Sunday, August 24, 2014

The Great White Hope

I’m sure that all of us who are old enough to remember films from the 1970’s is familiar with the film The Great White Hope, starring James Earl Jones and Jane Alexander.  This was originally written as a play in 1967 and then adapted for the screen in 1970.  The Great White Hope told a fictional life story of boxing champion Jack Johnson (James Earl Jones).  “Acting as a lens focused on a racist society, The Great White Hope explores how segregation and prejudice created the demand for a ‘great white hope’ who would defeat Johnson and how this, in turn, affected the boxer's life and career” [Wikipedia].  I remember loving the film (I always love a good romance) and watching the relationship between James Earl Jones and Jane Alexander – an African American man and a white woman falling in love was somewhat risqué in 1970.

So what does that have to do with my family history?  Well until recently when I came across a photo, I would have said “not much”.  But there in front of me was an interesting photo with a few clues.

Sig 1910 Ben Lomond

It’s a little hard to see, although I knew that was my grandfather, Sig Levy, on the right.  So, I enlarged it and cropped it a bit.

Sig 1910 Ben Lomond Close up

Hmmm, it still doesn’t tell me much.  I knew my grandfather was active with Raisin Day festivities so this wasn’t too surprising.  I turned the photo over to see if there was anything written on the back and once again, I was disappointed that there was nothing to give me a clue.

Sig 1910 Ben Lomond Back

Wait!  If I looked real closely, turned the photo just right and held it up to the light, I could see something written on the back.  It looked like my grandfather’s handwriting and since it was written in pencil, it was very hard to read.  So I got out my glasses and was able to make out the words:

“Taken when Jeffries was champion of the world.  At Ben Lomond training for the Johnson fight.”

Interesting to be sure but I still didn’t know much more than I had before that.  And then I did what anyone in 2014 would do – I opened google and typed in “Jeffries Ben Lomond world champion” and a new world was opened up to me – the world of James Jackson Jeffries (1875-1953), the boxing heavyweight champion of the world from 1899-1906!  And then I read that he trained in Rowardennan Redwood Park, which was built in 1895 and was at the southern edge of Ben Lomond.  Jeffries had come out of retirement in 1910 in order to fight John Arthur “Jack” Johnson, the African American man who was crowned Heavyweight champion of the world in 1908.  Throughout his boxing career, Jeffries refused to fight Black boxers so this must have been quite a story.

The Great White Hope was the reference to the boxers whom the white people hoped would finally defeat Johnson and the first person to accept the challenge was Jim Jeffries.  By 1910 Jeffries had been retired for 5 years and had ballooned from his fighting weight of about 220 pounds to a whopping 330 pounds.  He chose Ben Lomond as his training site and for three months beginning in April, 1910, Jim Jeffries trained so that he could be back in shape for the fight to be held in Reno on July 4, 1910.

James Jeffries SF Chronicle 13 Jun 1910 page 8
San Francisco Chronicle
June 13, 1910
Page 8

There was much at stake for both Jim Jeffries and Jack Johnson.  Of course, Jack Johnson wanted to defend his crown and Jim Jeffries wanted to be the hero for the white people of the world.  But cash was involved - $65,000 (1.65 million in today’s dollars) was paid to Jack Johnson and $120,000 (3 million today) for Jim Jeffries.  And to the people who wanted to witness the fight in person – the Oakland Tribune reported on June 25 1910 (page 16) that a round trip ticket from Oakland to Reno on Southern Pacific Railroad would set them back $11.15, or about $278.75 in today’s dollars.  But I’m sure the 20,000 people who were in attendance at the ring built just for the occasion didn’t care as they just wanted to be part of history. 

James Jeffries vs Jack Johnson
James Jeffries and Jack Johnson
July 4, 1910
Reno, Nevada
photo by Wikipedia

Jack Johnson won the fight and retained his heavyweight title until 1915 when he lost to Jess Willard, a white boxer.  Johnson died in a car crash near Raleigh, North Carolina on June 10, 1946 after he raced away in anger from a diner that refused to serve him.  He was buried in Graceland Cemetery in Chicago, initially in an unmarked grave.  Jim Jeffries died of a heart attack on March 3, 1953 and is buried in Inglewood Park Cemetery in Inglewood, California.

I’ll never know if my grandfather met Jim Jeffries or if he even saw him train in Boulder Creek in 1910.  But by being there and taking a photo, and more importantly writing on the back of the photo, I’ve learned a lot about The Great White Hope.  Who knew?

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Fun with Sig

Sadly, I don’t have too many memories of my paternal grandfather, Sig Levy, as I wasn’t quite 14 years old when he died.  And as I think about that, it occurred to me that he passed away 46 years ago yesterday, August 16, 1968.  I’ll wait while you do the math…….

