Tuesday, October 6, 2015

7 reasons to remember Ina Coolbrith during her centennial

1. She was a woman of firsts. Ina Coolbrith was California's first poet laureate; the nation's first
state laureate;  the first woman in America to write a commencement ode for a university (University of California, 1871); Oakland's first public librarian; and one of the first white children to come into California over Beckwourth Pass.

2. She walked to California from Illinois. At age 11 she came to California by covered wagon on the Overland Trail, a fact that inspired one reviewer to dub her a "bad ass."

3. She escaped polygamy. Although she was a niece of Mormon founder Joseph Smith, she wanted nothing to do with polygamy. At age 16, she told her teenage cousin Joseph F. Smith (later the sixth president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints):
Is it right for a girl of 15 or even 16 to marry a man of 50 or 60… I think I see myself, vowing to love and honor, some old driveling idiot of 60, to be taken into his harem and enjoy the pleasure of being his favorite Sultana for an hour, and then thrown aside, whil’st my Godly husband, is out Sparking another girl, in hopes of getting another victim to his despotic power. Pleasant prospect, I must say. This, Joe, this is of God, is it? No, never, never, never!
4. She chose not to marry again after her husband tried to kill her. At 20, her jealous husband came after her with a six-shooter. She divorced him, changed her name, and moved to San Francisco. When her friend John Muir tried to play matchmaker, Ina sent Muir a poem to
Courtesy of University of the Pacific Library
stop his attempts:

"The earth may quake, the heaven fall, 
The ocean fail, or (thought appalling) 
I may never wed at all! 
But this is certain—write it down— 
Or if you smile, or if you frown,
I do not want your Mr. Brown."

5. She flirted with the idea of same-sex marriage. Ina was a little bit in love with writer Charles Warren Stoddard when they were in their twenties. Eventually, she came to accept his preference for men. Once she did, she turned the tables and told him that a woman had taken a liking to her. "She is as fond of me, I verily believe, as you are of Fred." She then proposed a double wedding with she and Mrs. Flint, and Stoddard and his young pal Fred.

6. She mentored the young Jack London and Isadora Duncan as Oakland's public librarian.

London later told her, "No woman has so affected me to the extent you did. I was only a little lad. I knew absolutely nothing about you. Yet in all the years that have passed I have met no woman so
Courtesy of Oakland Public Library
noble as you." Isadora Duncan wrote in her memoir, "The librarian was a very wonderful and beautiful woman, a poetess of California, Ina Coolbrith. She encouraged my reading and I thought she always looked pleased when I asked for fine books."

7. Ina didn't let age deter her from pursuing her passions. At 78, she moved to New York to write poetry and to be near her protégée Carl Seyfforth, a young and handsome concert pianist. She wrote enough poetry to fill a final collection.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Calla Shasta Miller's unmarked grave

Calla Shasta Miller, 1879. Claremont University Consortium.

This Saturday I am going to Joaquin Miller Park for the California Writers Club annual picnic. While visiting Miller's former homestead in the hills above Oakland, I will remember his daughter, Calla Shasta Miller, who is buried somewhere on the grounds in an unmarked grave.

Calla Shasta lived with Ina Coolbrith for a decade while Joaquin was pursuing his career in England and New York. In 1879, seven years after she came to live with Ina, Calla Shasta wrote her uncle, George Miller:

"I am always ready to answer you in anything. For I have my own judgment about me in everything. I am not afraid of anybody or anything ... I am sadly disappointed for not being a boy. I am not half as bright as I should like to be but I always feel intelligent and never feel too old to learn. If I had the money I would be an artist or a musician, that are my favorites. But it is only 8 years ago since I realized what kind of an animal I am. I did not even know how to speak English and did not know B from a bull’s foot. Such was I when I first came down from Shasta where I was full of spunk killing skunks." (1)

The young woman eventually married, but she returned to Ina's Oakland home in 1892, her marriage over. Ina told Charles Warren Stoddard that Calla Shasta came to her "homeless, helpless, and a victim to drink."(2) Ina secured a doctor to try hypnotism and the Gold Cure, a popular abstinence program that purportedly contained gold, but in reality was a mixture of alcohol, ammonium, strychnine, and boric acid.

Calla Shasta did not stay at Ina's house for long. She died in 1903 and Miller buried her in an unmarked grave on his property. Joaquin Miller died ten years later, and although Ina was too sick to attend Miller's funeral at "The Hights," she sent "Vale, Joaquin" to be read. She also asked a friend to look for Calla Shasta's grave and vowed to mark "poor Indian Callie's grave" if she ever could afford to. (3) Ina was not a woman of means, and she never did mark the grave. Ina's own grave at the Mountain View Cemetery remained unmarked from the time of her death in 1928 until 1986 when the Ina Coolbrith Circle gave her a beautiful marble headstone.

