Time is a harsh and unforgiving master to wooden boats. The tides’ inexorable pull is a gravity of deterioration requiring unceasing vigilance to combat. As the body weakens and inner light fades, entire life stories full of revelry that once flattered her decks wilt away, left to be forgotten. Having survived Mother Nature’s forces with grace and the helping hands of man, an old yacht now with reinvigorated beauty and grace lives on to retell its chronicles – witness here, the resurfacing of a classic.
Ida May is a 46’ one-of-a-kind wooden sport fishing cruiser designed and built by Hugh Angelman in 1926. Once the prized possession and refuge of the sad-eyed comedian Stan Laurel of Laurel and Hardy comedy fame, she was renowned for her speed and refinement. Completely bespoke design made Ida May the fastest and finest sport fisher in the golden era of yachting, and a favorite of the Hollywood crowd. Many celebrities including the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Bing Crosby, Mae West, and Gloria Swanson have graced the decks of the Ida May. U.S. President Herbert Hoover, former champion heavy weight boxer Jack Dempsey, and even Ernest Hemmingway once fished off the decks of this venerable yacht.
Such dazzling history was nearly extinguished when we first discovered the Ida May in a peculiar covered berth in the San Francisco Bay Area. Time and neglect had taken their toll and by the early 1990s, her transom was deteriorating and the smell of dreaded mildew permeated her inner cabins. Her bright work was dull and dilapidated, resembling a snake that had yet to shed its winter skin. Varnish was peeling throughout; the vessel had certainly seen better days. This would affect the intestinal fortitude of many prospective owners but her energy beckoned, some tales simply refuse to be forgotten. Ida May was purchased the following day.
As our restoration progressed, she teased us with glimpses of a bygone era of Golden Hollywood, big game fishing, and California yachting. For the first three months we worked every night without fail, until only the stars above were our companions. What followed was a saga of unexpected success and failures – a true test of survival in these desperate economic times. All of this was heralded by the return, after 70 years, of her original ship’s bell clock and the endearing friendship of Stan Laurel’s only child, eighty-two year old, Lois Laurel-Hawes.
Ida May’s first owner was Willard A. Van Brunt, founder of the John Deere Van Brunt Company. He was an industrialist and philanthropist from Horicon, Wisconsin and the owner of the largest farming implement company in the world, revolutionizing farming in America. Van Brunt retired to California with a fortune in 1918 and spent the remainder of his long life fishing the waters around Catalina Island as a member and former President of the famed Tuna Club of Avalon. Van Brunt commissioned the Ida May and celebrated her launch in the spring of 1926. No cost was spared and Ida May was built for $120,000 in 1926 – a typical yacht of her size was built for $14,000. Van Brunt hosted Herbert Hoover and Hoover’s son on the Ida May in summer of 1927 for a fishing competition. Later, Van Brunt had a young writer named Ernest Hemingway aboard who valiantly fought a swordfish and helped establish his love affair with big game sport fishing. Legend has it that while fishing off the Ida May with magnanimous octogenarian Van Brunt, Hemingway was inspired to write The Old Man and the Sea.
Ida May, San Pedro Harbor, 1926
In 1935, the 88-year-old Van Brunt slipped and fell aboard Ida May while on a fishing excursion, breaking his hip. Sadly he passed away within the week, and having never married, left no immediate heir. News of Van Brunt’s fate was published in every newspaper across America. Stan Laurel, at the pinnacle of his prolific comedic career, was overtaken by the fever of big game fishing but had no yacht of his own. He quickly secured the Ida May from Van Brunt’s estate and re-christened her Ruth-L after his beautiful wife, Virginia Ruth Laurel. Stan was ever in pursuit of a “button” fish to enable his entry into the Tuna Club. The diary of Stan’s father, Arthur Jefferson, documents his success on August 15, 1935:
“At last Stan’s luck is in!!!! – He caught a huge Marlin, weight 171 lbs.! Took him 45 minutes to land it. We went to pier, watched its weighing, etc. Great rejoicing! Stan now secures the coveted Tuna Club button, the ambition of all fishers.”
Thus commenced years of joyous entertainment on the Ruth L. ex-Ida May, which included a few Stan Laurel pratfalls: reeling in a suitcase, getting hopelessly stuck in a kelp bed, colliding with a pod of whales. Perhaps what he valued most was respite from the maddening Hollywood crowd. Lois, Laurel’s only daughter, vividly remembers sitting on the cabin top as a child, reclining against the windshield. She reminisces of sitting in Oliver Hardy’s lap as he sang “Harvest Moon.” As close to her as a second father, “Babe” Hardy preferred golfing to fishing and yachting. Stan joked that it was just as well, for “We can’t see the boat when Ollie gets on!”
After his divorce from Ruth in late 1938 (they married and divorced three times over the course of their tempestuous relationship), Stan sold the yacht and all its gear to Jonah Jones, Jr. An oil tycoon who wrote many of the oil and gas laws in California, Jones was also Howard Hughes’s attorney for over thirty years.
The only item Stan Laurel removed was the ship’s clock and he never owned another boat. Years later, he sat at his desk generously answering each of the many fan letters he received daily. Next to his typewriter was his Lifetime Achievement Academy Award and the Ida May clock, its comforting chimes reminding him of his days on the vast ocean playground and the yacht he cherished.
Ida May shines a little brighter today but she still yearns for her glory days of cruising to Avalon and hitting 30-plus knots, racing to catch colossal marlin and Bluefin tuna. Sadly, she will never reach speeds like this again. Her 83-year-old frame is holding tight and triple planking has kept her alive all these years but there is always more to do. The restoration has been both exhilarating and exhausting but there is nothing more special than reviving a part of maritime and indeed Hollywood history. Here’s to 80 more celebrated years of Ida May.
You can learn more about the Ida May and the restoration project at www.idamay.org.