What I do remember about Grandpa Sig is that he ‘collected’ little trinkets and had a treasure trove of stuff in the little room off the garage for us to look at and if we were really lucky, he’d send us home with something.  I can just imagine how thrilled my parents were with that but I guess as long as Grandpa was able to get rid of some stuff, he was happy.  And as I go through all of the stuff that has been in storage all these years, I can just imagine how much there must have been because, undoubtedly, the trinkets must have ended up in the trash.

I also remember that Grandpa was a fun-loving guy and everyone seemed to love him.  He was involved in everything possible and I know he passed that on to his son because my dad was the same way.  So how fun for me to come across some pictures that reminds me of how active he was and how much fun he seemed to have.

Apparently Grandpa liked to swim because I ran across this picture of him with his friends.  That’s Sig on the right – how’s that for a stylin’ bathing suit?  The guy in the middle sure looks like Johnny Carson to me.

Sig Beach Bathing Suit

After his death, I was given a couple of Sig’s old tennis racquets and we’ve had them hanging on our wall for about 30 years - I think I need to hang this photo next to the racquets.  Check out the shoes!

Sig Tennis

Too bad this photo is torn because I’d sure like to see the entire photo and, more importantly, be able to read what someone wrote on the back.  It might have given some clues as to what was going on.  That’s Sig on the left in the front.

Sig Center

I’d sure like to know the story behind these.  Looks like they were dressed up for a play for something.

Sig Costume

Sig Costume 1

Sig Costume Bottom Middle

Here’s Sig with Steel Davis, one of Fresno’s most beloved Police Officers.  Besides those words on the back of the photo, I also learned that Mr. Davis assisted with the Raisin Festival Parades.  I did a quick search on for Steel Davis and can see he was born in 1878 and died in 1935 but I don’t see any children or even any family trees – is no one looking for him?  I’d love to connect with a descendant because this photo of him in his uniform is priceless!  And no, he wasn’t a giant – my grandfather was probably only about 5’ 2” tall.

Steel Davis_Sig Levy

I just love this photo and have a larger version hanging in my hallway – I can just imagine Sig whistling on his way to work.

Sig Whistling 1940
Sig Levy - 1940

Grandpa liked the girls!  Here he is with Jack Marvin, test pilot, and Alyse Kaye Moffett, Miss Fresno 1957.

Sig Yesterday and Today 1957
Jack Marvin, Alyse Kaye Moffett, Sig Levy
June 6, 1957 – Fresno Realty Board

What’s everyone looking at?  Whatever it was Grandpa wasn’t too interested.


I’d like to know how tall this guy is.

Sig Levy Bros

Here’s Sig with the ladies again.  At least Grandma was with him this time.

Sig_Loraine Hawaii

I love when I find a description and a date on the back of the photo!

Banquet for Shriners 50 yrs or more Sig Loraine left Wm Burks opposite April 1967
April, 1967
Banquet for Shriners
At this table are members of the Shrine for 50 years or more
In foreground Mr. & Mrs. Sigmund Levy
W. Burks on opposite side of table

And this is how I remember Grandma and Grandpa – him in a suit/tie and her in a dress.  And look at us in our little matching outfits! 

Sig_Loraine_Debi_Cary c 1959

Sunday, August 10, 2014


As I continue to work through the scads (that was my grandmother’s word) of photos I have, I’m reminded of the many times my grandparents, Sig and Loraine Levy, cruised here and there.  I particularly remember their voyages on the S.S. Lurline between San Francisco and Hawaii.  I believe they would travel from Fresno to San Francisco, with a stop in San Jose either before or after their cruise, and from San Francisco would sail to/from Hawaii.  And now I’ve found photos as evidence of their journeys!

Sig_Loraine SS Mariposa Monterey 1959
Sig and Loraine Levy
8 Aug 1959

I can just imagine sailing in the 50’s and 60’s – what a different time.  My grandfather looks so dapper in his tuxedo!  And thanks, Grandpa, for putting the date on the back of this photo! 

No date on this photo but based on the clothing, I’m guessing it was the same voyage.

Loraine_Unknown_Unknown_Sig_Unknown Lurline

Once they arrived in Honolulu, I remember that they always stayed at the Royal Hawaiian, the beautiful pink hotel on Waikiki Beach.  I’m sure back in the day it was about the only game in town – now it’s dwarfed by the other more “hip” hotels. 

Royal Hawaiian
Royal Hawaiian Hotel
photo by cryptic_star

I have found records showing they sailed on the Lurline from San Francisco to Honolulu in April, 1949, August 1951, and August 1956 but I haven’t found any photos that look to be from these trips.  Yet.