(1) Calla Shasta Miller to George Miller (Joaquin Miller's brother), November 3, 1879. Joaquin Miller Collection, Honnold/Mudd Library, Claremont College. (2) Coolbrith to Charles Warren Stoddard, August 15, 1892, The Huntington Library, San Marino, CA. (3) Coolbrith to Herbert Bashford, February 25, 1913, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Petticoat Rule: A guest blog post for the San Francisco History Center of the San Francisco Public Library

In 1898 poet Ina Coolbrith applied for a job as librarian at San Francisco's Mercantile Library (which later merged with the Mechanics' Institute). Several board members grumbled about "petticoat rule," and one said it was nothing against Miss Coolbrith but a "mere question of sex and the weaker is in disfavor."

This injustice came despite the fact that for nearly 20 years Coolbrith had managed budgets, staff, acquisitions, and catalogues at the Oakland Public Library.

The San Francisco Examiner came to her defense when it suggested on January 17, 1898, that the library burn all books written by women if they were to deny Coolbrith the position. "No intellectual petticoatism! Down with the Mrs. Brownings, the Jane Austens, the George Eliots and the Charlotte Brontes!"

Coolbrith got the job and 116 years later was inducted into the California Library Hall of Fame.

Join me to at the San Francisco Public Library on Thursday, June 25, for a talk on Ina Coolbrith, poet, librarian, and the most beloved literary ambassador in the early American West. She was crowned poet laureate on June 30, 1915 during the Panama-Pacific International Exposition 1915 - 2015.

For more on petticoat rule check out my blog on the San Francisco History Center's "What's on the 6th Floor."

Monday, March 30, 2015

Ina Coolbrith and Russian Hill: A Tragedy by illustrator Cal Tabuena-Frolli

While working on the final edits of my new biography, Ina Coolbrith: The Bittersweet Song of California's First Poet Laureate (order on Amazon or Barnes & Noble) I got a call from illustrator Cal Tabuena-Frolli, a talented graphic designer and contributor to The Litography Project. (As a geographer, I felt an immediate kinship to this project of place that documents the literary history and culture of the Bay Area.)

Tabuena-Frolli said Coolbrith had kindled his imagination and he wanted to illustrate a story about her for The Litography Project. We talked for a long time and I sent him the pre-press copy of my book. He put together a wonderful graphic novel of Ina's experiences relating to the Great 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire.

Monday, March 23, 2015

New biography on Ina Coolbrith is available!

Had a great launch party for Ina Coolbrith: The Bittersweet Song of California's First Poet Laureate. Thanks to all who attended the party high in the Berkeley hills with views of San Francisco and the Golden Gate.

I was especially pleased to meet Michael Jones, Ina Coolbrith's great, great nephew.

Order on Amazon.

Order on Barnes & Noble.

Available soon on IndieBound.

 I have lots of fun events coming up. Check out my events on www.inacoolbrith.com.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Is that Ina Coolbrith in the William Keith painting?

William Keith, With a Wreath of Laurel, 1900-1911*
Who is that tall brunette woman carrying a laurel wreath in William Keith's painting? I think it is Ina Coolbrith and that is why I chose the painting for the cover of Ina Coolbrith: The Bittersweet Song of California's First Poet Laureate.

California landscape artist William Keith and Ina Coolbrith were friends. In 1876 Keith, John Muir, and Ina took a Sunday carriage ride in the Oakland hills. “I had a most delightful time, for the day was superb, and Keith in one of his wildest moods,” Ina told Charles Warren Stoddard.

It is not known where Ina, Muir, and Keith stopped for a picnic that day, but their repast might be gleaned from a recipe for a meal that Ina later contributed to a cookbook. When asked in 1913 to contribute to the book, Ina responded that all of her family recipes had been burned in the 1906 earthquake, but that she could supply a suggestion for a picnic from one she would never forget. The setting should be “a nook under the trees,” and the meal should be eaten with a “sauce of appetite acquired by a long tramp in the fields.” The menu should include “old-fashioned, home-made salt rising bread; fresh butter; young green onions just pulled from the soil; [and] water-cresses fresh from any washed in the brook.” For the beverage, she suggested “vintage of Adam, cold, clear and sparkling from brook that grew the cresses.”

At the end of the recipe, Ina added, “Good anywhere, but best in California.”

Keith painted With a Wreath of Laurel sometime between 1900-1911. The title he gave to the painting is the same title that Ina Coolbrith gave to a poem she wrote in 1870 after she and Joaquin Miller gathered California bay laurel leaves for a crown to place on Lord Byron's grave site in England. Read "Poetic Gesture" in California magazine here.

I discovered the painting in The Comprehensive Keith: The Hundred Year History of the Saint Mary's College Collection of Works by William Keith (
Saint Mary's College Museum of Art, 2011). It's the first painting in the book.

* With a Wreath of Laurel, 1900-1911, oil on cardboard, 15 3/4 x 20 inches. Collection of the Saint Mary's College Museum of Art. Gift of Cochrane Browne, Jr. 0-154.