Josephine Scripps, probably the most eccentric living member of the Scripps clan, was coming out of the Natural History Museum one night recently when she spotted a garbage can full of seashells discarded by a museum staff member. Miss Scripps is the museum curator of minerals, and twice a week she works at the museum, down in the cluttered minerals department in the basement. On this particular occasion, a few of her volunteers had helped her lock up the office when the rejected seashells caught their eyes just by accident. The women pounced upon the shells with the fervor of alley-picking children and together they rummaged for salvageable shells for more than an hour. “Can you imagine!” she later growled, eyes snapping with indignation. “They'd just thrown ’em all away! You know, some of the other curators bitch and cry, but if they weren’t so damn lazy and so dam snooty they’d have a lot more to work with.”
“What are you going to do with the seashells?” I asked this San Diego millionairess, born of one of the richest and most powerful newspaper families in this country’s history.
“Why I’m going to clean ’em up and sell ’em!” she replied. “I’m sure there are people who’d pay fifty cents for a nice pink shell.”
And indeed, at the museum's next rock sale, bright-eyed tourists were fingering the resuscitated seashells, which were displayed along with pieces of purple and gray-green fluorite priced at fifty cents apiece, one- and two-dollar sulphur specimens carefully wrapped in paper toweling, and fifty-cent grab bags filled with assorted fossils. Miss Scripps organized these modest mineral fests soon after she started working as curator about five years ago, and she now schedules them the first Sunday of each month. The vast majority of the variegated rocks strewn on tables and throughout the department sell for not more than two dollars apiece, but the sales nonetheless bring in at least $500 every time. The money goes to support one of Josephine Scripps’ current missions: to build up the museum’s gem collection to where it reflects San Diego County’s stature as one of the areas richest in gems in all the world.
Mind you, building up the Natural History Museum’s gem collection is only one of Josephine Scripps’ interests. She also runs a North County dairy farm which produces over 3500 pounds of milk a day, she leads rock hunting expeditions all over Southern California and Baja, she raises cocker spaniels, and she jumps at the chance to play pinochle into the wee hours. But her life is neatly compartmentalized in some respects and she can give full attention to the activity of the moment. And at this moment she is concentrating on selling stones.
She reigns over the pandemonium of the rock sale from her desk, which sits just inside the doorway of the one-room minerals department. Today she wears scuffed black moccasins and a huge orange-flowered muumuu. As usual, her coarse gray-black hair is pulled back in a bun. An old Pepsi carton full of ripe cherry tomatoes from her farm is perched amidst the jumble of rocks and books and junk in front of her, and she bawls at both strangers and regulars to help themselves to the fruit and to the plump green squashes lined up on the shelf in back of her.
At sixty-eight. Miss Scripps suffers from two kinds of arthritis and assorted other maladies; she looks ancient, yet at the same time ageless. In fact, she reminds me of some magnificent, massive boulder, the most exotic specimen in the collection, flinty and weathered and rough-hewn, and bearing both flaws and glittering character veins with equal, impassive dignity. In response to a joke, she explodes with volcanic mirth, crinkling up her big, oddly-skewed eyes, throwing back her huge head, releasing a laugh which wells up from deep inside her and spreads across the room like glowing lava.
“You see, we have to have fun doing this or we wouldn’t be here,” she roars in explanation. “Maybe ... even ... I ... wouldn't be here,” she grins, pronouncing the words precisely for emphasis. “One thing you have to understand right off the bat is that I’m the black sheep in my family. And I love it!” she barks.
To understand where Josephine Louise Scripps fits into the Scripps flock requires a little bit of patience. It is a huge family; when her great-uncle, James E. Scripps, compiled a family genealogy back in 1903, he listed 418 direct descendants of an eighteenth-century English ancestor. The San Diego branch of the family, however, stems from the seed of James Mogg Scripps, an unsuccessful London bookbinder who immigrated to Rushville, Illinois, in 1844. With three successive wives, he produced eleven children who lived beyond infancy, and among them was Josephine’s grandfather, Edward Willis Scripps.
