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PANCHO BARNES (1901 – 1975) Pilot, Proprietor, Partier

In American History, Ballooning, California History, Feminists, Hollywood, Pilots, women on March 16, 2011 at 9:17 AM

Pancho Barnes

Pancho Barnes was a force of nature, and she didn’t do anything in a predictable way.  She was born into wealth, but couldn’t stand the obligations living in high society demanded.  Her first marriage was arranged, but subsequent ones were based on passion.  Her friends, mostly men, included movie stars, test pilots and anyone who could keep up with her adventuresome spirit.  There wasn’t anything she wouldn’t do except for one: conform to what other people expected of her.

Barnes’ grandfather, Thaddeus Sobieski Constantine Lowe, was an inventor and pioneer balloonist.  He was the first person to take photographs from a balloon and helped the Union Army with reconnaissance during the Civil War.  When he moved his family from Pennsylvania to Pasadena, California in 1888 they settled in a 24,000 square foot mansion on Millionaire’s Row.  Among other business ventures, he created the Mount Lowe Railway in the local San Gabriel Mountains which ended up costing him his entire fortune, and he died poor.

Barnes’ father was Thad Junior, the seventh child of ten.  He worked in his father’s businesses, but he preferred to spend his time outdoors and was an excellent horseman.  He married Florence Mae Dobbins, a staunch Episcopalian from another moneyed family who also had moved west from Pennsylvania.  The bride’s parents gave the couple a house in neighboring San Marino and eight years later upgraded it to a 35 room estate with servants, a pool, tennis courts and stables.  Barnes’ older brother, William Emmert, was constantly sick and died when Barnes was 12 years old.  While her mother cared for her brother, the rambunctious tomboy was spoiled by her father.

Barnes inherited her passions from her grandfather and father, and they treated her like the boy they wanted.  When she was three, her father gave her a pony.  For her fifth birthday, she got a Thoroughbred, and she won her first equestrian trophy that year.  When she was nine, her grandfather took her to the first American aviation exhibition near Long Beach.  From her mother, she inherited her name and, unfortunately, her masculine looks.

GIRLS JUST WANNA HAVE FUN       After a few years of home schooling, Barnes was enrolled in the Pasadena Elementary School, the only girl in a class of 23 boys.  She could run faster, spit, curse and fight better than most of her classmates.  Her behavior became an issue, but her parents didn’t know what to do about it, so they moved her to a prestigious prep school, Westridge School for Girls.  Barnes proved that she just wanted to have fun and didn’t care much about rules, so her parents moved her to a nearby Catholic boarding school, Ramona Convent.  During her second year there she ran away on horseback to Tijuana.  Now her parents were desperate, but the only option they could think of was to move their daughter away to the Bishop School in La Jolla, an Episcopalian boarding school.  Somehow Barnes managed to survive the two years until graduation.

After she graduated, Barnes announced that she wanted to be a veterinarian.  That was such an appalling idea to her mother that she promptly enrolled the teenager in Stickney School of Art for a more ladylike course of study.  This did not offer any real long term prospects, however, so Barnes’ maternal grandmother arranged for her to marry the rector of the local Episcopal church.  It seemed like a win-win situation, if not a perfect match.  The groom would be appeasing a major contributor to the church and get a new bell tower.  The bride would be able to stop living with her parents and have a shot at independence.

THAT’S NOT A LADY, IT’S MY WIFE          Barnes and Reverend C. Rankin Barnes were married in January 1921.  The first time the couple kissed was at the wedding, and the only time they were intimate was on the honeymoon.  Nine months later a baby boy, William Emmert Barnes (“Billy”), was born.

As was to be expected, Barnes was totally bored being a poor pastor’s wife, but she tried to fill the role for a while.  She taught Sunday school and bribed the kids in catechism class with jackknives to entice them to behave.  She had no maternal instinct, and nurturing a baby was asking too much of her.

Relief came from the burgeoning film industry in Hollywood.  Barnes started riding her horses in movies and was so adept she could carry a camera on her shoulder while riding.  She was earning at least $100 a day, and as soon as she could she hired a cook, housekeeper and full time nanny.  She was so successful Aimee Semple McPherson hired Barnes as her stunt double in shows.

