Wednesday, December 5, 2018

J.B. Leonis' Prized Whiskey On the Auction Block

I've said it before and I'll say it again: LA's hidden French history is filled with great stories you just can't make up.

Beret-tip to the anonymous reader who tipped me off about an upcoming Christie's auction. Specifically, Christie's is auctioning off Jean-Baptiste Leonis' secret stash of rare and valuable pre-Prohibition whiskey.

Before co-founding the City of Vernon and its eponymous bank, J.B. founded a store that sold, among other things, liquor (the city of Los Angeles was officially "dry" at the time). In Vernon's earliest days, while J.B. and the Furlong brothers were courting industrial tenants, the city's country club and bars were popular destinations for drinkers. But, as Prohibition loomed, J.B. secretly built hidden vaults in both of his homes for his beloved whiskey. As a banker, it wouldn't have been hard for him to obtain bank vault doors for the spaces. And no one knew...until J.B.'s grandson Leonis Malburg passed away in 2017, more than a century after J.B. secretly hid over 40 cases (!) of Hermitage, Old Crow, and more.

The auction is this Friday, December 7 in New York (click the link - they have a GREAT photo of J.B.'s hidden stash from the Leonis family's Hancock Park home*). Hint: jump to page 122 of the auction catalogue. If anyone goes, I'd love to hear about it.

Fellow Angelenos, this is your chance to own a very unique piece of LA's forgotten French history. Individual bottles are expected to go for roughly the same amount of money that my car is worth, so I'm definitely out!

*The second vault was at the Leonis family's Little Tujunga ranch. I believe the Huntington Harbour beach house was built MUCH later.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Early French Restauranteurs of Los Angeles: Victor Dol

Los Angeles is, for many foodies, a dream destination.

Year-round access to good fresh produce (and good wine)? Check. 
One of the most ethnically and culturally diverse cities in the world? Check.
Relatively affordable rent (compared to Tokyo, Paris, London, New York, San Francisco, etc.)? If you don't mind a strip mall location, check.
Friendly to food trucks? Check. (By the way, food trucks are often cleaner than brick-and-mortar restaurants.)
Chefs of all backgrounds applying French cooking techniques? According to the late Jonathan Gold, check.

The first chefs in Los Angeles to apply French cooking techniques were, of course, French. And the first LA-based chef to have trained in Paris was a Frenchman named Victor Dol.

Victor Dol was born April 5, 1840 in the southern French town of Cuers. After training as a chef in Paris, he came to the United States in 1860. Victor married his first wife, Felicie, in 1862 (I can't find a maiden name for Felicie, but census records indicate her parents were French). They had two daughters - Josephine in 1864 and Victorine in 1870. The Dol family must have moved around quite a bit in those early days, since Josephine was born in Cuba and Victorine was born in British Columbia, Canada.

Census and voter records indicate that Victor came to San Francisco first, establishing the upscale restaurant Maison Dorée (which was likely named after the Parisian restaurant Maison Dorée). He became a naturalized citizen there in 1876, and set up shop in Los Angeles in 1877. 

Victor's uncle, Benjamin Flotte, was already living in Los Angeles and running the Oriental Café (don't let the name fool you - the menu was strictly European) with another Frenchman, one C. Casson, and a Prussian, H. Schmitt. (The Oriental Café stood at 221 Main Street, directly across from the Pico House.) Flotte helped his nephew get his first LA restaurant off the ground (and, at least for a time, lived with the Dol family). 

Victor owned a restaurant in the Downey Block at one point (no surprise here, since the Downey Block also hosted a French-owned wine store and a French-language newspaper). He founded the Restaurant Français at 221 N Main St in 1886. But he is best known (in Los Angeles, anyway) for the Commercial Restaurant.

Imagine, if you can, going to the Commercial Restaurant in 1877. Longtime Angelenos of the day would likely still remember the not-distant-enough days of dirty, primitive eateries like Jean La Rue's. Although the Commercial Restaurant was about three blocks away from La Rue's former location, it couldn't have been further from La Rue's in spirit.

If you were coming from the older part of Frenchtown, you would be walking southwest on Main Street (make that same walk today and you would pass behind City Hall). You come to a gap between two buildings and walk in.

A brick-lined courtyard with a decorative fountain beckons, with the restaurant itself just behind. It has real floors - not dirt. Sneak a peek around you as you dine on fine French cuisine and you may well spot opera stars, politicians, well-heeled visitors from the East Coast, and the celebrities of the era in addition to early LA's foodie crowd.

