12 Berkeley Square


While the house that rose on Lot 23 was designed by a major Los Angeles architect, no photographs or drawings of it have surfaced. (So what better illustration than the one above? More on that directly.)

Arthur Rolland Kelly kept very busy during the 1920s designing fantasy houses for Hollywood—spreads for, among others, cowboy stars William S. Hart and Johnny Mack Brown—as well as for the downtown Los Angeles establishment. The original westside campus and buildings of the Westlake School for Girls in Holmby Hills—now the middle school of Harvard-Westlake—are by Kelly, as is the house of Broadway department store heir Arthur Letts Jr. built nearby, now better known as the Playboy Mansion. Its Tudor Gothic style may or may not give us an idea of what Mr. and Mrs. Robert David Matthews built at 12 Berkeley Square a few years before. But if the famous quote describing the Letts-Hefner house—"What God would have done if He'd had the money," widely attributed to actor Peter O'Toole—could have been applied to #12, you'd think a picture of it would have survived. Ah, well. No house, no picture. A building permit for a 13-room house was issued to R. D. Matthews by the Department of Buildings on October 30, 1924; the address noted on the permit is "2163 Berkeley Square," that number being the alternative designation of Lot 23 if legally the Berkeley Square roadway was considered part of West 22nd Street.

It seems that not all plutocrats considered F.D.R. a traitor to his class:
Robert David Matthews with Mrs. Asa V. Call, wife of the prominent
 business and community leader and honorary chairman of Pacific
Mutual Life for whom U.S.C.'s law library is named, and
 Mrs. George I. Cochran, wife of a longtime president
of PML, at the President's birthday party
 at the Biltmore, February 1, 1934.

Robert David Matthews was a native Welshman, born in 1886. He was educated and began his accountancy career in Cardiff, joining Price-Waterhouse in New York in 1911, transferring to their Los Angeles office later the same year. Matthews must have been something of a whiz-kid—he was just 28 when he was appointed comptroller of Union Oil Company of California in March 1914, soon becoming a director of the company as well. In 1913 he married Ethel Burge Walker back in Cardiff; Richard David Matthews was born the next year in Hollywood, where the family was living on Highland Avenue. Mary Constance arrived on November 10, 1916And then, though we've found no obituary for her, Ethel seems to have died.

An ambitious widower with two young children would likely be in search of a wife, just as an ambitious divorcée might be looking for her next gig—and so Robert Matthews and Mrs. Gertrude Francis Black of Quebec, by way of San Francisco and a still sparsely developed Beverly Hills, were married in Monterey in April 1921. After a honeymoon in Japan, they settled in the flats of the Hills at 711 North Camden Drive. Their daughter Natalie David was born in due course. Then, reversing the trend of moving west in Los Angeles that had already begun, the Matthews bought Lot 23 and engaged Arthur Rolland Kelly to design their new house in Berkeley Square. 

Society matrons gather at #12 to help Mrs. Robert David Matthews,
center, plan a charity bridge function to be held at the
 Ambassador Hotel's Cocoanut Grove, 1936.

Once the family had moved in, the Matthews entertainments—and travels—went into high gear. The dizzying succession of  luncheons, teas, and dinners organized by Gertrude, both at #12 and at the couple's various clubs (the California, Midwick, the Annandale), were widely covered by the Times—one wonders if Gertrude was in the habit of alerting its society desk of her every move. There were the usual Blue Book names in attendance, from the Square and elsewhere in town, and, occasionally, titled English folk. While the Matthewses never seemed to have corralled anyone above the rank of knight,  I'm sure that Sir John Cadman and Sir Frederick and Lady Whyte were lovely feathers in Robert and Gertrude's caps when the knights visited Los Angeles bearing letters of introduction for them. (Dukes and earls seem to have preferred Hollywood hospitality.) There were opera openings. There were annual Halloween parties for the children of the Square. There was Constance's debut at home in 1935. Neither did the Depression hold sway at #12 in terms of trips—there was the family's summer at the Santa Barbara Biltmore in 1927, at Pebble Beach in 1931 during which they entertained Louise Burke, long of the Square, and Gurney E. Newlin, to arrive at #3 before too long. There were trips to Europe, to the East Coast, to Banff and Lake Louise. One summer at Coronado was followed by the one spent cruising the Hawaiian Islands. It's a wonder that the books of Union Oil didn't collapse with so many absences of comptroller Matthews.