When Barnes was 22 years old, her mother died.  Her father’s way of coping with the loss was to marry a woman only three years older than his daughter and move to Lake Arrowhead.  Barnes coped by running away, traveling across the country by herself for several months.  When she returned she took up with a college student and discovered how much fun physical intimacy could be.  Their affair lasted several months, and it was followed by another.  Barnes’ occasional attempts to act like a pastor’s wife didn’t overshadow her indiscretions, and she became an embarrassment to her upstanding family.  She left again, under pressure, on a cruise to South America.

A LONG WALK HOME          When she returned, she moved into her parents’ house, but she didn’t stay put for long.  When some friends got the idea to get hired on as crew on a banana boat bound for South America, Barnes, the only woman, didn’t hesitate to join them.  She dressed as a man and signed on as “Jacob Crane.”  As soon as the boat left the dock, the adventurers discovered they were running guns and ammunition to revolutionaries in Mexico.  When they arrived in San Blas, the ship was boarded by armed guards who used the vehicle to shelter the town’s money from the rebels.  The crew was held hostage for six weeks.  Barnes and the helmsman, Roger Chute, were the only two courageous enough to escape.

The pair stole a horse and burro and set out through the Mexican countryside.  Barnes quipped that her partner looked like Don Quixote, and he said that made her “Pancho.”  She corrected his reference, saying the character’s name was “Sancho Panza,” but Chute liked “Pancho” better.  Barnes liked the sound of Pancho Barnes, and the name stuck.

The journey continued on foot, and Barnes and Chute walked over 250 miles from Mexico City to Vera Cruz where they became stowaways on a boat.  With help from a connection at the American Embassy, they eventually got on another boat to New Orleans.  From there they walked, hoboed and hitchhiked to California.  For all of the challenges of the trip, Barnes saw it as a total adventure, and finally she knew who she was and what she was capable of.

TAKING FLIGHT         It didn’t take Barnes long to need another adventure, and she turned her attention skyward.  In spring of 1928 she started taking pilot’s lessons.  Her instructor was a World War I pilot, and the airplane had one instrument in it: an oil gauge.  A key chain hung from the control board to determine if they were flying straight, and they looked over the side to judge altitude.  To know how much gas they had, they dipped a string in the tank and estimated how far they could go.  Barnes was immediately hooked, and she bought herself a Travel Air biplane for $5,500.  She was more captivated by the thrill of the early days of flying than deterred by the dangers.  In 1928 on a trip to San Francisco her engine quit, and she had to make eight emergency landings.

The enterprising woman found various ways to earn income as a pilot: test pilot for airplane manufacturers, making promotional flights for Union Oil, and stunt pilot and technical director for the movies.  Barnes helped Howard Hughes capture authentic audio of planes for Hell’s Angels by flying past tethered balloons with sound equipment attached to them.

Her interests took a political bent when she founded the Association of Motion Picture Pilots (AMPP) in 1932 so the pilots could get fair wages for their often death defying work.  That year she also tried to parlay her popularity into a bid for Supervisor for the Third District in Los Angeles.  Even with an endorsement from fellow pilot Amelia Earhart, Barnes wasn’t able to convert her generosity and clout into political office.

Barnes worked constantly, but she was better at spending money than saving it.  Her home was party central, constantly full of flying and movie industry friends.  She had an open door, open bar policy, and she never expected her guests to help foot the bill.  In addition to spending lavishly, she used her house and other properties as collateral to buy more real estate investments without any regard as to how she would make payments.

STARTING OVER  By 1935 Barnes was broke.  Conceding that she would never become famous because she didn’t have the requisite good looks or personal backers, she decided it was time to reinvent herself.  She rented out the San Marino estate until she was ready to sell it, and she traded an apartment building in Los Angeles for a four-room house and hay barn on an 80-acre alfalfa ranch in the Antelope Valley near Muroc Dry Lake.  She moved her horses and airplane to the middle of nowhere.  The nearest town was 20 miles away from her Rancho Oro Verde, but there was an encampment for an Army Air Corps squadron to conduct exercises and bombing practice.

