Chapter Three: The Garden Club comes to Santa Barbara
On the following day, sitting at the delightfully composed breakfast table in a sunlit room flanked with French doors that opened out to a flower studded courtyard, Lolita Armour Mitchell sat nibbling on a deeply-toasted, caramelized and crunchy almond croissant. She was once called, “The richest little girl in America” and now grown up she was the mistress of the El Mirador domain, a property that slowly transformed into one of the most fabulous estates in Montecito. The high points were a 500-foot-long formal Italian garden, with streams cascading down its seven terraces and a fanciful underground grotto with stalactites and stalagmites carved from rocks in a nearby creek covered by a two-story, wisteria-covered pergola that was now in a spectacular pale lavender bloom. A charming tea pavilion was occasionally set afloat on the man-made lake for intimate dinner parties. In addition to the gardens, the estate had an amphitheater that could seat up to 1,000 people, a dairy, a poultry farm, vegetable gardens, avocado and lemon orchards, even a small zoo with two bears, a wallaby, and exotic birds.
She was engrossed in the newspaper that headlined in giant type, “LINDBERG LEAVES WITH LOOPS”. Quoting from an eyewitness, the article went on to describe Lindberg’s departure after a stay on the estate of Mrs. Lora Knight’s Cima del Mundo. He was flying an exact copy of the Spirit of St. Louis when, gaining speed lifting off of the small air strip in a meadow, he left the crest of a rise and dipped down below the horizon, only to reemerge as he gained altitude. Lindberg then performed two loops in farewell to his friends below.
Lolita’s eyes moved down to another headline that read, “Prominent Families Mourn”. It went on to detail the following:
“A tragic automobile crash in the Montecito Mountains leaves three dead, four critically injured and one missing. The dead are; Miss Amelia Carlyle Addison, daughter of The Honorable Judge George Hardie Addison and Sarah Carlyle Addison of this city; Mr. Francis Dubois Ralph, the son of Mr. and Mrs. C.D. Ralph of San Francisco; and Mr. Lionel Richelieu Holmes of Concord, Massachusetts. The injured were taken to St. Francis Hospital where their condition is unknown. They are Miss Corliss Macclelland, Mr. Oren Jefferson Star, noted author of “How the Bough Breaks”, Viscount Renford Combs Fitzroy, Son of The Earl and Countess of Oxford in England and Mr. Gunnar Vernersen of Sweden. Reported as missing is Miss Lillian Hoover. Sheriff Norman Oldman of Santa Barbara County announced, “the details are not available about her whereabouts since the survivors are unable to answer questions at this time”.
Lolita turned the pages quickly finding the society section that was covered with stories about an event that had the serious attention of so many. In just six days ninety-nine women from numerous cities across the country would arrive on a twelve car special train in Santa Barbara for The 13th Annual Meeting of The Garden Club of America, an extravagant gala adventure promising fifty-six gardens, four elaborate luncheons, six garden teas and three spectacular dinners over four days.
So it was that months ago Lolita felt obligated to favor the Easterners with a fantasy experience at El Mirador. The invitation described a glamorous entertainment; western-style barbecue prepared by her authentic Spanish chefs in Fiesta costume with sensational dancing and song from the areas best performers. Hundreds of aged and marinated fillets of beef were to be grilled over oak embers and a wide selection of Valenciana styled dishes were planned. Upon reading the Press expectations and imagining the ninety-nine women packed into six compartment cars, two sleepers, a club car, a diner and an observation car for the next six days, she daintily plucked her little silver bell from it’s Derby china holder and rang vigorously for assistance.
Aiming to review the party plans with her staff she summoned the lot of them and soon they appeared in a long line. Fresh from the kitchen in perfect Chef’s whites with an El Mirador crest monogrammed on the upper front in bright cobalt blue, was the Maestro and head of the line, Juan Del Olmo Pulga, his heavy lidded eyes today a little droopy. He made up for this downturn with a handsomely trimmed and waxed mustachio. The haughty Chef displayed elegant manners for his Mistress but a fierce punishing tongue for the staff that he battered daily with continuous bad-tempered tirades. Next was the Sous Chef Victore Ybarra, a gifted baker whose family came from the Basque region of Spain. He was taught from a small child the mystical ancient techniques that produced a transcended staff of life. At age eighteen he left on a ship bound for California from Barcelona to work in the kitchen of Don Alejandro, a wealthy and influential landowner near Santa Barbara, then on to Lolita’s kitchen with the recommendation of a certain Diehls deliveryman. Alongside the Chefs were the women, the hard working cooks who carried the soul of the operation in the persons of Dulcina, Adiva, Trella and her little sister Viola.
