazard had left home at age seventeen without having done so. In spite of the fact that he was now a U.S. citizen, Lazard was court-martialed and sentenced to a stint in prison.

Lazard was in luck, however: the newly-appointed American minister to France, Charles J. Faulkner, worked to secure his release, and Emperor Napoleon III intervened. (Ironically, Faulkner - a Southerner who was arrested in early 1861 for trying to secure weapons for the Confederacy - was the author of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.) Lazard did have to pay a fine, but he was able to return to Los Angeles in early 1861.

A street in the heart of Frenchtown was named Lazard Street. It was later changed to Ducommun Street (Ducommun Yard, home base for Ducommun Industries, was bordered by the street on one side - the site is now a Little Tokyo bus depot). A different Lazard Street exists today - it's a short residential cul-de-sac in San Fernando. (Side note: I was pleasantly surprised to see Cinderella Ranch houses on Lazard Street. I am obsessed with them.) Mayor Joseph Mascarel lived at 99 Lazard Street (the old one downtown) during the last years of his life.

Lazard Street sign in San Fernando
As for Lazard himself, home was 657 Westlake Avenue in Echo Park. He and his wife Caroline (née Newmark; cousin of Harris Newmark) had three daughters and three sons.

Lazard's store - which sold French, English, and American-made dry goods, boots, shoes, clothing, and groceries (boasting in an 1852 newspaper advertisement that they would always sell goods at the lowest market prices for cash and pay the highest price for gold dust) - prospered to the point of becoming LA's earliest department store. Ville de Paris, or City of Paris, was a fixture of downtown Los Angeles and the city's French community for years. (I will have to give City of Paris its own entry. I will note here, however, that City of Paris once occupied the building we now know as Grand Central Market. The next time you're grabbing lunch at GCM, look around you and see if you can spot the bones of the old department store in the market today.)

As time marched on, LA got bigger, and water management got to be a bigger problem. Marchesseault and Sainsevain weren't successful, but the Los Angeles City Water Company - founded by Prudent Beaudry, Solomon Lazard, and Dr. John S. Griffin - prevailed. Although Beaudry is known for his work as a developer and his successful efforts to bring water to his hilltop properties, he didn't helm the City Water Company. It was Solomon Lazard who held the office of President. When the Company's 30-year lease expired, the city bought the City Water Company - now the Department of Water and Power - for $2 million. (That's about $60 million today.) The water contract specified, among other points, that the Company would replace all the wooden pipes with twelve miles of iron pipes, erect an ornamental fountain in the Plaza (replacing the ugly old reservoir tank that stood on the site), place a fire hydrant at each intersection, and provide water free of charge to public schools, city hospitals, and jails.

Don Solomon, described as an "old pioneer" when he passed away in 1916 at the ripe old age of 89, was survived by his wife and four of their six children. He is buried at Home of Peace Memorial Park in East Los Angeles.

As for his extended family's dry-goods firm, Lazard Frères got into banking after Solomon left. The company is now a publicly-traded investment bank known simply as Lazard (NYSE: LAZ). Some sources (including my copy of Le Guide Francais) credit Solomon with founding Lazard Frères; however, Lazard states that their Los Angeles branch didn't open until 2003. Oddly, a 1987 Los Angeles Times article points to a planned LA office opening soon, claiming it would be the firm's first office in California since the San Francisco branch closed in 1906.

(Edited to add: I originally planned to write about J.B. Leonis this week. In light of the fact that 85-year-old Holocaust survivor Mireille Knoll was brutally murdered in her apartment in Paris recently, I put J.B. on the back burner. LA's French community was not a monoculture, and this Franco-American blogger values the Lazards, Kremers, Meyers, Loebs etc. just as much as the Beaudrys, Pellissiers, Brousseaus, Mesmers, etc. Although I am not Jewish, I am from a heavily Jewish neighborhood, and bigotry of any kind really. pisses. me. off.

Rant over. I'm going to bed.)

Thursday, March 8, 2018

International Women's Day Special Edition: Adelina Clos Leonis

I still need to write a proper entry on Jean Baptiste Leonis. But his wife Adelina is also worthy of note.

After the messy, three-year legal battle over Michel Leonis' massive estate, twenty-year-old nephew and heir apparent J.B. hadn't inherited a penny. He did, however, have his late uncle's connections, and lined up work with another sheep-ranching French family. He had quite a long ride from Los Angeles to Lake Hughes (northeast of Santa Clarita and due west of Lancaster). In yet another example of how much land his uncle had owned, the surrounding area was originally named the Leonis Valley.

The Clos family's four children had ridden out to greet him on the trail. Seventeen-year-old Adelina, unusually for a teenage girl in 1892, rode bareback and carried a gun, just like her brothers.

Three years later, Adelina married J.B. in the Old Plaza Church (where her parents had been married three decades earlier).

