On a Sunday in September of 1929, 15 members of San Diego’s elite gathered to carry the coffin of an old friend. Among the pallbearers were a future mayor, a founder of the city’s oldest bank, the owner of the leading department store, and a state senator of legendary influence.
The man they came to bury was Ulysses Simpson Grant Jr., second son and namesake of the warrior president, Ulysses Simpson Grant.
Buck, as the younger Grant was known, had settled in San Diego 36 years earlier, at the age of 41. Buck found the city hospitable: he was welcomed in spite of his earlier, unwitting involvement in a pyramid scheme (whose many victims included himself and his father), and its leaders embraced his proposal to build the lavish hotel named after General Grant.
The general's reputation is still a muddle. A hundred or so years ago, his stature was even more uncertain. On one hand, U.S. Grant was the revered commander who steered an uncertain Union Army to victory in the Civil War.
In civilian life, however, Ulysses S. Grant was largely a failure. He was elected president twice on the strength of his military reputation, but his administrations were among the most corrupt in U.S. history. Grant never benefited from the graft. In fact, he was the unwitting victim of several very public, very humiliating financial scams.
By the time Buck was buried in Greenwood cemetery in Southeast San Diego at the age of 77, the Grant name occupied one of the most prominent spots in San Diego society. Buck left a fortune of $3 million (dying as he did a month before the crash of ’29). His body lay in state for a day, on public display. The San Diego Union ran his obituary on the front page, complete with a photograph. It shows Buck to be serious-looking, balding, of a prosperous heft, with firm mouth and chin, and direct ga/.e.
Nineteen years earlier, in 1910, he had completed the U.S. Grant Hotel, the most tangible legacy he planned for his father. Buck also left a network of descendants (his younger brother Jesse had moved to San Diego too; between them, they had seven children). Among their faces can be found traces of the sad-featured, bearded little man who was considered one of the greatest military minds of the 19th Century.
But just as U.S. Grant Sr.’s reputation is dappled with doubt and trouble, the story of the San Diego Grants is less than happy. The Grant Hotel has a history of financial problems and ownership changes that date back to its 1905 groundbreaking.
Three years ago, the general’s name surfaced in another financial tangle where Grants were the victims. Two of his great-great-granddaughters took on Scripps Memorial Hospitals Foundation and one of San Diego’s largest law firms in a legal battle to regain control of their incapacitated mother’s inheritance. They had agreed to donate $2.6 million in property she owned to Scripps in exchange for tax benefits and some income, but the arrangement failed to perform as promised, they argued, and they filed suit against Scripps and their lawyers.
Scripps returned the property, and the women dropped their case against it. In a separate proceeding, the case against the law firm went to trial, and the sisters were awarded roughly $1.4 million in general and punitive damages. The firm has appealed, but the matter isn’t expected to be resolved for another year or more.
Aside from a flurry of publicity about that suit, the Grant name, and Buck with it, seems to have vanished from the civic canvas.
“He was probably one of the most prominent but the least remembered of San Diego men in the late 19th Century,” writes historian Evelyn I. Banning in her 1981 article on Grant in The Journal of San Diego History. “His quiet manner, his easy acceptance of the differences of opinion, and his continuing ties with New York and the East, all gave him an air of aloofness. His many friends liked him but few really understood him.”
U.S. Grant Sr. was dubbed, admiringly, “the silent Ulysses” by George Templeton Strong, noted social chronicler of the time. Though Buck was described as the most gregarious of the Grant men, he seems nevertheless to have shared that quietness.
“I never knew him to say a harsh word against anyone, even against those who at times bitterly fought him,” said one friend in the Union obituary. “He used to say, ‘What good would it do?’ ”
In 1852, a few months before Buck was born, Ulysses, then a lowly captain, was ordered from Ohio to New York in preparation for sailing to California. At first. Buck’s mother Julia insisted on coming along, but Ulys, as she called her husband, convinced her it would be too dangerous in her advanced state of pregnancy. When Buck was born. Grant was in the midst of crossing the Isthmus of Panama; a third of his group fell sick and died.
Almost as worrisome as the physical danger posed by the journey was the fact that Grant was so broke that his friends crossed the street to avoid being asked for a loan; he knew he couldn’t afford the additional passages west and the costs of setting up a household in such a remote spot.
When Buck was born, Julia took it on herself, she recalls in her memoirs, to name the boy after her husband. Other accounts say it was the general’s idea. At any rate, Julia had already named her first son after her father, Frederick Dent, a prosperous, slaveholding Southern planter, whom she adored.
The classical freight of the name “Ulysses” wasn’t lost on Julia’s peers, who had been weaned on Cicero and Homer. “My sisters insisted that he should be called Telemachus to find and bring back to me my wandering Ulysses,” Julia writes in her memoirs, referring to the Roman version of the myth of Odysseus. In it, the victorious warrior gets sidetracked on what turns out to be a ten-year trip home from the Trojan War. When he finally does arrive, he finds greedy suitors at his door, who, in his absence, have been hounding his faithful wife, Penelope. He and his son Telemachus slay them.
Given the years of separation from her beloved Ulys that Julia would eventually suffer, the joking was prescient.
