Mama Snail’s lifelong friend Suzan recently gave me this magical night view of Hotel del Coronado:Coronado is the beach town across the bay from San Diego, California. This wooden Victorian resort opened there in 1888, the largest resort hotel in the world at the time, and it remains the second largest wooden structure in the United States. Here’s a photograph of the Hotel del Coronado in its entirety to give you a better idea:
In 1880, a group of businessmen bought all of Coronado and North Island for $110,000 under the name The Coronado Beach Company. Soon after, they designed the resort. The tricky thing was, there was little lumber, construction resources, and labor in the San Diego area. The lumber ended up coming all the way from Eureka, while most of the laborers were Chinese from San Francisco and Oakland. They had to build planing mills, brick and concrete kilns, and an iron works on-sight before they could start building the hotel itself.
The landscaping was designed by an impressive Western woman, Kate Sessions, who shaped the look of the San Diego area. Raised on a farm by Lake Merritt in Oakland, Sessions graduated from UC Berkeley in 1881 with a degree in natural science. She moved to San Diego in 1883, where she purchased a nursery. That enterprise expanded to a flower shop, then to her own growing fields and nurseries throughout the region. In 1892, the horticulturalist struck a deal with the city of San Diego: The city leased 30 acres of the barren City Park (now the famous Balboa Park) for her growing fields, and she planted 100 trees per year in the rest of the park, and 300 trees per year in other places about the city.
(Kate Sessions, 1919)
With such a large all-wood structure at risk of fire, the Coronado Beach Company had a freshwater pipeline run under San Diego Bay! Meanwhile, a Los Angeles oil company built tankers especially to bring oil down for the hotel’s oil furnace, the first in the world.
Early visitors included Sarah Bernhardt, Henry James, and Charles Lindbergh. Another was a young woman known as the Beautiful Stranger. She checked into the hotel around Thanksgiving in November 1892, under the name Lottie A. Bernard of Detroit. Appearing ill, she confined herself to her room, telling the staff she was suffering from stomach cancer and that her brother, a doctor, was coming to treat her. Five days later, she was found dead on a stairway leading down to the beach, with a gunshot wound to the head. A gun she’d just purchased lay beside her.
Accordingly, census records show a Charlotte “Lottie” Bernard living in Detroit in 1890 and ’91, and after that, her name disappears from the U.S. census and Detroit directories. But, for reasons none of the accounts I’ve read explain, investigators arrived at the conclusion that the woman was one Kate Morgan. (Please comment if you know why!) They believed “Lottie A. Bernard” was simply an alias, making the real Detroit woman’s apparent disappearance sheer coincidence. Yet no one who knew Kate Morgan came to identify the dead woman’s body, and the photograph supplied by one of Morgan’s employers looked nothing like the Beautiful Stranger. The fact that Morgan had been working as a housemaid in Los Angeles also makes it unlikely that she would have stayed at the posh Hotel del Coronado, and there’s a Kate Morgan of matching age in the 1900 San Francisco Census, eight years after her supposed death.
Kate Morgan, circa 1886
It was speculated that whoever the Beautiful Stranger was, she’d attempted to abort a pregnancy at the hotel. Again, I haven’t read any evidence to support this, but at least I can see where the idea came from–a sick young woman traveling alone, complaining of “stomach cancer,” and when no doctor arrives, she shoots herself. This would have fit nicely with Kate Morgan’s “loose” and desperate history, being that she ran out on her husband with another man, with whom she also separated before reaching Los Angeles, where she worked in three households in two months.
The last element of the mystery was revealed nearly 100 years later in the 1980s, when a lawyer reading up on the inquest found that the coroner had casually noted that the bullet in the Beautiful Stranger’s head did not match her gun. Was she murdered, and framed to look like a suicide?
No wonder the woman’s spirit seems restless! A young Victorian woman, referred to as Kate Morgan, is known to haunt the Hotel del Coronado, particularly the room in which the Beautiful Stranger stayed her last five days.
The Hotel del Coronado became the first hotel in the world with electricity! Thomas Edison made the final inspection, and returned in 1904 to oversee the world’s first electrically lit outdoor Christmas tree on the hotel lawn.
L. Frank Baum stayed at “The Del” for months at a time between 1904 and 1910, writing at least three of the Oz books there. The Hotel Del website has an excellent page of historical photos and information, including this photo of Baum in 1904:
Two giant cisterns in the hotel basement, built to store rainwater in case of fire, are said to have been used for other purposes during Prohibition. The Del was all the rage with the Hollywood set then, with guests such as Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Rudolph Valentino, Greta Garbo, Mae West, Clark Gable, Errol Flynn, along with Babe Ruth and trendsetting Edward, Prince of Wales.
Katherine Hepburn, Bette Davis, and Jimmy Stewart soon followed, as did Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis, and Jack Lemmon for the filming of Some Like it Hot, and sixteen U.S. presidents.
In return for the grand Hotel del Coronado postcard, I’m sending Suzan a portrait postcard of Shirley Temple as she appeared in Heidi (1937).Suzan, a script supervisor and aficionado of classic Hollywood, got me hooked on Shirley Temple when I was a wee snail. Heidi was one of my favorites, along with The Little Colonel, The Little Princess, and Captain January.