~ The Walking Lady of Edmonds
by Betty Lou Gaeng
“Martha! Martha!” As the children chanted her name, Martha Kraencke appeared not to notice. Her steps seldom faltered as she walked along the sidewalks and alley ways of downtown Edmonds. Children can be cruel, especially when they view someone a little different. Martha Kraencke was not only different—she had an aura of mystery.
If you spent time in Edmonds in the latter part of the 1940s through the early 1970s, Martha was a lady you would have noticed and wondered about. For almost 30 years, Martha Kraencke was probably the most visually recognized person in Edmonds. Yes, Martha was recognized, but she was also an enigma.
Resting from her walking, she could sometimes be seen seated at her favorite bench on Sunset Avenue and Casper Street in Edmonds looking out over the waters of Puget Sound. It was here that Helen Reynolds’ camera captured Martha’s visage on film to display in the front window of her photography studio on Main Street in Edmonds. Martha was wearing a favorite Navy blue suit, pristine white blouse and straw hat—the jacket of her suit neatly folded over the back of the bench. [This photo of Martha was displayed in photographer Helen Reynold’s Studio and was reprinted in the Edmonds Tribune Review (date not known), please contact us if you know more!].
What did Martha see? Perhaps she was recalling a much earlier time—a time when her beloved husband’s body was discovered floating in the waters of the Pacific near California’s Los Angeles Harbor. Yes, Martha had a story—a very unusual one. One that included glamour, tragedy, and finally, a life of solitude.
Martha was born Martha Giersch in Berlin, Germany on February 27, 1894. She completed her schooling in 1912 and went to work as a secretary for a German movie studio in Berlin. An attractive, slender grey-eyed blonde, she appeared in small roles as an actress or an extra in several silent films. It was during this time she met another Berliner, Fritz Kraencke, already a well-established set designer and cinematographer in the German film industry. Martha and Fritz were married in Berlin in 1914.
Martha’s husband Fritz was exempted from military service during the First World War, and continued a successful career in silent films in Germany. In later years, Fritz also designed sets for the German Staatsoper, an opera house, and Bayreuth, an opera festival. On March 21, 1920, their only child, a son, Herbert Guenter Kraencke was born in Berlin, Brandenburg, Germany.
In 1926, Fritz accepted the position as set designer for the Los Angeles Grand Opera, and the family left Berlin to become members of the Hollywood/Los Angeles entertainment world. The Kraencke family sailed from Bremen, Germany to America on the SS George Washington, arriving in New York Harbor on October 22, 1926. They then headed for their new home in Los Angeles and on January 21, 1929, in the U.S. District Court of Los Angeles, California, Martha and Fritz each signed papers declaring their intention to become citizens of the United States—renouncing their allegiance and fidelity to any foreign sovereignty, including the German Reich.
Martha’s husband’s theater career was a successful one for many years. Before WWII, they traveled to Germany, Hawaii and Mexico, and finally back to Europe for the last time in 1937. Judging by the trunks of beautiful clothes found in Martha’s home after her death, they lived a glamorous and elegant life. Among Martha’s stunning wardrobe were many Paris and New York originals.
Martha’s world collapsed in 1947. As reported in the Los Angeles Times of December 2, 1947, early Monday morning, December 1, Martha telephoned her son Herbert because Fritz was missing from their home on West Bluff Place in San Pedro, a section of Los Angeles. As Herbert told police, he contacted the Coast Guard after going to Point Fermin, near their home. There he had dropped a dime in one of the telescopes pointed out to sea and saw what he feared was his father’s body floating in the ocean. It was the body of Fritz Kraencke. Because of the bruises on Mr. Kraencke’s face and head, the police were at first suspicious that the death may have been by foul play. However, both Martha and Herbert said that Fritz was despondent and had been having financial problems. To them, suicide seemed to be a possibility. Officially, the coroner’s ruling was death by drowning in the Pacific Ocean—suicide.
