The Gilded Edge: Bohemian Tragedy

From The Wall Street Journal:

The Bohemian literary colony at Carmel-by-the-Sea, Calif., gained notoriety in the early 20th century not only for its drunken bonfire parties, embrace of free love, and hosting of left-leaning poets and writers such as Robinson Jeffers, Sinclair Lewis and Jack London. It also became infamous in those decades for a tragic love triangle that resulted in three suicides.

In “The Gilded Edge: Two Audacious Women and the Cyanide Love Triangle That Shook America,” Catherine Prendergast, a professor of English at the University of Illinois, exposes the myth behind the colony’s creation and the desperate powerlessness and exploitation of two women involved in that circle.

The book centers around the poet George Sterling, his wife, Carrie, and the poet Nora May French. Sterling and French had a passionate love affair, and over the course of the unfurling tragedy, all three ended up taking their own lives.

Ms. Prendergast, in her first work of narrative nonfiction, organizes her book as a dual narrative: the story of the characters in the love triangle, interwoven with her own detective work in the archives. She ties these two strands together beginning in San Francisco, less than a year after the earthquake and firestorms of 1906 that razed much of the city. French takes abortion pills to end a pregnancy, but also writes about the experience amid her painful contractions. “It takes some kind of woman to write a letter about an abortion to her boyfriend while she’s administering it,” notes Ms. Prendergast, who soon adds that it is one of the very few early-20th-century first-person accounts of abortion in existence. French survives that terrible experience, but nine months later, despondent and with “no taste for the poor compensations of living,” she dies in Carrie’s arms, at the Sterlings’ cottage in Carmel-by-the-Sea.

In explaining why this happened, and the subsequent cyanide suicides of George and Carrie, Ms. Prendergast examines the seamy truth of the Carmel colony—that Sterling was, in fact, hired by the Carmel Development Co. to entice his circle of San Francisco friends to what was then “a square mile of nearly barren dirt next to a bay.”

Carrie, whose mother had run a boardinghouse, often found herself single-handedly feeding the colony’s residents in her cottage, struggling to find adequate provisions when money was tight. Meanwhile, George was openly carrying on affairs with women who visited or decamped to Carmel, most notably French but many others as well. Both Carrie and Nora were what were then called New Women, those on “the trailing edge of the Gilded Age who sought to enjoy the spoils of economic expansion.”

Sterling, a protégé of the writer Ambrose Bierce, was San Francisco’s unofficial poet laureate and a prominent member of the city’s Bohemian Club. A mostly forgotten poet today, he wrote plays for the club’s midsummer gatherings and was held in high regard by many of its members.

But in the years after French’s death, Sterling struggled with alcohol and faced an uncertain future, with constant financial stress. In 1926, a few days after the 19th anniversary of French’s suicide, Sterling arranged a banquet at the Bohemian Club for the critic H.L. Mencken, but never made it to the festivities. He burned most of his papers and killed himself.

Ms. Prendergast makes a convincing argument that French, who died at the age of 26, was a more gifted poet than Sterling. She was, as the author tells us, “the sensation in her time.” Yet she was repeatedly exploited. “Nora May French, whose reputation was used to bolster the colony’s image, was passed along a line of Bohemian men who treated her as a perpetual ingenue, co-opting her talent in an attempt to claim her as their personal discovery; they plied her with unwanted editorial advice while maneuvering her toward the bedroom.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (The link is supposed to be free, but PG apologizes if you hit a paywall. He hasn’t figured out a way around it.)

PG will not include an Amazon ad showing the cover because, while the marketing department for the idiot publisher (Randy Penguin) likely worked hard to get a Wall Street Journal weekend review, they’re holding to book for its official release date (October 12) to make a big splash in physical bookstores.

PG predicts that more than a few WSJ readers (who, on average, have lots of discretionary income with which to purchase interesting books, antique cars and a lot of other things) will have forgotten about the book and the review in nine days. PG just checked to confirm that The Wall Street Journal is the largest paid circulation newspaper in the US.

With an apparent list price of $28 for the ebook (discounted to $14.99 by Zon), the same price as the hardcover, Randy Penguin is apparently trying to induce people to purchase the printed book, which generates a much lower per-copy profit for the publisher than the ebook does because Bad Amazon or something like that.

Apparently, there is not a review for the book in The New York Times (Sunday issue less than half the circulation of WSJ). If there is one closer to the release date, we’ll know that the geniuses of Randy Penguin mistook the little bang for the big bang in two different ways.