644 South Rossmore Avenue


Oil fortunes figured into quite a few Wilshire Boulevard houses, but the one built in 1926 at the northeast corner of South Rossmore, while appearing rather stately, was never able to confer membership in the establishment on its owners as were the others. The strange tale of Jackson Barnett, an illiterate Creek Indian successfully exploited by an adventuress for many years for the oil millions found on his Oklahoma land, is one of the less genteel and consequently more interesting stories of the thoroughfare.

Jackson Barnett gave the appearance of being a happy man
herever he was, as in this studio portrait taken after his
ship came in and before the fortune hunters got their
hands on him. Was he happier as a carefree
bachelor millionaire in eastern Oklahoma
or married in suburban California?

The case of "The World's Richest Indian" was in the news for nearly two decades, even before his kidnapping and forced elopement by a ridiculous if crafty and tenacious Ozarks-born double divorcée named Anna Laura Lowe. Jackson Barnett, living in poverty in Henryetta, Oklahoma, and suffering from dementia said to have been brought on by a fall from a horse, was long ostracized by his tribesman as odd...until one day in 1912 when up through the ground came the proverbial bubbling crude. His reservation acreage having been allotted to him arbitrarily by the Federal government, Barnett was at first uninterested in his royalties, which accumulated exponentially in various banks—all he wanted to do was hunt, fish, and smoke his pipe. Everyone began to find his indifference to riches interesting if not charming or irritating, including the national press. Though he was by no means the only vulnerable nouveau riche Native American (a 1925 Times headline read MILLIONS OF NATIONS' WARDS DIVERTED TO HARPIES), reporters nicknamed Barnett "The Rockefeller of the Indians." More often members of the press were derisive, especially The Christian Science Monitor. Sounding more envious than intelligent, the paper reported in 1917 that "it is not recorded that [Barnett] ever did a stroke of work," and called him a layabout who did "nothing through the livelong day but sit around." The Bureau of Indian Affairs had determined that Barnett was unable to handle his affairs after the oil strike and in need of a guardian, who seems to have succeeded in convincing his ward of the good his money could do. Barnett was presented with a plan to give away as much as $1,500,000 to various Indian-related endeavors, including funding a reservation hospital and the American Baptist Home Mission Society. As wire services spread such news, the clever and the devious, such as Anna Laura Lowe, hatched their plans like spiders. A known seducer and swindler, La Lowe, after several attempts, managed to abduct the addled old man—now worth as much as $4,000,000 and from 24 to 38 years her senior, depending on the source—and get him to a naive justice of the peace in February of 1920; a taxi driver involved in her machinations claimed that her technique with Jackson involved thrusting her hand into his pants in the back seat. Within days the government moved to bar any claim of the new Mrs. Barnett to her husband's money. Despite having only just met Jackson, she claimed true love.

Not just another Hancock Park couple: With what appears to be a bit of
airbrushing to reduce the age difference, she in furs but still looking
 more like a prison matron, he in tweeds, the Jackson Barnetts
were congenitally unable to blend into sedate suburbia.

From the wedding until she was separated from her husband by the courts and then by his death, both in 1934—and finally from his money by an Act of Congress in 1938—the coverage continued, nationwide, frequently racist and condescending in the way of the era. (There were, for instance, period references to the houses the Barnetts would live in as their "teepees" and to Jackson as a "redskin.") Clearly more on the ball than the government, Anna managed all the while to spend a great deal of what she considered community property. While she stayed in dreary Oklahoma for a few years and managed to improve her husband's and her own standard of living, the perceived glamour and possibility of social mobility and fresh beginnings in California made the coast her goal. In Los Angeles on a property-buying spree by late 1923, living temporarily in Brentwood, Anna set her sights on Wilshire Boulevard, no doubt a name lodged in her mind as signaling arrival at the top. By February, in addition to 109 acres in Coldwater Canyon for Jackson's private stable (though it was really just something to keep him occupied, she was apparently now fashioning the image of her husband into a that of a sportsman), Mrs. Barnett bought Lot 21 and the southerly 40 feet of Lot 20 of the Hancock Park subdivision's Tract 3446. On a hillock at the northeast corner of Wilshire and Rossmore, the site extended 276 feet along the Boulevard across from the twin gates of Fremont Place. While seemingly a prime lot, many affluent Los Angeles homebuilders, having seen what progress had done so rapidly to the original residential stretch of Wilshire, had shied away from building directly on Wilshire. The ambitious Anna, however, was determined to be noticed by all who motored past, even if tract covenants decreed that her house face the avenue rather than the boulevard.

Jackson, in the shadows, and Anna stand in the
driveway of 644 in the late '20s; in another view from
the same day, below, Jackson stands alone.

