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Wawona Hartwig; Namesake of Legendary Yosemite Hotel

October 18, 2000|MYRNA OLIVER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Her name meant "big tree."

Perhaps more romantically, and definitely more historically, it also was the name of the 19th century Victorian hotel where she was born on June 17, 1914.

She named her horse "Marcheta" after the popular song played during dances at that hotel on the southern edge of Yosemite National Park.

Wawona Washburn Hartwig, who had returned to her beloved big trees in the Sierra in 1985, died Oct. 7 in Clovis, Calif., following a heart attack. She was 86.

Between her colorful childhood summers at the family's Wawona Hotel and her final years delving into history for the Yosemite Research Library and volunteering at the Children's Museum of the Sierra, Hartwig became a Hollywood motion picture extra, Inland Empire socialite, secretary to the stars and minister.

Her father and uncle, the Washburn brothers, established the Wawona Hotel, one of the state's oldest, in 1876. The Indians, who contributed the name wawona, or "big tree," also called the developing resort pallahchun, "a good place to stop."

Both the little girl's name and that of the hotel sprang from an actual "big tree" in the Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias six miles from the hotel. The frequently photographed Wawona Redwood, which fell during a storm in 1969, was tunneled in 1881 to a height of 9 feet, width of 8 feet and length of 26 feet, permitting a road and wagons, and later automobiles, to pass through it.

Little Wawona, who wintered with her family in San Francisco and Oakland, became an accomplished horsewoman during her summers at the resort. She rode Marcheta to shoo cattle off the runway of the tiny airport the Washburns opened in 1928 to ferry in golfers for their nine-hole golf course.

Her riding ability landed her a job. In 1929, she was hired as the stunt double for Lupe Velez in the film "Tiger Rose," starring Rin Tin Tin. Hartwig rode the movie horse Black Beauty in a dangerous downhill gallop through the Mariposa Grove, to her just another playground.

After attending high school in Redwood City and studying journalism at UC Berkeley, Hartwig moved to Los Angeles for more movie roles, appearing in bit parts supporting such stars as Victor Jory, Eddie Cantor and Bing Crosby.

When the Paramount contract actress met and married MGM actor Hale Hartwig in 1936, they both ended their Hollywood careers and moved to Indio to join her parents on the desert social circuit. The Washburns, pinched by the Depression, had sold their hotel, about 30 other buildings, a water system, ice pond, truck gardens, cattle, horses, golf course and 2,664 acres of land to the U.S. government in 1932, joining the Wawona area to Yosemite National Park.

The Hartwigs later lived in Fontana until Hale Hartwig's death in 1960.

Wawona Hartwig returned to Los Angeles and became first a licensed practitioner and then a minister with the Hollywood Church of Religious Science.

She also worked as secretary and aide to such celebrities as Danny Thomas, Groucho Marx, Fred Astaire and Vincent Price.

Hartwig moved home to the Sierra in 1985, settling in Oakhurst. In addition to her research on early Yosemite tourism and work with the children's museum, Hartwig shared her memories at holiday programs staged at her birthplace and namesake, the Wawona Hotel.

Tom Bopp, a family friend who announced her death, said Hartwig had requested no funeral or memorial service, but asked that memorial donations be sent to the Children's Museum of the Sierra, P.O. Box 1200, Oakhurst, CA 93644.

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