14 Berkeley Square
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Chester Place, the still-extant and well-known gated West Adams street several miles to the east of the site of Berkeley Square, is notable for its origins as the Los Angeles home of Charles Silent, an associate justice of the Supreme Court of the Arizona Territory in the late 1870s. Silent named the 1899 development of his property after his son, who was to die in an accident in 1907, but it is Edward Doheny who famously began acquiring the subdivision piece by piece beginning in 1901. While around the same time other Los Angeles potentates began to build houses in Chester Place, including a brother of #1 Berkeley Square's William Walden Gray, the Dohenys' eventual domination of Chester Place ultimately renders it somewhat less diverse than the Square. Of course, we're talking here about diversity among millionaires, but Berkeley Square, dominated as it was by no single family, not even the Burkes, arguably makes for a more interesting street history. All in all, Berkeley Square out-potentates Chester Place, and even a single house such as #14 can boast of multiple names and connections significant in the annals of early-20th-century Southland history.
Walter Ransome Leeds, described in his 1940 Times obituary as an attorney, financier, and pioneer citizen of Los Angeles, had arrived in California as a child from his native Cincinnati in the early 1880s. Notably diligent and civic-minded early on, Walter was his class president at L.A. High School, from which he was graduated in 1895. According to Willoughby Rodman's 1909 History of the Bench and Bar in Southern California, Leeds, apparently precocious even for the day, was admitted to the bar two years later at age 21. Practicing on his own, no doubt making contacts downtown as a young man quietly on the move, Walter was not so solitary that he didn't play by the social rules, which would have included the acquisition of a suitable wife. Enter Anna Fay, a West Adams belle perfectly groomed to play the establishment consort. She was the granddaughter of Thomas Douglas Stimson, the renown Midwestern lumberman who retired to Los Angeles at age 63 only to begin a second career in banking, further enhancing his position as one of the richest men in town. (His turreted red New Mexico–sandstone West Adams house of 1891 is one of the most photographed buildings in the city, certainly the most photographed in the district, and it still stands at 2421 South Figueroa.) Walter and Anna were married in a Catholic ceremony in the reception hall of her parents' house at 240 West Adams Street on November 25, 1903, and after a short honeymoon, they moved within the district to 2642 South Van Buren Place, a house that also still stands. The granddaughter of T. D. Stimson would not have been content in the modest Van Buren house for long; the Leedses acquired Lot 22 in Berkeley Square from the Burkes in 1906, with the Times reporting on March 17, 1907, that they had chosen the architectural firm of Myron Hunt and Elmer Grey for the design and construction oversight of an 11-room house, which, the Times indicated eight months later, was to be in Anna's name and to cost $20,000 but was as yet unfinished.
Anna's mother died suddenly in Rome on May 24, 1907, setting off social fireworks heard 'round the Southland. Olive Fay, it seems, had come to loathe her husband, John J. Fay Jr., banker, oilman, and president of the Los Angeles Board of Water Commissioners, who indeed sounds loathsome despite being in all the usual clubs. Mrs. Fay had been traveling with friends in Europe for over a year, apparently to distance herself from J. J. In a particularly gruesome story in the Times of August 16, 1907, all the dirty bloomers were aired: Not only had Mrs. Fay been contemplating divorce, but she had also cut her husband out of her will. J. J. was not pleased that his three children were to get all the loot, which included prime downtown Los Angeles real estate as well as valuable property in Chicago.