Barnes was by no means isolated in this desert wasteland.  She created an air strip out of the hard earth and built guest quarters so her friends could fly in for a visit.  By 1941 she had 360 acres with a farmhouse, stables and swimming pool.  She knew nothing about alfalfa farming, so she expanded her venture with dairy cows and pigs.  Billy had been living with his dad, but the teenager joined his mom to help out and enjoy new freedom, and Barnes tried to act more like a mother to him.  Barnes opened her home and heart to the local fly boys, and even Colonel Clarence Shoop, the commanding officer of the Flight Test Center, used Barnes’ facilities to host parties for visiting dignitaries.

In 1939 the Civilian Pilot Training Program was established to train pilots, and Barnes got a government contract to supply planes and instructors for the local school.  One of the students distinguished himself from the others.  Barnes had had many lovers, but she met Robert Hudson Nichols, Jr. (“Nicky”), about the time her husband asked for a divorce, freeing her and Nicky to get married.  The pilot training program lasted two years.  The marriage lasted two weeks.

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the government discontinued the civilian training program and the Muroc Army Air Base became Edwards Air Force Base.  With the influx of Air Force test pilots, there were even more guys who joined Barnes’ Hollywood friends to hang out, get a good meal and be entertained.  She could match them with flying stories, jokes, drinking, smoking and swearing, and they loved her.  Barnes was totally unaware of how much it cost her to host her friends.  She often ran out of money to feed the horses or pay bills, and she accrued several liens on her property.  But, if all you need is love, Barnes was happy.  In 1944 she met Don Shalita, a very handsome show dancer six years her junior.  His career was winding down so he moved to the ranch, and a year later they were married.  This time Barnes broke a longevity record for actually living with a husband: four months.

HAPPY BOTTOM RIDING CLUB            Barnes received an inheritance from her uncle, and after World War II she used it to improve her property, calling it Pancho’s Fly-Inn.  On 300 acres she opened her own airfield with two runways.  Anyone could tie down their plane for free, but they had to buy gas and oil from Barnes.  There was a hanger, repair shop and flight school.  She added rooms with air conditioning and private baths to her guest house.  Barnes built a racetrack, and there was even a fishpond in the shape of the Air Force emblem.  She advertised in the Los Angeles newspapers for families to enjoy her “modern flying dude ranch” for $49 a week, per person, meals included.

In the late 1940s and 1950s, the likes of General Al Boyd, Commander of Edwards AFB, and Chuck Yeager were regulars at Barnes’ place, but it had become so popular that she felt she was missing the spirit of the old days.  She converted the bar and grill into a private club for her Edwards AFB and Hollywood friends and called it the Happy Bottom Riding Club.

One of the newer Happy Bottom guests was pilot Eugene McKendry (“Mac”), who ended up at the ranch after returning from a tour of duty overseas.  His wife was divorcing him and giving him custody of their son, and Mac needed some encouragement and a place to live.  He found both with Barnes, and he was there for her when she needed support.

When Barnes was 45 years old, she suffered from hypertension and had a retinal hemorrhage.  She ignored the symptoms until she collapsed and a ranch hand called the doctor.  Barnes consented to experimental surgery called sympathectomy which destroys nerves in the sympathetic nervous system to increase blood flow.  It required two operations with 18-inch incisions on both sides of the spine and partial removal of four ribs.  Mac was by her side during her lengthy recovery from the operation and a bout of pneumonia.

Life at the Club continued to be one big party, and liquor was flown in illegally from Mexico.  Barnes sponsored air shows, rodeos and aerial treasure hunts with other airports.  She hired hostesses to wait tables and dance with the men.  Barnes denied that she was running a brothel, but the wives of the pilots resented that they spent their free time there, regardless of what they were doing.

In addition to the usual carousing, in June 1952 Barnes was involved in planning another bash, her fourth wedding, to Mac.  The bride was 51 years old, and the groom was 32.  Commander Al Boyd gave the bride away, and Chuck Yeager stood up as her attendant.  The 58 second ceremony was presided over by Judge J. G. Sherrill and witnessed by 650 guests.  Then the couple exchanged vows again in a Native American ceremony officiated by Chief Lucky and Little Snow White of the Blackfoot tribe.  The wedding banquet included four whole roasted pigs, 80 pounds of potato salad, 16 gallons of Jell-O and a 50 pound wedding cake.  One of the entertainers at the reception was Lassie.

