98 Fremont Place

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Some houses are fickle; put another way, while some houses attract loyal owners who stay for decades, others, for no particular reason, appear to have been built with revolving front doors. A case in point is the large Mediterranean number at the northeast corner of Fremont Place West and Eighth Street. A dentist with social and sporting ambitions as well as, apparently, means beyond what one could pull down by pulling teeth in 1919, Dr. William S. T. Smith had only just arrived permanently in Los Angeles from Kansas City. Born in Connecticut in 1872, Smith moved to Missouri in the '90s after college to prepare for his profession; after marrying a local woman in 1901—perhaps it was she who possessed capital beyond that of the typical young dentist—the couple moved to one of the nicer new south Kansas City suburbs where they acquired a large house on Washington Street in a tract developed by the old-guard McGees, as well as a live-in chauffeur and maid. Two children and some investigatory trips to California later, Smith sniffed out Fremont Place as well as a favored architect of other builders in the five-year-old tract, which was just beginning to take off. The firm of Meyer & Holler designed "an attractive residence of Spanish design," the Times reported on December 14, 1919; the Smiths were renting a house on South Manhattan Place while Meyer & Holler's construction arm, the Milwaukee Building Company, once the Department of Buildings issued its permit on January 10, 1920, completed the project. Initially addressed 41 Fremont Place for its lot number, the house was soon renumbered as 98.

While Dr. Smith does not appear to have opened a practice after settling in Los Angeles, he was keeping his eye on the ball—a small wooden one that literally whistled through the air as riders on horseback whacked it with long mallets. Perhaps, at 48, having discovered the glamour of polo, the dentist had retired. Within just a few years, he had also discovered Bel-Air, the luxurious west-side development that opened only a few years after Smith moved into his new house in Fremont Place. Bel-Air and its space and promotion of "in-town estates" revealed that behind its grand gates, Fremont Place was just another middle-class subdivision, if a lovely one...anyway, no room for horses or chukkas there. By 1925, Dr. Smith was building another big new house and preparing to sell #98.


A 2015 view of the 95-year-old 98 Fremont Place does not reveal the large office building,
 built in 1986 on what were originally Fremont Place lots facing Wilshire Boulevard, on
 the other side of its tennis court; a coat of vegetation softens stark stucco walls.
 

Dr. Smith the polo player left his Fremont Place house as if it was the remains of a picnic at the side of the road. Seeming to treat the house now more of a financial rather than a social investment, #98 appears to have remained empty but for caretaking employees. During the Roaring '20s, Dr. Smith very likely would have been holding out for top dollar, as everyone did. During 1927, advertisements for the sale of the house ran in the papers describing a "gorgeous Italian home"—we are now Italian rather than Spanish—that "must be sold as the owner has moved away." A price is not mentioned, but there were no takers. Offered for sale around the same time was 121 Fremont Place, which also appears to have languished on the market despite being described as priced for quick sale; the owner of that house appears to have accepted renters pending a sale, as would Dr. Smith soon enough. Interestingly, numbers 98 and 121 would come to share a common tenant, which is not to say a common gangster.


Rented by at least five families from the '20s to the '50s, the actual owner of the house during
these years remains obscure; the original owner, Dr. W. S. T. Smith, who left for Bel-Air
after about five years, may have retained it as late as the kit-and-kaboodle auction
advertised in the Times on March 5, 1929, or even longer. Its next renters
(and most notorious tenants) would be Mr. and Mrs. Guy McAfee. He
was leading a double life as the head of the LAPD's vice squad
yet tolerated as a gambling promoter; she was a madam.



One way for the crooked head of the LAPD vice squad to maintain a respectable front would have been to live in the middle of clean and haughty Fremont Place. Always more self-conscious of its image than Windsor Square or Hancock Park across Wilshire Boulevard, the Place's gates were meant to draw attention, suggest protection, and to offer status and a challenge to entrance. All of this probably appealed to Guy McAfee. While playing both sides of the law by operating highly remunerative gambling houses—and while his wife Marie worked as a "high-profile Hollywood madam," according Las Vegas historian Byron Craft (Las Vegas being where McAfee would later make his real mark)—he rented 121 for a couple of years. Once that house sold, or its owner got wise to the idea that gangsters in residence may not help unload the house, McAfee simply moved up the street to rent 98. It is unclear as to whether Dr. Smith, still ensconced in Bel-Air, actually still owned the house, but, at any rate, a prominently advertised auction of it and its entire contents was held on March 5, 1929. The identity of the winner of the prize is not found in newspaper reports. Perhaps "friends" of McAfee—his syndicate—wound up with the actual title; records indicate that rather than being the nominal owner of 98, McAfee was renting it by April 1930. It is hard to imagine that rumors of McAfee's "gonnections" weren't rampant; apparently his new neighbors were as tolerant of grand-scale crooks as they were once of Hollywood actors such as Mary Pickford and Mary Miles Minter. With many affluent Angeleno happily gambling at reversible tables (in case of a raid) at McAfee's Clover Club on the Sunset Strip, how could there not be rumor as well as tolerance? According to Craft, McAfee had become "a power player in the LAPD’s purity squad, which took aim at a trio of local offenses: alcohol, gambling and prostitution...[he] cleaned up. He accepted bribes from illegal business owners and...operated busy and lucrative gambling houses. His connections with mobsters and his position on the police force proved invaluable, making him privy to inside information that enabled him to stay one step ahead of raids." The McAfees, thug and madam, must have presented well.


