Friday, March 22, 2019

Eugene Meyer: A Nameplate, a Cemetery Plot, and Old LA's Best Department Store

Eugene Meyer - another cousin of Don Solomon Lazard - was born in Alsace in 1842, and came to Los Angeles at age 21 to work for Lazard's store, but before long he was in business on his own.

Meyer's haberdashery, the first in Los Angeles, stood at 4th and Main, near Raymond Alexandre's Roundhouse. Coincidentally, when the Roundhouse hosted a 3,000-person Centennial celebration in 1876, Eugene Meyer was one of the parade's four marshals.

Meyer, like several other French Angelenos, belonged to the International Order of Odd Fellows' Golden Rule Lodge. In 1867, he married Harriet Newmark. They had eight children.

Harris Newmark (Meyer's cousin-in-law) reported that while he was away in New York for an extended period, Eugene and Harriet Meyer added a silver nameplate to their front door. This was such a rare sight in 1860s Los Angeles that Newmark's family mentioned it to him in a letter - and when Newmark inspected it himself a year later, the nameplate was still a novelty.

In 1872, while Meyer was serving as President of the French Benevolent Society, he asked the Los Angeles City Council to allocate a plot in the City Cemetery for Society members. The City Cemetery became a parking lot many years ago, but for as long as it lasted, it did have a plot for the French Benevolent Society. (Most notably, Mayor Damien Marchesseault, ineligible for burial at Calvary Cemetery due to his suicide, was buried in the French Benevolent Society's plot. He was later re-interred at Angelus Rosedale.)

Meyer was a founding member of the Los Angeles Board of Trade (now the Chamber of Commerce) when it was established in 1873. The following year, he was one of several prominent French Angelenos who tried to persuade railroad officials to locate their depot east of Alameda Street, between Commercial and First Streets. This proposed location was close to the city's economic center, and many French Angelenos conducted business in the area. However, the railroad demanded control over the west side of Alameda Street as well, which was out of the question to area business owners.

In 1874, Solomon Lazard sold the City of Paris department store to Eugene and his brother Constant Meyer, who expanded the business. City of Paris (sometimes listed as Ville de Paris) carried sporting goods, housewares, shoes, toiletries, cameras, luggage, umbrellas - and clothing. In fact, all the elegant ladies of Old Los Angeles bought the latest in French fashions from City of Paris. The store also had an in-house travel agency, chiropodist's office, shoeshine parlor, beauty parlor, and library...and Los Angeles' French consulate! In addition to his job as co-owner of the city's premier department store, Eugene Meyer served his home country and his adopted city as a consular agent.

By 1883, the store was listed in directories as both City of Paris and Eugene Meyer & Co. The building that housed City of Paris from 1896 until 1917 (it moved at least twice prior to that) is still standing today - and has housed Grand Central Market for 102 years. (The next time you go there, look around and see if you can detect any of the old department store's bones in the ground-floor market. It's my favorite way to kill time waiting for Ramen Hood to open.)

The Meyers moved to San Francisco in 1883 so Eugene could manage Lazard Fréres' new California branch (which would close in 1906 due to the San Francisco earthquake).

Eugene's son Eugene Meyer Jr. went on to work at Lazard Fréres himself before striking out on his own as a speculator, investor, and eventual co-founder of Allied Chemical & Dye, which eventually became part of Honeywell's specialty-materials branch (there is a building named for Eugene Jr. at Honeywell's headquarters in New Jersey). He eventually became Chairman of the Federal Reserve and purchased the Washington Post in 1933.

Eugene Jr.'s daughter Katharine Meyer Graham, who succeeded him as the newspaper's publisher, needs no introduction.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Four Decades of Service: Maurice Kremer

We've met "Don Solomon" Lazard. Today we'll meet his cousin and onetime business partner.

Maurice Kremer was born in France's Lorraine province in 1824. After a stint in Memphis, he departed for Los Angeles in 1852, taking a steamer from New Orleans to Panama. Kremer walked across the Isthmus (the Panama Canal was 62 years away from opening), then took another steamer to Wilmington via San Francisco.