Following Fritz Kraencke’s death at the age of 57, Herbert, a surveyor, moved to Snohomish County, Washington—to a home at Lake Ballinger, a few miles from Edmonds. Martha joined her son. Shortly after this, Martha began catching an early morning bus to downtown Edmonds, and there she would walk all day and in the evening she would take the bus back to her son’s home at Lake Ballinger.
In the mid-fifties, Herbert decided to move back to California. However, by this time, Martha had grown attached to the Northwest. She moved to a small bungalow near downtown Edmonds at Phillip’s Court, 303 Fourth Avenue North, #3. She remained in her little home for the remainder of her life. From this handy spot, Martha continued her solitary walks.
Doug Margeson in an article about Martha Kraencke, written following her death, stated that “Everyone who lived and worked in downtown knew who she was, but only a few knew her.” He continued: “Local kids believed she lived in a haunted house and worked as a foreign spy.” Mr. Margeson’s article included remarks from the few that did get to know Martha. Once or twice a week, she stopped by D Drive-In, once a well-known and popular gathering spot on Sixth and Main, to have a cup of coffee with a young man who worked there. She exchanged hellos with people as she passed by. Helen Reynolds knew her for almost thirty years, and Martha became one of her favorite photo subjects, but even Ms. Reynolds admitted that no one was allowed to come too close.
The newspaper article went on to say, “Once or twice a week she stopped by the Edmonds West Tavern—or the Sail Inn, or Engel’s—to have a loganberry flip. Usually she kept to herself. Occasionally, however, her carefully cultivated reserve dropped away and she showed flashes of warm, sometimes ribald humor.”
Martha seemed to have set routes for her walks. Downtown store keepers claimed they could set their watches from the time she walked by their stores. Her coffee-time friend remembered her schedule: “She left her bungalow at 4th Avenue and Edmonds Street at 7 a.m. She walked down to Sunset Avenue, took in the view and then went over to Main Street. She usually had breakfast at Brownies Café on 4th Avenue. From there she walked various routes. She usually stopped for a cup of coffee at D Drive-In. After a little conversation with the cook and other customers, she was on her way again. Sometime in the afternoon, she usually stopped at the IGA store at 5th and Dayton where she visited with acquaintances. The she walked some more, often well into the night.”
Martha was an accomplished pianist and sometimes played from memory to a noisy crowd at Edmonds West Tavern—a crowd that would sit in silence as Martha would play a complicated piece by Beethoven.
In 1974, Martha fell and broke her hip. She wasn’t even fazed. Soon after leaving the hospital, Martha, with the help of a walker, was out and walking again.
For many years, Martha’s next door neighbor kept an eye on her. At night before she went to bed, Martha waved to her neighbor across the yard and then she pulled the window shade. In the morning, she would raise the shade to let her neighbor know that all was well. On the morning of September 8, 1977, the shade remained closed. At the age of 83, Martha’s walking days were over. She died peacefully in her own bed. Lynnwood’s Floral Hills Funeral Home handled the cremation, and at the request of her son and daughter-in-law, Martha’s ashes were sent to California to be placed next to those of her husband.
Edmonds Tribune-Review, Wednesday, November 30, 1977—“Martha Kraencke; she walked” by Staff Writer, Doug Margeson; with photograph.
New York Passenger Lists – http://search.ancestry.com.
Naturalization papers, Martha Kraencke – www.fold3.com.
Naturalization papers, Fritz Kraencke – www.fold3.com.
Los Angeles Times, December 2, 1947.
Certificate of Death, Fritz Kraencke—State of California, County of Los Angeles.
Social Security Death Record, Martha Kraencke — Washington Digital Archives.
1930 and 1940 U.S. Federal Census Records – Ancestry.com.
Various passenger lists from Ancestry.com.
© 2012 Betty Lou Gaeng, All Rights Reserved; WLP Story #73