Curiously, Victor Dol and Eugene Aune were both from the town of Cuers. While going through digitized old issues of the Los Angeles Herald, I found an advertisement for the Commercial Restaurant - directly above an advertisement for Eugene's Restaurant. History doesn't seem to have recorded whether Dol and Aune were friends, rivals, or friendly rivals, or if the ad placement was deliberate, but apparently early LA had a high enough demand for fine French cuisine to support Eugene's in addition to Victor's restaurants.

Although the restaurant industry is very tough, it made the hardworking Dol family rich (besides Victor's restaurants, Felicie took in boarders). Victor sold the Commercial Restaurant to Mr. L. Pegot (founder of a San Diego branch of Delmonico's) in January 1888, announcing his retirement. But (shades of Prudent Beaudry) 48-year-old Victor didn't stay retired for very long.

On January 5, 1889, Victor opened a Los Angeles location of his upscale San Francisco restaurant, Maison Dorée. He proudly advertised it as a Los Angeles equivalent of famed New York restaurant Delmonico's. Daily shipments of live turbot, trout, and sole arrived at Maison Dorée, and Victor imported brie from France (local cheeses just wouldn't do). 

No family is immune to tragedy, and Felicie Dol passed away in 1898 at the age of 58. Victor later married a woman named Tatiana who was 19 years younger than he was.

Victor died at home in Venice (it isn't clear when the Dols moved) in 1911, leaving an estate valued at $625,000. That's about $16.7 million in 2018 dollars. (Try buying Venice real estate for $625,000 now!)

Perhaps unusually for such a successful entrepreneur, Victor Dol was a Socialist. (At the risk of roasting my own subject, Victor might possibly have been a Champagne Socialist in both the figurative and literal senses.) According to probate filings, he left $15,000 to purchase a plot of land in Toulouse, France and construct a building to be donated to a Socialist organization that would be chosen by two trustees he had selected.

As for the rest of that sizable estate, Victor left $6000, plus $1200 a year in rent on two commercial properties downtown (between 6th and 7th on Spring and Broadway), to his widow Tatiana, along with the couple's two lots in Venice. 

The French Hospital received $5000 of Victor's estate, and the Los Angeles County Pioneers' Society received $2000. The rest of Victor's estate was to be split evenly between daughters Josephine and Victorine. Victor is buried at Angelus Rosedale with both of his wives (Tatiana passed away in 1934).

Victor's death announcement in the Los Angeles Herald notes an unusual request: "A clause in the will is to the effect that the dead man desires that the property he leaves never shall be mortgaged nor sold." His descendants seem to have honored that request. 618 South Broadway, built in 1928 on one of the Dols' downtown plots, was the only downtown building destroyed in the 1992 riots. Victor's grandson-in-law, Walter J. Thomson, spent at least $2.5 million rebuilding 618 South Broadway from old photographs and renamed it the Victor Dol Building, noting to the Los Angeles Times that his young granddaughters (Victor's great-great-granddaughters) would eventually inherit the property. 

On a personal note, I almost fell off my chair when I saw the address. I've walked past the Victor Dol Building countless times on my way to Clifton's or a historic theater and NEVER knew it had a French connection. (By the way, I am VERY good at spotting new construction made to look older. The fact that the reconstructed Victor Dol Building looks just as old as Broadway's vintage theaters is a testament to the fact that Thomson cared enough to have it done right.)

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Early French Restauranteurs of Los Angeles: Eugene Aune

Before we begin:


  • Wildfires are still raging in the Calabasas/Malibu/Thousand Oaks area. If you want to help, and aren't a trained volunteer firefighter, first responder, or similarly qualified professional, please read this.
  • Can you adopt or foster evacuated animals? Click here. (If you have the land and resources,  large animals are the hardest ones to place.)
  • Are you in a fire-adjacent area? Set out buckets of water if you can. Wild animals are also fleeing - they will be hot and thirsty, and their usual water sources may be unavailable.
  • In case this isn't clear enough, I hate wildfires.

And now to lighten the mood:

Eugene Aune was doing the "farm to table" thing when Los Angeles was less than 100 years old.

He also set up shop in Santa Monica before Santa Monica existed and built Santa Monica's first combination home and business. (Le Guide states that it was Santa Monica's first house, period.)

