A Wife and a New Life


(This is an excerpt from the book Howard W. Hunter: Man of Thought and Independence, Prophet of God.)

Howard abruptly clos[ed] out his musical career as he prepared for marriage. Several things combined to bring about this change. His increased knowledge of the gospel and his patriarchal blessing had placed his life in a grand, eternal context he had not understood before. He now realized he was a literal, spiritual offspring of the Almighty God and, therefore, had within him the potential for godhood, which could come to fruition depending upon his obedience and diligence.

Brother Peter Clayton’s teaching about the three degrees of glory also had made Howard aware of the importance and significance of celestial marriage. Given the alacrity with which Howard had responded to new principles taught him, as in the instances of patriarchal blessings and tithing, it must be assumed that marriage to the right person in the right place was very much on his mind during his years of socializing in California. While Claire Jeffs had impressed him at that memorable dance in June 1928, she clearly had not come into focus at that time as the one he would marry. During the three years which followed, Howard often dated Claire as well as other girls among the large group of Latter-day Saint youth in the Los Angeles area.

Howard was especially attracted to Claire from the beginning. There was a genuine quality in her demeanor and a certain elegance. At the time of their first meeting, Claire was employed by Blackstones, an upscale department store which catered to the Hollywood set and other women of wealth. Claire had modeled there and at the time was the assistant personnel manager. That she had done so well was a tribute to her intelligence and industry. As a high school student in Salt Lake City where she was born, Claire had worked for the Mountain States Telephone Company.

She moved to Los Angeles in 1926 with her parents, Jacob and Martha Jeffs, two years before Howard arrived. Her father was a successful builder in Salt Lake City and had moved to California, enticed by glowing reports of the booming California economy. In Los Angeles, Jacob Jeffs built a large, comfortable family home in which Claire found love and security. The Church was her spiritual and social haven. Like Howard, Claire had been raised in a part-member home, her father not being a member of the Church. Her mother, Martha, was a devoted member who was always active, serving successively as an officer in the auxiliary organizations, as a teacher, and as a temple worker. It was from her mother that Claire acquired a deep grounding in the Church and an understanding of its doctrines. Martha’s mother, Maria Emilie Reckzeh, was baptized into the Church in West Prussia near the village of Grabig. Maria Emilie’s father, a staunch Lutheran, promptly evicted her and her two daughters from the family home. They were forever shunned by their family. In time, Maria Emilie immigrated to Utah with her two daughters, where she was active in the Church until her death. When Howard and Claire were married in June 1931, her grandmother Maria Emilie was with them in the Salt Lake Temple.

Howard and Claire’s temple sealing was performed by Elder Richard R. Lyman of the Twelve. He counseled them to avoid debt and to never live beyond their means. It was good counsel for a young couple beginning their married life twenty months after the stock market had crashed on “Black Tuesday,” October 29, 1929. The effects of that crash were not felt immediately throughout the country. It was like aftershocks radiating from the epicenter of a violent earthquake. By November 1930, Howard personally felt the impact of the Great Depression for the first time. The Bank of Italy which employed him merged with the Bank of America of California. The merged bank took the name Bank of America National Trust and Savings Association. Following this merger, Howard was employed by the First Exchange State Bank as the assistant cashier at one of its four branches. This employment continued for only fourteen months, when in January 1932, the bank was placed in receivership for liquidation. This tough blow, coming only seven months after their marriage, introduced Howard and Claire to two years of trauma and struggle as they tried to stem the tide of economic adversity which the Great Depression had heaped upon them. There were no jobs available even for willing and able workers like Howard Hunter. In these dire circumstances he had to improvise. He accepted any honorable work which was available and used his entrepreneurial skills to invent jobs.

The novelty and variety of what he did to make ends meet is quite astonishing. He negotiated a credit agreement to buy supplies and equipment, including coin wrappers and adding machines, from the receiver of the bank and resold them to other banks, repaying the receiver when he collected. He and his father-in-law produced bronzed statues and bookends for sale to visitors at the 1932 Olympic Summer Games held in Los Angeles. Their product was beautiful, but the depression economy put a damper on sales. He purchased granulated soap and liquid bleach in large lots, repackaging it in small containers which he sold door-to-door. He noted it was unpleasant, tedious work, “but I was able to make enough to pay the rent and buy groceries.” For some time he worked for the receiver which was liquidating the First Exchange State Bank. He had to resign because of a conflict of interest when the receiver included him in a stockholders liability suit. (He owned a few shares of the bank’s stock.) He was employed for a while by the Works Progress Administration at thirty cents an hour constructing a storm drain. After seven days on the job he received a check for fourteen dollars and seventy cents. “Again we were saved from starvation.” In the summer of 1933, he worked for his father-in-law, Jacob Jeffs, who had a contract to paint the structural steel on four new bridges. The remote location of the bridges made it necessary to camp out. Claire did the cooking for the crew which also included her brother, Ellsworth.

Not long after this job was completed, Jacob died unexpectedly while on a business trip to Utah. His body was returned to California for burial. Martha was comforted in her bereavement, for a few months earlier, Claire and Howard had accepted the invitation to move into the Jeffs family home as a further means of economy as they strove to fight the Depression.


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