DEALING WITH CHANGE    That same year the leadership of Edwards changed, and Brigadier General J. Stanley Holtoner took command.  He was all business and didn’t enjoy Barnes’ hospitality as his predecessors had.  In addition, the government was buying up all the property adjoining the air base.  This seriously jeopardized what took Barnes almost 20 years to build.  The FBI investigated Barnes for possible illegal activity, but the worst they could accuse her of was bad credit.  There were enough law suits and counter suits to keep both sides busy for a long time, and Barnes always acted as her own attorney.  The government finally got legal title to Barnes’ land and gave her $185,000.

A few months later, Barnes was driving home from shopping when she saw smoke coming from her property.  She lost everything in the house, barn and dance hall to the fire.  Conspiracy theories circulating around implicated the government, Barnes and even a drifter who was hanging around.

The disastrous fire was the beginning of the end for Barnes.  She tried to start over a few miles north in the Mojave Desert and took out mortgages on over 1,000 acres with a little café and gas station.  She treated herself to horses, a Stinson airplane and catamaran, but she lived in an abandoned rock building with a dirt floor and broken windows.  She had big plans for Gypsy Springs, but she still hadn’t learned to manage her money, and Edwards Air Force Base had grown into a self sufficient community and no longer needed her hospitality.

To compound her problems, Barnes had health issues and relationship issues.  She was diagnosed with breast cancer and had a double mastectomy.  Mac moved to Gypsy Springs and was there for her during the two surgeries, but their relationship was rapidly deteriorating beyond reconciliation.  In 1962, Barnes sued her husband for divorce.

In her late 60s, Barnes found herself alone.  An old friend offered to let her live rent free in a 20 by 25 square foot house.  She started breeding Yorkshire terriers, but they just contributed to the increased squalor that she lived in.  Her best asset was storytelling, and she was invited to speak at local clubs and banquets, regaling audiences with the spellbinding tales of her life.  In the summer of 1971 some of her old friends at Edwards, including Buzz Aldrin, threw a party for her 70th birthday on the base.

Barnes could not create a future for herself, and she ended up living off memories and dreams.  In the spring of 1975, she never showed up for a speaking engagement and was found dead in her home surrounded by putrid filth.  Two friends got permission to fly over the old Rancho Oro Verde and scatter her remains.  As the ashes started to drift toward the ground, a crosswind came up and redirected them back into the cockpit of the Cessna.  Even in death Barnes still loved a good joy ride.

QUESTION:  How are you different than what you think other people expect you to be?

© 2011 Debbie Foulkes All Rights Reserved

Sources:

Kessler, Lauren, The Happy Bottom Riding Club: The Life and Times of Pancho Barnes.  New York: Random House, 2000.

Tate, Grover Ted, The Lady Who Tamed Pegasus.  Maverick Publications, 1984.

Schultz, Barbara Hunter, Pancho, The Biography of Florence Lowe Barnes.  Lancaster, California: Little Buttes Publishing Co., 1996.

http://www.panchobarnes.com/index.html

http://www.centennialofflight.gov/essay/Explorers_Record_Setters_and_Daredevils/Barnes/EX17.htm

http://happybottomridingclub.com/#/home/

http://www.surgeryencyclopedia.com/St-Wr/Sympathectomy.html

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JOHN MONTAGUE (1903 – 1972) Fugitive Golfer

In Biography, California History, Golf, History, Hollywood, Sports on November 30, 2010 at 6:44 PM

John Montague (photo credit: Bettmann/Corbis)

When John Montague arrived in Hollywood he brought his golf clubs and some secrets.  His personal strength and the way he played golf were so incredible that he made friends easily, and nobody cared where he came from or why he was there. 

Montague was born LaVerne Moore in Syracuse, New York to a blue collar family.  He distinguished himself early on from his older brother and younger sisters as an energetic kid with a quick mind.  He spent hours developing his body by using the beams in the attic as his jungle gym.  What he did to develop strength and stamina might seem like torture.  After lifting weights, Montague strapped weights to his wrists and ankles and stood motionless in the dark for an hour.

