Saturday, June 9, 2018

A Brief History of Philippe Mathieu and the French Dip

Neon blade sign at Philippe the Original.
Philippe Mathieu started out working in a deli in his native France. By the time he retired, he'd invented a quintessential LA dish that has been imitated many, many times - but never really duplicated. (Give it up, Cole's - no one believes you. More on that in a minute.)

After a stint owning a deli on Alameda, Philippe and his brother Arbin opened the New Poodle Dog restaurant on Spring Street in 1911 (if it existed today, it would be just southwest of City Hall). The name was likely a tongue-in-cheek reference to the Old Poodle Dog restaurant in San Francisco. The New Poodle Dog closed in 1913, and the Mathieu brothers opened another white-tablecloth restaurant on Alameda Street just south of Aliso Street - the heart of Frenchtown.

Frenchtown had more than a few nicer French restaurants, however, and Philippe had a talent for simpler, but still well-prepared, food. Philippe opened his namesake restaurant on Alameda Street, south of Temple, in 1908. If it existed today, it would be firmly in the middle of Little Tokyo, but at the time, it was the center of Frenchtown's original core.

Philippe's customers often referred to him as "Frenchy", and took to calling the restaurant "Frenchy's".

You know where this is going, right?

Philippe moved his eatery to 246 Aliso Street (south of Los Angeles Street) in 1918 (again, still in Frenchtown's original footprint). That year, he began serving the sandwich we now call the French Dip.

The story of how the sandwich came to be invented varies, depending on who told it and when. I won't rehash any of the origin stories here, but I will refer you to Eater LA's commentary on a Thrillist piece examining who really invented the French Dip. (Read both. Trust me.)

I'll add a little food for thought (pun intended) to both publications' conclusions (spoiler alert: the evidence gives Philippe's a stronger and far more logical claim): imitators typically pale in comparison to originators. Every so often, someone (food blogger, local magazine, travel writer) will sample both, or ask local eaters for their pick of the two French Dips. Philippe's always wins taste tests easily and always wins polls by a landslide.

By the way, I have no personal stake in this and can't offer a firsthand opinion on either version of the sandwich (I don't eat meat). I do, however, believe in giving credit where credit is due.

Philippe packed up and moved up the street (to 364 Aliso) in 1925. But he, personally, didn't stay for very long.

Philippe (whose grandson described him to the LA Times as frugal) had promised his wife that he'd retire when he turned 50. He did indeed retire in 1927 at age 50, selling the restaurant to the Martin brothers and moving back to France with his wife.

But the restaurant, by far one of the very oldest in Los Angeles, had one more move to make. Freeway construction forced Philippe's to relocate to its present location, just north of Union Station on the southern edge of Chinatown (again, formerly a French neighborhood).

Los Angeles Magazine recently explored how to correctly pronounce the restaurant's name. What they don't seem to notice is that pronunciation seems to vary based on the speaker's background. Philippe's grandson uses the French pronunciation (no surprise here), and Emeril Lagasse isn't TOO far off. Most Angelenos who didn't grow up speaking French use the Hispanicized pronunciation "Felipe's".

It's worth noting, of course, that many early Angelenos adopted, or at least sometimes used, Spanish versions of their names. To give just a few examples from Frenchtown: Louis Bauchet was typically listed in records as Luis, Jean-Louis Vignes was "Don Luis del Aliso", Pierre Sainsevain was commonly referred to as "Don Pedro", and Henri Penelon was often called "Horacio" or "Honore". Mispronouncing "Philippe" as "Felipe" is, in a way, fitting for one of LA's oldest restaurants.

(In the interest of full disclosure, my parents used to go to Philippe the Original on dates.)

Monday, May 28, 2018

Memorial Day Special Edition: French Angelenos in World War One

"War is the business of the French, and they do it very well."

                                                                               - Rudyard Kipling

World War One began in 1914.

The United States of America initially stayed out of the conflict, only entering the war in 1917.

Los Angeles' French community, however, rushed to the aid of their homeland.

The 1918 Los Angeles City Directory (i.e. phone book) lists a French Ambulance Service sharing space with the Alliance Francaise (the location is now Ace Hotel Los Angeles). Three blocks away, there was a French Society for the Relief of Wounded Soldiers. Since phone books are compiled in advance, the Ambulance Service and Society likely existed prior to 1918. (Note to self: check the 1915-1917 city directories the next time I'm deep in the bowels of Central Library. I can't believe I forgot to do that this time.)