1966 seems to have been a big year for cruising.  In June, they sailed on the SS President Wilson but I don’t know where they went.  The photos I have are in ‘jackets’ that show the name of the ship and Hawaii-Japan-Philippines-Hong Kong so I’m guessing they went to one or all of those countries.  There is a little nugget in my brain saying they visited Japan but I can’t be sure.  No matter where they went, they seemed to have had a good time!

My grandmother loved her mink and took it everywhere with her!  I remember when we cleaned out my parents’ house last year finding the mink in the bedroom closet – I’m sure my parents never knew what to do with it.  I don’t want to think about what happened to it in the estate sale.

Loraine_Sig arrive SS President Wilson 1966
Loraine and Sig Levy
May, 1966

I wish I knew who these unidentified people are.  If I could find passenger lists for this voyage, I might recognize some names.  But here’s Grandma with her mink!

Sig_Unknown_Unknown_Loraine SS President Wilson

And some quiet dinners together.

Sig_Loraine SS President Wilson

Loraine_Sig SS President Wilson

But the quiet dinners didn’t last – looks like there was a costume party aboard the ship.

Sig June 1966 SS Pres Wilson

And guess who won the prize for the most original costume?  Thank you, Grandpa, for writing that on the back of this photo!

Sig Beefeater Best Costume June 1966
June, 1966
On board Pres Wilson
Sig won the prize for most original costume

Later that year they were cruising again as they were on board the Lurline on the Hawaii Holiday Cruise December 20, 1966 – December 30, 1966.  This cruise went from San Francisco to Honolulu via Nawiliwili (Kauai), Lahaina, and Hilo.  Look at that – Grandma has on a different mink!

Loraine_Unknown_Unknown_Sig Lurline 1966

Who are these lovely ladies with them?  I thought they might be the Stubblefield sisters, their next door neighbors for years, but I was able to find a passenger list on line and there was no indication that the Stubblefields were on board.  Oh look at that – if you look in the top right hand corner you can see the top of the ship!  Here’s the ship from the back of the photo ‘jacket’.


While I’ve never been on a cruise, I have heard that eating is one of the main events.  Looks like it was a great opportunity for some photos, too!

Unknown_Sig_Loraine_Unknown 1966

I have to laugh that they are sitting in the exact same seats!

Sig_Loraine c 25 Dec 1966 SS Lurline

I don’t know if this was from the same cruise but I do know it was on board the SS Lurline.  Grandpa always did like the ladies!

Sig Lurline

I just love looking at these photos and imagining what their voyages were like.  Thanks for sharing them with me, Grandma and Grandpa!

Sunday, July 27, 2014

She was crafty?

I’ve written a lot about my maternal grandmother, Mildred Loraine Gunzendorfer Levy, most recently here.  One thing I never thought about was my grandmother being crafty because just by looking at her you’d think she was anything but.

My beautiful picture

This photo must have been when she was about 80 years old or so.  I remember that she was always, and I mean always, dressed to the nines and everything was just perfect.  As you can see in this photo, everything matched and she always carried a purse (or as she called it, a bag) to match her shoes which matched her dress.  It was always a dress – I don’t remember ever seeing her dressed in anything other than a dress and most, if not all, of her clothes came from her favorite store, Saks Fifth Avenue.  In later years she had trouble with bunions and rather than wear shoes that were comfortable and enabled her to walk easier with her bunions. she would still buy the best shoes and would take some sort of tool and cut a hole in the shoes right where the bunions were to allow more room.  I still laugh at this perfectly dressed woman with holes in her very expensive shoes!

As we were growing up, I really don’t remember Grandma doing much other than playing bridge.  I’m sure she did other things – shopping and lunch come to mind – but to a young girl it seemed to be all about bridge.  It was nice that she lived nearby my maternal grandmother and, I believe, they often played bridge with the same group of women.  But one thing I never thought about was that she might actually like to do something crafty.

Shortly before she passed away in 1982 and just a few months after her 86th birthday, Grandma gave me two needlepoint projects that she’d made so that I could one day pass them on to my daughters.  Oh sure, I loved them and I proudly displayed them in my home but I really never gave them much thought after that.

She was, obviously, so proud of herself for completing this project that she put a note on the back of each.

What I remember my parents telling me is that she hadn’t really done the entire project by herself but for the life of me I can’t remember the specifics.  She either bought the fabric with the figure already stitched and then she stitched the background…..or vice versa.  But whichever it was she did it and wanted to share it with me.

More than 30 years later as we were cleaning out my mother’s house I found this.

