By Vanessa Cabello
In celebration of Women’s History Month, I wanted to recognize and commemorate women from the early years of Venice. Below I will explore the lives of two stellar Venetian ladies, names you may not immediately recognize – Margaret Dabney Thornton and Winifred Harwell – ladies who happened to be the respective wives of Abbott Kinney.
Yes, Abbot Kinney, the founder of Venice, actually had two wives, but not at the same time!
Margaret Dabney Thornton
Thornton, the daughter of California Supreme Court Justice, Dabney Thornton, was the first wife of Abbot Kinney. She met Kinney during his travels to the state legislature in Sacramento and it was love at first sight. After a seven month courtship, Abbot and Margaret wed in 1884. She gave birth to seven children – Lucy, Franklin, Kent, Sherwood, Innes, Thornton and Carleton, though three of whom would die tragically at childbirth (Lucy, Franklin and Kent).
In Venice California, ‘Coney Island of the Pacific’, Jeffrey Stanton writes,”Unfortunately tragedy struck during the 1891 rheumatic fever epidemic when Lucy and Franklin died, and Sherwood’s and Kent’s hearts were damaged. Kent eventually died from heart problems when he was a teenager.” Servants reported that Margaret, fearing further infection to her remaining children, at a time when disease was not really comprehended, secluded herself and her young children for over a year in an upstairs bedroom. Talk about devotion to her children!
The couple’s marriage was cut short when Margaret fell sick from heart disease and died in 1911, at an early age of 46. The Venice community was devastated by her death since they revered her very highly. Margaret was at the center of many local festivities to celebrate special events, such as Venice of America’s Grand Opening at Cabrillo hotel and restaurant on Independence Day, 1905 – along with Abbot and the 21st governor of California, George Pardee.
Margaret participated in other important civic events. According to Jeffrey Stanton, on Friday, June 30 as workers were completing the building of Venice of the Americas, they stopped for a quick moment to witness a historical event. At exactly 2 pm, with the rise of the ocean tide, thousands of workers gathered at the Lagoon to watch Margaret (not Abbot!) turn the valve that opened the pipes that went out 500 feet into the Pacific underneath the pier.
At a rate of 500 gallons a second, ocean water poured into the newly built Lagoon and the two short segments of the canal! Imagine that, the canals were designed by a man, but they were literally filled by a woman!
When Margaret died, she was so deeply revered by the community, that they closed their businesses for an hour in recognition of her. Although she passed before her husband, Abbot is actually buried alongside his beloved Margaret (along with several of his children) at Woodlawn Cemetery in Santa Monica. so literally, they will always be at each other’s side.
Abbot Kinney lost interest in his relationship with Margaret when he realized that she would not provide him with any more children.
With the desire to have more children, Abbot’s eyes began to wander and in 1902 would soon meet Winifred Harwell, a beautiful 30-year-old woman who would become his secret mistress. Actually, she was not such a secret. According to Jeffery Stanton, she was living with Abbot while Margaret was living with her sons on Park Avenue. Many knew of Winifred’s existence, though most kept hush about it.
Abbot waited 3 years after Margaret’s death before he married his mistress Winifred. In 1914, Abbot Kinney and Winifred Harwell wed at El Sermon de Monte, Assembly of God. Winifred would give birth to two children – Clan and Helen. Also like Margaret, Winifred stood by the family’s endeavors, even though on her children’s birth certificate Abbot refused to be named as the father until years later.
In 1915 the newlyweds would move into the Cosmo Club (see page 6) that was situated along the Grand Canal and converted it into their beloved home. After Abbot died suddenly from lung cancer in 1920, Winifred inherited the controlling interest in the Abbot Kinney Company. She would remain in the home until her death in 1927. She bequeathed the estate to their friend chauffeur, Irving Tabor. His family maintained the home for 60 years before selling the property.
The management of the company (City of Venice) was left to Abbot’s son, Thornton. The children, grandchildren and friends of both of Margaret and Winifred inherited the family’s creative spirit and continued to live on their legacy until the present time. Although much of Kinney’s work is gone, the Kinney-Tabor house was granted Historical Cutural Monument status in 2008. Some of the original buildings and a few of the segments of the canals remain. –Jeffrey Stanton, Venice California ‘Coney Island of the Pacific.’