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Bakersfield's Princess Nellie
By: George Gilbert Lynch

Topics: history, princess nellie, caliente, Eleanor Calhoun
Posted by citizenjournalist Fri May 4, 2007 14:00:14 PDT
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From living in a dirt floor cabin near Caliente California, Eleanor Hulda Calhoun became a world famous star of the theater and a Princess in The Kingdom of Serbia.

It sounds a lot like the modern story of actress Grace Kelly who became the Princess of Monaco after she married Prince Rainier but the story of Princess Nellie took place over a hundred years ago..

Arthur S. Crites, a prominent Bakersfield banker, describing his boyhood life near Tehachapi California, wrote about Eleanor Calhoun and her family in the early years, around 1866. Attorney Ezekiel Ewing Calhoun, Eleanor's father, a descendant of our seventh President John C. Calhoun, migrated from Kentucky to California in about 1853, finally settling near Visalia in 1855 where he was elected to a judgeship in Tulare County. In 1855 he married Laura Annice Davis, who was born in Arkansas.
Their first child, Eleanor Hulda Calhoun, was born in 1857, that year they moved to the mining town of Havilah where Ezekiel set up a law practice. In 1866 he was elected district attorney of the newly created Kern County whose county seat was in Havilah at that time . On his $1000 yearly salary as DA plus his attorney practice income, they lived well and two additional daughters were born to their family.

EE Calhoun served as DA from July 12 1866 till Feb. 20 1868 when he was replaced by Attorney Thomas Laspeyre. Attorney Calhoun was also chairman of the Kern County Democratic party at this time and he relocated to San Francisco to start a political career. He later returned to Bakersfield where over the decade he was elected to several county government positions, surveyor, supt. of schools and County auditor. According to newspaper reports from that era, sadly, he declined into drink and moved North to Coarsegold California.

In 1870, Laura Calhoun and her three daughters were still living in this dirt floor dwelling, located about five miles West of Caliente on the old Bakersfield to Tehachapi Highway. Eleanor, "Nellie" as she was known then, lived in the cabin with her mother and two younger sisters, Jessie and Virginia. Angus Crites, the Calhoun's neighbor, tells of the three sisters subsisting, at times, solely upon food they were given from his sheep camps, which were scattered over the surrounding foothills. Neighbors were always ready to help people in need back then and the Calhouns never went hungry or without firewood for warmth and cooking. In the Spring of 2004, I searched the area near Caliente Ca. and found, "Calhoun's Valley", as it was called by Nellie in her childhood. Nothing remains after 130 years except a pile of stones.

Mrs. A. M. Crites began teaching the one room school at Old Town Tehachapi in April 1867. Nellie and her two younger sisters were among her pupils. I can imagine going to school, riding a horse or mule, or at times hitching a ride on a wagon with neighbors. The cold foggy, rainy mornings must have been miserable, and the distance was many miles . Those kids really wanted to learn the three R's and appreciated the opportunity to attend. Teacher Crites had only a few McGuffey readers and they were almost the sole books used in class. Because of the lack of books most teaching was done by reading and dramatizing to the pupils. At the age of twelve Nellie was a brilliant student with a fine voice so Mrs. Crites first taught her to read, she then assigned Nellie to teach other kids to read. This must have been the beginning of Nellies education in English and drama that eventually led the the grand theater stages of the world.

Sometime in 1871, Mrs. Calhoun and her three daughters left the mountain settlement and took up residence near San Francisco where the three sisters were befriended by Mrs. Phoebe Hearst after her attorney, Lloyd Tevis, informed her of the girls outstanding intelligence and acting talents. Mrs. Hearst was the wife of George Hearst the famous mining millionaire. Phoebe Hearst was a great teacher and pioneered many schools and teaching methods, among them, founding the first three kindergartens in America and forming the first PTA. She funded the Calhoun sisters education at The State Normal School in San Jose when it opened in 1871, Nellie was 14 at the time. This afforded Nellie and her sisters a complete education in theater and drama. She loved Nellie as a daughter, which she never had. Phoebe Hearst did have an only son, William Randolph Hearst who at that time was a recent Harvard dropout or to be accurate, a kick--out. His mother had tried in many ways to force higher education upon him but to no avail. Booze, spending money and wild girls were his style and he wanted "To Do It His Way", but Phoebe managed her husbands millions, mother held the purse strings and arranged young William's life to her liking. He tried to finish studies at Harvard but the dean would not allow him to return, citing William as a distraction to other students.

"Willie", as his mom called him, was introduced to Nellie Calhoun in New York by his mother in 1881. Willie courted Eleanor five years and for the first time in his life he really loved someone and it was the lovely, talented Nellie he wanted to wed. They became engaged but Phoebe Hearst didn't want Willie to marry a woman who was seven years his elder and devoting her life to the theater , in fact she didn't want him to marry any woman so she labeled any girl attracted to him, a gold digger. In 1887, after Nellies engagement was publicly announced, Phoebe devised a plan to torpedo the marriage. She informed Willie his income and inheritance would be cut off if he married anyone without her approval , she then enlisted the family attorney, Lloyd Tevis, to inform Nellie of the fact that Willie could not support her in marriage because he would be disinherited from the families money if he married without their approval. Nellie was assured the Hearst's would financially support her studies and acting career, "in Europe". Nellie and her mother Laura knew Phobe Hearst would prevail in her crusade so they made a choice to sail for Europe and break all ties with the Hearst family.