Julia moved from Ohio to her family home in St. Louis a few weeks after giving birth. Her Missouri friends and relatives "began to call my baby, who bore the classic and poetic name of Ulysses, ‘Buckie,’ and, as he grew older, ‘Buck,' ” after the buckeye trees that Ohio is known for. “I call him by his name and try even now to correct others, but it is of no avail,” she writes in 1897, when Buck was 45 years old.
Buck’s pallbearers were listed prominently in his obituary. Their names were so well known to the San Diego of 1929 that they appeared without any explanation. Some still resonate, but most have sunk to the generic level of street signs and historic markers.
The men who carried Buck to his grave that Sunday were department store magnate George Marston; prominent Coronado citizen Gen. M.O. Terry; Smith Crowder; former state senator and journalist Leroy A. Wright; G.A. Davidson; Chevalier Scovel; Baron Long, the hotelier, casino operator, and professional gambler who owned the Grant Hotel for a time and was later an officer of the Biltmore Hotel chain; Wheeler J. Bailey, Dr. H.C. Oatman; Col. Ray Harrison; Myron T. Gilmore, cofounder of the city’s oldest bank; George Burnham; Dr. R.B. Irones, soon to run for mayor on a platform opposing Prohibition; Milton McRae, one of the founders of what became the Scripps Howard newspaper chain; and F.J. Belcher Jr.
They embodied San Diego’s first gentry, albeit self-made for the most part. They hit their prime just as San Diego was attaining the size and sophistication to crave a sense of civic gravitas; nationally, development in the West had started to consolidate after the pell-mell expansion of the mid- to late 19th Century. California’s population, long skewed toward single men in young adulthood, was finally taking on the demographics of a settled society with more women and a broader range of ages.
Buck and his friends were in the position to provide San Diego the underpinnings of a bona fide city — and, not incidentally, to profit from the experience. San Diego was “six times larger than what it had been in 1880,” historian Evelyn I. Banning writes. “The boom had left a city where there had once been a town.”
The incessant pursuit of wealth was tempered by mildly idealistic political and social aspirations. Buck’s set were loyal (Teddy) Roosevelt Republicans (as in the Populist-sounding, aristocratic monopoly-buster). They fought the East Coast railroad trusts; they sat on the boards of the first library, the first chamber of commerce, the first YMCA, the first athletic club; they founded the historical society; they argued for protecting at least some of the natural resources that had enriched them, most visibly muscling through the establishment of Balboa Park.
They were a footloose generation; most had settled one or two places elsewhere before coming to San Diego. They grew up — too young to fight — in the shadow of the Civil War. It upended what remained of America’s agrarian society with a restlessness and rootlessness that persists to this day. Buck came to San Diego from Upstate New York; he spent his childhood in a succession of towns and cities before his father was elected president in 1868 and the family moved into the White House, where they stayed for eight years.
Buck went to boarding school at Phillips Exeter in New Hampshire, graduated from Harvard University in Boston, Massachusetts, and received his law degree from Columbia University in New York City. He also studied in Germany. Although Buck didn’t follow his father into the Army, the general doted on his second son, according to Grant biographer William S. McFeely. In the final year of Grant’s presidency, 1875, Buck served as his secretary — at a time when top officials had few aides.
Though trained as a lawyer, Buck for the most part dabbled in investments. With no income taxes or taxes on capital gains, the potential rewards were huge, but so were the risks, since the stock markets were barely regulated. In the years before his father’s death in 1885, Buck moved among the moneyed set of New York City. In 1880 he had married Fannie Chaffee, whose father Jerome was among the wealthiest men of his time. He presented the couple with generous gifts of cash over the years, and access to that fortune made Buck a well-situated young man in his set. The elder Grants, meanwhile, settled in a fashionable quarter on the Upper East Side.
Julia’s memoirs are full of accounts of balls and dinner parties and grand houses, but the Grants were always haunted by a lack of money. When General Grant began his career in the military, it was a gentleman’s profession; officers were expected to pay much of their own way; the salary was only incidental. Grant was constantly trying to invest his meager pay and constantly losing it to con men.
After he left the White House, his finances remained shaky even as he tried to maintain the style of living expected of a “double ex-president,” as one contemporary chronicler called him. For instance, he and Julia took a 26-month trip around the world, “perhaps the grandest tour an American couple had ever made,” writes McFeely in Grant, his landmark, Pulitzer Prize-winning 1981 biography. The hope was that on his return, he would be elected to a third term as president, which would have meant a salary. But that did not happen.
For day-to-day living expenses, the Grants relied mainly on privately financed subscription funds, formed by wealthy friends in gratitude for his service in the war. But the general was too proud and shy to exploit his financial connections to any significant degree. While his friends were making millions on speculative schemes, Grant was scratching out a living on struggling ventures, such as a proposal to build a railroad in Mexico. It eventually failed.
Before he came to San Diego, Buck was well on his way to emulating his father’s history of poor investing — though Buck’s father-in-law provided an ample safety net. It was through Buck that Grant suffered his last major financial humiliation, when, a few years before his death, the general invested in Buck’s young Wall Street firm of Grant and Ward.
Buck’s investment had grown fourfold in just a few years, he told his father, and he wanted Ulysses to finally enjoy financial security. Unknown to Buck, who apparently wasn’t deft at finances, the operation was based on a pyramid scheme. Investors’ stakes were being pledged as collateral for obligations two and three times their worth. When the loans came due, the operation collapsed. It bankrupted father and son.
