LITERARY SAN FRANCISCO
Mark Twain, aka Samuel Clemens, came to San Francisco in the early 1860s and found work as a reporter for the Daily Morning Call. The failed Confederate soldier and miner found his calling after writing burlesque under the name Josh and comic tales in the style of Artemus Ward. In San Francisco, Twain lived at the Occidental Hotel
Cover of Mark Twain
and fondly compared Montgomery Street to Main Street in his hometown of Hannibal, Missouri for he had made many acquaintances in a short time and was widely recognized walking along the downtown street. In the offices of the Golden Era at 732 Montgomery Street, which would have been in the Jackson Square area pictured here, Twain worked with a group of young writers including Bret Harte, who Twain credited with developing his talent. “He changed me from an awkward utterer of coarse grotesqueness to a writer of paragraphs and chapters that havefound a certain favor in the eyes of some of the very decentest people,” Twain said. As a reporter he covered the police, theatre, and society. Before going on to worldwide fame as the author of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and other works, his articles exposed police brutality, abuse of the Chinese, and political corruption. For the Golden Era, he wrote, “The Washoe Wit: Mark Twain on the Rampage.”
Jack Kerouac authored the American classic On the Road and influenced an entire generation more than fifty
Jack Kerouac by photographer Tom Palumbo, circa 1956 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
years ago and just ahead of the rock and roll revolution. North Beach resident Kerouac tells the mostly autobiographical story of Sal Paradise (Kerouac) and Dean Moriarty (friend Neal Cassady), who find a kind of personal liberation and respite from mundane conformity by hitting the road from the east coast to California. What follows is a travelogue of American days and nights and people who “burn like fabulous roman candles.” With his
rebels-without-a-cause story line and spontaneous, unconventional writing style, Kerouac became a pop icon and celebrity. His work details a life of tumultuous friendships and social isolation anesthetized by caustic wit as well as drugs and alcohol. Kerouac died in 1969 in his late 40s.The original manuscript of On the Road, seen here, was written on 128 feet of tracing paper fashioned by Kerouac with tape to form a continuous scroll. The manuscript, a stream of consciousness without interruption, was created in New York during a 20-day writing binge. The manuscript was purchased for $2.43 million by Indiana Colts ower James Irsay on May 22, 2001. The sum is the most ever paid for a literary work.
Danielle Steel An air of romantic secrecy emanates from her Pacific Heights mansion
. The author, who recently published her 50th best selling title, lives a life more dramatic than that of the most harried heroine from her many romance novels including Passion’s Promise, Now and Forever, A Perfect Stranger, and No Greater Love. In childhood Steel survived polio and cancer. Among her five husbands are a convicted bank robber/rapist and a heroin addict/burglar. Later husbands include a Silicon Valley investor and John Traina, a vintner and film producer who owns one of the world’s largest Fabergé collections. Steel herself is Saks Fifth Avenue’s best customer here. In recent years she has survived the heroin death of her 19 year-old son, as well as a relationship with actor George Hamilton. An international traveler, Steel’s lavish home base is the 55-room mansion at Washington and Octavia which was built in 1912 for Adolph and Alma de Bretteville Spreckles.
Dashiell Hammett is the exemplar of 20th Century noir detective writers.
San Francisco’s foggy streets and mysterious atmosphere were a perfect match for Hammett’s dame-and-gumshoe imagination. The Thin Man, Black Mask, and Maltese Falcon author lived in this Tenderloin apartment building, 891 Post Street #401, one of his many San Francisco addresses in the 1920s. Hammett worked as a private eye for the Pinkerton National Detective Agency in the Flood Building on Market Street before his success as America’s author of crime and murder fiction. Completists will find an ersatz descendant, Pinkerton Security Services, at 731 Market.
