Bill Harrah died in 1978 and the yacht was auctioned off. The purchaser was Owen Owens, who unexpectedly died in November of 1979. Buzz and Joan Gibb purchased the yacht in 1981 from Owens’ widow and become the longest owners to date, owning it for 26 years. The Gibbs used the boat by far the most, enjoying her both on Lake Tahoe and the San Francisco Bay.
Harrah purchased the yacht in 1962. Under his ownership came her most notable changes: the flying bridge and the replacement of her original Kermath engines with with two V-12 Allison aircraft engines.
During the winters, Harrah kept her in the boathouse at Thunderbird Lodge. The surge gates unfortunately were damaged and between a storm and another Harrah boat hitting her, severe damage occurred.
One interesting architectural feature that has come and gone from Thunderbird Lodge is the enclosed solarium. When I first came to Thunderbird, I came across this picture taken from inside the Great Room.
However, I could not figure out which room it showed. Then to add to the mystery, I also found the “solarium” listed in the 1939 appraisal inventory, so I figured that the picture had to be it, but where was it?
With a bit of searching and investigation, I figured out that today’s outside terrace on the second (main) floor had at one time been the solarium. However, looking at very early pictures of the exterior, it is clear that it was much like it is today – with an open porch on the second floor on the lakeside. You can see the open area in these two photographs. The first photograph is during construction of the Lodge and you can see the canopy over the terrace.
I eventually discovered photographs from Whittell’s time that showed the enclosed solarium from the exterior.
Here we can also see that the enclosed solarium was constructed at about the same time as the upper balconies and walkways on the lakeside and ends of the building. We know that the solarium and balconies were added by 1939 as they appear in September appraisal of that year. It is also noted that George Whittell kept a bed on the balcony to enjoy the summer nights. So, somewhere between completing construction in 1938 and the appraisal in 1939, Whittell made these changes.
The other mystery is when was the solarium demolished and become a terrace again? Today, we enjoy the terrace as a lovely outside space easily accessed from the Great Room. But did Whittell return it to its original state or was it later owner Jack Dreyfus who did numerous changes on the house during his ownership? From this photograph taken shortly before the Dreyfus additions, it appears the solarium is already gone, however, it is hard to say.
Sadly I have no record of when the changes took place, but we can see that the exterior appearance of the lakeside of the Lodge has changed several times over the years.
Which do you prefer – the enclose solarium or the open terrace?
Working in the archives today scanning some pictures and I just had to share this one. I adore the smiles on their faces while Elia holds up a chocolate Easter bunny. At this point George is clearly in a wheelchair, but the 82 year old still looks cheery and enjoying his time with his wife.
For those who follow this blog, you know that I have not completed the Elia piece yet. Her early history continues to be very elusive and I have some new leads I wish to follow up on before I post about her.
However, I have found a great deal about the other important woman in George Whittell Jr.’s later life: Mae Mollhagen. Mae was Whittell’s long-time secretary and companion. She was also allegedly his mistress. I saw allegedly because it was all from other people’s oral histories that we have this notion of their relationship. I have no actual proof; no diary or note marking her as more than a secretary and close friend of Whittell’s. Also keep in mind, all relationships have an ebb and flow to them, so their relationship most likely changed over time. I will leave it up to you, the reader, to define their relationship. No matter how it was defined, Mae was a major part of life at Thunderbird.
Mae was born Milwaukee, Wisc. On May 3, 1895 to Arthur and Maggie Mollhagen, both of who were Canadian. She had two brothers and two sisters. Mae and her siblings grew up in Saginaw, Mich. Her sister Bessie was an artist and her other sister, Carmen, was a very well respected music teacher in the community. While I cannot find exactly when Arthur died, Maggie was head of the household living with children in the 1915 city directory of Saginaw. She is noted as a widow at this point. The boys would go on to move to their own homes. James, stayed in Saginaw. The eldest, Leo, fought in World War I.
Mae went to train to be a nurse at Allegheny Hospital in Pittsburg. After she finished her training, Mae returned to Saginaw and living with her mother and sisters. It is in the 1930 census that Mae starts shaving a few years off her age, something that would continue up until her untimely death. By this time she was a private nurse. In 1933 Mae takes her first trip to Hawaii by herself; a fairly large endeavor for a single woman at this time. It also speaks to her spend-thriftiness that she had the money to indulge in such an extravagance at this time, or perhaps her employer paid her fair, which would happen later on when she worked for Whittell. Mae also shaved off three years of her age on the ship’s manifest.
Then at some point around this time Mae meets George Whittell Jr. I certainly wish I had some document telling me how and when they met. My best guess is that since her travels to Hawaii were by ship that left San Francisco, it was during her time in the city before or after her departure the two met.
While I am not sure exactly when she started working for Whittell, Mae appears in the 1934 home film with Whittell at Furnace Creek. Then I have Mae in Nevada by 1936 as she is listed in the Reno roll of voters. Subsequently she appears in the 1940 census living at Lake Tahoe and working as a secretary for a “private estate.” Her age is listed as 39, rather than the 45 she was. Most notable is her listed income of $5,000+. Given inflation, today that would be a salary of over $84k.