A natural athlete, Montague excelled at baseball, football, basketball, skiing, pool and golf.  For all his impressive talent on local teams as a kid, it was golf that made him famous.  When he was seven years old, he found a golf ball in the street and fashioned a club out of a discarded elbow from a gas pipe and a broom handle.  He whacked that ball directly into the plate glass window of the cigar store across the street.  

 DEVELOPING A SKILL SET                   His dad’s reaction was to pay for the window and buy Montague a set of clubs.  His brother, Harold, became his first instructor, and as a teenager he developed a powerful drive and some tricks.  One crowd pleaser was to bury three golf balls on top of each other in a sand trap and ask which one he should hit.  Every time he sent the designated ball flying, leaving the other two resting in the sand. 

About 1934 Montague brought his talent, pranks and bag of custom, oversized golf clubs to Hollywood and fell in with the celebrity crowd at Lakeside golf course.  At five foot ten inches tall and 220 pounds, he became the club champion at age 30.  Everything about Montague was bigger, stronger and wilder than anyone had seen before. 

Montague lived with Oliver Hardy for a while, and every time his 300 pound friend walked into the grill room at Lakeside, Montague would singlehandedly pick him up and hoist him onto the bar.  He stuffed character actor George Bancroft upside down in a locker and shut the door. 

But it was his golfing that gave him the most notoriety.  After winning a round against Bing Crosby, Montague proposed a bet to appease his complaining partner.  They would play one more hole, 366 yards par 4, with Crosby using his clubs and Montague using a baseball bat, a shovel and a rake.  Crosby hit a drive about 250 yards, then got to the middle of the green but missed the putt for a birdie by two feet.  Montague tossed his ball into the air and hit it into a greenside sand trap.  With one swipe of the shovel he got onto the middle of the green about 30 feet from the pin.  Then he got down on the ground and used the rake as a pool cue to sink his ball in three.

Montague loved the attention he got, but he let everyone else do the bragging about his exploits.  He refused to talk about himself or disclose his background.  He only admitted to being an amateur golfer and claimed to have some mining interests in the Nevada desert.  Even though he was often encouraged to join the pro tour, he would reply that he played golf for other reasons.  He refused to play in tournaments or to have his picture taken. 

Sportswriter Grantland Rice played a few rounds with Montague and wrote an article that brought him into the public eye.  Time magazine published an article about him in 1937, and they hired a freelance photographer to hide in the bushes and get photos.  Montague was barely recognizable, but they were published anyway.

WHAT’S IN A NAME?                                  In August 1930, a few years before Montague surfaced in California, Hana’s restaurant in the Adirondack Mountains of New York was robbed by four men wearing masks and wielding revolvers.  The dining room was connected to an apartment where the Hana family lived.  One gunman forced Hana and his wife to the floor while another one went into the residence and bound and gagged the children.  Another robber found the grandfather, Matt Cobb, and when he tried to defend himself, he was hit on the head with the butt of a gun.  Elizabeth Hana was forced to empty the safe, and after another brawl with Cobb, knocking him unconscious, the thieves escaped with about $750.

The cops were staked out looking for bootleggers making a run, so when a speeding car shot by, the chase was on.  Two of the thieves were in a Ford, and the passenger turned off the headlights causing the driver to go into a ditch, killing himself.  The cops arrested the passenger.  The other two accomplices were in a Pontiac that was stopped by State Police a little later.  The passenger, who identified himself as Lawrence Ryan, talked the pair out of the situation.  Two days later the driver turned himself in.  After finding a set of golf clubs, letters, a driver’s license and draft notice in the trunk of the Pontiac, the police were convinced that Lawrence Ryan was really LaVerne Moore of Syracuse. 

Five days later the police went to Moore’s house and talked to his mother.  She said her son had left the day after the robbery and had no idea where he was.  In fact, no one did; Moore had just disappeared. 