But Robert was no shirker. He was by some accounts, in fact, sometimes a little too assertive at Union Oil, considered high-handed and dismissive of even the president at times. Not cool. But what was cool is that his studies of American history while seeking U.S. citizenship in 1931 were to lead to The Ball. The iconic orange Union 76 ball, the one recently threatened with extinction, that is. It seems that the Union Oil marketing department was looking for a new corporate symbol, and Matthews suggested that "76" sounded patriotic—"Spirit of '76" and all that—as well as euphonious... and it also happened to trump the Phillips "66" brand ("66" being for that fuel's octane). There was some federal trademark-office hesitation over the number, which, it felt, might be taken as an octane rating like Phillips's—76 octane was, according to some sources, not available in 1932—but a great American symbol, and a particularly Californian one, was born. 

Robert Matthews's company-defining contribution wasn't enough to counteract his associates' perception of arrogance, and his dream of ascending to the presidency of Union was never realized. This personal frustration no doubt  contributed to his sad end.

January 1940/September 1940

In the meantime, after Connie came out, was graduated from Ethel Walker's, and was finished at Garland in Boston, she got majorly into Southland boys, or at least they into her. The family began to divide its time between Berkeley Square and a new house at 1345 Wentworth Avenue in the Oak Knoll section of Pasadena—later occupied by Ralph J. Chandler—putting #12 on the market in early 1937; by May the 6-bedroom, 4-bath brick house was being offered at an unspecified "sacrifice." The glamour and safety of insular Pasadena won out over increasingly polyglot Los Angeles. Connie, sometimes mentioned in gossip columns alongside the future Julia Child, ran with a fast crowd in and around the Huntington Hotel that included the stepson of William Boeing (of future 707s, B52s, and 747s etc.), Nat Paschall, apparently a friend of her brother Richard. After at least a year's courtship the two were engaged for about five days in early 1940; Gaylord Dillingham of the Hawaiian sugar Dillinghams raced west from Harvard on hearing the news to wrest Connie from Nat, but by September she was married to Vail Rhodes Bucklin Jr. of Chicago and Charlotte, Vermont. Hot to trot, that gal. (Connie was married to Bucklin for many years; she died 
in Connecticut in 2009 at 92, by then having become Mrs. Wilson Porch Chatfield.)

The Matthewses' social trajectory in Pasadena came to an end as war loomed. Robert David Matthews Jr., now 25 and sufferering from mental illness, succeeded in bringing about his own demise in the path of a Pacific Electric car in East Pasadena on February 26, 1940, after a recent attempt to drown himself. R. D. Matthews Sr. had left Union Oil in 1939, perhaps forced out; though listed in the 1942 city directory as engaged in business as president of Pacific States Oil Company, it became obvious that he wasn't a happy man. ONovember 19, 1943, with insomnia also cited as the causeMatthews used the same method to end his life as had Virginia Taylor, his Berkeley Square neighbor, in 1935: a bullet through the brain. Gertrude remained in Pasadena until after the war; after following her sister through Marlborough and Walker's Natalie was engaged to William Disston Anderson of Philadelphia in 1947, but either one of those "THE MARRIAGE PREVIOUSLY ANNOUNCED WILL NOT TAKE PLACE" cards went out, or the marriage was brief. In any case, Gertrude and Natalie returned to live in Los Angeles proper, much less grandly on Alandele Avenue in the new Metropolitan Life complex called Park Labrea (as it was initially spelled). Gertrude died in February 1952; Natalie was still living at Park La Brea, and still Miss Natalie D. Matthews, as late as 1969. She died in 2004.

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December 10, 1934

There could have been an interim owner of #12 after the Matthewses, but new tenants don't  seem to have appeared until the Times's "Blue Book Promenade" column of June 8, 1941, announced  that "Lena and Bill Coberly will be phoning the moving vans shortly...to move to a new-old house in Berkeley Square." The William Bayley Coberly Juniors (she née Aileen Dorsey) had been married in December 1934, she a Junior Leaguer of Huguenot and "Forty-niner" origins—her grandfather had come west the year before California was admitted to the Union. (Not only all that ancestral fabulousness, but a great uncle was the musically inclined Augustus D. Juilliard.) Bill Coberly's family wasn't just off the California banana boat either, though their high-toned connections continued into the time we are discussing—for one thing, his sister Margaret married Herbert's son Allan Henry Hoover in 1937. 

