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'Man Crazy' Lucy Banning Was Rich and Free-Spirited

September 05, 2004|Cecilia Rasmussen | Times Staff Writer

Lucy Banning was one of California's richest and most beautiful women in the latter part of the 19th century. A headstrong, free-spirited ingenue at cross purposes with the Victorian era, she married and divorced several times, playing around in between.

She had enough money to ignore societal norms with impunity, having inherited a fortune from her father, "Transportation King" Phineas Banning, and padded her bank account with settlements from a gaggle of wealthy ex-husbands.

"Our very own Lucy Banning can share center stage with any two Lillian Russells," Banning's physician and friend, Rebecca Lee Dorsey, wrote in her memoirs. "I don't believe Lucy heeded anyone's advice from the day she was born. With all her thoughtfulness and kindness, she had one great weakness -- men. To phrase it very delicately, she was man-crazy."

The pioneer daughter and eccentric socialite, dead more than 75 years, will come to life next month to talk about her adventures. Banning is one of five historical figures to be "revived" during the West Adams Heritage Assn.'s annual living history tour Oct. 9.

Actors in period costume will portray a quintet of dead notables buried at Angelus-Rosedale Cemetery on Washington Boulevard, known for its unusual epitaphs and striking tombstones.

Lucy Banning was born in 1876, in a 23-room Greek Revival house in Wilmington that her father had built for his first wife and three of their nine surviving children. His second wife, Mary Hollister Banning, gave birth to Lucy and her elder sister, Mary.

But Wilmington was isolated. Its marshes, sand bars and shallow pools provided a refuge for waterfowl and a paradise for hunters, but not a proper place to rear well-bred young ladies.

In 1886, less than a year after Phineas Banning died, his widow moved to a mansion on Ft. Moore Hill near downtown. Los Angeles' richest families hosted grand balls where girls such as the Bannings could make their debut into society. Lucy did just that in 1893, at 17.

Most men found her beauty irresistible. Her beaus included a handsome young attorney named John Bradbury, whose father, Lewis Leonard Bradbury, was a gold-mining and real-estate tycoon. The family name is commemorated by the Bradbury Building, a five-story architectural gem downtown; the town of Bradbury; and the gated community of Bradbury Estates.

John Bradbury and Lucy Banning eloped to San Francisco, where they were married on Dec. 4, 1893. According to news stories of the time, the marriage was oddly hurried. Banning wasn't pregnant, but Bradbury insisted on marrying no later than Dec. 4.

"We have reasons why we desire it [their marriage] to be known to the world. It must go out [in the newspapers] this night that we are married," he told reporters. Their reasons were never disclosed.

Shortly before the ceremony, he reportedly cabled his family, asking if everything would be all right if he married the girl of his choice. Everyone standing around Western Union assumed the answer on the return cable read "yes," but it was deliberately obscured from reporters' view.

"The bridegroom was quite a [blue] blood, and he wanted everybody to know it," said the couple's driver, George Dunham.

For four years, the marriage seemed successful. Then the couple attended a Santa Monica party, which Banning left with another man. Reporters found her and a middle-aged married Englishman named H. Russell Ward at a San Francisco hotel.

"It is true that I had a beautiful home, that jewels were showered upon me. But all these did not satisfy me," Banning told the reporters. "I left simply because I believed that I had a right to plan out my life; to go in search of happiness. ...

"You may call this a love match or anything you like. Most people prefer to call it a scandal. I prefer to call it a romance."

After a few days, Banning returned home. Her husband tracked Ward down and issued an ultimatum: "Get out of town in 24 hours, or else."

Ward left, but was killed within days, accidentally stepping from a moving train in the middle of the night in Iowa. Some suggested that the accident could have been murder.

Banning remained married to Bradbury until 1902, when she divorced him and sued for nonsupport.

Then she took up acting -- and actors. Drawn to Shakespearean actor Mace Greenleaf in his sexy tights, she married him in 1903. But he was no Romeo offstage, Banning's close friends confided. She dumped him for a fling with a longtime friend, Charlie Hastings, scion of an old San Francisco family and owner of Hastings Ranch in Pasadena.

She was romantically entangled for years with Hastings, who wooed her all the way to Europe and back. But in 1918 she married Robert E. Ross, a newspaper reporter and son of a judge.

"I'm through experimenting," Banning, then 42, declared. "I'm prepared to settle down."

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