Phoebe Hearst had bargained with her son Willie,"if you'll terminate your engagement to Nellie, I'll give you The San Francisco Examiner newspaper as a gift"! What a way to start a business career, trading his first love for a newspaper. Poor Nellie must have been heartbroken and at the same time totally disgusted with him for using her as barter. His father, George Hearst, had won the newspaper in a poker game and used it as a political tool to get elected as a U S Senator from California. The newspaper was failing and near death so mother Hearst encouraged Willie to take it over and bring it back to life. Not marrying Willie was probably the best thing that could have happened to Eleanor Calhoun because no one could have been happy, attached to William Randolph Hearst, "The Chief", as he was called by his friends and enemies..
The movie."Citizen Kane', was a take off on the life of Hearst and illustrates how his life progressed thereafter. In the movie, the controversial name, "Rosebud", the last word spoken by the dying Kane, ( Hearst), has had dozens of interpretations attached to it, from a wooden snow sled to his Hollywood girlfriends. I have a better solution. I like to think of Rosebud as being the budding actress which was his first true love, Eleanor Calhoun, who after being traded for a newspaper by Willie, went forward into a fantastic life as an international stage star and princess in a Royal Family, living in a castle not unlike the castle Hearst built at San Simeon. Was she the Flower he once held, but bartered away, and all his fortune and power could not buy it back?

Eleanor Calhoun performed on the Shakespearean stage in America and eventually became a headliner in Europe. One English theater critic classed her above Lillie Langtree after she appeared as Portia in "The Merchant of Venice" at the Comedy Theater in London. Nellie even learned and mastered the French language so she could perform in Paris theatres. It was while in London in 1903 that she met and fell in love with the Serbian Prince Eugene Lazarovich and later as they were approaching their marriage day, Prince Lazarovich's Royal family was assinated in Belgrade. The next day they were married, not in the Serbian Palace but in St. Margaret's Westminster Church in London to insure their safety. Little Nellie Calhoun then became Princess Eleanor Lazarovich Hrebelianovich of Serbia. Prince Lazarovich was a widower, his wife having died in childbirth the previous year. His three children, two small boys and a beautiful year old daughter were loved by Nellie as if they were her own. In her lifetime she authored three books: The Serbian People, 1910; Pleasures and Palaces,1915; and The Play, 1926.

While rehearsing a Shakespearean play in France Eleanor became violently ill. Two days later she received the doctors diagnosis and the Princess began to pray to be spared the dreadful consequences of smallpox. As the disease progressed her body became covered with blisters, temperature increased and her life seemed about to end, she never stopped praying for a miracle of recovery. When the disease had run its course and the scabs were washed from her face, she peered into a mirror and was overcome with gratitude as she viewed her new pink, blemish free skin, more radiant than it had ever been before. Her deep gratitude for her life being spared never ceased from that day forward.

In April 1912, millionaire Henry Huntington invested $750,000 in constructing The Mission Theater in San Gabriel California. He also funded the total cost of 1.5 million dollars to mount the greatest outdoor pageant ever staged in America,"The Mission Pageant", a four and a half hour drama about the founding of California. With a cast of over 300, Mr. Huntington selected Princess Eleanor Calhoun to play the lead role opening night.. This Pageant played from 1912 until the depression began in 1929. Over 2.5 million people attended in that period. Public concerts, featuring the original mammoth pipe organ, are still played today at The Mission Theater in San Gabriel.

As Princess Eleanor was traveling from San Francisco to San Gabriel for the Pageant play, she sent a telegram to Mr. Angus Crites, husband of her first teacher and the man who had supplied her family with food from his sheep camps back in 1870 when she lived near Caliente. She asked if he would meet the train when she arrived at Bakersfield. Angus was overwhelmed that she had remembered him after all those years. The train was late and arrived at 4am but Princess Nellie was up and ready to talk old times with the Crites. Later that day Nellie and her friends motored back up toward Caliente to the location of the cabin in which she had spent her childhood. She discovered the house had long before turned into rubble and had been hauled away from "Calhoun Valley" but the sweet memories of her youth were present in everything she viewed or touched. Yes, Princess Nellie had stopped for awhile in Bakersfield, the town from which she started her fantastic journey.

Princess Nellie spent most of the rest of her life in Europe and only appeared in the theatre upon two special occasions after her marriage. The Prince and Princess were serving the people of Serbia through famine, plague, revolts and wars the remainder of their lives. Prince Lazarovich died in England in 1941 and The Princess Eleanor Hulda Calhoun died peacefully in New York in 1957 at the grand age of 100.

By George Gilbert Lynch
July 3, 2004 (c)
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