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 a life that Nina Jones was not born into, and that no one 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.