Desperado, why don’t you come to your senses
You been out ridin’ fences for so long now
Oh, you’re a hard one
I know that you got your reasons
These things that are pleasin’ you
Can hurt you somehow
I have previously written about the unfortunate circumstances of my grandmother María Lucia “Lucille” Alvarado’s first marriage. It was in Los Angeles on 3 February 19191 that she was forced by her parents to marry Willard Vane Wood, against her will,2 at the age of 15. Shortly thereafter, Willard abandoned her. After that, he disappeared from our family history; he became a man of mystery. We didn’t even know what he looked like. But recently I have learned about his life after he abandoned Lucille.
After I realized that a death record for a Donald Vane Wood in Gardena had to be Willard, I ordered his 1986 death certificate. And there, listed as the informant, was another son, Robert Charles Donaldson, with an address in Carmichael, outside Sacramento. Could this son still be around? An internet search yielded his phone number and I was soon speaking to his 93-year-old son. The brick wall pretty much exploded as he filled in all the gaps.
Willard was born in Eldon, Wapelo, Iowa on 20 November 1898 to Charles A. Wood (1866-1905), a railroad engineer,3 and Minnie Amanda Pack (1868-1958).4 Willard died in Gardena, Los Angeles, California on 29 March 19865
By 1914, after a period in San Francisco where his World War I draft registration records he worked at the newsstand of the Fred Harvey Restaurant, he was living in Los Angeles at 485 West 33rd Street.6 In 1916 he was living with his widowed mother on the same street as the Alvarado family, at 512 South Fremont Avenue.7 The Alvarados lived at 543 South Fremont Avenue.8
They were married before the Rev. Dominic Romeo, a Claretian priest, at the Plaza Church of Our Lady of the Angels, where she had been baptized.9 Clearly the Church was remiss in its duty to prevent forced marriages against the will of one party. The fact that the woman — if you could call her that — was the one protesting against a forced marriage would likely have raised little concern in the patriarchal society of the time that discounted the testimony of women, an attitude which also infected the Church.
A son was born to Willard and Lucille on 5 November 1919. They named him Willard Vane Wood Jr.; for reasons unknown Lucille would always call him Gene.10 But it seems their life together as a couple was never happy.
In the divorce suit, Lucille claimed that Willard was easily able to support her and their son, since he had a monthly salary from the Hellman Night and Day Bank of $200, which would be about $2,800 in 2017 dollars. She asked the court for $60 per month, or about $850 in 2017 dollars.13
The affronts narrated by Lucille in the divorce records are heartbreaking. She describes how in November 1919 when she was bedridden after the birth of Gene, Willard struck her and called her an “old Mexican hag” and other slurs.14
In the divorce papers Lucille recounts many episodes of violence and cruelty, including “That upon the night of the 23rd of March, 1920, he refused to allow plaintiff to stay with her mother at the death of Plaintiffs Father.” According to the divorce documents, Willard was also enraged that Lucille would speak with her father José María in Spanish, since he did not understand English.
Sadly, California law specified that if the defendant did not reply in in a divorce case, the case was essentially decided in favor of the defendant. And Willard ignored all the court summons and warrants. As a man, this made him the victor in his case against Lucille in California. The divorce was not granted. The last court order Willard ignored was 6 July 1921. As a result, Lucille was left alone at age 18 with a two-year-old child to fend for herself. (The case was finally officially closed on 24 January 1952, probably due to some sort of routine statutory closing of unanswered cases.15)
Meanwhile, Willard had found a new target for his affections: Cora Priscilla Donaldson. She was born in Georgia on 23 May 1905, the daughter of William A. Donaldson (1879-1920) and Love Haygood (1881-1964).16 They married on 25 October 1922 before Otto S. Russell, a Baptist minister, in Santa Ana, Orange, California.17 At the time Russell was pastor of the First Baptist Church there. An undated clipping from an unidentified newspaper (“Former H. S. Girl Marries L. A. Man, to Live on Coast”) describes the nuptials:
Mrs. L. H. Donaldson announces the marriage of her daughter, Cora Priscilla Donaldson, to Willard V. Wood of Los Angeles on October 25 at Santa Ana, Calif.
Mrs. Wood is the daughter of the late W. T. Donaldson, who was well known in Tucson. Mrs. Wood has many friends in Tucson who will be surprised to learn of her marriage. She was a popular member of the Tucson high school class of ’22, and made a host of young friends there.