One version of family lore states that Buck moved west for his wife Fannie’s health. That’s the version in his obituary, Fannie’s well-being, it reads, necessitated “the removal of the family to a more favorable clime.”
Fannie was indeed ill; she died in 1909, after years of invalidism. But Buck’s son, U.S. Grant IV (so enumerated because Fred, Buck’s older brother, was the first to name a son after U.S. Grant Sr.) gives a more convincing rationale. It appears in his memoirs of a 1915 tour of Baja published in the 1961 Historical Society of Southern California Quarterly.
“When my father was a young man, he had gone through the misfortune and humiliation of a financial failure in Wall Street, caused by the dishonesty of the junior partner of the financial house of Grant and Ward. That was in May 1884. With moneys left my mother by her father. Senator Jerome B. Chaffee of Colorado, supplemented by large funds from the large royalties on General Grant’s Memoirs, my father invested wisely and profitably in San Diego real estate. The move to California was a new start in a small but promising community, far from the gloomy scenes of a financial disaster.”
Historian Evelyn I. Banning amplifies Buck’s involvement in the Grant and Ward debacle, which Julia refers to as “a thunderclap." “[Buck] and his father each put $100,000 in this new banking and brokerage firm and for four years helped to get veterans and millionaires to leave money for investments in Grant and Ward,” Banning writes.
“Grant Jr. believed it was understood that he and his father would share one-half of the profits, only to find that Ward had used the President’s name to his own advantage. In 1884, this Wall Street wizard and con man absconded with all the funds, leaving Grant and his friends penniless. On May 6, the firm of Grant and Ward collapsed, with Ward receiving ten years in the state penitentiary. The failure of the firm threw the Grants into bankruptcy and humiliation.”
“It was a great shock to my family,” Julia writes, “as they all believed they were not only prosperous but wealthy.... [T]he General had said to me, 'Julia, you need not trouble to save for our children. Ward is making us all rich.’... How rudely was this anticipation broken!” Her sons were forced to send back their “summer supplies of groceries, wines, cigars, etc... They had not enough to pay carfare.”
A couple of years ago, in the La Jolla International House of Pancakes, after months of studying history-book photos of the compact, sad-faced soldier, I came face-to-face with an in-the-flesh, near likeness of the great General U.S. Grant.
Sitting across the table from me was a blue-eyed man in his 70s with square, clean features, short-cropped hair, and a blunt demeanor. It was the face of Julia’s Ulys, just a few generations removed. It was the face of Grant King, a retired architect living in La Jolla. Grandson of Buck, great-grandson of the general (the source of his given name), Grant King is one of the fiercest Grant defenders and one of the most devoted students of his history among his San Diego descendants.
King grew up in La Jolla and attended La Jolla High School. He served in the Army during World War II. Afterward, he completed his architecture training, working first in Seattle, next in Los Angeles. “Then I got my own little office here,” he says. King and his partner did “a lot of nice residential work,” he says.
That “nice residential work” included building a house for McDonald’s founder Kay Kroc. “I did his digs up here in the hills.” Another major client was “Arnie Smith. He was Mr. San Diego 30 years ago. He was president of U.S. National Bank, so I did 15 banks. That was a good moneymaker. None of them too different.”
I ask King if he resembles Grant. “Some people say I do,” he replies.
Grant King’s mother was Buck’s daughter, Julia Grant, named after Ulysses’ wife. “My mother was athletic. She had horses. She was a very sweet girl, and she married a pretty good guy too. My dad [Edmund King] was a businessman, but he was very honest. He was a lumberman. From that, he got into making barrels. Of course, then everything was shipped by barrels: butter, lard, even oil. That was up in Seattle: then he retired to La Jolla.”
We order breakfast. He has eggs and toast. As soon as the waitress leaves, King fumes about a throwaway line spoken by TV weatherman Willard Scott on a recent Today Show. “ ‘General Grant, not one of my favorite characters,’ ” Scott said to the TV audience. King recalls, “and I thought, ‘You dumb son of a bitch, he made the country free for you.’
“Naturally I read everything I could about the old boy,” King says. He bristles at biographers who point up Grant’s shortcomings, like his inability to curb the corruption of his presidential cabinet and his never-quite-quantified tendency to drink. William S. McFeely’s biography, Grant, is not one of King’s favorites.
Although McFeely’s account includes stories that reflect badly on General Grant, King’s animosity doesn’t seem completely fair — to an outsider, at any rate. McFeely does mention a few incidents before, during, and after the war when Grant seemingly drank himself silly, but McFeely is careful to point out that the more outrageous accounts are based on dubious sources. He never says that Grant’s drinking interfered with his work as general or president, though it did force him out of the Army once. Fortunately for the Union, he was allowed back in when war broke out.
“He was terribly lonely,” King says of the time that Grant lost his commission for drinking on duty. The breach of duty occurred on the same California posting Grant took before Buck’s birth. “He hadn’t seen his wife in two years, hadn’t even seen his last son,” Buck, King’s grandfather.
