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Death of Venice Historian Closes Curtain on Era

January 25, 1987|ALAN CITRON | Times Staff Writer

They were an odd pair, the chauffeur and the developer. The chauffeur was Irving Tabor, a poor black teen-ager from Louisiana who had come to California in search of a new life. The developer was Abbot Kinney, an aging cigar magnate who was promoting a bizarre community called Venice-of-America when they met.

Historians say that Kinney took an instant liking to the younger man. In one year Tabor went from sweeping the old Venice Pier to serving as Kinney's driver and personal servant. Tabor stayed on with the Kinney family after the Venice founder died in 1920, and he eventually inherited Kinney's eight-room house.

Tabor's death at the age of 93 earlier this month closed the curtain on that era and robbed Venice of its best-known oral historian. People who knew Tabor said that he never tired of talking about Kinney and the birth of Venice.

"He spoke very eloquently," said Tom Moran, a local historian. "And he was always happy to share his knowledge and experiences with an outsider."

Tabor remained in Venice until the final month of his life. The home that he inherited from the Kinney family, a sprawling two-story place with a wrought-iron railing, two massive fireplaces and leather walls in the dining room, is an artifact of the 1905-1910 period. Tabor's daughter, Thelma Brawley, said that he often held court there when visitors came to pick his brain about the past.

There were UCLA and USC students working on research papers. There were local historians compiling material for books and writing articles. And there were neighbors and relatives who simply liked to talk over old times with Tabor over coffee.

'He Was the Last Link'

"He was the last link to the great man," said Tom Sewell, a longtime resident and historian. "He helped to preserve the memory of Abbot Kinney."

"There can't be but three or four people still living from that era," said Don Tollefson, a founder of the Venice Historical Society. "And none of them had anything to do with Abbot Kinney. All of the key people from that era are now gone."

Tabor had no idea that he would become a historic figure when he left his hometown of Morgan City, La., at the turn of the century. "I was just on the move, as young kids were then," Tabor said in a 1973 interview with Moran.

He settled in Venice about 1909, married and got a job sweeping the old pleasure pier for the Abbot Kinney Co. The seaside resort that Kinney had characterized as an American version of Venice, Italy, was in full bloom then--known as much for its colorful visitors and carnival-like attractions as it was for its network of Venetian-style canals, bridges and buildings.

No one ever explained exactly what attracted Kinney to Tabor. But the 17-year-old and the developer become nearly inseparable in the years after 1910. Tabor's official title was chauffeur and personal servant. Moran, however, said that they were more like friends. "He was as close to the family as any outsider, and he was intimately involved with everything Kinney did until 1920," Moran said. "The two families kept tabs on each other for years."

Tabor remembered driving Kinney through the California wilderness in a Model T Ford, listening to Kinney talk about nature and the past, including one of his early jobs as an assistant to President Ulysses S. Grant. There were also times, Tabor recalled in the 1973 interview, when Kinney would go an entire day without saying a word. Tabor also remembered the celebrities who had visited Venice in its heyday, including Mary Pickford, Babe Ruth and Fatty Arbuckle.

Tabor and Kinney's friendship ended in 1920, when the eccentric developer died. Tabor went on to work as a guard for the Bank of America in the 1920s and founded Tabor's Bay City Maintenance Co.

He had two children, Thelma Brawley and Emmett Tabor, four grandchildren, seven great-grandchildren and three great- great-grandchildren. His second wife, Ethel Howard, who was active in local politics, kept an autographed picture of Richard M. Nixon inside the house.

Tabor was an honoree in the 1980 parade held to commemorate Venice's 75th birthday. Then 87, the one-time chauffeur rode in an antique car with a banner that said: "Irving Tabor--Abbot Kinney's Trusted Friend."

Tabor was not an outspoken person. But in later years he confessed that he was saddened by what had become of Venice. Most of the canals were filled in. The amusements had become seedy, then disappeared. He had seen a succession of residents that included oil field workers, beatniks, hippies and artists.

"He was very disappointed in what Venice had become," said Brawley, his daughter. "He felt that Venice was a much better place many years ago."

Brawley said that Tabor, who died Jan. 9, spent his final years around the house, often sitting on the porch in his favorite wrinkled fishing cap. Among the mourners at his funeral was Kinney's granddaughter, who drove 67 miles for the rites.

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