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Ellen Browning Scripps’ Outsized Role In San Diego Culture Explored In New Biography

Ellen Browning Scripps' Outsized Role In San Diego Culture Explored In New Biography


Molly McClain, author, "Ellen Browning Scripps: New Money & American Philanthropy"


Photo credit: Scripps College

San Diego philanthropist Ellen Browning Scripps in 1919.

If you have a hard time imagining San Diego without Scripps Aquarium, Scripps Memorial Hospital, Scripps Pier or the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, then it's impossible to imagine San Diego without Ellen Browning Scripps.

Scripps came to San Diego late in her long life, but made an indelible mark, using the fortune she remarkably acquired herself by helping launch her family's national newspaper chain.

"This is a story of a woman who came into her own after the age of 60," said University of San Diego history professor Molly McClain, who's written a new biography of Scripps based on personal diaries and letters previously unused by historians. "She had been a dutiful Victorian woman, though unusual in that she never married and worked as a journalist and editor. Then she comes out to California and makes a new life for herself. She decided to use her wealth to distribute it to mankind, instead of creating another generation of aristocracy."

Scripps came to San Diego in part because she was eventually pushed out of the family business, and quickly took to the relatively remote community. Despite her wealth, she was known to take public transit, wear out her old clothes, and sleep under the stars on her roofless porch.

"People assume she was genteel and elite, but she came from a plebeian heritage and was proud of it," said McClain, whose book is titled "Ellen Browning Scripps: New Money & American Philanthropy." "She’s living in a dusty little beach community. Much of San Diego was not particularly cosmopolitan. She’s a little more down to earth, though, even than most."

Scripps had a complicated relationship with money, according to McClain, who found a letter Scripps wrote to her brother, imagining life on a desert island "where the air that I breathe will not be tainted, nor my eyes polluted with the foul smell and sound of money." Wealth had divided Scripps' family, which was one of the reasons she gave away most of her money, endowing it to the institutions she'd supported, including the San Diego Zoo.

"The Scripps also ran newspapers that were very pro-labor, anti-elite," McClain said. "That’s their political sympathy as well. She and her brother E.W. Scripps thought it would be hypocritical to attack elites and then become them yourself."

McClain joins KPBS Midday Edition on Wednesday with more about Scripps' impact on San Diego culture.

Author Event

Where: La Jolla Riford Library, 7555 Draper Ave., La Jolla

When: Saturday, June 3, 4:00 p.m.

Cost: Free


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