And now, at last, we conclude the story of Jack Donovan and The House(s) That Jack Built. This is Part VI. If you’d like to read the first parts just click on them here: Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV and Part V.
“The Battle of Santa Monica…”
To give an idea of the extent of the Battle of Santa Monica: Between 1945 and 1951 there had been 24 legal actions between Santa Monica and the Donovans in Superior Court, 12 in Santa Monica Municipal Court, three in Federal Court as well as seven going to the State Court of Appeals and three all the way to the California Supreme Court. As Cecil Smith was to write in the Los Angeles Times in 1953, “The fight with Santa Monica produced a mountain of transcripts, a mile of newspaper copy.” As one can see, the full details of the multitudinous court wrangles in the Battle of Santa Monica far exceeds the reasonable scope of any blog post. But suffice it to say it was a tangled mess and in all reality, a terrible tragedy.
By the letter of the law, it seems painfully obvious that the Donovans were 100% in the wrong. Where they lived was zoned solely for single family residences and the fact that Jack, a licensed architect, conducted his additions without filing the proper permits is patently inexcusable. When confronted by this reality, rather than complying with the law Jack and Jeanette willfully and continually ignored it and battled it relentlessly until both they and the City of Santa Monica were beaten down to bloody pulps. It would therefore be easy to dismiss the Donovans at this point as crazy cranks, privileged slumlords thumbing their collective noses at the law, but this is not only too simplistic, it doesn’t seem accurate. While it is not possible to get into their heads to know what their thought processes were, throughout their long legal wrangles the Donovans gave every indication that they were absolutely sincere in their belief that they were in the right and not just trying to pull a fast one on the authorities.
Where could this distorted belief have come from? Well, as noted in Part V, for years there was apparently not a peep of complaint from the City about the building and they most assuredly knew what was going on there. The Donovans took this as tacit approval of their apartment house venture. Further, although the neighborhood they lived in was zoned residential, they were at the very edge of that zone. All across the street were apartments and up and down San Vicente, just a block away, houses (including Mae Murray’s former dwelling at 220) were giving way to apartments. And they weren’t alone either. It was introduced in court that several other homeowners on the street had added rental units to their homes including the house directly across from them at 123 Georgina, which had four rental units. Of course, there’s a big difference between four and twenty-four units, but the Donovans didn’t see it that way. Why the City was not going after any of these other code violators fueled the Donovans growing paranoia that they were being singled out and hypocritically persecuted by the City of Santa Monica with an “Evil Eye,” as Jack so colorfully put it. Although the courts, ultimately did not rule in favor of Donovan on the matter, it is clear, based on the various trial records that there was an uneasiness about that particular point. In his ruling against the Donovans on their appeal of the original judgment, Judge York even went as far to state “I assume if [the Donovans] had asked for a variance so that their property might have been used by some three or four families, that perhaps would have been granted.” A very interesting admission that a good lawyer might have been able to capitalize upon.
But Jack Donovan didn’t have a good lawyer. Throughout most of the battles he represented himself and although he was clearly an intelligent and highly resourceful man there was no way he could have ably represented himself in the multitude of proceedings that went all the way to the California Supreme Court and more than once at that. And throughout it all he suffered, suffered greatly. Once lionized as a hero in Santa Monica, a handsome and dashing figure who worked to save lives at the beach community and a sought-after guest at every social event in town, Donovan could not help but be affected by the reality that in many circles he was now ostracised as a pariah, an embarrassment to the City he loved, a criminal.
Stunningly, right in the thick of this epic battle, Jack did something rather amazing – he got married. Jack, who had long been one of Southern California’s most eligible bachelors, had been engaged on at least one occasion before, but always resisted that final walk to the altar. In October of 1945, John Francis Donovan III, 51, wed Suzanne Joudray Winfield, 22, in a quiet ceremony in Pasadena. One can only wonder if Suzanne (sometimes spelled Suzzanne) knew what she was getting into when she moved in with Jack and his mother and into the growing maelstrom at 136 Georgina. Considering everything that was happening at the time, the marriage could not have been an easy one for Suzanne or Jack for that matter, but they managed to stay together and produce two children, John Francis Donovan IV and Sally Suzanne.
