DNA tests could force a rewrite of city’s history book
For more than 20 years, I’ve been writing about local history, and never once has Southern California let me down. I’ve found no shortage of tycoons and beggars, dreamy spiritualists, mad-eyed killers. This 227-year-old city has had a few angels, but it’s the others who often make for the most fascinating storytelling. The housewife from Milwaukee who in the 1920s lived in a house above Sunset Boulevard -- secretly keeping her lover in the attic for a decade until he came downstairs to murder her husband. The religious cult that called itself the Divine Order of the Royal Arms of the Great Eleven and used sex, religion and animal sacrifices to separate believers from their money. The 18-year-old who in the 1880s fatally shot her boyfriend in the eye and was acquitted after her lawyers called her a victim of “menstrual madness.”
I’ve written about cowboys and swindlers and crazy inventors, about a one-eyed Swiss watchmaker and a silent screen star who broke into film at age 75, after real-life dramatic experience as a Civil War spy.
To get those stories, I’ve had to do quite a bit of sleuthing -- trekking through mountains, visiting crumbling mansions and knocking the dust off ancient court files.
But in all the years, I’ve never gone to quite the lengths I had to for this, my final Then and Now column.
There was no way around it. To be sure this story was true, I needed DNA tests. But I’m jumping ahead of myself. Maybe I should start at the beginning.
An unlikely affair
If you live in or work in or ever pass through Glendale, you no doubt have seen signs that say Brand. It’s the name of the library, the biggest park and the boulevard that cuts right through the center of town.
The Brand in question is Leslie Coombs Brand, known as L.C., who is called the “Father of Glendale.” And there are any number of stories I might have written about him. I could have written about his land deals or El Miradero, his 5,000-square-foot Moorish residence. I could have described his relentless boosterism -- how he took out full-page newspaper ads asking, “Have you been to Glendale?” I could have focused on his private airstrip, where such guests as Cecil B. DeMille landed to attend Brand’s fashionable fly-in parties in the 1920s.
It was the airstrip that I was focused on when a Glendale writer-historian gave me the name of Judy Brand, who had written a biography of L.C. Brand, her husband’s great-uncle.
I thought she would be able to give me the guest lists for his parties, but instead she served up something much more delicious.
She told me she had rewritten the story to include the possibility of a previously hidden part of Brand’s life. Two of her friends had spilled the beans about it one night over drinks.
Brand, who in official histories had one wife, three dogs and no children, may at the same time have had another wife and two sons. One of Judy Brand’s friends knew the supposed other woman as “Aunt Birdie.”
“Let me tell you, I was flabbergasted,” said Judy Brand, who is now 65 and living in Denver.
Brand was even more surprised when her friends recalled Birdie Esther Carpenter Gordon as a gray-haired, frumpy widow who lived modestly. She’d seemed so, well, average -- how could she have had an affair, and with such a prominent man?
When she first heard the story in the 1990s, Judy Brand was still married to Leslie Carlton Brand, who refused to believe it.
But she was intrigued. She had solid leads -- names, faces, real people. But could the story be true? Could she prove it?
A double life?
By the time Judy and I started talking, she’d already interviewed nearly a dozen family members and friends. She had found out the names of Birdie’s sons, Lee and Jack Gordon, and tracked down Lee in Australia. Lee wrote to Judy that he had been told by his mother that L.C. Brand was his father. “My mother was Birdie Esther Carpenter, born in what is now Sun Valley, Idaho. She was ‘a beautiful lady’ who won a Miss Nevada contest. Possibly this is where she met Leslie Brand,” he wrote.
“Possibly” didn’t meet Judy’s standards. Lee put her in contact with his son Ken, the family historian.
Ken said he’d been told that Brand met Birdie on a train from Oregon to Los Angeles, gave her a job and sent her to secretarial school. When they met, Birdie was in her 20s, Brand in his 50s.
Judy asked if the Gordons resented not carrying the Brand name, but Lee reassured her.
Brand “did not leave a damsel in distress, as Mission Land Co. sold my mother property at Rinaldi Street and Laurel Canyon Boulevard for $10,” he wrote to her. Brand ran the San Fernando Mission Land Co.
Lee said that his mother lived on that land as Mrs. Lee Gordon, a name Brand “picked out of the phone book,” and that Brand provided for the family.
Lee told Judy that he knew about his father’s official wife, Mary Louise, who is buried next to him in Brand Cemetery behind Brand Park.
