Estelle Doheny, Collector and Philanthropist

Estelle Doheny. Image source: Facebook page of the Carrie Estelle Doheny Foundation.

Estelle Doheny. Image source: Facebook page of the Carrie Estelle Doheny Foundation.

Carrie Estelle Betzold Doheny was born in Philadelphia in 1875. After high school, she worked as a telephone operator at the Petroleum Exchange Center until her marriage to oil tycoon Edward Laurence Doheny in 1900. Although overshadowed by her husband’s fame during her lifetime, she later achieved her own recognition as one of the most renowned American women book collectors of the twentieth century.

In 1901, the couple moved into a house at 8 Chester Place in Los Angeles, known thereafter as the Doheny Mansion. The mansion, lavishly redecorated with the finest artwork and furnishings by Mrs. Doheny, remained her primary residence until her death in 1958. Its famous rarities included the Pompeian Room, a spectacular marble and gold room with a Tiffany glass dome, and the Music Room, which contained a Steinway grand piano entirely gilded in gold leaf.

Edward L. Doheny and his lawyer, Frank J. Hogan. Photograph by Herbert E. French, National Photo Company, via Wikimedia Commons.

Edward L. Doheny (right) and his lawyer, Frank J. Hogan. Photograph by Herbert E. French, National Photo Company, via Wikimedia Commons.

Mrs. Doheny enjoyed a life of privilege and wealth, but the Doheny family was also touched by tragedy and scandal. Only five weeks after their wedding, Edward Doheny’s first wife committed suicide, and Estelle Doheny became the primary caregiver to their young son, Ned. In the 1920s, Edward Doheny became a key figure in the Teapot Dome Scandal, in which he was accused of offering a $100,000 bribe to Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall. His son Ned and friend Hugh Plunkett, who had withdrawn the cash and delivered it to Fall, were also implicated in the case. In 1929, the two men died in an apparent murder-suicide at Ned Doheny’s home, although the details remain unclear. Doheny was acquitted in 1930 of offering the bribe, but never fully recovered after the combined blows of the scandal, the stock market crash, and the loss of his only son. He remained an invalid until his death in 1935. As his health worsened, Estelle began to assume more of her husband’s social and business responsibilities, and continued to manage capably after his death. She founded the Estelle Doheny Eye Foundation, the Carrie Estelle Doheny Foundation, and the Estelle Doheny Hospital and Pavilian at St. Vincent’s Medical Center, among other philanthropic projects.

Estelle Doheny first began collecting books during her husband’s trials in the 1920s. After receiving a copy of Merle Johnson’s High Spots of American Literature, she competed with her husband’s lawyer Frank J. Hogan to collect all 200 titles on the list. Hogan, himself an avid book collector, was one of Mrs. Doheny’s early mentors in the subject. Her other advisors included book collector A. Edward Newton, Philadelphia dealer A.S.W. Rosenbach, and California dealer Alice Millard.

"Countess Doheny Examining the Gutenberg Bible." Catalogue of the Books & Manuscripts in the Estelle Doheny Collection, Part Three. Los Angeles, 1955.

“Countess Doheny Examining the Gutenberg Bible.” Image from Catalogue of the Books & Manuscripts in the Estelle Doheny Collection, Part Three. Los Angeles, 1955.

Mrs. Doheny’s areas of interest included fine bindings, illuminated manuscripts, incunabula, and Western Americana. She liked to collect books featured in bibliographies, including A.E. Newton’s “One Hundred Good Novels,” the Grolier Club’s “One Hundred Books Famous in English Literature, and the Zamorano 80, a list of important Western American. Her autographed manuscript collection included all 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence. Inspired by a book on fore-edge paintings, she amassed one of the largest collections of fore-edge painted books in the world. By 1931, she had hired a private librarian, Lucille Miller, and that summer, her book purchases averaged a thousand dollars a day (Bonino, p. 101). In 1950, she acquired the “crowning achievement” of her collection, a complete Gutenberg Bible.


Catalogue of the Books & Manuscripts in the Estelle Doheny Collection, 3 vols. Los Angeles, 1940-1955.

The collection grew to approximately 7,000 books and 1,300 manuscripts. Lucille Miller compiled the first major catalogue of the Doheny collection,  published in three volumes between 1940 and 1955.


The Estelle Doheny Collection from the Edward Laurence Doheny Memorial Library: Part I. New York: Christie, Manson & Woods, 1987.

In 1940, Mrs. Doheny donated a large portion of her book collection to St. John’s Seminary in Camarillo, California, to be housed in the Edward Laurence Doheny Memorial Library. However, the collection did not remain there. In 1985, church officials decided to sell the collection and use the proceeds to establish a teaching endowment. The Estelle Doheny collection was auctioned off at Christie’s in a series of six sales from 1987 to 1989. Sale proceeds were nearly $38 million, with the Gutenberg Bible alone selling for over $5 million (Davis, p. 282). The six volume catalogue plus index, with numerous illustrations, provides a wonderful record of the remarkable collection she built.

Further Reading:

Bonino, Mary Ann. The Doheny Mansion: A Biography of a Home. Los Angeles: Edizioni Casa Animata, 2008.

Cloonan, Michele V. “Alice Millard and the Gospel of Beauty and Taste.” Women in Print: Essays on the Print Culture of American Women from the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2006: pp. 159-178.

