The Spectacular Mid-Life Crisis of Charles Templeton Crocker

Templeton Crocker as Chinese hero Aladdin at the annual Mardi Gras Ball at the Fairmont on March 1, 1927, UC Berkeley, Bancroft Library photo morgue

t was May of 1927. Templeton Crocker was 42 years old, the same age his father Col. Charles Frederick Crocker was when he died of Bright’s disease in 1897. Templeton’s wife Helene, the more flamboyant half of the snazzy San Francisco Peninsula power couple, filed for divorce.

“We had different pursuits, different ways and are not in accord on any matter…We have reached the state of incompatibility…There was no alternative but divorce,” Helene said.

Mrs. Crocker told of dispelled illusions, of love flown out the window, of a drab and commonplace existence without the sweetheart of her youth, who had centered his attentions upon other things. She filed on the grounds of extreme cruelty. Templeton, an amateur actor, playwright and librettist and was “so engrossed in the drama” and neglected her to such an extent that she suffered “grievous bodily injury and grievous mental suffering.” Their mismatched pursuits effected the “destruction of their home life and marital relations.”

The complaint closed with a confirmation that there was no children and no community property. Proceedings took all of 20 minutes. After more than 16 years of wedded life, a legal separation was granted.

The fourth decade of Crocker’s life was a stage of dramatic changes. Unlike most in the throws of a mid-life crisis, he didn’t worry about reaching professional and personal milestones. Maintaining his standard of living after retirement was of no concern. The inheritance that young Templeton got at aged 18 made him one of the richest trust fund kids in California. If he grappled with dying young like his father before him, the Crocker prince didn’t express overwhelming hypochondriacal concerns over his health and appearance as was the norm. There was in Templeton’s case some of the typical middle-age discord with one’s sex-life and some (extraordinarily) flashy purchases: a 118-foot luxury yacht, a 6,000 sq ft penthouse on Russian Hill, a year-long trip around the world…

Templeton Crocker’s mid-life reexamination was more of a metamorphosis–like that of a once crawling monarch caterpillar, trapped in a cocoon, emerging victoriously as a butterfly.

Templeton receives his horn of plenty. The San Francisco Examiner Thu Sep 14, 1905.

The Examiner named Templeton “the richest undergraduate in any American university,” The San Francisco Call–“Prince Fortunatus.” After graduating from Yale in 1908, he returned home to the leisure class wonderland at the Peninsula, and its country club contingency. He was a member of the Automobile Club of America and with M.C. Scott and his chauffeur made the trip across the continent by motorcar. In the Bay area, he was a member of the Union, Racquet, Riding, Tuxedo and Bohemian Clubs. In the years after college, he toured Europe. He established the Templeton Crocker golf prize at the Burlingame Country Club. He went to polo matches…

Templeton chose not to join the family business at the Southern Pacific Railroad where his father was vice president. He wouldn’t take a position at Uncle William’s Crocker Bank or at the Bank of California, founded by his mother’s Uncle Darius. He took on peripheral advisory roles and junior executive duties and certainly kept abreast of the family holdings.

As figurehead president and front man of the Columbia Theatre Building Company, he would attend the groundbreaking ceremony at the corner of Geary and Mason streets. Templeton was Master of Ceremony at the ribbon cutting for the Armitage orphanage, a cause that was near and dear to his heart. He also took special interest in the ritzy, family owned St. Francis Hotel at Union Square, even submitting elaborate plans for a new 15-story wing of Norman design, that included Turkish and Russian baths in the basement.

When the exclusive town of Hillsborough was established and incorporated in 1910, the likeable 25-year-old Templeton Crocker was thought to be the obvious choice to be the mayor. It was a municipality of millionaires and their retainers, lackeys and servants. (Peninsula aristocrats were compared to barons of feudal times by the press). Born in to extreme wealth, Uncle Darius was once the wealthiest man in California, grandfather Charles Crocker was one of the wealthiest in America, Templeton understood the liabilities and obligations of the one percent. He was instead elected Trustee. Uncle William Henry Crocker became Treasurer.

Cartoon lambasting the rich and well-born in Hillsborough. The San Francisco Examiner March 29, 1910.

Many of the Burlingame-Hillsborough set expected the young Yale graduate to marry Eleanor Sears, the athletic Boston girl, aviatress and future famous tennis pro, who was his sister’s chum for several years. The LA Times shot down that rumor reporting, “While Crocker admired her athletic stunts he never seemed to be attracted to her.”

Helene’s wedding dress was worn at the coronation of King George V. San Francisco Examiner Mar 20, 1911.

The lovely socialite Helene Irwin, daughter of sugar baron and richest man in Honolulu, William G. Irwin, had many strapping suitors vying to win her hand. Templeton was considered a consolation prize at best, but when the local prophetess Isobel “Teuila” Strong (who was a close friend of cousin Aimée Crocker and the stepdaughter of Robert Louis Stevenson) garbed in the shawl of an Indian seeress, predicted a marriage to Templeton Crocker and absolute wedded bliss, she succumbed.

Once the engagement was announced, a whirlwind of traveling, balls, fetes, and country jamborees celebrated their union. For several years. They had a pair of engagement celebrations, one at the family owned Del Monte Hotel in Monterey and another at the Pebble Beach Lodge. Their honeymoon included a Grand Tour through Europe, where they lingered longest in Moorish and Saracens regions of Spain. The last leg included a picturesque ride in a dahabiyah down the Nile past Alexandria, Cairo and the pyramids.

In England, Prince Fortunatus and the Sugar Princess attended the coronation of King George V. Helene wore her wedding dress.