But when Birdie became pregnant, Lee wrote, Brand, “being a right guy . . . married my mother in Tijuana, Mexico, although he already had a wife in the U.S. I assume at that time of the century it was better to be a bigamist than bring a bastard into the world.”
Lee was born June 8, 1922. Jack arrived 18 months later. Lee said the second pregnancy infuriated Brand, who accused Birdie of infidelity. But Lee told Judy that such suspicions were “hogwash,” and that he and his brother often were mistaken for twins.
The Gordon family sent Judy Brand a variety of memorabilia, including a copy of Birdie’s deed for the property on Rinaldi Street and photos of Brand, Birdie and friends clearly taken at Brand’s Mono Lake retreat.
With such evidence in hand, Judy Brand felt sure enough to update her biography of Brand and to donate it to the Brand Library and Art Center.
But L.C. Brand’s official reputation remained pristine. The city released a video about him last year without mentioning the Gordons or any hint of infidelity.
“Oh yes, we’ve heard those rumors,” writer and documentarian Juliet Arroyo said. “But we could never prove them.”
‘Mythtress’ or more?
I, too, wondered about definitive proof, so I called Paula Hinkel of the Southern California Genealogical Society. “Infidelity,” she told me, “wasn’t limited to the wealthy, or any certain ethnicity or age or group of people.” She said DNA is the gold standard for proving paternity and cautioned, “without proof, there is no truth, only myth -- making Birdie his mythtress.”
My editors demanded more than myth.
I told Judy Brand the newspaper would foot the bill. The question was, who would we test?
The major players in the drama were long dead.
Brand died of prostate cancer in 1925, at 65. His wife, Mary Louise, died in 1945. Birdie died in 1954, after selling her land and moving into a duplex on Brand Boulevard in San Fernando.
By the time we decided to test, Jack, Lee and Ken Gordon had died too. So had Judy Brand’s ex-husband. We would have to resort to more distant relatives.
I contacted Bennett Greenspan, president of Texas-based Family Tree DNA, whose company provided genetic testing for a massive project to trace the migratory history of the human race. He said he was confident he’d be able to find the truth.
“So far, we’ve tested over 335,000 DNA samples from the general public worldwide,” he said. “We use the Y chromosome that only rarely changes from generation to generation.”
Judy Brand’s son, Carlton, agreed to provide a sample -- a swab of cells from inside his cheek. But the drama of the moment escaped him. “I pretty much did it for my mom,” he said. “I felt nothing.”
Mike Gordon, Jack’s son, also provided a cheek swab.
This test, we hoped, would resolve another question too: whether Brand had fathered Jack, which he had denied.
Greenspan compared the samples to one another and to his broad database. While DNA testing at this degree of separation could never be considered definitive, he called the results “clear and unambiguous”:
“The Gordons and Brands are close cousins who share the same Scottish ancestor.”
L.C. Brand was of Scottish descent.
The DNA samples, Greenspan said, “are as close as I am to my brother.”
The results quickly made their way to surviving relatives.
Even without the DNA, Lee’s daughter, Cherie Gordon, had no doubt about the family history.
“When I walked into the Brand Library a few years ago and saw this portrait of Leslie Brand, it was like a rubber stamp of my father,” she said.
It wasn’t just their faces that looked so similar. L.C. Brand stood 5 feet tall; Lee, 5 foot 2; and Jack, 5 foot 3.
Cherie, who lives in Valley Springs, Calif., had been nervous about publicizing her father’s likely connection to L.C. Brand. She said she sometimes wondered if she was infringing on her ancestors’ privacy. “I don’t think L.C. or Birdie would have wanted their connubial relationship printed in a newspaper. Perhaps it is something they took to their graves.”
But once the DNA results were in, her misgivings evaporated. “Yesss! I knew it!” she exclaimed.
Judy Brand also feels triumphant.
When I told her the news, she said, “I told you so.”
For me, it was just more proof of something I’ve learned over the years. Scratch the surface of almost any Los Angeles story, and you’re bound to find another and another and another.
L.A. Then and Now
Cecilia Rasmussen is retiring, but the L.A. Then and Now column will continue. To read some of Rasmussen’s favorite columns or to comment on this article, go to latimes.com/ cecilia. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
L.A. Then and Now will return to the Sunday California section at the beginning of May. Readers wanting a Southern California history fix during this hiatus can check out The Daily Mirror, The Times’ blog focusing on the region’s colorful past written by Larry Harnisch.