The Webster Women: Mother & Daughter Kept Together Through the Archives

Posted on: May 8, 2020

By Victoria Bernal, Women in the Archives Social Media Manager; Caroline Sheehan, 2018-2019 Autry/Occidental College intern; and Liza Posas, Head of Research Services and Archives

On this Mother’s Day, we explore the archives of Edna Robb Webster, American author, poet, and historian of Mayan culture. Her archives were lovingly preserved by her daughter Marjorie Ellen Webster before she donated them to the Autry.

Edna travelled to Mexico’s Yucatan region in the early 20th Century making her one of the first women explorers of are—which she vividly captured in photographs and letters. She also authored popular 1930s romance novels and penned the biography for the Midwestern inventor Theodore Arthur Willard (T.A.)Willard.

Born Edna Gay Robb on June 29, 1896, she grew up in Iowa’s Marshall County. According to her Marshalltown High School yearbook, she sang in the glee club, played for the basketball team, and answered “nobody knows” to the question of “future vocation?” She married bookkeeper William Webster in her early 20s and settled in Cleveland to raise their two children Marjorie and William.

In 1927, Edna was commissioned to write the biography of a local inventor with a booming business in the car industry, T.A. Willard. This sparked a long working relationship spanning 15 years. As T.A.’s secretary, Edna assisted him with his books and travels related to the Mayan culture in Mexico.

Edna first sailed to the Yucatan in 1928 on a ship that left New York City only once a month. The ship sailed from New York to Cuba, and then six days later, arrived in the Yucatan port of Progreso. As noted in her archive, Edna would not have been permitted to step foot in Progreso earlier in the decade without notarized permission from her husband. And while the Yucatan authorities still gave her a hard time, she was permitted entry.

In between trips to the Yucatan, she wrote romances that were first serialized in newspapers across the country and then published into books. Her novel The Occasional Wife, about a couple “Married - Yet Living Apart,” was one of the stories she wrote about the troubles of “modern youth.”  She also wrote travel articles on topics like Mexico, Cuba, and Southern California.

Her non-fiction books include Early Exploring in Lands of the Maya, published in 1973 and biography T.A. Willard: Wizard of the Storage Battery, published in 1976. The latter part of Edna’s years were spent living with her daughter Marjorie in Studio City.

The Edna Robb Webster archives also include a few folders of material created by Marjorie Ellen Webster that tell of a local Los Angeles educator and artist.

Following in her mother’s footsteps, Marjorie Ellen Webster became a photographer, writer, explorer and lecturer on Mayan culture. Born in Cleveland on August 23, 1919, Marjorie moved with her family to California’s “small Navy town” of San Diego during World War 2 and eventually found her way to Hollywood in her mid-20s. Her mother introduced her to Robert Stacey-Judd, an English anthropologist and architect who specialized in designing buildings in the Mayan Revival architecture. The two were married four years later on August 5, 1949.

By the 1960s, Marjorie lectured to adult education programs and Los Angeles social clubs on Mayan archeology and Hawaiian dance and culture. According to her 1965 teaching report in the archives, she edited scientific papers as well: “Occasionally I would proofread all night on the Secret and Confidential Space and Defense projects—as far ahead as the year 2000—then lecture [within] a few hours on the ancient Mayas of 2000 years ago!”

Overall, the vivaciousness imbued in Marjorie’s modest amount of personal papers represent a woman with an ever-present sense of amazement, adventure, and passion that was no doubt influenced by her trailblazing mother.

As part of the Autry’s #ArchivingWomen initiative, women’s stories are being revealed through the work of archival processing—which works to expand their stories with better description and, often times, by connecting collections found across repositories. Marjorie and Edna not only live on together in the Autry archives, but also in a corresponding Marjorie and Edna R. Webster collection held at UC Riverside. Within these two collections, a daughter’s dedication when she works to keep her mother’s memory alive through the archives is clearly evident. Happy Mothers Day!

Cover to Pen-Pal: Spanish-English dictionary = Diccionario Ingles-Espanol para amigos por carta by People-to-People organization. Artwork done by Marjorie Ellen Webster. Autry Museum; 463.P46p 1960 (SPECIAL COLLECTIONS)

Captions

Colored lantern slide image of Edna Robb Webster at the Dovecotes, Uxmal, circa 1930s, photographer unknown. Autry Museum; LS.14959

Colored lantern slide image of Edna Robb Webster with Mayan family Yucatan, Mexico, circa 1930s, photographer unknown. Autry Museum; LS.15017

“Story of Modern Youth Starts Tomorrow in the Sun,” in San Bernardino Sun newspaper, Volume 38, July 30, 1932. Retrieved from online source, May 5, 2020

Occasional Wife book jacket cover, novel written by Edna Robb Webster about fictitious character Camille defying conventions to pursue her career. Image retrieved from online source, May 5, 2020

Collage on Marjorie Webster’s travels, 1967. From the Edna Robb Webster Papers, Autry Museum; MS.237

Image of Marjorie E. Webster, in pink hue.  From the Edna Robb Webster Papers, Autry Museum; MS.237

Edna Robb Webster in Chichen Itza, Mexico, circa 1930-1936. Marjorie and Edna R. Webster papers (MS 147). Courtesy of Special Collections & University Archives, University of California, Riverside.

Edna Robb Webster, T.A. Willard, and Emma Lindsey Squier at 3rd level of Chichen Itza, 1930. Marjorie and Edna R. Webster papers (MS 147). Courtesy of Special Collections & University Archives, University of California, Riverside.

Cover to Pen-Pal: Spanish-English dictionary = Diccionario Ingles-Espanol para amigos por carta by People-to-People organization. Artwork done by Marjorie Ellen Webster. Autry Museum; 463.P46p 1960 (SPECIAL COLLECTIONS)