TEMPEST IN A FLESHPOT: Santa Barbara is overdue for a good sex scandal. Or, at the very least, a romantic entanglement of epic proportion. After all, Los Angeles has one as the marriage of its mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa, unravels amid revelations that he’s been carrying on with some hoochie mama TV reporter assigned to cover his office for Telemundo. And San Francisco’s mayor, Gavin Newsome, that flaming hetero, was forced to fess up a few months back that he’d been sleeping with the wife of his campaign manager in the wake of his own divorce. Somewhat further afield, the mayor of Memphis has accused a cabal of unnamed, rich white guys of paying a stripper $181,000 to seduce him on camera as part of a broader conspiracy to rid the city of its first black mayor. And, of course, there’s always former New York mayor and presidential hopeful Rudy Giuliani, who’s already managed to have more wives than the prototypical Mormon polygamist, let alone his chief competition for the GOP top-spot, Mitt Romney of the Latter-day Saints. But in Santa Barbara, the only heat our mayor, Marty Blum, seems interested in these days is that caused by global warming, so we will all have to look elsewhere to have our prurient interest publicly piqued.
Truth be told, Santa Barbara was rocked about 100 years ago by the marital meltdown of its most prominent citizen, Charles A. Storke, and the details were so lurid and scandalous it’s amazing anyone survived. Even by today’s nonexistent standards, the high-profile, tell-all battles between Storke-who in his time would found a newspaper, serve in the State Assembly, and be elected district attorney, postmaster, and mayor-and his wife Yda Addis Storke-an accomplished reporter, historian, and pioneering proto-feminist-were a scorcher.
On September 10, 1890, Charles and Yda got married. Nine months later, she sued for divorce. And for the next 10 years, these two engaged in a take-no-prisoners campaign of mutual annihilation that jumped off the headlines in every newspaper from Los Angeles to San Francisco. In her divorce papers, Yda accused Charles of “the grossest personal impurity,” complaining of his predisposition for “unnatural sex acts.” She charged that Storke’s “persistent refusal to have reasonable matrimonial intercourse” had induced in her a state “of nervous and hysterical morbidity.” Not only that, she claimed his table manners were “loathsome, repulsive, and obscene.” Even worse, Yda charged Charles bathed only once a month and changed his underwear just as infrequently. Because he insisted on sleeping with the windows closed, Yda noted unhappily that her husband “emitted a mephitic odor.”
Charles gave just as good as he got. He countered that Yda was nothing but a conniving, adulterous adventuress who married him for his dough. When things didn’t go her way, he charged she threatened to commit suicide. Or worse, to kill his son by a previous marriage, T.M. Charles charged that Yda hung out like a harlot in “Bakersfield dance halls,” but then refused to perform her “womanly duties” when he was in the mood. Yda admitted on at least one occasion she had refused “to disrobe” for her husband, but said “her repugnance had been aroused by opprobrious epithets” he’d just hurled her way. Charles acknowledged he’d been angry at the time, but said she’d refused his demand that she not accompany a Santa Barbara lynch mob to the Ventura County Jail to hang a man accused of murder. She claimed her interest in the matter was strictly professional. He insisted it was strictly kinky.
In 1892, a judge ruled Charles was neither unsanitary nor unnatural; he also found that Yda was merely nutty, and not malicious. He called it a draw. Yda appealed and a couple years later, another judge ordered Charles to pay her $50 a month, at that time a very substantial sum. News accounts indicate Charles was subsequently found in contempt for failing to make payments.
Yda would not back off. In 1898, a grand jury brought her up on libel charges. Charles happened to be the DA at the time, though he denied his personal animosity toward his ex-wife had any bearing on the matter. The libel accusation stemmed from a spate of anonymous letters accusing Dr. Robert Winchester-then a major player in civic affairs and after whom Winchester Canyon was named-of every kind of immorality. (Winchester was also the personal physician of W.W. Hollister, who was not only the town’s biggest landholder and businessman, but also the owner of the newspaper, Daily News.)
Some of the letters were mailed to young men detailing what kind of a good time they could expect to have in the back rooms of Winchester’s offices. Some of the letters were sent out to young Santa Barbara women, indicating how they could make “more money than your mother can let you have”-$2 a day-by lying on their backs. Office space was available at Winchester’s from 8 p.m.-2 a.m., and the men, the letter promised, would be “all nice and quiet.”
Winchester may have been an alcoholic, an opium addict, and a wife beater, but there’s no independent evidence to suggest that he was also a pimp. He hired a private detective to find out who was writing these letters. The detective was a man of many pasts. During the trial he testified, “I was what is generally called a cowboy-or a cow servant.” In this case, however, he broke into Yda’s home, rummaged through her drawers, and left with a few handwriting and paper samples that he stole. He may also have stolen $130 in cash. Based on this illegally obtained evidence-and the testimony of a handwriting expert-a grand jury concluded that Yda had indeed authored the poison letters, and she was brought up on charges. Later, a Santa Barbara jury would find her guilty.
As crazy as Yda may have been, it’s highly doubtful she got anything resembling a fair trial. Every time her defense attorney pursued any line of questioning that might challenge the prosecution’s case, the prosecutor successfully shouted him down with the concurrence of the judge. When it was over, the judge sentenced Yda to a year behind bars. His only regret, he said, was that he couldn’t put her away longer.
But Yda had some unfinished business to tend to before surrendering herself to the jailer. She’d become convinced that her ex-husband Charles had somehow enlisted her former attorney-and probably her former lover-Grant Jackson into his conspiracy to get her. So late one night, she broke into his home armed with a glass cutter, two revolvers, a knife, rope, acid, poison, and chloroform, all of which she carried in her calico bag. The plan, it seemed, was to kill him and then perhaps herself. But after a brief but violent scuffle, Jackson managed to disarm Yda and subdue her. One headline read, “The Cunning Plan of a Human Demon to Commit Murder.” Another shouted, “She Carried Both Deadly Poison and Loaded Revolvers, but Her Devilish Scheme Was Miraculously Frustrated Through the Coolness of the One She Sought to Kill.” Yda claimed she was Jackson’s “contract wife,” and because of this, he could not testify against her. Jackson denied this, and bail was set at $5,000.
Amazingly, none of this seemed to hurt Charles Storke’s reputation. In 1899, Santa Barbara voters elected him mayor. Later on, he would write a regular column in his son’s newspaper and sign it “The Old Man.” What happened to Yda Addis Storke remains unclear. Most accounts indicate she was committed to an insane asylum, but later escaped. After that, nobody knows.
As far as good stories about bad romance, this one is hard to beat. Still, it was 107 years ago. I’d say we’re overdue. Come on, Marty; do something.