Wednesday, July 24, 2019

The Last One Standing Falls

Broguiere's Dairy milk bottle

Broguiere's Dairy - the very last French-founded dairy in Los Angeles County (if not the last in Southern California) - has closed its doors

Founded by a French immigrant in 1920, Broguiere's lasted 99 years. They survived changes that pushed dairy cows out of Los Angeles County and into the boondocks, they survived a proposed freeway underpass that would have wiped out the building...but they didn't quite make it to 100. (I sent them a letter requesting an interview two months ago. I never did receive a response. If I ever do, I'll happily - enthusiastically, even - publish their story. I started this blog to get our stories out there, for better or for worse.)

I don't even consume dairy products (and haven't for 16+ years...pass the cashew brie) and I know it's the death rattle of an era.

Every year, my people fade a little further into obscurity. 

But I can't let that happen.

If you don't know me in real life, know this: I don't give up. 

I can't. 

I won't.

Someone has to tell our stories (correctly). 

And since no one cares more than I do, that person is me.

If anyone at Broguiere's happens to read this: please shoot me an email (losfrangeles at gmail dot com). I want your side of the story. I promise I will give you a fair shake. I want the honest truth, and so do my readers.

Saturday, July 6, 2019

Money, Madness, and Attempted Murder

One hundred years ago today, Griffith Jenkins Griffith died.

Every Angeleno knows Griffith J. Griffith donated Griffith Park to the city of Los Angeles. In that story, Griffith gets to be the hero.

In the story of one of the most prominent French families in Los Angeles, however, Griffith will never be anything but a villain who got a slap on the wrist.

Born to industrious French immigrants who had become land barons*, Mary Agnes Christina "Tina" Mesmer spoke four languages, was a talented musician...and owned more than one million dollars' worth of Los Angeles real estate in her own name by the time she was 22.

Mary Agnes Christina Mesmer
In 2019 dollars, that's $25 million, but without an exhaustive inventory of the properties she owned, I can't say its true value in 2019 terms. Given the high demand for Los Angeles real estate, it would probably be worth much more than $25 million today. In any case, Tina was an extremely wealthy young woman.

And she caught the eye of Griffith J. Griffith.

Born penniless in Wales, Griffith was nouveau riche to the hilt. He wore a frock coat and carried a cane - in still-the-Wild-West Los Angeles. He affected the title of "Colonel", despite not having served in the military at all. His idea of doing someone a favor was allowing them to be seen in public with him. One acquaintance dubbed him a "midget egomaniac"; another called him "a roly-poly pompous little fellow" and compared his walk to that of a strutting turkey.

God only knows how this obnoxious character managed to win the hand of pretty, well-bred Tina Mesmer.

In a letter to Tina dated January 8, 1887 - less than three weeks before their wedding - Griffith sought to break their engagement. He accused her of having misrepresented her wealth ( a 22-year-old with a million dollars wasn't rich enough?) and of being a pawn in her father's hands.

Despite this giant red flag, the wedding did take place January 27, 1887.

At the time, it was a common practice for brides of means to deed their property and fortunes to their husbands when they got married. It was a dowry in all but name. And Tina Mesmer, not realizing what would happen to her, deeded her vast fortune to her new husband.

Big mistake.

Griffith was a devout Protestant. Tina was just as devoutly Catholic as the rest of the Mesmer clan (her father and brother were instrumental in finishing construction on St. Vibiana Cathedral). Instead of a church wedding, they had a small ceremony at the Mesmer family home. Griffith would later start religious arguments with Tina. But wait - it gets worse.

So. Much. Worse.

Just four months after marrying Tina, Griffith filed for partial distribution of André Briswalter's estate. Briswalter, a wealthy landowner himself, had been a friend of Tina's father Louis Mesmer and had left her some property on San Pedro Street. Griffith claimed that Tina had assigned her claim on the property to her father, and that Griffith had then bought the claim from Mesmer. Briswalter's large estate was in dispute due to an alleged illegitimate son, and the parties involved (including the Mesmers) had agreed to probate.

Probate was time-consuming, even in the 1880s. But Griffith didn't want to wait. Hmmm.

In December of 1896, Griffith J. Griffith announced he was donating 3,015 acres of Rancho Los Feliz for use as a public park. He stated "I consider it my obligation to make Los Angeles a happier, cleaner, and finer city. I wish to pay my debt of duty in this way to the community in which I have prospered." 

