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The Countess' Last Bout
by Terry Graham
July 10, 2007

     
   
   
   
   

Much has been written on the "Mysterious Woman of Big John Flats" over the years in local papers of the Wrightwood area. Even though she provided much local color in the area's history, it has been hard to determine if she was the honest sort, or just someone with a little ornery and evil streak under the surface. The author believes that the closest that Jeanne Lamar came to honor was "Yes, your Honor..." and "No, your honor..." . But, the author digresses. Perhaps if we recap the story thus far, you, the reader, would see that the life of professional woman boxer "The Countess" Jeanne Lamar, sounded like a dime store crime novel.

Born in New York, Jeannie Vina Lamar spent much of her childhood in France with her French native parents. In early adulthood, she returned to New York and Chicago, where Jeanne Vina Lamar developed boxing skills that attracted the attention of Jack Dempsey and other professional boxers that worked out at Stillwell's Gym in New York City. By 1913, she had boxed several times in exhibition matches with the likes of Charlie Phil Rosenberg, Benny Leonard and Harry Greb. During which time she gained the nicknamed "The Countess". She even had a bout arraigned with the famous featherweight Poncho Villa. That bout never came to pass. She was married twice; once to a Paul M. Morgan Lamar of New York in 1920, and then to Tom Failace in Chicago on December, 20, 1927. Paul Lamar had "died suddenly" and Countess Jeanne Lamar cashed in his sizable life insurance policy. The Countess dragged new husband/fighting promoter, Tom Failace, with her to Los Angeles, California, in a "career make-or-break" move to revive her fading boxing career. The career move became a bad one, and the one month long marital bliss between the two ended in a fist to cuffs match in the middle of Whitley Avenue in Hollywood.


The Wrightwood Store, in Wrightwood, Ca., where Countess
 Lamar was banned because of her behavior.

Jeanne Lamar moved to the isolated ridge above Big John Flats in her cabin that she finally completed in 1935. She lived with a male adult that she told others was her nephew, Gustave (Gus) Marcel Morg Van Herren. It was later learned that Gus was actually the Countess' son, and his father might have been Paul M. M. Lamar from New York. Gus was identified as her son by Alberta Farnbach/Johnson, who was the direct descendent of the original homesteaders in the area that Lamar lived. The Countess dominated most of the fine constructed cabin, while Gus' living quarters was confined to it's small attic.

The Countess began drinking heavily and her temper began flaring as the golden goose of her first husband's life insurance policy was dwindling. It was believed that she continued to receive support from another source back east, but that information was never verified. The Countess began roaming the mountainous area and nearby towns to find anyone to box with. Even the growing town of Palmdale suffered her visits, as fights were always set up in the old Palmdale Music Hall. Her tiresome antics got her kicked out of Wrightwood Store, which was run by George Richardson. The town folk and local park rangers did their best to avoid her. Once she was seen engaged in a heated curse-laden argument with the only telephone at Big Pines Park Recreation Center. Her rage was so great that she slapped the phone down on the hook and sicced her German Shepherd on the defenseless piece of communication. Watching the whole thing was a little Bud Rowe, who got a good chuckle out of the incident. A county ranger at Big Pines Park, who was finally tired of her trying to pick a fight with him, picked her up and tossed her over the railing at the Ranger Station. Dejected and ejected, San Bernardino soon became her playground. Arrested twice, once for drunk driving, she made it a habit to picked up fellas from the seedy park of the city for a little fun in the sack and for working around her property afterwards.

Things turned really strange around her small property overlooking Big John Flats... "Gus", her son/nephew, mysteriously disappeared. Jeanne Lamar blamed it on Alberta's husband. Then during a drunken moment, she later admitted that she "killed" Gus and had his fingers in a box to prove it. A year later, a man "hired" by the Countess found a skeleton with a rifle next to it, in a trash pit near her cabin. Thinking that Jeanne Lamar was going to kill him too, he grabbed his belongings and ran away in fear. Behind him was Countess Jeanne Lamar in hot pursuit, firing round after round at him with a hunting rifle!

That is where we pick up the story in progress. But it's the final chapter...It's "The Countess' Last Bout".

It was 1938 and William Benedict Smith had seen better days. Being down on his luck at the age of 22 and hanging around San Bernardino in the 1930's, he was waiting for something to break and lady luck to shine once again. He thought his luck was finally turning as a small 5 foot Jeanne Lamar picked him up and offered him some frolicking fun and a temporary job on her ranch in the mountains. She wasn't that bad looking, and prospects for a job always looked good. William took Lamar up on her offer and accepted her ride. It soon became the ride of his life!

The first two days went swell, it was on the third day that the Countess instructed him to fetch a rabbit for supper, and she handled him a hunting rifle to complete the chore. After going some distance through scrub oak and juniper trees, he came across the skeleton remains of an adult male. The clothes were rotting away from its bones, which indicated to him that it had laid there in the opened pit for a long time. Most curious was the rusted rifle by the body's side. William Smith's fascination turned to fear when he noticed the shattered skull and the presence of lime all over the remains. Someone killed the poor fellow and tried to destroy the body! Soon 22 year old Smith was in the run for his life down the mountain as the once nice Countess was shooting at him! He arrived at the Forest Service ranger station at Jackson Lake and begged Ranger Harry Grace for help. Disheveled and frightened, and grasping a suitcase that supported a bullet hole from Countess Lamar's rifle, he said, "That crazy woman on the ridge started shooting at me...I found a body up there!" Ranger Grace had heard the shooting earlier and he advised Smith to go four miles up to Big Pines Station, where there was a telephone to call the sheriff's office. Confused and disorientated, William Smith ran in the other direction to another ranger station twelve miles away in Valyermo.