Along with the kitchen staff that morning, breathless and straightening her skirt while shifting her brassiere, was Miss Penny, a flawless fresh face, born on a French vineyard in the Layon hills of the Loire Valley as Penelope Elise Lavigne. She was compelled to leave her family and hundred-year-old heritage to find a future free from the suffocating restrictions of her region. Stationed for four years on the spectacular Majestic that served as the flagship of the White Star Line, Penny was initially hired on as a hospitality stewardess for the May 1922 maiden voyage of this maritime temple of all pleasures afloat. Soon after she was promoted to be an important part of the most popular cruise liner in the world. Due to a structural defect in her topsides, Majestic suffered a 100-foot crack in December 1924 and undergoing permanent repairs the crew searched for new positions. A chance meeting with friends of Lolita resulted in an offer the affable Miss Penny, now completely skilled in the art of fine dining and entertainment, could not refuse.
Finally the line of key personnel for the event was ended with Senor Otilio the Head Gardener. Each one was excited by the challenge to compete with the other famous estates, the spectacular Piranhurst and the nationally celebrated El Fueridis, to produce the most glamorous festivity.
Chef Pulga started with the menu adding an embellished description of each dish. Exquisitely rolling his Rs to form an exaggerated trill, a kind of long purr, that gave the food such bravado that everyone continually murmured with pleasure.
“The Lista de Comida Madam will start with the richest red, so delicioso, ‘Sopa de Albondigas’, con sausage meatballs muy suculento, mais and rice, crema de queso, tortillas superi and chico”, he made a gesture of teeny tiny scattering, “cilantro on top.” He finished with a big kiss of his fingers and continuing, “We serve the ‘Aceitunas’, Olives Picante and the ‘Gelatins of Tomate et Camarones’, the Shrimps Gigantesco. Then, Madam, comes The ‘Tamales Argentinos’, gordura and tiermo”, motioning with his hands fluttering with lightness, “stuffed with carnitas salsero and cheeses with salsa besamel chili verdi.” His main course was called “Gallina a la Valenciana”. It was his specialty with his secret marinade, assembled behind closed doors, that he used to soak the prime fillets overnight. Everyone in the room knew how outright seductive these steaks were so the tone of the murmur hit a little crescendo and then died waiting for more. The proud Chef added “Verduras Primaveriales” that was a big roasted casserole of vegetables from the garden and then “Enselada Del Paseo” that was really a copy of the famous restaurant’s signature specialty. He finished with the “Helado de Coco” which was an unforgettable coconut gelato and then a dessert of “Empanadas Suprema”, the filling made from Dates and Pecans, cinnamon spiked and served in a pool of peachy-apricot syrup with supremes of fresh oranges radiating out from an exceptionally flakey crust. This last selection was Chef Victore’s popular creation, favored so much that Lolita’s guests often called ahead to verify it was on her dinner menu. A nice big ecstatic sigh came from Chef Pulga as he bowed low and received the soft clapping of his associates. Lolita’s eyes were shining.