This one has no signature or other identifying information on it but I can only assume that she stitched this at the same time she did the others and gave it to my mom and dad.  And as they tended to do, they stuck it away in a drawer or closet never to be seen again.  Until it was time to clean out the house when it just jumped out at me and whispered “take me home”.  So I did.

And there was another needlepoint project that I’d forgotten about that also came home with me – this beautiful purse that I guessed had belonged to Grandma and then was passed down to my mother.

Thankfully, thankfully, several years before Mom passed away I spent a few days with her and for whatever reason, together we went through the cavernous hall linen closet where she stored all of her handbags and some of her jewelry.  And as we took things out to look at them, Mom would give me a description of the object – where she got it or who had given it to her, the significance, etc.  And because I knew my memory was fading, I decided to take some notes and put them with each object as Mom told me about it.  So guess what I found when I opened up this purse?  In my own handwriting it said:

Handmade by Mildred Loraine Gunzendorfer Levy, approximately 1960.  Purchased material in Vienna, stitched purse, professional put together into purse.

You know, sometimes I really kick myself for not doing something but this time I actually gave myself a pat on the back and a silent thank you because otherwise this treasure might have ended up in the estate sale.

Who knew my grandmother was crafty?

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Benjamin Benas – what I know

Last week I wrote about my great grandmother, Goldie Benas, which piqued my curiosity again about her parents.  And as typically happens, I’ve been off in a million different directions so I need to document what I do know about her father, Benjamin Benas.

Benjamin was born in about 1826 in Posen, Germany.  He may have come to the United States aboard the Stephani which arrived in New York from Hamburg on 21 July 1845.  There was a young 19 year old Mechanic on board by the name of Benjamin Benas but I need to confirm if that was my Benjamin.

California Voter’s Registrations show that he was naturalized in San Francisco County on 6 September 1855.  What took him to California? 

In 1860 Benjamin was living in Vallejo with his brother, Solomon, and in 1865 he was living in San Francisco at 13 Kearny.  By 1870 he was back in Vallejo and had settled down with his wife, Fredericka (or Frances) and three children, Isaac, Goldie, and Max.  In 1868, Benjamin was a charter member of the Naval Chapter, No. 35, R.A.M. (from History of Solano County: comprising an account of its geographical position).  And Voter’s Registrations in 1867, 1876, 1880, and 1886 show him in Vallejo so my hunch is he never left.

Except maybe in 1892 when he died.  His certificate of death shows his date of death was 17 April 1892 and his previous residence was Amador County and that his place of death was Falley’s or Talley’s.  Take a look and let me know what you think it says.

DC Benjamin Benas

Solano County is roughly 80 miles from Amador County – did Benjamin go there to die?  From the death certificate, it looks like he died from an abscess and carcinoma of the intestines – probably not a pleasant way to die.  I hope his family was with him and that he wasn’t away from home and alone.

Based on the age listed on his death certificate (65 years, 3 months, 23 days) his date of birth would have been 25 December, 1826.

The notice in the newspaper doesn’t tell me much.

Benas Benjamin Obit 19 Apr 1892
San Francisco Chronicle
April 19, 1892
Page 10

Benjamin is buried in Hills of Eternity in Colma, California, where his wife Fredericka was later buried with him.

Benas Benjamin Grave
Photo courtesy of Diane Reich

In researching for this blog post, I stumbled across the Solano County Genealogical Society website and found a few things listed that might be of interest – an Index to Property and Owners and Township Lists from 1878 and a Deed Index showing deeds pertaining to Benjamin from 1864 and 1861.  My request and check are in the mail!

What do I need to research in order to learn more about Benjamin:
  • Confirm if the Benjamin Benas who arrived in New York in 1845 was my Benjamin Benas.
  • Obtain naturalization records from San Francisco County from 6 September 1855.
  • Figure out the parents of Benjamin and Solomon Benas – easy, right?
  • Learn more about Naval Chapter, No. 35, R.A.M.
  • Wait – patiently – for information from the Solano County Genealogical Society. 
And that’s what I know.  For now.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Goldie Benas

Goldie Benas was my great grandmother – a woman who never had a chance to get to know some of her grandchildren let alone great grandchildren. 