YOU CAN RUN BUT YOU CAN’T HIDE   When New York State Police inspector John Cosart saw the article about Montague in Time he was excited.  He had been working on the Hana case for seven years, waiting for the fourth robber to surface, and the similarities between Moore and Montague’s athletic prowess could not be coincidental.  He asked the Los Angeles Police Department for help, and John Montague was arrested and charged with armed robbery.  In jail he admitted that his real name was LaVerne Moore from Syracuse, New York.  He was released on $10,000 bail and signed the papers “John Montague,” giving “LaVerne Moore” as an alias.

Since he was no longer on the lam, Montague posed for photographs and answered reporters’ questions. He didn’t reveal anything personal; he just said he had made a mistake when he was a kid and had been trying to make good.  Montague’s celebrity friends were shocked to learn he was a fugitive and expressed their support.

Being wanted was not totally new to Montague.  Back in 1927 he was arrested for impersonating a police officer to a grocery store owner who sold alcohol during Prohibition.  He was trying to extort payments from the shopkeeper to keep mum about the liquor sales.  He agreed to plead guilty to a reduced charge and got off with paying a fine.

On August 21, 1937, Montague was extradited to New York.  When he arrived at Union Station in Los Angeles for the three-day trip, he had porters carrying 20 bags with his wardrobe, and there were a hundred people cheering him as he boarded the train. 

When he arrived in New York, Montague spent his 34th birthday in jail while the judge decided on bail.  The next day he was released on a $25,000 bond.  Montague hadn’t communicated with his mom in the seven years he was away, and he had told reporters that when he was released he would go directly to her house.  When the time came, however, he went to a cocktail party instead. 

HAVING HIS DAY IN COURT               People from all over the country were following the trial of the decade.  Additional phone lines had to be installed to accommodate the influx of reporters.  Montague stayed at the Deer’s Head Inn where he rented 17 rooms for himself, his lawyers and out of town friends.  Photos of Montague signing autographs for teenage girls outside the courtroom were published in papers nationwide. 

Witnesses for the prosecution included members of the Hana family, police officers, and Roger Norton, one of the convicted robbers.  The personal items found in the trunk of the Pontiac were entered as evidence.  Mrs. Hana and one daughter incriminated Montague saying they heard one of the robbers call another by the name of “Verne.” 

In his defense, Montague’s lawyer called four character witnesses and then his mom, who gave him an alibi.  She said her son was home sleeping in his bed on the night of the robbery and also the next night.  His two sisters corroborated their mother’s testimony, and a friend testified that he hit balls at the driving range with the defendant the night of the crime.  William Carlton, another one of the convicted accomplices in the robbery testified that Montague wasn’t the fourth partner and explained that his stuff was in the trunk of the car because they had taken a trip together and were planning another one.  And then, to everyone’s surprise, Montague took the stand on his own behalf, recounting the last seven years of his life.

After five hours of deliberation, the jury came back with a verdict of not guilty.  The crowd cheered when it was read.  The judge disagreed with the verdict and told the jury that he was disappointed they didn’t convict Montague.  Nevertheless, Montague’s celebrity status and expensive lawyer paid off, and he was a free man.

TRYING TO GET HIS LIFE BACK      On November 14, 1937 Montague was to play his first public exhibition match in a foursome with Babe Ruth and Babe Didrikson.  Unfortunately, it was not a fun match to play.  So many spectators showed up that Montague waited 15 minutes for the crowd to move back far enough so he could take his second shot on the first hole.  By the ninth hole, the players were ready to quit.  They all got their balls on the green and walked away without putting.  

A week later Montague, 34 years old, was back in Hollywood, overweight from too much partying.  He legally changed his name to John Montague and started playing competitively, but his game was not the same.  His friends tried to defend his reputation, but his high scores spoke louder.  He finally got Wilson Sporting Goods as a sponsor for a tour of exhibition games in Hawaii, the Philippines and Japan, but they dropped him when he returned to the States.

Montague secretly married the widow Esther Plunkett who had two kids.  This was one positive thing in his life, especially since she helped out with financial support, but his professional endeavors never lived up to their expectations.  He entered the U.S. Open but then didn’t make the cut.  He joined an investment opportunity with Johnny Weissmuller, John Wayne and Fred MacMurray but then sued them when it went bad. 

