Thelma Lawrence was born in Oceanside, California in 1911. She was the fifth of ten children born to Tom and Vera Lawrence.
Thelma’s father was born in Texas and came to California around 1898. He met and courted Vera Sanders in Escondido. He would often ride his bicycle 20 miles just to see her. In 1903 they were married in Oceanside where they made their home. Tom made a living painting houses and building boats.
By the time she was ten years old, Thelma had seven brothers and sisters, all living in a small home on South Freeman Street. Two of her siblings died at a young age. Her sister Eleanor died at the age of six weeks and her brother Billie died at the age of 10 from blood poisoning. Her father worked hard to support his family, farming in various areas around town, and even working as a deputy for the Oceanside police department.
Perhaps because her mother was so busy raising children, and her father preoccupied with feeding them, Thelma searched for love and attention outside the home. Rumors suggest that Thelma was engaged in illicit behavior when she was just 13 years old.
In 1925, at the age of 14 she married Adolph James Carpenter, of Carlsbad. The marriage took place in Orange County and was witnessed by her mother-in-law. It is unknown if Thelma’s parents were aware or approved of the marriage. On the marriage application Thelma gave her year of birth as 1906, to appear that she was 18 rather than a minor. One year later she gave birth to a son, Adolph Keno Carpenter, at Fisher’s Hospital, which was located on Mission Road in Oceanside. (Adolph was nicknamed “Jack” which he was called all of his life.)
Thelma moved from Oceanside as early as 1926. She and her young son Jack moved to Los Angeles and were living on West Temple Street. The 1930 Census records indicate that she was married but was obviously separated as her estranged husband was living in Carlsbad with his mother. Later that year they divorced. Census records indicate that Thelma was working as a dance instructor. However, these were the Depression years, and it is possible that Thelma was making a living at dance halls that charged “a dime a dance.”
According to census records, Thelma was sharing the rent with two Filipino men. One was a “prize fighter”, the other a porter at a grocery store. In the 1930 census Thelma’s place of birth is listed as Kentucky, although she was born in California, (and her mother’s place of birth is listed as France—she was actually born in Kentucky). This could be due to the fact that Thelma was rewriting her personal history for any number of reasons, or more simply because someone other than Thelma provided the information to the census taker.
By 1932 Thelma and Jack moved to San Francisco. Thelma met an Italian immigrant by the name of Alicide “Al” Pezzi. He was a good 30 years older than Thelma and it is unknown whether they were ever married. They were in fact living together at 1178 Hollister Avenue, (and the directory has Thelma listed with the last name of “Pezzi”). Al was a cook on a number of passenger ships that traveled back and forth from San Francisco to Honolulu. Thelma’s niece, Dolly, remembered going to San Francisco to live with Thelma and Al Pezzi when she was 7 years old. She remembers that Al was short in stature, to match his temper. Dolly also vividly remembered that Al made them get rid of their family dog after it chewed his belongings.
By the mid 1930’s Thelma sent her son Jack back to Oceanside and he was raised by the Lawrence family. Subsequently, Thelma then moved to Honolulu, Hawaii. Perhaps she went to Hawaii with Al Pezzi on one of his many trips and decided to stay. In 1936 Thelma was living at 1337 Pensacola Street in Honolulu. It was rumored that while she was in Hawaii she making her living as a madam at one of the many brothels in Honolulu. It has been reported that “working” in Honolulu was lucrative – $30,000 or more per year, which would be equivalent to over $500,000 today. When the Naval ships came in, the lines at the brothels would stretch around the block with prostitutes “servicing” as many as 250,000 men per month. The going rate was $2.00 (a full day’s wages) for locals and $3.00 for servicemen.
Thelma’s son Jack recalled that his mother was in Hawaii while he was attending grammar school in San Francisco and being raised by family members, his Grandma Vera, and Aunts Betty and Birdie, while Thelma sent the family money from Hawaii.
In the 1940 census, Thelma was living with or married to a William Dalton. Their residence was listed as 601 40th Avenue in San Francisco. Her mother, son Jack and sister Betty are also listed as residing with them. Despite an apparent live-in relationship with Mr. Dalton, Thelma married Stanley Garrigan on November 13, 1940 in Reno, Nevada. They likely met in Honolulu, where Stanley was stationed. He was six years younger than Thelma, born 1917 in Orange County, California.
Thelma made several trips back and forth from Hawaii to the mainland during the time she lived in Hawaii, either by passenger ship or plane. Thelma’s sister Birdie visited her in 1941 and remembered that Thelma was living in a house on Booth Road and that a nightclub Thelma owned was at Waikiki Beach near the Luana Hotel.
On December 7, 1941, Japan attacked U.S. military stationed at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, just about 10 miles west of Honolulu. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the U.S. declared war with Japan and catapulted the country into World War II.
Thelma and Birdie were both in Honolulu at the time of the attack and Jack remembered that when he and his Grandmother Vera were listening to the radio, there was a news report about an attack and at first, uninterested, Vera changed the station only to find out that the same report was on every station. It was the broadcast news of the attack on the Hawaiian Islands. Vera tried to call Thelma but there was no way to get through. The next day or so Thelma was able to contact her mother and said that she and Birdie were okay. They had been volunteering with the ambulances and transporting bodies to a burial site.
Thelma and Birdie returned to the states, and Jack and his grandmother Vera came back to Oceanside. At the time Oceanside’s population was less than 5,000 but that would change as the Department of the Navy took over the historic Rancho Santa Margarita y Las Flores to be used as a training base for the Marine Corps. 20,000 Marines and civilian support flooded the base. The population more than doubled in five years. Restaurants, schools and hotels were bursting at the seams and there was an immediate housing crisis.
