Every one of Paul Elder Sr.’s bookstores featured an art room, full of pottery, paintings, prints, metalwork, and jewelry. I have added a new page to the website menu highlighting this topic: Objets d’Art. Enjoy!
Is it presumptuous to name a book after yourself? Nina Jones: Her Book (1916) is the only eponymous title in Paul Elder’s catalog. This attractive book of poems divulges no hints of the High Society life of the author. It was not a life that Nina Jones was born into, nor one that anyone expected her to have.
Nina Maude Jones was a California native, born on 13 June 1885—though she would would later claim 1893. Her mother, Nellie Murphy, also a California native, was born in 1868 and married an Englishman named Jones at the age of 17, perhaps because she was already pregnant with Nina. At some point Jones died, leaving Nellie to raise Nina as a single mother—not a trivial matter in the 19th century. In 1896, when Nina was eleven years old, Nellie was hired as a housekeeper at Milo Potter’s Van Nuys Hotel at the corner of 4th & Main in downtown Los Angeles.
Milo Potter was one of the more colorful characters in turn-of-the-century Southern California. Born in Michigan on the 19th of May 1854, he worked in Florida first as a fruit farmer, and then as a cotton broker, but neither experience ended well. He finally found his calling as a hotelier, and built a 100-room hotel called the Potter House in Crescent City, Florida which was a success until it was destroyed in a fire. After a few years at a hotel in New Jersey, he moved to to Los Angeles and began working at the Westminster Hotel on 19 October 1888.
Potter had by then decided that the 19th of any month was his “lucky day,” and he arranged for all his important events to happen on the 19th. When the Van Nuys Hotel was built across the street from the Westminster, Potter signed a lease on 19 September 1896, left the Westminster on 19 October, and opened the Van Nuys on 19 January.
The next twist of the story shocked everyone in town: the 47-year-old Milo Potter—flashy businessman, risk-taker, self-promoter, and confirmed bachelor—married the hotel housekeeper Nellie Jones! The private ceremony was held on the 19th (of course) of November, 1901. The society columnists were beside themselves in surprise:
Cupid has conquered him at last! Maids and matrons on matrimony bent had about given Mr. Potter up as a confirmed bachelor who would not be caught with any feminine bait however tempting. But Mr. Potter would not be human did he not have some vulnerable spot in his heart where a shaft from Cupid’s bow could enter. The dart has found its mark, and Milo M. Potter, the successful boniface, popular clubman, fancier of fast horses, semi-millionaire and enterprising business man, has become a benedict. Mr. Potter is the kind of careful man who does not take the whole world into his confidence when he is about to take an important step. After he makes up his mind to do a thing he goes ahead and does it with neatness and dispatch, without any flourish of trumpets or beating of tom-toms to call attention to his acts. That has been his invariable rule in the conduct of his business. and he did not establish a new precedent for himself In the manner of his courtship and marriage. Not more than half a dozen people outside of the contracting parties knew that Mr. Potter contemplated matrimony, up to the moment the ceremony was performed, and the happy couple will be miles away on their bridal tour before even the scores of inmates of his own house will hear the news. The wedding was one of the quietest and most unostentatious, considering the prominence of the pair, ever celebrated in this city. It took place at 4:15 o’clock yesterday afternoon in the private apartments of Mr. Potter in the Van Nuys Hotel. The charming lady who caused Mr. Potter to forsake his bachelor ways was Mrs. Nellie M. Jones, who for five years has been housekeeper of Mr. Potter’s hotel, and who by her efficiency, culture, grace and tact has made herself an indispensable governess of the splendid caravansary. [Los Angeles Times, 20 Nov 1901]
The marriage to Nellie Jones was not the only surprise up Milo Potter’s sleeve. A few weeks after the wedding, Potter purchased a 30-acre oceanfront parcel in Santa Barbara called “Burton’s Mound.” The mound was in fact a Native American shellmound, built over centuries by the Chumash people, who called the area “Syukhtun.” Potter was betting large, and within a year he had built the six-story 390-room Potter Hotel, which opened on 19 January 1903. Its elevation on the mound gave it spectacular views of the city, mountains, ocean, and Channel Islands. Potter was helped immeasurably by the completion of the Santa Barbara section of the Southern Pacific coast railway: now trains stopped on their way between San Francisco and Los Angeles. There was plenty to do at the Potter Hotel: immaculately landscaped grounds, tennis courts and a zoo, a nine-hole golf course, horse racing track and polo grounds, sailboats, and a farm which raised the poultry and livestock that appeared on the menus of the hotel’s three dining rooms.