Dashiell Hammett (1894-1961) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Rudyard Kipling said that San Francisco is a mad City inhabited for the most part by perfectly insane people whose women are of remarkable beauty,” said . Kipling was born in Bombay in 1865. Educated in England, he returned to India in 1892 and wrote for Anglo-Indian newspapers. He became famous for writing short stories of sympathetic soldiers. Works include Soldiers Three, Barrack Room Ballads, The Jungle Book, The Second Jungle Book, Captains Courageous, Just So Stories, Actions and Reactions, and Limits and Renewals. Kipling visited the City in 1889. He thought the place was barbaric but he liked its cable car system – an innovation that was only a couple of years old at the time – and its women. During his lifetime, Kipling was a Nobel Prize winning man of letters. He died in 1936. Of San Francisco Kipling added, “‘Tis hard to leave.”
Allen Ginsberg on October 13th, 1955 gave the first public reading of his poem Howl at this location, then the Six Gallery, at 3119 Fillmore Street. When the subversive rage against materialism was published in 1956 by Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights, the Beat movement had arrived. Worldwide media focused on the sensational First Amendment trial defended by City Lights after copies of the slim volume were seized by members of the San Francisco Police Department and U.S. Customs. The government claimed the poem was obscene and without redeeming social value because it used dirty words and blunt descriptions of gay sex. The vindication of Howl in a courtroom on September 9, 1957 paved the way for future generations of provocative literature by establishing obscenity criteria. Howl went on to become one of the most widely read poems of the 20th Century and was translated into more than twenty languages. Ginsberg became a Distinguished Professor at Brooklyn College in New York near the end of a prolific career and remained active in the literary community until his death in 1997.
Hunter S. Thompson is the acclaimed journalist and author of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas who lived in this building at 318 Parnassus when he was researching his book Hell’s Angels. Thompson introduced the outlaw motorcycle club to mainstream America in 1967 with the book, which Thompson researched by partying with Hell’s Angels members. In typical San Francisco fashion, neighbors were undisturbed when Thompson shot out a window here with a 12-gauge shotgun and a .44 magnum, but complained when the Hell’s Angels parked their motorcycles on the sidewalk. More recently, Hunter S. Thompson wrote a column for the new San Francisco Examiner.
Jack London has a small street named for him which can be found on either side of South Park, a couple of blocks from the author’s birthplace on Third Street near Brannan. The short life of Jack London, who died of uremic poisoning at the age of 40 in 1916, was rich with adventure. The unwanted son of a spiritualist medium was raised in Oakland by his mother and a financially hapless stepfather. As a teenager, London lived on the edge on the Oakland waterfront, raiding the bay’s oyster beds and laboring in a cannery and jute mill. Later, he sailed with a sealing crew off Japan and Siberia then went on a vagabond’s tour across America. He joined the gold rush to the Klondike at 21. A veracious reader and writer whose stories were inspired by his travels, prolific London was writing two books a year and scores of articles in the late 1890s. America’s first working class writer, London was an avowed Socialist who reveled in his financial success, which he saw as a victory over the Capitalists as the U.S. entered into a tumultuous transition from laissez-faire to corporate capitalism.
Armistead Maupin created a phenomenon when he started writing Tales of the City as a column for the Chronicle in the 1970s. Reformatted and published as books in the ’80s then television films in the ’90s, Tales of the City is unmatched as a diary, however fictional, of San Franciscans. The entire range from secretaries and waiters to TV hosts, movie stars and international criminals are included as characters in Maupin’s tales as they are in San Francisco’s own true story. The adventures of Tales heroine Mary Ann Singleton predate the Chronicle serial, having first appeared in the San Francisco edition of the Pacific Sun. As in real life, most of Maupin’s characters keep one eye on their secrets while looking for love in the bay city. In addition to characters based