“It’s a miserable thing, being in the Army when there’s no war going on. Time on your hands, the boys getting drunk. It’s not a thing for a good man to do. And he was so miserable not being with his wife. That was how his so-called alcoholism took shape. He was the paymaster and one time he had liquor on his breath” and he was told to leave the Army.
“Then later on in the Battle of the Wilderness — this was before they got to Richmond — Cold Harbor and all that, when you lose five or six thousand men in one day and you have to walk through the fields with the guys screaming and you go back to headquarters and they’re amputating legs and arms, that’s pretty rough. And so, whenever he had a campaign where he wasn’t really needed day to day he would get drunk. It only happened about three times. But it never happened when he had a battle the next day. If you knew the truth about Army officers—by God, we had to cover up for some of those Army guys.”
King recalls his own experience in Europe during World War II, when 150 men from the same small town in Texas were killed in a single battle. “They were piled up like cord-wood,” he recalls. The chaplain in the unit was overcome by the horror and was hospitalized. “He should have gotten drunk; he couldn’t stand it. He got crazy. If someone gets drunk, you’ve got to be a little compassionate. By God, if a guy gets drunk for half a day, there’s nothing wrong with that.”
King found his great-grandfather to be an enigma. “I got quite interested in the fact that somebody who was a failure, who didn’t like the Army, who went to West Point because his dad wanted a free education for him,” could excel at commanding an army. “His dad was tight as hell, Scotch, you know,” King adds.
“In the Army, when things are moving pretty fast, you really have to trust yourself. [Grant] found out that he could do it. His first engagement at Fort Donelson, he found out the enemy was as afraid of an engagement as he was. He found out that you mustn’t ever think you have a deficiency, instead, work on their deficiencies. He had such a good mind all these things would add up.”
Here’s how Grant himself described his opponents some 30 years later in his account of the victory in his Memoirs. Among the Confederate officers were former West Point classmates and the former Secretary of War in the pre-secession federal government.
“General Floyd, the commanding officer...was no soldier and, possibly, did not possess the elements of one. He was further unfitted for the command, for the reason that his conscience must have troubled him and made him afraid. As Secretary of War, he had taken a solemn oath to maintain the Constitution of the United States.... He had betrayed that trust.... [H]e was reported through the northern press to have scattered the little army the country had so that the most of it could be picked up in detail when secession occurred. About a year before leaving the Cabinet he had removed arms from northern to southern arsenals.... Well may he have been afraid to fall into the hands of National [Union] troops. He would no doubt have been tried for misappropriating public property, if not for treason.... General Pillow, next in command, was conceited and prided himself much on his services in the Mexican war,” a conflict in which Grant served and which he dismissed as a disgusting display of American arrogance against Mexico. Those two, Grant notes, slipped out at night in the middle of the battle, leaving in command a West Point graduate whom Grant had gone to school with for three years.
King says Grant also had an edge because he truly believed in God’s protection. “His mother was very, very religious. When he was a little tiny guy, he used to play out in the stables. Somebody visited [his mother] one time and said, ‘You know that Ulys is out there underneath the horses’ hoofs?' She said, ‘I never worry. He’s in God’s hands.’
“If you believe in Providence, you’re really in less fear. General Grant was almost killed three or four times. One time he was the last man to get off an island. They only had one plank. They said, “Where’s the old man? The colonel? I guess he’s still out there!” They’d already pushed off rom the shore, the only thing they could do is put a little 2-by-14 plank on the beach and there old Grant comes with his horse, and of course he’s an excellent horse man and he rode that horse over that plank and people were shooting at him. It was some thing he had to do without any fear at all.”
King can also tell a tale of courage about his grandfather though the drama is strictly domestic. Before Buck married Fannie Chaffee, daughter of the rich industrialist and senator, he had been courting another prominent young lady. “At the time he got interested in Chaffee's daughter, he was engaged to Miss Flood, of the Flood family of San Francisco,” King says. ‘They’d exchange rings and everything. But he fell in love with the Chaffee girl.
“The Flood family was one of the leading families of San Francisco. It was a kind of embarrassing situation. So he went up there and gave her back the ring. I don’t know what the reaction was. When he married senator Chaffee’s daughter. Senator Chaffee had made three fortunes and lost two of them. By the time he made his third one, he was in pretty good shape. He gave him a wedding present, a check tor a million bucks.
“My granddad came out to San Diego on a trip and decided San Diego was a coming town. He transferred himself and his family out here and bought a beautiful old house where the El Cortez is now. And he had a stable and so forth. He was doing pretty well.
Grant was a lawyer trained at Harvard, also one year at Heidelberg — that was a fashionable thing to do. They learned their German very well. He saw the value of San Diego property. He must have had two and a half blocks. Between Fourth and Fifth, he had 200,000 square feet of land, which he built on. He owned other land, which he had to sell when he built the Grant Hotel. That came up to more than they expected.
King admits he was long puzzled over General Grant’s weakness about money. “I was wondering how he could be such a nondescript, even a failure at business, how he could all of a sudden find himself and he absolutely brilliant’’ in the battlefield.
