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
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.