56 Fremont Place

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While the house at 56 Fremont Place is most often cited as the one-time home of silent superstars Mary Pickford and Mary Miles Minter, the true trailblazing diva-in-residence was the woman who built it. In terms of her personality, the indefatigable Miss Helen Mathewson fell, by all accounts, somewhere between firebrand and huge pain in the ass, though one with great purpose. While today, no doubt, she would be more widely admired for her independence and disinterest in the opinions of others, at least one biographical sketch back in the day captured her character without condescension: In its April 1912 issue, West Coast magazine described Mathewson as "one of the prominent western women who is bringing credit and honor to 'the new woman'," adding that she was also that rare female "whose mind is a keen and compelling force in the great competitive world of business." Just where she acquired her original capital is unclear, but from the sound of it, she may very well have made every cent on her own.


Hedda hat with ambition to match: Helen Mathewson in a 1912 portrait


Born in 1863—according to her California death records—but as much as a decade later by her own various reckonings, Helen Mathewson was a native Nebraskan who had migrated from Omaha to Denver by 1890. Accompanied by her younger sister, Sara, and John (a cattleman who was either their father or their brother), Helen spent the next decade pursing profit in real estate and hotels in both Denver and Colorado Springs, using it to fund her vigorous crusades to improve the lives of Denver's submerged tenth and of animals. Compelled by Sara's ill health to seek a sunnier climate after the turn of the century—John appearing to have now exited the scene—her activist reputation in Colorado was extolled by the press in Los Angeles as soon as she and her sister arrived there via Pasadena late in the summer of 1903. While accounts in the Times and the Herald seem to suggest that Helen was her own best press agent, the formidable Miss Mathewson would live up to the billing in short order. As entrepreneurial and charitable in her new city as she had been in Colorado—and, with a firm early grasp of the concept of networking, a healthy streak of social ambition—she quickly addressed the poverty of Los Angeles barrios and took no less of an interest in the plight of the city's mistreated animals. These would be lifelong pursuits. In her spare time, she invented and patented various designs, including one for a novel window. As for business, it appears that hotels were her forte. Within a few years she was managing one of her first addresses, the very fashionable Coronado Hotel in the Westlake district. While a fire appears to have brought an end to her proprietorship—there was considerable, characteristically fearless wrangling on her part with Fire Chief Walter Lips and prominent hotel guests over the cause of the blaze, which some thought was due to her negligence—the Coronado was merely a launching pad for her greatest achievement in innkeeping, which was literally just around the corner.


Mira Hershey, owner of the Hotel Hollywood, built the Hershey Arms on the original stretch
of residential Wilshire Boulevard in 1906; she gave her friend and fellow pioneering
businesswoman Helen Mathewson the first proprietary lease. Mathewson sold
her lease after seven years to pursue apartment-building and to speculate
in large, single family houses in the better new subdivisions in what
was then referred to as the West End of Los Angeles, which
included Fremont Place; did she take the hotel's
lions with her to her new house there?


The Coronado was restored and eventually became The Wilshire; rebuilt in brick in 1917, it still stands at 671 South Coronado. Meanwhile, just to its north facing Wilshire Boulevard would rise the latest hotel project of another distaff Los Angeles legend, one seemingly a natural ally of Helen Mathewson. Mira Hershey, a formidably unmarried heiress from Muscatine, Iowa, whose fortune derived from lumber and banking rather than chocolate, as is often presumed, had arrived in Los Angeles in the '90s and began to invest in real estate, as Helen was then doing in Colorado. Hershey's definite ideas about building eventually extended to hotels; her mid-oughts acquisition of the Hotel Hollywood, which had opened in December 1902, whetted her interest in innkeeping and led her to vacant property on Wilshire Boulevard. The character of the original stretch of socialist millionaire Gaylord Wilshire's namesake road, opened between Westlake and Lafayette parks in 1895 and only slowly being populated with large single-family houses, was about to be altered; while Mr. Wilshire had his own definite ideas about his subdivision, he was, for all his high-mindedness, a businessman who most likely didn't like the look of his thoroughfare's empty entire south blockfront between Coronado and Rampart. It seems fated that Los Angeles's most prominent businesswomen would meet—perhaps it was Mira's having crossed paths with Helen and admiring her drive and résumé that resulted in Hershey's decision to commission John C. Austin to design the palatial three-story, 65-room Hershey Arms in 1906, giving Helen Mathewson a new post and home at 2600 Wilshire Boulevard. Joining her were her sister Sara after she married Walter Charles Brode, brother-in-law of esteemed attorney Oscar Lawler, in February 1907; before long, Helen and Walter formed a partnership that would open the new Hotel Shoreham nearby on Carondelet Street in 1911 with Walter the proprietor and manager. Hotels had become the family business, one lucrative enough to finance many more projects, including 56 Fremont Place.


