Come away with me, Lucille
In my merry Oldsmobile
Down the road of life we’ll fly
Automobubbling, you and I
To the church we’ll swiftly steal
Then our wedding bells will peal
You can go as far as you like with me
In my merry Oldsmobile.
This was the refrain of the extremely popular 1905 song “In My Merry Oldsmobile,” which captured some of the romantic ideas associated with the freedom of the new invention called the automobile. The sheet music of this song featured a couple riding in a curved-dash Oldsmobile, the first mass-produced car, offered from 1901 through 1907. The song was written only two years after the birth of María Lucia Alvarado. It’s tempting to imagine these lyrics had something to do with María Lucia being called “Lucille” throughout much of her life; they certainly express some of her free spirit.
She was born in Los Angeles on April 15, 1903. Her parents were José María Alvarado (1866-1920) and Jesús García (1871-1966), who had married most likely in Ensenada (probably in the Church of All Saints, Iglesia de Todos Santos, where their children Carlos and Beatríz were baptized) and immigrated to California in 1899. José María was born in Mazatlán and Jesús most probably in Ensenada. José María and Jesús brought with them three children born in Ensenada: Bernabea Beatríz (born June 11, 1896), Carlos Ysidro (born May 15, 1897) and Leopoldo Francisco “Paul” (born January 4, 1899).
Lucille was the second of three children born in Los Angeles. Her older sister Mercedes was born about 1901 and succumbed to yellow fever May 3, 1917; her younger sister, Cecilia María Anastasia, was born April 28, 1909. We can probably assume that Lucille was baptized in the Church of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles, Nuestra Señora de los Ángeles, the Plaza Church (La Placita), the city’s first church from which the city of Los Angeles received its name on September 4, 1781 and the historic center of the city. The baptismal register of La Placita for the dates covering the period during which Lucille would have been baptized are faded and virtually illegible, but we know that her sister Cecilia was baptized there on July 4, 1909.
José María and Jesús lived the life of typical immigrants when they first arrived. He was 32 and she was 22 in this new land, where José María could only find work as a day laborer, living just north of downtown Los Angeles off Broadway at 414 Bellevue Avenue when their daughter Beatríz died in 1900 at the age of 4.
By 1905, José María had found work with the Southern Pacific Railroad. We don’t know what kind of work it was, but it was most likely hard manual labor. The family was living across the street from the Southern Pacific yards, at 238 Myers Street. In 1906, they were living at 1606 Bridge Street, and by 1907 they had moved around the corner to a house at 717 Bailey Street in Boyle Heights, not far from today’s White Memorial Medical Center, where they remained until about 1916. During this time, José María found work in an iron foundry.
By 1916 the family was living on Fourth Street in the unincorporated community of Lankershim. The address was 10939 Fourth Street, an address that would remain in the family records for years to come. It was an upstairs residence above a store that had a rooftop garden and a social hall in the back the family would rent for weddings and other occasions. On the ground floor Jesús would establish a business called Alvarado Mexican Merchandise, probably after the death of José María. On the annexation of Lankershim to the City of Los Angeles in 1923, Fourth Street would become Magnolia Boulevard in North Hollywood. The family store and residence was at today’s 10939 Magnolia Boulevard at Cramer Avenue.
Around this time the family also had a residence downtown at 543 1/2 Fremont Avenue. It was here that Lucille’s brother Carlos, an artist then employed as a show-card writer at Hales Stores, contracted the deadly Spanish influenza, which would cause a worldwide pandemic in 1918-1920 second in levels of mortality only to the Bubonic Plague of the Middle Ages. This particular flu strain was unique in that it claimed its victims from among young and strong adults, as opposed to most other flu stains that preyed on children and the elderly. The entire world was in a panic as death rates spiraled out of control in the great cosmopolitan cities. Up to 100 million people died; about 20 percent of the world’s population was infected.
As Carlos lay ill, Lucille was sent to live with her family in Ensenada to protect her from infection. This would not be the first time the family had sent children away to save them from disease; Cecilia had been sent to live with her aunt Rose (Rosario García) and her husband Cristóbal Portillo in Santa Paula when Mercedes contracted yellow fever. Lucille spent the time in Ensenada most likely with the family of her maternal aunt Trinidad “Trini” García (1878-?), who on November 3, 1900 married Federico “Fred” Goldbaum (1862-?).
The Goldbaum family was highly respected in Ensenada; Federico’s brother David (1858-1930), a mining engineer, is considered one of the founding fathers of that city and in the last three years of his life was mayor of Ensenada. David’s period of mining success coincides with Seth Dunham’s period of disillusionment with mining in northern California. The grand-daughter of Federico and Trinidad by their daughter Beatríz was Virgínia Enriqueta Escarcega, who married into the Hernández-Hussong family of Ensenada (famous for the family saloon known as Hussong’s Cantina, where some claim the margarita was invented) and would remain a lifetime friend of Lucille’s. Her aunts Trini and Rose were always very supportive of her, even in difficult times, and throughout her life Lucille would faithfully visit her family in Ensenada. Trinidad’s daughter Enriqueta married the theatrical entrepreneur and ambassador José María Dávila. He was a patron of the famous artist Diego Rivera, who painted portraits of Enriquetta “Queta” and her daughter “Quetita” which are still in the family’s possession today in México City.