It was during their elongated honeymoon that the newlyweds devised the scenario of the spectacular Oriental Ball at the St. Francis which took place in January of 1912. It was called the most gorgeous and costly affair ever given in San Francisco. Two hundred of the city’s inner elite assembled. Invitations to the ball specified that the costumes of no country would be taboo but those of China and Japan. The atmosphere of the Orient as it permeated the imaginations of poets and storytellers was what Helene sought to be reproduced.

The Red Room to the left of the Ballroom had been transformed to simulate a cross between a castle in Spain and the throne room of King Solomon’s temple. Softened red lights gleamed through vapors of incense on walls hung with costly tapestries and other rich decorations and trappings of Oriental art. Swarthy attendants were clad in the fantastic dress of Asiatic principalities.

The garden which adorned the Indian room was like a scene from the Alhambra. The centerpiece of the unusual spectacle was an installation of Japanese azaleas, wisteria and great fans of peacock feathers. There were lilac trees and orange trees where hummingbirds hovered and live peacocks, green parrots and flame-colored cockatoos squawked and chattered.

The Ballets Russes’ Scheherazade by artist Hubert Stowitts, who would later become Templeton’s costume and set designer

Helene dressed as Scheherazade, the fascinating storyteller of the Arabian nights, whose wit charmed the Bluebeard Sultan for 1001 nights. Her costume included mauve colored pantaloons fringed in silver, a cerise blouse with thousands of pearl beads and a silver embroidered jacket.

Templeton impersonated Ballet Russes dancer Nijinsky in a garb that included bloomers of old blue and gold brocade, a velvet bolero with tones of petunia gold-red and maroon, and a jeweled head dress with hundreds of precious stones.

In the St. Francis assemblage, the people of Turkey, Persia, Damascus, Morocco and Egypt were all represented–Moors, Saracens, Arabs, Bedouins–of every rank and station, mahouts to maharajas, slaves and soldiers to kings and queens. There were a couple of mummies, some Tibetan priests from Himalayan lamaseries, the Khalifa of Baghdad, Sinbad of course, and all the rest of the picturesque trope of Arabian heroes, heroines and villains. A well-known local physician appeared as Omar Khayyam.

The whole company had been transported to the land of childhood dreams.

Guests were served dinner at eight. Then came the costume ball. Supper was served at midnight out of real ancient Turkish and Arabian bronze dishes. Entertainment at the ball included the exotic and sensual “Dance of the Seven Veils” performed by six Salomes. The popular strip tease dance symbolized the act of revealing truths, layer by layer. Each veil removed invited the onlookers deeper into the story’s intrigue.

Templeton Crocker’s Oriental ball was said to have outshone any similar entertainment given in the West, and there were many who contended that it surpassed in exuberance and extravagance even that celebrated affair, “Dance of All Nations,” given by Mr. Crocker’s cousin, Mrs. Jackson Gouraud, (aka Aimée Crocker), a few weeks earlier.

On the heals of the sensational shindig, Templeton and Helene, along with his sister Jennie, his cousin Ethel and his Uncle William were included in C.W. de Lyon Nicholls’ book The 469 Ultra-fashionables of America. His Aunt Ethel was touted as the Mrs. Astor of the West coast.

Every thing was hunky dory in Crockerland.


The Mansion

Templeton commissioned renowned San Francisco architect and Bohemian Club buddy Willis Polk to design a noble mansion for his new bride in the style of a Neo-Classical Renaissance palazzo and named it Uplands. Then he and Polk set out on an invasion of Europe, a reconnaissance mission, to pillage all the finest French, Italian and Spanish artifacts, and to hire some top notch German craftsmen to execute their plans. Now the exclusive Crystal Springs Uplands School, it was built at a cost of $1.6 (more than $49 million today). The country villa contained 35,000 square feet of living space, a 10,000 square foot basement, and 39 rooms, including 12 bedrooms and 12 baths. It also featured a wine cellar, an elevator, a dumbwaiter, four staircases and mezzanine level living quarters for ten servants.

Uplands had 160 acres of formal French gardens, terraced approaches, concrete balustrades, jardinières filled with flowers, fountains and water gardens, a swimming pool and tennis courts. 

Uplands by San Francisco architect Willis Polk (Gabriel Moulin)

Rose and Pomona green were colors repeated throughout the public rooms of the house. The ceiling of the central court was fully forty feet above the floor. The late 16th century ballroom ceiling was purchased in northern Italy and then reassembled in Hillsborough. The Carrara marble fireplaces were hand-carved, with mantelpieces carefully extracted from a 16th century Spanish castle. The dining room table and chairs came from a palace in Cintra, Portugal.

In Mr. Crocker’s library was contained the finest private collection of prints and lithographs depicting scenes in the early history of California and of San Francisco in the days when it was called Yerba Buena. There were choice specimens of illuminated manuscripts produced by devout monks to show their devotion to art and religion, long before the days of printing presses. There was Shakespeare’s Third Folio, printed in 1663, a first edition of Milton and a Bombay Kipling, the only one on the West Coast. Above the massive door in his study was the Latin inscription from Seneca: “Leisure without learning is death.”


A few days after the legal separation, it was announced that Templeton would play a principal part in St. Francis of Assisi by Irving Pichel, the 27th Grove Play for the Bohemian Club, with 140 members in the cast and starring California baritone Lawrence Tibbett. Helene was right when she claimed in divorce court that her spouse was obsessed with the drama. His heart was never in the marriage. It was in pageantry. It was in the theater. It was in the arts.

Templeton Crocker was a huge success as Gwendolyn Fairfax in the Yale production of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest

Templeton was a stand out member and star of the famous Yale Dramatic Association also known as the “Yale Dramat,” the second oldest college theater company in America. Notable alumni include talk show host Dick Cavett; film director George Roy Hill; actors Paul Giamatti and Edward Norton; actress Jodie Foster; writer Thornton Wilder, and the great composer Cole Porter. Cousin Harry Crocker (Class of 1916) was a member as was Golden Globe and Emmy Award winning actor Bradford Dillman, who was Aimée Crocker’s cousin on her mom’s side.