Shortly after coming back to California, Thelma purchased what was known as the “Borden building” located on the southeast corner of Third and Tremont Streets, presumably with the money she had made as a madam in Honolulu. She went into business with her brother Jimmy and opened a nightclub called “Garrigan’s” in September of 1942. Her husband Stanley was reportedly in Vancouver, Washington for officer’s training while Thelma and her brother went to work remodeling the building and preparing for the opening of the nightclub which offered live entertainment and dancing.
Charles O. Rowe, local contractor, was hired to remodel the main floor into a ballroom for dancing. On one end of the room a large mahogany curved bar was built. The mezzanine floor accommodated diners which featured a “high class steak house” and the upstairs contained rooms for employees and perhaps “overnight guests.” Thelma’s sister Vera (named after their mother) and her husband, Darrell Wilson, came to assist Thelma in the new nightclub. Darrell helped to manage the club and tended bar.
“Garrigan’s” offered live entertainment and dancing. Opened in September of 1942, Thelma’s nightclub was a huge success with over 500 people in attendance. There was nothing like it in Oceanside or surrounding communities. The local newspaper described the nightclub:
The main floor of the building has been converted into a spacious lounge, with a dance floor, in the center. Lamp lighted tables rim the floor. On one side is the orchestra, “Billy Bryant and his Music,” which delighted the crowd gathered at the opening last evening. On the east of the building is the ultra-modern cocktail bar, watched over by a grand peacock on the south wall. The peacock is radium treated and looks life like when illuminated during the evening. On the upper elevation, near the mahogany bar, are small deeply upholstered chairs that overlook the diners and the dance floor. Color effects of the entire establishment give it a rich tone. The windows are heavily draped in blue and rust, with heavy rust carpeting on the floor. Candle lighting is used on all tables. Even the banquet room was sold out last night, as every table was occupied by the opening night crowd. There are two banquet rooms, which may be used for parties on the west side of the building. These may be made into one large banquet room. Across the back of the building is the kitchen, open to the view of the diners. It is separated by an illuminated showcase, displaying the feature of the house, Kansas City steaks. Rest rooms are near the bar. The office is on the mezzanine, overlooking the dance floor.
Son Jack remembered opening night when his mother made her welcoming speech to her many guests. After her opening remarks, Thelma left briefly and then reappeared in a see- through hula skirt and did a hula dance and the crowd went wild.
The Lawrence sisters, all beautiful, attracted attention from male customers, good for business but not marriages. Apparently sister Betty was the recipient of that attention and her husband was not pleased. He issued an ultimatum to Betty to return with him to San Francisco, which she dutifully did.
In addition to a home on South Pacific Street, Thelma owned homes at 1931 South Horne Street and 911 Vista Way in South Oceanside, and owned a number of lots in North Oceanside. She also purchased a large ranch in Vista where she raised horses. The money she had purportedly made in Hawaii as a Madam provided Thelma a more than comfortable lifestyle but she also took care of her extended family and helped to support them.
Thelma’s nightclub success was short-lived, however, because the US government took control of the building to set up a USO for troops stationed at nearby Camp Pendleton, the largest Marine Corps Base at the time. The family felt that Thelma was being unfairly targeted by city leaders, who pushed for the acquisition, and that many were jealous of her success. It is also possible that in addition to being a popular and swanky nightclub, Garrigan’s was doubling as a bordello. As the building was being transferred to the government, an inventory of items was taken and it included 26 mattresses and springs, 8 double beds and 10 single beds. (However, it could also be true that Thelma had to get help as far as Los Angeles to run her nightclub and that her employees stayed there for convenience.)
In any event, Thelma was poorly compensated for the loss of her nightclub, but she went on to open a smaller club in Carlsbad located on the 101 Highway.
Her marriage to Stanley Garrigan was not a happy one. They separated just six months after they were married. After three years of separation, Thelma filed for divorce in 1944 from Stanley in San Diego County, which was finalized in 1945. She remarried that same year to a man by the last name of Robertson (identity unknown) and likely divorced again in 1946.
Thelma opened the Las Flores Inn, just north of the Del Mar racetrack, in the summer of 1948. Her sister Vera recounted that there was a criminal element involved and one night Thelma was severely beaten by two men who may have had connections to the mafia. Her liquor license was withheld and she was forced to close just six months later.
By around 1950 Thelma moved to Phoenix, Arizona. She met Robert Lee Vint who was a newly divorced father of two. Thelma married Vint, in about 1951, her fifth marriage (her sixth if she was married to William Dalton). The union did not last and Robert Vint returned to his native state of Michigan.
In 1962 Thelma married again to Norman E. W. Holden in Las Vegas, Nevada. Little to nothing is known of Thelma’s husbands. Family members, including her son Jack had little or no particular memory of them (except for Al Pezzi). Thelma was not one to settle down. The marriage to Holden ended in divorce.
Thelma lived for several years in Twenty-Nine Palms, California. She operated a bar out in the desert catering to the Marines stationed there. By 1969 she was living in Los Angeles where she owned a dressmaking shop in the garment district. Always generous, Thelma gave her family members gifts of clothing and fancy lingerie.
Later she moved to San Luis Obispo County, near a childhood friend, where she lived until her death on November 25, 1987. In death Thelma took many secrets with her. Only the rumors remain. She was cremated and her ashes spread in the waters of Hawaii.