For simplicity of this piece, the Whittells are accordingly referred to as Jr. and Sr.
The below is not an academic monograph by any means, but rather I am attempting to make some sense of the events which took place. There are no footnotes, but if you would like my sources, mostly newspapers (which of course are not extremely reliable), please ask and I will happily provide them. The opinions expressed are mine and mine alone, I am sure some of our fellow Whittell fans could take me up in some wonderful debate about this and I look forward to hearing your thoughts and comments!
Florence and Jr. met sometime around 1901 or so while she was still married and in New York. Jr. visited New York often with his family and his grandmother Adeline lived in Mt. Vernon, N.Y. Florence states in court papers that she filed for divorce around July 1902 from her first husband Homer Selby on grounds of adultery. She left for Paris immediately after her filing. Before leaving, she states that Jr. gave her a written promise to marry her within a week after the divorce was finalized. She returned from Paris around August. Shortly after her return the divorce was completed. However, it was not Florence who quickly went back to the altar, but rather her former husband Homer Selby who quickly remarried Florence’s sister, Rose.
So Florence had Jr. sign another note of promise of marriage. According to Florence, Jr. gave Sr. these written promises to secure a financial arrangement. Florence also supposedly sent Sr. hundreds of letters from Jr. promising her marriage and other things, to prove to Sr. that Jr. loved her. Those papers, if they did indeed exist, were never seen again.
Tired of Jr.’s wavering on marriage, Florence told him that she would not go out on a particular evening unless he married her. She was worried about her reputation and he was not committing like he promised. By all accounts this really angered Jr., so he marriage contract which he promised worked in the state of New York. He agreed to renew the contract every six months to appease her. They signed the contract and it was witnessed by Mr. and Mrs. Henshall, in whose home the contract was executed on December 2, 1902. Florence had been living with the family at the time. To be legal in New York, a marriage contract had to be recorded with the county. Jr. claimed he indeed recorded it, swore to Florence he did, but the county clerks had no record of it. However, a different account states that Florence knew it was not recorded, but did not insist on the filing because Jr. had promised her a large and formal wedding in San Francisco. Regardless, Florence believed him at the time and they went out for the evening. There were two copies of the contract: one of which was destroyed (some say she destroyed it as a joke, others say he did); the second copy Florence kept. Jr. told her to destroy it, but she said she lost it and kept it hidden from him. This was a smart move because amidst all the legal findings, this copy was the only written evidence Florence had of their relationship.
Florence traveled alone to California mid-March of 1903. At this point it seems that Jr. had gotten what he wanted from Florence and had mostly abandoned her. She lived in the California Hotel and the Lick House under the name of F.M. Bronner. At some point she figured out she was not being treated like a wife and supported, so she got herself an attorney to file for divorce. Most accounts agreed she was ignored by the Whittells, perhaps with a few exceptions of dinner with the family. It does not seem that Jr. ever had any real interest in making her his wife or formalizing the marriage.
By September 1903, the newspapers had announced the formal engagement of Miss Pearl Landers to Jr. It was not until November of 1903 that the contract marriage scandal of Florence and Jr. became public. Shortly after that, the Landers engagement was called off.
The Whittells counter-sued and Florence replied she was abandoned without provocation and without her consent on August 1st. She also stated in her reply that Jr.’s monthly allowance was $500 per month (about $13,500 in today’s dollars) and she asked for $200 per month in alimony. However, should would only receive payment if the marriage was found as legal. She wanted $100,000 (over $2.5 million today) in damages if the marriage was not found as legal. Judge Troutt, who would sit on the Whittell and Boyer cases throughout the years, found that the marriage was not legal as it was never recorded and threw out the damage suit. Florence did receive $500 from the Whittells for legal costs. There is a note that Sr. would pay Florence $25,000 if she waived her right to appeal.
That was not the end of it though. While the marriage was found void, meaning there was no divorce or annulment between Florence and Jr., the legal wrangling went on for another year.
The main attorney for the Whittells was Charles Hanlon (some reports name him as William Hanlon, but Charles is correct). During the above suits, the main papers for the case went missing. All fingers pointed to Hanlon, especially once the papers in question were simply returned to the court clerk by one of Hanlon’s legal aids with no comment, as if nothing had happened. You might be wondering why it was a big deal that these papers went missing for a very short time: according to Hanlon, the agreement with Florence was that the supposed marriage would be kept secret from the public or else she would not get her settlement of $25,000. Florence claimed the agreement was so long as she did not tell the story of the marriage, she would get paid. The story got out because of the missing papers and the press jumped on it. The papers went missing in November 1903, as noted above, that is when the entire story went public. It was not until April of 1905 that her suit against Hanlon for fighting her about the details of the agreement was settled in Florence’s favor. The settlement states she would receive $500 (with interest) and not the original amount of $25,000 and noted that Sr. wanted to appeal yet again. Of course he could have easily afforded to pay her and perhaps he did, as no further court records of a continued battle between the Whittells and Florence can be found.
During all of this, Florence stayed in San Francisco and claimed the town “was big enough to hold the two of us.” She can be traced in the City Directory using the name Mrs. Florence Boyere. It seems she married a man named Claude Cornelius in 1918. He owned his own plumbing supply company, was a member of the Bohemian Club, and the marriage was a surprise to everyone. I can trace them together up to 1923. In 1924 he leaves San Francisco, working on ships in various jobs, then I find him in the 1930 census as a lodger in Michigan listed as a widower. It seems that Florence died sometime in 1923/24 and Claude did not take it well and sold off his company and became a drifter. I cannot find an obituary or grave or any hints of children. I had hoped she had a longer and happier story.
For the most part, it was Senior, not Junior, fighting Florence over the contract and the money. It seems that Jr. made Florence some big promises to get his way with her and then once the fun was over, the thrill gone, he skipped off to the next conquest, leaving his father to fight the battle with Florence. Of course the amount of money fought over was trivial to the Whittells but, to Florence who was a divorced woman in a new city, it was her entire livelihood. I have a hard time imagining that Jr. realized the predicament he put Florence in. The young George Whittell Jr. lived for fun and loved his fast cars and women. This pattern of marriage and then boredom and eventual abandonment would be seen again with his second wife Josephine. His last wife, Elia seemed to have caught an older and more mature Whittell Jr., but their relationship was very different.
So in truth, George Whittell Jr. had only two wives and one sad and messy affair with a divorcée from New York.
I hope I made this messy situation somewhat clear and I am glad I had the opportunity to share more of Florence’s story. – Jesse