But in 1949, everything seemed to come crashing down all at once for Jack Donovan. On April 8th, 21-month old Sally Suzanne wandered out through a gate that had been inadvertently left open. Mesmerized by the glittering goldfish pond on the patio she reached out and fell in. It only took a few moments for her parents to realize what was happening, but it was already too late. As his wife frantically called the paramedics Jack worked feverishly to breathe life back into his tiny little daughter. When the paramedics arrived at 136 Georgina, they found Jack desperately working to save his little girl, a horrendous tragedy and bitter irony for Jack, the hero lifeguard and lifesaver, honored by the Red Cross, who could save total strangers at the beach, but not his own daughter at home. It was too much for Jack and Suzanne to bear. By year’s end, they had divorced with Suzanne charging physical abuse and claiming he had beaten her frequently. And she took little 3 year-old John with her too. In what was deemed a very “unusual” scenario in the divorce, Jack agreed by his own stipulation to waive any rights of visitation to his son. By that time he had already been ordered to jail for continuing to violate court orders on the apartment and the following year he would serve another seven days of a sixty day sentence.
In spite of it all, Jack still kept fighting, seemingly hellbent to stand up for what he believed was right no matter how much he suffered emotionally, financially and even physically. Santa Monica, too, was reaching the breaking point, and they decided to ratchet up the heat. On July 2, 1951, Jack was arrested yet again and thrown in jail for violating court orders against continuing to rent apartments at Casa Manana. That wasn’t anything new or unexpected, but four days later they came after 90 year-old Jeanette, pulling her from her home, crying, sick and barefoot, and throwing her in jail. Although she was released by day’s end and Santa Monica felt it had proven its point, it was not exactly their finest moment.
This was, it seems the final straw for Jack Donovan. The unbelievable pressure and the tragedy of the last few years had finally caught up with him and he completely snapped. But he still managed to retain enough of himself to see what was happening and he voluntarily committed himself to Camarillo State Hospital for mental treatment. Jack was subsequently adjudged an incompetent and a court-appointed guardian was named to represent him on his behalf in the court battles that continued even in his absence.
Jack had been such a gadfly to the City of Santa Monica for so many years that during this period the City actually obtained a restraining order that forbade him from even entering the city limits on pain of arrest. For someone who may have been an irritating nuisance but never a physical threat, this lends some credence to Jack’s claims of persecution. It certainly does seem rather petty in retrospect.
Meanwhile Jack was in self-imposed exile up at Camarillo State Hospital, but in July of 1952 he walked out the front entrance and into the night – vanished. For months his whereabouts remained unknown, even eluding a police search to find him. During this time, the California Supreme Court rang the curtain down on any further appeals Jack and Jeanette Donovan had in their long battle to keep their apartment. The Battle of Santa Monica was over.
With the Supreme Court decision handed down and Jack Donovan nowhere to be found, Santa Monica was finally free to act and in February 1953 they moved in and evicted all of the remaining 40 tenants of Casa Manana. Three days later, a mysterious fire broke out in the rear of the property heavily damaging the structure. The origin, according to investigators, was on the inside of two apartments and the garage, with neighbors claiming to have seen “a series of flashes of orange and blue flames” before the conflagration. Nearly a third of the massive structure was damaged by the fire, which Santa Monica Fire Chief Charles N. Carrell characterized as “probably” arson. The suspicious blaze renewed questions over the whereabouts of the vanished Jack Donovan, but Jack had nothing to do with the fire. His beloved mother was still in the house at the time and it is inconceivable that Jack would have done anything to endanger her.
