Tuesday, May 30, 2017

The “Cougar” Countess and Long Beach’s Blackstone Apartment Hotel

Long Beach History Collection

      On Saturday, July 1, 1922, several thousand people gathered for the opening of Long Beach’s newest luxury hotel/apartment house—the Blackstone. Guides conducted the guests through the common area rooms and apartments. There was dancing, food and flowers. But most were there hoping to catch a glimpse of the owner—Countess Kate Nixon d’Aleria—who had been in the news a lot.  Her story and how she came to own the Blackstone is a fascinating one. 

     Countess Kate Nixon d’Aleria is a woman largely ignored in history books, but the story of her second marriage to a “count” younger than her son was fodder for the press in the early 1920s.  It’s her first husband you’ll find in Nevada and U.S. Senate histories—George S. Nixon—who died while serving in the Senate on June 6, 1912, of spinal meningitis.  George’s story is one of many we find in the west—someone with enough luck and influence to make a fortune in mining.
Senator George S. Nixon
Wikipedia photo
   George was born on a farm near Newcastle, California, on April 22, 1860. But his future didn’t lie in California; it lay across the state line in Nevada. He most likely had no idea that accepting the transfer the Carson and Colorado Railroad offered him in 1881 would transform his life as well as his pocket book. But by 1884 George was tired of being a telegraph operator for the railroad, and accepted the position of cashier at the First National Bank (later known as the Washoe County Bank) in Reno. In 1886 he moved to Winnemucca, Nevada, and opened a new bank branch. It was there he met 18-year-old Kate Imogene Bacon of New Princeton, Illinois, who was visiting her brother.  She was described as a “petite brunette of charming manners and sweet disposition” by the February 5, 1887 Weekly Nevada State Journal.  She and George were married on January 30, 1887.  The newspaper went on to state: “Winnemucca has not only gained a socially attractive lady, but an artist of more than ordinary ability and a pianist of which we may will be proud.”
     George became a member of the Nevada Legislature in 1891, but opportunity called when gold was discovered in Goldfield, Nevada, in 1902. George went on to form the Goldfield Consolidated Mines Company with partner George Wingfield.  They also established a bank in Goldfield and reaped a fortune from the mines. To promote Nevada and its mining interests George was elected to the United States Senate in 1905, where he continued to serve until his death in 1912.  Upon his death Kate inherited between $2-3 million ($50,400,000-$75,600,000 today*).
Count Armand D'Aleria.
 LA Times 7/2/1922

     In January 1920, newspapers throughout the west reported on a most unusual marriage—wealthy 52-year-old Katherine Imogene Nixon had married 22-year-old-old Count Admond d'Aleria.  It wasn’t unusual for a man to marry a much younger woman, but a woman to marry a younger man was quite a story. Kate had become one of the first women in America to become a “cougar”—an older woman seeking a sexual relationship with a younger man.
     Kate explained her reasons why in the Reno Evening Gazette, May 7, 1920:

        I think one reason, perhaps, that older women become interested in men very much younger than themselves is that, if we have any spontaneity and optimism left, we become tired of solemnity and over-seriousness, which we know is often merely a pose of the middle aged and elderly, and we turn to youth for diversion and relief from this morbid and unnatural condition...Perhaps one reason that this marriage, which has seemed so unusual to others, has not appeared at all bizarre to me is that I never think of a person’s age in summing up his or her character and qualities. There is nothing I have to say to vindicate myself or to apologize for what I have done. I make no promises as to what I will do in the future. I have no advice to offer those who are contemplating the same step.  

