Finding Meaning

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Burnishing Lost History

By Skip Hellewell
By Skip Hellewell

History is a source of meaning if you can find it. Take the recently refinished outdoor art “Boy and Dog,” on Coast Highway, across from the museum.  Have you seen it?  A bronze statue is expensive to make, but this was donated in 1933 at the bottom of the Depression.  Sophie Kerr, as the story is told, funded the work as a memorial to her daughter. Daughter?  The title says “Boy and Dog.”  I thought there might be a story here, but it had a surprise ending.

Sophie Kerr was the Danielle Steele of a century ago. She wrote over 500 magazine stories, 23 novels, and four movie scripts, while working as managing editor of the popular Women’s Home Companion.  It started when she returned from college and told her father, as she recalled, “I’m going to be an author and you might as well buy me a typewriter.”  She moved to New York City after a brief marriage and never looked back.  You can judge her financial success by her fab residence at 115 E. 38thSt., NYC.  (Search the address to see Sotheby’s 32-photo tour.)  At her passing the estate went to little-known Washington College where it still funds the richest literary award short of the Nobel Prize.  It’s a great small-town-girl-conquers-big-city story except for one thing. Ms. Sophie Kerr never had a daughter.

So how did Laguna get the statue?  I visited city hall to examine the statue’s folder but they don’t keep records over five years. It’s a city policy.  Shocking.  Laguna historian Jane Janz was my next contact.  Soon I was flipping through her Jahraus Park file, reading from 1933 copies of the South Coast News about the real donor—Isadora Weiser Kerr.

You can find Isadora Kerr in Laguna’s 1932 voter registration list where her party affiliation is, gasp, Socialist.  This was an unusual woman as there were just nine socialists among Laguna’s 1,600 mostly Republican voters.  Isadora grew up in rural Pennsylvania with her younger sister, Helen.  She married a Philadelphia doctor, produced four sons, and divorced.  The husband kept the sons plus a younger wife.  Isadora sought a new life as a social worker.

Meanwhile, her sister Helen, aspiring artist, found her way to Laguna Beach.  Isadora had a home on Temple Terrace so perhaps they lived together.  The sad facts are lost, but Helen died here July 2, 1932, in her 37thyear.  Following her sister’s untimely death, Isadora endowed the statue as a memorial.  It was a generous gift.  The statue was unveiled in a rushed ceremony, said to be the largest civic gathering in Laguna’s brief history, on Nov. 19, 1933.  The rush was due to the sudden arrival of Isadora Kerr.  She was said to have come from New York City—in fact, she made a side trip for a Reno, Nev., divorce—and I suppose she wanted to get on with her life.

Isadora’s new career was social work, serving the poorest, living in a New York City settlement house.  Settlement houses were a reformist movement, located in poor urban neighborhoods, designed to bring rich and poor together to share knowledge and culture, and provide needed services.  She was doing this in 1935 and 1940 and then disappears from available records until her death in 1960.  Much is missing, but it seems a life rich in the meaning that comes from service.  To honor this lost story, don’t you think Laguna should correct the title of the statue?  Perhaps, a plaque saying:

“ ‘Girl with Dog’ by sculptress Ruth Peabody, 1933.  Endowed by Isadora Weiser Kerr, social worker, as a memorial to her deceased sister Helen Weiser, aspiring artist.”

The correction would respect Ms. Kerr, and honor our recovered history.

 

Skip fell in love with Laguna on a ‘50s surfing trip.  He’s a student of Laguna history and the author of “Loving Laguna: A Local’s Guide to Laguna Beach.”  Email: [email protected]

 

Places to worship (all on Sunday, unless noted):

Baha’i’s of Laguna Beach—contact [email protected] for events and meetings.

Chabad Jewish Center, 30804 S. Coast Hwy, Fri. 6 p.m., Sat. 10:30 a.m., Sun. 8 a.m.

Church by the Sea, 468 Legion St., 9 & 10:45 a.m.

Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon), 682 Park Ave., 10 a.m.

First Church of Christ, Scientist, 635 High Dr., 10 a.m.

ISKCON (Hare Krishna), 285 Legion St., 5 p.m., with 6:45 feast.

Jehovah’s Witnesses, 20912 Laguna Canyon Rd., 1:00 p.m.

Laguna Beach Net-Works, 286 St. Ann’s Dr., 10 a.m.

Laguna Presbyterian, 415 Forest Ave., 8:30 & 10 a.m.

Neighborhood Congregational Church (UCC), 340 St. Ann’s Drive, 10 a.m.

United Methodist Church, 21632 Wesley, 10 a.m.

Salt Chrch, 8681 N. Coast Hwy, 10:00 a.m.

St. Catherine of Siena (Catholic), 1042 Temple Terrace, 7:30, 9, 11, 1:30 p.m. (Spanish), 5:30 p.m.  There are 8 a.m. masses on other days and Saturday 5:30 p.m. vigils.

St. Francis by the Sea (American Catholic), 430 Park, 9:30 a.m.

St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, 428 Park Ave., 9:30 a.m. (summer schedule)

Unitarian Universalist, 429 Cypress St., 10:30 a.m.

 

 

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