Coming to California: An Essay in Seven Parts on the History of this Land, Part 5
Based on an interview with Louise Pubols, Senior Curator of History at the Oakland Museum of California, this column narrates the history of California through the personal story of someone who once moved to this area seeking new opportunities, just like we did. — Diana Gadaldi, international spouse of a postdoc at UC Berkeley
Episode 5: The myth of ‘La Estrellita’ and the extraordinary story of a woman who moved to California and reinvented herself (sequel of episode 4: New neighbors from the East: economic shifts and the rise of the largest Chinatown in the United States)
During the last decades of the 19th century, San Francisco grew to become the most important commercial base of the West Coast as well as a prominent cultural destination for artists and writers from all over the world. By 1900, the city was experiencing an historical moment comparable to the European Belle Époque and was often described as the “Paris of the West.”
In this same time period, a young dancer who would become known as ‘La Estrellita’—Spanish for ‘little star’—gained the reputation of a living legend due to her spectacular flamenco performances. In 1900, at the age of twenty-one, she performed for Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom. In 1910 she was pictured on the cover of the weekly entertainment magazine Variety. One year later she was mentioned in one of Jack London’s South Sea Tales. In 1912, she celebrated her birthday on the top of the Pyramid of Cheops, with Lord Kitchener—the British governor of Egypt—as her guest. At the height of her career she made up to $50,000 a year—more than $1,000,000 today! She was an art expert, designed her own theatrical costumes, and carried a wardrobe valued at least at $25,000. After having traveled through Europe, Africa, and the United States, she retired at the age of forty-two, married the entomologist Paul Jones, settled in a 23-room house in Piedmont, near Oakland, and started a new activity: preparing exotic perfumes. Finally, she died in 1973 at the age of ninety-four.
But who was ‘La Estrellita’ really? And how did she manage to create such a myth around herself?
Born Stella Hurting in Cincinnati, Ohio, to a Jewish theater family, La Estrellita started to dance at the young age of four. After touring the country in a duo with her sister Edna, she started a career on her own and became a headliner of both the Keith and the Orpheum vaudeville circuits. As she became more and more famous, she moved on to more sophisticated theater stages all over the world, ending up, after years of travel, in the San Francisco Bay Area. Right here, in 1915, La Estrellita performed her impressive flamenco show at the Portola-Louvre Restaurant, one of the most expensive and fashionable establishments in downtown San Francisco, on the corner of Powell and Market Street. The postcard designed to announce this event, featured in OMCA’s Gallery of California History, promotes her as “the greatest of all Spanish dancers.” And there it is, the key to La Estrellita’s success! In the first half of the twentieth century, California experienced a craze for what is today known as the “Spanish Fantasy Past.” This cultural phenomenon can be described as a romanticized revival of the Spanish colonial period. Especially in Southern California, the “Spanish Fantasy Past” gave rise to highly profitable activities such as the staging of “Spanish fiestas,” and contributed to the popularization of Spanish colonial architecture and “Mission-style” furniture.
Creative and enterprising as she was, La Estrellita turned this historical trend into a marketing tool. She didn’t hesitate to reinvent herself completely in order to build a dignified and fulfilling life in California and the rest of the world. Whether she was a “real” Spanish dancer or not didn’t matter at all: she was exactly what she wanted to be.
Other sources for this article were:
SMALL K. E., SMITH J. L., History of Tulare County and Kings County, California, Vol. II, Chicago, The S. J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1926, p. 402
Daytona Beach Morning Journal, Aug 13, 1973
BARRACLOUGH L. R., Making the San Fernando Valley: Rural Landscapes, Urban Development, and White Privilege. Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 2011, p.14
In the next episode: Diary of a drag queen: the history of José Sarria and the rise of the LGBT political activism in the Bay Area.
© Diana Gadaldi