Born in France around 1828, Eugene Aune built a house/restaurant in 1873, not far from Santa Monica State Beach. The town of Santa Monica did not yet exist. The mere fact that Aune managed to attract customers to a restaurant 17 miles from downtown, in the middle of nowhere, long before the 10 and the Expo Line existed, suggests it was a destination worth the trip.

When Santa Monica was founded in 1875, Aune's house/restaurant got an official address: 114 Main Street. Listings from the 1880s put Eugene's Restaurant, as it was called, at the corner of Second Street and Arizona Avenue (today, that intersection boasts a Tender Greens).

Ever wonder why artichokes, of all things, are such a staple of Southern California cuisine? Aune may very well have gotten the ball rolling. He grew his own artichokes (and other vegetables), serving them in the restaurant. Aune would also serve fish and razor clams fresh from Santa Monica Bay, followed by roasted meat, salad, and an omelet or soufflé for dessert. And wine, of course. Advertisements for Eugene's Restaurant mention "French Clarets and other wines always on hand." Madame Aune* waited tables. Eugene's high-end French dinners set diners back $3 apiece (about $60 today).

Advertisements for Eugene's Restaurant also mention "Rooms, furnished or unfurnished, to rent." Like so many other French Angelenos, Aune eventually rented rooms in addition to his day job. (The restaurant industry is brutal. Chez Panisse didn't turn a profit for 20 years.)

By 1886, voter rolls listed Aune's occupation as "real estate". Towards the end of the year, he placed his restaurant on the rental market.

Eugene Aune passed away in 1892.

My mom is from Santa Monica. Did she learn about any of this in school? Nope.

I lived and worked in Santa Monica. Did anyone tell me any of this? Nope.

Does anyone remember Eugene Aune today? Nope. But if you love LA's world-class culinary scene, maybe you should.

*It's annoyingly common to find no reference to a long-dead married woman's first name, let alone her family name. Even Ancestry let me down this time.

Monday, October 22, 2018

Early French Restauranteurs of Los Angeles: Jean La Rue (Laroux)

The French, whether in France or abroad, are known for a lot of things.

Sophistication. Military might (fight me on this, Google). Knowing how to beautify anything and everything.

The French are best known, however, for culinary prowess. It should come as no surprise that early Los Angeles' best restaurants were helmed by French chefs.

Today, we meet one of LA's earliest French restauranteurs, if not THE earliest: Jean La Rue (or Laroux).

In 1853, nineteen-year-old Harris Newmark, newly arrived in Los Angeles, was clerking for his merchant brother J.P. and sleeping on the premises. Cooking inside the store was impossible, so Newmark arranged to eat at a nearby restaurant instead.

Newmark gives the proprietor's name as John La Rue. If La Rue's establishment had a name, it certainly doesn't appear in Sixty Years in Southern California. (Nameless restaurants were not impossible in Los Angeles; Nick's Cafe near Chinatown didn't have a name for the first few decades of its existence.)

La Rue was born in France, came to California as a gold prospector, tried prospecting in Mazatlan, and returned to the United States after being robbed twice in Mexico. Upon arriving in Los Angeles, La Rue met and married an Irish woman, Bridget Johnson, in spite of the fact that he spoke no English and she spoke no French. He then opened his restaurant "on the east side of Los Angeles Street, about two hundred feet south of Bell's Row." (If it existed today, it would be roughly at the corner of Los Angeles and Aliso Streets, just west of the 101 in the Civic Center.)

In Newmark's own words:

Nothing in Los Angeles, perhaps, has ever been cruder than this popular eating-place. The room, which faced the street, had a mud-floor and led to the kitchen through a narrow opening. Half a dozen cheap wooden tables, each provided with two chairs, stood against the walls.

(A real dirt floor and a dining room facing the street? Hipsters would have loved La Rue's.)
 The tablecloths were generally dirty, and the knives and forks, as well as the furniture, were of the homeliest kind. The food made up in portions what it lacked in quality, and the diner rarely had occasion to leave the place hungry.
(Sounds like any greasy-spoon in America, to be honest.)
What went most against my grain was the slovenliness of the proprietor himself. Flies were very thick in the summer months; and one day I found a big fellow splurging in my bowl of soup. This did not, however, faze John La Rue. Seeing the struggling insect, he calmly dipped his coffee-colored fingers into the hot liquid and, quite as serenely, drew out the fly; and although one could not then be as fastidious as nowadays, I nevertheless found it impossible to eat the soup.
(I loathe and resent the "grubby French person" stereotype - indoor plumbing began at Versailles, you know - so it pains me to type this.)