Ad for the Majestic Theater
Nevada State Journal 3/21/1919

     Kate had met d’Aleria, an organist, in San Francisco and asked him to play at the Majestic Theater she owned in Reno. He arrived in February 1919 and from there romance developed.  He came from a prominent European family, the press reported. His mother, Marguerite, was said to be a member of a noted Hungarian family and widow of a former Spanish Ambassador to Austria. Newspapers went on to add that the d’Aleria’s were also related to the Spanish royal family, owned over 1200 acres of land in Spain and that d’Aleria had recently inherited a fortune from a Spanish cousin. D’Aleria told the Los Angeles Herald (4/2/1920) “that neither money nor music was the incentive that brought the couple together, but that only love ruled their union.” D’Aleria went on to say that it was only after inheriting this money that he began his ardent courtship with Kate.  He didn’t want her to think he was marrying her simply for her money. They were married January 27, 1920, in San Diego, after knowing each other 18 months.
     Before his marriage to Kate he was known as "Harold Adrian" (his whole name was Admond Adrian Harold d'Aleria).  After his marriage he attached the preferred "Count" to his name, because Kate liked to be seen as a Countess. Countess Kate soon found herself in a life full of adventure, intrigue, and lawsuits.
     To start their new life together the couple purchased Los Rios Rancho, a country estate near Monrovia. The Los Angeles Times (2/16/1920) said they planned to create “a wonderful palace of adobe, designed on the classic lines of old Spanish architecture, with a great music room and a rare wrought iron grille gate now on its way from Madrid to Southern California.” The gate was part of d’Aleria’s Spanish estate and over 300 years old. The newlyweds already had dozens of workmen tearing down the old house to make way for the swimming pool and new adobe. They were also building a new garage capable of holding half a dozen cars. However, Kate soon found her new husband’s recently inherited fortune didn’t amount to much, if it even existed at all.
     D’Aleria’s life read like a novel. Three months after his marriage to Kate he was sued for $50,000 ($591,000) for a breach of promise by Shirley Holmes, a San Francisco singer.   In July 1920 d'Aleria was caught in a San Diego hotel with a young girl.  When asked to explain he claimed he was tired of being followed by detectives hired by his wife and took the girl to the hotel to give them something to report.  He was sentenced to one hundred days in jail for violation of the city’s morals ordinances. The court gave d’Aleria an alternative fine of $194, ($2,290 today) but he was unable to produce the money and went back to jail. Two days later his mother raised the money and he was released. He returned to Los Angeles, taking a job as an organist at a Southern California theater, while he dealt with the divorce suit brought against him by Kate. But d’Aleria, well versed in wooing women, won back the affections of his rich wife. Even though she claimed he hit her and had affairs, Kate dropped the divorce proceedings. In October the couple celebrated a “second honeymoon” at the Savoy Hotel in Los Angeles. But Kate soon caught on that it was her money, not her that her new husband was interested in.  He soon left, not telling her where he was going.

     On November 30, 1920, Kate filed a second suit for divorce. A silver-plated automobile was cited as the cause for their latest separation. She charged he took advantage of an illness she had to have the car—a $10,000 ($118,000) car she had given him as a present following their recent reconciliation—covered with silver plate “because the nickel on it had begun to peel.” Sending her the bill was the last straw. On December 7, 1920, she had her lawyers issue a temporary restraining order to prevent him from disposing of any of her assets. But that was after d’Aleria had taken some of her antiques, valued at over $5000 ($59,100), and sold them to art dealer, A. A. Byrens. Kate instigated a lawsuit against Byrens, demanding them back, denying she ever gave the articles to her husband.
     By March 1921 d’Aleria was living in Hollywood in a house Kate owned and claiming to be receiving death threats. The house had also been robbed, threatening notes left under his door and he had been warned over the phone that “we’re going to get you.”  Could all of this have just been d’Aleria’s latest attempt to catch Kate off guard?  Could the robbery have been arranged to steal more of Kate’s belongings and turn them into cash for d’Aleria?  But Kate had other things on her mind, on March 23, 1921, her only child, 33-year-old Bertram Nixon was killed in an automobile accident at Salinas, California.

Kate with grandson 1916
From: Nevada  Historical Society**
     D’Aleria in the meantime was having problems with his mother, Marguerite. In April 1921, angry at his mother for controlling his life he forcibly removed her from the Hollywood home. In retaliation, she brought insanity charges against him. At his hearing d’Aleria declared the charge of insanity had been brought against him because he had refused to join his mother in an alleged plot to put his wife in an institution for the mentally deficient, and then take possession of her estate. He said his mother had proposed they plant drugs in Kate’s apartment, tip off the police and then have his wife committed to an asylum. His mother denied her son’s allegations and said she charged him with insanity because he had threatened to kill both her and himself.
      D’Aleria claimed his mother was extremely bitter over Kate, and wrote letters to Kate to harass her.  It was the “money-madness” of his mother which caused the trouble in his marriage.  On April 22, 1921, with Kate by his side, he was pronounced sane by the Lunacy Commission. Kate was extremely happy and reconciled with her youthful husband, the Oakland Tribune reported April 25, 1921. “Please don’t say anything wishy-washy about us,” she asked. “I am not young. I know it, but I think I am a sensible woman. I would rather have people think I am rough and unkind to my husband than to have them think that I had become soft and wishy-washy.”
     In December 1921 a judgement in another lawsuit was the final straw for Kate.  D’Aleria and Kate had been in an automobile accident in which Jennie Shirey had been permanently disabled. The accident occurred April 20, 1919 in San Francisco, before d’Aleria and Kate were married. Though d’Aleria was the driver, and Kate not in the $6000 ($82,200) Locomobile touring car when it hit the Shirey’s Studebaker, Kate was the owner of the automobile. Kate had been advised the judgement would be against her, especially since she had married d’Aleria after the accident.  The court ordered the Count and Countess to pay the Shirey’s $12,000 ($159,000).
     Anticipating the decision, and other financial shortcomings, Kate sold W. W. Paden, a Los Angeles real estate broker, her entire real estate holdings in Washoe and Nye counties in Nevada for $500,000 ($6,620,000). In exchange Kate received the Blackstone Apartment Hotel.  The Reno Evening Gazette (12/10/1921) reported:

       The apartment house in exchange by Mrs. d’Aleria, which forms a large part of the consideration, will be, when completed, one of the finest buildings of its kind at Long Beach. It is located near the Hotel Virginia on the ocean front. A lease upon this property running for a period of fifteen years has been ratified by Mrs. d’Aleria.”