Almost as soon as the Leedses had moved into their new Berkeley Square house at the end of the year, the unseemly family squabble, perhaps mitigated among staid West Adamsites only by the high-toned personages connected to the case, went into overdrive when the couple brought suit against Anna's father. It was claimed that J. J., bitter over his wife's scorn, had refused to repay loans Anna had made to him as well as to pay monies Grandpa Stimson had entrusted him to hold for her back in 1894. The family feud seems not to have delayed J. J.'s financially strategic remarriage within a week of the suit's filing and a year and change after the expiration of the first Mrs. Fay. Agatha Sabichi was from one of the oldest families in Los Angeles, descended from Lugos and Wolfskills, and she had grown up next door to the first Mrs. Fay's family house on Figueroa Street. "BRIDE-TO-BE IS HEIRESS, BUT CEREMONY IN CATHOLIC CATHEDRAL TO BE QUIET BECAUSE OF LEGAL FIGHT BETWEEN BRIDEGROOM AND DAUGHTER," the Times reported on July 29, 1908. The Fays moved into the Sabichi house next to the old Stimson place, and a few years later to one of their own across the street—it seems that J. J. was going to give up a Figueroa address only over his dead body, which was finally to be its condition in 1918.
In the midst of such a family horror show Anna occupied herself with overseeing the construction of the new house on Berkeley Square, still finding time to attend to her club activities and card parties. Walter avoided too much involvement in the unpleasantness by reviving his political career begun during high school. His active interest in the Republican party culminated with his election to the California legislature in 1906 as the assemblyman representing the 70th district of Los Angeles County, which includes Newport and Laguna beaches.
Assemblyman Leeds was by all accounts quite an active legislator. He was a promoter of a union railroad terminal for Los Angeles (not to come about until 1939). He introduced a bill that would allow gun clubs to floods their properties to attract ducks for the kill, something sure to have made him popular in clubland. He was opposed to women's suffrage, but indicated that he would reverse his position if he became convinced the movement was growing and that women actually wanted to vote and not just rabble-rouse. He equivocated too on an even more serious issue of the day, one of those reminders that nostalgia can obscure the reality of life in a particular era. During Leeds's time in the legislature, California was to consider a number of charming bills, one of which, advocated by the Asiatic Exclusion League (by all accounts a group almost comically hysterical in its xenophobia), came before the legislature in 1909. Assemblyman Leeds was at first in favor of Bill 14, the so-called Anti-Japanese School Bill, but to his credit, after the Federal government pointed out the disadvantages of the bill and despite the predictable states-rights backlash, Leeds reversed his vote, contributing to its failure. While some appreciated his thoughtfulness, his reversal appears not to have made him popular among his constituents, who returned him to private life in 1910. He resumed his law practice in an office in the Van Nuys Building downtown, and he now had more time for the links. Around the time Walter and Anna moved to #14, the Los Angeles Country Club was selling its property north of Berkeley Square to move to its present site just west of Beverly Hills, a harbinger of future residential patterns—where the links go, so go the striving classes. Walter would now have to drive his Pope-Hartford the ten miles over still-unpaved roads to pursue his passion and eventual vice-presidency of the club. Anna, meanwhile, acquired a no-crank Waverly Electric ("with a buggy top") to tool around in, occasionally meeting Walter downtown at the California Club for lunch or to entertain a group of friends there before the theater. Life at 14 Berkeley Square seems to have settled down after Anna and her siblings dropped their suits against their father in late 1908.
The 1909 Waverly Electric with a buggy top: It's hard to imagine that Anna
ever actually left the gates of Berkeley Square in this green machine,
even given the traffic conditions of Los Angeles 102 years ago.
even given the traffic conditions of Los Angeles 102 years ago.