Mr. Wood is a well known business man of Los Angeles, at which the young couple are making their home. For the present they are living at the Rosslyn Hotel, where they are receiving the congratulations of their many friends.
Mr. and Mrs. Wood motored to Santa Ana from Los Angeles with a few of Mrs. Wood’s friends from Tucson. She was attired in a lovely traveling suit and matching hat.
The announcement of Mrs. Wood’s marriage came as a complete surprise to many of her friends in Tucson who had not expected the marriage to take place for some time to come.
One has to wonder how Cora could have been accompanied by friends from Tucson, when the account twice states her Tucson friends were surprised to learn she had been married; and if she was accompanied by a retinue, why did the minister’s wife have to serve as a witness? This account also refers to Willard, a bank teller, as a “well known business man.” The account seems eager to portray the couple as awash in friends. Perhaps it is not so credible, except for the part about them living at the Rosslyn Hotel in downtown Los Angeles,18 because the marriage certificate was addressed to Willard at that location.19
About a week after the purported wedding, Willard wrote a cloying letter to Cora’s mother on the letterhead of his employer, Hellman Bank. He pleaded with Love not to worry: “…please do not think that she is lost to you, for she is not and you have gained a son.” He promised they would soon visit her in Tucson.20
But Willard was still legally married to Lucille. And it seems Cora’s mother somehow quickly discovered this fact.
Love, the house mother for the Delta Delta Delta sorority at the University of Arizona in Tucson, visited the couple in Los Angeles at the beginning of December 1922.21 She must have laid down the law.
On 29 December, 1922, Willard wrote to Cora’s mother from Reno, Nevada. As anyone who has seen the 1939 film “The Women” knows, at this time Reno was the capital of a no-fault divorce industry for “residents.” Later the residency requirement would be as short as six weeks, but at the time Willard was writing it was six months. A divorce was an exceedingly difficult, expensive and protracted experience in other states, and Nevada enticed many thousands of people seeking divorces to spend months there waiting for their residency to be established. In the meantime, these divorce tourists spent a lot of money on hotels, dining, and gambling. For six decades, Reno was known as the Divorce Capitol of the World.22
I am so very sorry that I have been the cause of so much of your sorrow. Next Christmas will be quite different, Mom dear, and the roses will be on your cheeks, you will be so happy for all the sorrow of the past will have flown away on wings of happiness.
This groveling went on for three pages. Clearly Willard had been read the riot act.
Having ignored repeated summons for Lucille’s divorce proceedings in Los Angeles, Willard was now confined to Washoe County until he could legally petition for a divorce. He received the divorce decree on 2 August 1923.23
On 6 August 1923, just four days after Willard received the decree of divorce in Reno, he and Cora were married in San Francisco. This time Cora’s mother was a witness. All three claimed to be residents of San Francisco, residing at 1625 Polk St.24
Around this time, the spurned Lucille Alvarado Wood had also found a suitor, whose name has been lost to family history. He gave Lucille a beautiful ruby engagement ring. Together they went to see a priest (perhaps at the Plaza Church?) to plan their wedding. When the priest learned that she had been abandoned by Willard, he said she was still married and could not marry again. At the time, the Church’s expectation was that Lucille, at the age of 18, should remain alone and without support for the rest of her life because her husband had abandoned her. Rather than enter into a civil marriage, the young couple tearfully parted. Lucille offered to give the ring back, but her distraught suitor insisted she keep it, and so the ring remains in the family until this day.25
Within a few months, Lucille would meet Sumner Earl Dunham, and their whirlwind romance would wind up with them being married 19 February 1924 in San Bernardino, with Sumner using an alias.26 She had clearly made a decision not to let the Church dictate her future, and for the rest of her life she would never again regularly practice the Catholic faith; she did not even have her children baptized.27
Shortly after their second wedding, on 28 January 1924, Willard and Cora gave birth to a son, Robert Charles, in San Francisco.28
Willard promptly moved on, abandoning Cora.