Dramat’s early undergraduates did not content themselves solely with revivals of historical interest. They also explored the works of more contemporary, controversial dramatists.

Then an all male university, Templeton’s thespian classmates discovered that he was a female impersonator of peculiar ability. He took on the roles of Tomasa in Quiñones de Benavente’s El Doctor y el Enfermo; Inga in Ibsen’s The Pretenders; Mme. de Fierens in Daniel Riche’s Le Pretexte; and was a huge hit as Gwendolyn Fairfax in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest.

A few years into the marriage, Templeton became a board member and investor in the California Motion Picture Corporation. A consortium of 13 millionaires built 10 acres of movie studios in San Rafael which included a large glass-enclosed stage, a film laboratory, dressing rooms, a carpenter shop and a brick vault to store their films. Their first feature-length (6 reel) production, Salomy Jane, based on a short story by Bret Harte, starred Beatriz Michelena and British actor House Peters. It premiered before a private audience on October 8, 1914 at the St. Francis Hotel. Louis B. Mayer declared it an “absolute masterwork.” The Examiner called it “a sensation from coast to coast.” The corporation went bankrupt in a little over a year.

Beatriz Michelena, House Peters and Ernest Joy in Salomy Jane (1914)

Templeton returned to the stage as a performer, three years after the wedding, first for the Bohemian Club in Frank Pixley’s Apollo, a midsummer Grove play. Again performing in an all-male environment, Crocker was no longer type cast in the female roles but expanded his range. With J.D. Redding, former Bohemian Club president and close friend of cousin Aimée, he wrote the 1917 Grove play The Land of Happiness.

Fay-Yen-Fah’s costume for the first act by Hubert Stowitts

Templeton then turned this one-act play into a three-act opera, Fay-Yen-Fah, which premiered at the opulent Opéra de Monte Carlo. Redding composed the music. Crocker wrote the libretto and hired Mlle. Fanny Heldy to play Fay-Yen-Fah and male lead René Maison to play villain Hou the Fox-God. The brilliant dancer/painter Hubert Julian Stowitts, aka “America’s First Ambassador of International Culture” designed the costumes and sets. Ballet sequences were choreographed by a youthful George Balanchine and performed by Ballets Russes dancers Nicholas Kremnev and Vera Nemtchinova.

For his accomplishment Crocker received a dazzling write-up in Time Magazine and the Ribbon of the Legion of Honor from France.

Around 1918, Templeton formed a lifelong friendship with Reginald Travers, foster father of the “Little Theater” movement on the West Coast. Little Theater founders and participants comprised a web of amateur theater activities involving playwrights, professors, liberal political activists, social workers, heirs and heiresses, poets, actors, aesthetes and journalists. These proponents produced more intimate, non-profit-centered and reform-minded entertainments, believing that theater could be used for the betterment of American society and to promote more creative and dynamic self-expression.

Travers along with Evelyn Vaughn, William S. Rainey and Edna St. Vincent Millay, established an off-Broadway theater they christened the Cherry Lane Playhouse that continues to be a home for nontraditional and experimental works. A succession of major American plays were produced at the theater by writers including F. Scott Fitzgerald, Eugene O’Neill, Clifford Odets, Gertrude Stein, Samuel Beckett, T. S. Eliot, Tennessee Williams, Harold Pinter, Eugène Ionesco, Terrence McNally, Lanford Wilson, Edward Albee, Sam Shepard and David Mamet.

Mary Sesnon and Templeton in Aria Da Capo by Edna St. Vincent Millay (1923) and Templeton in Mary Mary Quite Contrary by St. John Greer Ervine (1927)

Templeton was on the advisory board of the Players Guild in the years before and after his divorce collaborating often with Travers and his Peninsula Players. He starred in a succession of avant garde pieces laced with social commentary: Aria Da Capo (1923) the poetic fantasy by Edna St. Vincent Millay that condemns the brutality of war and the coercive power of nationalistic propaganda (cousin Harry was in the cast); Anna Cora Mowatt’s Fashion (1924) a satire about nouveau riche Americans who aspire to the pretensions of upper-class Europeans; The Man Who Ate the Popomack by W.J. Turner about a man being ostracized for eating a rare fruit with a horrible stench (1925); John Galsworthy’s play Loyalties about the iron clad class loyalty and reflex anti-semitism of post WWI England (1926); and St. John Greer Ervine’s Mary Mary Quite Contrary about a spoiled actress whose antics put a succession of managers into an early grave (1927). In 1930 Crocker starred in a revival of The Amazons, by Arthur Wing Pinero an early gender bending comedy. In defiance against the constraints of womanhood in Victorian England, a matriarch brings up her daughters as sons.

Larry Kent

The Crocker divorce was finalized in May of 1928. Sometime that summer, Templeton met the dashing matinee idol and heartthrob Larry Kent. He had eight films in the theaters that year playing opposite superstars Sally O’Neill, Molly O’Day, Colleen Moore, Thelma Todd, Billy Dove and Oscar winners Mary Astor and Loretta Young. (Sally O’Neill appeared opposite cousin Harry Crocker in MGM’s Becky a year earlier). The high-tide of the year and his career was starring in The Hangman’s House, which was released on May 13, 1928 and directed by the great John Ford. It includes John Wayne’s first appearance on screen.

Crocker and Kent hit it off. The 28-year-old actor, an avid sailor, gave the middle-aged divorcee his first ride on a private yacht. When Kent wasn’t appearing opposite First National Studios’ stellar beauties, he was sailing up and down the coast, or among the coves of Catalina Island. Born at sea under the British flag, Larry became a sailor on windjammers, then on steam vessels. He overstated his age during World War I in order to get in to the Navy, where he eventually became a lieutenant. After the war and before making his way to the silver screen, he took medical courses at Berkeley and was a campus middleweight boxing champion.

