Thursday, November 26, 2009

Alexander Dunsmuir - Businessman & Edna Hopper - Floradora Girl

[Photo of Dunsmuir House by Michael Colbruno]

[Photo of Hopper gravestone by Michael Colbruno]

Alexander White Dunsmuir (1854 – 1900) Plot 27, Lot 25
Josephine Wallace Dunsmuir (1853 – 1901) Plot 27, Lot 25
Edna Wallace Hopper (1874-1959) Plot 27, Lot 25

Alexander Dunsmuir was the son of a wealthy Scots coal baron in Victoria, B.C., who was sent to run the family’s business office in San Francisco. There in about 1879 he met a bartender, one Waller Wallace. Alexander had a taste for whiskey and he and Mr. Wallace became fast friends….in fact, Alexander moved in with Wallace, his wife Josephine, and her small children, Willie and Edna. This arrangement led to an affair between Alexander and Josephine, and resulted in the Wallaces’ divorce.

There would be no quick marriage, however, as Alexander’s mother held the purse strings and was determined not to accept “that woman” as a daughter-in-law, threatening to disinherit her son. The lovers secretly set up housekeeping together, a practice frowned upon even during the “Gay Nineties.”

In 1898, Alexander and his brother James gained control of the family business, enabling Alexander to build the spectacular Greek Revival mansion for Josephine in the hills above San Leandro. The house was completed just days before they were married in late 1899, and they left immediately on a honeymoon trip to New York. But years of heavy drinking took its toll on Alexander and he died on their honeymoon in New York, January 31, 1900.

Josephine, long sick with lung cancer, returned to spend the last eighteen months of her life in the place now known as “Dunsmuir House,” where she died of lung cancer in 1901.

Josephine’s daughter, Edna, inherited the house, but not the fortune. By this time she was a successful showgirl, a “Floradora Girl”, and rented the house out to I. W. Hellman, Jr, son of the founding president of the Wells Fargo Nevada National Bank (which broke away from Wells Fargo Express Company in 1905, with headquarters in San Francisco). In 1906, the Hellmans bought the property, and retained it until it was sold to the City of Oakland in 1959. It is now owned and operated by its own non-profit corporation.

The northern California town of Dunsmuir along Interstate 5 in Siskiyou County was named for Alexander when he promised the town fathers a fountain in exchange for the honor of having his name on the map.

The Dunsmuirs have no markers on their graves. Edna’s grave is marked, however, but without a birthdate – she was always coy about revealing her age. She was married for a time to DeWolf Hopper. In 1913 Hedda Hopper became the 5th of his six wives.

[Bio courtesy of Barbara Smith]

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