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Virginia Knight dies at 92; former first lady of California

She married Gov. Goodwin Knight in 1954 in the state's first gubernatorial wedding. She was an early proponent of turning the governor's mansion into a museum.

December 01, 2010|By Valerie J. Nelson, Los Angeles Times
  • Gov. Goodwin Knight carries bride Virginia across the threshold of the governors mansion. The photo helped him cruise to victory in the 54 governors race, historian Kevin Starr said.
Gov. Goodwin Knight carries bride Virginia across the threshold of the… (Associated Press )

Virginia Knight, a former first lady of California who moved into the governor's mansion in 1954 as the bride of Goodwin Knight and was an early proponent of turning the residence into a museum, has died. She was 92.

Virginia Knight: In the Dec. 1 LATExtra section, the obituary of Virginia Knight, widow of former California Gov. Goodwin Knight, said he lost the 1958 gubernatorial race to Pat Brown. Knight, who did not run for reelection in 1958, lost his race for a U.S. Senate seat. —

Knight died Monday at her Hancock Park home after a long illness, her grandchildren said.

Goodie Knight, as the governor was known, was "distracted with grief" after his first wife died in 1952 and after months of brooding looked up an acquaintance, Virginia Carlson, "the pretty widow of a World War II bombardier," Time magazine said in 1955.

Their marriage on Aug. 2, 1954, marked the first gubernatorial wedding in California history, according to a state library website devoted to first ladies.

When a photograph of the handsome Republican governor carrying his attractive bride over the mansion's threshold ran in hundreds of newspapers, it helped Knight "cruise to victory" in the 1954 governor's race, Kevin Starr wrote in his 2009 history "Golden Dreams." (Knight had been serving out the third term of Gov. Earl Warren, who resigned in 1953 to become chief justice of the United States.)

As first lady, Virginia believed that the Victorian mansion built in 1877 in downtown Sacramento would become a museum one day and wanted the governors' wives to be recognized, according to state biographies.

"She definitely planted the seed that this should be a museum, and it later became one with the help of Nancy Reagan," the last of 13 first ladies to live there, said Joe Wolfenden, a senior guide at the mansion.

Virginia Knight collected photographs of each first lady who had lived in the mansion and hung them in the first-floor hallway, where they remain.

Known for their dancing, the Knights sometimes could be seen through the windows of the governor's bedroom practicing their steps. She called the mansion "her Cinderella house" because it reminded her of a palace, Wolfenden said.

"She was born to be first lady," said her grandson, Jonathan Weedman. "She was the most brilliant, loving, charming, genuine and effusive person. People adored her."

After her husband lost the 1958 gubernatorial race to Pat Brown, the Knights returned to Los Angeles and bought a home in Hancock Park in 1960.

Ten years later, the music essentially stopped for Virginia.

A stepdaughter, Carolyn Knight, who suffered from depression, committed suicide at 36 in 1970. Goodie had a stroke and died three months later. Widowed again at 51, Virginia never remarried.

"She really was the keeper of the flame," said a granddaughter, April Aubery. "He was the love of her life, and after that, the lights went out. She dropped out of society and became a hermit."

She was born Oct. 12, 1918, in Fort Dodge, Iowa, to Lawrence Piegrue and his wife Emma, and moved to Los Angeles in 1923. After her parents divorced, her mother married E.B. Hershberger, an ad executive.

When Virginia's first husband, Lyle Carlson, was killed in action in 1944 in France, she turned to writing poetry and worked for veterans causes.

As lieutenant governor in the early 1950s, Goodie met Virginia on a current-events television show. Afterward, she sold him an American Legion poppy, long a symbol of America's war dead.

Three months before the 1954 election, the Knights were honeymooning on a borrowed yacht off Catalina Island when Goodie was summoned to the state GOP convention.

His bride lamented the too-short honeymoon, Time reported in 1955, but recovered to compose a poem that Goodie used as a campaign song:

Keep California's spirits high, Put your X beside our guy.

He's the one for whom we cry, It's Goodie, Goodie, Goodie!

In addition to her two grandchildren, Knight is survived by a stepdaughter, Marilyn Knight MacDougall; her brother, Richard Hershberger; two other grandchildren, Heather Haldeman and Robert Weedman; and five great-grandchildren.

Services are private.

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