The millionaire and the movie star sailed from San Pedro to Ensenada on an overnight voyage with a couple of guests. When Larry retired at midnight, Templeton took over the twelve to four watch at the wheel in the tiny cockpit. “Shore lights glowed faintly. I was alone with the stars. The sea was intimate and enchanting; I experienced a communion with it when, for the first time, I tried to keep the ship on her course, and she obeyed me,” Templeton later wrote. It was a peak, almost mystical experience that set his imagination on fire…

Top left going clockwise: Larry Kent in Lovelorn with Molly O’Day (1927); with Billy Dove in The Heart of a Follies Girl (1928); with Alberta Vaughn in The Adventures of Mazie (1925) and with Sally O’Neill in Lovelorn (1927)

That summer, Larry Kent commissioned designer Edson B. Schock and the Wilmington Boat Works Company to build a similar craft for Templeton. The wooden auxiliary schooner of heavy fir and teak was 61.6 feet in length and 15’10” of beam, with a keel and a trunk cabin. She carried 1,900 sq ft of sails made by Ratsey & Lapthorn and a fifty-horsepower Cummins full diesel engine. Radio, telephone and electric water pressure, and electric refrigeration were included among the modern equipment. Completed she cost a whopping $30,000 ($515,000 today). After paying the initiation fee for joining “that extravagant company of suckers called yachtsmen,” Crocker made contact with the incomparable Captain Garland Rotch at the St. Francis Yacht Club in San Francisco who gave him a crash course in navigation. The yacht was christened and named Zaca, an Indian word for peace, by Isobel Teuila Strong Field, who along with and second husband Salisbury “Ned” Field owned Zaca Lake, 35 miles north-west of Santa Barbara.

In early February, The Los Angeles Times reported that Templeton and dreamboat Larry were preparing a trip to the South Seas. The heir to the Crocker fortune, it seems, needed a reprieve from the exclusive hamlet of Hillsborough and its “ultra-fashionables.”


Actor Larry Kent on one of his yachts, circa 1930

It was settled, they would sail the South Seas in the spring. As a dry run, a kindergarten journey, Crocker and Kent and some friends intended to cruise down to Mexico for a couple of weeks of deep sea fishing. At Mazatlán, principal port of the West Coast of Mexico, Zaca was stopped by federales with machine guns. A series of battles between the government forces of interim President Emilio Portes Gil and a rebel force of nearly 30,000 men under the command of General José Gonzalo Escobar was sweeping through northern Mexico. The city of Monterrey, in Nuevo Leon, was taken in ten hours. Rebels in Sinaloa then won significant victories at Mazatlán, Agua Prieta and Naco where they inflicted considerable punishment on retreating government forces.

Outside communication by the federal forces of General Jaime Carrillo had been cut off at Mazatlán. But when the rebellion began, the Panama Mail San Francisco offices ordered their Acapulco team by wireless to send the steamer City of San Francisco to pick up any refugees who might wish to leave Mexico. She reached that port on the morning of March 9th, touched at Manzanillo and Mazatlán, and left San Jose del Cabo March 15th. Templeton jumped shipped, and with 48 other frightened passengers fled with the parcel post packages to friendlier seas. Larry took his chances and sailed along the war torn coast on the Kent-Crocker schooner.

Like Larry, Templeton joined the Navy during the war, though he was far from the draft age. Templeton Crocker was in the “swivel chair brigade,” as the men not in the firing divisions were called with more affection than criticism. Following the armistice, as a reservist, he was assigned to the U.S.S. Idaho as a assistant navigator with the rank of ensign. He was not terribly shaken by the Mexican mayhem at sea. Instead of abandoning his South Seas fantasies, he would expand them.


The Penthouse

When Templeton returned to San Francisco by freight from Mexico he was given a house warming tea party by his interior decorator, the legendary Jean-Michel Frank, at his newly finished penthouse at 945 Green St. on Russian Hill. Like Larry Kent, Frank would have a pronounced affect on his mid-life sea change.

Portrait of C. Templeton Crocker, 1927 (oil on canvas) by Giulio de Blaas, (1889-1934). California Historical Society

Templeton bought the property in September of 1927, not long after he separated from Helene, with the original intention of having a city pied-de-terre. It was a nine-room, 6,000 sq ft apartment with a spacious penthouse sunroom on an upper story. He went on a shopping spree in Paris and Berlin searching for inspiring furnishings and instead found an inspired decorator.

While Uplands was the picture of showy, over-the-top grandeur, Jean-Michel Frank sought subtle simplicity. He promoted no designs on his walls and, in almost every instance, kept his colors ranging from ivory to brown, though the gamut of oyster white, golden grey, soft yellows and tans, and very dull gold was sometimes incorporated.

If the designer’s palette was restrained his variety of artist mediums were frisky. Frank was known for his exotic use of unusual materials. Walls and furniture of parchment and straw; tables of shark skin (shagreen); andirons of rock crystal; curtains of lacy woven steel; goatskin, vellum, glittery mica…

The Templeton Crocker apartment provided Jean-Michel Frank with the opportunity to make a spectacular entrance on the international scene. It was a French Art Deco masterpiece.

San Franciscans generally did not take to the style. This was a city immersed in Victoriana, and it was already overbuilt by the time Deco and Moderne came on the scene. Templeton and Jean-Michel were making a dramatic statement. In August of 1929, Vogue Magazine named it “the first large and luxurious apartment to be done completely in the modern manner in the United States,” and declared, “it is, perhaps, one of the most beautiful apartments in the world.”