Jean La Rue died five years later from smoke inhalation when a fire broke out on Main Street. Bridget Johnson La Rue inherited her husband's orange grove and (what else...) vineyard.

In spite of his critical eye toward La Rue's questionable hygiene and rather dirty café, Newmark notes "Although La Rue was in no sense an eminent citizen, it is certain that he was esteemed and mourned."

Stay tuned for entries on Victor Dol, Eugene Aune, and more...

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Exactly How Big was LA's French Community?

One estimate puts LA's historic French community at a mere 2 percent. Another estimate puts the figure at a whopping 20 percent - one out of every five Angelenos.

That's a pretty big discrepancy.

So which figure is closer to the truth?

I will, at some point, dig through census records and count all the French, Quebecois, French-speaking Swiss, and French-speaking Belgians (and their descendants). But for now, I'll share a rough approximation.

I recently read John W. Robinson's Los Angeles in Civil War Days. Robinson states "Foreigners make up a small but significant part of the population. Largest is the French community numbering more than 400, many engaged in wine-making." On the preceding page, Robinson states that the 1860 census counted 4,399 Angelenos.

"More than 400" out of 4,399 people. Robinson doesn't specify whether his "more than 400" figure included people of mixed French descent (i.e. Marcelina Leonis, who was half Chumash) or the American-born descendants of French Angeleno families.

Until I have time to go over the 1860 census myself (thank goodness for Ancestry.com), I feel comfortable saying French Angelenos accounted for about 10 percent of LA's 1860 population.

One out of every ten people.

That's an awful lot of people to just disappear from LA's narrative.

Monday, September 17, 2018

Whatever Happened to the French Benevolent Society? Continued...

For two and a half years, I have been trying to unravel the mystery of what happened to the French Benevolent Society. Read Part 1 here

Most sources refer to the entity that founded the former French Hospital simply as the French Benevolent Society. In one of my older books, the French version of the FBS' name - Societé Française de Bienfaisance Mutuelle de Los Angeles - appears, interchangeably with its English counterpart.

Thanks to one of my readers (beret-tip to James Lawson, again), I found out that Societé Française de Bienfaisance Mutuelle de Los Angeles is, or was, technically a separate organization. And it was the legal owner of the French Hospital site.

I know very little about the business end of nonprofit organizations, so I'm a little out of my element here. Bear with me, I'm trying.

There is a little information out there on the Societé Française de Bienfaisance Mutuelle de Los Angeles, but again, it's left me with more questions than answers.

The Societé Française de Bienfaisance Mutuelle de Los Angeles' address is identical to the FBS' address. I sent a letter to that address two months ago, via certified mail. I have never received a response, and the tracking number doesn't work on USPS' website. Presumably, the address has been defunct for some time. I'm guessing neither entity elected to have mail forwarded to a new address, either. Which seems really strange, since property sales often have straggling bits of paperwork to finish. (I'm a notary. I handle property transfers frequently, so I know this from personal experience.)

I'm no expert, but the Societé's income-to-expenses ratio seems unusually high. See for yourself. If this were a balance sheet for a publicly traded company, I doubt I would be buying the stock.

There is/was some investment income...but from what? And where has it gone all these years? Is there a forensic accountant in the house?

What happened to the Societé/FBS' charitable spirit? Zero charities supported and zero dollars donated (at least in 2014)? Really? Someone please tell me there's more to the story.

The Societé/FBS sure has shrunk (except for its income...). At least as late as 2014, there was still a nine-member board (a tradition dating to 1860). But only two employees? And apparently NO members (since there were no membership fees collected, going back at least as far as 2002)? Somewhere in the great beyond, Louis Sentous Jr. is quietly crying into a glass of Georges Le Mesnager's best wine.

I may finally have a usable lead. I have an address and I am going to try sending another letter. Who knows, I may finally get a response.

Wish me luck...

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Whatever Happened to the French Benevolent Society?

I started this blog in May of 2016.

Since then, I have come into contact with quite a few history buffs, preservationists, and French Southern Californians. I have been asked, plenty of times, if I've ever reached out to the French Benevolent Society, the entity responsible for the alpha and omega of this blog - the French Hospital and its Jeanne d'Arc statue.

