In July 1897, Lucy Banning Bradbury, a deceptively angelic blonde beauty, sat in a private room at Marchand’s, then the most fashionable restaurant in San Francisco. “Mrs. Bradbury was enjoying a gilt-topped bottle of wine with an old friend who had interested himself in her welfare,” the Los Angeles Times breathlessly reported. “She was dissecting a rose and idly dropping the petals into a half-emptied glass of Champagne, when Officer Coleman of the Society for the Suppression of Vice, knocked on the door.
“‘Well, who is it?’ asked the lady impatiently.
“Coleman entered and briefly told her his business. ‘I have been instructed,’ he said, ‘to ask you to come along with me to the City Hall, and I have a warrant here for your arrest on the charge of adultery.’
“‘Indeed,’ she replied. ‘Well, I am ready at any time. How shall we go?’”
With that, Lucy cheerfully pinned on her flower-topped hat, pulled on her gloves and followed Officer Coleman out the door and onto the front page of every gossip rag in America.
Lucy Tichenor Banning was born on her family’s sprawling plantation in Wilmington on Feb. 11, 1876. She was the second living child born into the second family of Phineas Banning, “the father of the port of Los Angeles,” and his much younger wife, Mary. The Bannings were one of the richest and most influential families in the Southland, and Lucy’s older half-brothers were already taking their places as titans of Gilded Age Los Angeles. An unnaturally beautiful child, she was described as willful, airy and headstrong. “I don't believe Lucy heeded anyone's advice from the day she was born,” her friend Dr. Rebecca Lee Dorsey remembered.
When Lucy was only 9, her father died, and her mother (whose relationship with her Banning stepsons was strained) moved Lucy and her older sister, Mary, to a sprawling mansion on then ultra-luxe Fort Moore Hill. Here, “fairy child” Lucy delved further into a fantasy world, bewitching other children with tall tales in which she was the protagonist. One friend recalled a childhood game where Lucy was asked where she was born. “She perked up her little pink nose and said with the hauteur of a tragedy queen, ‘I was born in Paree.’ And the rest of the little girls and boys stared at her with awe and amazement, and wondered where in tarnation ‘Paree’ was.”
While she wasn’t born there, Lucy would spend a good deal of her childhood in Paris, where her mother took her to be educated. While her sister, Mary, excelled in music, Lucy became an expert horsewoman, and a Frenchwoman in both her morals and her tastes. When she returned to California in her mid-teens, Lucy was the talk of the town, so sophisticated that the boys summering with her on Catalina Island (which was owned by her half-brothers) were afraid to ask her to dance. “It used to be passed about with bated breath,” a reporter for the L.A. Times recalled, “that ‘she’ went in bathing that morning right with all the rest of the crowd, or that ‘she’ went boat riding.”
However, there was one local boy who matched Lucy in both willfulness and wealth. John Bradbury, the handsome, reckless scion of the late mining king Lewis Bradbury, began wooing Lucy, much to the chagrin of his Catholic family, who disapproved of the Bannings’ Protestant faith.
On Dec. 4, 1893, the two eloped, married late at night by a sleepy Oakland preacher whom Bradbury forgot to pay — although he had been fingering a fat roll of bills at the marriage license office. “Mrs. Lucy Banning Bradbury is an accomplished young lady, and she is pretty as a picture,” the San Francisco Chronicle reported. “At the same time, she is by no means lacking in brains. That is the statement made by those who watched her Monday night when she was preparing for the hasty marriage. Bradbury did not have to do any leading to the altar. The bride seemed perfectly self-possessed.”
Interestingly, Lucy’s reputation was still pristine enough that most of the public’s concern about the marriage was for her. “The greatest expression of opinion is one of sympathy with the bride,” a reporter for the Chronicle wrote, “occupied with the hope that she may exert sufficient influence over her husband to cause him to stop sowing wild oats and settle down.”