A photograph of 56 Fremont place appeared in the Los Angeles Times on September 17, 1922, at
the time of its sale to long-time resident Oscar R. Howard. Only a single entrance
of the original sweeping semicircular driveway remains today.


Perhaps finally having tired of institutional living and trying to placate the demands of affluent hotel guests—there was also the unhappy bellboy who had sent her arsenic-laced bonbons and "infernal machines" (i.e., bombs)—Helen sold her lease in the Hershey Arms in July 1913. She continued to invest in various residential projects, remaining loyal to architect William C. Pennell after his partnership with John C. Austin ended in 1914; she also commissioned Pennell to go all out to build something grand for her own occupancy on a lot she had acquired in Fremont Place, a new development far out at the city's western edge. Pennell came up with a modern Italian Renaissance–style palazzo, somewhat heavy handed and with lion statues and a tiered fountain of questionable taste out front—though at least all of these remain today to be appreciated for their theatrical, early-McMansion kitsch value. Number 56 was good for a show inside too. Helen had not tired of entertaining in large parlors or hosting visitors to Los Angeles. Her recently widowed old friend, the well-known writer and poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox ("Laugh, and the world laughs with you; weep, and you weep alone") came to stay for a month in the fall of 1916. A mutual friend of the ladies was politically active clubwoman Mrs. George Drake Ruddy, who had been graduated from the University  of Wisconsin with the writer; the three chums were close, and after Mrs. Ruddy died in June 1917 and Mrs. Wilcox became ill, Helen seems to have lost interest in her new 15 room, 5-bath house, especially when the prospect of Hollywood money came along in the form of what were no doubt lucrative if short-term leases.


Does Mary Miles Minter have homicide, matricide, or suicide on her mind? Moping through
tea with her mother, Charlotte Shelby, and grandmother, Julia Miles, the family
rented 56 Fremont Place for a year beginning in late 1919. Only decades
later would the house figure into one of the biggest scandals
ever to hit Hollywood. Had director William Desmond
Taylor been schtupping Mary? Did Charlotte
kill him because of it, or Mary

because he wouldn't
marry her?


In the years before the notorious early-'20s scandals involving, among others, famous director William Desmond Taylor and silent star Fatty Arbuckle, movie folk as neighbors were not necessarily considered threats to property values in districts dominated by the Los Angeles haute bourgeoisie, as was Fremont Place; in August 1918, Helen leased 56 to one of the leading lights of film for a year. Mary Pickford was beloved, and having her in the neighborhood might be a novelty, at least for a short stay; unmentioned was that Pickford was between husbands and secretly courting Douglas Fairbanks. Mary's mother Charlotte Hennessey Smith and actress sister Lottie Pickford were part of the star's entourage at Fremont Place; a room was also reserved for less-staid actor brother Jack Pickford once he was demobbed. Fremont Place, as it turned out, would just barely manage to escape the taint of the Hollywood debacles soon to come. The chemical escapades of Jack Pickford would instead soon bring scandal to another Wilshire Boulevard neighborhood (as related here).


Oilman, gold prospector, establishment figure: Oscar Howard, seen in the
Times on April 8, 1923, was one of dozens of men who struck it rich
from the earth back in flyover country and then made their way
to Los Angeles to live in big marble palaces. Fremont Place,
like 
Berkeley Square, its earlier West Adams model,
and the houses originally lining residential
Wilshire Boulevard, had its fair share of
such Los Angeles builders and
California mythmakers.


