In photographs, the indomitable Ellen Browning Scripps looks like the kind of wealthy matron who’d know which fork to use and how to discipline any servant who didn’t.
She did indeed have a sharp tongue. But as University of San Diego historian Molly McClain has discovered, Scripps was hardly a model of snooty upper-class propriety. She had horrible handwriting, couldn’t care less about fashionable clothes and promoted the rights of women long before they had a prayer of getting the vote.
She even landed on the cover of Time Magazine at a time when women made few appearances there.
Almost eight decades after her death in 1932, examples of the newspaper magnate’s legacy can be found across San Diego: an oceanography institution, a hospital chain, museums, schools and even a beach.
I sat down with McClain, co-editor of The Journal of San Diego History, at The Bishop’s School in La Jolla to talk about what she’s discovered about Scripps while researching a biography that she plans to finish in a few years. (Scripps, who lived in La Jolla and was devoted to it, founded The Bishop’s School.)
McClain, by the way, has deep ties to our fair city. She’s a ninth-generation San Diegan: Her family dates back to Juan Francisco López, a Spanish soldier who moved here in 1769 when Father Junipero Serra founded the mission.
Ellen Browning Scripps came out to San Diego in the 1890s and decided to stay. Her brothers came too, although you write that San Diego was in a slump thanks to a real-estate meltdown and the city’s failure to draw railroad traffic. Her brother E.W. called San Diego a “busted, broken-down boom town.” Why did they stick around?
They were not looking at investing. They’d already made a ton of money. They’re looking to retire and to escape, and at the time, it must have been like going to an island, some British colony on the edge of the sea.
She looks a bit severe in the photos. Was she?
No. She was a very smart lady and a very sharp lady. It’s not that you could fool or prey upon her. She could take care of herself, and she had a steely quality about her. But yet from all accounts, she was a gentle, kind and deeply generous woman who was very interested in people and the people around her.
She was never married. Do you have a sense of why?
She was highly educated, and that was unusual. She was the only one of 10 brothers and sisters who had a college education.
She was certainly conscious of the fact that she was not a traditional spinster. She was a journalist through the 1860s and 1870s. Then her brother tells her to travel and do the things that spinsters do, and she writes back with this real zinger, saying that she doesn’t recognize herself in that category.
She says she’s an anomaly, she doesn’t fit. She had a sense of not quite fitting into categories that the 19th century had set out for women.
La Jolla was very much populated by women at that time, and widows often came out. You could still have a social life, and that’s not the case in a lot of cities, where you had to have a spouse.
What surprised you about her?
We see the way she’s been treated historically as a kind of fairy godmother, this genteel, elderly woman. The assumptions are that she is socially elite and polite and a lady of the manor. She’s none of those things.
She is self-consciously working class, and she never does try to play the social game. She dresses really simply, she wears old hats, she just doesn’t care.
I think that’s why she loves San Diego, because it just doesn’t matter out here.
What is her biggest mark on San Diego?
These educational institutions that she founded: the Bishop’s School and the La Jolla Women’s Club, which really was an educational institution for women.
These were gals in the late 19th century who didn’t have access to a college education. That was denied to them during that generation, so they would teach themselves.
It wasn’t about philanthropy and fundraising at that time, it was about women educating themselves on current political events.
There’s also the San Diego Natural History Museum, the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and many, many others.
She had a desire to educate the public. She comes from a working-class background and she’s not an elite herself, nor are any other of her siblings. They’re big believers in equality, democracy, a belief that people can raise themselves up through education. They hoped these gifts would help ordinary people to educate and advance themselves.
Are there any sides of her that don’t look good from our perspective?
I keep looking for that. As a biographer, you always get involved with people, and I certainly expected to find it with her.
She can be a little bit sharp at times, but on the whole, I really genuinely like her. And I can’t say that about most people I’ve worked on.