Piano in the Templeton Crocker living room. Photo by Harald Gottschalk. Courtesy of Assouline

The walls and ceiling in the living room of Crocker’s penthouse were of sheepskin parchment. The fireplace surround was decorated with mica leaf in a gilt bronze setting. The sofa and chairs were covered with deep ivory Morocco leather and arranged on a chocolate brown carpet. The many small tables in the room were covered in brown and white shark skin, dark brown pressed straw, or parchment. Cabinets of brown straw applique contained the radio and phonograph. A piano was concealed in one of the corners behind a screen covered in parchment. On the tables were rose quartz and obsidian andiron lamps with shades of mica that cast a muted glow over the room. The curtains were of hand woven cream white silk.

Living room of the Charles Templeton Crocker penthouse. (Moulin)

The Frank study was softly golden, a glowing room with walls of pale but lustrous yellow straw, which radiated light in the daytime and reflected tungsten light from the shaded lamps at night. On one side of the room were recessed bookcases. Against another wall was a large divan with pale straw marquetry that was outlined by the same gilt metal moldings used on the paneling. On the thick beige carpet, the designer arranged russet leather armchairs and a streamlined chair also entirely covered in leather. Avodire, a pale yellow African wood, was used for the large desk, a reading table, and a swiveling bookcase. The pervading yellow tones of the room were intensified in the cow-hide coverings of the chairs and in the silk and wool curtains.

Crocker’s study, circa 1929. Banquette decorated with straw marquetry and upholstered in straw yellow natural silk. The smoker side table is covered in shagreen, the disc lamp is plate glass.

In the study, a portion of Mr. Crocker’s vast collection of 1st editions were housed. Some of these volumes were valued at over $250,000 (in 2024 dollars). Highlights of his dynamic library included the rarest and most important prints and maps of San Francisco and the mining towns of California; French volumes printed in the 1600s about the journeys of famous explorers; and titles which revealed Crocker’s secret passions (and foretold the next chapter of his life) such as: Aerial Navigation: the Practicability of Traveling…from New York to California in Three Days, 1849, by Rufus Porter; The Dreadful Sufferings and Thrilling Adventures of an Overland Party, 1850, by William Beschke; and Voyage Round the World, 1799, by Jean Francois Galaup de La Perouse.

In eliminating needless ornamentation, Frank created an apartment that radiated an atmosphere that was, paradoxically, peaceful and at the same time stimulating. His designs suggested that there should be more refinement and simplicity not only in people’s living rooms, but in their lives. An environment of warmth and elegance was needed for one’s psychological well-being. A meditative monastic atmosphere could take away daily sorrows and give space for the soul to contemplate and grow.

Templeton Crocker was more than ready to shed some of his Great Gatsby excesses.

Jean Dunand

The landmark penthouse was actually a three-man collaboration of visions. The dining room, breakfast room and master bedroom was designed and crafted by Jean Durand.

Jules-John Dunand was born on May 20, 1877 in Lancy, Switzerland. In 1922, he became a naturalized French citizen and adopted the first name of Jean. At the age of fourteen, Jean began studying sculpture at the Geneva School of Industrial Arts. He learned the traditional technique of dinanderie, making domestic wares from hammered copper and brass. After mastering that craft, Dunand then met Seizo Sugawara, a Japanese lacquer artist living in Paris. He methodically adhered to the ancient technique. He used this lacquering process on his furniture and metalware, either polished to a high sheen or treated with a rough chipped surface finish known as laque arrachée.

Dunand, left, and his son work on panels for the luxury ship L’Atlantique in Dunand’s Paris studio, ca. 1930. Photo by Salaün

Dunand’s signature innovation was coquille d’ceuf “eggshell lacquer,” an incrustation of tiny pieces of eggshells laboriously placed into a layer of wet lacquer. This technique was developed as a dramatic substitute for the color white, which could not be obtained through the standard vegetable dyes used to create lacquer.

Dunand was an important contributor to the 1925 Paris Exposition, the 1931 Exposition Coloniale, and the 1937 Exposition Internationale exhibitions. In the 20s and 30s his work was prominently featured in several exhibitions held at American museums, galleries, and department stores. American patrons included Soloman Gugenheim. He supplied large-scale decorative panels for the great ocean liners Ile de France, L’Atlantique, and the Normandie. They were showcases as the very best of contemporary French designs. Dunand also sent numerous pieces to San Francisco for an exhibition of French decorative art sponsored by the French government, one of which was purchased by bon-vivant, art patron and connoisseur Templeton Crocker a few years before his marriage collapsed.

Jean Dunand was more elaborately decorative, more brilliantly colorful in his oeuvre than Templeton’s chief decorator Jean-Michel Frank. He used long, flashing rays of gold in different tones, pink and silver on black lacquers, frozen luminous greys, frosted silvers, varying greens, and warm red-browns.

The dining table and the two serving tables at the Crocker penthouse were of red-brown lacquer with crushed eggshell tops inlaid in Dunand’s famous laque arrache. It was so handsome that Mr. Crocker ruled that no cloths or mats ever be placed on it to cover its artistry. The walls, that were not windows facing the view, were sweeping rays of gold and silver. The chairs were of the same lacquer, cushioned with brown grained leather.

The Templeton Crocker dining room by Jean Dunand. Photo by Gabriel Moulin

The effect of the dining room was one of sun and brilliant color. To step from it into the breakfast room was to walk from tropical sunlight into a tropical underwater grotto. This room was the talk of the town. It was an octagonal room at the corner of the building that commanded a breathtaking view of the entire San Francisco Bay.

On remaining black onyx lacquer walls were pink, orange and silver beautifully etched tropical fish, coral and seaweed. Rays of silver light filtered down as though from the surface of the water. There was a geometric design on the ceiling of smoked grey, black and white, and set in a silver metal frame above which were the lights. A pink and silver lacquer table rested on the black wall to wall carpet. The chairs were of pink with chrome metal tubes. The curtains were of heavy salmon pink silk.

