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Music, Mystery Of Villa Montezuma

September 25, 1987|KENNETH HERMAN

SAN DIEGO — Jesse Shepard, the city's first international musical celebrity, would have been proud to know that San Diegans are celebrating his 139th birthday at the ornate Victorian mansion he named Villa Montezuma.

Saturday's garden party from 2-5 p.m. on the grounds of the 100-year-old villa is being thrown by the San Diego Historical Society, the organization that twice saved the Golden Hill architectural landmark that Shepard himself designed.

"We began the villa's centennial celebration with the grand re-opening in June," said Cindy Eddy, curator of the Villa Montezuma. "And Jesse's birthday party is the grand finale of that celebration." After a March, 1986, fire destroyed much of the building's second story, the historical society restored it--again--having also restored it after purchasing the deteriorated structure in 1970.

Saturday's party, which is open to the public and will feature free birthday cake and free tours of the villa, promises to be a more egalitarian affair than the high-society soirees Shepard regularly gave when he lived there. According to Eddy, Shepard's elegant 1887 residence was "not just a home, but a palace of the arts." A pianist, singer and budding author, Shepard not only performed for San Diego high society, but spiced his guest lists with notables such as California Gov. Robert Waterman and Shepard's cousin, Civil War hero Gen. Benjamin Grierson.

Shepard's oasis of culture bloomed at a propitious time, when San Diego was enjoying a land boom spurred by the completion in 1886 of the Santa Fe rail line to the city. In addition to his evident musical abilities, the enterprising artist could boast of having played for European royalty and sported souvenirs from the Russian czar. A portrait of the young Shepard painted in St. Petersburg by the Russian artist Mathieu Geslin still hangs in Villa Montezuma.

But Shepard was more than a gifted musician. A student of Madame Blavatsky, a medium and founder of theosophy, Shepard was a spiritualist possessed of uncanny powers. His detractors claimed that he used his personal suasion to get two fellow spiritualists, San Diego ranchers William and John High, to finance the building of his Villa Montezuma.

"He had an incredibly charismatic personality, with almost Rasputin-like powers," said Eddy. "He had the ability to keep a group enthralled. In his musical performances, he often used special effects, such as invisible, offstage musicians whose playing added a mysterious touch to his own performance."

In tribute to Shepard's spiritualist powers, the Saturday party will feature 20 psychics. For $5, they will give 10-minute readings in everything from palms and Tarot cards to astro dice, which are 12-sided dice decorated with mystical symbols, according to Eddy.

Shepard ran hot and cold on the spiritualist movement, however. While living at Villa Montezuma, he flirted with Roman Catholicism and sang at St. Joseph's Church, which later became San Diego's Catholic cathedral. But the cover of The World magazine, of Jan. 18, 1914, depicted an elderly Shepard at the piano under the headline, "Psychic Pianist Paints Music-Pictures of Your Moods."

In 1889, Shepard sold Villa Montezuma to finance another of his European excursions. He never returned to the city, finally settling in Los Angeles, where he died in 1927 in near-poverty.

In keeping with the musical interests of the building's first and most celebrated resident, the historical society regularly presents musical events in the villa's music room, the building's most spacious room. A jazz festival is held on the villa grounds each August, and Eddy is planning a classical music series to begin in January.

Shepard would be pleased.

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