At age 92, former La Jolla resident Rhoda Riddell has had the ride of her life.
Since leaving the La Jolla of her youth, Riddell (nee Fulton) has lived in nine countries and worked as a foreign war correspondent, travel writer and social director aboard a cruise ship in the Mediterranean.
Born in Japan on Oct. 28, 1920 to Robert and Karen Fulton, Riddell crossed the Pacific Ocean three times before age 3 — perhaps a source of her lifelong wanderlust.
Her parents left Japan after losing their home and business in the Great Kanto earthquake of 1923, eventually settling in La Jolla, where Riddell went on to graduate with the La Jolla High School Class of 1938.
Stateside, her father played the stock market until it crashed in 1929. “My mother saved us by opening a restaurant that became very famous,” Riddell said.
That restaurant, popular with actors and those visiting the Del Mar Racetrack, was in the main cottage of the former Green Dragon Colony, overlooking La Jolla Cove.
Riddell waited tables at Fulton’s Green Dragon Inn, where her mother’s East Indian curry dishes, a top sirloin or local barracuda all cost around $1.
The colony was built by Irving Gill for German émigré Anna Held Heinrich, who came west from New York employed by the family of Ulysses S. Grant Jr.
“She was a fabulous cook,” Riddell said of her Norwegian mother. “But when the war came my mom sold the restaurant because she was convinced the Japanese were going to bomb La Jolla — and I think they planned to.”
An avid swimmer, Riddell was asked to do some modeling by Earl MacPherson and Walter Kumme (which she continued to pursue after moving to Europe).
“All my friends were babysitting at 35 cents an hour. They were going to pay me a dollar an hour. I mean, wow!”
After a short stint at UC Berkeley and secretarial school, Riddell worked as an assistant to Bill Kellogg at La Jolla Beach and Tennis Club.
She eventually met a Marine Corps lieutenant at La Jolla Cove and traveled with him to Hawaii, where they married — just two weeks before the Japanese did bomb Pearl Harbor.
“We were bombed when (my mother) was on the ship going back (to La Jolla from the wedding),” Riddell said. “I still have her letter where she says, ‘I know you’ll be alright.’”
Riddell and husband, Robert, were in bed when the Japanese attacked, gunfire grazing the home where they were staying with another serviceman and his wife.
“A half hour later a truck full of women and children pulled up and said, ‘Grab what you can.’ “We were 11 women and children and an awful lot of booze, so that’s what they grabbed,” Riddell said. “They were officer’s wives.”
The constant deployments and time away eventually led to the dissolution of that marriage.
One of the couple’s daughters, Massachusetts resident Laurie Geary, said Riddell wasn’t content being a military wife, and longed to travel the world herself. The couple divorced when Geary was a third-grader at La Jolla Elementary School.