E.W. usually gets the credit for founding the Scripps newspaper chain, but he was hardly the first family member to disseminate the printed word. His grandfather had been part owner of the London Literary Gazette; a great-uncle and cousin had run a little country newspaper; and yet another cousin, John Locke Scripps, had founded the Chicago Tribune (in association with Joseph Medill). E.W.’s own brother, James, nearly twenty years older, edited and owned controlling stock in the Detroit Tribune, the paper for which E.W. went to work in early 1873.
E.W.’s tenure was short; the paper burned down on Easter morning that spring, but from the ashes, E.W. wrote, “sprang up perhaps the greatest and most effective journalistic institution in this or any other country.” The Detroit News, started by James that August, featured several innovations. It was a quarter to a sixth the size of the other Detroit dailies and, most importantly, it sold for only two cents, compared to the normal price of a nickel. From the beginning, working people embraced the paper, particularly when a major financial panic that fall pinched everyone’s pocketbook. Circulation quickly surpassed the established dailies.
During this heyday of newspapers, the popular success soon translated into staggering profits. The original fifty shares of the News, valued at $1000 apiece in 1877, were each reportedly worth 120 times that amount in 1914. Moreover, the Scripps influence grew geographically. In 1878 E.W. founded the Cleveland Penny Press: then came the St. Louis Chronicle and Cincinnati Post. The family acquired other papers in the West (including the San Diego Sun), the South, and finally the East.
By the 1890s E.W. yearned for greater isolation, so he moved his family (which then included his own six children, his older sister, Ellen Browning Scripps, and assorted other relatives) to the 400-acre San Diego County ranch that he named Miramar, after a dream castle that he and his sister had once visited in Trieste. From there, E.W. ran his burgeoning news empire until about 1910, when Josephine's father, James George Osborn Scripps, began to take over the business reins.
Today Josephine Scripps remembers those early days up at Miramar with a sort of lazy, good-humored lack of concern about details. Her parents soon built their own house (which still stands today) just down the hill from E.W.’s sprawling headquarters, and the woman recalls that “Grandma used to say she liked having grandkids around her, so she always kept Cliquot Club ginger ale and Hershey kisses and little mints. She figured that that would be sure to appeal to little kids — and it did.”
Every day someone drove Josephine, her younger sister, her two brothers, and cousin John (whose parents had both died when he was. an infant) the hour’s distance to Francis Parker School in the city. The children had friends there, but at the isolated ranch they entertained each other, a natural arrangement since all were born within a five-year span. The adults never encouraged much social traffic. Miss Scripps says. “Gramp just didn’t like people,” she recalls. “But another thing was that newspapers used to be politically very powerful. So if you were in the newspaper business when they were very powerful it was substantially impossible to have friends. They would want things. So we lived — I won’t say in a completely friendless world, because there were the people who worked on the papers and a certain number of scientificos and a few other people — but substantially, we were not social and we couldn’t afford to be sociable. My gramp’s morals were kind of infamous, but in a business way they were always quite strict.”
Childhood on the ranch was fun but brief. “The thing you have to remember is that my whole family had to grow up very fast,” Josephine recalls. “Even my father was put to work very young. By the time he was eighteen he was managing fifty-seven newspapers and United Press (founded by E.W.) and the Newspaper Enterprise Association (the nation's first news feature service, also started by the family). He died when I was ten years old, for another thing. My kid brother (James George Scripps) started going away to work when he was eleven. He got out of high school at thirteen, and he never came back. Now, it was a little different for the girls. I got out of high school at sixteen and went away to college. Mother just raised us that this was the thing that you did. You went away.”
The family had plans for the tall, ungainly girl, and Josephine still looks sour when she remembers them. Like her appearance, her voice is rough and discordant, but it pulses with vitality, like the sound of traffic at a downtown intersection. Sarcasm coats it heavily, however, when she recalls that “J had been brainwashed, like the rest of 'em. They thought it would be fine for Josie to become a lawyer — you know, to be the family lawyer. And when you’re real little you don’t know what it’s going to be like, and you think, well, you can be a lawyer and still have some saddle horses. The mere fact that you’re a lawyer,” she says in a tone that drips with scorn, “doesn’t preclude all other activities.”