There, he contacted ranger Cowie, and subsequently he was taken to San Bernardino, where he reported the incident to the sheriff's office.


Darell Farnbach at home on the ranch


Donna Farnbach exercising with the family dog.

Older sister Donna and younger brother Darell were very instrumental in bring the story of the Countess and Gus Van Herren to light. Not to mention a worn and faded newspaper clipping yellowed with age.

Contact was made with the Countess Jeanne Lamar, and investigation of the crime scene was conducted by chief criminal deputy Captain William J. Bright, who was accompanied by Ranger Cowie. At the scene, the body was identified as Gustave "Gus" Van Herren, the missing family member of Jeanne Lamar. At first the incident was thought to be murder, then it changed to suspicious... and then it finally fell into the suicide category. "There is no doubt that Van Herren killed himself, " Captain Bright said, "The position of the bones and the gun conclusively prove it." What added to the determination of the investigation was the "fact" that when Van Herren disappeared a year previous, he threaten to kill himself because he became despondent over a failed relationship with an unidentified local girl friend. A month before he vanished, he was released by the Stockton Hospital for the Insane. This information was gained during the investigative interview with the Countess Jeanne Lamar. A short time after the dead body of Gus Van Herren was found, Jeanne Lamar suddenly abandoned her beautiful cabin and property and vanished into thin air.

Where she went is still a mystery today, but rumors of the Countess continued for years. Robert C. St. Clair, of the Antelope Valley, remembered, "She died after being struck by a taxi as she stepped from a streetcar -or vice versa, we really never knew." Some park rangers in the Big Pines area heard that she died in a seedy hotel room in downtown San Bernardino. Retired District Ranger Harry Grace was under the impression that the Countess' house above Big John Flats was torn down. However, it still remains today. The cabin is very weathered and no doubt populated with rattlesnakes, but it still sits on the quiet ridge overlooking a million dollar view of the desert floor below. Who knows where the lady boxer went, but two years after her disappearance, she resurfaced again.

The investigation into Gus Van Herren's demise still raises questions. Why wasn't the lime on the body remains ever addressed? Was he really suicidal? Van Herren had come into $150.00 from an unknown source. Even though he was supposed to have disappeared in 1937, Gustave Marcel Morg Van Harren acquired two sections of land north of Lamar's ranch May 26, 1938, the same year that his body was found on Lamar's property. According the Los Angeles County Index to Federal Land Patents, the sections were #17-#18 0040N-0080W respectfully. Alberta Farnbach and surviving child Donna Farnbach remembered Gus as being content on the ranch fulfilling chores, doing art work and visiting their family on their nearby ranch. Suddenly, and without any explanation to them, he simply disappeared. If Van Herren killed himself, why would the Countess Jeanne Lamar first blame the Farnbach family and then later admit that she killed him?

At the disappearance of Van Herren, Lamar requested local sheriff and forest rangers look for her son. According to her, a search for her missing family member on her ranch met with negative results. According to ranger Harry Grace, who worked near the area, rangers only went to her place to see if her car garage was to code, but most of the time they avoided her. Her property was on private land, out of the jurisdiction of the Forest Service. One real nagging question was this: If Van Herren met death at his own hands, why would Countess Jeanne Lamar try to kill William Benedict Smith, the man who discovered the body in the first place?


Alberta and Gerald Farnbach on their family ranch on Big John Flats. Despite sometimes being the target of Jeanne Lamar antics, Alberta remained a faithful friend until the end.

Perhaps the questions could have been answered, had a complete investigation been done. The incident was seventy years ago, and Gus isn't giving us any more clues. Countess Jeanne Vina Lamar resurfaced two years after she suspiciously abandoned her property and vanished when her son's body was found. Desolate and penniless, she ended up in the Los Amigos Indigent Home in Norwalk, California, near Los Angeles, in the early 1940's. Even though the Countess was a bother to most folks in the mountains near Big John Flats, an old friend from the area patted and held her hand to comfort her as she laid near death. Despite the fact that Lamar had intentionally lied and said that her husband, Gerald, killed Gus, Alberta Farnbach still showed compassion to her. That was just the type of person that she was. It is believed that Alberta was the last one to visit the once famous professional woman boxer before she died.

The story of the "Mysterious Woman of Big John Flats" is finally over, the Countess had faced her last bout. But a fog of mystery still floats over the quiet slopes above Big John Flats in regards to the sad and lonely life and death of Gus Van Herren. Perhaps the mountains know what happened to Gus those many years ago. But, they aren't talkin'....at least not to this author.

From the History of Big Pines,
Terry Graham, Wrightwood, CA

Resources:
Taped interview with Harry Grace, District Ranger, Ret.
Oral interviews with Donna and Darell Farnbach,
descendants of original homesteaders-Alberta and Gerad Farnbach
Los Angeles County Index to Federal Land Patents
L.A. Examiner

 
     
     
   
 
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