As the lions and the fountain had originally appealed to a woman well versed in another form of show business—certainly grand hotels were all about show—they also naturally appealed to film royalty. After the departure of the Pickfords, a leading lady with the same name and similar image as Mary Pickford moved into 56 in late 1919 with her mother. Originally Juliet Reilly, Mary Miles Minter's name had come from the use of an older dead cousin's birth certificate in a ploy to avoid child labor laws; her terrifying bloodsucker of a mother—a frustrated actress—seems to have controlled every facet of her money-spinning daughter's life. Charlotte Shelby, officially entitled to 30 percent of her daughter's earnings as her manager but in the habit of depositing Mary's entire paycheck into her own account, no doubt pocketed an undocumented commission when she negotiated a lease with Helen Mathewson. Details of ownership of the Mathewson house over the next several years are unclear; sources vary as to the departure of Miss Minter. Bruce Long's 1991 William Desmond Taylor: A Dossier states that Minter's lease at 56 expired in December 1920; items appearing in the Times as late as 1922 and 1923 variously describe a sale or lease by Minter—could she have acquired ownership from Helen Mathewson and then have leased it after moving out to oil producer Robert Henderson, who is listed as living at 56 in the 1922 city directory? Or had the Times confused Minter and Mathewson? In September 1922, the Times reported that Henderson had sold it "of Mary Miles Minter" to another oil producer, Oscar R. Howard, for $125,000; the paper then reported the following February that the house had been sold "for" Henderson to Howard, with whom stability and respectability would return to 56 Fremont Place in the wake of the career-crushing scandal that would come to surround Mary Miles Minter. The star's involvement in the murder of William Desmond Taylor on February 1, 1922, would famously change Hollywood forever. Movie people were largely unwelcome in the better central Los Angeles neighborhoods after that, though the stars themselves, still richer than mere lawyers and doctors, were probably only too happy to move on to Beverly Hills (and other less square precincts), away from the expectations and what they may have experienced as the condescension of the upper-middle-class Babbitts.


Inez Howard, author of The Chrysalis of Love, was pictured
in front of 56 Fremont Place in the Los Angeles Times
book section on August 23, 1925, along with a
glowing review. The volume had recently
been published by the paper's own
Times-Mirror Press; it helped to
have friends in high places.





Hollywood be gone. A much better fit for 56 Fremont Place was Oscar Robert Howard. Richer than your average Fremont Placer, swimming in oil, Kentucky-born Howard and his wife Inez were another of the childless couples who came from the Midwest to live behind the big gates of Fremont Place that suggested arrival. While Los Angeles in the 1920s was growing exponentially, it was still considered something of a winter resort, its Mediterranean air reflected in its domestic architecture, all very appealing to provincials from Tulsa. Howard had first struck it rich in 1901 by investing $100 he'd saved from working in his brother's drug store. That Oklahoma gusher was the first of many there and in Texas; by 1917, the Howards began to spend part of the year at a Hotel Maryland bungalow in Pasadena, where Oscar and various partners incorporated a California oil entity in 1920 to drill principally in Santa Fe Springs. Once his new venture was established, the Howards began to look for more permanent digs in Southern California. In the early '20s, the established districts of Los Angeles, in West Adams and what was then the West End out on Wilshire Boulevard, were still fitting suburban rivals to Pasadena and its resort airs; Fremont Place would have been on the short list of neighborhoods for Oscar and Inez to consider settling in.

It seems likely that it was oilman Robert Henderson who turned fellow oilman Oscar Howard on to 56 Fremont Place; at any rate, the Howards moved in to the house in 1922 for a 34-year stay. On a scale not possible in Tulsa, the Howards quickly became part of local society. If one were cynical, one might think that a fawning April 1923 profile in the Times—though as much about the archetype as Oscar himself—might have been generated by a public-relations firm; certainly Howard was just the type of man Harry Chandler would dote on. While Oscar minted the money—he would add gold mining to his other extraction activities—Inez raised the couple's social profile by joining the Junior League (that one-time marker of arrival) and raising money for one of the Old Guard's pet charities, Childrens Hospital. She also became a writer; her 1925 book of "115 whimsical essays of an unfamiliar kind on familiar subjects," The Chrysalis of Romance, was deferentially reviewed by local papers and the Bookman ("quaint origins of folklore and superstition") as well as by Vogue and The New York Times. No less a California figure than John Steven McGroarty, onetime editor of West Coast magazine and author of the famous Mission Play, provided the foreword. The Howards would later kindly support the construction of the San Gabriel Mission Playhouse to house a permanent home for the long-running show, the Spanish myths of benevolence of which were part of the romantic branding of California by predominating establishment Anglo-Saxons such as Henry Huntington and Harry Chandler and Howard's good friend William Gibbs McAdoo of Berkeley Square. By supporting the myth, the Howards were in like Flynn with Blue Book Los Angeles. That's how power worked in the rising 1920s city. As a large segment of L.A.'s industrial base, power in terms of the promotion of images and of protection were, of course, part and parcel of Hollywood, the city's alter ego. In dissecting the aftermath of the murder of William Desmond Taylor in 1922, it has been suggested that there was pressure by the film industry on Los Angeles police via higher officials to go easy in prosecuting the case so as not to cause further economic damage in the wake of the scandal; there were also reports of Charlotte Shelby's chumminess and influence with District Attorney Thomas Lee Woolwine and his deputy Buron Fitts, both of whom were accused of corruption at various points in their careers. According to Bruce Long, in a revival of police interest in the Taylor case 17 years after Mary Miles Minter had lived at 56, investigators managed to gain access to the house in June 1937 while the Howards were away in Europe. In an attempt to match the bullets used to kill the director, fluoroscopic and X-ray equipment was brought into Minter's former bedroom in the northwest wing of the house. It seems that in the late summer of 1920, after another knock-down, drag-out in which Charlotte the termagant accused her daughter of sleeping with Taylor, Mary threatened suicide and ran upstairs, reportedly firing a gun belonging to Charlotte into the ceiling and floor of her dressing room and dramatically prostrating herself, unshot. (The examination was not completed, according to Long, thwarted when the Howard's caretaker balked; the Taylor case was officially closed in 1938 with no new conclusions.)


