Much has been written on the
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
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
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
Darell Farnbach at home on the
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
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,
Graham, Wrightwood, CA
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