Upon arrival in Los Angeles, Kremer met up with his cousin Solomon Lazard. They co-founded a dry goods store, Lazard & Kremer, in the old Bell Block. In 1853 the store moved to Mellus' Row, at Los Angeles and Aliso Streets. Aliso Street was a very active business district in the 1850s, and it was near the road that led to El Monte, San Bernardino, and San Gabriel, so Lazard & Kremer did very well for themselves. Kremer's ability to speak French, German, Spanish, and English no doubt helped the cousins conduct business in Los Angeles, which was quickly becoming a multilingual settlement.

In those early days before lawless Los Angeles appealed to bankers, locals still needed secure places to store cash and valuables. Although Lazard & Kremer were merchants,* they were trustworthy citizens and had a safe. They soon faced a new challenge: customers asked to leave their money and jewelry with Lazard & Kremer for safekeeping! Lazard & Kremer obliged (and so did many other Jewish merchants in Western states).

In 1856, Kremer parted with Lazard, going into business with another prominent Jewish family - the Newmarks. Newmark, Kremer, & Co. dealt in wholesale and retail dry goods.

That same year, Kremer married Joseph Newmark's daughter Matilda. Six of the couple's twelve children (Rachel, Emily, Ada, Agnes, Fred, and Abraham) survived infancy.

Kremer was one of the founding members of Congregation B'nai B'rith (still in existence as Wilshire Boulevard Temple). He was also a founding member of the French Benevolent Society and a trustee of the Hebrew Benevolent Society (now known as Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles).

Maurice Kremer served the community in one capacity or another for four decades. He was made County Treasurer in 1860, a position he would hold for five years.

Harris Newmark, who acted as Deputy Treasurer on a volunteer basis (there was no money in the budget for a paid deputy), recalled that "Inasmuch as no bank had as yet been established in Los Angeles, Kremer carried the money to Sacramento twice a year; nor was this transportation of the funds, first by steamer to San Francisco, thence by boat inland, without danger. The State was full of desperate characters who would cut a throat or scuttle a ship for a great deal less than the amount involved."

Newmark added that while the money COULD have been sent via Wells Fargo, thus saving Kremer a long and dangerous trip, the company's fees were much too high at the time. Later on, when Wells Fargo had expanded and lowered their fees, the company took over transporting Los Angeles County's money to Sacramento.

After his term as County Treasurer, Kremer served on the Los Angeles School Board from 1866 to 1874.

Kremer then served as City Clerk, a position he held for one year.

After that, he served the city as a tax collector for three years.

Kremer later founded a fruit shipping company catering to farmers (the railroads opened up new markets for California produce).

In 1880, the Newmarks sold their insurance interests to Kremer, who co-founded Kremer, Campbell, and Co. In 1889, Kremer, Campbell, & Co. added fire insurance to the services they offered.

Kremer served as Chief Tax Collector of Los Angeles in 1900.

Matilda Newmark Kremer was also community-oriented. She was active in the Ladies' Benevolent Society - so much so that she served as Charter Vice President. Matilda helped found the Temple Union Sewing Circle, which made clothes for the needy, and helped found the Home of Peace Society, which maintained and beautified the city's Jewish cemetery (still called Home of Peace).

Maurice Kremer passed away in 1907. The firm of Kremer, Campbell, & Co. continued to conduct business after his passing.
*Solomon Lazard's other cousins founded Lazard Fréres, which was initially a dry goods import/export business. They eventually got into investment banking. Not only is their firm still in business, you can buy the stock (NYSE: LAZ).

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Coming Up: French-Jewish Citizens of Early Los Angeles

I can't stand watching the news anymore.

One of the things that appalls me the most is the rise in anti-Semitism, both in the USA and abroad (I'm especially horrified by a certain congresswoman's hate-spewing). It's become an alarming problem in France - home to the world's third largest Jewish population. So many French (and French-speaking) Jewish people have moved to Los Angeles in recent years that there is a Jewish-French Community Center in Pico-Robertson.

I'm not Jewish, but I am from multicultural Los Angeles. On top of that, I'm from Sherman Oaks. My immediate neighborhood was about 90% Jewish when I was a child (it's slightly more mixed now). It honestly never occurred to me that my neighbors and friends were any different than I was. We celebrated different holidays, but so what? (Our next-door neighbors invited us over on Jewish holidays, and winter holiday parties at my school were evenly split between Christmas and Hanukkah for obvious reasons.)

I can't stop other people from being hateful, violent, or just plain horrid.

But I can post whatever the hell I want on this blog.