As the remarkable and exhausting years-long battle of the Government versus Ballsy Dame ground on, Ballsy Dame somehow manage to maintain her hold on Jackson's oily revenue stream after every legal altercation. Press coverage reveals not only the battle of the principals but an amazing larger war of lawyerly sentiment split between factions for Anna and against her—all, the cynical might conclude, more to the benefit of law firms than to anyone else. Court dates in Los Angeles, Washington, and New York all seem to have ended with Anna Barnett still able to write checks for property, furniture, Cadillacs and Pierce-Arrows, furs, servants, and travel. After court proceedings delayed her dream of a house on a hill, the columns began to rise after she was issued permits by the Department of Building and Safety on January 22, 1926. The design by the Engstrum Company was pure American Colonial Revival in its particular, somewhat self-conscious Los Angeles vein. Completed by the early fall, the imposing white columned, wide-clapboard house quickly became a Park Mile landmark, with tourists looking out for the addled Jackson directing traffic at his busy intersection, as he became known to do on occasion, sometimes in white gloves. While 644 South Rossmore was being built, the Barnetts lived with her daughter Maxine Sturgis, a butler, a multicolored cockatoo, and a White Leghorn hen named Fluff a block east, renting a house across Wilshire Boulevard at 4424. The Grantland Seaton Long residence had recently been moved from Vermont Avenue to a lot next to one that would hold the newest Ebell Club within a few years; with its grounds still raw from the move and the boulevard undergoing major construction to widen it and bury utilities, perhaps it was a bargain temporary rental. (Once the Barnetts moved to the new Rossmore house, the Long house was renumbered to 4444, perhaps to throw off gawkers who had seen the previous number in newspaper coverage of particularly heated Barnett legal wranglings during 1925.) Even before the uncouth Anna began to appear too frequently and distastefully in the press, she had no chance of being asked to join the Ebell Club, soon to be her neighbor, much less into the homes of Hancock Park, Windsor Square, or Fremont Place, all more "Pasadena" in state of mind, more establishment than vulgar Hollywood or Beverly Hills where the Barnetts might—perhaps—have been more at home.

In better times, Jackson sometimes even wore white gloves to direct traffic on
Rossmore Avenue across from his house, seen in the background at the
northeast Wilshire corner; tourists urged north by a Chamber of
Commerce sign to Vine Street, the northerly continuation of
Rossmore, no doubt considered him part of the full
Hollywood experience; most if not all locals
were likewise bemused.

While her ephemeral pose as a rich matron lasted much longer than anyone might have imagined, the center could not hold, based as it was on her simplistic notion that financial independence translated into good breeding and sophistication and would command respect. As her incessant legal battles ground forward, Jackson directed traffic to the amusement of passersby if not the neighbors. Wherever it was invested and however begrudgingly it was paid out by the courts, the onset of the Depression began to affect the Barnetts' income, further heightening Anna's sense of entitlement. Some of her more charming characteristics such as anti-Semitism and fondness for the grape became more pronounced; she became prone to paranoid outbursts during court proceedings, one of which resulted in her spending a brief stint in solitary confinement. Special wrath was reserved for Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, to whom in her cups she would write: "You unprincipled, evil Jew beast, I wish we had a Hitler running America to place you Jews in your place, which is down in hell." Such a lady.

Jackson still in tweeds, seemingly ever oblivious, Anna still in her fox pieces but increasingly coiled,
the Barnetts are seen during a Senate Indian Affairs subcomittee hearing in Washington, circa 
1929. Grim mug or not, there is no doubt the lady enjoyed her nearly two decades'
battle to maintain her dream of a house on a hill above Wilshire Boulevard.

How happy he may have been had he remained on his Oklahoma land, how long his life might have been there outside of his golden cage is unknown, but it is unlikely that Anna could conceal her increasing anxieties from him. Citing among other reasons her lousy moral character as well as "bribery, seduction of a mental incompetent, payoffs, kidnapping and misrepresentation," a Federal judge declared the Barnetts' marriages null on March 31, 1934—Anna had married him first in Kansas and then in Missouri, having in mind a legal backup. The decision can only have increased the rages but it didn't result in the immediate dismantling of the household. Lawyers and judges continued to haggle and create billable hours even after Jackson, now 93 give or take a year, checked out of the madhouse on Rossmore Avenue on May 29. The coroner determined that he died of natural causes. Naturally there was a battle over his burial, one faction demanding that his body be returned to Oklahoma, Anna insisting that he be buried at Forest Lawn. He wound up in Hollywood Memorial Cemetery on June 7, finally sprung from Anna's bourgeois suburban utopia and free to hunt and fish and smoke again.

As the Battle of Wilshire neared its denouement in October 1938, crowd fed by hot-dog vendors
gathered on Rossmore Avenue to witness the final humiliation of Anna Barnett.