When Nellie Jones married Milo Potter in 1901, Nina Jones was sixteen years old. The daughter of a hotel housekeeper was transformed overnight into a wealthy society teenager. For a time Nina served as a hostess at the Potter Hotel, and we can only imagine the wealthy and famous guests that Nina met.
And then, in 1916, at age thirty-one, Nina Jones published her book of poetry. Presumably a vanity publication, she dedicates it to her step-father Milo, “a poor offering for so much kindness.” It is an attractive little book, with gold-stamped lettering on the spine and cover, decorated endpapers, coated stock, and initial capitals in orange ink. It was probably issued with a dust jacket, but this has not been seen. The poetry is sincere but not memorable. One extolls her mother Nellie’s blue eyes, and several bemoan the carnage of World War I raging in Europe.
When we next hear from Nina, it is April 1920 and she is about to marry the Hungarian concert pianist Desider Josef Vecsei, whereupon they “will leave very soon for New York, from which port they will sail within a short time for France, where they will make their home for the present in Paris.”
Milo Potter sold the hotel in 1919, whereupon it was renamed the Belvedere, and later the Ambassador. The hotel burned to the ground on 13 April 1921 and was not rebuilt. Nellie and Nina remained wealthy after Milo’s death in 1925, and they seemed to have escaped the ravages of the 1929 stock market crash. In 1930, Nellie Potter lived in a home in Montecito valued at $100,000, equivalent to $1.6 million today.
The Van Nuys hotel survives at the corner of 4th & Main, and is now called the Hotel Barclay. It has had quite a colorful history, but has seen hard times in recent decades, as it now straddles the border between the Historic Core of Los Angeles and “Skid Road.”
Nina Jones’s Cinderella story sadly did not include a long lifespan. Nina died on 4 July 1935 at the age of fifty. Her mother Nellie Murphy Potter died on 2 April 1946, aged seventy-six. Desider Vecsei died on 1 March 1966, aged eighty-three.
What would motivate an author to publish anonymously? The reviewers of California and the Opening of the Gateway Between the Atlantic and the Pacific wondered the same thing. There must be something wrong, they thought. “Writers who prefer to have their productions appear anonymously are usually moved by one motive, a lack of self-confidence in their own powers,” wrote The Saturday Chronicle in New Haven, Connecticut. However, the reviewer continued “But the man who wrote California must have had some other reason for withholding his name. There is a true feeling for poetical form in these stately and musical lines.”
The review must have both pleased and infuriated the author, who was a woman: Margaret Cutter. I had not known her name until earlier this month, when it was brought to my attention by Simon Taylor at Left Coast Books in Santa Barbara. Simon discovered Margaret’s signature in a copy that he had for sale. In the same hand, at the end of the poem, are the words “August 1914,” presumably noting when Margaret completed the poem.
California was clearly meant to dovetail with San Francisco’s big party, the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, held from February to December, 1915, in what is now the Marina District. The Fair was ostensibly to celebrate the opening of the Panama Canal, but was really designed to show the world that San Francisco had recovered from the 1906 earthquake and fire. The book’s foreword is an excerpt from the 1657 book Cosmographie by the English ecclesiastical writer Peter Heylyn (1599-1662), where he attempts to describe every aspect of the known world: geography, weather, politics, and religion. Concerning the New World, he writes that the isthmus of Panama
…is so small a Ligament for so great a Body, that some have thought of turning these two Peninsulas into perfect Islands. Certain it is, that many have motioned to the Council of Spain, the cutting of a navigable Chanel through this small Isthmus; so to shorten their common Voyages to China and the Moluccas.
But though Margaret’s poem was completed in August 1914, the book was not published until October 1916, a full ten months after the PPIE closed. Any number of personal or financial issues, on Cutter’s side or Elder’s, could have caused the long delay, but assuming the book was intended for sale (as opposed to a vanity publication), not being able to feature the book at Elder’s booth in the Palace of Liberal Arts was surely a big disappointment.
The poem California is in two parts. In Part I, Cutter’s verses tell of the discovery of California by the Spanish, with brief mentions of the Chinese traders and the arrival of the Americans overland from the East during the Gold Rush. In Part II, Cutter uses the blossoming of California’s weather in February as a metaphor for the opening of the PPIE in February, 1915. She then describes California’s arms as open wide to the world, just as they were in 1849 when the world rushed in:
So once again does California call,
Glad invitation gives to festival,
The world invites to celebrate
The passage of the newly opened strait.
Bids men to keep triumphant jubilee
Which marks the kinship of humanity;
Her Golden Gate wide open set
For the world’s armament in glad truce met,
Her valley vestibules fresh strewn
With petals of the almond bloom.
