Finding Meaning: The Things We Value

By Skip Hellewell

It’s not easy to own Laguna property. It can take decades of work to accumulate the necessary wealth. While reviewing Laguna’s 1940 Census, it caught my eye that a 23-year-old plumber and his wife, Bill and Phyllis Hudson, owned their own home at 33 N. La Senda Drive in Three Arch Bay. My nose itched. I smelled a story.

Bill worked for his stepfather Jesse L. Riggs, who by 1932 brought his plumbing business down from Pasadena to Laguna Beach. It was a good time for plumbers, South Laguna (known as Three Arches then) was starting a water district, and Laguna Beach was planning its 1935 sewage treatment plant. But the home was actually owned by Phyllis, funded by an inheritance from her mother Blanche, who visited Laguna in 1931 and rather impulsively bought a home at 2729 Victoria Drive. Growing more curious, I followed the money.

Blanche was born in Chicago in 1878. Her father was a successful real estate and insurance investor. Four daughters were in the family, all Chicago debutantes, and when Blanche turned 19 years old, her father took her on a European tour. Blanche was a woman of considerable charm, and her husbands, there were a few, were prominent men. The first, Captain Walter P. Blackman, had fought in the Spanish American War, and they married after his return. Though they prospered and had two children, the marriage foundered.

In 1908, Blanche’s father died, leaving an estate of about $50 million (in 2023 dollars) to his four daughters. There was a complication as the father had remarried after the death of his first wife, to a younger woman, and had somehow neglected to add her to the will. He was a modern man in one regard. He had negotiated an “ante-nuptial contract,” but the new wife had some leverage too. She had kept a diary that included certain family secrets. Her fight for what was termed her “dower rights” made headlines but was resolved amicably, with the estate now divided five ways rather than four, contingent on a promise to burn that diary.

Blanche was now a wealthy woman, and her next husband was a noted athlete and swimmer, who she might have investigated more carefully. Soon after the marriage, it was whispered to her that he already had a wife. Blanche threw the man out and sued for annulment on the grounds of bigamy. The newspaper headlines told of Blanche and the other wife sitting together in the courtroom, two wronged women working together to set things right.  

Blanche could always get another man, and her next husband was a New Yorker in the fashion business; a daughter, Phyllis, followed. By 1930, the family had moved to Los Angeles, where the marriage ended. Blanche fell in love again. But with another husband, she was over that, but with the Victoria Drive home, they moved to Laguna Beach. Sadly, Blanche died in 1931, and the estate was divided among her three children, including Phyllis.

Love can happen quickly with young people, and Blanche’s daughter Phyllis fell in love with a Laguna boy with blonde hair and a friendly smile: Bill Hudson, the plumber. They married in 1937, and she bought a lot in Three Arch Bay, where they built a home at 33 N. La Senda Drive. It would be nice to say they lived happily ever after, but this marriage also foundered, and both moved away. The family DNA seemed to value its wealth more than its marriages. If the marriages had lasted, the family would likely still be here, enjoying Laguna Beach. There’s meaning in that.

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].

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