The drive to quash Anna's claims continued even in her widowhood, or non-widowhood, whatever may have been the case from 1934. Now seen in the particular light of the Depression through which even widows living on Wilshire Boulevard could gain sympathy if seen as being evicted from their homes, Anna gained the support of the wife of Los Angeles County district attorney Buron Fitts and some ladies' organizations, if not the most exclusive clubs (though none appear to have been asking her to join). It seems that there were people, perhaps not fully acquainted with details of the endless story, who viewed Anna's plight as a case challenging the property rights of women. And it wasn't just ladies who sympathized—a few men came to the defense of the widow, including U.S. Senator William Gibbs McAdoo of 5 Berkeley Square, and a man you'd think would be happy to have her out of the neighborhood. Superior Court Judge Charles S. Crail lived next door to Anna in a house he had built on Western Avenue and moved to 4451 Wilshire, at the northwest corner of Arden, in January 1922. The input of eminent jurist and senator along with that of the Helen Hokinson brigade may have only delayed the inevitable, which nevertheless would not occur until four years after Jackson's death and not before the incorrigible Anna turned on those who tried to help her. She blasted the club ladies as "just a bunch of old hags"—perhaps for only giving her sympathy, not membership. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld all lower court findings in 1936; after a number of physical standoffs in attempt to evict Anna and Maxine and the cockatoo and the hen, all attended on the street by circus crowds served by hot-dog vendors and fought back and forth in downtown courtrooms by lawyers not working for free, the government finally succeeded in eviction on October 30, 1938. Anna was armed with a hatchet on that Sunday morning, fighting wildly to the last. Subdued finally with tear gas in the culmination of what had become known as the "Battle of Wilshire Boulevard," she was dragged bodily out of her deteriorating white symbol of success in a leopardskin coat and feathered bedroom mules to the pokey, a quieter, no doubt parentally ground-down Maxine alongside her in pajamas, bird and poultry left behind. The jig was at long last up.

Within three weeks, Anna and Maxine were living in a $35-a-month, one-bedroom apartment at 901 South Irolo Street. Mother and daughter were later able to move into a small house of their own at 1277 West Boulevard, living on Maxine's salary as a gas-company clerk. Evidently adapting her temper to the available square footage, only on occasion vowing to pick up the fight, Anna appears to have lived quietly until she died of cancer at home on August 9, 1952, late in her 72nd year. The Times considered her death newsworthy. Her sizable obituary was headlined DEATH TAKES EX-WIFE AFTER 32-YEAR FIGHT FOR ESTATE OF NATION'S RICHEST REDMAN and ended "...the Final Judge decreed that her long fight was over." Technically not his widow, her ashes were nevertheless buried next to the man she called "The Chief" at Hollywood Memorial.

The house at 644 South Rossmore remained under the control of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in trust for the estate of Jackson Barnett until 1944, but its first new tenant moved in three weeks after the climax of the Battle of Wilshire Boulevard. The Native American occupation of Anna's white house had a few months to go, this time in the form of another sometimes called "The Chief": Dartmouth-educated, one-time major-league catcher John Tortes Meyers. Now 58, Jack Meyers had found a third calling (after a movie role or two) as head of the Mission Indian Agency police department based in Riverside. It is not known exactly why he was chosen, but Meyers was charged with getting the house in order for rental, the maintenance of 644 having been deferred for years as Anna Barnett struggled to keep it. The house's second "Chief" moved in with his wife Ann and sister Christine to replace Department of Justice agents on November 21. All the Barnett furniture, including Jackson's fourposter, was left behind in the house, as was Polly, the unimaginatively named cockatoo. (It is not know what happened to the hen; perhaps it became a last meal of Anna and Maxine.)

§ § § § § § § § § §

With renovations complete by the spring of 1939, 644 was let to Russian-born endocrinologist Charles A. Lapin of Winnetka, Illinois, as a winter residence for himself and a full-time one for his son Dr. Morey Lapin, his wife, Zelda, and their sons Herbert and Ian. The doctors Lapin were well known in the Chicago area as physicians with consciences: The Chicago Defender had recently cited Morey as "A Friend of Race" for his nondiscriminatory and caring practice of medicine. The Lapins threw a housewarming on May 4—the French windows of the 13-year-old Barnett house could finally be opened without fear. One might wonder if Hancock Park needed just another genteel abode, but then all circuses must end once the star finally misses the net; the Lapins appear to have lived quietly at 644, moving to Beverly Hills in 1945 when the house was sold that August under competitive bidding for $62,550. The new owner was Joseph A. Hirsch, a local plumbing-supply executive. In attempting to flip the property the following April, Hirsch was unable to deliver a clear title, resulting in a lawsuit. The house's title would, in fact, remain in dispute into the '50s, its chain having been lost as Barnett assets passed from one government department to another to, for some reason, the Mission Indian Agency. While a canny lawyer might have been able to sort out the situation, and just such a sharp individual would be moving into 644 before long, it is not known if Al Matthews, chief counsel in the Los Angeles County public defender's office and later hotshot criminal-defense attorney, bought or rented the house when he entered the scene in 1948.