In August 1952 I found her traveling with her mother, leaving Liverpool going back to NYC. I find this one of interest for a few reasons. Mae is listed as 57, putting her correct birth year back on mark, perhaps her 84 year old mother caught her fibbing. The other point of interest is that there is a stricken address of RF? ? Kings Mnt. Woodside California addresses (in other words, the Whittell estate address) and replaced with the Mollhagen address in Saginaw.
Mae is also found in the city directory for Redwood for several years, mostly at the Whittell estate. However, just like George and Elia Whittell, she keeps her Nevada residency.
According to most accounts, Mae traveled with Whittell as he went back and forth between his Woodside estate and Thunderbird Lodge. It is interesting that in the early Whittell films we see little of Mae, but more of Elia. That certainly changes as the films progress over time. Elia is almost absent and Mae is front and center. Mae’s nephew, Jimmy, even came to Incline Village and managed the Ski Beach campground for Whittell. Jimmy and his family stayed in Incline and were valued community residents, all four of their children graduated from Incline High School. In 1944, the newspaper the Nevada State Journal, it is listed the guests of Elizabeth Rose McLean and Ensign William Lewis, in which we can find both Mae Mollhagen and George Whittell, but not Elia. It is clear that Mae traveled with Whittell and was openly his companion.
The most tragic part about Mae’s story is her very untimely death. Driving back to Incline Village from Crystal Bay on the afternoon of September 1, 1954. According to initial reports, Mae was traveling at a fairly high rate of speed when she lost control of her station wagon after striking the soft sand of the shoulder and she overcorrected. It then collided with another car carrying a family of five. All five suffered some injuries, but all survived. The inquest into the accident showed the Mae was in the wrong lane and she died of multiple skull fractures when she was thrown from the vehicle. Witnesses stated that Mae had been traveling in the wrong lane for a while, had actually missed two other vehicles before hitting the one that would kill her. All the newspaper articles referred to her at Whittell’s secretary. By the time of her death, Mae had shaved off ten years from her age.
According to her nephew’s wife, Jimmy delivered the sad news to Whittell. The story goes that Whittell ordered specific organ music to be played over the loudspeakers at Thunderbird. Jimmy related to his wife that it was very loud and uncomfortable to listen to. A year later, Whittell brought Maggie out to go through Mae’s belongings. He also took her out on the Thunderbird yacht, the first time the yacht had been used in a very long time and perhaps the past time he went out on his boat.
Mae was buried with her sisters in the family plot in Saginaw. Maggie outlived all of her daughters, none of whom married and all died relatively young.
Mae’s damaged station wagon was brought to Thunderbird Lodge by Whittell where it stayed until around 2000, when it was erroneously removed.
This is just a brief history of Mae. There is a great deal more to her than what I wrote here, but I hope this gives you an idea about her. From oral histories that are in the archives, she was a very strong-willed woman who was meticulous. From listening to her brief interactions with Whittell on film that were captured, I would say that she was not the submissive type at all. The collection contains many letters from Whittell transcribed and signed by Mae; she clearly was his most trusted employee. Maybe someday some journal or letters of Mae’s will show up and give us more insight into this interesting woman and her time at Thunderbird?
While I cannot find any photographs of Bill the lion or of the other Whittell animals (aside from the dogs) ever making the trip from the Woodside estate up to Thunderbird Lodge, I do adore this photograph of Mingo visiting during construction.
Today we have a new acquisition into the photography collection here at TLPS. This is a photograph of Josephine Cunningham Whittell (far right) with two other actresses from the musical “The Only Girl.” The Broadway musical ran from November 1914 to June 1915. I found this piece on Ebay and even though it is from after her marriage to George Whittell Jr., I wanted this photograph for our collection for a few reasons. Those being that most of the photographs we have of Josephine are from her Hollywood years at a much later date; this would be more of what she looked like when she was with George. Also, her story is a large part in George’s earlier, pre-Thunderbird life, a story that is one of a very different man than he became in his later years. I feel her place is important in the Whittell history if we are to understand George better.
I know I focus a great deal on the history of the Lodge and George Whittell and I realized I am very overdue for a post about the grande dame of Lake Tahoe, the Thunderbird. Currently we are still raising funds to refurbish her engines; for more information on that project click the following link: http://thunderbirdtahoe.org/yacht-engine-overhaul
My goal for this post is to share some photographs you might not have seen before, so I dug into the archives and really explored the time when Bill Harrah owned her (1962-1978) and kept her at his Villa Harrah at Skyland Manor on the lake. Here are just a few and more to come, I hope you enjoy!
PS – Next year is her Diamond Jubilee and we will have lots of fun things planned!
One of the most frustrating things for a researcher is finding wonderful pictures and having no clue who it is. The photograph below was found on site when University of Nevada, Reno first came to Thunderbird Lodge. I have no clue where the photo was found; for example were they in a box in George’s room? Were they scattered around? Or were they already in files? On top of that, most were not labeled. So who is this lovely lady? My best guess is Florence Irene Whittell. As I wrote about her before, you will know she was George’s cousin. The only photo I have of her is from a newspaper and does not show her face. I hope to eventually confirm who this person is!