       In turn, Kate leased the Blackstone (originally known as the Sequoia before it was completed), to Howard J. Scott for 10 years at a rental price of around $600,000 ($7,940,000). Scott also purchased the furnishings for the hotel, estimated at $125,000 ($1,660,000), according to the March 6, 1922 Daily Telegram.  He hired Mrs. William Bouldin, who at one time was in charge of the Chevy-Chase Country Club at Washington, D. C., to manage the building.
Ad from the Daily Telegram 9/14/1922

     Located at 330 W. Ocean, work on the $600,000 ($7,940,000) Blackstone began June 10, 1921. It was described as a “Class A-1” building—steel, concrete, brick and tile being the only building materials used. Wood was used only for framing and decoration.  Plans for the building were drawn up by Edward Mayberry and B. L. Jones who also built the University Club in Los Angeles.  The Southern California branch of the Foundation Construction Company of New York, were contractors.

     What did this new property Kate now owned look like inside? 

    The Blackstone had 70 rooms on the second and third floors and 75 apartments on the other floors. Rooms and apartments were finished either in mahogany or ivory.  On the second floor there was a ballroom (dancing was held there every Saturday afternoon and evening), billiard and card rooms. Each of the 8 floors had a sun parlor. Furnishings included floor lamps and table shades and over-stuffed furniture.   In the basement there was a garage for 75 automobiles, shower and dressing rooms for the use of guests returning from the beach. It was quite a luxury to be able to step from one’s car, catch an elevator and go directly to one’s apartment or hotel room. Single apartments rented from $85 to $150 ($1200-$2,120) per month; double apartments $165-$225 ($2330-$3,180) per month; a room started at $2.00 ($28.30) a day.  It opened for business on July 1, 1922.
     The opening of the Blackstone signaled a new chapter in Kate’s life.  The same day the Blackstone opened Kate sued d’Aleria for divorce. She wouldn’t back out this time.

     By 1925 Kate’s finances were not in the best of shape, the Reno Evening Gazette reported (11/19/1925). Her first husband’s siblings—brother Rudy Nixon and sisters Mattie Threlkel and Nancy Donalson—who were to receive $200 ($2,700) monthly from George Nixon’s estate,  sued Kate to keep the remaining property intact. They alleged that the Nixon trust was so heavily mortgaged and in such a chaotic condition that it would be lost entirely unless relief was granted by the court. All that was left in the estate were orange groves in San Bernardino and Riverside Counties. Kate had sold the Blackstone a few years earlier.
     By the time the 1930 U.S. Census was taken Kate had given up all pretense of being a Countess, simply stating she was a widow, Kate Nixon, living in Santa Monica.  She had nine years of life remaining.  She died in October 1939 in California at the age of 71.  She was survived by her 23-year-old grandson George Stuart Nixon II (1916-2007).
     What of the youthful d’Aleria?  On June 4, 1923, he married again. Singer/actress Ruth Dennis entered d’Aleria’s life when he was employed as an organist at a St. Louis motion picture theatre. He was now using the name Count Armand Aleria de Barrio, or Stuart Barrie for short.  By September 10, 1923, they had separated. The new Mrs. d’Aleria charged she was induced through fraud to marry him. He had told her he was a member of European nobility and had an income of $300 ($4,170) per week.  She said d’Aleria was not and never was a count, nor of nobility. He was heavily in debt and unable to meet the most common expenses necessary to life. (LA Times 10/24/1923) From here d’Aleria fades from the news.
Blackstone today
Author photo
     The Blackstone continues on as a Long Beach landmark. Granted landmark status in September 1989, it remains one of Long Beach’s treasures, with a fascinating history.  One story I have heard, but have been unable to verify, was that gangster Al Capone stayed at the Blackstone upon his parole from Terminal Island Federal Prison on November 16, 1939. He allegedly was only there for a night before the Feds moved him east. Capone’s release was all “hush hush” at the time, so if he had stayed at the Blackstone it wouldn’t have been mentioned.  But if anyone knows let me and your fellow blog readers know...please.

* Based on the inflation value of money in 2015 from the Purchasing Power Calculator of website Measuring Worth. 

    ** Photo cannot be reproduced without permission from the Nevada Historical Society.