Something in the water


New stories, begging to be told, come to the Aptos History Museum on a regular basis. Last August, a man named Norm Reich emailed us asking for information about Leo Monroe. Norm’s grandmother, Geraldine Beem, was the nanny for Leo Monroe’s daughter in 1939. Also, a distant set of Norm’s relatives were the Monroes' butler and cook for a number of years. Norm sent us some amazing photographs as well. This is what my research turned up.

The “Roaring Twenties” were crazy times. It was a backlash against “No you can’t” (Prohibition) and the response was, “I will if I want to.” People did crazy things (and still do).

In 1925, the San Francisco real estate firm of Monroe, Lyon and Miller purchased more than 1,700 acres of land in Aptos in order to develop what would become Rio Del Mar. The firm had successfully developed subdivisions in Los Altos and Belmont. This is one of the many tales about Leo Monroe, President of the Rio Del Mar Country Club and the Aptos Land and Water Company.

Leo (Leigh) Monroe was born in 1883 in Vermont and eventually moved to San Francisco where he operated a large optical company. He was a polo player and a prominent yachtsman, even winning the Farallones Trophy in 1937. Leo was quite well-to-do. We have a photo of the Hotel Rio Del Mar about 1930. In front of the hotel is parked a 1929 or 1930 Cord L29, front wheel drive convertible, a very upscale automobile. I suspect that the car belonged to Leo Monroe and it was pictured on the front of the brochure for the hotel.

Leo married his first wife Elsey (Estelle) in Oakland in 1926 and they built a house on Beach Drive to the east of the Beach Club. The Beach Club was located where today’s State Park’s parking lot is at the end of Beach Drive just before the gate. Evidently, it was not wedded bliss. They were separated Feb. 3, 1930. She complained that her husband habitually nags and has told her to “get out” and that he “no longer cares for her.” Their divorce was granted Jan. 16, 1934.

In May of 1937, both Leo Monroe and his partner Larry Miller, sold their Beach Drive homes and later, constructed larger homes.

There must have been something in the water because, on Dec. 24, 1937, 54-year-old Leo Monroe married Gena Rea Timmons in New York City. Gena Rea was a 17-year-old showgirl who appeared in Billy Rose’s “Show of Shows.” She was supposedly named "one of the 10 most beautiful women in the world." Gena Rea (Eugenia Marie) Timmons was originally from San Antonio, Texas. The marriage came as a complete surprise to his many friends. They honeymooned in New York and returned to Rio Del Mar in January. At the same time in early December 1937, Leo’s partner, 38-year-old Larry Miller married a 20-year-old college roommate of his sister. They honeymooned in Europe.

Leo built a new mansion sized house for Gena on five acres at the very top of Wallace Avenue and named it Shelbourne Farm. Leo and Gena lived happily and gave birth to a daughter, Mary Leigh, on April 2, 1939. People in the neighborhood today often think the house was Claus Spreckels’ mansion or carriage house but that is not the case. Unfortunately, the house was severely damaged in the 1989 earthquake and completely remodeled. The house that is there now is newer. The location is still quite grand.

Gena continued to entertain the community. In July of 1941, Gena Monroe sang for the soldiers at Camp McQuaide, today’s Monterey Bay Academy. She was accompanied by the Rio Del Mar orchestra and a group of young people.

Then tragedy struck. Early on the evening of Nov. 25, 1941, Gena and Leo were on the Bayshore Highway (Highway 101) at Chestnut Avenue in Redwood City. Gena Monroe was driving. Gena was forced to apply the brakes when the car ahead of her suddenly slowed down. A front wheel locked and threw the car into the path of an oncoming car. The Monroe car swung around and the door opened, throwing Leo Monroe out onto the pavement. The driver of the other car involved in the accident, 22-year-old Raymond Feliciano of San Francisco, was injured and 4-year-old Henry Rivera, who was riding with Feliciano, received slight injuries.

Geraldine Beem, the Monroe’s nanny, said that Gena used to drive her to San Francisco to shop for the baby’s things. Geraldine said that Gena was a fast driver and that she was scared to ride with her. Mrs. Monroe received a slight leg laceration in the accident but Leo was practically scalped by the fall. He sustained a concussion, a fractured skull and broken ribs. The Redwood City Chief of Police investigated the accident and made out the report.

Leo Monroe was taken to the Palo Alto Hospital where he died on Sunday, Nov. 30. He was buried at the Mount Carmel Cemetery in Aptos next to Resurrection Catholic Church.

Gena continued to live in Aptos and to use her talents as an entertainer. In May 1942, a “Gay 90s” party was held by the Santa Cruz Women’s Club. Among the many acts, Gena Monroe and Marilyn Marks appeared as Can Can dancers. Their number was judged to be the most colorful of the show.

On Dec. 16, 1942, Gena Rea Monroe married Mel O’Keefe. Mel had been the manager of the country club and the Aptos Land and Water Company. Gena was 22 and Mel was 26 years old. At the time of their marriage, Mel was a private first class in the Army stationed at Fort Sam Houston in Texas. He was attached to the medical department at Brooke General Hospital. They were married in the Army Post chapel. Shortly after the wedding, Mel had to leave for Officer’s Candidate School. They had a daughter, Eugenia Marie, the following year. They continued to live at Shelbourne Farm in Aptos. Their daughter visited our museum last month.

Don’t miss our “Swing into Spring” auction fundraiser Sunday, May 7 from 3-5:30 p.m. at the Best Western Seacliff Inn. The theme is “Movies Through the Ages.” Dress is casual but we would prefer that you dress up as your favorite movie star. There will be prizes for Best Costume. We plan on having at least two projectors showing a variety of old movies on the walls without sound, just to set the stage. There will be fabulous hors d’oeuvres, a no-host bar, free popcorn, and music from the Soquel High Jazz Band. The museum will also have special displays during the event. Please come join in the fun and help us keep the museum afloat. Tickets are $30. For reservations, please call 688-1467.