March 17, 1937

Education was an in-state affair for the Coberlys. Lena was a Marlborough girl, a Kappa at U.C.L.A., with Bill venturing as far as Stanford for his sheepskin and eventually joining his notably conservative father in that Square occupational staple, the oil business. In this case, it was the cotton and oil business—their large landholdings, once given over to cattle ranching, now made up the California Cotton Oil Company. The Coberlys sound in some accounts something like real-life Pollitts, Big Daddy and his boys, but with a little West Coast polish. Bill Junior was, like dad, a member of the Southland oligarchy's favorite club, the California, as well as the sportier Newport Harbor Yacht Club, among others. Lena and Bill had three children, Sheryl, Aileen ("Cissy"), and Bill III. And then in another untimely Square death, explained in the Times only as coming "after a brief illness," Lena was dead at 35. The children were 12, 9, and 7. Perhaps to provide some stability for them, Bill stayed put at #12, and, to help in this regard, the senior William Bayley Coberlys moved into the Square around this time, taking the old McAdoo house at #5. Another multigenerational family presence in Berkeley Square had begun.

A child of Berkeley Square, 1958

The senior Coberlys were gone from the Square by the end of 1955, Dr. Ruth J. Temple succeeding them at #5, and Bill began to make plans for his family's departure from #12 soon afterward. The house was sold in the summer of 1956, and Bill threw a "housecooling" party, bidding friends come with an ode to Berkeley Square, the first line of which seems to be of a street's death foretold: "Partly soon a thoroughfare/Our faded, shaded, lovely Square." At least we know that someone, and not even one of the longest-term residents, was feeling pangs over the decline of the old street. Bill was moving to 356 South Rossmore Avenue in Hancock Park—which happened to also have been designed by Arthur Rolland Kelly and may have been of similar design—where he remained until 
1962, when he moved to the Talmadge apartments on Wilshire Boulevard. In 1969 he married divorcée Victoria Nebeker Mudd and returned to Hancock Park, moving into her English-style house at 227 Muirfield Road.

§ § § § § § § § § §

Mrs. Wayne C. Howard, right, physician's wife, mother of 
three, P.T.A. president, and châtelaine of #12 Berkeley 
Square in the late '50s, with her not-so-secret lover 
Gene Hawkins (a.k.a., Big Pimp) and Mrs. Una 
Koontz, caught between the two.

"SOCIETY MATRON TELLS BEATINGS BY SECRET BEAU": While the Coberlys may have left the Square with a "housecooling," the couple who succeeded them certainly managed to heat things right back up. Dr. and Mrs. Wayne C. Howard were in residence for less than a year before a rather wonderful story broke in the Los Angeles Sentinel on June 13, 1957, worth quoting in its entirety here:

"Although reportedly in a critical condition at her home, 12 Berkeley Square, from beatings she charged to a clandestine romance, Mrs. Betty Howard, 45-year-old mother of three and socialite wife of a prominent physician, last week signed a complaint against her alleged 24-year-old secret lover.
"In the complaint, signed in the District Attorney's office, Mrs. Howard accused Gene Hawkins, also known as "Big Pimp," of 1408 S. Van Ness, of severely beating her about the head and body on various occasions between April 5 and May 6, and causing a brain injury that necessitated three brain operations. 
 "A PTA president and wife of Dr. Wayne C. Howard, eye, ear, nose and throat specialist, Mrs. Howard said she had been seeing Hawkins since March 2, and during that time had given him some $1700 to keep him from revealing their relationship to her husband. 
"She charged that Hawkins has been telephoning her and threatening her life and to dynamite her home unless she continued to give him money.
"Arrested at his home last Saturday, Hawkins denied the woman's charges. He admitted, however, that he had borrowed money from her, but said he had paid the money back. He was booked on seven counts of extortion and assault with a deadly weapon. A preliminary hearing is scheduled Monday morning."
Gracious. According to Jet magazine's follow-up of August 14, 1958, despite the courtroom testimony of the 300-pound Mrs. Una Koontz, "who admitted intimacies with Hawkins and testified that she helped get his story together for his defense against Mrs. Howard's charges," this enchanting episode came to an end when Big Pimp was found not guilty. There is no indication as to whether the Howards' marriage survived such meshugana goings-on, but they appear to have left the Square soon after.

In a missed opportunity for taxpayers, it would be left to builders of the coming freeway to do what Hawkins failed to do with his dynamite. But before #12 was demolished, it would house one more family, the Johnsons. Mrs. Blanche Johnson was listed at #12 in the 1960 through 1962 Los Angeles city directories; George Johnson was listed there in the directory published in 1963. But Mr. Johnson's listing in the April 1964 edition likely outlived the house—only #4 and #20 on the south side of the Square had any time left at all. The north side was all gone—the freeway was ready to open.

Illustrations from top: Robert DrozLAPL (2); Osher Map LibraryLAT (4); Jet