Sometimes historical records are dry — maps and lines and numbers and facts entered into the official realm of public documentation — but each transaction record, each property line, represents a physical exchange between two or more humans, and social elements sometimes leak out of dry documents, the way that ash floats through the California air during wildfire season. While researching some old property maps of Capistrano Beach and Dana Point — my hometowns that are at once sleepy, sun-kissed and ragingly conservative — for another research project, I came across a historic mansion called the Dolph House, built in 1914 for a mining heiress named Blanche Dolph. This was evidently the first private residence in Dana Point, and despite growing up five miles from there, I had no clue it or she existed until last week.
Blanche, who was born in 1848, and her older sister Florence had grown up in Scranton, Pennsylvania. After some extensive world travel related to their (Presbyterian) missionary work, they settled in the Southern California in the early 1900s, whereupon they purchased a not insignificant amount of acreage in South Laguna and Dana Point. Blanche lived in Arch Beach, which has also been known as Three Arches.
After living in the Laguna Area/Aliso Canyon area for a number of years, Blanche chose to build a new house for herself in the area then known as alternately Serra or San Juan By the Sea but what I grew up referring to “downtown Capistrano Beach” (downtown indicating the glamorous Ace Hardware and El Patio, and a lumber yard that seemed enormous to me as a child). The 6,000 square foot house was located on what was then McKinley Avenue (now Del Obispo) on the north side of San Juan Creek. To design the house, Blanche hired the architectural partnership Walker and Vawter of Los Angeles, whose record of achievement includes a Craftsman bungalow in Los Angeles for attorney Frank C. Hill as well as the Bible Insititute of Los Angeles (now Biola University). Blanche Dolph’s house was noted for its extensive use of cisterns and water pumps to irrigate Blanche’s garden with the cool, clear waters of San Juan Creek that babbled below the house.
But reading about Blanche and her sister Florence, I noticed something curious. Blanche spent over 25 years of her life with Ms Lucilla McGaughey, who is described in various accounts from the historical society as Blanche’s “companion,” “friend,” “secretary,” and “assistant.” Certainly, Lucilla could be all of those things, but twenty-five years is a very long time to be coupled with someone. So why wasn’t anyone even asking the question or acknowledging the fact that this was, in fact, Blanche’s life partner?
Lucilla was an assistant pastor at Blanche Dolph’s childhood church, and when Blanche went to Asia to do missionary work, she took Lucilla with her. Returning to Laguna Beach, the pair lived together and evidently ‘motored’ across the United States in 1917. They actually, along with another woman, started the first Presbyterian church in San Juan Capistrano (which is apparently still right there on Del Obispo). When Blanche died in 1936 at age 87, there was a length estate battle between Lucilla and Florence – — apparently Lucilla got the Dolph house and all of Blanche’s $800,000 of holdings, and Florence got a rug and a picture (oh, snap). Florence’s lawsuit claimed apparently that Lucilla had “insinuated herself” into the Dolph family and turned Blanche away from them. Lucilla claimed that instructions from “my Miss Dolph” were clear, and the judges agreed. Lucilla lived in the house until her death in 1945. Both women are evidently buried in Fairhaven cemetery in Santa Ana.
Since I was working on research about this early era of Capistrano Beach and its subdivisions, I tried to keep a certain focus, diverting my curiousity about the Dolph mansion itself – what did it look like on the inside? Where there marvelous technological developments for its time? Who were the contractors that built it? Was it coincidence that Walker & Vawter then designed the Bible Institute given that Blanche and Lucilla were missionaries or was that just, hey, coincidence?— or to Blanche’s motivations and private life – was she a philanthropist? What made her want to situate her house so remotely and far away, especially given that her sister was in the society life in Los Angeles? But of course, being a queer interested in historical queers, I couldn’t help my budding curiosity about Lucilla and Blanche’s personal relationship.
I started to sketch out their personalities a bit more. Lucilla was twenty years younger than Blanche. She had grown up in Macomb County, Illinois, born to a family that had been in the area for ages (her mother and Blanche’s sister Florence were practically the same age). Lucilla apparently studied at the Chicago Bible Institute and then was ‘called’ to Scranton to the Second Presbyterian Church, which she described in a 1902 bible institute bulletin as a “missionary church, supporting five missionaries in the foreign field.” Blanche was, as mentioned before, an heiress and a missionary. She was also an accomplished cornet player.
Now, let me be clear: we cannot say really whether or not they were lesbians. I didn’t even know that these women existed until three days ago, and gleaning history about people’s personal lives is always a delicate hypothesis. You have to imagine certain scenarios in order to ask the right questions, but you can’t let that imagination alone become your narrative. They could have been lovers, or maybe just what was called during this time, ‘romantic friends’. During the late 19th century and into the 20th, it was common for women, particularly those educated at women’s schools in the east, to have platonic but romantic (and sometimes divinely and achingly sexy!) friendships (with their handwritten letters, one of my number one turn-ons). But even if platonic-romantic relationships were common, many women in this era did indeed practice, to use the term of the day, sapphistry. And there were still other women who were openly coupled with each other having outright (in their own subculture) lesbian relationships.
