by Diann Marsh, from Santa Ana, An Illustrated History,
©1994 Heritage Publishing.
Excerpt used with permission.
The Maharajah of Indore was said to have been so wealthy when he built his
palace at the corner of Heliotrope and Santa Clara that he could plunge his arm
up to his elbow into several chests full of precious jewels. In 1937 these
treasures had an estimated value of $20 million.
Why did the Maharajah choose Santa Ana in which to build his eighteenth home? It
was reported that he wanted a safe place for his daughter, five-year-old
Princess Usha. He and his new bride, Marguerite Branyen, liked Santa Ana's
beauty, its quiet, and the promise of restful seclusion. At the time Allison
Honer, who lived in the midst of a small orange grove across the street from the
Maharajah property, was one of Orange County's most prominent building
contractors. His firm constructed the house, which was designed by Donald Beach
Kirby of Balboa Island.
The Santa Ana Register stated, "A man's home is his castle, and the castle being
built for the world's richest man, the Maharajah of Indore, in Santa Ana is not
only a castle; it is literally a fortress. It will guard that which is more dear
to him than all of his income-it will guard the safety and continued well-being
of his daughter, Princess Usha." The Register claimed it was the only castle in
Western America to house a foreign ruler and his family.
Steel and concrete bars and heavy metal grates were used on all of the windows
in the 12-room home. The basic cost of the house was $50,000, a very large sum
during the Depression.
The house was built of frame and stucco, with a high marching wall around the
back yard, including the driveway and attached garage. In 1938, it was still
rare to have the garage attached to the house in the fashion seen in almost
every new house today. The stairway leading from the front entry hall to the
second floor was guarded by a wrought iron gate. Although the house was a
fortress, it did not appear that the threat the Maharajah feared came from local
citizens, but rather from some foreign danger, because Princess Usha attended
Hoover Elementary School with all of the other neighborhood children.
Approximately $150,000 was spent on the furnishings and works of art. Tiger-skin
rugs and leopard-skin draperies added an exotic touch, while a polished green
rubber floor was covered by custom woven white carpets. Huge contemporary
divans, an 11-piece dining room set, and eight-and-a-half-foot copper pillar
lamps were among the new furnishings. The living room is 28 by 34 feet and
contained a fireplace clad in polished glass. The walls of the second floor
hallway were covered with scarlet grass cloth. A servant slept in the hall,
outside Princess Usha's door, every night. A beautifully-tiled swimming pool was
the centerpiece of the backyard and could be viewed from the 80-foot-long
terrace at the rear of the second floor.
Marguerite Lawler Branyen met the Maharajah in 1937, at the Good Samaritan
Hospital in Los Angeles. Still in mourning for his first wife who had recently
died, he had been traveling with his five-year-old daughter, Princess Usha, when
he had a severe asthma attack. Marguerite, who was divorced from her first
husband, John Branyen, a Minneapolis jeweler, had worked as a stewardess for the
Union Pacific before settling in Los Angeles. After the Maharajah recovered, he
took her to Europe as a nurse for his daughter. They were married on September
When the house was finished in 1938, the Prince, whose proper name was Sir
Yeshwant Holkar, his new bride, Marguerite, Princess Usha, and several servants
moved into the striking Moderne residence. While in Santa Ana the Holkars did
little formal entertaining, but did have a small circle of friends that included
the Honers and attorney Dave Howell and his wife. According to Donald Honer,
Princess Usha fit in well with the children in the neighborhood and they treated
her the same as they treated everyone else. The Princess and Helen Honer became
life-long friends, and still correspond, even though the Princess lives in India
and Helen lives in Italy.
The Holkars had been in Santa Ana for only a year when they announced that they
would be "returning to India to be of service to his emperor and his country".
Princess Usha stayed in the house on Heliotrope with her governess, who was
named her legal guardian.
Life in India was beyond anything Marguerite had dreamed. She was mistress of
the Maharajah's 17 mansions, presided over a $3 million palace with 200
servants, and had the use of her husband's 15 cars. She had her pick of any of
the jewelry in the family collection, said to have been worth at least $20
million. The servants in the palace, which had its own electric plant and was
air-conditioned, wore gold-embroidered uniforms.
The Holkar's daily schedule usually began at noon with baths. After reading the
Bombay Chronicle, they would have lunch in bed. Rarely were they alone because
people were always dropping in. The Maharajah had a passion for playing bridge
(his friends called him the Indore Sport), which they would usually do until
afternoon tea. After tea they would swim, play tennis, go calling, or play golf
with their friends. In the evening they would see a movie in their own movie
theatre or go to Whow, the nearest town. Marguerite commented that they rarely
got to bed before 2 a.m., because they usually had company. They spent a great
deal of time in their home at Fontainebleau, outside of Paris. Sometimes they
went on hunting trips, with Marguerite's record adding up to 30 tigers, 8
panthers, and one bear.
Marguerite yearned for a good old American hot dog and a trolley ride. She flew
back to the United States in 1942 and moved into the Holkar's second home at
Emerald Bay. A year later the Maharajah took up residence in Reno, where he
filed for divorce. It was reported that he spent the required six weeks riding
on a donkey and carrying a fishing rod. Ten hours after he got his divorce from
Marguerite, he married Mrs. Euphremia Watt Crane. She became the new Maharanee.
Marguerite was given the home on Heliotrope and the house at Emerald Bay.
Surprisingly, she was also given Princess Usha, whom she legally adopted. A
substantial amount of alimony and jewelry were also a part of the divorce
settlement. Although Marguerite denied the rumors, it was hinted that the cause
of domestic discord was not mental cruelty, but the failure to produce an heir.
Marguerite, a truly remarkable woman who refused to be defeated by life, wanted
to be a part of America again -so she joined the Waves. She is reported to have
said, "I'm truly happy now". She was sent to the Hunter College training center
in New York, where she lived the life of a typical trainee. Ten-year-old
Princess Usha went back to India because Marguerite felt that she would be
happier and less lonely if she lived with her father and his new family.
Marguerite met Charles W Masters, a Santa Ana postman who was in the Coast
Guard, and they fell in love immediately. In 1945, after they both received
honorable discharges, they slipped away to las Vegas, Nevada, and were married
by a Justice of the Peace.
They returned to the house on Heliotrope in Santa Ana, where they lived for
several years. In 1952, the house and most of the furnishings went on the
auction block. Marguerite felt that the house was too large for her and her
doctor recommended that she move to a drier climate. The high taxes and upkeep
of the house had become a burden for her also.
What happened to all of the people whose lives were woven together in this
stranger-than fiction story? Marguerite lived out her days in Corona del Mar
(California), passing away in 1963. Tukoji Rao Holkar, Yeshwant's father,
married Nancy Ann Miller of Seattle, Washington. They lived in India and had
four children. Yeshwant Holkar and his wife had a son, Prince Richard, in
1944. He gave up the throne of the State of Indore to Princess Usha, rather
than his son. He went to work for the United Nations and died in 1959.
Princess Usha still resides in the palace in India. She would be in, in
1994, 61 years old.
The house on Heliotrope still presents a private face to the world. It is
beautifully-maintained and has changed little since Princess Usha ran
through the rooms with her young friends. The neighborhood is lined with
fine homes set amid manicured lawns -- a fitting setting for a Princess.