Miss Penny stepped forward with a vision of the entertainment, thoughtfully selected to show the visitors just how exotic Santa Barbara style really was. She recently spent happy evenings slowly sipping Peach Daiquiris, the rum added secretly by her waitress, at a tiny table near the El Paseo stage accompanied sporadically by Senior Jose Fernandez, the fabled leader of his company of classical Spanish dancers, singers and musicians. He produced shows for the Hollywood Bowl and appeared in movies. Fernandez was renown for his spectacular rendition of Ravel’s “Bolero”, a number for which Miss Penny, on Lolita’s orders, was prepared to pay a pretty price. In an elegant Castilian accent he described how he was busy preparing to direct choreography at The Metropolitan Opera House with a sly smile insuring his prices would rise. With uncommon verve he quietly counseled her, dressed impeccably in an austere black Flamenco suit with elaborate yet subtle black embroidery. His stiff white shirt collar matched his courtly posture and he wore a Matador’s montera on his now almost baldhead. Looking closely she could see his deep dark eyes had halos around each iris. Some said he was in his eighties? And so the program was settled and started with dramatic Folk songs by the very pretty Consuello Melendez, trained in Opera, she was a local favorite and a celebrity since she sang in the photoplay of “The Gay Desperado”. Lupe and Rudy Valesco came next. Sister and brother, they were here from Old Mexico in marvelous costumes laden with sequined flowers and birds that flashed, with Rudy shirtless, exposing a remarkably robust chest, as they danced “El Tapatio” shouting “ole, ole, ole” in high pitched yips. Miss Penny knew this would get the Garden Club ladies’ hearts fluttering and ready for the great operatic baritone Fortuno Bona-Nova, a darkly handsome heartthrob from Europe. Word was passed around that he was just signed for a Paramount Picture. Lolita remarked, “His presence will add such distinction!” She was clearly excited by all she had heard so far. “And Senor Fernandez with his ‘Bolero’?” Miss Penny nodded yes and everyone clapped loudly knowing the event would be number one in the memories of the guests visiting that week.
Now it was Senor Otilio’s turn to dazzle with the finishing touches he and his team of thirty-six worked out in the many gardens, water features and amusements the property would offer. In his broken English with the black steady eyes of a native he described how the guests would first tour the Japanese Garden, to the Grotto, to the Ponds along the Terraces to the Stairs then through the Hedges to the glorious Italian gardens with a view too beautiful to describe. Lolita was imagining how they would admire the topiary work and all the enormous flowerpots each with a profusion of color and palms. The many sculptures were clean and the tables and chairs for the Fiesta Barbeque were waiting. The Mistress of El Mirador, now satisfied and beaming, sipped her coffee while the relieved line up quickly left before she could think of any revisions.
Back in the kitchen Chef Pulga passed the job of ordering all the last minute fresh ingredients from Diehls onto Victore and the cooks so Paco was seated waiting on a carved marble bench outside of the door tossing peanuts to the three wire haired terriers, bouncing and bobbing ferociously, crashing into each other, easily beating out an angelic blond cocker spaniel whimpering with the longest curly ears and a blue satin bow. Paco noticed, with his artist eyes, two white cats nearby, looking like twins with grey, black and orange patches, lounged cleaning the tuna fish breakfast from their claws, lovingly wiping their own sweet faces with amber eyes closed. Victore emerged and in Spanish style kissed the air over each of Paco’s cheeks. The two were good friends and spent evenings out drinking and dancing, visiting the houses far out from town that were always hush hush. They made a date for a night of mischief as the Chef passed on a long list of party provisions.
Paco was a little behind schedule as he entered the breathtaking confines of Piranhurst high on the mountains back of Montecito. It was the secluded estate garden of Mrs. H. E. Bothin, from which guests enjoyed wide views of the ocean with surrounding mountains and a site chosen for one of the Garden Club Gala’s Afternoon Teas. Piranhurst also was the place were Chef Wilfredo Henriques, the irrepressible Fredo, held court in an elaborately equipped kitchen, much imported from Austria his native country. So boastful, purporting that every little thing actually was created in his Motherland, he caused continual secret eye rolling from the staff. Paco, while delivering the big baskets and cases full of party goods, was immediately cornered by Chef Fredo and grilled carefully to learn the plans from all the other kitchens preparing for the events on his route.
Giving in to Fredo’s domineering posture, Paco divulged as little as he could and thenthe subject switched to the horrendous auto accident at Cima del Mundo. The Chef had already known that it was Paco who initially found the wreck. “So you were the one who found them?” Fredo interrogated, “Did you see the dead ones? Where they strewn all over the landscape?” He went on hoping for the gory details. All the pitiful pictures of the bodies, lying entwined, some mutilated, others in tact but lifeless, came back to Paco instantly. He remembered earlier that night by the bar and the girls he knew so well from School. He flashed on hysterical Corliss, vomiting fiercely. How he rushed to help her taking wet towels to clean away the chocolate and feeling her breasts through the flimsy dress. Paco thought, now with great remorse, of how pitiful and panicked Lillian was, attempting to help but too numb to move. He saw the headless body of Frank open and bloody. There was a hidden woman in black lace then the body of Lionel clearly dead, several others lay unconscious and where was Lillian? Paco was thinking hard now. The last he could recall of her, an image that would endlessly haunt him, in the Club Seville was leaving her draped over a chair, so pathetic, wearing her large fur piece like an Eskimo hood and covering her eyes with a napkin. He was visualizing now how he held her beautiful face. How he looked into her petrified eyes and noticed they were pale grey with dazzling gold and green flecks. He never saw such eyes. He wanted to kiss her mouth but he just brushed the tip of his tongue across her forehead taking a little taste.
