Sunday, April 30, 2023

Godissart's of Hollywood

When you hear "Hollywood" and "makeup" in the same sentence, who do you think of? Max Factor, whose building now houses the Hollywood Museum? The Westmores, who have a star on the Walk of Fame? Or perhaps one of the celebrity makeup artists working today?

What would you say if I told you a French-speaking Belgian had his own shop on Hollywood Boulevard?

Joseph G. Godissart in 1934

Joseph G. Godissart was born in Roux, Belgium, about twenty miles from the French border, in 1877. The Godissarts came to Los Angeles in 1910, moving into a bungalow at 808 South Harvard Boulevard in what is now Koreatown. 

Godissart's daughter Sylvia was a quadruple threat - she acted, sang, danced, and played the piano. She was already appearing in Universal films and local stage productions as a teenager, and in 1919, she went to France for two years to study stage acting after completing a course at the Egan School of Drama

1919 clip on Sylvia Godissart going to France to study acting

Godissart accompanied his 16-year-old daughter to Paris and studied the art and science of perfume under A. Muraour, one of France's most renowned chemists, an author of technical books on perfume, and founder of the perfume company Nissery. 

At least one newspaper account suggested that Alice Godissart would be joining her husband and daughter in Paris, but there was trouble in paradise. Godissart filed for divorce in Reno in 1920, claiming Alice had been extremely cruel to him and alleging that she had cheated with a doctor. Alice disputed this, stating that he had failed to adequately support her. She stated that while he was in France during the war, he left only $1000 for her to live on, forcing her to rent out the family home.

Alice Godissart stated that when her husband left in January of 1920, he left only $10,000 of the couple's community property, estimated at $100,000. She filed her own divorce complaint in Los Angeles in 1924, denying the allegations of infidelity and asserting that the claims had caused her humiliation and mental anguish. Additionally, she suspected that Godissart had hidden the bulk of their money in French banks.

Godissart moved to Paris and obtained a divorce decree there. Alice fought this decree, and in 1926 Judge Hollzer of Los Angeles Superior Court ruled that "Defendant was not in good faith a resident of Paris at the time, and therefore not subject to the jurisdiction of that tribunal. It is apparent he simply went to Paris for the purpose of getting a divorce. Such a trip does not establish residence. Decree for the plaintiff." Alice got the house.

Regardless of the Godissarts' allegations against each other, just a few months later they jointly threw Sylvia's engagement party at the Encino Country Club, and Godissart began building his cosmetics business.

I should note that there is conflicting information about precisely when Godissart's perfume business launched. Some sources claim that Godissart was a former restauranteur, others that he was a retired wealthy merchant, and Godissart himself claimed that his family had been making perfume for six generations, or since 1732. Another article (see below) claims that the Godissarts had been making perfume for 300 years. This seems to conflict with the fact that Godissart was from a part of Belgium that is not close to the perfume industry's epicenter in Southern France, and that I can't find any record of him being in the perfume business until the 1920s. In fact, I can't find any mention of the Godissart family in the perfume industry prior to that. References to the Godissarts prior to the opening of the first Godissart store do not mention perfume at all. (If anyone finds proof of the company's existence prior to 1925, please contact me with citations.)

There are multiple references to Godissart managing the Richelieu Cafe company, which lends weight to a background in the restaurant industry. He is cited as a former proprietor of Cafe de Paris in a 1912 ad for the Richelieu Cafe. Interestingly, when Levy's Cafe lost its liquor license under Godissart's co-management, it reopened as Richelieu Cafe, got a new license, lost it again, and closed in 1913.

Godissart also claimed to be a descendant of the man who inspired Balzac's Felix Gaudissart stories. However, available records on the Godissart family seem to run out with Godissart's father.

Godissart rigorously tested his ideas in France - arguably the toughest perfume market of all - before returning to Los Angeles. He set up a modern laboratory in Hollywood, where perfume was made from raw materials he imported from the main laboratory in Asnières.

Godissart also made face powder. Le Guide Français claims "The unique idea of mixing face powder in the presence of the customers to suit their complexion or taste originated with this farsighted parfumeur." 

Godissart then began opening his own stores. Godissart's Parfum Classique Français first opened at 744 West 7th Street in 1925, and was so popular that within a year a second store opened at 313 South Broadway (inside the Million Dollar Theatre). 