Starting this Friday and going until the last night of Passover (April 26), I will be profiling French-Jewish citizens of Old Los Angeles.

I've previously written about Solomon Lazard, the most trusted man in 1860s Los Angeles. Also, please check out Jewish Museum of the American West.

Stay tuned...

Goodnight from Frenchtown,


Thursday, March 7, 2019

Arbin Mathieu's Next Chapter

If you're reading this blog, you know who Philippe Mathieu was.

I've mentioned that prior to founding his namesake restaurant (and oh, yeah, inventing the French Dip sandwich), Philippe and his brother Arbin opened the cheekily-named New Poodle Dog restaurant, followed by another white-tablecloth eatery.

I've always wondered what Arbin did after the brothers closed both of their restaurants and Philippe focused on Philippe's. A 1920 picture of the Lanfranco Building provided a clue.

Look closely...

Lanfranco Building (photo from Water and Power)

The third shop front on the ground level - street address number 216 - reads "A. Mathieu French Delicacies".

A. Mathieu? ARBIN Mathieu?

The 1923 city directory confirmed my hunch, listing Arbin Mathieu at 216 N. Main Street - under "Delicacies".

I'm not surprised Arbin stayed in the same line of work. By the early twentieth century, there was certainly more than enough demand for well-prepared food in Los Angeles to keep both brothers in business.

Monday, March 4, 2019

Damien Marchesseault's Death Was Much Weirder Than I Thought

My seventh-grade history teacher made a point of teaching all of his students that "there is no such thing as a 'final history'". As time marches on, previously undetected information surfaces, previously undetected physical evidence of the past surfaces, and improvements in technology allow for more accurate analysis of the facts. (Case in point: many forgeries are only detected centuries later.) This entry's for you, Mr. Lehrer.

If you're reading this blog, you already know Mayor Damien Marchesseault committed suicide - not by shooting himself in the head as is usually reported, but by shooting himself in the face.

It's also commonly reported that he shot himself in an empty City Council chamber.

As it turns out, there are more details. And they're weird enough that I'm scratching my head.

The Los Angeles correspondent for the Daily Alta California went into more detail than the Los Angeles Semi-Weekly News (apart from the fact that the correspondent eliminated the text of Marchesseault's suicide note). I'll break it down:

D. Marchesseault, who has been Mayor of this city for a number of terms, went into the City Marshal's office
The City Marshal's office? Why is "empty City Council chamber" reported elsewhere?

which adjoins the Mayor's office
Why did Marchesseault choose the office next to his? Also, the City Marshal was a combination of law enforcement officer, tax/license fee collector, and dogcatcher. I'm unaware of any bad blood between Marchesseault and the City Marshal at the time of his death (although Marchesseault's debts might very well have resulted in an inability to pay his taxes or the license on his saloon).

yesterday morning, about seven o'clock, and locking the street door, carefully laid himself upon a table, placing his head upon a cushion, and his feet upon a chair, discharged a pistol, the ball of which entered his head.
I understand locking the door. And this detail explains why a different newspaper account refers to Marchesseault's suicide note being on a table net to him. But still, this is just plain weird. Why lie down on a table, feet on a chair?

 The report of the pistol was heard, but caused no alarm, as it was supposed to have been fired in the rear of the building. 
As bizarre as this sounds to modern-day Angelenos, gunfire was not an unusual sound in 1860s Los Angeles. It was a Wild West town with a high murder rate, and even peaceful people carried guns for protection (Harris Newmark, who had never owned a gun before emigrating to Los Angeles, recalled using an abandoned adobe for target practice).
 Between eight and nine o'clock in the morning, when he was discovered, he was lying on his back with one arm folded on his breast and the pistol in the hand of the other: there was no appearance that a single muscle had moved after the firing of the fatal shot.
Maybe I watch too many police procedurals, but this doesn't seem quite right. Normally, when someone shoots themselves, they drop the gun.

The rest of the Daily Alta California article contains no new information, so I won't reiterate it here.

I'm a firm believer in logic and reason. And I know I'm prone to overanalyzing everything. BUT...

The suicide location differs from most reports. The Mayor positioning himself on a table, feet on a chair, doesn't make sense. And he somehow managed to not drop the gun after killing himself. Couple that with the fact that Marchesseault isn't on the official list of former mayors (in spite of SIX terms) and the circumstances of the Mayor's death are weirder than I ever would have guessed.