He was feeling sick with anguish and pangs of conscience now that he realized he could have saved her. Why didn’t he just pick her up and guide her out to The Indian and take her home himself? He knew exactly where she lived. Every day in the newspaper there were stories and updates about her disappearance. What happened to her? Paco was tying to visualize and all the while Fredo, having given up plumbing for information, went on and on describing the elaborate collection of Viennese pastries he intended to create for the Garden Club Tea party. He was hoping that Paco would spread the word, maybe strike a note of fear in the hearts of the other Chefs competing to have the most spectacular event.
“I alone”, Fredo announced pointing at his chest with vigor, “can make a perfect Sachertorte. For any dolt who does not know, it is the most famous Viennese chocolate cake ever created.” The Chef knew he was right about that. “It is only made in Vienna and now I, Chef Fredo alone, will produce this right here in the Piranhurst kitchen. I will bake many layers of dense chocolate cake, not too sweet, using the famous ingredients I imported directly from The Sacher Hotel in Vienna, with a thin layer of raspberry jam in the middle and dark chocolate icing on the top and sides, then served with whipped cream, no sugar.
Next will come the Linzer Torte”, he said, “ a splendid lattice pastry topped with hazelnuts and thick apricot jam.” Fredo is now talking to the air and gesturing as if to conduct a large orchestra. “The Dobos torte next, five-layers of sponge cake with chocolate butter cream and topped with thin caramel slices. The sides are coated with walnuts. But certainly I will make the most famous cake in Europe, the torte named after Prince Esterhazy. It is butter-cream in between five layers of almond meringue. A work of art!”
“And yes! There will be miles of Punschkrapfen, our lovely Austrian pastries in pastel colors with a fine rum flavor. Idiots call them petite fours here and they think they are French? Oh God these imbeciles!” Chef Fredo puffed up with exasperation and then, finishing his glorious rant, deflated, bowing low as if an imaginary audience of thousands were clapping and shouting, “bravo, bravo”. Paco had slipped out unnoticed.
The Diehls delivery truck was pulling up in the rear entrance to what was considered by many the crown jewel of Santa Barbara style mansions, El Fureidis, meaning Little Garden of Eden. It was the creation of J. Waldron Gillespie, the scion of a wealthy New York banking family, and it began an architectural and horticultural revolution.
The Gillespie gardens, with their Arabian-influenced use of carefully placed terraces and reflecting pools took eleven years of planting trees on this exceptional property. Gillespie hired one of the most important and renowned architects in America, Bertram Goodhue, and took him on a yearlong trip to study the buildings and gardens of Mediterranean Europe. Utterly inspired, they returned to build Santa Barbara’s finest villa and to landscape what became one of the most spectacular gardens in all of California and the United States.
All this was well known by the ladies of the Garden Club and it was expected to be a highlight of the visit. They were especially excited to see perhaps the utmost rare tree collection in North America. The site of the dinner party had a clear view of the most dramatic element in El Fureidis including the south elevation and its attendant water gardens. Six successive shimmering pools, terraced on different levels of the cascading gardens, linking the main residence with the lower casino would be breathtaking in the twilight. Facing the terrace is the home’s symmetrical columned south façade, which features a bas-relief frieze depicting Arthur’s legendary Knights of the Round Table.
It would be there that the magical buffet would be presented by a most unusual kitchen staff led by Sepehr Jafar Javeed Foroohar, a Persian Chef of major distinction in his country. Java Sir, as he was called, was forced to flee his home during a bloody political upheaval. He turned up in Turkey commanding the kitchen of a minor Shaw who had taken up residence in a famous architectural treasure on the Island of Corfu. As fate would have it, Mr. Gillespie and Bertand Goodhue were visiting that very estate, spending time eating the Chef’s delicious array of Persian delicacies while making extensive plans of the house and gardens to take home to Montecito. It was then they decided to take Java Sir too.