Here's what most people don't realize about the parcel of land he chose to donate at the time: it was too hilly and woody for farming, livestock grazing, or developing into housing tracts. That made the acreage in question a potential property-tax loss for Griffith...who owed an outstanding tax debt to the city at the time. Was the land truly a gift? Could it have been a tax write-off? Or was Griffith trying to bribe the city into forgiving his existing tax debt?

The city of Los Angeles hesitated to acknowledge, let alone use, the "gift" at first. Gee, I wonder why.

Fifteen months later, Griffith formally deeded the land to the city. A special, jam-packed City Council session was held for the occasion. The Los Angeles Herald noted that "...Mr. Griffith stepped jauntily in, carrying a huge roll, tied with an immense bow of blue satin ribbon - the deed to Griffith Park." The midget egomaniac had gotten his way, and in a ludicrously theatrical manner at that.

Within a few years of "gifting" Griffith Park to the city, things took a much darker turn.

Griffith, who claimed to be a teetotaler, began to drink. Heavily. He reportedly drank up to two quarts of whiskey per day. (Which seems slightly implausible, since two quarts means 42.66 standard shots in one day, but in any case, those close to him knew he drank way, way too much.)

The religious arguments began. Somehow, Griffith became convinced that his Catholic wife was plotting with Pope Leo XIII to poison him and steal his fortune.

At one point, Griffith told Tina "Come in here, I want to speak to you" in such a frightening way that she fled the family home and spent the night at her sister Lucy's house.

When Louis Mesmer died in 1900, Tina inherited only $500 from her father's estate. The will explained that the amount was so small because Louis had arranged Tina's inheritance from André Briswalter.

Griffith's drinking and bizarre behavior continued to worsen.

On August 4, 1903, a new Pope was elected - Pius X. Around the same time, the Griffith family took a vacation in the Presidential suite of Santa Monica's posh Arcadia Hotel.

For weeks, Griffith's paranoid delusions about being poisoned by his wife - or even by the new Pope - led him to constantly switch cups and plates with Tina, or with their 15-year-old son Vandell. Tina finally had to have the hotel's kitchen send their meals up family-style, since Griffith would switch out plated portions.

Thursday, September 4 was the last day of the Griffiths' vacation. Tina was packing her trunk when Griffith ordered her to get onto her knees. She could see he was holding his revolver. He demanded she close her eyes, but she was too frightened to completely close them.

Griffith peppered poor Tina with questions, seemingly trying to implicate her in poisoning André Briswalter (who had died of blood poisoning), poisoning him, and even being unfaithful to him.

On this last question, Griffith fired the gun. Tina jerked away, with the bullet entering her left eye. She ran for the window, pried it open, and jumped out to escape. Tina landed on a piazza roof one floor down, breaking her shoulder.

Luckily for Tina, the hotel's owner was in an adjacent room and heard the commotion. He pulled her to safety, sent for a doctor, and called the sheriff.

Tina's siblings asked her doctor not to discuss her condition or the circumstances of the shooting. Griffith would immediately exploit this.

Griffith told newspapers that Tina had shot herself in a suicide attempt. He then told Vandell that his mother was shot when the pistol was dropped.

The Mesmers subsequently allowed Dr. Moore to make a statement - and rallied around their sister, bracing for a very ugly legal battle.

Dr. Moore notified the newspapers that Mrs. Griffith had been shot through the eye and needed surgery to remove the bullet, pieces of splintered orbital bone, and what remained of her destroyed eye. Tina was also badly concussed and in such poor overall condition that Dr. Moore postponed setting her broken shoulder for two more days. 

Dr. Moore added that if the bullet had entered Tina’s eye just one-sixteenth of an inch lower, it would have entered her brain

Another physician, Dr. Rogers, stated that gunpowder burns on Tina’s face indicated she had been shot from approximately two feet away.

The day after shooting Tina, Griffith spent a long afternoon and evening bar-hopping. Law enforcement was tailing him on foot, and he was arrested that night. He was quickly released on bail. Vandell, unable to visit his mother in the hospital, accompanied Griffith back to Los Angeles, where they checked into the Fremont Hotel.