Los Angeles society’s fears were misplaced. The handsome, popular young couple lived for a time with John’s mother at the famed Bradbury Mansion on Bunker Hill. They then moved to a little “artistic” bungalow lower down the hill. But Lucy was not content playing beautiful society housewife, and her boredom made her restless. While at a party with her husband in Santa Monica, Lucy met a married, middle-aged British polo player named H. Russell Ward. Though he was balding and bespectacled, Lucy was instantly, recklessly smitten. “With all her thoughtfulness and kindness, she had one great weakness — men,” Dr. Dorsey recalled. “To phrase it very delicately, she was man-crazy.”
In 1897, Lucy and Ward ran off to San Francisco, where they checked into the Fairmont Hotel as “J.M. Willis and wife, Nevada.” Their elopement had already hit the papers, and the landlady soon kicked them out of the hotel. While Ward was off seeking new lodging, Lucy met a friend at Marchand’s, where she was arrested. Reporters followed her to City Hall, where they eagerly observed the scandal unfolding before them:
The beautiful young wife of the Los Angeles millionaire stood up side by side with a decrepit old harridan of the city’s slums, and patiently waited her turn to be searched and entered on the books on the charge of felony, but she only smiled and spoke languidly in her aristocratic drawl as she surveyed her surroundings and watched the police at work.
Lucy seemed to take it all in stride. “This is a funny business all around, isn’t it?” she asked, laughing. “It is a novel experience for me to be in jail, but I feel quite comfortable. Not exactly at home, don’t you know, but quite easy and almost contented. What difference does it make, anyway? It’s all in a lifetime, isn’t it? Being in jail doesn’t count for much after one is dead and buried.”
Ward was booked soon after Lucy. He was held in jail, but she was released. “It is true that I had a beautiful home, that jewels were showered upon me,” she freely told shocked Victorian reporters. “But all these did not satisfy me. 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.”
But the romance was not to last. Lucy’s mother quickly arrived in San Francisco, and the family lawyers went to work. Lucy was conveniently “taken ill” and sent to bed. Charges were dropped once she promised never to see Ward — still languishing in jail — again. “I am thoroughly repentant and feel deeply grateful to the society that had me arrested for stepping in as it did,” she said in a statement. “I can see now where that man Ward would have led me if I had continued to stay with him, and am happy to think that I am now out of his clutches.”
Days later, a calm, impassive Lucy and a trembling, quivering John, who had agreed to take her back, were reunited at a Chicago train station in front of a gaggle of reporters. The Bradburys were then followed to New York, where they sped off in a carriage to an undisclosed location. Lucy seems to have loved the attention. According to The New York Times:
When she got into the carriage she threw back her veil, and then the crowd had an opportunity to gaze upon her features. They saw a really beautiful woman, with a smiling countenance that showed no sign of sorrow or intense contrition. She smiled on the crowd benignantly and when the carriage drove out she partly turned her face as if to see what impression she had made on the crowd of curiosity seekers.
Things didn’t go so smoothly for Lucy’s spurned lover. In September 1897, while the reunited Bradburys toured Europe, a shattered H. Russell Ward was finally cleared of any charges and headed east from San Francisco. Consistently inebriated, he brandished a gun on the train and sent copious telegrams to both friends and authorities. One of these telegrams instructed police to search for a body on the tracks. His broken body was found on the tracks in Wheatland, Iowa. He had jumped from the train to his death.
After their extensive European tour, the now-infamous Bradburys settled back down on Bunker Hill. Well, they didn’t really settle down — they turned up. A novel was written based on Lucy’s escapades titled She Called It Romance. The couple’s exploits were scandalous in staid, straitlaced Los Angeles. According to the L.A. Times, “stories and stories and stories” were written about their nocturnal adventures; one rumor alleged a foursome with another married couple.
After a long separation, Lucy finally divorced John in 1902. “Society will have one more installment of its most delicious recreation-abusing poor, unhappy Lucy Bradbury,” the L.A. Times intoned at the time. “She has been torn to shreds long ere this, but they’ve a keen appetite yet. And after all, she is only a silly, silly young girl.” The name of said article? “The Story of a Beautiful Ruin.”