A recent closeup of 56 Fremont Place reveals William C. Pennell's detailing and the lions that
would have appealed to its first owner's sense of theatrics honed in the hotel business.
The concrete beasts here may have been copies of those once at the entrance to the

Hershey Arms, which shared 56's architectural parentage; they could also very
well be the originals brought by Helen Mathewson to her new home.
Some might have thought them over the top, but perhaps not
the superstar actresses who rented the house early on.


With riches from the earth pouring in and the Howards' social profile rising, a country seat by the sea was in order. Acquiring 10 acres from the family of legendary aviatrix and partygiver Pancho Barnes in 1929, Oscar and Inez would spend summers in Laguna at "Howardcliff" for the next 20 years. The Depression and war years appear to have been kind to them, with the wells of a basic industry ever pumping and no sons in the service. Unlike Miss Barnes, a large share of their good fortune was not spent on parties—theirs was a preference for such sedate affairs as musicales staged at 56—but rather on good causes. Giving quietly for the most part for many years in both Tulsa and Los Angeles, it wasn't until after 74-year-old Oscar died at 56 Fremont Place on May 13, 1950, that their philanthropic endeavors were given their name. In 1953, with the fortune left to her producing $250,000 a year, Inez established the Howard Scholarships at Occidental College, among other acts of giving. She had by now also sold Howardcliff, deciding to remain at 56 until she died on June 14, 1956, at age 79. Her executors arranged for an auction of her possessions in the spring of 1957 and sold off part of the lot of 56 to the Ebell Club for parking. Soon after, the house was being listed in the classifieds as "specially priced for quick sale of $45,000." Not one of Oscar Howard's better investments. Real estate man Lee N. LayPort soon snapped up #56 as his own residence; despite its white elephant valuation, the house would survive the '60s, with its riots, smog, white flight, and then the fears engendered by the Manson killings. And then, with the help of preservationist architect Ragnar Qvale's residency, #56 would survive L.A.'s malaise of the next two decades to remain standing in a reinvigorated Fremont Place today.


Oscar Howard died in 1950, his widow six years later. Her possessions went on
the block in the spring of 1957, as advertised in the Times on March 24;
the house at Fremont Place, part of its lot sold off, was itself on the
market soon after. The Howards are buried at Forest Lawn.


POSTSCRIPT: The gated comfort of Fremont Place was in its early years as appealing aesthetically as well as investment-return-wise as it is today, at least for some. After her rental of 56 ended and her divorce came through, Mary Pickford married Fairbanks and moved to Beverly Hills, establishing Pickfair and the new beachhead Hollywood would need in the wake of coming scandals; Mary's mother, Charlotte Hennessey Smith, would remain in the Place, acquiring the Martin G. Carter house at 129 in 1920. After Helen Mathewson did well with her initial investment in 56, she bought another Fremont Place building site, the lot unspecified in reportage, and may have made its improvement and subsequent sale another of her real estate projects. Mathewson would remain active in business and philanthropically; she died on April 3, 1951, at her Windsor Boulevard home just down Eighth Street from the house she had built 35 years before at 56 Fremont Place.


Following Mary Pickford and Mary Miles Minter, the third Hollywood star to move into
56 Fremont Place was Peppy Miller. After achieving stardom in the 2011 film
The Artist, Peppy moved into the house just around the corner from
her great love, fading star George Valentin, who was depicted as
living at 104. Above is a shot from the film; for more on
 The Artist and its locations, please see historian
John Bengtson's brilliant Silent Locations.