With its high central dome covered with gold leaf in an elegant floral design, the conversation room was the focal point of the home’s entry and a dramatic hand-painted gold-leaf barrel-vaulted ceiling by Henry Wadsworth Moore, with a musician’s balcony in the spectacular dining room, provided the perfect setting for the gifted Persian Chef and his bevy of cooks and followers who were imported with him. A vision, this troop of kitchen servants retained their traditional dress, with many elaborate brocade elements in an exotic rainbow of colors, each one finished with a turban and sandals.
Paco walked slowly toward the house and out of the corner of his eye saw that, as expected, the bushes nearby were vibrating and giggling. One brown skinned shapely arm and then another beckoned with exceedingly graceful motions. Soon a face appeared with a gold trimmed turquoise veil holding back long hair. Her eyes were big and black with a very pale yellow where the whites should be. Thick long lashes fluttered and she leaped to embrace him just as she always did on the days he brought Java Sir’s orders. Her habit was to force him into a small broom closet where standing cramped inside she would kiss him ardently with soft warm lips and whisper unintelligible sweet phrases until Paco would try to become serious at which point she would bolt and run away leaving him weak and almost too shaky to carry the big delivery into the kitchen. He would not see her again until his next visit. He didn’t even know her name.
Java Sir always greeted him with praying hands and a deep bow. “Salam dear Paco. What have you brought me today?” His elegant manners were very refreshing after the frenzy of the others on his route who always left him hassled and dazed with their demands.
In the many baskets and cases were the makings for the Chef’s extraordinary banquet with an all-Persian Dinner Menu designed just for the Garden Club of America. For the Appetizers there would be Maust’Khiar, a combination of yogurt and chopped cucumber, flavored with mint. Panir Sabzi, a colorful plate of imported cheese, walnuts and fresh herbs of mint, basil, watercress, tarragon and radish. Boriani, a medley of eggplant, yogurt, onions, garlic and herbs. Dolemeh, cooked grape leaves, filled with ground beef, rice, tarragon, split peas, green onions, basil, parsley and fresh herbs, and a splendid service of Iranian Caviar with condiments.
Next on the menu was a Persian Shirazi Salad, a combination of iceberg lettuce, tomato, red cabbage, cucumbers, feta cheese, Greek olives, raisins, lentils, dates and fresh vegetables. The main course entrées would be Albalo Polo, Basmati rice mixed with black cherries served with spicy boiled chicken and Fesenjon, a fried walnut pomegranate sauce. The highlight had to be the grill filled with skewers of Chelo Kebb Barg, filet mignon and Lamb Kebabs done with the finest cut of boneless baby spring lamb tenderloin, all marinated in Java Sir’s sultry sauce then barbequed. The easterners would be dazzled! The evening would conclude with the much beloved Baklava, crispy and honeyed with sprinkles of roasted pistachios, served on little golden plates with fancy paper doilies and rose petals.
What a thrilling specter, the Persian water gardens softly illuminated and scented with a galaxy of night blooming jasmine, the sumptuous dinner with all the costumed servers and an entertainment of dancers with flutes and the delicate strumming of lutes. On his way out Paco vowed to bet on El Fureidis to win the prize from the Ladies of the Garden Club.
As it turned out the ladies’ unanimous choice was to be the evening at the El Paseo Restaurant. This was a unique complex of adobe styled buildings, wonderful fountains and stairways, embellished with decorative Spanish tiles and big red ones on all the roofs. The floors were an ox blood terra cotta and always kept highly polished. It was created to mimic a street in Spain and was exactly that with lavish pots of cascading flowers and palms everywhere. The main dining room was enormous topped by an open-air roof with sliding canvas awnings that could be drawn in the rare case of some rain. There were huge paintings in sepia tones with touches of color that portrayed all the romantic characters of early California. Pictured there the guests could see a majestic Senorita with her Caballero, caritas drawn by oxen with the bounty of the region as cargo, serape wrapped women with giant baskets of flowers carried on their heads and noble Indians, the woman carrying a little papoose.