Attorney Al Matthews is seen with two of his most famous clients, Caryl Chessman in 1948
and Barbara Graham in 1954. Both died in the gas chamber at San Quentin for their
separate crimes. Matthews's tenancy on Wilshire Boulevard was brief; it
seems that staid Hancock Park was perhaps not the right fit
for a high-profile lawyer supportive of liberal causes.

A man who would be covered in the press almost as much as Anna Barnett for his dogged representation of unheralded small-bore criminals as well as those who became household names, Alphons L. Barnett had come from a long and broad line of distinguished Dubuque lawyers. In California, his was less of an establishment mindset and one more sympathetic to the rights of the criminal, steadfastly and almost defiantly a defender of civil liberties. His method of sympathizing with clients to argue their cases was on display in his representations of Caryl Chessman and Barbara Graham, the latter association earning him even wider fame as a character (played by Joe De Santis) in 1958's I Want to Live, with Susan Hayward as Graham. Later Matthews would be part of the defense team for Linda Kasabian. In his 1986 obituary, the Times wrote that his "constant fight for the abolition of capital punishment prompted him to lend his name in 1968 to a group seeking clemency for Sirhan Sirhan, convicted assassin of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy.... In 1974, he relinquished his right to practice before the U.S. Supreme Court to protest a ruling by the justices that limited the scope of the 1966 Miranda decision on defendants' rights to counsel." Sailing around town in his sea-green Cadillac convertible, Matthews enjoyed primo Hollywood connections, high and low, through his brother Blayney F. Matthews, chief of security at Warner Bros. and said in his biography to be an expert on industrial sabotage, extortion, and blackmail. Whether Al and his wife and secretary, Emily, owned or rented 644 is unclear, but Wilshire Boulevard proved only a temporarily address and perhaps ill-suited to a big liberal personality who believed in "the free expression of talented artists in the peaceful pursuit of happiness"; in the late '50s, Matthews would champion a seminal if controversial Venice Beach hangout called the Gas House, where, giving proper finger to the '50s, beatniks and artists crashed for a few years, painting, reading poetry, and playing bongos. Matthews would leave 644 for the Hollywood Hills by 1952; lumberman Henry H. Brown and his wife Rose moved in that year.

As seen at right from inside the west gate of Fremont Place on April 21, 1956, during the
tenancy of 
lumberman Henry H. Brown, the 30-year-old Barnett house is part of
 a charming but fading Wilshire Boulevard residential streetscape.

As early as 1932, efforts had been made by some cash-hungry property owners to rezone lots fronting Wilshire Boulevard from residential to commercial, including the corner directly across Rossmore from 644 from which Jackson had often directed traffic. Delayed redevelopment owing to the Depression and war years as well as the resistance of Hancock Park residents likely added a decade to the life of the Barnett house, but after the departure of the Browns, it came down: The Department of Building and Safety issued a demolition permit for it on December 5, 1962. Some reports indicate that an insurance company planned to build on the lot, but commerce came to the corner in a more benign form before any new construction began nearly 20 years later; many Angelenos remember the north Wilshire blockfront between Rossmore and Arden fondly as one long Christmas tree lot during the '60s and '70s. Finally pioneer condominium developer Jonah Goldrich acquired the Barnett corner, graded it, and proposed not a commercial building but an apartment house; this time objections were to density rather than trade. The Park Hancock, still at 4477 Wilshire, became the center of the "Battle for Park Mile" in late 1978. Property-line disputes delayed its construction for over a year, but the Park Hancock's spacious units became popular among neighborhood residents ready to downsize from aging barns but wishing to remain local rather than move to the increasingly more fashionable west side of Los Angeles. While a much less attractive building than the pretty Colonial house once up on its monticule across from Fremont Place, the condominiums there and soon across the street on the site of 4444 Wilshire proved to be a boon to Hancock Park, Windsor Square, and Fremont Place, all looking threadbare by the '80s and facing an uncertain future, as had West Adams before them. Fortunately Park Mile–adjacent districts would prove to have better luck than West Adams, desirable today in the ever, ever denser City of Angels.

SPECIAL NOTE: An excellent, thorough book about the treatment of Native Americans, women, and changing times is The World's Richest Indian (Oxford, 2003), Tanis C. Thorne's story of the Jackson Barnett saga.

The Park Hancock rose on the northeast
corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Rossmore Avenue
nearly 20 years after the Barnett house was demolished.
Above, the complex, begun in 1978, was offered in a Times
advertisement of February 16, 1980; below,
the charmless intersection in 2014