L.A. Then and Now / Cecilia Rasmussen : Librarian Became an Institution

When 18-year-old high school graduate Mary Emily Foy became Los Angeles’ first female full-time librarian, she saw the public library as more than a warehouse for books. She envisioned a living institution of learning for the entire community, a palace of beauty for a temple of wisdom.

Instead, the feisty, outspoken feminist who had a passion for education got three dark rooms over a saloon, on the site where the federal courthouse now stands at Los Angeles and Temple streets. She also got three months’ free rent and a gaggle of drunks who used her brains to settle their bets.

Almost 120 years later, her portrait hangs in the Central Library’s rare books room as a tribute to her achievements. The library system today is arguably one of the finest in the nation.


Throughout the nearly 100 years of her life, she not only helped to fill the city with books, but also focused her energy on teaching, championing women’s suffrage, spearheading library bond issues, organizing clubs and preserving historical landmarks.

Foy, who never married, later turned her attention to local politics and ran for trustee of the Annandale School District. Although she lost by a single vote to a cement wagon driver and would lose again in a congressional race, she never gave up. At age 95, in 1957, she was honored by her party as California’s Democratic Woman of the Year.

But it was this remarkably assertive and independent-minded woman’s love for learning that truly put the Los Angeles Public Library on the map.

About a decade after she was born in 1862, the Foy family moved to its new residence, a stately Victorian at 7th and Grasshopper, now Figueroa Street. (The Foy home was moved to Witmer Street in 1920 and designated a historic structure before it was moved again to a grassy hillside on Carroll Avenue in Angelino Heights.)

In 1872, the Los Angeles Library Assn. was formed by some 200 leading citizens. It had white, Latino, Catholic, Protestant and Jewish members, a rather dramatic diversity for its time.

By 1880, a year after Foy graduated from Los Angeles High School, the city found itself without a librarian. The first one had been dismissed for offending some readers by smoking abominable-smelling jimson weed to ward off his asthma attacks, and the second for taking a greater interest in whiskey than in books. Foy, who neither drank nor smoked, applied for the job.

She called on each of the all-male City Council’s 15 members, soliciting their votes.

After winning the appointment, she quickly set up a catalog system, reorganized the bookkeeping, hosted the Ladies Reading Room, served as referee for ongoing chess games in the Newspaper Room, and settled bets made by downstairs saloon patrons on such questions as, “Who wrote Webster’s dictionary: Noah or Daniel?” (It was Noah.)

Once, she bent the rules for soon-to-be water czar William Mulholland, letting him check out a reference book to help him in his job with the Los Angeles Water Co.

Despite her achievements, she was not reappointed in 1884. The City Council decided that another woman needed her salary.

Never lacking courage or determination, Foy prepared herself for a new career in teaching, graduating in 1885 from the state Normal School in Los Angeles (where the Central Library stands today).

After a few years as a teacher and elementary school principal, and before joining the English department at Los Angeles High School, Foy took a gamble and took advantage of the city’s real estate boom.

Legally barred from voting, let alone getting a bank loan, she helped to found the city’s first all-female investment company: Ladies Adams Street Syndicate. Pooling their resources, a group of women bought 20 lots near Adams Boulevard and San Pedro Street for development. But more than a decade later, after losing money, they dissolved the corporation. Foy summed up her venture: “No good.”

After the turn of the century, when St. Paul’s Cathedral on Olive Street (where the Biltmore now stands) caught fire, police and firefighters ran around chaotically until Foy, a member of the church, arrived.

Mounting the steps to take command, she sent firefighters scrambling up ladders and ordered cops to handle trolley car gridlock. As the fire crackled, she marched inside, followed by a group of frightened looky-loos she had bullied into helping her save cherished relics.

In 1911 Foy was studying law at USC, but she abandoned that and instead tirelessly began promoting women’s suffrage with give-'em-hell stump speeches throughout the state. “It is absurd,” she declared, “to anticipate that women will be less womanly, or men less gallant, because the women may devote five minutes out of every year or every two years at the polls.”

By a statewide margin of 3,587 votes in 1911--about one vote per precinct-- California became the sixth state to give women the vote.

Foy was clearly a fighter, and an irreverent one at that.

In 1920--the year of bathtub gin and the Charleston--progressive Republican Hiram W. Johnson, who had swept in as governor nine years earlier on the promise of reform, was running for president.

Johnson’s suggestion in one speech that women should be grateful to him for passage of a suffrage amendment in California brought an outcry from Foy.

“We are under no political obligation to Johnson, but very much the contrary . . . he absolutely ignored the burning, paramount questions of women’s votes. . . . In his inaugural speech, suffrage was impudently ignored,” Foy responded.

After suffrage, she campaigned feverishly in 1921 for a bond issue to build a central library. It succeeded thanks to campaign slogans like “Grow up Los Angeles! Own your own public library and take your place with progressive cities!"--and thanks to Foy.

In 1934, by then white-haired and rosy-cheeked, the indomitable Foy ran for Congress in the 15th District. The only woman among 11 Democrats, she finished fourth.

Foy founded the First Century Families in 1939, a group that continues today to work diligently at preserving the history of the city’s first movers and shakers.

She taught herself to type in her 90s, and spent three hours each day composing essays on early L.A. history for a writing course.

When Foy died in February 1962 at 99, the public viewing was held in the City Hall rotunda, a privilege bestowed on only a few of the city’s elite, including Mulholland, Police Chief William Parker and ex-Mayor Tom Bradley.

As an honor guard from the California Parlor of the Native Daughters of the Golden West stood by, the 80-voice Los Angeles High School a cappella choir performed.

On what would have been Foy’s 100th birthday, July 13, 1962, 36 years after the Central Library opened, the library dedicated the Mary E. Foy California Room (now the children’s reading room) in memory of the woman who remains a city icon, like the institution she helped create.