John Baptiste Leonis Jr., nicknamed "Johnny", was born five months later (read into THAT what you will, and remember this was 1895...). Another baby, Marie, followed in 1896, but lived only a few weeks. Adelina Frances Leonis Jr., better known as "Lena", arrived in 1897.

By 1900, the family owned land in what is now the city of Vernon, and J.B. opened a mercantile on Downey Road. Although the store became a popular gathering place on Sundays (at least partly because it sold liquor...), it wasn't making enough money to support the family.

In a scenario that was highly unusual for the time (but which will be instantly familiar to a lot of working moms in 2018), J.B. went back to working away from home, while Adelina simultaneously ran the family business, raised two young children, and did the housework (and just think: she did all of this without modern technology or hired help).

After the City of Vernon, founded in 1905, made the Leonis family rich, Adelina traveled with J.B. (and often with their children) to such far-flung destinations as Mexico, Hawaii, Cuba, and Asia.  Not bad for a tomboy who grew up on a sheep ranch way out in the country.

Adelina and J.B.'s only grandchild was named Leonis Clos Malburg - a name paying tribute to both of his mother's parents.

After Johnny was dismissed from the family business, J.B. Leonis Inc., for embezzlement (and a few other things) in 1941, Adelina took on a larger role, replacing him as a vice president at the First National Bank of Vernon. She also sat on the bank's board. (One of my grandmothers had a stint as a bank teller in the '40s. Female bank employees rarely, if ever, became bank officers in 1941 - even if they were married to one of the bank's co-founders.)

Following a health scare in 1947, and realizing they wouldn't live forever, J.B. and Adelina dissolved J.B. Leonis Inc. for estate tax purposes - with each couple taking half the assets. J.B. held the land assets (calling himself "land rich and finance poor") while Adelina held the stocks, bonds, and other liquid assets.

Following J.B.'s death in 1953, Adelina (who took her role at the bank very seriously) stepped in to fill her late husband's shoes as the bank's president - a title she held until her own death in 1956.

By the way, if you're wondering why Adelina's family name, Clos, sounds familiar, you may have seen it on the base of a certain statue in front of a certain recently-closed hospital.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Frenchtown/Industrial Town

Los Angeles County's factory towns have French roots.

You probably didn't know this (almost no one does), and you may not believe it. But as with the oldest parts of Los Angeles proper, our names are right there on the street grid. And thankfully, these streets haven't been renamed or erased from existence (i.e. Marchesseault Street, Leonis Street downtown, Sainsevain Street, Sentous Street, Montreal Street...).

(Note: I'm including Whittier in this entry because the Pellissier family's dairy straddled modern-day Whittier and Industry, which are right next to each other.)

Pellissier Road, Whittier.
Pellissier Village Equestrian District, Whittier (built on part of the Pellissier Dairy...which is why it's one of those rare residential neighborhoods in LA County that are still zoned for horses).
I know the sign is in shadow, but squint a little and you'll see "Welcome" and "Bienvenidos" - clearly, someone dropped the ball on including "Bienvenue". Have some respect for the Pellissiers, s'il te plait! (Yes, I used the informal tu. Yes, I know that implies condescension, which the French perfected. This sign gives me a headache.)

Pellissier Place, City of Industry. (The Pellissier family's farmhouse stood on nearby Workman Mill Road.)
Leonis Malburg building, Vernon. (Leonis Clos Malburg was the grandson of Miguel Leonis' nephew, Jean Baptiste "J.B." Leonis - more on them at a later date. J.B. co-founded the city of Vernon with the Irish-born Furlong brothers.)
Leonis Boulevard, City of Vernon.
La Villa Basque, City of Vernon. (This was the only restaurant in Vernon for many years, and was one of Leonis Malburg's pet projects. Unsurprisingly, it's known for Basque cuisine.)
Leonis Street, City of Commerce.
Sentous Avenue, City of Industry.
Gone...but never forgotten.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Thank You GLAAM!

A very special merci beaucoup to Greater Los Angeles Area Mensa for inviting me to talk about my people for an hour, and to the StaRGazing 2018 attendees who came to my presentation.

While prepping for StaRGazing, I had some inquiries about whether it would be taped. Well...I tried. I really did. The friend who was supposed to tape my presentation had a personal emergency and couldn't come. So I set up my phone to tape the presentation. It cut off the Q&A at the end, and just like last year, my 8-year-old laptop stubbornly refuses to upload the file. (Even the Genius Bar can't help me with this aging bucket of bolts.)

I do have another presentation coming up in May (with the Los Angeles Visionaries Association) - more on that later. In the meantime, I'm looking into live-streaming smaller, "bite size" history lessons on Youtube.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Come Hear Me Speak!