Details of the Dunand lacquer panels in the breakfast room. They were purchased by the jeweler Fred Leighton in 2000 who used them in his VIP salon and viewing room.

The permanent staff at the apartment was Thomas Thomasser, the butler, a chief chauffeur who took charge of three foreign cars and a Cadillac, two maids, a chef, and a cook’s assistant. Others would be brought in for special occasions, of which there were many. Cocktail parties, dinner parties and late-night, after-theater parties for touring celebrities. Templeton hosted artistic affairs in which he “was generous”—according to famed San Francisco gossip columnist, Herb Caen—“to Bohemians of all sizes, sexes and colors.” He never had more than 12 for dinner, 8 at the dining table and four in the breakfast room. And for supper parties, never more than 30. On these nights the Jean Pulforcat flatware and tea service were brought out from the cupboards as well as the Rene Lalique frosted glass dishes and bowls and the Faure enamel bonbon box made in Limoges, France.

The split-level master bedroom and bathroom, extending across the southern wall of the apartment, had a mirror-paneled wall and a platform bed set into a flight of carpeted steps. Dunand contrasted his own love for movement and bold designs with Frank’s monotones. On the laque arrache walls were Deco woodland designs in tones of silver and grey with overtones of tan. Over the head of the bed, a life-sized deer nibbled at the leaves on a tree branch, and, on an adjacent wall, his companion grazed in the grass. These deer were made of thin sheets of lead, inlaid with colors.

The furniture, low and square, was of black and grey lacquer, with a note of white in the ivory knobs of the commode and the goatskin that covered the chairs. The curtains were of grey chamois in three shades.

(Left) The Templeton Crocker master bedroom by Jean Dunand. Right: Two Deer in a Forest. Jean Dunand (1877-1942). (Right) Similar lacquered wood panel. Made circa 1929 for Mme. Jacoubovitch, Paris. A cabinet that he made in 1937 sold at Christie’s in 2019 for $5,496,000.

The master bathroom, done by Frank, was described by Vogue as “probably the most beautiful room of all. One has the sensation of standing in the heart of an aquarium surrounded by green water—an effect produced by walls of green sandblasted glass superimposed on mirrors.” The framings were narrow strips of silver-plated maillechort. Frank chose to use frosted glass on the walls, the ceiling and the door creating a room that looked like a glass cage. The tub and sink were a wide semicircle ebony Belgian marble with square fixtures. The floor was also black marble. The window curtains were of fine wire mesh.

Bathroom in Templeton Crocker’s penthouse, 1929. (Gabriel Moulin).

The Sunroom

If the critics were smitten with the bathroom, guests were inevitably thunderstruck by the sunroom, a vast panoramic parlor, as large as a hotel concourse, which was also used as a music room. Designed by Jean-Michel Frank, it had spectacular high-ceilings, twenty bay windows framed and separated with mirrored panels that beckoned the spectacular views of the city and the bay. Bushes in clay trough planters sat beneath them. The single windowless wall was covered in terracotta tiles, as was the floor, and held the bar, as well as a beautiful fountain–twelve feet long–constructed of vertical strips of crystal mounted in nickel-silver, with water flowing over it in a gleaming curtain. Lights placed behind the crystal gave it a glowing iridescence.

Templeton Crocker in the sunroom of his San Francisco penthouse circa 1929. Walls covered in mirrors this black metal borders, terracotta floor. Terracotta flower pots gouge carved oak tables, leather and woven Wicker chairs. At the back of the room, on the piano, Object III, reverse glass painting by Louis Marcoussis (Gabriel Moulin)

Templeton Crocker’s spectacular penthouse sunroom by Jean-Michel Frank. Photo by Gabriel Moulin

The furniture was uniformly low. There were boxy, geometric armchairs and sofas, several partly enclosed by half-height screens. There were rectangular, reclining seats and floor cushions, gouge-carved oak coffee tables, X-frame stools, a savage farrago of animal hides and some Navajo rugs strewn on the floor. It was an electrifying combination of Continental chic and American frontier. Resting on the grand piano, was a painting by Louis Marcoussis Object III, a curious square sheet of plate glass painted on both sides in an eccentric design in pink, grey, white, and black. There was an exquisite oriental sculpture by Lovett Lorski in the sunroom and a six-foot high three-paneled screen by Picasso of harlequins.

Both sides of Object III, reverse glass painting by Louis Marcoussis (1927). It rested on the piano in the sunroom. Jean-Michel Frank didn’t like paintings on the walls.

Jean-Michel Frank was a groundbreaking artist who followed the rocky road of historic tragic, tortured characters like Vincent Van Gogh, Sylvia Plath and Oscar Wilde.

Like Templeton, Jean-Michel was a scion from a successful banking family. Father Léon moved to Paris as a young man. Young Jean-Michel was teased mercilessly for being not only puny, frail and effeminate but also descended from foreigners.

Jean-Michel Frank (1895-1941) is often listed among the most influential interior designers in world history

The outbreak of the First World War brought the emigrant family into conflict with their German relatives. His sturdy older brothers, Oscar and Georges, fought on the front lines on both sides of the war and were killed within a week of each other. His father then committed suicide and his mother was admitted into an insane asylum. His cousin Anne was the doomed then venerated author of The Diary of Anne Frank.

Jean-Michel was plagued by drug addiction, homophobic taunts, crippling bouts of depression, and was persecution by an antisemitic government. He fled to Buenos Aires at the beginning of the second Great War in a nick of time.