Montague’s life spiraled downhill after his wife died in 1947.  Within two years he was arrested for drunk driving and had a heart attack.  In 1963 he fell off a ladder and was in the hospital for seven weeks.  He had dozens of ideas to make money, but none of them ever panned out.  In May, 1972 Montague had another heart attack and died.  His body lay unclaimed in the mortuary for a week.  Finally a friend identified Montague and planned a funeral service that only 29 people attended.   

QUESTION:  Have you ever gotten away with something you knew you should have been punished for?

©2010 Debbie Foulkes All Rights Reserved

Sources:

Montville, Leigh, The Mysterious Montague. New York: Doubleday, 2008.

http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,882762-1,00.html

http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,758136,00.html

http://www.smithsonianmag.com/people-places/montague-the-magnificent.html

INA COOLBRITH (1841 – 1928) 1st Poet Laureate of California & Librarian

In Bohemian Club, California History, Mormons, People, Poetry, Trivia, Victorian Women, women, Writers on September 1, 2010 at 2:28 PM

Ina Coolbrith

Ina Coolbrith loved words, and she wasn’t afraid to use them.  When she got angry with her friend John Muir for setting her up on a disastrous blind date, she “rhymed him” as punishment, with 75 lines of humorous verse.  There was, however, one aspect of her life she was obligated never to reveal in any form: who her family was.

Josephine Donna Smith was born in Nauvoo, Illinois, the youngest of three girls. Her father, Don Carlos Smith, was the brother of Joseph Smith Jr., founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  Don Carlos died when Coolbrith was five months old, and when she was two, a sister died.  That left her mother, Agnes, with two mouths to feed and very few options. 

William Pickett was a lawyer and owner of a printing press in St. Louis. When Joseph Smith was murdered, he ventured north to get the story of violent anti-Mormon sentiment first hand.   He married Agnes and moved his new family to St. Louis where they welcomed twin boys.  For their safety, Pickett had one requirement of his new wife. He extracted a promise that Agnes and the children forget their past and keep it a secret for as long as they lived. 

THE PROMISED LAND             Gold rush fever tempted Pickett to move to California, so in 1851 he loaded the wagon train and headed toward sunshine and promises.  They set up their first home in Marysville, north of Sacramento, to be near the gold mines.  When they got exasperated with their lack of luck, they moved to the burgeoning city of San Francisco.  In 1855 their house was robbed and then burned, so they uprooted themselves again and moved to Los Angeles.

In the pueblo of Los Angeles, Coolbrith, 14 years old, did something she’d never done before: go to school.  She enrolled in the girls’ department of the first public school when it opened in 1855, and attended classes for three years.  The rest of her education was home study or from reading the classics in her step-father’s extensive library.  She showed an aptitude for writing poetry when she wrote her first English composition in verse.  She explained to the teacher that she thought it was easier than writing in a narrative style. When she was 15, she had her first poem titled “My Childhood’s Home” published in the Los Angeles Star.

When Coolbrith was 17, she married Robert Carsley.  He turned out to be a jealous, abusive man, and Coolbrith filed for divorce three years later.  The young woman received a lot of support during her marital problems, but there was one burden she carried alone.  She had a baby that died in infancy.  The existence of this child was never discovered until after Coolbrith died.  Like every young girl, she dreamed of being a wife and mother, but those dreams were dashed by the time she was 20 years old.

STARTING OVER                         In order to make another fresh start, Coolbrith and her family moved back to San Francisco. Perhaps as a way to reinvent herself or to create a nom de plume, she started using the name Ina Donna Coolbrith (her mother’s maiden name).  She got a job as an elementary English teacher, wrote and published poems and became friends with some important people of letters including Bret Hart, Joaquin Miller, Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) and Ambrose Bierce. 

Coolbrith had many poems published in the prestigious Overland Monthly, and she was asked to write the commencement ode for the 1871 graduating class of the University of California at Berkeley, the first woman to be accorded this honor.  The verse entitled “California” was a love letter to her adopted state.

In 1872, the all-male Bohemian Club was founded as a place for authors, artists, musicians and patrons of the arts to congregate.  Since they were women, Coolbrith and Mrs. Margaret Bowman made the curtains for their first location.   A few months later, acknowledging that although qualified the only reason the poet was not admitted into the club was because of her gender, the group elected Coolbrith and Bowman as their first honorary members.