Lucille returned to Los Angeles from Ensenada with a cosmopolitan viewpoint that challenged her family. Her mother was disturbed. Jesús conferred with the widow Minnie Wood, her neighbor at 512 S. Fremont Avenue, whose son Willard Vane Wood had recently returned from San Francisco and was living with her. At the time, Willard was employed as a bookkeeper with Los Angeles Gas and Electric Company. To Jesús, it seemed that Lucille needed some reigning in. Minnie thought her son Willard, born in Iowa on November 20, 1898 was the ideal husband for Lucille. Jesús agreed, and against Lucille’s wishes, the two young people were married in Los Angeles on February 3, 1919. Lucille was 15 years old.
At the time of her wedding, her brother Carlos had just died (on January 4, 1919 at the age of 21 ) and her father most likely had already contracted the same Spanish flu. As her sister Cecilia described it, there was “death upstairs and death downstairs.” Her father, José Maria, would succumb to the Spanish flu on March 21, 1920 at the age of 53. This was the macabre setting for Lucille’s unwanted marriage. They soon divorced.
On November 5, 1919, Lucille gave birth to Willard Eugene “Gene” Wood. The 1920 U.S. Census shows the family living at 2621 Brighton Avenue, with Willard employed as a teller. By 1923 they had separated; Willard was a clerk living at 764 Ottowa and Lucille was a salesperson for the International Music Company living at 1423 S. New Hampshire. Jesús was at the family store on Fourth Street. In 1925, Lucille was a bookkeeper for Bakers Purchasing Company, living at 4335 Brighton Avenue. In 1926, Willard was a bookkeeper at 3603 S. Central Avenue, and there are no known records of him thereafter except for his death on March 29, 1986 in Los Angeles County.
Around this time, Lucille was employed in maintaining an apartment building in Los Angeles. One of the tenants was Sumner Earl Dunham (born April 23, 1899 in Fort Bragg, Mendocino County ), then about 26 and by all accounts a strikingly handsome man. He noticed how hard Lucille worked and how she seemed to be unappreciated by her family. He invited her on a date, and on that first date asked her to marry him. Swooning, she promptly agreed. They were married January 31, 1923 February 14, 1923, in San Bernardino.
During this period, Lucille also managed a Mexican restaurant in Hollywood or North Hollywood. Among her regular customers were many employees of the motion picture studios in the area. As a free form of entertainment, Lucille and her friends would attend Sunday services at Angelus Temple in Echo Park to see the antics of the legendary Aimee Semple McPherson, colorful and charismatic founder of the Foursquare Gospel Church, whose “dramatic sermons” were lavish displays of theatricality.
Sumner Earl was the love of her life. Lucille and he would often go to the amusement zones of Santa Monica, where enormous dance halls were filled with thousands of people far into the early hours of the morning. She probably found him dashing, exciting and adventurous; a truck mechanic who knew how to party. Some indication of their bohemian spirit is recorded in the 1930 U.S. Census, when they lived at 1119 87th St. in an unincorporated area south of the City of Los Angeles. They gave their names as Stanley and Lorraine, aliases for which we have no explanation. “Stanley” was then employed as a washing machine salesman and would later work as a real-estate agent. Lucille followed him in the washing-machine sales business, devising a special trailer for her car to accommodate this new invention, which she would demonstrate to housewives at curbside. She bragged of a high sales rate. Another job Lucille had was a telephone operator.
Their first child, Virginia Lucille, was born on December 2, 1926 and was always known as “Dolly.” Jack Leonard followed on June 2, 1928, Cecilia Suzanne on December 27, 1936 and Rosemary Jane on April 1, 1941. We don’t know precisely why Lucille and Sumner Earl finally separated after nearly 20 years together (one family story has it that Sumner Earl was discovered in flagrante delictu by Lucille in the office of his real estate business); their relationship was stormy and had included intermittent separations. The divorce proceedings were as high-pitched and emotional as their life together had been.
Shortly after their final separation, probably in 1946, Lucille married Aram Minasian, a very different person from Sumner Earl, at the Church of the Open Door on Hope Street in downtown Los Angeles, known for its famous neon sign reading “Jesus Saves.” Aram was born in New York on July 27, 1903, the first son of Leon Arsman Minasian (1874-?) and Louisa Terzian (1885-1958), Armenians who fled the oppression of the Ottoman Empire. They were most likely from Kayseri (Gesaria in Armenian), the ancient Caesarea where St. Gregory the Illuminator embraced the Gospel in the Fourth Century—the birthplace of Armenian Christianity—and immigrated to Fresno, center of California’s Armenian community, in June, 1897.