Davis, Margaret Leslie. Dark Side of Fortune: Triumph and Scandal in the Life of Oil Tycoon Edward L. Doheny. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.

Dickinson, Donald C. “Doheny, Estelle.” Dictionary of American Book Collectors. New York, 1986: pp. 94-96.

Schad, Robert O. “The Estelle Doheny Collection.” The New Colophon v. 3 (1950): p. 229-242.

Weber, Francis J. and Josephine Arlyn Bruccoli. “Carrie Estelle Doheny.” Dictionary of Literary Biography 140: American Book-Collectors and Bibliographers, 1st Series. Edited by Joseph Rosenblum, University of North Carolina. The Gale Group, 1994. pp. 64-69.


The Estelle Doheny Collection from the Edward Laurence Doheny Memorial Library. New York: Christie, Manson & Woods, 1987. 6 vols. and index.

My Doheny Collection:

Addresses at a Meeting of the Zamorano Club, May 6, 1950. Camarillo, Calif.: Edward Laurence Doheny Memorial Library, 1950.

The Book as a Work of Art: An Exhibition of Books and Manuscripts from the Library of Mrs. Edward Laurence Doheny. Los Angeles: Printed by W. Ritchie, 1935.

Catalogue of Books and Manuscripts in the Estelle Doheny Collection. 3 vols. Los Angeles: Ward Ritchie Press, 1940-1955.

The Estelle Doheny Collection from the Edward Laurence Doheny Memorial Library, St. John’s Seminary, Camarillo, California. 6 vols, index. New York: Christie, Manson & Woods, 1987.

The Estelle Doheny Collection from St. Mary’s of the Barrens, Perryville, Missouri: Fine Printed Books and Manuscripts, Friday 14 December 2001.

Lewis, James. Mrs. Doheny’s Bookplate. South Freeport, Maine: Ascensius Press, 2009. (Miniature book)

One Hundred Manuscripts and Books from the Estelle Doheny Collection in the Edward L. Doheny Memorial Library (Los Angeles, 1950).

Ritchie, Ward. The Dohenys of Los Angeles: A Talk Before the Zamorano Club on December 1, 1971. Dawson’s Book Shop, 1974.

A Selection of Books and Manuscripts from the Private Library of Mrs. Edward Laurence Doheny Exhibited in Connection with the Dedication of the Edward L. Doheny, Jr. Memorial Library.

C.E.D. "The Lady"

Weber, Francis J. C.E.D. “The Lady” (1988). Includes one of Estelle Doheny’s leather bookplates.

Weber, Francis J. The Estelle Doheny Collection of Californiana. 

Weber, Francis J. C.E.D. “The Lady.” Junipero Serra Press, 1988. (Miniature book)

Weber, Francis J. Southern California’s First Family: The Dohenys of Los Angeles.

3 thoughts on “Estelle Doheny, Collector and Philanthropist

  1. Good information, Emi, on (Carrie) Estelle Betzhold Doheny. I esp appreciated your extended list of sources & the color photo of Lady Estelle’s leather bookplate, inspiring me to improve my own.

    So she began humbly, as a telephone operator, from modest German immigrant roots; but she was ambitious, marrying an oil tycoon, no less, whose vast holdings evidently financed her remarkable & pricey library. Two questions, please: Did she bring any of her own (earned) money, or perhaps inherited family money, into the marriage? And what were the circumstances of her elevation to “Countess” (doubtless a well-merited honorary distinction)? She received wise direction, as you valuably mention, from that ‘Napoleon of Books’ ~ ASW Rosenbach of Philadelphia.

    The Doheny Foundation webpage on Estelle mentions her failing eyesight, in her 60s. A fervent Catholic, she probably invoked (often) that beloved patron saint of eyes ~ St Lucia.

    Jerry Morris, respected collector in Clearwater, Florida, and former president of the Florida Bibliophile Society, offers several good images of Doheny books in his large collection ~
    visit his popular ‘Sentimental Library’ blog at
    (You might add this information to your useful list of sources / resources.)

    Thank you for this series, Emi, always beautifully prepared, always informative.

    Maureen E. Mulvihill, PhD
    Collector & Scholar, Princeton Research Forum, NJ.
    1st December 2014.

    • Hi Maureen, thank you for your questions. To answer 1) The sources I have don’t mention any wealth she may have brought into the marriage, either her own earnings or family wealth. Her father worked as a streetcar motorman, according to the Dictionary of Literary Biography entry. I would assume the vast majority of her funds for book collecting came from her husband. 2) The Doheny Foundation website says she was elevated to the rank of Papal Countess by Pope Pius XII in 1939. I will have to do more research on the significance of that, no doubt it is related to her charitable works.

      Her failing eyesight must have been a great loss to such an avid bibliophile. I admire the way she continued to stay active despite the difficulty. It certainly inspired her creation of the Estelle Doheny Eye Foundation, now the Doheny Eye Institute.

      Thank you for reminding me of Jerry Morris’s informative post on ladies in his library. I have enjoyed his posts on Mary Hyde and other collectors.

  2. Very nice piece. I have a small Estelle Doheny collection and you’ve given me many more titles to look for. One piece that I have that I don’t see listed in your collection is

    A selection of books and manuscripts from the private library of Mrs. Edward Laurence Doheny exhibited in connection with the dedication of the Edward L. Doheny Jr. memorial library. W. Ritchie, 1932.

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