Anna's death at home on November 8, 1928, no doubt put Walter in mind of selling the big empty house they had built 20 years before. Walter Jr. was well launched, having finished at Berkeley and soon to marry Miss Mary Travis, a proper local gal, a Kappa fresh out of the new U.C.L.A. in Westwood. Now there was nothing to keep Walter away from making with the golf sticks at the club—in fact, after disposing of #14, he moved all but onto the L.A.C.C. course itself, taking a house in Beverly Hills. And then his childhood friend and best golfing buddy, Dr. Dudley Fulton, died of a stroke on March 23, 1931. While the good doctor's death perhaps soured him on golf for a time, that not uncommon phenomenon of a union between two people close to someone who has died was to draw him back east to Windsor Square the next year: Mrs. Dudley Fulton, the very lady who in 1916 dove into the Montgomery/Kellogg pool to save her daughter Margaret (who married the Square's John Page Crutcher in the rainbow ceremony also described here), became the second Mrs. Walter Ransome Leeds in Yuma, Arizona, on February 18, 1932. The newlywed Leedses settled midway between the country club and downtown in May Fulton's house at 627 South Windsor. It was the office and golf, the club and the lodge for Walter; for May, it was luncheons, charity work, anticipation of grandchildren, and ancestor-worshipping with the Native Daughters of the Golden West. Water and May were aboard LeRoy Edwards's Arbutus when a Catalina steamer ran into it in fog in the spring of 1936. While Walter recovered from injuries received in that accident, he died of pernicious anemia on February 10, 1940, having packed a great deal into his 64 years. Walter Jr. died only six years later; May was living out near the country club by 1950 and seems to have died before 1960.
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Berkeley Square was always a cozy place—the more one reads, the more one is struck by the intermingling of social, family, and business lives on the street. Society chit-chat in the Times reveals that Walter Leeds was friendly with his successor at 14 Berkeley Square—same parties, same clubs—and the name Kingsley Macomber had been well known in Southland social circles for many years. There were actually two of them, first cousins of the same Iowa family—A. (for Abraham) and J. (for John Jr. or "Jay") Kingsley Macomber. While it was J. Kingsley and his wife Pearl who moved into #14 in 1929, it was his first cousin A. Kingsley who first made the Macomber name famous in business and in the horse-racing world in California and later in Europe. An adventurer and sportsman, he was married to a Standard Oil heiress who had grown up around horses. When he was not founding banks (the Los Angeles Trust Company, 1902), running cattle operations up north in San Benito County, or developing the Oak Knoll section of Pasadena with Henry Huntington, A. Kingsley was expanding his interests in thoroughbred horses. He was to have six Kentucky Derby runners, and his horses would win the Preakness and the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe as well as races at Ascot. Later, having moved his operations to Europe, he served as president of the American Hospital in Paris from 1926 to 1928. When he died in 1955, Sports Illustrated called him the "undisputed head of American society in Europe."
J. Kingsley, meanwhile, having arrived in Los Angeles in 1902, had gone to work for his cousin's new bank. Even so young he was described by the Times as a "Pasadena capitalist"; although it must be said that the Los Angeles media seems often to have confused the two Kingsley Macombers, it appears that it was J. Kingsley who was hauled into court and fined for having hired an unlicensed elevator operator at the bank's downtown headquarters in 1906. No doubt Uncle A ripped him a new one, but Jay had other things on his mind. He wooed and won the very social Pearl Seeley, a thoroughly West Adams girl though born in San Francisco. They were married on October 24, 1907, and lived for a time at 1640 West 23rd Street. The next year the young Macombers left Los Angeles for Kern County, where King, as Jay was sometimes known, plunged into land development, later becoming president of the Central California Land Company. After several years he sold his Kern County interests and invested in a thousand-acre spread a little farther north in Tulare County, on which he raised cattle, alfalfa, and cotton. He became deeply interested in agriculture, was elected to the county board of supervisors, and was an organizer of the Farmers State Bank. The Macombers were living in Tipton until, after nearly 20 years of rural life, they decided to return to the city in 1927. They could have settled anywhere in the Southland, full as it was of fashionable suburbs including the Macomber territory of Pasadena, but such was still the allure of in those days of West Adams, at least for Pearl, that they chose to live in St. James Park before the opportunity to move to Berkeley Square presented itself in 1929. Their friend Walter Leeds was ready to sell #14.