Six days after the shooting, Griffith was served with divorce papers. Tina demanded her freedom, sole custody of Vandell, and her share of their enormous combined estate. A temporary injunction was issued to prevent Griffith from disposing of any property in the interim (gee, I wonder why the court had to do that...), and Tina was granted custody of Vandell for the duration of the proceedings. Since Tina couldn't leave the hospital yet, Vandell was placed in the temporary care of Tina’s stepmother, Jennie Mesmer.

Tina's legal team knew she would have difficulty winning back her property. Joseph Scott, Esq. told the Los Angeles Herald “Unfortunately for Mrs. Griffith, she so neglected her own rights at the time of her marriage as to deed all of her property to Griffith before their union. It was an act of renunciation based on the old idea of dower, and it will be exceedingly difficult to attack the property now. Mrs. Griffith’s ‘dower’ included a large part of what is now known as the Briswalter tract, and was estimated to be worth $500,000 at the time of her marriage. It would be hard to estimate its present value. While we anticipate no difficulty in obtaining a decree of divorce or in obtaining ample support for our client, it seems questionable whether she can obtain any approximation of what really should be hers.” 

Griffith’s trial began February 15, 1904. Within a few days, the prosecution’s line of questioning showed a possible motive for the murder attempt.

Tina, who concealed her scarred face behind a veil, was asked a series of questions about her inheritance. She revealed that Griffith had been managing her business for their entire marriage. She had repeatedly asked him to settle up with her, since she wanted to handle her own land holdings. It was further revealed that had the bullet killed her, she would have died without a will

Tina's share of the couple's estate would have automatically stayed with her homicidal husband instead of going to her only child or her siblings.

Griffith, using a defense of “alcoholic insanity” (which sounds an awful lot like the Twinkie Defense if you ask me), was found guilty of a lesser charge - assault with a deadly weapon. He was sentenced to two years at San Quentin.

Two years in prison, for almost killing his long-suffering wife. Does anyone else smell that? I believe it's the distinct smell of bullshit.

Griffith’s original legal team, Silent & Works, sued him for $20,000 in attorneys’ fees. I suppose he couldn't be bothered with arranging payment.

Tina’s divorce case was heard on November 4, 1904. Judge Allen granted her a divorce on the grounds of cruelty after just four minutes of testimony. (Everyone thinks it's four and a half minutes. The earliest news article I can find covering the case says that it was four minutes, and poor Tina was too traumatized to say anything for much of that time. To my knowledge, it's the shortest divorce testimony on record.)

Griffith was not present at the divorce hearing. He was still in the County Jail, awaiting an appeal (an appeal - really?!). The financial end of the divorce was settled out of court. Griffith agreed to pay for Vandell's education, but demanded he not attend a Catholic-affiliated school (the Griffiths settled on Stanford).

Griffith sobered up in prison, and tried to donate more land to the city, in addition to funds for an amphitheater and a science building. The Parks Commission didn't want it. Mount Griffith was renamed Mount Hollywood.

Griffith eventually donated all of the above and more to the city in his will, essentially buying himself respectability in death. His grave marker in Hollywood Forever Cemetery is so tall you can practically see it from space.

True to her family's strong Catholic faith, Tina was interred at Calvary Cemetery when she passed away in 1948. 

To this day, Griffith Park bears its founder’s name, in addition to his likeness in statue form (the terms of Griffith's "gift" required that the land be called Griffith Park in perpetuity). 

Mary Agnes Christina Mesmer Griffith, who spent the rest of her life in seclusion at her sister and brother-in-law’s home, hiding her scarred face and empty eye socket behind a veil, has been forgotten.

Griffith Jenkins Griffith died from (what else...) liver disease on this day, one hundred years ago

Good riddance.

P.S. I went to Griffith Park regularly as a child, and have returned plenty of times as an adult. I truly believe that it is one of the greatest urban parks in the world. But seeing Griffith lionized as a civic-minded Angeleno, knowing what he truly was, makes every last drop of my French blood boil.

*There is a persistent myth that the Alsatian-born Mesmers were somehow descendants of/heirs to the Verdugo family, who were Californios. It’s NOT TRUE. It’s not even possible; I’ve spent hours on Ancestry checking this. For the love of macarons, Please. Stop. Saying. Tina. Was. A. Verdugo. Heiress.