Aram was an exceedingly cautious and thrifty person, who was perhaps scarred from experiencing the harrowing poverty and need of the Great Depression. He would in his later years roam the streets of Glendale collecting the castoffs of others to save for potential future uses, offering comments such as “Can you believe someone threw away this perfectly good piece of wire?” While others called him a packrat, Lucille preferred to call him a “collector,” and she had great patience with this trait, although she would not let him store his finds in certain parts of the house. His stepdaughter Rosemary recalls that when the price of gasoline exceeded 25 cents per gallon, he would simply stop buying it. The family lived at 5875 S. Hoover Street in Los Angeles, and Aram worked for decades as a truck driver for Bormann Steel in Burbank; before that he worked in the foundry of Bethlehem Steel.
Aram’s caution often precluded him from taking advantage of investment opportunities. He loved to regale people with stories of how he had a chance to buy various plots of land, smiling as he remembered thinking that no one would want an orange grove in a place called Anaheim (now the site of Disneyland) or another grove far from the city center (now the location of the Beverly Hills Hotel). He was never bitter about these lost opportunities, instead he would laugh, amused at his own lack of vision.
Despite Aram’s misgivings, Lucille would often take her children out on the open road, driving around the United States on vacations, getting her kicks on Route 66.
After Dolly, Jack, Suzanne and Rosemary married and moved away, Lucille and Aram lived in a Craftsman-style bungalow owned by Lucille at 211 Windsor Dr. in Glendale, and Lucille later bought a house and two-unit apartment building at 204 W. Kenwood Dr., also in Glendale. The front house they rented out, and Lucille lived in the upper apartment, while Aram filled the bottom apartment with his finds.
Lucille passed her time in this apartment painting and reading, with visits by family for holidays and special occasions. The apartment was decorated with her watercolors and oil paintings, as well as antiques she inherited from various family members and the family’s long-time advocate and protector, Dr. Cecilia Reiche. A visit to Grandma often included a special treat: lunch at the original Bob’s Big Boy on San Fernando Road Riverside Drive in Glendale.
During this time Lucille enjoyed her new-found freedom. She had a wide circle of friends. She was active in the Las Amigas Club of Glendale, editing the newsletter, organizing trips and playing canasta. She even took swimming lessons at the Glendale YWCA. Lucille and Aram greatly enjoyed the since-forgotten pastime of “going for a drive,” where they would get into the car and just explore the open road. Often they would set off to visit family members across the state or in Mexico, but just as often they would have no planned destination, following roads on a whim and delighting in what they discovered.
Eventually Lucille and Aram separated; Aram rented the house on Windsor from Lucille and she continued to live on Kenwood. Even though divorced, they continued to be friends and companions. It seems they still enjoyed one another’s company, but realized they simply could not live together. For Lucille, her relationship with Aram was tinged by a deathbed promise she made to his mother Louisa to always take care of Aram. Lucille was true to her word. Aram died on February 4, 1990 in Glendale at the age of 86 with Lucille at his side. The family emptied the Windsor house of decades of accumulated and neatly organized paper bags, string, scraps of wood, old nails and other such things. His brother Arthur inherited the bulk of his estate, as Aram always had a strong sense of responsibility as the elder son.
When it became apparent that Lucille could no longer live on her own, she was shuttled to various hospitals and convalescent homes. For a while she lived in Alabama with her daughter Virginia, “Dolly.” As a nurse, Dolly was especially suited to this responsibility, and she cared for Lucille with great devotion. Lucille was frail and forgetful; she would often not recognize family members. She also spent time in a convalescent home in Orange County near her daughter Suzanne.
Lucille died on May 25, 2001 in Glendale at the age of 98. Her funeral was at Holy Family Catholic Church in Glendale, where her daughter Rosemary had been married and her eldest grandson Eric Stoltz was baptized. She was buried at Forest Lawn Memorial-Park in Glendale near Sumner Earl.
Throughout her life, Lucille was a non-conformist. She enjoyed life and did not feel constrained by what society felt were appropriate roles for a woman. She was not afraid to work hard to support her family, and she enjoyed whatever she did, whether it was toting a washing machine behind her car, cooking Mexican food all day or spending hours at a telephone operator’s station. Her eyes would shine as she related each of these chapters of her life, smiling as she told her stories.
What kept her going was the need to provide for her children at home, and perhaps to get a little time to get behind the wheel of her car and go wherever she wanted, enjoying the perfume of the vast orange groves that lined the roads of her California and the simple pleasure of stopping to pick a bunch of grapes from an unattended vineyard along the way as she drove without a plan, merely to savor the journey.
Even when Lucille could no longer drive, she could not bear to sell her beloved 1984 Chevrolet Celebrity. The car sat gathering dust in her garage on Kenwood. It was the end of an era for her, the loss of her independence and an unconquerable spirit that had led her through so many hardships.
Though often disappointed by the men in her life, she remained devoted to her extended family and friends, and open to new experiences. She was never afraid to try anything.
Did Lucille’s life-long nickname come from the old song? Perhaps an answer lies in the last days of her sister Cecilia Alvarado Hernández Kirkman.
In the months before her death in October 2008 at the age of 99, when she often could not remember her sister or other family members, Cecilia would be heard softly singing “Come away with me, Lucille…” You can almost see Lucille behind the wheel of her car, flying down the road of life.
Listen to In My Merry Oldsmobile
María Lucia “Lucille” Alvarado Wood Dunham Minasian is my grandmother.