Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Theodore Le Berthon (1892-1960)-Part Four

Courageous Crusading Journalist
Native of San Francisco

That is the inscription (in part) on John L. Le Berthon's headstone. Although he was a native of San Francisco, Le Berthon was buried at School Street Cemetery in East Boothbay, Maine, about as far from his native city as you can get and still be in the continental United States. Our lives are full of mysteries. The reason for Le Berthon's burial in Maine seems to be one of them. I am reminded of Stephen King's book The Colorado Kid, which ends without an explanation as to why the title character--now a dead man--came to Maine.

Like his headstone says, Le Berthon was a crusading journalist. He began his career in 1883. In the early part of the twentieth century, he worked in publicity and published special issues of daily papers and magazines, souvenir programs, and booklets on subjects of local interest. One was a publication on the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906. Another was on architecture in Los Angeles. If Theodore Morican Le Berthon (1833-1906) was his father, then the earthquake and his father's death came in the same year (though not at the same time). In 1907, J.L. Le Berthon was general manager of The Grizzly Bear, a periodical published out of San Francisco and Los Angeles. He was also a reporter for the San Francisco Call-Bulletin at some point.

In July 1935, Le Berthon acquired The Wasp News-Letter, which became, under his and his wife's joint ownership, the News Letter and WaspFounded in San Francisco in 1876, The Wasp was a well-known and long-running journal.  The Newsletter was older still, having started in 1856. To some it was and is also notorious, at least in its early days, especially for its treatment of Chinese immigrants. Ambrose Bierce (1842-1914?) served as editor of The Wasp from 1881 to 1885. His Devil's Dictionary was drawn from its pages. 

John L. Le Berthon, who ran the News Letter and Wasp until it ceased publication on May 9, 1941, was, like Bierce, something of a gadfly. (1) Not long after acquiring the paper, he began raging against the composer Henry Cowell (1897-1965), who was jailed on a morals charge in 1936. In the late 1930s, Le Berthon launched attacks on and advocated the deportation of labor leader Harry Bridges. That cost the News Letter and Wasp when someone threw rocks through the front windows of its offices in January 1937. In early 1939, Le Berthon threatened to attack NBC for refusing "to sell him airtime during the political time period." A couple of months later, on April 8, 1939, he was fined $500 and sentenced to five days in jail on three counts of criminal libel. (I don't know who the offended party was.) Le Berthon may not have served his full sentence, as he had an attack in jail upon turning himself in.

Le Berthon also dealt in real estate. There is evidence that he lived in New York City and had holdings in New Jersey. In Los Angeles today, there is a street called Le Berthon Street. I don't know that it was named for him or for anyone else in his family, but about two or three miles west of there is a parcel of land once owned by the Annette Kellerman Rancho Realty Corporation, incorporated in 1925, and the Kellerman Ranch Club. That parcel and two others were recently condemned by the City of Los Angeles. According to a public hearing dated August 26, 2014, the intent of the corporation is assumed to have been "to promote properties using the name of the then popular Australian World Champion swimmer and film star Annette Kellerman." The document adds, "Nowhere in Ms. Kellerman's biography can be found mention of any affiliation with a club or real estate development in California." (2, 3)

The City of Los Angeles condemned the property after a fruitless search for any employees of the corporation or the heirs or assigns of its members. As it turns out, those members were John L. Le Berthon, president; Josephine L. Le Berthon, secretary; and a T.M. Le Berthon, whom the investigator in the case was unable to identify. He may not have looked hard enough: John L. Le Berthon's only son had those initials, lived in Los Angeles in the 1920s, and had connections to the movie business. (The investigator probably didn't have the online resources that are available now, even though that was only a year and a half ago.) Moreover, an article in the Los Angeles Times from 1925 clearly shows Ted Le Berthon's involvement and leading role in the Kellerman club scheme. (4)

Although her autobiography doesn't mention the proposed club, Annette Kellerman was aware of its existence and may have participated in its establishment. In 1925, she filed suit against the Annette Kellerman Country Club for wrongful use of her name, fraud, and other offenses. Ted Le Berthon defended the club against her accusations, asserting that "Miss Kellerman and her husband, James R. Sullivan, broke off with the defendants [the Le Berthons and their partners] when money did not flow to her as fast as she wished it." Le Berthon also got in digs against Sullivan, "whom he described as 'a Semitic person and not an Irishman as the name might indicate'," and against the mermaid queen herself, saying that "Miss Kellerman's fame as a beauty of youthful appearance was an exaggeration." (5)

I have nothing more on the case, but the fact that the property was still owned by the Annette Kellerman Rancho Realty Corporation and the Kellerman Ranch Club ninety years later and long after the deaths of all the people involved suggests to me that the Le Berthon family met with some success in the suit. In any event, long before his father died on February 26, 1952, Ted Le Berthon seems to have been a schemer, a crusader, and an activist. You might call him a chip off the old block.

To be continued . . .

Notes
(1) For links to articles about the announcement of the journal's end, click here and here. the second article mentions not only Ambrose Bierce but also Frank Norris (1870-1902).
(2) Annette Kellerman (1886-1975) was a swimmer, performer, actress, and author. She was the first woman to wear a one-piece bathing suit, the first to appear fully nude in a movie (in A Daughter of the Gods, Fox, 1916), and the first on film to wear what Wikipedia calls "a swimmable mermaid costume." All that swimming must have done her some good: she lived to be eighty-nine years old.
(3) It is incredible to me that a piece of property purchased ninety years ago and no longer held by any living person or existing entity should still sit on the books. Who paid the taxes in that time? Why did not a real estate developer look into acquiring the property long before it was finally condemned by the city? The questions could go on. Anyway, I have said it before and I'll say it again: sometimes the world is essentially weird.
(4) "Mermaid Queen Seeks Damages," Los Angeles Times, May 15, 1925, p. A1+.
(5) The quotes and quotes within quotes are from that same article.

The Wasp, May 26, 1882, then under the editorship of Ambrose Bierce. The cover, by the journal's regular cartoonist, George Frederick Keller (1846-?), shows "San Francisco's Three Graces": Malarium, Small-Pox, and Leprosy. Note that Leprosy is carrying a cloth reading "Chinatown." This is the first of three weird images from The Wasp shown here. I have chosen them partly because they are weird, but more because they show how weird imagery is used in popular culture and what its use could mean.

This cartoon, from 1882, shows as monsters those on the other end of the scale, "The Vampires[,] or the Landlords of San Francisco." The artist was once again Keller.

If you want to dehumanize another person and from there attack him, one thing you can do is to represent him as a monster or a demon. The unnamed cartoonist on this cover drawing from November 14, 1885, has done just that with "The Chinese," whom he calls, "Many Handed but Soulless." This was still a few years before the term "Yellow Peril" was invented (by Kaiser Wilhelm II of all people), but the image of East Asians as demons was an effective bit of propaganda and served well for many decades. The cover of The Wasp shown here isn't very much different from . . .

This one of Weird Tales from forty-four years later. The difference is that the villain here is a type and not overtly insulting, offensive, dehumanizing, or propagandistic.  The artist was C.C. Senf. (Like Keller and the Kaiser, Senf was a native of Germany.)

Finally, a cover of the News Letter and Wasp from John L. Le Berthon's years as owner, from November 24 (?), 1939.

Text and captions copyright 2016 Terence E. Hanley

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