Many tables surrounded a grand center fountain and there was a big stage all along one end. It was here that Senor Jose Fernandez presented his Spanish revue that could be enjoyed while dining on a menu of the finest California dishes including authentic versions of enchiladas, tamales and rellenos along with an extensive continental cuisine. Because of prohibition the bar menu was timid but many brought their flasks, some fancy monogrammed silver, to dose the drinks that were served. Overall an evening at El Paseo was like a little trip to a foreign land. It is impossible to omit one detail that would always amuse Paco and Sal who dropped in frequently to sit in the bar and play gin rummy with some of the dancers at a small table in the back. On view, like an extension of her day job, the captivating Esperanza was seated by the door acting as the cashier. She always lifted one perfectly arched eyebrow in recognition as Paco walked by.
The show was already under way with a fine appearance by the great baritone Fortuno Bona Nova with his beautiful arrangement of “Il Provenza del mar” from La Traviata. He was a star who had performed on he Crosby Hour and The Rudy Vallee Program. This was all on the radio so in person it was surprising to see that, although he was handsome, he was only about five feet tall with that huge voice coming from such a tiny man.
Carmen Samaniego, a stunning young Flamenco dancer always followed. Her biography stated that she was abandoned as a child by the Gypsies of Granada and the sister of screen star Ramon Navaro. Her great solo number was “Cadiz” where she wore her breathtaking costume that had an intricately beaded flowered torso with row upon row of white organdy ruffles hemmed in gold thread flowing down onto her train that she used with great dramatic effect. Her castanets were blazing as she tapped out the beat of the music with unusual dexterity.
The audience cheered her off and welcomed the lovely Camille De Montez, known to have a voice of gold. Shouts of “bravo” greeted her. She was a local girl who had made it big. After a short intermission the Maestro himself, Jose Fernandz, appeared with his gorgeous new partner, Carola Alvena, who was Spanish born and trained from childhood in her native dances. It was she who danced The Bolero with him when the Ravel number took the critics by storm. A spirited lovely ballerina her solo number that evening was a primitive rumba that had every heart beating a little faster.
All revved up now the audience was thrilled when Gilberto Galvan performed a fiery whirlwind cape dance that finished with his show stopping comedy bit called, “Making love behind a cactus bush”. The crowd was on it’s feet, clapping madly, perfectly primed for the next act, Carmela and Gabriel Cansino, a couple coming from a family that went back for seven generations of dancers. Gabriel’s mother was the famous Elisa Cansino who played the Orpheum circuit for years. Their routine was almost a clown act. They were dressed as dolls and flew around the stage chasing and phony fighting with each other in an odd combination of tumbling and dancing. The show was finished with the songs of Lupe and Rudy Valesco and the finale where Jose Fernandez and his partner did the all time favorite, “Bolero”, with intense sensuality and drama that always led to a brilliant climax. This invariably left the crowd weak with pleasure.
It was the next to last day of the historic Garden Club gathering and a group of well over 100, suitably dressed in their afternoon tea finery, began to taste the blissful collection of Chef Fredo’s pastries in the spectacular surrounds of the Piranhurst’s mountain top, when a disastrous phenomenon hit the Montecito hills with a wallop. A monstrous black cloud formed overhead bringing a powerful bolt of lightening and a gust of wind that grabbed the marvelous collection of hats from the shocked ladies and sent them skyward, some looping back gracefully to the ground but many never to be seen again. A weather occurrence like this had not been recorded for more than sixty years. The driving rainstorm made mush of the proudly displayed Viennese Tortes while the guests were escorted to safer ground. Mrs. Nellie Bothin and the staff, standing distraught, were wringing their hands with concern, thinking the event everyone had spent so much energy to produce with perfection was hopelessly spoiled. Fredo, imagining his reputation was lost, turned red and then blue in the face, holding his breath for minutes, so as not to blurt out the nasty cluster of expletives he had in his heart. So much imagined, so much destroyed.
To the delight, and for some surprise, of all concerned, The Garden Club of America reviewed the entire visit with the fantastic array of experiences and hospitality in ultra glowing terms. Who would expect, it was noted in a lengthy New York Times article, they especially loved, “the thrilling thunder and lightening storm in the Gardens at Pirenhurst and the memorable service of such delicious authentic Viennese pastries”. Chef Fredo was released from his melancholy to emerge with an entirely new scenario that named him the American Garden Club’s own star Chef.