LIE JOLLA: 6.5 persistent La Jolla myths busted (2024)

If you enjoy believing that magic is real, that the moon landing was faked or that Sparky the family dog went to live on a farm when you were 4, this might not be the article for you. Some of the concepts you’ve clung to since childhood, that are integral to your self-identity as a La Jollan, may actually be fake news.

We understand the sentiment behind that line from “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”: “When the truth becomes legend, print the legend.” Except that this wasn’t even the line. It was actually: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

Yep, that’s how we’re gonna be.

Myth 1: “La Jolla” for sure means “the jewel.”

For more than a century, tourism promoters have clung to the certainty that our town is named for the Spanish word for “jewel” (“la joya”), which is why our fairly official nickname is now “The Jewel City.”

However, the earliest appearance of anything remotely “la joya”-sounding on a printed map of San Diego is “Pascoe’s Official Map of the Pueblo Lands of San Diego County,” dated May 1870, according to Barry Ruderman, owner of Barry Lawrence Ruderman Antique Maps. And that still spells it “La Jolla.”

So why would the Spanish, our most recent predecessors, misspell their own word?

Because, many historians believe, “La Jolla” is based on the word used by the Spanish’s predecessors, the Kumeyaay Native-American tribes, for this area. “Mat kulaaxuuy” referred to “land of holes” (perhaps the caves in The Cove). Of course, this is the most popular theory, but it’s still only a theory.

“This name thing is a sticky, tricky business,” says Carol Olten, historian for the La Jolla Historical Society. “The most definitive discussion of it remains on a couple pages of Patricia Schaelchlin’s book, ‘La Jolla The Story of a Community 1887-1987,’ in which she quotes numerous learned orthographers about the derivation in differing spellings and variations that include disagreeing vernacular translations of both Spanish and Native American words.”

In other words, one thing we know for sure is that we don’t know one thing for sure.

Myth 2: One of history’s most infamous shark attacks was faked as part of an insurance scam/lover’s triangle.

It can’t get any worse than being eaten alive by a Great White shark.

Or so you would think.

But the gruesome death of Robert Pamperin, a 33-year-old engineer, off La Jolla Cove nearly 60 years ago was followed by insulting rumors that dogged his widow and persist to this day: that it was an insurance scam; that Pamperin was spotted alive in Mexico afterward; and that his widow ran off with either the insurance man or with Pamperin’s diving buddy.

Here are the facts as reported by Gerald Lehrer, said diving buddy, in his sworn testimony to the superior court that legally declared Pamperin dead … On the afternoon of June 14, 1959, Pamperin, who weighed about 200 pounds, was free-diving for abalone with Lehrer, who suddenly heard screams of “Help me!” and saw Pamperin “upright and unnaturally high out of the water,” the entire lower half of his body enveloped by the mouth of a 20-foot shark that was surrounded by an expanding pool of crimson.

Lehrer’s story could never be physically corroborated because no body was found — or even parts — just Pamperin’s swim fin and inner tube. And this is where the conspiracy theorists sink their own teeth in.

“White sharks generally don’t consume a person,” Greg Skomal, marine scientist with the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, tells the Light. “They seem to figure out that what they’re trying to eat isn’t their normal prey and they’ll spit it out.” Even when consuming one of their favorite meals, sea lions, Skomal says “they’ll bite them in half and into chunks.”

However, Skomal adds that “it’s possible the shark could have dragged the body away.” According to reports, about 10 divers (including esteemed Scripps Institution of Oceanography head diver Conrad Limbaugh) scoured the ocean off The Cove for two hours, until dark, finding no evidence of Pamperin or the shark.

However, their search didn’t begin until about an hour after the incident. And, according to Skomal: “If a shark grabs ahold of its victim and swims off, it wouldn’t take long to get far enough away that rescuers couldn’t find the body. These are big, highly mobile sharks.”

What seems much less probable is a hoax. Ignoring the logistics of pulling off such a disappearing act, the facts simply don’t support it. Pamperin was happily married and financially well-off; his widow later remarried, but to Pamperin’s cousin, not to Lehrer or some insurance man; and the double-indemnity clause of Pamperin’s life insurance was not even activated beforehand, which would have doubled the payout.

And so, recreational divers, the odds of this ever happening to you are several million to one, but they exist — and believing in a myth won’t change that.

Myth 3: The “Wizard of Oz” Munchkins lived in a secret colony of Hillside Drive houses after the movie.Myth 3:

The “Wizard of Oz” Munchkins lived in a secret colony of Hillside Drive houses after the movie.La Jolla Light has debunked this before — most recently in a story last Oct. 3. But what we didn’t know at the time is that this newspaper may bear some responsibility for it. And, if so, we couldn’t apologize any harder.

