Meet Virginia Scripps: Remembering La Jolla’s ‘spirited’ purple peacock

Virginia Scripps, 1852-1921

Eliza “Virginia” Scripps, half-sister to famed La Jolla benefactress Ellen Browning Scripps, may not have her name on a hospital, an oceanographic institution or a foundation, but for the La Jollans who knew her in the early 1900s, she was a “spirited” character who will be remembered for her “eccentricities.” Known for her love of purple and a clean community, she went by “Miss Virginia” and to some, “Miss Jenny.”

Virginia Scripps died April 28, 1921. In honor of the anniversary of her death, La Jolla Light took a look at the life that was.

Coming to La Jolla

Virginia grew up in Illinois and arrived in La Jolla in 1897 at the age of 45, with her half-sister Ellen. She resided here for more than 20 years.

Ellen Browning Scripps biographer Molly McClain explained that though “you couldn’t find more different sisters” than Ellen and Virginia, the two were very close, and it was at Ellen’s invitation that Virginia came to live in La Jolla.

“Ellen was a quiet, shy person, who was uncomfortable in social situations,” McClain told the Light. “Virginia was the exact opposite: loud and opinionated.”

When the Scripps family compound was built in Miramar, the intention was to have as many relatives live there as possible. “The problem was that, family being family, they didn’t always get along,” McClain explained. “And Virginia was known for rubbing people the wrong way. After a time, Ellen didn’t want to live in Miramar, so she built a house (called South Moulton Villa) in La Jolla that she called ‘the house for old maids.’ She invited Virginia and another sister, Annie, to live with her to solve some family issues between them.”

Annie died soon after the move, but Virginia remained.

“They lived in Ellen’s house and built bungalows to house other visiting family members,” McClain said. “They turned that into their own estate.” Virginia came to own Wisteria Cottage, now home to the La Jolla Historical Society gallery (today, it is adorned with purple Wisteria flowers, in honor of Virginia’s favorite color).

Virginia Scripps in front of her home, Wisteria Cottage, 780 Prospect St., now home to the La Jolla Historical Society’s galleries. Courtesy

‘Ardent Episcopalian’

A woman of complexities, Virginia was devoutly religious, yet free-spirited and foul-mouthed. Miss Jenny donated nine acres of land to The Bishop’s School for its construction in the early 1900s, and consequently, is considered a part of its history.

According to “The Founders of Bishop’s” page on the school’s website: “Eliza Virginia Scripps was the spirited, red-haired half-sister of Ellen Browning Scripps. The more outspoken of the Scripps sisters, Miss Virginia was an independent-minded philanthropist, considered an eccentric by most. In 1910, the Bishop’s Board of Trustees put her in charge of the grounds, which for years had no trees because she disliked the mess they made. (By dropping leaves on the ground, trees were “dirty” she thought.) She was an amateur naturalist, read broadly in science, and an ardent Episcopalian.”

In another story from The Bishop School, as documented in “La Jolla: A celebration of its past,” Patricia Daly-Lipe and Barbara Dawson write: “One time, a Bishop’s student spilled hot tea on Miss Jenny’s purple satin dress. The terrified student braced herself for the inevitable outburst. Instead, Miss Jenny — to the shock of all the ladies present in the parlor — removed her gown and proceeded to sip her tea wearing undergarments only.”

An avid supporter of the school, Virginia also served as a senior mascot and was often seen at school events.

Virginia also donated land for St. James By-the-Sea Episcopal Church, and at the same time, was often heard cussing at people from her house into the street because they interrupted her prayers.

While St. James was under construction, one story tells of her mounting a pulpit to check the acoustics, but since she could not hear herself over the hammering, she swore at the workers. “God d****t! Stop that noise!” she yelled. “Don’t you hear me trying to say The Lord’s Prayer?”

Virginia was also known for taking candles from the St. James altar and hiding them because she preferred a “low” service.

In addition to donating the land for St. James, Virginia’s philanthropy paid for a restoration of the church after her death.