“As I studied him, I learned that he didn’t realize that he had a good mind. He never forgot anything. The reason he failed at business is because he didn’t have ambition. When he was a young fellow, ten years old, his dad old him to take some horses out and haul logs. You’d think a young fellow wouldn't know how to do that, but he had to do it. The thing he had to do he did. ’
Later as a young man in St Louis, he worked as an agent for a landlord. “When you’re selling real estate or collecting rents and you have a heart, you don’t want to beat the other fellow down. That’s what he was doing in St. Louis. He didn’t want to do that. His heart wasn’t ever in business. Sometimes you figure out how to make an extra 10 percent. But he figured that instead of him taking the 10 percent, he’d give it to the other guy.”
The collapse of Grant and Ward was a national scandal. General Grant was able to repay some of the investors through quiet gifts from his well-heeled friends, though he refused any direct aid for himself. The financial disgrace, however, wasn't enough to overshadow the fascination and affection the American public still held for Grant. When, several months later, news leaked out that he had been diagnosed with fatal cancer, crowds gathered outside his house in New York. Reporters camped out at his doorstep in a daily vigil, rushing to print any scraps gleaned from servants’ gossip or passing doctors. That led to a few false alarms and premature announcements of Grant’s death.
In the months before the diagnosis, Grant had turned to journalism to raise some money to pay off his debts and support his family. Civil War memoirs and battlefield accounts had become a best-selling genre, and Grant was one of the few leading participants who had not yet written his story. He had complained that no one would he interested, that he didn’t know how to write well, that no one would pay to read it.
However, his handful of magazine stories were wildly popular, and a book publisher offered him a contract. His king-time friend Mark Twain read its provisions and ordered Grant to cancel. He quickly secured Grant a much more generous arrangement — over Grant’s protests that it was more money than the memoirs would be worth.
But the fear that he would leave his family penniless spurred him on. In one of the many ironies of Grant’s life, his Memoirs proved to he the best-selling book of his time—after he was dead. By the time he started to write his hook, the cancer was already so painful he was taking regular doses of laudanum, a morphine derivative.
In another twist on the Ulysses myth, in which Penelope, Ulysses’ faithful wife, weaves and unweaves her own shroud in an effort to forestall her suitors as she awaits her husband’s return, finishing his Memoirs became Grant’s reason for living. As the work progressed, Grant discovered that he liked to write and that he wrote well. He could dictate 10,000 words a day, even when his tongue was partly paralyzed from cocaine injections and he was subject to choking fits. (At one point he writes that he is caught in a “crossfire” between laudanum and cocaine.)
He was staying in a summer cottage in Mt. McGregor, New York, an Adirondack retreat near Saranac Lake. The resort’s owner had given the Grants free lodging in exchange for the publicity generated by the thousands of visitors the general’s dying attracted to his hotel. Buck was present, along with a swarm of children and grandchildren.
Up to a few days before Grant died, nearly nine months after the diagnosis and after months of pain, curiosity-seekers were still passing by hoping to catch a glimpse of Grant on his porch. He obliged by sitting outside in his cane chair in full going-to-town regalia, including scarf, slippers, and top hat.
The major papers in New York ran daily updates on his condition, which fluctuated wildly. There was also speculation that the much-anticipated memoirs were being ghosted. It took the intercession of Mark Twain and a public letter from Grant to counter the claim and assure the tens of thousands of readers who had already subscribed to the volumes that they weren’t being defrauded.
The Memoirs climax with the final weeks of the Civil War, during which Robert E. Lee’s army unravels before Grant’s eyes, its collapse rushing along in a macabre parallel to the declining arc of Grant’s own life. The reader can see that Grant was acutely aware that his days were limited.
In a note to his doctors, written because speaking was often difficult or impossible, he writes shortly before his death, “I said I had been adding to my book and to my coffin. I presume every strain of the mind or body is one more nail in the coffin.”
In The Captain Departs, his 1973 book about Grant’s death, Thomas N. Pitkin writes, “As day came...it was hoped that the general would last until midday.... [T]he reporters, who had been spending the night in the shadows of a nearby clump of trees, watching the whole scene through the open doors and windows, withdrew to a respectful distance. At 7:00…the nurse rushed out and told Dr. Douglas that the general was going.... [A]ll converged again around the bed. Just after 8 the end came. ‘There was no expiring sigh,' Douglas recalled later. ‘Life passed away so quietly, so peacefully, that, to be sure it had terminated we waited a minute.’ The time was 8:08 on the morning of July 23, and Colonel Fred [Grant’s eldest son] stopped the dock.”
Four days after the final galleys of his Memoirs were sent to the printer, Grant had died.
“Mark Twain got the news by telegraph within an hour or two,” Pitkin writes. “In a memorandum jotted down the same morning, he recalled his last visit to the general. ‘I then believed,’ he said, he would live several months. He was still adding little perfecting details to his book.... I think his book kept him alive several months. He was a very great man and superlatively good.’ ”
The Memoirs sold more than 300,000 copies in two years. Julia’s first royalty check was for $400,000. More was to follow. Some of the profits helped pay for Buck’s U.S. Grant Hotel.
In the years following World War I, the Memoirs fell into obscurity, as revisionist histories of the Civil War glorified the Southern cause at the expense of the Northern “butchers,” as Grant and his ilk were characterized.
In 1962, literary critic Edmund Wilson reintroduced the Memoirs to a new generation of readers by including them in his landmark study, Patriotic Gore, a critical account of popular writings from the Civil War era. “The thick pair of volumes... used to stand, like a solid attestation of the victory of the Union forces, on the shelves of every pro-Union home,” Wilson writes.