Monday, February 25, 2019

Gaston Méliès Comes to Hollywood...Err, Santa Paula

(Huge thanks to Santa Paula historian Mitch Stone for his help in researching this entry. Merci, Mitch!)

Any serious film buff knows who Georges Méliès was.

Most aren't aware that Georges' brother Gaston also made films - more than 200 in total.

Very few know that Gaston made films in the Ventura County town of Santa Paula.

Poster for "Wanted - A Wife"; staged in front of the Santa Paula train depot (which looks much the same way now as it did then). Published in Motion Picture World. Picture courtesy of Mitch Stone.
Content infringement has always been a problem for creative people, and the silent-film era was no exception. After the family shoe factory shut down, Georges Méliès sent his brother Gaston to America to help protect his films from copyright violation.

Gaston arrived in New York in 1903, setting up an American subsidiary of Georges' Star Film Company. But by 1908, Gaston was trying his hand at making his own films.

French audiences of the time were very interested in the American West (I'm not sure if this had anything to do with the sheer number of French expats and their descendants in California). Gaston was the first filmmaker on record to shoot on location in Texas, mostly filming Westerns. But after a year or so, he followed other filmmakers' migration to California.

Gaston moved Star Film Company's American studio to 7th and Main Streets in Santa Paula in 1911, also residing on the site. (Currently at 7th and Main: the Santa Paula Theatre Center.) Again, he mostly produced Western films. Of the 50 or so short films Gaston produced in Santa Paula, only two are known to survive.

In 1913, Gaston decamped to Tahiti to make the first of many silent short films shot in exotic locations. Besides Tahiti, he produced films in New Zealand, Australia, Java, Singapore, Cambodia, and Japan.

Unfortunately, much of the film was damaged before it could be processed in the United States. Of the 238 films produced by Gaston, only about 60 came from his filmmaking expedition to the South Pacific and Far East.

After the location-shooting expedition ruined his health and nearly bankrupted him, Gaston returned to Santa Paula for long enough to sell his studio/residence. He then returned to France. Supposedly, Georges (who was ruined financially by Gaston's travels) never spoke to him again.

Just two years later, the Santa Paula Chronicle reported on Gaston's death from typhoid fever in Corsica.

In 2015, French documentarian Raphael Millet directed Gaston Méliès and His Wandering Star Film Company. The documentary focuses primarily on Gaston's filmmaking excursion to the South Pacific and Far East. (Does anyone have a copy I could borrow? My usual sources for obscure film don't have it.)

Gaston Méliès is nearly forgotten today. Perhaps it's time for a well-publicized screening of Millet's documentary?

Monday, February 18, 2019

The Frenchwoman Who Built the Italian Hall

Frenchtown had a longstanding friendship with Los Angeles' Little Italy. In fact, the Italian Hall was built by a Frenchwoman.

Miss Marie Madeline Ruellan, a Parisian by birth, sailed for California on the Guiding Star in the summer of 1868 at the age of 22. In 1869 or 1870 (sources disagree), she married Henry Hammel, a German immigrant who owned the United States Hotel (he also had a large vineyard). The couple's only child, Mathilde, was born in 1875.

Henry Hammel passed away in 1890, leaving his $400,000 estate to Marie and 15-year-old Mathilde.

Marie was active in charitable work and known for her kindness to orphans, but she shunned attention. When Mathilde married and had a family of her own, Marie lived with them and spent much of her time with her three grandchildren.

Marie's sizable inheritance included a parcel of land on the Plaza. Frank Arconti, who had owned the land before Henry Hammel and Isaias Hellman bought it, encouraged her to build on the site. Marie commissioned a two-story brick building (from Italian-owned Pozzo Construction), intended to serve the growing Italian community.

Like the nearby Garnier Building, the new Italian Hall served multiple community needs. Italian-owned businesses filled the ground floor. The second floor hosted musical and theatrical performances and provided a home for the Garibaldina Mutual Benefit Society (a health-and-welfare safety net for members) as well as social organizations like the Italian Workers' Club. Today, the restored Italian Hall houses the Italian American Museum of Los Angeles. (Read more here and scroll down a bit for a picture of Marie.)

Marie Madeline Ruellan Hammel died of heart failure in 1913 at age 71. She is buried at Calvary Cemetery with her mother.