Winter 2005



Leah Caracappa
Ambrose Bierce, the "wickedest man in San Francisco," author of The Devil's Dictionary, caroused here with Mark Twain. Bret Harte, Ina Coolbrith, Robert Louis Stevenson, photographer Arnold Genthe, and native son Jack London stayed in its hotels and ate in its restaurants. Dashiell Hammett skulked about dark corners of certain drinking establishments. In a later age, Jack Kerouac and Kenneth Rexroth were habitués of the hotels here.

The Montgomery Block in San Francisco -- aka "Monkey Block," the heart of America's "Barbary Coast" -- was a magnet to artistic souls for decades.

In his inaugural speech as Poet Laureate of San Francisco in 1998, Lawrence Ferlinghetti made reference to "the classic old Montgomery Block building, the most famous literary and artistic structure in the West until it was replaced by the Transamerica Pyramid."

And standing in the middle of that outrageous milieux was George Sterling, the man who grew up in Sag Harbor, Long Island, and traveled west to become the "first poet laureate of San Francisco," and not incidentally the unofficial King of turn-of-the-century San Francisco Bohemia.

Sterling was a star among literary stars, hailed by Ambrose Bierce as the future "poet of the skies, prophet of the suns," and compared favorably with Milton, Keats and Spencer. A close friend of Jack London, he was a major figure of the prestigious Bohemian Club (est 1872 as a club for journalists and artists). Sterling joined the others at the club's yearly Russian River festivals -- called "Midsummer Jinks" -- for which he was soon composing "grove plays."

Robinson Jeffers, the great Californian poet, called Sterling "the sweetest voice of the iron age," composing a memorial poem and prose retrospective on his death. For William Everson, another influential California poet, Sterling possessed something of "the accessibility of a saint," arguing that "despite the record, one ventures to believe him a truly beautiful spirit." He was a beautiful spirit, it seems, in a Wild West kind of town -- San Francisco, for decades represented as a bohemian alternative to the established Eastern literary tradition, part of what has been described as a movement of American literature away from Boston and New York City.

In San Francisco Sterling experienced a West that was, until World War I at least, defined by a kind of Gold Rush "Open Town" mentality. It was an "anything goes," town, and that went from the lows of brothels and brawling criminal hangouts to operatic establishments and high end culture.

And one particularly popular hangout was the Montgomery Block, an expensive four-story building erected in 1853 by General Henry W. Halleck.

The place was first of all, a marvel. The city's first fireproof building, the 4-story, block-square building was for a time the largest building west of Mississippi. At a cost of $3 million it was considered the engineering marvel of its time, the first major structure erected on the marshy sand bordering the east side of Montgomery Street at Washington. Rising from its deep basement, this block-square building boasted two inner courts, masonry walls more than two feet thick, and heavy iron shutters at every window. The entire building was floated on a redwood log raft sunk into the sand -- leading locals to call the building "Halleck's Folly."

In its earliest days the newly affluent "Silver Kings" of the Comstock Lode called the Montgomery Block home. SF Bulletin editor James King of William was shot dead in front of the Montgomery Block in an 1856 confrontation with James Casey. In the 1860s Mark Twain met a San Francisco fireman named Tom Sawyer in the Montgomery Block sauna. It was home in 1911 to exiled Dr. Sun Yat-sen, who wrote the Chinese constitution that was later installed after the fall of the Manchu dynasty.

And from the 1890s-1940s it was an important literary bohemian rendezvous. Why? Perhaps because the Montgomery Block provided office space for the San Francisco Argonaut, which people like Beirce, Harte, Mark Twain and others worked for. Or perhaps it was because in the basement of the block there was a particularly popular hangout that went by the name of Coppa's.

In fact Sterling's lines, "the blue-eyed vampire, sated at her feast / Smiles bloodily against the leprous moon" were inscribed on a wall-length mural at Coppa's -- his name beside such immortals as Dante, Goethe and Rabelais. He wasn't the only one there. Writer Isabel Fraser is said to have mounted a ladder at Coppa's restaurant and been christened "Queen of Bohemia." Will Irwin writes that if a New Yorker was told what could be had at Coppa's for fifty cents -- in a San Francisco famous for its restaurants and cafes- they would not believe it.

Like many a glorious flowering, the era of the West Coast Bohemians was a beautiful one doomed by the march of time. One of the crew, Nora May French, a flamboyant journalist and poet, once remarked famously over lunch, "I have an idea that all sensible people will ultimately be damned." It turned out to be a prophetic statement. One year after the 1906 earthquake destroyed Coppa's and its ambitious mural, Nora May French swallowed poison at Carmel-by-the-Sea, beginning a trend of self-destruction among the bohemian generation that took the lives of several -- including, some believe, Jack London. Sterling himself was to end the trend, and his suicide by ingestion of cyanide in 1926 was perhaps the archetypal response to the city's turn-of-the-century bohemianism.

After the earthquake the area was rebuilt -- and for a time the Montgomery block continued to reign as the place to go in San Francisco. By 1910, four years after the disaster, no fewer than three hundred saloons and dance-halls had crowded back into the six block area.

In San Francisco today, the tribute to the memory of George Sterling may be found, on top of Russian Hill, where the city 'maintains' a George Sterling Glade, with an engraved park bench overlooking the bay.

But the Monkey Block is gone, replaced by the stolidly soaring face of the TransAmerican building. In a sense, then, Sterling's most important monument is the most ephemeral -- the fleeting recollection of those who strive to remember the era, as they look into the face of the TransAmerica building and see there the memory of the Barbary Coast, the teeming Montgomery Block, the mural in Coppa's Restaurant, and the Bohemians of San Francisco.



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