Most notably, Georges Le Mesnager - 64 years old in 1914 - stepped away from all four of his jobs and his large family to go back to France and enlist in the French Army. He earned several medals for bravery, was wounded five times, and eventually acted as a special liaison to General Pershing. (Mesnager noted that his fellow French soldiers doubted the arriving American troops would be of much help. He assured them otherwise.) His last task before retiring to the Verdugo Hills was to establish a society for Los Angeles' French war veterans (presumably, there were enough French veterans of war in LA to merit founding such a society).

Dr. Kate Brousseau, a busy psychologist and professor, took a two-year sabbatical to put her French fluency and Ph.D to work in war-torn France. Dr. Brousseau, who was 55 when she left California, spent 1917 and 1918 examining French women called into war service and working with French soldiers in Lorraine, French-occupied Germany, and war-torn northern France. When the war ended, she helped to rehabilitate traumatized soldiers (today we'd call it treating PTSD).

And then there was Lucien Napoleon Brunswig.

Brunswig, a pharmacist by trade, was already active in immigrant support societies and social organizations when the war began. He soon became active in the American Committee for Devastated France and the Maisons-Claires (which supported French war orphans). In 1917 at the age of 63, Brunswig spent eight months in France, writing about his experiences. After the war, he vice-chaired the committee that placed the Doughboy statue in Pershing Square. (Brunswig, like Remi Nadeau, deserves his own biography. But give me time.)

Pershing Square is slated for a renovation. Happily, I have been informed that the Doughboy will remain in the park.

Take a moment to remember all the good people who have died in conflict. And take a moment to remember the French and French-speaking Angelenos who walked away from everything to do whatever they could.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

How I Fell Down The Rabbit Hole to Frenchtown

Whenever I'm asked about my blog, one question always pops up: how did I start on this journey?

In the spring of 2013, I was doing two things at once. My mom knew very little about her late father's family, apart from the fact that they were mostly farmers and of French extraction. When she started doing genealogical research, I helped her put her giant redwood of a family tree together.

At the same time, we were clearing out Grandma's house in the Valley to put it on the market.

In the back of Grandma's Danish modern buffet cabinet, I found a very old, deeply yellowed menu from a Chinese restaurant. I couldn't tell how old it was, but based on the condition and font style, I'm guessing it was at least 60 years old (I've spent my entire life around vintage and antique items and can guess the era correctly most of the time).

Later that day, I pulled up Google Maps and entered the restaurant's address (listed on the front of the menu) to see if it still existed. It was long gone - if the building were still there, it would be on Castelar Elementary School's campus.

I zoomed in for a closer look and spotted something strange. Something that made no sense at all.

"Public Art - 'Jeanne d'Arc'".

I clicked on it.

Joan of Arc was standing smack in the middle of Chinatown, outside of a hospital building.

What the hell?!

So I started Googling. I found out pretty quickly that the Pacific Alliance Medical Center was previously the French Hospital.

What the hell?! Since when did LA have a French Hospital?

Since the cornerstone was laid in 1869, as it turned out. That hospital celebrated its 100th anniversary when my mom was in high school. But she never knew it existed until I told her about it. Mom grew up miles away in Santa Monica/Mar Vista, and my grandparents definitely weren't socially active in what little remained of LA's French community.

Every answer led to more questions. Jean-Louis Vignes, the Sainsevains, the Nadeaus, the Mesmers, the Pellissiers...and more. So many more. And one question loomed over all the rest: why was this sizable, once-thriving community missing from LA's narrative?

Five years later, I keep running lists of people I want to profile on this blog. I keep lists of forgotten French families in greater LA whose lives are, as of now, still a complete mystery to me. I keep lists of places where I need to do serious research when I can get some time off. I've plotted well over 400 sites associated with Southern California's forgotten French on a Google Map (and I'm nowhere near done).

I'm still finding out how deep the rabbit hole goes. And now you know: it began five years ago with a yellowed, crumbling menu from a long-forgotten Chinese restaurant. (In an interesting turn of events, some of this blog's biggest supporters are members of the Chinatown community.)

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.