Guy McAfee's Clover Club was at 8477 Sunset Boulevard, a world away from the propriety of
Fremont Place (or so most of residents would like to have believed). Never really Fremont
Place material, once reform came to City Hall later in the '30s, McAfee high-tailed it to
 Las Vegas to begin his second act in a town tailor-made for his promotional genius.
While the neighborhood made for a good front, the usual Iowa-bred denizen of
Fremont Place would no doubt have bored him. Too few gamblers there.


Though she was just 38, Marie McAfee had been suffering from high blood pressure for some time when she fell ill at 98 on the evening of May 9, 1932, and died that evening at the Georgia Street Receiving Hospital. Guy would not retain 98 for long; with the winds of reform coming, he would within a few years be on to his second act, which was not behind the bars of San Quentin but as the man credited with creating the Las Vegas Strip—a term he no doubt lifted from a certain notorious few blocks of Sunset Boulevard. Judge Fletcher Bowron's 1938 mayoral campaign promise to clean up Los Angeles's underworld had gotten him into office, where he would remain for 15 years. The new mayor was as good as his word; McAfee got the message and fled. Los Angeles's unlamented loss was Las Vegas's spectacular if no less crooked gain.

With all occupants subsequent to Dr. W. S. T. Smith appearing to have been renters, the actual ownership of 98 Fremont Place into the 1940s is uncertain. From 1934 to 1938, furniture manufacturer Milton La Verne Gillespie was living in the house along with his wife, Wilma, his parents, Thomas and Lizzie, as well as at least one of his brothers, Forest H. Gillespie. The clan had originated in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin, and come to Los Angeles in dribs and drabs during the 1910s. Both Forest and another of Thomas and Lizzie's sons, Floyd, had been trained as lawyers and were admitted to practice in California in 1916; while Floyd went to work for Henry O'Melveny's white-shoe firm, Forest decided to team up with his father and Milton to manufacture furniture with an eye to the thousands of bungalows being built across Los Angeles that only hinted at the dramatic rise of the city's population, which would well more than double during the '20s. Despite a few personal glitches, the family's success as local industrialists became evident in their acquisition of ever grander addresses over the next decades. Milton's abandonment of a teenage marriage in 1918 and his Fresno child-bride's tabloid-blared demands for money on the basis of an alleged pregnancy was eventually forgotten, as was Forest's having been charged with fraud and grand larceny in 1925 for having, according to the Times, entered into a conspiracy with a school-board purchasing agent "to buy furniture...at prices greatly in excess of those prevailing on the open market," with the two men sharing the extra profit. The jury was deadlocked, apparently freeing Gillespie to, by 1930, plan a big new plant and then sell it to a furniture conglomerate soon after, and then to move to Fremont Place. Not all Gillespies left the neighborhood once the family moved out of 98 in the fall of 1937 and Milton moved to Beverly Hills; Forest, whose first wife, the surgeon Dr. Mary Akey Gillespie, had died in 1932, had bought 78 Fremont Place for his new wife and children and his parents. Thomas died soon after the move.


George West was one of at least three occupants of 98 Fremont Place during the '40s. Involved in
the early organization of Monogram Pictures, the Poverty Row studio that gave John Wayne
a solid start in Westerns, West was a major distributor for the company in the Midwest.


The next tenants of 98 were yet more renters. (Who owned this house?) Bernard Hartfield and his brothers, Leo and Max, were the proprietors of the Mayson Stores, Broadway purveyors of ladies' wear. Hartfield and his wife and his son and daughter stayed on Fremont Place only briefly. Living in Beverly Hills by the spring of 1942, Bernard Hartfield was dead by March of the next year. Within a few years, Ethel Tardy, wife of lumber company representative Joe Tardy, was hosting dessert bridge parties at 98 given by the Euterpe Opera Reading Club. The Tardys moved out in 1946 to make way for yet another Bekins van coming through the Fremont Place gates to 98 bringing the belongings of longtime film executive George West and his wife, Rose. Mrs. West died in the house on August 18, 1947; her husband, who died 20 years less one day after his wife, was described in his obituaries as a founder of leading Poverty Row studio Monogram Pictures; he later became a producer before returning to the Monogram fold as a franchise holder for the company in various Midwestern cities.

Finally there would arrive at 98 Fremont Place some long-term residents. It is not clear as to just when George West moved out of the house; it is also not known who may have been offering it for sale in the spring of 1950. At any rate, classified ads began to appear that April and May with an asking price of $39,500. Perhaps this was a fair price for an aging house in a style no longer in fashion, one associated with decay that very year in the movie Sunset Boulevard. It seems that 98 may have seen its price further reduced before a wise couple saw its potential as—finally—a long-term home. Psychiatrist and lecturer Edward R. Robbins and his wife Jean along with their son and daughter were in residence by 1952 and would stay for an unprecedented near two decades. After Jean died in April 1970, Dr. Robbins left Fremont Place.


The west Wilshire Boulevard gate of Fremont Place is seen here near center; Rossmore Avenue runs north
across from it. Number 98 is at lower center-left. In 1968, when this photo was taken, the fortunes of
Fremont Place (and adjacent subdivisions) was at a low ebb. There was even serious discussion
of wholesale replacement of the neighborhood by commercial interests; in the end, once
confidence in the residential future of the district returned, business came to occupy
only some Wilshire-facing lots. The one behind 98 and fronting the boulevard
had been empty for decades before it was replaced with an office building
in 1986. The house with the semicircular driveway was demolished and
4472 Wilshire at lower right was replaced by a condominium.