“Ruined” or not, rumors were soon buzzing about Lucy’s next beau. Greeted with the news that she was engaged to her on-again, off-again boyfriend, the equally wealthy Charles Hastings, she scoffed: “What is the latest? Who is the latest man selected for me? Absurd! Simply absurd!”
In fact, Lucy already had her eye on her next husband. Mace Greenleaf was a dashing actor whom she and her mother had been watching every night for weeks at the Main-Street Playhouse in Burbank. The two were soon married, and Lucy became fascinated with the theater, even contemplating a turn as a vaudeville performer. But she grew bored, and in 1911 she ran off again, this time to Tijuana with her childhood friend Robert Ross. Robert, a journalist, was the son of prominent federal court judge Erskine Ross.
Greenleaf began divorce proceedings on the grounds of desertion, only to die before the divorce was final. Robert and Lucy married. “I'm through experimenting,” Lucy declared resolutely. “I'm prepared to settle down.”
The Rosses sailed off to Japan, where they lived for a number of years. They then returned to Los Angeles and moved into a stately home at 503 Commonwealth Ave.
It was now the Jazz Age, and society had changed. The smart set welcomed Mrs. Ross back into its fold. Lucy, often loaded down with jewels from her priceless collection, was just too fun and lovable to resist. She “was kind and generous,” Dr. Dorsey recalled, “and I never heard her say an unkind word about any person.” She also was beloved by her long-term staff. “Aside from being a dear friend, she was the finest and noblest of women,” Mrs. J.V. Welch wrote. “I worked for her for years. She made it possible for me to put my daughter through college.”
Lucy still had one big scandal left in her. In 1925, she went to a wrestling match at Olympic Auditorium. In the ring was the handsome jiu-jitsu fighter Setsuzo Ota. Lucy was enraptured. Historian Cecilia Rasmussen writes, “Witnesses said Banning tossed her evening bag into the ring at Ota; her calling card was inside, along with an invitation to dine with her and her husband at their home.”
Soon she was seeing the much younger Ota alone. The two began having an affair, and Lucy separated from Ross. As soon as the divorce was finalized, Lucy appeared at Ota’s door. “She took my shirts, ties, everything out of the closet and dresser, put them in a suitcase, closed it, and said: 'We go now,'” he recalled.
Since interracial marriage was banned in California, the couple married in Seattle in January 1928. The marriage was an enormous scandal, and a total shock to Lucy’s society friends and family, many of whom shunned her once more. Lucy was uninterested in their opinions, and married Setsuzo even though it meant she lost her U.S. citizenship. “I think our people are too narrow-minded,” she scoffed. Besides, her new husband was “a Japanese gentleman, a graduate of the Imperial University of Tokyo.”
In March, the Otas set off on an extensive honeymoon to Europe. It was said that Lucy’s jewels were so valuable, no company was willing to insure them for the trans-Atlantic voyage. Once in Europe, she visited with her sister, Mary, who had long lived in Paris. In Venice, she wrote a postcard to her good friend Dr. Dorsey:
“I am in this dreamland city. It and everything with us is so restful and so peaceful. Everything is so lovely and so delightful and we wish that you were with us.”
A few days later, just after her 53rd birthday, Lucy fell ill in Florence. She was diagnosed with pneumonia. She seemed to rally after a few days, only to worsen. Mary rushed from Paris to be with her. She and Ota were by Lucy's side when she died on Feb. 20, 1929. According to Ota, Lucy's last words were: “I'll get criticized for this, too.”
Lucy’s body was brought home to Los Angeles. Her family was shocked to discover that she had left almost her entire estate to her husband. “Her beauty was her ruin,” her socially prominent, proper sister-in-law Katherine Banning bemoaned. “She injured only those who loved her most!” After a long court battle, Ota received only a small portion of what was owed to him. But true to Lucy’s man-crazy judgment, he turned out to be a questionable character. He allegedly became involved with the L.A. underworld and was convicted of kidnapping in 1940.
Today, Lucy Banning Bradbury Greenleaf Ross Ota lies in Angelus Rosedale Cemetery. Finally, at rest, she is probably bored as hell.