I tried. Dear readers, I swear to you that I tried. And I have the certified mail receipts to prove it.

When the old French Hospital was sold again, I was able to track down Jeanne d'Arc within a few days. Tracking down the property's longtime owners, the French Benevolent Society, has been a very different story.

Internet searches for the French Benevolent Society didn't yield a website, directory listing, or contact information. It did, however, lead me to the California Secretary of State's website, which allows users to access some information on business and nonprofit entities.

A search for the FBS yielded two results: the French Benevolent Society of California and the French Hospital Benevolent Fund of Los Angeles. Both entities had their corporate status listed as "suspended".

There had to be more information. I ran a small business; I know from experience that they generate a paper trail. Logically, a bigger, older corporation had to have more information floating around out there somewhere.

I submitted a request for ALL of the filings the Secretary of State had for both entities. That went surprisingly well*. The Secretary of State's office fulfilled my requests pretty quickly, and even gave me a courtesy phone call to let me know there would be a delay on the French Hospital Benevolent Fund's filings because they'd been moved to archives long ago.

In the end, there wasn't much paperwork on either entity, and what I do have raised more questions than it answered.

The French Benevolent Society, founded in 1860, became a corporation in 1959. It was granted tax-exempt status by the Franchise Tax Board on the grounds that it was a social welfare organization. Okay, fine, that seems pretty normal.

The only other document on file for the FBS was a Certificate of Status indicating that "...the California Franchise Tax Board suspended the entity's powers, rights and privileges on April 03, 1972, pursuant to the provisions of the California Revenue and Taxation Code..."

The French Hospital Benevolent Fund, founded in 1947, had in its Articles of Incorporation a stated purpose of funding and aiding the French Hospital. It, too, was granted tax-exempt status. And it, too, was suspended.

Both the French Benevolent Society of California and the French Hospital Benevolent Fund had their "powers, rights, and privileges" suspended on the same day - April 3, 1972 - "pursuant to the provisions of the California Revenue and Taxation Code".

While this was going on, I found a physical address in Chinatown for the French Benevolent Society and sent them a letter, asking if I could interview someone from the organization for this blog. I sent the letter via certified mail, enclosing a self-addressed, metered envelope with a certified mail label already attached (I also included my email address and phone number). I wanted to reduce the risk of my letter getting "lost in the mail" as much as possible, and certification does help with that.

Whenever I try to track either certified mail label number, I get an error message. From considerable experience in dealing with the post office, I'd wager my letter is sitting in a dead letter office (I sent it nearly two months ago, so if it were going to be returned to sender, it should have made its way back to me by now).

It's very hard to provide answers on this blog when you can't get anyone to answer your questions. I have a few theories, but since I can't prove or disprove them, I won't share them at this point.

Especially since I now have more questions than when I started.

Why were there TWO corporate entities attached to a single hospital facility? I understand major corporations being made up of several smaller ones, but this was ONE hospital, in a city that was sizable but nowhere near as big as it is now (and not many people lived downtown in the postwar era).

Why did BOTH entities have their "rights, powers, and privileges" suspended? Why was it on the same day? This is why I, a few entries ago, asked if any of my readers had a legal background. I had hoped that someone who understands business law and/or tax law might be able to offer some insight. As for the shared date, I don't believe in coincidences.

Both suspensions dated to 1972. How, exactly, does a suspended business entity manage to keep a working hospital open until 1989 - an additional 17 YEARS? This is what baffles me the most. It doesn't make any sense at all. Knowing that the hospital's 125th anniversary party in 1985 was a big public event that featured a presentation from then-Mayor Tom Bradley just makes this even weirder.

What, exactly, has the FBS been doing since the hospital changed hands in 1989? The FBS was concerned with the public good, regularly holding fundraisers and an annual picnic. In recent years, its name has only been in the newspaper in regards to the hospital's closure and sale.

What, exactly, happened to the $33 MILLION dollars that the FBS made selling off the hospital site? Obviously, $33 million is a LOT of money. It can't have vanished into thin air.

If someone from the French Benevolent Society sees this, PLEASE contact me so I can get your side of the story. I promise there will be no tricks, judgment, or aggressive tactics. I'm not an investigative reporter, I'm a nerd with a blog. I just want to know what happened.

*I'm a notary. The California Secretary of State is technically my boss. After some negative experiences dealing with various government offices over the years, I was quite proud to be connected to one that did something right!