Grace Hubble, a brilliant woman with a keen wit, led an extraordinary life at the center of Caltech’s intellectual community, with members of the British émigré community in Los Angeles and among Hollywood’s elite. As wife of famed astronomer Edwin Powell Hubble, Grace enjoyed access to the minds of many influential people. However, few people today know her story. As with many women of her generation, she existed behind the scenes, the proverbial woman behind the man.
Born in 1889 to John and Luella Burke in Walnut, Iowa, Grace was the eldest of two girls. In 1891 the family moved to California eventually settling in Los Angeles where John Burke, vice president of First National Bank, became a prominent member of the community. Living in Hancock Park, Grace and her sister attended the Marlborough School and in 1912 graduated Phi Beta Kappa in English from Stanford University. She was a serious student, but Grace also maintained an active social life. Stanford’s stables and open countryside fostered her love of horses and nature, something she would continue to enjoy during her married years.
Her first husband Earl Leib, a geologist for the Southern Pacific Company, died tragically in a mine accident in 1921. That same year Grace accompanied a friend to Mount Wilson Observatory where she met a young astronomer. On February 26, 1924, she married Edwin Hubble in a private ceremony at her home. The newlyweds enjoyed a week at the Burke’s Pebble Beach cottage and later honeymooned in Europe. While in England, they renewed friendships from Edwin’s years as a Rhodes scholar and Grace became an anglophile. From England they traveled to the continent for the grand tour and were especially taken with Italy. They returned with architectural ideas from the Ponte Vecchio in Florence and hired architect Joseph Kucera to incorporate them into a design for the home they eventually built in San Marino.
Grace thrived as hostess and Los Angeles tour guide for friends and colleagues, their Woodstock Road home an enclave for a select circle of academics, scientists, British émigrés and Hollywood celebrities. In 1931, Caltech President Robert Millikan asked Grace to be unofficial hostess to Albert Einstein on his first visit to Pasadena, driving him to meetings, assisting with personal needs and entertaining him in her home.
From his post at Mount Wilson’s 100-inch telescope, Hubble proved the universe is constantly expanding, the Big Bang theory. He became an instant celebrity. His fame attracted many Hollywood visitors to the Observatory. As Edwin manned the telescope, Grace communed with nature and in 1937 began a life-long friendship with Anita Loos, screenwriter and author of “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.” Loos opened the doors to the Hollywood set and introduced British writer Aldous and Maria Huxley to the Hubbles. Plagued with poor eyesight, Huxley relied on Grace to edit manuscripts and read to him. Her first project with him was “After Many a Summer Dies the Swan.” The friendship lasted through the mid-1950s. In the years after Edwin passed away, Maria Huxley died and Aldous pursued a new adventure with mind-altering drugs. This was more than Grace could accept and she and Aldous never spoke again.
Grace lived nearly 50 years in San Marino and wrote daily in journals and letters, gathering her observations, analysis and opinions of people, politics, nature and art. She wrote of the ordinary and extraordinary, the ridiculous and sublime. She wrote of evenings with celebrities like Charlie Chaplin, sitting with Frank Capra at the Academy Awards program and her place beside William Randolph Hearst dining at the Hearst Castle. She helped Edwin prepare speeches encouraging FDR to enter the World War II, wrote of days with San Marino ladies packaging supplies for English friends during the blitzkrieg and of evenings watching the San Gabriel Valley darken to the sound of air raid sirens.
On vacations in the Sierra Nevada Mountains or fishing and horseback riding in Colorado, her journals became a master’s canvas as Grace painted pictures with words reflecting her education and intelligence. Cross-country train trips to scientific conferences are laid out in careful detail. Never timid, Grace stepped in to do a quick revision of content and grammar in 1940 when a radio scriptwriter failed to produce an acceptable copy on historical scientific personalities for Edwin. According to Edwin, Grace was his first line of defense. Her journals and correspondence define her 29 years of marriage to Edwin.
The Huntington Library was a special place for them, their choice for Sunday walks with friends and neighbors, especially Homer and Ida Crotty. In 1938, Edwin succeeded George Ellery Hale on The Huntington’s Board of Trustees, a position he maintained with pride until his death. Edwin and Grace enjoyed the friendship of many staff members including Max Farrand, The Huntington’s first director of research. During the war years, in Edwin’s absence, Grace obtained a reader’s card and found solace in the library stacks. After Edwin’s death, she returned to The Huntington’s collections and read literature widely—history, science and travel books. She also walked in the gardens and admired the art.
Grace remained in their Woodstock Road home for 20 years following Edwin’s death but no longer wrote in her journal. Sadly she destroyed much of their personal correspondence, however, she took great care preserving Edwin’s scientific papers and the many priceless books in their home library. She committed herself to preserving his legacy, donating his papers and her journals to establish the “Edwin Powell Hubble Papers” at The Huntington Library. She entertained and corresponded with friends from England and colleagues of Edwin. When she could read no longer Ida Crotty read to her, her desire for intellectual stimulation remained strong. Grace Hubble’s death certificate in 1981 listed her occupation as housewife; her obituary called her a writer. This writer and loving companion crafted a legacy to Edwin Hubble and in those pages and between the lines left her legacy as well.