At the University of Washington, however, Josephine’s distaste for the sedentary profession overwhelmed any family aspirations, and when she was struck with appendicitis, she dropped out of school. Then a trip to the Far East, intended to help her recover, resulted in her catching a near-fatal case of malaria. When she finally recuperated enough to work, she endured a nine-month stint at the family newspaper offices in Seattle, handling “just anything ... low jobs ... anything they could get me out of the way with." But she still relishes the day she quit. “It was on the thirteenth floor of the Textile Building, and I can still remember sitting behind my desk and trying to get up the nerve. Finally, I walked in on my big brother, who was the boss. I told him I'd had enough. It was the best decision I ever made in my life.”
She never considered reporting, because “my family always figured that reporting was not a girl’s job ... and they were right. In those days we had cheap papers in cheap parts of town. Also, I couldn’t spell then, and I still can’t.”
Pressed on the point, she reluctantly articulates a more complete answer which makes me wonder if she had worried about hurting my journalistic pride. “Well, you see, it’s like this. When I was studying law I used to go down to court in the mornings, and if you’ve ever been down to court in the mornings you know how grubby it is. That’s when they have the prostitutes and the drunks and everybody like that. And I didn’t... want ... to ... deal ... with those people.” She wears a pained, impatient expression. “It was the same way when I took sociology. They always wanted you to go down and bother the houseboat people — that was the crummy crew that lived in Seattle on the houseboats. Well, I figured if the houseboat people wanted to live on the houseboats, that was their business. See, they were just like me when I was a youngster. I had a certain number of well-to-do relatives who were always giving me girdles and gloves on the theory that I needed girdles and gloves. Well, I never wore the damn things. My hands sweat. I don’t like to wear gloves. I don’t care if my stomach sticks out. I didn’t then, either. If people wanted to live in a certain way, I figured that they had a right to live in a certain way. And I didn’t really want to associate as a police reporter with the dregs of society. You see ’em when they’ve had a casualty in the family. You see ’em when they’ve had a divorce. And I didn’t have to do it.”
Did she have to work at all? I ask, thinking of one faded 1926 newspaper clipping which estimated that her grandfather had left an estate of at least $40,000,000. “Did I have to work? Lord, no,’’ she says crisply, then she pauses and looks a bit startled. “Well, I guess theoretically we wouldn’t have had to work, but it just never occurred to us not to work — not to want to work. In other words, it’s still considered fun to work!” The big graying head tilts back; the laugh explodes. “Maybe not to work too desperately hard. But, Christ, what is the alternative? To sit in front of the TV and watch soap serials?” The laugh again, rollicking at the absurdity.
Finally, she settled on doing the thing she loved: working with animals on the family’s 4300-acre Fanita Ranch in Santee (now the Carlton Hills development). First she raised cattle on the spread, then she added dairy cows, and finally she even ran a riding stable to bring in extra cash. On the side, this Scripps heiress who says reporting would have been unladylike served as chief, assistant chief, and captain of the Santee fire department, and regularly battled summer brush fires beside the men.
Her own fifty-year-old ranch house at Fanita burned down in 1954, but within six months she had rebuilt it. If that fire didn’t vanquish her, however, the scourge of property taxes did. When she finally sold the property in 1956 for a price “in excess of one million dollars,’’ the Union reported that it was one of the largest acreage sales ever recorded. From Fanita Miss Scripps moved out to the 185-acre Hi-Hope Ranch located off Highway 76 east of Oceanside.
Today she sits in the huge shaded courtyard in back of her central ranch house. She is barefoot, and she wears huge gray shorts and a ratty print work shirt. From her aluminum chair, the view takes in a panorama of greenish-brown hills and smoky distant mountains extending all the way to Mount San Jacinto. In back of the house, gigantic eucalyptus trees ring a placid, dark-bottomed swimming pool, and the whisper of a breeze stirs the afternoon. The house is set way back from the highway, up toward the top of a gentle hill, and the black and white Holsteins grazing in front of the building look like family pets scattered on a front lawn. Miss Scripps in fact talks about them almost as intimately as she coos to her seven magnificent black and white spaniels.