Finally, a store opened at 6403 Hollywood Boulevard in 1930. From the main laboratory at 1703 North Kenmore, Godissart supplied stores in Los Angeles, Santa Monica, San Francisco, Oakland, Portland, Seattle, Detroit, Dallas, Fort Worth, Shreveport, and New Orleans. There was a satellite office at 14 Rue de Sevigne in Paris.

1930 newspaper page with multiple mentions of the new Godissart's store on Hollywood Boulevard.  

In an interesting side note, the above newspaper page names Louis Blondeau as the owner of the property. The Blondeau family's shuttered tavern housed Nestor Film Company, which had merged with Sylvia's former employer - Universal - in 1912. (If you're wondering about Sylvia, she married Ervin Adamson soon after returning from France and seems to have retired from acting at that point.)

1931 ad for Godissart's sixth anniversary sale

The 1931 ad above indicates that Godissart's had opened an additional 7th Street location, at number 744. The BLOC stands there today. Besides perfume and powder, Godissart's was selling lipsticks, soaps, skincare products, and dusting powder (applied to the body after bathing). 

Another Broadway location opened in 1933, at number 709. Pictures of Godissart stores are elusive, but an article on the store's opening provides an idea of how they looked. The new Broadway store boasted a white marble, Mexican onyx, and verde bronze facade, "French ecru" walls and ceilings with gold trim, a "French ecru" carpet with rosebuds, and a French-style crystal chandelier "all modeled after the Renaissance period". (Which seems like a bit of a stretch, since ecru and gold has me thinking Louis XVI.)

1934 ad for Godissart's custom-blended face powder

1934 ad for Godissart's powder, claiming it does not dry out the skin and cause age lines.

1934 classified ad for Godissart's franchising opportunities outside of LA

1935 article on the new Hollywood Boulevard store.

Do note that in the above article from 1935, not only did Godissart open a new Hollywood Boulevard store, but he added a custom hosiery line. The article also claims the Godissart family had been in the perfume industry for 300 years. It isn't clear if this was a typo or an exaggeration on Godissart's part.

1935 California Eagle clipping mentioning Godissart’s full line being sold at Ruth's Beauty Shop, a Central Avenue beauty shop for Black women. 

1937 ad for the opening of a new Godissart's in Oakland.

Godissart also invested in real estate, buying a new eight-unit apartment building, namely 1124 Hacienda Place in West Hollywood, in 1940. It's still standing.

1941 ad for Vita-Cell, Godissart's latest, and perhaps last, innovation.

Godissart's laboratory introduced a new product in 1941: Vita-Cell mouthwash.

Vita-Cell ad from 1941, offering a "generous free sample".

Joseph's 1941 obituary.

Joseph G. Godissart passed away in 1941, and is buried at Forest Lawn in Glendale. His second wife, Angele Cazaux Godissart, kept the business running after his death. She passed away in 1948.

1952 blurb about Godissart's management change and move to the Lowe's State Building.

Mentions of Godissart's cosmetic company peter out in 1953. Now it’s just as forgotten as Godissart himself.

The Masselins and the Miracle Mile

Northern California's gold fields attracted prospectors from around the world, including France. Some unsuccessful Frenchmen left for Los Angeles, which still boasted an ample supply of cheap land and already had a growing French community that could help them raise money to return home - or to find work, buy land, and settle permanently.

Joseph Masselin was one of them. Hailing from Haute-Normandie, Masselin was seventeen when gold was found halfway around the world at Sutter's Mill.

Sources disagree on whether the Masselin family stayed in Northern California until 1859 or until 1870, which was more than 20 years after the gold rush began. Masselin was married to Aquitaine native Marie Sehabiague, and they had six children: John Baptiste, Jennie, Joseph, Zellie, Julia, and Cornelia.

In 1870, Los Angeles was expanding east (really). Unable to afford ranch lands on the Eastside, Masselin bought 120 acres of much-cheaper farmland on what was then the Westside. 

Specifically, the farm fronted what is now Wilshire Boulevard.

A family member's obituary states that the farm was bounded by Wilshire, Rimpau, Olympic, and "what is now La Brea". I checked this claim against an acreage calculator and found it to be about 148 acres, not 120. Since there are multiple references to the farm fronting Wilshire, I'm certain of that boundary, but I can't be 100 percent sure that the others are accurate. Masselin bought land throughout his life, so it's certainly possible he expanded the farm at a later date.