Frank was commissioned to decorate for such high-profile clients as fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli, the Viscount Charles de Noailles, and the American composer and lyricist Cole Porter. When he opened his own boutique in the 8th arrondissement in 1935, his fame reached its peak. He accepted more and more orders from America and Argentina, furnishing villas in Chicago, New York and Buenos Aires. In America, department stores began selling his furniture. Despite his tremendous successes in the art world, the troubled artist committed suicide in 1941, shortly after decorating the apartment of Nelson Rockefeller.

Jennie Marine Easton Crocker, circa 1879, Templeton’s mother, who died when he was two. Courtesy Tania Stepanian

There was a kinship between Frank and Crocker. Like Jean-Michel, Templeton lost half of his family when he was young. His mother Jennie, niece of banker and Comstock juggernaut D.O. Mills, died while giving birth to his younger sister Jennie when he was just two. Ten years later he was left an orphan when his father died of Bright’s disease.

When he was a sophomore at Yale, Crocker was a passenger in a horrible car wreck. His older sister Mary, mother of two girls and wife of Congressman Francis Burton Harrison, was killed right next to him.

Templeton was a sickly boy, feeble and accident prone. A high fever hospitalized him as an infant. When he was five, he fell from a flight of stairs while sliding down the banisters. It was feared that even if he survived his injuries his mind would be permanently impaired. When he was a teenager, Templeton was thrown from a horse into a telephone pole and broke both of his legs above the knees.

Mary, Jennie, Col. Charles Frederick Crocker and Charles Templeton Crocker, circa 1887. Courtesy Tania Stepanian

Templeton, like Frank, was occasionally crippled with a pronounced inferiority complex and was prone to debilitating bouts of binge drinking and manic depressive episodes.


The Yacht

It was Captain Rotch who filled Templeton’s head with talk of a cruise around the world and visiting far away ports. He began issuing casual though disparaging remarks about the size of Crocker’s yacht. Zacas trial trip to Mexico proved that the vessel was too large for sailing only in San Francisco Bay, yet, because of the cramped quarters, too small for an extended cruise. He needed an upgrade.

Girdling the globe was a family tradition. Both his father the Colonel and grandfather Charles took on the bold and challenging adventure. His Aunt Hattie was not quite 24 when she went on her odyssey in 1883, years before American journalist and famous female traveler Nellie Bly made her record-breaking trip around the world. Aimée Crocker, his dad’s first cousin, made her famous world jaunt described so dramatically in her memoirs And I’d Do It Again in 1894-95 departing and returning the same months as C.F.

Cousin Aimée had the right yacht to tour the world–a 133′ schooner, Ramona, and the right captain to helm the ship–husband number two, Commodore Harry Gillig. They sailed the Eastern seaboard often, but never crossed an ocean. Templeton’s relatives glided the seven seas mostly by luxury ocean liner in first class plus. New boat owner Templeton admitted, “the only thing I know about sailing is that for some mysterious reason the same wind will permit two boats to travel in opposite directions; also, I become seasick on the slightest provocation.” The next generation Templeton had a weak stomach, but was gutsy. He would stray far outside of his Peninsula comfort zone–into the equatorial zone–with a very small crew and a few guests.

Crocker felt more at ease knowing that Larry Kent, the seasoned sailor, would be joining him on the journey, and that the captain and navigator would be Garland Rotch, who would design a new and improved Zaca, superintend her construction, and meticulous attend to the endless details in getting the yacht and the crew ready for the ambitious trip.

Captain Garland Rotch and Templeton before setting sail on their year-long around-the-world journey. Bancroft Library.

Zaca the sequel was built by the Nunes Brothers Boat and Ways Co. in Old Town Sausalito for $350,000 (7.9 million today), and modeled after the Bluenose, a fast and famous Nova Scotia fishing and racing schooner immortalized on the Canadian dime.

The bigger, better, bolder Zaca was a black-hulled, auxiliary, two-masted, gaff-rigged schooner of 122 tons and 118ft length overall with a sail area of 6,550 sq ft and a spinnaker of 3,100 square feet for use running before the wind. She was built of Alaska cedar and her decks were of solid teak. White primavera was used throughout the main salon. Her spars, with the exception of the spinnaker boom, were of Oregon pine.

Crocker is said to have spent an additional $l00,000 on fittings and furniture. The linens, utensils and dishes were labeled with “Zaca” monograms.

In addition to the large (23 x 14 foot) main salon and Crocker’s private quarters (stateroom, study and bath) the yacht had two single and two double staterooms, galley, crew’s and engineer’s quarters, chart room, radio shack, and engine room. The ship had hot and cold running water and two Frigidaire ice machines. There was a commercial short-wave radio set with ET365 5-B and ET-3650 transmitters and a range of up to 11,400 miles. There was enough room on deck for full-sized power cruiser for side trips. The boatage for the trip would include a 20-foot Chris-craft speedboat, a 20-foot motor-powered otter boat, a skiff, a dory and a small collapsible boat. Templeton brought a crew of eleven seasoned Scandinavian seamen and his personal physician Dr. A.E. “Swede” Larsen.

Templeton was given a collection of St. Christopher pendants from friends to bless his journey. One he strung around his neck, another over his bed. A third, blessed by the Pope, was placed at the wheel of the schooner. He also, for good luck, following the example of his famous tattooed cousin, had a tattoo of a pig drawn on his right ankle by artist Brooklyn Blackie found in an English stockbreeder’s catalogue, which according to nautical legend was believed to protect sailors from drowning.

Zaca. Photo Courtesy The Sausalito Historical Society

Zaca II was christened at eleven o’clock on the night of April 12, 1930 during a partial lunar eclipse. Teuila Field again performed the sacred ritual that would ensure the safety of the sea-going vessel. She came up from Santa Barbara with husband number two Ned Field and Oscar winning actress Marie Dressler.