Arthritis has finally stopped her from working directly with the animals; now five or six regular farm hands help her fulltime while she resigns herself to the “poisonous bookkeeping.” If the paperwork is a millstone, however, she also makes the critical breeding decisions, a complex art.
Lovingly, she pages through her dog-eared record book which includes the complete breeding and production history of each of the 200 cattle in her herd. Then, abruptly, she looks up and announces, “It’s a very good thing to have the best rock at a show.” She squints a grin which is almost lewdly sassy. “This is a very good thing. But you can buy the best rock with money. You can also buy the best cow with money. It isn’t near the satisfaction of raising the best cow for two or three generations, which proves to yourself that, by God, you figured out how to breed that cow. This is your work. You made this cow and it maybe took you fifteen years to do it.”
The passion for excellence, the disdain for weakness, creeps into her comments on human society. “I know people don’t ever like to talk about breeding in relationship to people ... the current trend is to tell you that everybody is born equal,” she says with a fierce scowl. “But actually, if you breed livestock you find out very quickly that everyone is not born equal.”
She sneers openly at others’ efforts at social reform. “There’s nothing you can do with a hopeless stew bum. You can’t rehabilitate one in a hundred!’’ Recalling a friend, she buries her large face in her calloused hands. “She (the friend) goes out and collects alley cats. And she runs around and collects money to have the damned alley cats spayed. And she runs around and tries to find people who will adopt the damned things. Well, you can’t possibly save all the alley cats. I mean it would be nice if there was enough money in the world to give all the drunks and prostitutes and the dregs of society the best possible aid, but there isn't that much money anyway. Just like me. It's hard to do and I hate to play God, but when you get an animal that’s hopeless, you have to get rid of it. You can raise good puppies, which everybody’s going to love and you’re not going to have much trouble with, and you won’t have any trouble giving ’em away. So why not do that? That’s just my whole philosophy, and I get so much more fun out of it. And is it I d for me to have fun?” she bellows. “No, it’s not bad for me to have fun!”
The sunny grin returns, making it clear that having fun is very, very important — and has always been important to members of her family. Her face clouds over, however, when she thinks of one exception, her great-aunt Ellen Browning Scripps, who raised most of her own siblings on the family’s impoverished Illinois farm. “She knew nothing but work.” Josephine says of the woman who gave San Diego the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, Scripps Memorial Hospital, Scripps Clinic, and Torrey Fines State Park. “Now this was pitiful, and it was a terrible thing.” She recalls how she went with her mother to Ellen's La Jolla home after Ellen’s death. “It just hurt. She had all these rich relatives, but people had always just given her something damned homemade. She had a pitiful little jewelry box with everything wrapped up in it, and there wasn’t $300 worth of jewelry in it,” Josephine growls. “Her brothers should have realized this and should have given her some nice things, because she would have liked it.”
She recalls another family example more jubilantly. “Fred Scripps was grandpa's brother. I remember one time the family was on me. And someone said, ‘Don’t you want to amount to anything? You want to be like your Uncle Fred?’ And I remember glaring back at ’em, and I says, ‘Well, to tell you the honest truth, I think I would!’ And they looked so funny, but it was true that Uncle Fred had a whale of a time his whole life. Grandpa had to bail him out every once in a while, but everybody liked Uncle Fred. Maybe it was better to be like Uncle Fred. But the family was usually smart enough to realize things like this.”
A rustle of movement distracts her. Out beyond the pool, an enormous Cape Chestnut tree has just begun to bloom, and she remarks that she plans to save the seeds and sprout them. “I’m going to sell ’em to those poor suckers at the fair for three dollars each.” The comment reminds me of another Scripps, her great-uncle James, who was legendary for his economy measures, like making his reporters at the Detroit News write on both sides of the copy paper, to save money. Miss Scripps interjects her anecdote about cleaning up the discarded seashells at the museum, and she elaborates on the family attitude toward money.