Cora married a second time to Joe Barfoot in Yuma, Yuma, Arizona on 11 April 1930.29 He was born 5 February 1901 in New Mexico, and died 10 December 1958.30 She committed suicide at the age of 28, on 19 January 1933 in Tucson, when Robert was about nine years old.31 He was raised by his aunt Alice Elizabeth (“Alibeth”) and grandmother Love, who adopted him.32 He used his maternal surname, Donaldson.33
I have been able to locate one other possible wife of Willard: Lois Skeith, whom he apparently married on 30 July 1928 in Tucson, Pima, Arizona.34
Once when Robert was in the military during World War II, he was in Los Angeles and looked up Willard, who by then insisted on being called “Donald” and denied his middle name was Vane.35 Robert had his birth certificate so he knew his father’s name was Willard Vane Wood. “Donald” was living with one of his many wives, some of which were simultaneous marriages. He had “many, many” women, some of which he married, others not. All “Donald’s” women were very nice, Robert said. In the 1980s Willard visited Robert and his wife with Willard’s partner, Grace, and her children, at Robert’s home in Carmichael. She later died, and Robert assigned Willard’s estate to her children when he handled Willard’s funeral arrangements.36
Around 1939, “Donald” visited Robert and invited him to live with him, on the condition he take the name Wood. Robert would have none of that. Robert later visited Willard in Compton around 1948-49.37
Robert knew he had a half brother (his aunt Alibeth found out), and during World War II he once met Gene in Compton, where Gene was living.
According to Bob, ”Donald” sold Ford cars in Los Angles area, maybe Gardena. He was “a con artist,” “entirely self-centered” who won people over with flattery, according to Bob Donaldson. He was an avid reader of Zane Grey novels and loved to ride horses.
Willard/Donald used to brag about how much he had saved up, according to Bob.
After serving over three years in the army during World War II, Bob was discharged and remained in Paris, working for the War Department. That wonderful city inspired him to a life-long love of modern European history, which eventually led to him being hired in 1957 as a professor of history at Sacramento State College, today the California State University, Sacramento. He served in various leadership positions at the university, including as chair of the history department.38
It was at CSUS that Bob met Persis Martha Chapple,39 whom he married on 4 January 1975 in Sacramento.40 Together they enjoyed cruises around the world, and Bob’s passion for bridge was a part of that, as he would often teach bridge on cruises.41
We may not know all the women Willard Wood exploited during his life, or if he actually loved any of them; nor do we know if he was severely emotionally wounded in his youth, which could explain his pattern of abandonment of women in his life.
We know that he left a trail of tragedy wherever he went. If he ever had an advocate to take his side, that person is long since gone.
I am very much indebted to Bob Donaldson, Willard’s son, who collaborated with me on this profile and provided so many of the photos and documents.
3 November 1922 Letter of Willard Wood to Love Donaldson
29 December 1922 Letter of Willard Wood to Love Donaldson
- Willard Wood and Lucille Alvarado, Marriage License, Los Angeles County Registrar Recorder ⤣
- According to her daughter, Rosemary Jane Dunham Stoltz. ⤣
- Ancestry.com, Iowa, Delayed Birth Records, 1856-1940, (Des Moines, Iowa: State Historical Society of Iowa). ⤣
- Ancestry.com, Iowa, Births and Christenings Index, 1857-1947 and Donald Wood, California Death Index, 1940-1997. Was his name Willard or Donald? He used Willard exclusively early in his life and Donald in his later life. According to Iowa, Delayed Birth Records, 1856-1940, his mother Minnie in 1943 stated his name as Donald. But this was many years after his birth, when he had begun using that name. He had a sister: Edna Lenore Wood, who was born 19 September 1888 in Albia, Iowa, and died 7 July 1963 in Los Angeles (Ancestry.com, California Death Index, 1940-1997). She married Frederick Abel Wood 28 September 1912 in Creson, Union, Iowa (Ancestry.com, Iowa, Marriage Records, 1880-1937, Iowa State Archives; Des Moines, Iowa; Volume: 451, Sac – Wright). ⤣
- Donald Vane Wood, Ancestry.com, California Death Index. ⤣