Pearl and King quickly shook off the dust of the agricultural counties to the north, plunging back into metropolitan life with gusto; perhaps being childless had something to do with their vigorous social pursuits. At any rate, their Los Angeles parties and receptions began on St. James Park, adjacent to Chester Place, but Berkeley Square, even though not new itself, must have appealed in that it was architecturally more of the 20th century than of the 19th—the eastern precincts of West Adams now had a distinctly unfashionable Victorian feel. The Macombers already had many social acquaintances in the Square, and it was convenient to all parts of the city, to downtown, the beaches, Pasadena, Beverly Hills and the rest of the west side of town. In one typical Macomber entertainment after moving to the Square, they poured tea for 150, with 30 staying for dinner and not leaving "until the wee hours," according to the Times. Pearl's niece, Virginia Seeley, was married in 1928 to Nicholas Harrison, great-great-grandson of President William Henry Harrison, with the reception at her aunt and uncle's house on St. James Place; after Mr. Harrison died in 1934, Virginia married Kinney Smith Jr. of Chicago on May 20, 1936; the ceremony and reception were held at Aunt Pearl and Uncle Jay's house on Berkeley Square. (The Smiths sailed to Honolulu on the Lurline afterward.) The previous February, Kate A. Drake, who had moved into #14 with her daughter and son-in-law, had died at home. Aside from weddings and funerals and entertaining, King was still as busy a man as any Macomber ever was. During the second World War, he was active in the Los Angeles chapter of the Red Cross, with his office occupying John Barrymore's old space at Warner Bros. Emulating his cousin—still the toast of European horse racing—King participated at the behest of Carleton Burke as a steward of the California Horse Racing Board for many years. He was still engaged in the sport as late as 1965.
Pearl Macomber's niece, Mrs. Kinney Smith Jr., 1936
When reading about Los Angeles, and particularly of West Adams in the first half of the 20th century, one notices a distinct air of nostalgia seemingly incongruent with the number of years that had actually passed—the rapid change of the city the magnifying agent. In 1942, only 12 years into his tenure at #14 and with 16 to go, a charming bit entitled "Tempus Fugit" in the "Chatterbox" column of the Times of March 30 reveals one man's feelings for a neighborhood: "We feel as ancient as Mr. Kingsley Macomber did last week at the Wiley Blair III wedding. Looking around, King said to us, 'Only yesterday Sue Nourse [the bride], Nancy Brown and Natalie Matthews were 7 years old and skipping rope on the sidewalks of Berkeley Square.'"
No wonder the Macombers were not to let go of #14 easily. While it might have been a case of having waited too long to get out before rumors of the freeway precluded a decent sale price—not everyone could find a big chump willing to pay $450,000 for a house as Sweet Daddy Grace did for #4 in 1958—it's always a pleasant thought that some with long West Adams memories held on to the bitter end of the Square out of sentiment. Pearl and Kingsley were still listed at #14 in the 1960 city directory; while no listing for the house appears in directories for 1961 or after, a Herald-Examiner photograph dated April 1, 1962, pictures the couple looking out of the window of #14 as the bulldozers stood by. The Macombers were moving to the Talmadge at Wilshire and Berendo, in a neighborhood soon to be in demographic transition itself. At this point I wish to recommend Lady in a Cage, a 1964 movie starring Olivia de Havilland with James Caan as her tormentor, which, for all its quirkiness and camp aspects, well reflects the age of post-freeway urban anxiety in Los Angeles. It was filmed on Lake Street, even in the '50s still somewhat of an upper-middle-class neighborhood, now in the heart of a Westlake district only slowly being revitalized.
Only small paid obituaries in the Los Angeles Times reveal that Pearl died in March 1965 and J. Kingsley Macomber in February 1970. Neighborhoods as well their inhabitants: tempus fugit indeed.Illustrations from top: LAT; History of the Bench and Bar in California; LAT (2);
Pearl and Kingsley Macomber are pictured at #14 on April 1, 1962,
described in the original newspaper caption as "Looking back
to the past...the last of the old-time residents to
move out of Berkeley Square."
Period Paper; LAT (4); LAPL