“We always felt it doesn’t matter how you get money, if you get it honestly. Take those seashells. It doesn’t hurt me if I got 'em out of a garbage can." She recalls how she and her siblings each received twenty-five dollars a week in allowance, "but we were supposed to save half of that. With the rest we bought pop and stuff and minor clothes and things, and twenty-five dollars was plenty for that. We were not hurting. But still we were always raised that any way you could get more was just fine. It was considered good to get money." The children always leapt at the chance to show their relatives' horses and thus bring in an extra five or ten dollars of prize money. "We called it corn money. Which meant that you could spend it on some complete luxury — steak and potatoes or whatever you wanted. And this was fair. This was perfectly all right. It wasn’t beneath us. We didn’t care."
And so it is fair, and all right, and not at all beneath her to scramble for all the money she can bring into her department at the museum. She boasts that when she took the job as curator, she made a deal with "the admiral" (Admiral John B. Davis, Jr., director of the museum). "Sometimes I think the departments are a little p.o.’d about it," she says with a twinkle in her eye. "But he promised me that I could spend everything that I bring in on the department. And they pretty much have let me do what I want."
The job which faced her at the beginning was grim. She recalls that when she started, so much junk cluttered the department that only two narrow paths cut through the mess; volunteer workers didn’t even realize there were windows behind the piles. "Right at the beginning a bunch of us got together, and we must have thrown out seven tons of rocks. It was just junk, although there was one thing I should have kept," she says in disbelief. She describes the object and its neat label: "One round black rock from the thirty-seven-foot level of the cesspool at Fourteenth and K." "I should have kept that," she laughs.
The inadequacy of the collection she inherited at the Natural History Museum particularly galled her in light of San Diego County’s abundance of gem material. She reports that the county, for its size, is second only to an area in Africa. Larger areas like Brazil and Ceylon contain greater quantities of gems, she says, but none has the concentration of the San Diego hills, encrusted with tourmaline, garnet, blue topaz, morganite (pink) beryl, and purple spodumene (kunzite). Yet in the early Seventies, buyers from back East were gobbling up the best local specimens, which commonly wound up in European and American museums like the Smithsonian. Furthermore, some of the best gem cutters in the world have remained here, according to Miss Scripps, cutting for museums and jewelers who send from all over the world for gems mined in San Diego.
Slowly the situation in the mineralogy department has begun to improve. Now the sunlight streams through the department’s big windows and the "staff’ (all volunteers, including Miss Scripps), gradually have imposed an order upon the tons of miscellaneous rocks. The monthly sales bring in cash and the curator says the local rock hounds and shops are giving the museum as much as they can spare. Miners, chauvinistic about keeping local stones here, are selling her specimens at reduced prices. The curator has also managed to hustle between $20,000 and $40,000 a year in donations. "And when you add $20,000 to $40,000 a year to any collection, it starts to get better," she says with a smile of sly satisfaction.
Some of that improvement will become dramatically visible this fall, when the museum opens a new 1000-square-foot minerals exhibit on the main floor, a section which will include displays relating to the county’s four principal mining regions, its gold mining history, its stonecutters, and more. The department office will remain in the basement, however, and Josephine Scripps sighs with relief. "This way they kind of ignore us down here. And that’s just the way I like it."
A volunteer worker interrupts her with a raised eyebrow and a near-empty container of staples. She tells him to get some money out of the "slush fund" in the drawer next to her. "’Course I could send up to the office for some staples," she mutters with good-natured disgust. "But then I’d have to fill out two requisition forms and send them up through the bureaucracy and wait for three days."
She banishes the bureaucracy from her mind, and her eyes light up with the thought of yet another scheme. She says she’s going to name donated gems after the local people who contribute them. "I have no conscience!" she explains with defiant delight. "I know it’s kind of corny, but I can’t help it." She throws back her head and expels a gut-rooted laugh. "I don't know what the museum’s going to do with me!"