You wouldn't make up a character like Lucky Baldwin in your most feverish novelistic fantasies. People would say he was unreal.
Entrepreneur, horse-trader, saloon owner and infamous Southern California roué, Elias Jackson Baldwin was one of the men who created the idea of moving to the land of sun and fun on the west coast of America. And then he profited from it.
He was born in Hamilton, Ohio, on April 3, 1828. By his early 20's he had already opened a grocery store, a hotel and a saloon, and he was looking over the horizon for bigger and better opportunities.
In 1853, after watching the California Gold Rush mature from the considerable comfort of his mid-western living room, Baldwin with his wife and six-year-old daughter joined a wagon train bound for San Francisco. His intention was characteristically shrewd: it wasn't gold, per se, that interested him. Would-be miners and their families required food, supplies, and shelter. These were things the young Baldwin knew a lot about.
It could be argued that he acquired his nickname on the arduous journey west. While out scouting alone he became lost and nearly starved to death before friendly Native Americans returned him to his party. The wagon train was attacked by less-neighborly Indians near the Great Salt Lake in Utah. Baldwin and his family survived. By the time he reached San Francisco he was able to turn his attentions to a hotel, a livery stable, and—most lucratively—real estate and the silver mines of the Comstock Lode in Nevada.
By 1867 he was a very wealthy man. He went off to hunt elephants in India after instructing his stock broker to sell his holdings if they fell below a certain price. By the time he returned to San Francisco (after a stint as a vaudeville producer in New York where he managed a troupe of Japanese entertainers he met in Tokyo) he discovered that his stocks had plummeted egregiously below his sell-point. But in a stroke of what can only be called good luck, he had neglected to tell his broker where the key to his safe was kept. The broker had been unable to take possession of Baldwin's stock certificates, and in the meantime the stocks had rebounded spectacularly. Lucky's profits were in the millions.
After building the Baldwin Theater and the Baldwin Hotel with his windfall, he began to recognize that the accumulation of thousands of ambitious men like himself had begun to despoil what had previously been a pristine California. He turned his attention to the 51,000 acres of beautiful forest in the Lake Tahoe Basin, east of San Francisco in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Baldwin bought up huge parcels of land and created a showplace resort for the wealthy called Tallac House on the south side of the lake. A casino followed, but paramount among Baldwin's interests in the Tahoe area was the preservation of the land's natural beauty. He never allowed trees to be harvested from his property of 1,000 acres.
By 1875, Lucky Baldwin was an American legend. He divorced his wife and moved to the San Gabriel Valley east of Los Angeles in Southern California, eventually purchasing 63,000 prime agricultural acres. In was here, in the mature prime of his life, that Lucky Baldwin's indubitable good fortune began to flag, mostly due to his weakness for women in all their infinite variety.
His flamboyant lifestyle revolved around thoroughbred horses (he owned three Kentucky Derby champions) and a retinue of female companions, some of whom he married, most of whom he merely seduced, shuttling them in and out of an elegant Queen Anne cottage he built for just such a purpose.
One 16-year-old girl won a $75,000 settlement; others were not so lucky against Lucky. Baldwin spent so much time in court facing charges from the women in his life that it was written at the time "He was the only man we ever heard of who pleaded in answer to a complaint filed against him that his public reputation is such that every woman who came near him must have been warned against him in advance."
In one famous trial in 1894, the 66-year-old Baldwin was challenging a paternity suit brought by a 31 year-old paramour. An old woman identified as a "religious fanatic" held a gun to his head in the courtroom and pulled the trigger. The bullet missed, sadly for many of San Gabriel's more conservative residents who'd begun to tire of Lucky's flouting of the law and what they considered common decency.
As Southern California became more crowded (or perhaps because his appetites merely expanded), Baldwin subdivided some of his property, creating in the process the towns of Arcadia (my former home) and Monrovia. He built the famous Santa Anita racetrack during this period of spectacular growth and legendary promiscuity, but eventually his fortunes dwindled and he struck out, once again, for greener pastures.
At the age of 72 he tried to buy land in Nome, Alaska from the frontier lawman Wyatt Earp. Unable to strike a bargain, Lucky returned to his ranch in Arcadia where he lived out his final years in plucky approximation of his once-ostentatious style—surrounded by young women, old wine, eager thoroughbreds and willing partners to croquet, poker, and the art of the deal.
Elias Jackson "Lucky" Baldwin died of pneumonia on March 1, 1909. Ten years after his death, the Montebello Oil Fields were discovered on property he once deemed worthless. They were valued at twenty million dollars.
My children and I used to play on the site of one of his mansions, a huge parcel on Foothill Boulevard in the city of Arcadia. We were saddened, as were many others, when it was sold and chopped into dozens of quarter-acre properties, each with its "custom"-crafted mini-mansion. The huge oak trees, the exotic imported foliage, even the peacocks imported from India—all are gone now, replaced by mere shadows of real wealth and true imagination.
Lucky Baldwin's ranch still stands on the grounds of the Los Angeles County Arboretum, in proximity to the Santa Anita Race Track in the city of Arcadia.
The property has served as a movie location for many years; Johnny Weissmuller's Tarzan swung through those trees, and Jungle Jim embraced Cheeta and the young American TV audience there as well. Bob Hope, Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour took The Road to Singapore past landscaping that Lucky Baldwin himself commissioned.
The seaplane that brought the guests to little Tattoo's mysterious Fantasy Island landed on Baldwin Lake, a four-acre pond named for the man who, for all his vision and ingenuity, could not have imagined what Southern California has become.
And then, of course, there's Lucky Baldwin's
, the traditional British-style pub
located at 17 South Raymond Street in Old Town Pasadena, just a hop, skip, and a draught-brew from the action in one of L.A.'s most-recently gentrified
Famous as the start of many a pub-crawl, the homey little bar has no less than fifty
different beers on tap, many of them local craft-brews. It's an L.A. landmark, and not to be missed.
The Johnny Appleseed of LSD
Bud and Travis
Camaron de la Isla
Wild Bill Donovan
Sidney Gottlieb, the real-life "Q"
king of the queens
Paco de Lucia
the Real McCoy
Robert K. Merton
J. Fred Muggs
Bernardino de Sahagun
A. J. Weberman