Patriotic Gore was published at the start of the long-delayed second act of the Civil War, the Civil Rights movement. Wilson calls the Memoirs “the most remarkable work of its kind since the commentaries of Julius Caesar. It is also, in its way — like Herndon’s Lincoln or like Walden or Leaves of Grass— a unique expression of the national character.”
Grant starts his deathbed book with this declaration: “My family is American and has been for generations, in all its branches, direct and collateral.”
In his final entry, he writes, “The fact is I think I am a verb instead of a personal pronoun. A verb is anything that signifies to be; to do; to suffer. I signify all three.”
The war “was a fearful lesson and should teach us the necessity of avoiding wars in the future,” Grant cautions. But some good came out of it. “Monarchical Europe generally believed that our republic was a rope of sand that would part the moment the slightest strain was brought upon it,” Grant writes. “Now it has shown itself capable of dealing with one of the greatest wars that was ever made, and our people have proven themselves to be the most formidable in war of any nationality.”
In describing the aftereffect at home, Grant could have been speaking about his son Buck and his restless generation. “Prior to the rebellion the great mass of people were satisfied to remain near the scenes of their birth” for fear of “coming to want should they move among entire strangers.... This is all changed now. The war begot a spirit of independence and enterprise. The feeling now is, that a youth must cut loose from his old surroundings to enable him to get up in the world. There is now such a commingling of people that particular idioms” have disappeared. “I feel that we are on the eve of a new era, when there is to be great harmony between the Federal and Confederate. I cannot stay to be a living witness to the correctness of this prophecy.”
When Buck arrived in San Diego in 1893 with his wife, their five children, and nannies and servants, George W. Marston, the department store magnate who would carry Buck’s coffin 36 years later, had been in business 15 years.
Marston describes those 15 years in his autobiography. There “occurred the great flood of 1884, the great boom of’86 and ’87, the collapse of’88 and the terrible drought of the early '90s. The flood washed out our coming railroad from San Bernardino. The boom brought us another railroad from Los Angeles.... [In] some mysterious way the store kept growing during the dry years. It shot up like a skyrocket in ’87 and came down with a thud in ’88.”
In 1889, San Diego was swamped with gold seekers following strikes in a valley 120 miles southeast of San Diego, about 60 miles by wagon road from Ensenada. The scene was detailed by Leroy A. Wright, state senator, journalist and lawyer, and one of Buck’s pallbearers.
About 600 men left San Diego every day to hunt for gold, Wright writes in a series of stories that appeared in the Tribune in 1935. The gold was gone in “little more than a month,” but the miners discovered promising lodes of quartz and other valuable minerals. The boom slowed to a normal prosperity.
The year Buck arrived, there was a mayoral election, with “neither a real estate boom nor mining excitement to distract the voters’ attention,” Wright notes. “So the mayoralty candidates waged a warm and vigorous campaign.”
William H. Carlson, a real estate and railroad promoter, was the leading candidate, Wright claims, “A picturesque figure as he went about the streets along the waterfront soliciting votes. He was his own campaign manager and went about with vest pockets filled with cigars, wearing his silk hat and a frock coat. He solicited the longshoremen going into the holds of ships where they were unloading coal, climbing up ladders and soliciting votes from the scaffolding wherever workmen could be found in the construction or repair of buildings. He was a true promoter and did not forget to tell the voters of his plans to bring a new railroad to San Diego, to establish new’ steamship lines, to build new hotels and establish manufacturing and industrial plants along the waterfront.” Carlson won with a large plurality.
Captain James Edward Friend, Carlson’s leading opponent and an old pal of Wright’s, “said that he could have been elected if he had promised a railroad to the moon ‘using the Milky Way for a roadbed, opened a station every 10 miles so that passengers could step out on a cloud and eat ice cream without extra charge. That inside of 24 hours after having made this promise he would book 1000 men to do the sky grading under contract to take one half of their wages in stock at 13 cents on the dollar.’ ”
Friend was bitter over his loss, Wright explains, because some 1100 voters signed a petition to put Friend on the ballot, but he received only 98 votes in the election. “Thereupon,” Wright says, “he wrote a booklet titled ‘1000 Liars.’ ”
Friend called his work a “political romance.” One of the characters to emerge was San Diego’s official dog, named Bum, who greeted the arriving trains. Friend gave Bum the following advice: “to keep your eyes open while in the canine state, for when the evolution comes and you honor some misprint called man by exchanging souls with him, I would have you prepared to answer this question: ‘Why cannot politics be made honorable, society pure, and religion cleansing?’ ”
Buck Grant was a man of substantial means in 1893 (thanks, in large part, to that $1 million dowry from his senator father-in-law). He enrolled his children in private schools, and he bought a 25-room mansion at Eighth Avenue and Ash Street. Though he paid the sizable sum of $25,000 — in gold, no less — it was a bargain. A banking crisis that year caused a currency shortage, which in turn drove down real estate prices. The house cost its original owner $100,000 to build.