I am always the most curious about the romantic friends that endured as lifelong partners. The women who built a household with each other for years upon years but somehow didn’t have sex or even make out. It is hard for me to imagine arranging a household with someone and then just, what, going to bed every night like an eternal campout? But we arrive at the grim practicality of lying based on circumstances. Even today, every time I feel that my safety will be increased by calling my girlfriend my “friend” or “traveling companion,” I endure ages of swallowed truths, of hushed whispers, of hand-holding underneath blankets. I can easily see how the shame would become too much and if I were in another era, maybe I would just give up or not even try to actually cross the line into taboo and physical affection.
Expectations can be powerful. Societal disapproval of lesbian relationships may have tamped down otherwise flaming desire and provoked women into tame face-stroking and hand-holding. And on the opposite end of the spectrum, the political consciousness-raising of the second wave feminist movement made lesbianism a political avenue for women who wanted to overthrow the patriarchy but didn’t actually want to have sex with women, having many women identify as lesbians without actually being hot for other women. This dynamic in some ways allowed me to tell myself, when I was coming out to myself, white lies about my own sexuality, defiantly claiming that I wasn’t a lesbian, just “woman oriented.”
In many ways, women have arranged their lives with each other in ways that may seem absurd or shameful to modern sensibilities, but our modern existence brings the political privilege that means that I can, as a woman, not only vote but I can actually marry the woman I arrange a household with! And I am free to not only marry here; there are actually a lot of interesting things that we can do that the government no longer has a say in. But the political reality doesn’t turn on or turn off the basic sexual desire. Being queer isn’t just a political path, or a choice. It is a core desire, the feelings inside that make us feel like we are composed entirely of fireflies or music notes, and those are there in our bodies. Women who really want to have sex with other women have often ended up doing just that, one way or another.
But did Blanche and Lucilla have sex with each other, right there in the Dolph house? Though romantic friendship among women was generally accepted, even by the time Blanche and Lucilla became traveling companions and then household companions, the zeitgeist was shifting a bit away from romantic friendships between women, prioritizing the nation-building of great men, and calling upon women to focus on an increasingly complex domestic life filled with things like germ avoidance and purification. But even if society was frowning on the girlish sweethearts that still whispered into each other’s ear, Blanche was, by any estimate, a wealthy woman who owned acreage, multiple properties in multiple states. Seems like she could be the type of lady to do badass things like shack up with her Bible buddy.
So, reading the 1930 census, I couldn’t help but feel a creeping sense of shame when I saw Lucilla’s relation to Blanche listed with just six sad and lonely letters: “LODGER.” I mean, think about this. Blanche was 84 and Lucilla was 64, and they had been living together for at that point at least 15 years, running a Presbyterian Sunday school from their living room, and somehow they told the census taker that Lucilla was a lodger? I understand the safety of “companion” or “friend” as a way to avoid the prying and prurient eyes, but “lodger” to me here reads like a slur, loaded with transactional and financial baggage, devoid of any intimacy. I imagine the two of them, standing at the doorway as a gloved census taker peers over his round reading glasses and scrolls Blanche’s answers in his ledger. “I see, yes. Your occupation is heiress and this woman right here is your lodger, that you have taken into your 12 bedroom house because you need the $6.25 a month in rent. I see, yes, that will do, thank you.”
But maybe they liked the word lodger. Perhaps the contractors building the mansion had called Lucilla the lodger, and they had lovingly and laughingly giggled about it later in bed. Perhaps this had become a pet name, a sly inside joke that affirmed their love.
Or what if they had actually said something else? What if Lucilla had introduced herself as Blanche’s “lover”, and the census taker, scandalized, wrote “lodger”? Or maybe the census taker emboldened by their joie de vivre, wrote “LOVER” with a firm grip, only to be erased with a simple keystroke by a later transcriptionist who by either by error or moral concern typed “LODGER.” What if they were out (or as out as one could be at the time, which could have been different than we experience it now), but didn’t go out of their way to record it into the government record?
In the legal battle over Blanche’s will, Florence said that Lucilla had “insinuated” herself into the Dolph’s family life. Maybe she was angered at their ‘invert’ love, or maybe Lucilla was actually a very rude gold-digger and had really pissed Florence off (doesn’t seem likely, but now I really want to know).
It’s interesting to consider that for all of our accomplishments, the things that matter to us the most – the flames of passion, the hours spent in the quiet company of our most beloved – the world will most likely piece it back together not in our own but in the words of the documentarians and chroniclers of the public sphere: the census taker, the judge, the newspaper reporter who detailed the water infrastructure, the property deeds, the architects who will renovate the house to modern standards. And soon rather than having a conversation about the choices of women in the 1920s who wanted to have a lesbian relationship, we’re talking about drawing rooms and stained glass and ocean views and cisterns.
When the Lexington Club closes in a few months, how will we tell the stories of the dramas that raged within those walls? The first dates, the breakups, the makeup sex in the bathroom, the first time you walked in and saw women you never even knew existed? Will whatever coffee shop/juice bar/cupcake eatery replaces it be able to carry the weight of these stories, or will all of our history be wrapped up in an archival box? You can say it might not matter — who really cares what I did or didn’t do in the Lexington Club bathroom? But queerness is still something we actively construct, from choices we make or have made for us all the time, and we still code our behavior to be able to tell or not tell, read or not read. Some historians or commentators will not care to decode queer and lesbian nuance, and the story of the Lexington Club itself will become a bit part in other, bigger stories and dramas: gentrification, policy, the importance of bars to queer culture. But in the bones of the buildings, in the story of architecture, inhabitants, real estate transactions and business plans, bits of peoples lives leak out at the same time as they are obscured.