While Teuila stood on an apple box, bottle of champagne in hand, the blocks were knocked from under the keel. The ship started to slide. An off balance Teuila in her excitement swung and missed. Templeton seized it from her and flung it wildly after the retreating ship—missing his mark completely. The bottle landed in the crowd without breaking. Templeton and his sister Jennie ran down to the waterside and with the retrieved bottle were rowed out to the big black hull.

The Zaca was finally christened and the crowd was drenched with champagne.

The cruise lasted a few days short of a year and took the Zaca to Tahiti, Papua, the New Hebrides, Java, Bali, Singapore, Ceylon, Aden, Port Said, Cannes, Gibraltar, Puerto Rico, and through the Panama Canal to the Pacific Coast again. Larry Kent went as far as Papeete before returning home to film a movie. The great schooner covered a total of 27, 052 miles. Zaca would be the first private yacht to sail around the world from the West Coast.

Crocker didn’t spend much time at the foreign colonies of the British Empire that catered to well-to-do Western travelers. He often chose to drop anchor off tiny islands and live among indigenous tribesmen.

Out of the 47 ports and regions large and small that the Zaca team explored, Bali, the little island in the Dutch East Indies off Java, was the most beautiful, according to Templeton. He remained there for seven weeks while the boat was undergoing a general overhaul in Singapore.

Templeton decided not to stay at Hotel Bali with the tourists who happen to be grazing on the island. He found it deplorable the number of excursionists being rushed through the peaceful paradise, especially the grossly irreverent “ugly Americans” who would glare disapprovingly at the artistic Balinese people and their unspoiled, idyllic island like they were theater critics peering through opera glasses at a bad play. Templeton feared that ever-increasing contact with the world would compromise the island’s innocence and natural beauty. He especially feared an infiltration of Adventists. Crocker was a confirmed hater of taboos and believed that if the Balinese were missionized, their brilliance and potency would be neutered.

“One would think the missionaries would have been more Christian if they had built a hospital instead of a church, and then worshiped God in that matchless surrounding of trees, vines, and flowers,” he wrote in his travelogue.

In Bora Bora, Templeton was entertained at the home of one of cinema’s most influential filmmakers, F.W. Murnau, who directed Nosferatu, an adaptation of Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula, and also an adaptation of of Goethe’s Faust. Murnau’s lived in an idyllic hut overlooking a bay with stunning views of  Mount Pahia and Mount Temanu. He showed the Templeton team albums of photographs he had taken on trips of the Marquesas and Tuamotu that captured noble, chiseled and bronzed natives. “I have never seen more beautiful or more perfect photographs,” wrote Templeton.

Murnau was shooting his latest film Tabu. Tagline: “On the South Pacific island of Bora Bora, a young couple’s love is threatened when the tribal chief declares the girl a sacred virgin.” The German director complained to Crocker that his native cast couldn’t be found come payday. They didn’t understand their legal contractural obligations. Along with the nervous director, the police were looking for his absent leading man.

In Fiji, Templeton met Sylvester M. Lambert, a doctor of Tropical Medicine with the Rockefeller Foundation. He entertained Templeton Crocker with tales of isolated and unexplored regions of the Solomon Islands, especially Rennell. Tribes of Polynesians lived there who had virtually no contact with the Western world. There were no safe landing beaches or products of commercial value on this remote island. Missionaries and traders had no foothold there. These indigenous tribes were living much as their ancestors did when they arrived 500 years earlier. Virulent European diseases had not been introduced, and the plant, bird and insect life had remained undisturbed. Lambert believed the Rellennese to be, “the only living relic of a prehistoric race,” and would make for an invaluable study for scientific research.

The excitable Dr. Lambert was anxious to return to this unexplored, virgin island. He asked Crocker if he would be willing to help. His enthusiasm was contagious. The once ultra-fashionable and pampered Crocker loved the idea of living in prehistoric times and promised to return to take Lambert back to the Solomons.

Other highlights included a trip to Nuka Hiva in Marquesas Islands by horseback through groves of thick mango trees, breadfruit and guava bushes to see the spectacular Vaipo waterfall; watching pearl divers at Takaroa Lagoon, in the Tuamotu Archipelago, French Polynesia; and attending the rare king-kava ceremony at the residence of Chief Laopepe near Apia, the capital of Samoa. Dancers wore lava lava skirts, tooth necklaces, and ancient headdresses made of human hair. Templeton was given the kava title “Malaetia ma Tapulauia aumaia feselafaigafou,” which he never had adequately translated. 

Photos taken during Templeton Crocker’s around the world journey: Ceremonial drums Atchin Island, New Hebrides, now Vanuatu (left); Ringpat, a Big Nambus chief from Malekula Island (top middle); a cannibal from the Nivambat Tribe who had killed and eaten a boy a month earlier; native dancers in Vaitape, Bora Bora, with women dressed in burau skirts and men in short red pareus (bottom right). From The Cruise of the Zaca by Templeton Crocker, 1933

“We had a splendid time,” Crocker reported. “Only two days of bad weather in the Mediterranean after we left Port Said. An 85-mile gale carried away one of our small boats, but the Zaca rode out the storm magnificently… Whenever the breeze dropped below 6 knots, we started the engines,” Crocker said. “And we had comparatively calm weather throughout. I’m afraid I was the only one who got seasick. I got a touch of it in the Mediterranean squall,” The Zaca crossed the Atlantic in 17 days, and “never got her nose wet,” Crocker added.

Sailing ’round the world and buying a super slick bachelor pad, the most beautiful penthouse in the world, wouldn’t be the climax of Templeton’s mid-life shake up. After his saturnalian odyssey of cultural explorations, there was no returning to anything resembling the extravagant yet claustrophobic Peninsula life that he once knew.

Part two coming soon

Banner Photo by Arnold Genthe, 1925, neg #1862, California Historical Society


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