GETTING A JOB                           Within two years Coolbrith’s life was affected by two major events: her mom died and she was hired as the librarian of the Oakland Free Library with a salary of $80 a month.  Her young nephew and niece were hired as first and second assistants respectively.  Despite having a limited education, she was responsible for acquisitions and created the first catalog.  But she got the most pleasure out of advising young people in what to read.  Two students who never forgot her caring, supportive advice were Jack London and Isadora Duncan. 

In 1881 the first anthology of Coolbrith’s poems, A Perfect Day, was published.  She found the time to continue to write until there was conflict at the library.  Over a period of ten years, the new Board of Directors made changes that seemed to be motivated by removing the head librarian from her post.  During that time, Coolbrith’s professional life was not all difficult.  In 1886 she helped to establish the first Arbor Day in California, and a branch library in Oakland was named after her.  But behind her back, her nephew was gaining more responsibility directly from the library Board. 

Ultimately, Coolbrith made have inadvertently caused the ax to fall on herself.  She gave an interview to a reporter of the Oakland Times illuminating some of the problems with the library.  Three weeks later the headline announced that Coolbrith was fired without cause with only three day’s notice.  Support for Coolbrith was widespread, and newspapers from Seattle to San Diego wrote editorials denouncing the decision.

After 18 years of service to the community and countless hours of inspiration to students, Coolbrith was forced to turn over her duties to her nephew, Henry Peterson.  Coolbrith’s ouster became a political issue and was a contributing factor in librarians and teachers becoming civil servants in California.1

The public’s affection for Coolbrith never diminished, and her lectures on early California writers were well attended.  When she was 57 years old she was hired as the head librarian at the Mercantile Library of San Francisco and held that post for one year until the Bohemian Club offered her a part-time position as librarian.  Even though it only paid $50 a month, she accepted to have more time to write a book based on her lectures. 

In 1906 Coolbrith was confined to bed with rheumatism.  When the earthquake hit at 5:00 am on April 18, she and her live-in housekeeper had just enough time to gather up the two cats and evacuate.  Later that morning, the fire that ultimate destroyed most of San Francisco engulfed Coolbrith’s house and burned all her manuscripts, correspondence with famous authors and books. 

HONORS AND ACCOLADES     Coolbrith bounced back and served as president of the Congress of Authors and Journalists at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition held in San Francisco in 1915.  During the event she was named the Poet Laureate of California and was presented with a symbolic crown of laurel leaves.  It was an honorary title, with no stipend attached to it.  It wasn’t until four years later that a resolution was filed with the California Secretary of State making the commendation official and giving Coolbrith the distinction of being the first female poet laureate in the United States.

The poet received other honors both personal and professional.  Luther Burbank named a hybrid poppy “crimson eschscholtzia Ina Coolbrith” after her, and in 1923 Mills College awarded her an honorary Masters of Arts degree.

In February 1928, Coolbrith fell into a coma and died a few days before her 84th birthday.  The woman who was born to a Mormon family and married by a Methodist minister was laid to rest by an Episcopal priest.  A young man named Jesse Winter Smith attended her funeral.  Coolbrith had told him years earlier that she was not embarrassed by her Mormon background and he could reveal it after she died if he wanted to.  He did, and a story appeared in the New York Sun and all the Bay area papers making the connection, bringing Ina Coolbrith’s life full circle.

QUESTION:  If you only had a few minutes to evacuate from a fire, what would you take with you?

©2010 Debbie Foulkes All Rights Reserved

Sources:

Digitized copy of her book of poems A Perfect Day  http://www.archive.org/stream/aperfectdaypoem00coolrich#page/n7/mode/2up

 Rhodehamel, Josephine DeWitt, Ina Coolbrith, Librarian and Laureate of California. Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 1973.

1Conmy, Peter Thomas, “The Dismissal of Ina Coolbrith as Head Librarian of Oakland Free Public Library and a Discussion of the Tenure Status of Head Librarians.” Oakland, California, Oakland Public Library, 1969.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ina_Coolbrith