Former La Jolla model, writer and Green Dragon Colony resident satisfies her wanderlust

By Pat Sherman

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.

Early years

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.

Riddell took her children to live in Mexico City, though Geary contracted the measles and they had to return. Soon after, Riddell purchased tickets to Innsbruck, Austria, where she planned to move the family. However, working as a real estate leasing agent, Riddell jumped at the chance to buy a home on Nautilus Street in WindanSea, a half block from the beach, and sold the tickets. “You can see she kept trying to go,” Geary said.

After another, short-lived marriage, Riddell and a friend succumbed to the lure of a lavish, albeit affordable, lifestyle on the southern coast of Spain, in the town of Torremolinos, on the Mediterranean Sea.

Geary recalls with an equal measure of horror and humor how her mother placed her and her younger sister, Cecily, in a convent, eight miles away in Málaga.

“It was horrible!” Geary recalled of her six-month stay. “I was 14, went to La Jolla High, had a surfer boyfriend (and) didn’t speak a word of Spanish. My mother was an atheist, so I had never even been to church. I was tall and blonde, and all the girls were short and dark, ready to be nuns.”

Also looking back with laughter, Riddell countered, “It was the only school available to them. I knew that when I went there I couldn’t say I was divorced, so I just said their father was dead and the sisters took them in.

“Those Spanish nuns were so sweet — and trust me, my daughter doesn’t know everything.”

On the upside, Geary said she now speaks fluent Spanish and knows how to cope with stress and major life changes.

From Torremolinos, Riddell and her daughters continued to “bop around Europe,” living in Munich, Germany, Turkey, Greece and Madrid, where Geary graduated from high school at Torrejón Air Base, and where her mother was a correspondent for the Armed Forces Radio Service (with her own morning show).

In one of the more than 400 news articles and travelogues Riddell published (many for Copley Press), Riddell wrote of the sounds that seduce visitors in Madrid, from the clop of horse hooves during morning trash collection to the knife grinder and maids singing as they hang wash over balconies.

But of all her travels, Riddell said the La Jolla of her youth still holds a special place. But does the current Borrego Springs resident miss living in “The Jewel”?

“My daughter took me back a few weeks ago and drove me through and I wouldn’t have recognized it ... all those big buildings,” she said with candor, though no trace of rancor. “We had lunch overlooking where the Green Dragon was — Eddie V’s or something. It makes you nostalgic, but that La Jolla no longer exists anymore. You know, you can’t go home.”

As for Geary, a mostly retired teacher and life coach who attended her 50th La Jolla High reunion in October, La Jolla is still one of the most beautiful places on earth.

“Being at my reunion was bittersweet, because I could see what I missed. There were a lot of successful people and really happy people — though I’ve had a good life,” she said. “I think I probably romanticized it a bit, too, since I was only 14 when (I left). ... I think I got frozen in time.”

What Laurie Gearylearned from her mother

Former La Jollan Laurie Geary (who now resides in Gloucester, Mass.) said she has gained much from her globetrotting mother, including a passion for civil rights.

After returning to the United States from Europe in the mid-’60s, her mother, Rhoda Riddell, became one of the first members of the National Organization for Women, and protested outside a bar in New York that refused to permit unescorted women.

“This man came out and said, ‘I’ll take you in,’” Riddell recalled. “I said, ‘You have missed the point.’”

While employed as a La Jolla leasing agent, Riddell helped a Jewish doctor and his family thwart La Jolla’s then-binding exclusionary housing covenants (primarily designed to keep Jewish and other minority families out of La Jolla).

“My mother followed her dream,” Geary said. “She (taught me) how to take risks that led to personal growth and an exciting and fulfilling life. I have learned that it’s possible to create the life you want.”