According to longtime resident Jane Fetter, who grew up in one of the Cliff May homes that didn’t survive, the Light published an article, around 1947, “about La Jolla being a very magical, enchanted place with Munchkin houses, and at night you can see the happy Munchkins dancing in the fields.” (Unfortunately, the Light’s archives don’t date back nearly that far.)

“It was really just an absolute page-filler,” Fetter says. “They needed an article and somebody wrote this spoof, and everybody laughed about it, but then people would drive around town looking for the Munchkin houses.”

To this day, retellings of the Munchkin myth all seem to take on a similar structure — a friend, or a friend’s parent or grandparent, knocking on the door of one of the houses years ago and getting shooed away by an angry Lollipop Guilder. Last October, the Light dismissed all such retellings outright. But could some have been rooted in real-life visits to 7447 Hillside Drive, owned at the time by Fetter’s aunt?

“She had tuberculosis of the spine, so she was about 4’11,” Fetter says. “People would stop and knock on the door and ask if this was one of the Munchkin houses, and she would say no.”

By the way, Fetter’s aunt was named Miss Trevor, Miss Dorothy Trevor. “Oh, Dorothy, that’s funny,” Fetter says. “I never put that together until just now.”

Myth 3a: There are “troll bridges” up there, too.

This is not really separate enough from the Munchkins myth to warrant a ranking as No. 4. Further up the winding Mt. Soledad hills are two old stone bridges. The first, on Al Bahr Drive, was built in 1928 by William French Ludington, developer of Ludington Heights, who wanted to provide access to his lots.

“Its use of classical arches mimes the Cabrillo Bridge, which was built for the 1915-16 Expo in Balboa Park and which Ludington helped organize,” Olten says.

It is not known who built the newer overpass, the Castellana/Puente Drive Bridge, but we’re willing to bet that it was not a troll, either.

Myth 4: Bird Rock was developed to house the servants who worked for La Jolla’s wealthy homeowners.

This would explain why its original homes were mostly two- and three-bedroom cottages measuring around 1,000 square feet, sometimes with only one bathroom. Except that it doesn’t.

Bird Rock — named for the avian shape of an offshore geologic formation — was settled as a farming community populated by Japanese truck farmers. While living in shacks and tents as part of sharecropping agreements, they grew flowers and strawberries they sold to motorists driving between Pacific Beach and La Jolla — until they were rounded up at the start of World War II and thrown in Japanese internment camps.

Next, most of the still largely undeveloped Bird Rock was used by the Navy as a school for anti-aircraft training. (Gun emplacements were installed on the bluffs and extended south along Calumet Avenue.) Only after the war was the majority of the area developed — as part of the G.I. Bill thanking the ex-military for their service with low-cost starter homes.

There was a servants district for La Jolla’s wealthy, but it was on Draper and Eads avenues west of Pearl Street — where Thomas Debose, an African-American born during the time of slavery, became the first black person to buy La Jolla land in 1904.

Myth 5: La Jolla’s “gravity hill” nudges your vehicle uphill, defying the laws of gravity, in neutral gear.

When you stop your car at a particular westbound spot on West Muirlands Drive, between Nautilus Street and Fay Avenue, then place it in neutral, it rolls forward, uphill, due to an aberration in the Earth’s gravity at this point.


With apologies to everyone harboring fond high-school memories of making this incredible discovery, your car rolls forward because it’s rolling very slightly downhill. So-called “gravity hills” are all optical illusions.

In this case, you only feel like you’re headed uphill because everything after the edge of the road up ahead slopes downward precipitously in the distance, making the edge appear to be an uphill peak.

Myth 6: Pablo Picasso once lived, or at least stayed, in one of the mansions above the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

Many well-known artists have called La Jolla home or visited for more than a night — Guy Rose, Richard Allen Morris, even Andy Warhol — but not the most famous artist of the 20th century. How this myth got started is understandable, however.

Artist Francoise Gilot was the Cubism pioneer’s mistress. They met in 1943 when she was 21 and he was 62. They were together for 10 years — while he was still married to, but separated from, Russian ballerina Olga Khoklova — and had two of Picasso’s four children together: Claude and Paloma.

It was Gilot who lived above Scripps, with her eventual husband Dr. Jonas Salk, the polio vaccine inventor and Salk Institute founder, whom she met through mutual friends in La Jolla in 1969. They married a year later and stayed together, and in La Jolla, until Salk’s death in 1995.

While it is almost certain that Picasso’s children with Gilot — who were in their early 20s when their mother began her life with Salk — visited her in La Jolla, it is almost just as certain that their father, who died at home in France in 1973, never did.

LIE JOLLA: 6.5 persistent La Jolla myths busted (2024)


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