It’s not a particularly attractive book. The design hearkens back to the Elder & Shepard days, before the heyday of John Henry Nash’s Arts & Crafts aesthetic at the Tomoye Press. The text is set in Caslon, more austerely than Herman Funke’s typical work with Elder. There is generous white space at the bottom and sides of the pages. The title page, half-title, copyright page, and colophon are set in all caps. The cover and spine are unadorned except for pasted-on labels. Perhaps California is a vanity publication after all: Paul Elder might not otherwise have settled for this quality of work, or permitted the author to remain anonymous.
The book includes a dedication page reading “To the Cause of Peace,” no doubt referring to World War I raging in Europe. The dedication was surely a late addition: when Margaret completed her poem in August 1914 the hostilities had only just started, but by the time the PPIE opened six months later, the War had spread across the whole of Europe. Indeed, due to the War, international attendance at PPIE was far less than the organizers had hoped, and the pavilions of many European countries were smaller than planned.
During her life, Margaret Cutter’s name was also recorded as Margaretta, Margarita, and Maggie, but in public she went by the formal name Mrs. Norman W. Cutter. She was born Margaretta Porter in Berlin, Connecticut in 1852. The Porter family traced its ancestry back to John Porter, born in Kenilworth, Warwickshire, England about 1590. John and his family left England and arrived in Dorchester, Massachusetts on 30 May 1630. Margaret’s grandparents, Norman Porter Sr. and Abby Galpin, were married in 1823. On their wedding day, they set off for Lexington, Kentucky, first by stagecoach and later by mule. There Norman setup shop as a merchant, and soon amassed “a small fortune,” enabling the Porters to live comfortably for the rest of their lives. They had a son, Norman Jr., and eventually moved back to Berlin. Norman Jr. married Hannah Peck in 1846; Margaret was the fourth of their six children. When Norman Porter Sr. died in 1863, Norman Jr. moved the whole family to San Jose, California. Margaret married Norman Webber Cutter on 15 April 1880 in San Jose. They had been married for only eleven years when Norman died at the age of 41 in 1891. They had no children, and Margaret never remarried. By 1910, she was living in Santa Barbara, and was still living there when she died in 1939 at the age of 87. She and Norman are buried together at Oak Hill Memorial Park in San Jose.
Despite the critical praise for her verses, Margaret Cutter appears never to have published another book. Everything points to her having inherited enough of her grandfather’s (or her husband’s) money to live comfortably. For example, either Margaret or Norman had collected a number of old and rare maps, which she donated them to Fort Lewis College upon her death.
My thanks again to Simon Taylor for discovering the mystery author.
May you have a safe and healthy Christmas, wherever you are and whichever holiday you celebrate.
Broadly speaking, a “book” is a collection of printed pages set into a binding, a “pamphlet” are those same printed pages without a binding, and “ephemera” are single-sheet or single page documents which are not meant to be preserved. In practice, the lines between book-pamphlet-ephemera can be murky, especially with a publisher like Paul Elder who produced such a wide range of output.
The Absent-Minded Beggar is a piece that exists in that murky boundary between “pamphlet” and “ephemera.” It’s just a single, large, folded sheet, containing three of Rudyard Kipling’s poems. On the other hand, the front is laid out as a formal title page. The example pictured here was included as a supplement to the April 1900 edition of Personal Impressions magazine (Vol. 1, No. 2). It’s not known whether there were other versions of this title issued separately.
Kipling published “The Absent-Minded Beggar” just five months previously, on 31 October 1899, in London’s Daily Mail newspaper. The Second Boer War had started three weeks before, and the British government had called up the Army Reserve. Army pay, however, was much less than the men could earn at their regular jobs, and the drop in salary forced many families into poverty. In addition, there were no laws guaranteeing the reservists could return to their old jobs when the war ended. Kipling’s poem was intended to raise money for the reservists and their families. With that in mind, Kipling and the Daily Mail‘s owner, Alfred Harmsworth, hired the famous composer Sir Arthur Sullivan to set the poem to music. The immediate popularity of the poem and song were such that the Daily Mail‘s “Absent Minded Beggar Fund” raised over £250,000. Kipling was offered a knighthood, but declined.
The other two poems in the piece are also well-known. “Bobs” was the affectionate nickname of Field Marshal Frederick Sleigh Roberts (1832-1914), one of the most successful British military commanders of the era when the British Empire was at its zenith. He was a short man, hence the first line “There’s a little red-faced man, which is Bobs.”
Kipling composed “Recessional” in 1897 for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. It was first published in The Times on 17 July 1897. The refrain “lest we forget” was taken from Deuteronomy 6:12, “Then beware lest thou forget the Lord which brought thee forth out of the land of Egypt.”