Goldie, the only daughter of Benjamin Benas and Frdericka Wilzinski, was born December 10, 1864 in Vallejo, California.  Goldie had three brothers – Isaac (1863-1951), Max (1867-1928), and Morris (1872-1929).  I don’t know much about Goldie’s early years, other than that she lived with her family in Vallejo until she married Herman Levy in San Francisco in September, 1883.  The Fresno Republican from September 22, 1883 (page 2) states that the marriage occurred on September 18, 1883 by Rev. Dr. Vidivar and the Oakland Tribune from September 18, 1883 (page 4) states the marriage occurred on September 15, 1883.  I do know that by December 23, 1884 the family was almost certainly living in Fresno when their first child, Herbert Levy, was born.  The next two children, Leon and Sigmund (my grandfather), were born in Vallejo – family interviews said that Goldie went back to Vallejo in the summer of 1886 and 1888 to have her sons in order to escape the hot summers in Fresno.  I’m sure she stayed with her parents as they were still living in Vallejo at the time.  The story of “too hot in Fresno” makes sense as the Fresno Republican reported on June 21, 1884, page 3, that Goldie was spending the summer in San Francisco with Miss Sopha Sachs.  Who was Sopha and why did she accompany Goldie to San Francisco?  Maybe a nurse or housekeeper?

I don’t have many pictures of Goldie but I’ve been able to come up with a few. 

Levy Home 1890
Levy Family Home, built 1887
846 or 946 K Street (later Van Ness Avenue), Fresno

When I enlarged the photo to be able to see the people better, I can see Goldie, Herman, Leon, Herb and Sig standing in front of the house.  I love the bicycles and Sig’s dress!

Levy House Van Ness Avenue Fresno 1890 cropped

Youngest son Benjamin (1892-1965) showed a picture of the family in his autobiography.

Levy Family Leon_Sig_Ben_Herb_Goldie_Herman
Back row:  Leon, Sig, Ben, Herb Levy
Front row:  Goldie Benas Levy and Herman Levy

In 1918, Herman passed away and Goldie was on her own.  In 1910 the family lived at the house shown above – Ben stated in his autobiography that K Street later became Van Ness Avenue.  In 1920, Goldie was living with Leon and Ben at 1509 Van Ness Avenue.

Here’s Goldie with her four grandchildren who were living in about 1922-1923.

Levy Goldie_HerbJr_Hermina_Barbara_Robert
Left to right:  Herb Levy Jr. (son of Herb), Hermina Levy (daughter of Benjamin), Goldie Benas Levy, Barbara Levy (daughter of Herb), Robert Levy (son of Sig), c. 1922-1923

And Goldie by herself. 

Goldie Benas 1922
Goldie Benas Levy
February 22, 1922
Taken at 647 N. Van Ness Avenue, Fresno, California
Based on 1920 census, home of Herb Levy and family

Goldie died January 19, 1926 at Stanford Hospital in San Francisco County from Chronic Myocarditis.  She was just 61 years old and was never able to meet her two additional grandchildren, my father, Gordon Levy, and Benjamin’s youngest daughter, Gilda Levy.  Interesting to note that my mother told me that based on Jewish custom, children were often named with the first letter of their first name matching that of a deceased loved one.  My father and Gilda were both born in 1927, just a year after Goldie’s death, and while I know that Gordon was named with a "G" in Goldie's honor, I would guess Gilda was, as well.

Goldie Benas Obit


Pioneer Fresno Citizen, Active in Community Affairs, Dies, Aged 61

Mrs. Goldie Levy, 61, mother of Herbert, Leon, Sigmund and Benjamin Levy of this city and a resident of Fresno for the last forty-three years, during which she had taken a prominent part in social club and civic affairs, died late yesterday at Stanford University Hospital in San Francisco.  She was the widow of the late Herman Levy.

Funeral services will be held at 1:30 P.M. tomorrow in the Stephens and Bean Chapel, followed by cremation.

The service will be conducted by Fresno Chapter of the Order of Eastern Star and Rabbi Alexander Segel.  The pallbearers will be S.B. Goodman, William Glass, S.L. Platt, Maurice Rorphuro, F. L. Simons and Curtis Ballard.

Mrs. Levy was born at Vallejo, December 10th, 1864.  Her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Benjamin Benas, were pioneers of the state.  She came to Fresno soon after her marriage and lived for twenty five years in the 800 block of Van Ness Avenue.

For several years of late, Mrs. Levy had made her home at 1509 North Van Ness Avenue with her son, Leon Levy.  She belonged to the Order of Eastern Star and the Parlor Lecture Club, taking an active interest in both organizations.  Besides her four sons, she leaves three brothers, Isaac and Max Menas [sic] of San Francisco, and Morris Benas of Oakland, and four grandchildren who live in Fresno.

I wish I knew which paper this obituary was printed in but I have just the clipped article above and haven’t yet located the source.

Goldie is interred with Herman at Chapel of the Light Columbarium in Fresno, California.

Grave Herman Goldie Levy Grave Name Herman Goldie Levy