As I've mentioned a few times over the last few months, I'm speaking at StaRGazing 2018, Greater Los Angeles Area Mensa's annual Regional Gathering. I'm scheduled for 3:15-4:30pm on Saturday, February 17. See you in San Pedro! (If you want to come, this Thursday, February 8, is the LAST day for online registration. If you're seeing this a little late, you can register in person at the RG, but you'll need to bring cash or a check.)

Can't make it to the RG? I'll be doing another LAVA Sunday Salon and walking tour in the spring, and will be re-tooling my "Frenchtown 101" talk from last September (we'll be visiting a different part of downtown). Sunday Salons are free and open to the public, but as space is limited (my previous salon sold out), RSVPs are required. Watch this space for more information...

Monday, February 5, 2018

Two Cartes de Visite. Three Possible Mayors. Who is Who?

For years, it was assumed that no pictures of Mayor Damien Marchesseault had survived to the present day. Recently, I broke the news that a surviving carte de visite identified the man depicted on its front as the forgotten Mayor.

Museum director Paul Spitzzeri, who kindly allowed me to view both cartes de visite recently, mentioned to me that, of course, LA had two Mayors during the year 1860 - Damien Marchesseault and Henry Mellus - and that the man in the mystery picture was definitely not Henry Mellus.


Technically, Los Angeles had three Mayors in 1860 - Marchesseault, Mellus, and (after Mellus died in office) Wallace Woodworth, who served as Acting Mayor for two weeks before Marchesseault again assumed the office. Could he be the mystery man?

I have searched in vain for a picture of Wallace Woodworth. (Does anyone out there have a picture of him?)

On seeing the picture on the right, identified as Damien Marchesseault, my mother commented that he resembled her French Canadian grandfather. The mystery mayor on the left doesn't appear to have any French features (although, to be perfectly fair, I am not a forensic anthropologist).

The man on the left can't be Henry Mellus. But, I don't believe he is Damien Marchesseault. Could he be Wallace Woodworth? Hopefully, someone out there has a picture of Woodworth that could either prove or disprove this possibility.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Rebirth of a Lost Frenchtown Landmark, Part 2

One hundred fifty years after his suicide, it seems that Los Angeles just might end up remembering Mayor Damien Marchesseault after all.

Recently, I reported that long-lost Marchesseault Street would be making a return of sorts. Elizabeth Carvajal, who is managing the project for LA Metro, kindly answered some questions:

FC: First, I'll need to introduce you properly. Can you tell me a little bit about your role at Metro and how you came to be involved with this project?

Carvajal: My name is Elizabeth Carvajal; I am a Senior Manager with Metro's Transit Oriented Communities group. I manage a robust work program that includes short to long term projects at and around Los Angeles Union Station. I am the Project Manager for the Los Angeles Union Station Forecourt and Esplanade Improvements Project.

FC: I've covered the fact that Marchessault Street has not existed in its original form for some time; however, I've had a very hard time creating an accurate timeline. From the city model at NHMLA, I know it was renamed before 1935. Do you have any idea when the street was altered/renamed?

Carvajal: Unfortunately, I do not. According to the 1888 Sanborn maps, several residential and commercial buildings were in place on the west side of Alameda Street, including the Pironi and Slatri Wine and Brandy Vaults and Distillery on the north side of the project area, the Los Angeles City Water Co. to the north of Marchessault Street, and various Chinese commercial buildings south of Marchessault Street. It appears to have still been in place in 1894. According to our research, by 1950, Marchessault was now East Sunset Boulevard.

FC: Despite being elected six times, Damien Marchessault has been so thoroughly erased from LA history that he does not appear on the official list of former mayors, no surviving pictures of him have ever been found*, and the memorial plaque outside the Biscailuz building is factually inaccurate. Countless former streets in this part of LA have been paved over and forgotten over the past 236 years. How did the upcoming demarcation of Marchessault Street come to be part of the project?

Carvajal: The design concept was developed prior to my joining Metro. I imagine that it was identified conceptually because of its former proximity in the project site. This concept will be discussed further during the upcoming design process.

FC: Will there be anything (e.g. signage, a plaque) to indicate what the contrasting pavers signify? If so, will there be any mention of the Los Angeles City Water Company (DWP predecessor) or the numerous Old Chinatown businesses that once lined Marchessault Street?

Carvajal: The demarcation of Marchessault Street will be evaluated further during the design process as well as any complementary plaques etc. At this time, we are not calling out the LA City Water Company or any specific businesses.

FC: Assuming all goes well, is there an estimated time frame for completion of the project?

Carvajal: If the Board certifies the Final EIR in February, we anticipate that construction would start and end in 2020.

Merci, Elizabeth. (And a beret-tip to Munson Kwok of the Chinese American Museum for putting me in touch with her.)

*I sent these questions in early December, prior to discovering that there is, in fact, a surviving picture of the Mayor.