Sunday, January 8, 2012

Royal California

C.S. Lewis once famously declared that “Where men are forbidden to honour a king they honour millionaires, athletes or film stars instead: even famous prostitutes or gangsters. For spiritual nature, like bodily nature, will be served; deny it food and it will gobble poison.” The unkind might say that California is proof of this, and to an enormous degree they would be right. But only to an enormous degree --- far from entirely: as with everything else in the Dream State, we once had our own monarchy, firmly rooted in fantasy. Presided over by the redoubtable Emperor Norton I, it was perhaps the most sensible regime under which Anglo-Californians have lived.
But even in the mundane history which anchors the rest of the planet, Royalty has played a large part on the California stage. As recounted in the first installment of this column, our founder was Charles III of Spain. Not only did he accomplish the tasks therein related, Charles set up the Pious Fund of the Californias, with all of its later complications. His role, although often ignored, is not completely forgotten, as his statues in various parts of the State remind us. Charles’ grandson, Ferdinand VII, funded a number of public works around California, including La Placita, Los Angeles’ first Catholic Church. Not too surprisingly, los Californianos were strong Monarchists: when the 1810 revolution in Mexico ended government subsidies, the Mission padres and rancheros dug into their pockets and paid the royal officials themselves --- for a decade California was a sort of free-floating polyp of the Spanish Empire. Royal anniversaries were celebrated with as much ceremony as the little colony could manage: High Masses, processions, fandangos, bear- and bull-baiting and the like. Independence was not welcomed here, but the blow was initially softened by the Monarchical government of the First Mexican Empire.
Independence and American conquest has not removed California from the memory of successive Spanish Monarchs. Alfonso XIII played the part of royal Santa Claus; despite the United States nicking Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and Guam from him during his youth, he showered California with many gifts, such as bells for Mission Santa Clara, provincial banners for the San Gabriel Mission Playhouse, and knighthoods for those instrumental in restoring the California Missions. His grandson Juan Carlos I has visited here several times, dedicating the aforementioned statues of Charles III and being feted by the descendants of the Dominguez clan, who owe their present status and wealth to their royal land grant.
Of course, Charles III’s initial moves here were made in response to fear of Russian expansion. But when the Muscovites finally did arrive in 1812, settling at Fort Ross and Bodega Bay, they were friendly. Although those posts were evacuated in the 1840s, the Tsars continued their interest in the Golden State. In 1863, Tsar Alexander II sent naval squadrons to San Francisco and New York in a show of support for the Union during the Civil War (as a counter to Anglo-French support of the Confederacy; in 1888 Alexander III gave a number of gifts to San Francisco’s Holy Trinity Orthodox Cathedral. After the Revolution, many White Russians settled in San Francisco and Los Angeles. The Russian Orthodox Church here happily venerates Nicholas  II and his family as saints, and the heiress to the throne, Grand Duchess Maria Vladimirovna, made a very successful visit here last year.
The Chinese Emperor showed a great deal of  interest in his subjects who came here, amongst other things endowing a temple for them in Oroville. After a failed attempt in 1898 by Emperor Guangxu to initiate a Meiji-like restoration in China, his adviser, Kang Youwei fled abroad. In exile he formed branches of the Save The Emperor Association; with a number of branches in California’s Chinatowns, it mobilized support for Constitutional Monarchy against both the Empress Dowager and Sun Yat Sen’s republicans. Before defecting to the latter, Homer Lea conducted his Western Military Academy in Los Angeles on the site of today’s Union Station.
If all the world’s peoples have come here, so too have subjects of all the world’s Monarchs, reigning and deposed. The Danish town of Solvang and  the Emmaus Church in Yorba Linda are magnets for their royal visitors, and Queen Margrethe II’s former guards have an association in Los Angeles that observes her birthday with a ball; Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands’ birthday has recently joined the calendar of Southland festivals; the Royals of Norway and Sweden visit the Seamen’s Church in San Pedro, which appeals to both Norse and Swedes. The Royal Society of St. George and the British United Services Club, among many other groups, mobilize support for their Monarch, while Iranian, Vietnamese, Ethiopian, Romanian, Thai, Saudi, and Bulgarian organizations beat the drum for theirs. The International Monarchist League has a chapter in Los Angeles, and various corners around the State will see liturgical commemorations of Charles I of England, Louis XVI of France, and Bl. Charles of Austria. The latter’s son, Otto von Habsburg, had in my childhood a weekly column in the Tidings, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles’ newspaper.
Where there are royals, there are knights. While we have our fair share of phony orders here, there are a number of real ones: Malta, Holy Sepulchre, St. John, and St. Lazarus, to name a few. Even the Constantinians of the Castro obedience are holding their 2011 annual conference in Los Angeles.
Despite our liberalism and egalitarianism, even non-ethnic Californians kowtow when confronted with foreign Royals. This writer noticed this on two occasions showing Los Angeles to King Kigeli V of Rwanda (my only foray to the Playboy Mansion). In 1988, I observed how Hollywood’s elite fell over themselves when meeting Sweden’s Carl XVI Gustaf and Queen Sylvia at a reception at the Motion Picture Academy (I was pushed out of the way at the champagne bar by Cesar Romero). A similar atmosphere took hold at the 1997 memorial for Princess Diana at St. James Episcopal Church, Los Angeles, where Michael York was the eulogist, and the late Michael Jackson chief mourner.
Sometimes Royals themselves have sought refuge here: an Egyptian Queen who disgraced her family by converting to Catholicism holed up in Beverly Hills, while a Danish Prince briefly sought connubial bliss at a chicken ranch in Arcadia. It was at San Diego’s venerable Hotel Del Coronado that Edward VIII, then Prince of Wales, might have first met Wallis Warfield; it was a near miss. Most famous of all, perhaps, was our only resident Monarch, Yugoslavia’s Peter II, who spent his last years in our part of the world, and received a royal funeral at a local Serbian Church. Without a doubt His late Majesty would be gratified indeed to see the role his son now plays in their homeland.
Instead of the tyranny implied in the royal appointment of a governor at Monterey, we Californians are now free to elect our own --- and sadly enough, do. But we are not without our own native monarch, Jose I --- self-dubbed “the Widow Norton,” and founder (ess) of the Imperial Court System. While s/he may not appoint the governor, from their decisions one must suppose that s/he does appoint the State judiciary. C.S. Lewis was right.

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