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
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
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