- Ancestry.com, U.S. City Directories (Beta), 1914 Los Angeles City Directory. ⤣
- Ancestry.com, U.S. City Directories (Beta), 1916 Los Angeles City Directory. ⤣
- 1920 U. S. Census for Los Angeles, Los Angeles, California. ⤣
- Marriage License of Willard Wood and Lucille Alvarado, County of Los Angeles Registrar-Recorder. ⤣
- Willard Vane “Gene” Wood Jr. died 14 December 1968. Ancestry.com, California Death Index, 1940-1997. He is buried in the Los Angeles National Cemetery. ⤣
- Lucile Wood vs. Willard V. Wood, Superior Court of California, County of Los Angeles, Case D 10706. ⤣
- Ibid. ⤣
- Ibid. ⤣
- Ibid. ⤣
- Ibid. ⤣
- 1920 U. S Census for Tucson Ward 1, Pima, Arizona. There is an intriguing record, also in Tucson, in the 1910 U. S. Census for a Cora P. Donaldson, born about 1904 in Georgia, who is listed as the daughter of William G. and Marion L. Donaldson, both born in Georgia. They also have a daughter named Alice, born about 1908. These names are too close to be a coincidence. Did the parents use an alias in one of these years? Was Cora living with foster parents? Willard’s son has said his grandmother’s name was Love; perhaps it was her middle name she used. ⤣
- Willard V. Wood and Cora Donaldson, Marriage License, County of Orange. The fact that the minister’s wife served as one of the witnesses seems to indicate it was a rushed event. ⤣
- The Rosslyn Hotel (1914) and its annex (1923) across the street were designed by John Parkinson in the popular Beaux Arts style. At one time it was the largest hotel on the Pacific Coast, with 1,100 rooms and 800 baths between the two structures. (Los Angeles Conservancy, laconservancy.org). The Rosslyn Hotel still stands. For years it was a derelict husk; today it provides affordable housing, with its rooftop signs still an icon of downtown Los Angeles. ⤣
- Address written on the back of the marriage certificate from the County of Orange: “Willard V. Wood, Hotel Roslyn, 5th + Main, L. A.” ⤣
- Letter of Willard Wood to Mrs. L. H. Donaldson, 3 November 1922. ⤣
- “Leaves for Coast,” Arizona Daily Star, 1 December 1922, p. 9. ⤣
- See a comprehensive history of Reno divorces at www.renodivorcehistory.org. ⤣
- Wood v. Wood, Decree of Divorce, Second Judicial District of the Court, State of Nevada, County of Washoe, original in the possession of Eric Stoltz. ⤣
- Willard Vane Wood and Cora Priscilla Donaldson, Marriage License, City and County of San Francisco. ⤣
- Account of Rosemary Jane Dunham, daughter of Lucille. ⤣
- Sidney E. Dunham and Lucile Alvarado, Marriage License, San Bernardino County Clerk. They would later also use aliases in the 1930 Census. Coincidentally, they also gave their residences as San Francisco on the marriage license. ⤣
- According to the memory of her grandson Eric Stoltz. ⤣
- Ancestry.com, California Birth Index, 1905-1995. ⤣
- Ancestry.com, Arizona, County Marriage Records, 1865-1972. ⤣
- Ancestry.com, California Death Index, 1940-1997. ⤣
- Find a Grave, Evergreen Memorial Park, Tucson, record # 53864599, cause of death noted as suicide, confirmed by Robert Donaldson in email of 4 August 2017 to Eric Stoltz. Robert did not learn the cause of his mother’s death for some 60 years, when he was finally told by Alibeth’s daughter, Coralie. He believes contributing factors may have been Joe Barfoot’s alcoholism or the stress of his mother’s chronic tuberculosis. ⤣
- According to a 23 July 2017 email from Bob Donaldson to Eric Stoltz, Joe Barfoot adopted him in 1930 or 1931. “A kind man, he was an alcoholic, making her miserable. But, not knowing this, I enjoyed a happy time. He worked on billboards. I understand he died about ten years after my mother died, falling from a scaffold.” ⤣
- Telephone conversation with Robert Charles Donaldson, 7 February 2016. ⤣
- Ancestry.com, Arizona, County Marriage Records, 1865-1972. ⤣
- Donaldson, telephone conversation of 7 February 2016. ⤣
- Email of Robert Charles Donaldson to Eric Stoltz, 23 July 2017. ⤣
- Ibid. ⤣
- California State University, Sacramento, Retirees Association, csus.edu/org/retirees/reflections. ⤣
- She was born 16 February 1930 in Billings, Montana, and died 6 February 2017 in Davis, Sacramento, California. Sacramento Bee, 15 Feb 2017. ⤣
- Ancestry.com, California Marriage Index, 1960-1985. Persis had four children by a previous marriage to William A. Anderson. ⤣
- California State University, Sacramento, Retirees Association ⤣