The Ash Street house was designed by brothers James W. and Merritt Reid, architects of the Hotel del Coronado and other Southern (California, Victorian-era resorts. It contained a spiral staircase, “stained glass windows, and fireplaces of Tennessee marble and Mexican onyx,” historian Evelyn I. Banning writes. I he lot was one of the most valuable in the city, according to Banning, because of its view of the bay.
Buck soon stopped practicing law in favor of dealing in real estate. The year after he bought his grand house, he paid nearly as much for two prime downtown building sites. Permits issued at the time show he carried out renovations and improvements that cost another $30,000, a significant sum in those days.
In 1895 he made what would be his most historically significant purchase when he bought the old Horton House hotel, then a landmark in San Diego. Banning notes how a friend said Buck “often talked about erecting a hotel as a memorial to his father and [the friend] added, ‘Of all the crazy ideas.’ ” Grant operated the Horton House for another ten years. Then he moved ahead with his plan: “He would use the royalties from his father’s Memoirs,” Banning writes, “carry out a military theme, and hang his father’s portrait in the lobby. The hotel would be named the U.S. Grant as a monument to his father.”
When the time came to demolish the Horton House in 1905, Grant had some of its original investors on hand for the symbolic removal of the first brick. The ceremony drew a cheering crowd of thousands.
Then, in a trick of fate that marks the start of the Grant Hotel’s 90-plus years of troubles, the 1906 San Francisco earthquake struck. A financial panic followed. Because of rebuilding in Northern California, there was a shortage of building materials. Work on the hotel stopped.
“The concrete skeleton stood as a blight on the downtown area for several years,” Banning writes. Shortly after construction resumed, money ran short. Grant recruited more investors, who were given shares in exchange for cash, diluting the hotel’s ownership. Costs continued to rise beyond the initial estimates, as Buck insisted on keeping to the original, lavish plan. The hotel’s final tab ran to more than $1.25 million.
The U.S. Grant Hotel opened in 1910. Buck’s wife Fannie had died the year before. In 1913 Buck married a young, socially prominent San Diego widow, America Workman Will. They became Mr. and Mrs. U.S. and America Grant.
According to McFeely’s biography. Buck’s children were dismayed at the marriage, which the couple initially kept secret. The children objected to their father’s decision to bequeath two-thirds of his $3 million fortune to his new wife. However, the parties reconciled and held a large celebration.
America and Buck loved to travel. They spent their first six years together moving from place to place, settling for a while in Washington, D.C. In the meantime. Buck continued to buy real estate in downtown San Diego, purchasing blocks at a time. “Grant, Jr., believed that good times were ahead,” Banning writes. “Possibly the proposed coming of the Utah Southern Railroad was the reason for these heavy purchases.”
Buck’s younger brother Jesse continued to live in a house that he built for about $6000 at Sixth and Quince. The men’s mother, Julia, showed her approval of San Diego by paying visits each winter, traveling from her home on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Jesse, who died in 1934, was also an active real estate investor, according to Banning.
Politically, Buck and San Diego made a nice fit. Buck Grant ran for elective office only once, in a failed 1904 race for the U.S. Senate, but he was a dedicated Republican and held high, if largely honorary, positions in the party. His father is considered the first modern-day Republican president.
This was a time of epic struggle over the meaning of the term “Republican,” especially in California. A leading issue was control of the railroads. Grant was such a firm supporter of trust-busting, anti-railroad-baron Teddy Roosevelt that he was proposed briefly as a ticketmate in one of Roosevelt’s presidential bids.
Being a Roosevelt Republican meant Grant was opposed to the giant corporate monopolies that threatened California’s more entrepreneurial second-generation elite. San Diego’s leading industrialist, sugar magnate John D. Spreckels, had already fought off his East Coast competitors. The Southern Pacific, owned by powerful New York investors, was much loathed in California. It routinely threatened to stop train service to regions whose politicians didn’t do the railroad’s bidding.
Roosevelt Republicans were an ideological mix. They promoted progressive-seeming causes like the beautification of cities and the fight against monopolies and spouted conservative-sounding rhetoric against immigrants and labor unions. Pro-business by today’s standards, they sometimes fell on the progressive side of the equation in their own time.
Grant’s friend Marston, for example, was defeated in two tries for mayor, in 1913 and in 1917. He and his well-heeled supporters were attacked as silk stockings (versus those who wore the working man’s wool socks) because he supported projects such as the creation of Balboa Park. That made him a “Geranium Grower,” as one newspaper put it, obstructing the pragmatic “Smokestack” faction. The accusation is partly true. Marston was an early member of the Sierra Club, which was founded in 1892 by Scotsman John Muir. Marston made his first serious mountain climb by hiking to the top of Mt. Hood in 1898.
His diary shows that a sharp-eyed capitalist could be struck by nature:
“The mountain is a very symmetrical cone, and its peak stands out clearly from all the surrounding terrain. The view from the peak was indescribably wonderful and beautiful. The great area below us in every direction was a field of pure white snow. The next area was a zone of green conifers — pines, firs, spruces and cedars, a forest belt illimitable in extent.
“The third belt appeared to be a mass of clouds from which rose six mountain peaks. And over all the canopy of the sky of an intense blue. This was the most impressive scene of my life. It seemed as if one had left the world and was nearer heaven. On the way down we just put our alpenstocks under our arms and slid....”
