1914 - 2000

Obituary: Wawona Washburn Hartwig (released 10/14/00)

California lost one of its most gracious links to Yosemite’s colorful history with the death of Wawona Washburn Hartwig.

Born June 17, 1914, in the hotel for which she was named, Mrs. Hartwig died peacefully on October 7, 2000, at Clovis Community Medical Center from complications following treatment for a recent heart attack. She will be remembered by her many friends for her passion for life, her keen interest in history and current affairs, her love of books and writing, and her spiritual but always practical grasp of the art of living.

Mrs. Hartwig was a descendant of the Washburn family that established and operated hotels, roads, and transportation in the Yosemite area from the 1860s to the 1930s. She was a great-granddaughter of noted California artist Thomas Hill.  From spring to autumn, her childhood home was the Wawona Hotel (managed by her father, Clarence Washburn). The family spent winters in Oakland and San Francisco. Wawona always had a deep attachment to animals. A fine horseback rider, Wawona honed her skills on her favorite horse, Marcheta, named for the popular song played at nightly dances by the Wawona Hotel Orchestra. During the 1929 filming of "Tiger Rose" (starring Lupe Velez and the famous dog-actor Rin-Tin-Tin), Wawona stunt-doubled for Velez riding the famous horse "Black Beauty" in a dangerous downhill gallop at the Mariposa Grove in Yosemite. After the filming, she maintained a lifelong friendship with Rin-Tin-Tin's trainer, Lee Duncan. The film remains lost.

Wawona attended Sequoia High School in Redwood City and U.C. Berkeley, where she studied journalism and wrote for various newspapers, including the San Francisco Examiner.

At 17, Wawona left home for Hollywood. She found work as an extra, eventually landing a contract with MGM (where her roles were limited due to her striking resemblance to actress Joan Blondell), and appearing in films with Victor Jory, Eddie Cantor, Bing Crosby, and many others. During that time she met Hale Hartwig, an actor under contract to Paramount. To avoid what they saw as inevitable conflict, the newlyweds both quit the movie business and moved to Indio, where Wawona's parents and grandmother had settled. Together they pursued a lifestyle filled with love, friends, and grand, lyrical cocktail parties. Wawona and her husband later moved to Fontana, where he worked as a steel inspector and she as payroll secretary for Kaiser Steel. They were married for 24 years until Mr. Hartwig's untimely death from a mysterious illness in 1960.

After her husband's death, Mrs. Hartwig became associated with the Hollywood Church of Religious Science, where she studied with Dr. Robert Bitzer, served as a licensed practitioner, and completed her certification as a minister of the church. During this time she held a series of secretarial jobs, beginning with the Los Angeles Country Club, including private work for Danny Thomas and Groucho Marx. She was hired by dancer Fred Astaire to organize his vast collection of photographs -- of his race horses -- into albums, and became the personal secretary to actor Vincent Price.

In 1985, Mrs. Hartwig moved from her home in Beverly Hills to Oakhurst, California, returning to the scenes of her childhood and the old friends who had remained in the area. Her last years were consumed with volunteer work, some of it visible to the public, but much of it performed quietly, including the care of elderly friends and a long, intensive period of historical research for the Yosemite Research Library, contributing greatly to our understanding of early tourism in Yosemite. She was a regular volunteer at the Children's Museum of the Sierra. In lieu of flowers, please send donations in Wawona's name to the Children's Museum of the Sierra, P.O. Box 1200, Oakhurst, CA 93644.

At Mrs. Hartwig's request, there will be no funeral or memorial service. However, there will be an informal gathering of friends to be held on Wednesday, November 1, 2000, from 1:00 p.m. to 3:00 p.m. in the Lake Room at the Pines Resort, Bass Lake, California (for directions call 1-800-350-7463). For other inquiries call 559-683-6576, or on the Internet visit YosemiteMusic.com and click on "Wawona Washburn Hartwig."

By Tom Bopp

(friend of the deceased)


 Los Angeles Times Obituary by Myrna Oliver (released 10/17/00)

Tom Bopp's corrections to the Times article

Mrs. Hartwig's grandfather's brother, Henry Washburn and a partner established Big Tree Station, later named "Wawona Hotel" by Henry's wife Jean Bruce Washburn.  Soon after, Henry's three brothers joined in the hotel's operation.  The precursor to Big Tree Station was Clark's Station, established by Galen Clark in 1857.  The name "Wawona" seems to have been the word for "Big Tree" used by the North Fork Mono tribe and perhaps others.  "Pallachun" is said to have been the local Indian word for what is now the Wawona area, translating as "a good place to stop."  While the words are Indian in origin, there is no evidence and it is hardly likely that Indians would have taken a role in "contributing" a name to the hotel.

The "frequently photographed" tree was called the "Wawona Tree", otherwise known as the "Tunnel Tree", never the "Wawona Redwood."

Mrs. Hartwig always bristled at the story about her shooing cattle off the runway of the Wawona airstrip (perpetuated in Shirley Sargent's book "Yosemite's Historic Wawona."  "You'd think I rode out there every day, like it was my job!--I might have done it once or twice in my life!" she'd yell, glaring at me.  Whenever she came to the hotel in later years, when I'd be presenting my program on Wawona history, as a joke I'd launch into a
purple-prosed burlesque describing little Wawona dashing out on her steed, hair swept back in the brisk wind, face lit by the morning sun, chasing the cows and the sheep and the piggies...until she'd yell at me "Arrrrrrrhg!"

The story that the Washburns were "pinched by the Depression" (also from Shirley Sargent's book) was disputed by Mrs. Hartwig, who's father sold the hotel and business to the Yosemite Park & Curry Company.  According to Mrs. Hartwig, her father was feeling squeezed by increasing regulation by the National Park Service, and by discord within the corporate board of the Wawona Hotel Company.  Mrs. Hartwig, herself an experienced accountant, said that much of the seasonal hotel's budget was invested for the following year in advance, causing the year-end books of the company to give the illusion that the hotel was in financial difficulty.  The NPS, working to consolidate all the park's businesses into a single entity, compelled Y.P.& C.C. to buy the hotel complex against the company's wishes.

San Francisco Chronicle Obituary (released 10/18/00)

Notice how Mrs. Hartwig has become a "socialite" in this article!  Fortunately the Chron did not perpetuate anything else from the L.A. Times article.

Note:  The Associated Press has released an edited version of the L.A. Times version, so there may be more corruptions popping up around the country.  Wawona is deeply missed by her friends, who know she would greet these articles with an even mixture of outrage and mirth.  The version at the top of this page appeared in the Sierra Star (Oakhurst, CA) and the Mariposa Gazette (Mariposa, CA) on 10/18/00.