A possible romance led to lawsuit, death

Times Staff Writer

The San Fernando Valley's Lankershim family is immortalized by the seven-mile boulevard that bears its name, along with a school and a historic downtown Los Angeles building, among other namesakes.

But there is a scandalous side to the family's story, a possible May-December romance and a promise of money that led to a five-year court battle and a suicide.

The tale involves James Boon Lankershim, the son of family patriarch Isaac Lankershim, a German immigrant who made his farming fortune in Northern California before purchasing large chunks of land in the 1860s in Southern California and eventually moving his family to the San Fernando Valley to add to and develop his real estate holdings.

Isaac Lankershim had been especially impressed with the wild oats-filled former ranch lands of the San Fernando Mission, which he saw during a stagecoach tour of the area in 1869. That same year, from his home in San Francisco, he gathered a group of investors and purchased 60,000 acres of former mission land for $115,000.

He named the company San Fernando Farm Homestead Assn., later renamed the Los Angeles Farm and Milling Co.

Soon, his grown son James and son-in-law Isaac Van Nuys joined the consortium, which at one time managed the largest wheat farming empire in the world. The company shipped wheat to England, and built a flour mill at Commercial and Alameda streets in Los Angeles. Before long, Van Nuys took over the wheat operations and James Lankershim focused on the real estate holdings.

In 1881, James, then 31, married Carrie Adelaide Jones. With the death of Isaac Lankershim the following year, the family began branching out into banking and real estate development. The Lankershims had two children, Jack and Doria.

In 1885, James Lankershim organized a cavalry unit in the California National Guard, Troop D, for which he was given the rank of lieutenant colonel, according to Times stories.

Three years later, Lankershim and the syndicate subdivided 12,000 acres from today's Whitsett Avenue east to the Burbank city boundary and laid out a town called Toluca, which was renamed Lankershim in 1896.

The town and area farms were annexed by L.A. in 1915 and renamed North Hollywood in 1927.

But apparently all was not well between James and Carrie Lankershim. Sometime around 1900, Carrie Lankershim moved to Paris with the couple's then-teenage daughter. Although Lankershim visited there often, the couple did not live together again except for a brief period when Carrie Lankershim returned home during World War I. She left again in 1919 and died in Paris in 1928, documents show.

With his wife in Paris, Lankershim busied himself by putting up buildings in downtown Los Angeles, including a namesake hotel at 7th Street and Broadway -- now a parking structure -- and the imposing eight-story San Fernando Building at 4th and Main streets, then the center of the banking district. He set up headquarters in the penthouse of the building, which was restored recently as part of the booming downtown residential loft movement.

"His name is embedded in the terrazzo tiles at the entrance to the building," said owner Tom Gilmore, who also established a popular restaurant, Pete's Cafe, on the ground floor.

In the 1920s, as Lankershim's eyesight and overall health began to fail, he moved into the Biltmore Hotel and handed over some of the business operations to son Jack, leaving more time for travel and new friendships.

One of those was with Irene Herbert, a nurse, who was introduced to Lankershim in 1924 by stage and silent film actress Adele Blood Hope. Lankershim was 73, Herbert, 35. Although both were married, they began spending lots of time together.

She accompanied him to movies and the opera and drove on rides in his car. She prepared special meals, including his favorite -- succotash and "unwrinkled prunes."

She read to him, mended his socks, groomed him and gave him his medication. She also protected him from "designing young ladies" when they traveled to Canada, New York and Palm Springs, according to court documents and Times stories.

But Lankershim's family was increasingly uneasy about the relationship and, in 1927, decided the old man should have a male nurse for "appearance's sake," according to an account in the Times.

Herbert was dismissed. Although she had not received a salary, Lankershim had covered all her living and entertainment expenses, including the rent on her Bunker Hill apartment.

Lankershim wanted to reward her for four years of companionship, so he allegedly dictated and signed a promissory note to her, payable one month after his death by "my estate or my trust fund for her loving kindness and protection."

Lankershim died Oct. 16, 1931, at age 81 in New York while returning from a visit to his daughter in Paris. He left the bulk of his $7-million estate to his family, but when Herbert came forward with the promissory note -- for $500,000 -- it touched off a long and acrimonious court battle.

First, the family accused her of altering the amount, which they claimed was for just $500. She sued the Lankershim estate for the larger amount.

A jury in 1933 sided with Herbert and awarded her the full amount -- equivalent to $6.9 million today -- plus 7% interest. Lankershim's two grown children took their case to the state Supreme Court, which in 1937 overturned the award and ordered a new trial.

The court noted that "when a person in trust benefited from a transaction, the transaction had to be viewed with the most scrutinizing jealousy." The court further noted that the document was flawed, and that Herbert had used "undue influence" on Lankershim.

The Lankershims offered Herbert $100,000 to settle the case and not go through another trial. She accepted, although the amount barely covered her legal fees, news accounts indicate.

It proved to be a disastrous decision for Herbert, who, long estranged from her husband, found she no longer could get work as a nurse.

"No one would hire her because of all the bad publicity," said Maria Avila, now 94, who had been a caretaker at the Lankershim ranch for more than 20 years and knew the family well.

In 1939, Herbert, then 50, climbed into the trunk of her new car and fatally shot herself in the head. She left a note on the steering wheel:

"I am leaving the world with a broken heart through criticism instead of human kindness."

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cecilia.rasmussen@latimes.com

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