One of the most poignant visuals to emerge from the fire was the sight of Jeanette’s Rolls Royce limousine, a relic of grander days, now a smouldering hulk in the wreckage of the old garage. Since Jack’s commitment to Camarillo State Hospital and his subsequent disappearance, 92 year-old Jeanette was left to fight the battle alone. With no further income Jeanette was forced to sell Casa Manana to satisfy mortgages and back taxes. And even though she was making preparations to leave, the City, again acting unnecessarily heavy-handedly, turned off both her lights and her gas. But, beautiful, proud Jeanette remained unbowed, going to bed at sunset and cooking her meals on a kerosene stove out on the once famous “Court of the Birds” where royalty and movie stars had mingled and danced on balmy nights so long ago. At one point, the Salvation Army dropped by with $10 to help Jeanette buy food. And she took it with a sincere smile of thanks.
Shortly before her final departure from Casa Manana in March 1953, Jeanette G. Donovan received Los Angeles Times reporter Cecil Smith. Like everyone else who encountered this fascinating lady, Smith was completely charmed by the woman he described as “This proud, aged fighter. Regal as a queen. Mischievous as an elf.” Aided only by a cane, Jeanette gave Smith the grand tour of her old mansion, proudly pointing out Jack’s handiwork as well as some of the treasured antiques and bric-a-brac that crammed every available space of the home’s tired rooms. “Today, dusty and threadbare,” Smith wrote, “they cluster the great parlor of the house, where Mrs. Donovan lives. Tossed on a table is a Bible that once belonged to Robert Burns. Beside it is Lord Wallscourt’s snuffbox.” Was she bitter over what had befallen her? She certainly would have had the right. Leaning forward on her cane for emphasis, Jeanette told Smith, “Dearie, don’t say anything sad about me. I’ve had a wonderful life.” Smith couldn’t help but ask. “What happened to the $1,000,000?” “It went. And a lot more went with it. But it doesn’t matter. It’s been a beautiful time.” And she wasn’t lying.
Smith so vividly described the scene he encountered at Casa Manana that the following year he was honored with an award from the Los Angeles Newspaper Publishers Association. By then, Jeanette’s days at Casa Manana were over, but was it the end of Jack and Jeanette? Did they go homeless? As this series has hopefully proven – never count the Donovans out. In spite of the liens against Casa Manana, Jeanette was still able to recoup enough cash from the sale to buy a new six-unit apartment building, this one completely legal, at 2907 3rd Street in Santa Monica and that was where she remained, spry and lovely till the end, passing away a few months shy of her 100th birthday on June 27, 1961. By that time, the ban on Jack’s presence in Santa Monica had long been lifted and he returned from banishment with a new energy and a new fighting spirit, even making at least two runs for Santa Monica City Council in 1955 and 1959. There is also an indication that he was able to see his son as well.
Jack Donovan passed away in Santa Barbara at age 86, on January 15, 1981. Unfortunately, I was unable, in the guerilla-style research endemic to pulling together blog posts, to conduct a lengthy search of information on his later years, but one can only imagine he remained a remarkable man to the very end. It is quite clear that there is much more of the story of Jack and Jeanette Donovan waiting to be told and I would be thrilled to hear from anyone who has any more information on these amazing people or any other “Houses That Jack Built.” I would love to put together a list of his known commissions and make sure he gets some recognition for his work. He deserves it. I will be happy to do an update if any further material is found.
As a final note, anyone looking at Jack Donovan’s page on the Internet Movie Database (IMDB) will see under “Trivia” a rather startling claim, which would appear to be an incredible sin of omission on my part – that he claimed he once married Mary Pickford! The reason I failed to mention it is I cannot trace the IMDB’s source on this and if I can’t find the source I won’t print it. Personally, it is more than a little hard to swallow, but that said, with Jack Donovan you can never know!
I hope you’ve enjoyed reading The House(s) That Jack Built!
And whatever became of 136 Georgina Avenue, the house-turned-apartments that raised the ire of the City of Santa Monica, which waged a nasty and expensive seven-year battle to keep Jack and Jeanette Donovan from using the site as a multi-family property? Today, there is a big set of condos on the site. Jack Donovan, it seems, got the last laugh.