Masselin also began buying land on the old Rancho La Cienega and in the Beaudry Tract within a decade of his arrival. He was later known as a major landowner in the Cahuenga Valley (southeastern Hollywood).

Like so many Frenchmen before and after him, Masselin raised sheep, partnering with Rock Sarrail on the Verdugo ranch. Although other Frenchmen were ruined when the price of wool suddenly dropped, Masselin and Sarrail survived the crash, and did well enough to expand to Bolsa Grande (Garden Grove), Bolsa Chica (Huntington Beach), and San Diego County.

Masselin also became a city councilman, often served on the Bastille Day committee, and championed civic improvements as an early planning commissioner.

Masselin partnered with T.J. Molle in a store, selling coal, hay, wood, grain, and such on Eighth Street between Main and Spring. Molle left in 1891, leaving Masselin to fill orders alone. 

Masselin passed away in 1898 at age 68, and is interred in Calvary Cemetery with his wife and their children (in eight adjoining mausoleum vaults). But this story doesn't end with him.

Much of what we now call Wilshire Boulevard was initially a path used by the Tongva people, and for nearly all of Masselin's lifetime it was known as Calle de los Indios. Wilshire Boulevard as we know it today was born closer to downtown, in 1895, and slowly expanded both east and west. 

Henry Gaylord Wilshire initially planned for Wilshire Boulevard to be 15 blocks long and 60 feet wide, with 35-foot sidewalks, and to be paired with a hotel. He soon applied to build an electric railroad that would run through Westlake and on the proposed Boulevard.

The "Wilshire Boulevard Ordinance", proposed in 1899 and later upheld by the city, sought to protect the stylish new thoroughfare from "heavy teaming, particularly the hauling of oil." (This is somewhat ironic, given that Wilshire Boulevard's predecessor Calle de los Indios was used by the Tongva to collect tar from the La Brea Tar Pits and haul it to the coast, where they would use it to fill the cracks in their wooden plank canoes.) Oil vendors took the matter to court a year later and won. 

Wilshire Boulevard was intended for "boulevard and park purposes" rather than business purposes, although it's certainly much busier now than Wilshire and the interested property owners could ever have imagined. The issue of banning heavy vehicles from the Boulevard came up over and over, and the ordinance was deemed valid again and again. 

1908 news blurb on "boulevardizing" Wilshire Boulevard

1909 blurb on a court hearing for the Wilshire Boulevard ordinance. Joseph Masselin (II) was present at the final hearing.

The farm's end came in 1922, when the Masselin family sold their last 73 acres to the developers of the Wilshire Vista tract. 

1922 clipping on the sale of the Masselin farm's last 73 acres to the Wilshire Vista tract

The Masselin farm may be long gone, but Masselin Avenue still bears their name, just eight short blocks from the farm's western boundary. Masselin Avenue runs north-south, intersecting with Wilshire Boulevard.

Wednesday, April 12, 2023

The Kafkaesque Nature of Requesting Information in Los Angeles

(Dear readers - feel free to disregard this entry unless you are especially interested in transparency. This topic is a bit too complex to delve into on Twitter.)

I've been requesting some data from the city since February 2.

On that date, I sent an email through the LA City Controller's website. Controller Kenneth Mejia ran on a transparency platform, and I for one was hopeful that, as a non-politician, he might actually live up to it.

While I appreciate what Controller Mejia has done for transparency (and for shelter animals), not receiving requested data is not a good look.

A friend suggested I reach out to Rick Cole, who works in the Controller's office. I emailed him on February 6 and asked about an API for vacancy data (I'm a former property manager, I am concerned about what short-term rentals are doing to the city, and I am not convinced that the official vacancy rate is truly accurate). 

In a response sent February 7, Rick suggested reaching out to the DWP. I promptly did so, and eventually (on February 25) received a completely useless form response. 

I emailed Rick again on February 13, asking if I should reach out to anyone specific. I did not receive a response.

I emailed Rick a third time on March 2, asking if he had a DWP contact. He did respond that time, referring me to Martin Adams at the DWP. I was CCed on a response on March 6 (the response did not include any data).

I have not heard from either of them since March 7, despite sending a follow-up email to both of them on March 23.

Who, exactly, does one have to be to get a proper response from anyone who works for the city?

If anyone at City Hall is indeed paying attention, kindly take note: You work for the people of LA, not the other way around.