The 19th century was a largely inhospitable place for a female businesswoman. Nevertheless, Eva Fenyes, possessed of a mighty will and impressive intellect, schooled her male contemporaries on the way to solidifying an historic reputation.
BY: Amber Nelson
Photos: Courtesy of the Pasadena Museum of History
Long before Sheryl Sandberg instructed women to “lean in” and decades before women’s conferences became ubiquitous, Pasadena was home to Eva Scott Fenyes, a fearless maverick of a business woman who paved her own way in business and life. Her story is instructive; she was raised to be a capable thinker, one who knew her own mind, and she didn’t hesitate to break barriers when it would serve her goals. Her trailblazing left her influence on a generation of artists and the city of Pasadena.
The outline of Eva’s early life is consistent with what one might expect from a lady of her era. She was born in New York in 1849, the only child to parents who were not only wealthy but also adoring and attentive. After her formal education at an all-girls boarding school, she studied art in New York, Europe and Egypt as part of her grand tour. In 1878, Eva married Lieutenant William Muse and gave birth to her only child, Leonora, in 1879. She spent a number of years as an army wife, but did not find happiness or satisfaction in her marriage. Some suggest she travelled with her daughter to Santa Fe, New Mexico in 1890 on doctor’s orders to take in the dry heat that might heal her health complaints but others believe she moved there specifically to procure a divorce.
Eva’s choice was uncommon; at the time, only about 3 to 4 percent of American marriages ende
d in divorce, due in large part to the lack of economic options for unmarried women. With the support of her family and the wisdom of a trusted group of advisors, Eva successfully ended her marriage and began an extensive tour through Europe, Egypt and the Middle East while Leonora attended boarding school in England and Switzerland. Her travels offered opportunity to work on her art, educate her daughter and truly become a citizen of the world. They also led her to Adalbert Fenyes, a Hungarian physician and entomologist who became her second husband in 1896. Shortly after their marriage, they came to Pasadena.
From the beginning, their partnership was unusual. Eva’s financial means far outweighed those of her husband. Rather than demurely handing over the management of her fortune to him, she deftly protected her finances and grew to be a powerful influence in the development of Pasadena and its artists. Adalbert, however, brought a certain sophistication to the union. Eva, like many Americans who married Europeans, adopted a pseudo-crest featuring the letter “f” and a coronet; perhaps this was her effort to add flair and a sense of nobility to her own status.
They leased their first home in Pasadena in 1896 and Eva later bought it as a rental property and began earning income from her real estate holdings. In 1897, Eva purchased a 4.5 acre lot on South Orange Grove Boulevard, paying $20,000 for the land and the mansion she had built there. Before long, the couple was settled into the original Fenyes mansion with an office specifically for Adalbert’s work. While there is no mention of office space dedicated to Eva’s ventures into business and art, she was clearly making her way into the social and financial infrastructure of Pasadena. The family lived in the mansion until Eva’s daughter wed and finding the house too big, Eva decided to sell it. The house and the majority of its furnishings were sold for $40,000 in 1905, a huge profit. It is perhaps the influence of Eva’s father, who instructed her in real estate and finance, which prepared her for such lucrative business dealings.
As Eva purchased the land for the second Fenyes mansion, she needed temporary housing for herself and her husband. Rather than rent, she purchased a swath of land on Colorado Boulevard and built eight shops near the road with eight residential bungalows in the back. She had one of the bungalows designed specifically for her family’s use and lived there for two years, earning rental income and a reputation as a keen businesswoman while her mansion was being built a few miles away. When she moved to the second Fenyes mansion, she had built for herself a huge financial interest in the main thoroughfare of Pasadena.
While Eva was engaged in her business and civic activities, her husband was building his career as a physician. His area of specialty was electro-therapeutics, x-ray therapeutics and x-ray photography. His pursuit required more than the office space designated for him at the Fenyes mansion. Eva’s solution was for Adalbert to rent rooms in one of the buildings she owned at a competitive rate. Their contract goes so far as to include details about who pays for water and “artificial light.” At every turn, Eva seems to have been fair-minded about money and yet unwilling to compromise her firm financial footing. She rented office space to her husband, invested in equipment and financially supported his education and he, in turn, was expected to make a “steady if not substantial” income. She seemed to have a shrewd understanding of the difference between a gift and an investment and made financial decisions accordingly.
Laura Verlaque, director of collections at the Pasadena Museum of History, says Eva’s insistence on economic independence was due, in part, to her “interest in preserving her way of life, with its rich opportunities for travel and education; Eva must have wanted to ensure her daughter and granddaughter’s financial security and allow them to enjoy the same life of privilege.”
In addition to her growing real estate empire, Eva made it a priority to invest in the artists and intellectuals she so admired. She hosted regular Friday salons based on the glittering gatherings that were so popular in Europe and the East Coast. Guests included Charles Lummis, editor of the periodical Land of Sunshine, the artists William Keith, Benjamin Chambers Brown, Carl Oscar Borg and other intellectual and creative luminaries. She brought in actors to perform plays and lecturers to feed the intellectually curious. The Pasadena elite often sought invitations to the salons where Eva introduced them to artists as a sort of matchmaker to connect the wealthy to the arts. She also supported her artist friends by offering them month’s-long visits to her home, painting privileges throughout her gardens and occasionally provided art supplies and models.
Though she never considered herself a professional artist, Eva did paint and draw throughout her life. One of her most significant artistic contributions is her collection of adobe renderings. More than 300 of her historical watercolors of missions and historical adobes and more than 3,000 sketches document the rich architectural history of the Southwest. Many of these artworks are at the Pasadena Museum of History.
The Pasadena Museum of History is housed on the grounds of the second Fenyes mansion and keeps safe many of Eva’s archival documents. Next door to the museum is another beautiful structure, the Curtin House, that Eva had built for her daughter and granddaughter after Leonora’s husband died. The property also includes the Finnish Folk Art Museum. Without her shrewd business savvy, Eva couldn’t have contributed so grandly to Pasadena and the art world. Her status and wealth afforded her opportunities unusual for most women of her generation. According to Verlaque, “Despite Eva’s divorce, she was regarded as a lady by her peers [and] she appears to [have commanded] the respect of the men.”
Had Eva doubted her own convictions, denied her passions, or played down her intellect, Pasadena and the world would be much different places. The lessons Eva illustrates in the way she lived her life and managed her business interests are valuable still today.
Business Lessons from Eva
Manage your own money. At no point in her adult life did Eva put her money and her faith in someone else’s hands. She knew what she had, she knew how to invest it and she took satisfaction in her financial endeavors.
Know your own mind. Though Eva had advisors she consulted, she always pursued what she believed to be the best options. She was not swayed by the opinions of others or pressured into following the common path.
Watch the details. While her careful attention to detail caused friction in some of her business dealings, Eva knew that small concessions can add up to big changes. She did not sacrifice her standards for convenience or for the comfort of others.
Follow you passions and interests. Of course Eva’s fortune helped, but her pursuit of art and her fascination with film were an integral part of her life. She found ways to merge business and pleasure that served both her brain and her bank account.
Think long-term investment and short-term gain. Eva’s business savvy often led her beyond the immediately obvious to the more crafty long-range ideas. From her clever development of property along Colorado Boulevard to her collaborative support of her husband’s career, she rarely took the obvious, easy route.