Community Cleaner

In the 1967 story, “The Miss Scripps Nobody Knows,” by then-San Diego Union writer Judith Morgan, Virginia was described as a “self-styled ‘damned, old crank.’ ”

According to Morgan’s writings, Scripps was reportedly often seen walking around town picking up papers thrown on the ground. “If she ever saw anyone drop a piece of paper in the street, she ran after them shouting and waving her pocketbook or a stick. She really jumped men for spitting tobacco juice,” Morgan writes.

In his book, “La Jolla Year by Year,” Howard S. F. Randolph writes about her: “She had the interest of the community much at heart, but her expression of this love was often shown in a strange manner. She loved neatness and order, and woe betide the luckless person who tore up a letter upon leaving the post office, scattering the fragments to the wind. If Virginia saw it, she would compel the criminal to pick up all the pieces and deposit them in a proper container. She had no hesitancy in sweeping out a gutter or a grocery store if she thought it necessary.”

‘Quiet’ Consultant

Citing her “heart of gold,” some have opined that some of the projects for which Ellen Browning Scripps often gets the credit, were actually Virginia’s doing.

“Most of Virginia’s friends believed firmly that she had several ideas that ended up as deeds by the wealthier, gentler, college-educated Ellen Browning Scripps,” Morgan writes. Quoting Virginia’s nephew, Morgan continues: “All through life, Virginia would get ideas about civic needs and Miss Ellen — who had the fortune — would come along and do it. Of course, Ellen had her own projects, but Virginia was a great community person. She cared about La Jolla.”

For example, Virginia’s love of the ocean may have inspired Miss Ellen to fund the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. However, McClain notes: “We can’t know whose idea was what, but Virginia was very involved in philanthropy and enthusiastic about the community, but Ellen was the money.”

An Avid Traveler

Virginia Scripps after a nature outing, circa 1906 Courtesy

La Jolla Historical Society historian Carol Olten theorized about Virginia’s world travels: “I think Virginia and Ellen had a great curiosity about the world, probably encouraged initially by their involvement in the Scripps newspapers. Ellen traveled extensively before she retired here and wrote about her adventures for the papers, and I’m sure that was the impetus for Virginia’s sense of adventure later in time. Also, with all the machinations happening around the turn of the 20th century, in terms of ocean-liners, etc., international travel was becoming chic as well as easier.”

During a notable trip, Virginia wrote her first and last impressions of Japan in two poems: “Land of the Rising Sun” and “Land of the Setting Sun.”

In the former, she writes: “Land of the mountains and of streams, land where sunshine ever gleams, land where Fuji-San sublime, rears her crest forever thine.”

Toward the end of her life, Virginia planned a trip around the world, with stops in locations such as Jerusalem, India and Egypt. The latter is where she became “seriously ill,” and was taken to London for care. She died 11 days later of pneumonia.

Her Death

Although younger than her sister Ellen by 16 years, Virginia died several years before her. Virginia was 68 at the time of her death, while Ellen was 96. According to her obituary, Virginia was “well known in La Jolla as one of its most spirited citizens.”

Although she was cremated in London, a service for her was held at St. James, and 75 Bishop’s School girls were in attendance.

Her Legacy

The La Jolla Historical Society’s current gallery exhibition, “Tangible Memories: Recollections of La Jolla Pioneer Women,” includes Virginia Scripps. Artist Tara Smith was influenced by Virginia’s “strength and tenacity” and painted three portraits of women with similar spunk for the show. It is on view through May 19 in Virginia’s former home, Wisteria Cottage, 780 Prospect St.

In addition to her contributions to The Bishop’s School and St. James By-the-Sea, McClain said she thinks Virginia’s memory lived on in those who knew her. “She was much loved,” McClain said. “For young women in La Jolla, she would have been the Scripps sister who appealed to them. She was modern, vigorous, outgoing, and she shed Victorian trappings and was very much a free-thinking woman.”

Randolph writes in his book: “Virginia was one of those inexplicable people who live from time to time, constituting a law unto themselves ... treasured in memory by many who knew her personally, for her many kindnesses and open-hearted generosity … but she is today remembered chiefly for her eccentricities.”

Olten added: “Although Virginia left many monetary gifts to La Jolla institutions as well, I think her greatest legacy to the community was her personality and her bedeviling character of being herself — outspoken, frank, Bohemian in spirit and not afraid to walk down the street like a purple peacock!”

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