Another contemporary of Buck’s — and another of his pallbearers that Sunday in 1929 — was Myron T. Gilmore, a onetime blacksmith’s helper in Dedham, Maine, who traveled west and ended up cofounding with Joseph W. Sefton San Diego’s oldest bank, San Diego Trust & Savings Bank. At the start, he worked as a cashier at the counter.
Like Buck, he had reinvented himself in San Diego and in the process achieved a prominent spot in the fledgling city. Gilmore’s 83rd birthday, which he celebrated in 1930 by working a full day at his customary post in the bank, merited an extensive write-up in the San Diego Union, out of respect for a member of the business establishment and as yet another claim San Diego could make to venerableness (along with “oldest city, oldest mission, oldest palm, oldest irrigation system,” according to the caption under Gilmore’s photo).
The papers heralded Gilmore as the “dean” of Pacific Coast banking, when, five years later, he turned 88 and continued to work at his same desk. On that occasion, Gilmore was named President Emeritus, a title created specifically for him, of the bank. The story was illustrated by the same photo as five years before. It shows a jaunty, bearded man, with close-cropped white hair, bow tie, and steel-rimmed glasses, looking directly into the camera.
“I have been through seven major depressions,” he told the reporter in 1935. Success is merely a matter of “personal alertness” to changing conditions, he said.
Like Gilmore, Buck was an enthusiastic motorist, at a time when driving cars long distances in the mountains and deserts of the West required skill and endurance. Of course, there was no air conditioning, and breakdowns occurred frequently. It wasn’t uncommon to spend a day or two repairing a crucial part in those pre-gasoline-station days. Dust and noise and severe jolts on the badly paved or dirt roads were also part of the experience. It could be argued that the rigors of a four-month motoring trip Buck made contributed to his taking ill and dying.
Buck’s son, U.S. Grant IV, shared his elders’ interest in travel to then-obscure places. In the summer of 1915, fresh out of college, he rambled around Baja for a summer, ostensibly as part of a mining venture, but mainly for a diversion from proper San Diego society. “This gay social life in San Diego soon palled on me,” he writes in memoirs published in 1963 in The Journal of Southern California History. “Because of my youth, much of it seemed rather vapid.... I was eager to grasp some excuse to escape from what seemed to me a monotonous and frivolous milieu.”
Grant IV’s description of the trip’s origins provides a glimpse of the giddy existence of a rich, well-connected young man growing up near the California-Mexico border.
“One evening a number of us young, gay blades went to Tijuana for a Mexican dinner. Naturally, the dinner was served with ample liquid refreshments. At that time the International Border was closed promptly at midnight by a large wooden gate. Time slipped along in the convivial surroundings and none of us watched the clock closely enough to get to the border before the midnight closing deadline. All of us...resigned ourselves to spending the night at a drab hotel, but Juan [the driver of a Mexican official, Jose Cantu, who was a friend of Grant’s) was determined to get back to San Diego by any means in case his boss, Jose, needed the car early in the morning. We learned the next day that Juan drove Cantu’s car at full speed through the closed wooden border gate, shattering it to bits, and speeded on. The U.S. Immigration Officers, taken unaware by this brash behavior, only had time to pepper the rear of Jose’s car with high-powered rifle bullets. Fortunately, none of this fusillade hit a vital spot.”
Grant’s companions on the trip included men closer to his father’s age. “Louis J. Wilde, a prominent citizen of San Diego and soon to become its mayor, J.S. Benner, a long experienced cashier of the United States National Bank, and I formed a loose partnership for the purchase and operation of the Avalana Mine at El Alamo in the mountains southwest of Ensenada,” Grant writes. Wilde was a partner of Buck’s in the U.S. Grant Hotel and had extensive financial interests in San Diego.
Buck, who was “a practical man,” according to his son, “approved the project, but only as a means of teaching me how hard it was to make money. Forty-eight years ago Lower California was not a popular playground for fastidious tourists, as it is now.
“I am certain it was not entirely the hope of financial gain that tempted me n invest in a gold mine in Mexico in 1915. Possibly the lure of gold had something to do with it, but quite likely the chief cause of this rashness was the excuse it seemed to offer for making a trip into the wilderness of the Northern District of Lower California.” The gold mine did not prove feasible.
The restlessness is a chronic condition for the Grants. When U.S. and America Grant returned to San Diego for good in 1925, after six years traveling around the world, they sold the grand mansion with the 25 rooms and moved into the U.S. Grant Hotel. “There in their luxurious rooms [they] entertained many nationally prominent figures,” Banning writes. Home, in the end, was a hotel suite.
Buck had grown up without any real home himself. He was 16 when his father entered the White House, and Buck attended boarding school, college, and law school, all in different cities. Biographer McFeely gives a sense of the rootless life the Grant family led: “It was all great houses, world’s fairs, testimonial dinners, and those ceaseless republican progressions — the endless trips that proclaimed that they had nowhere that was home.”
Even the final resting place of the warrior general and his widow doesn’t seem like a proper spot. It is New York City’s most-joked-about landmark. The location meant nothing to Grant In fact, he probably never visited the site.
Three thousand miles away, on the opposite coast, another Grant tomb sits in Greenwood Memorial Park, it houses the remains of the city’s “least remembered” famous man.