on popular public figures, the tales take place in well known City locations. Maupin’s alter ego, Michael Tolliver, wins a dance contest at the Endup but nearly loses the love of his life when Dr. Jon Fielding and his snooty Pacific Heights friends walk in during the finals.While Macondray Lane on Russian Hill is accepted as the Tales of the City location, 28 Barbary Lane, Maupin actually lived in several apartments on Telegraph Hill and Russian Hill from the time he moved to the City in the early ’70s. The tales debuted in the Chronicle on May 24, 1976. Later, Maupin moved to Noe Street in the Castro before settling in Cole Valley. Since everything about Tales of the City is a composite of real life, you can be sure that Maryann, Michael, Mona Ramsey, Brian Hawkins, landlady Anna Madrigal, and others all crossed the thresholds of these locations:
384 Vallejo Street
308 Greenwich Street
60 Alta Street
226A Filbert Street
331 Filbert Street
1138 1/2 Union Street
665 1/2 Noe Street (Noe/Castro Hill)
William Saroyan, Flamboyant writer and humanitarian, became a literary sensation at the age of 26 when his story, The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze, was published by Story magazine in 1932. Around that time he lived at 348 Carl Street. His play, “The Time of Your Life,” was drawn from characters and situations at a well known Pacific Avenue (then Pacific Street) pub owned by Izzy Gomez. In “The Time of Your Life,” the principal setting is “Nick’s,” #3 Pacific. If the address still existed, it would be located at the end of a pedestrian walkway between Buildings 1 and 2 of the Golden Gateway Commons. Off stage action occurs at nearby Pier 27. Saroyan, who called himself “The World’s Greatest Writer,” won the Pulitzer Prize for the play but declined it and the $1,000 purse, insisting that commerce should not drive the arts. Saroyan’s novel The Human Comedy draws from his own experiences as a messenger in his native Fresno. Unique among writers, Armenian American Saroyan advanced Armenian culture as an important source of literary inspiration. Saroyan once said, “No city invites the heart to come to life as San Francisco does. Arrival in San Francisco is an experience in living.”
Amy Tan‘s ground-breaking fiction demonstrates the power of the mother-daughter relationship to overcome adversity. The Oakland-born Asian-American achieved acclaim with The Joy Luck Club in 1989. Her work includes the novels The Kitchen God’s Wife (1991), The Hundred Secret Senses (1995), and The Bonesetter’s Daughter (2001), in addition to essays, children’s books, and screenplays. Her literature is characterized by themes of generational dissonance and immigrant issues. As a pop culture icon she has been a character on The Simpsons and is a member of the Rock Bottom Remainders, a rock group whose members include Dave Barry, Tad Bartimus, Roy Blount, Jr., Kathi Goldmark, Simpson’s creator Matt Groening, Stephen King, Barbara Kingsolver, Ridley Pearson, and Joel Selvin. Tan lives in San Francisco and New York with her husband, Lou DeMattei.
Kay Boyle lived in this house at 419 Frederick Street in the 1970s when she taught at San Francisco State College. American-born Boyle left the U.S. and lived in Paris during the years between World War I and WWII. She earned a reputation as one of the greatest writers of that era. Boyle’s novels include Plagued by the Nightingale and Year Before Last. She was also celebrated for her story collections; Wedding Day, and First Lover, as well as for her poetry; A Glad Day and Selected Poems.
Dorothy Bryant a native San Franciscan and feminist writer is the author of 12 novels, two nonfiction works, and four plays. “A Day in San Francisco” is Bryant’s controversial mother-son take on gay life in the City on the eve of the 1980 Gay Freedom Day Parade. Her 1986 novel “Confessions of Madame Psyche” is so realistic in emotional truth and historic detail about early 20th Century life in San Francisco and the Bay Area that most readers forget this is a fictional work. Bryant, the daughter of northern Italian immigrants, taught English and music in high schools and community colleges for 23 years. She lives in Berkeley, where she and her husband run the independent publishing company, Ata Books.
Ambrose Bierce came long before Caen, Hoppe, Delaplane, Morse, or Hinckle; ages before both Matier and Ross.Bierce created the first recognized newspaper column in the U.S. His “Prattles” ran in the Examiner for thirty years beginning in the late 1800s. Bierce continued a style of news commentary and reportage he used earlier in his “Telegraphic Jottings,” and in the News Letter’s “Town Crier.” His rapier criticism and bold satirical invective was aimed at just about everything and everybody corrupt in the eyes of Bierce. He took on other writers and even the Examiner. With that his aim was to “purify journalism in this town by instructing such writers as it is worthwhile to instruct, and assassinating those that it is not.” Blurring the line between social philosopher and humorist, Bierce was a self appointed hypocrisy detector. He wrote, “Truth is better than anything or all things; the next best thing to truth is the absence of error.”
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle once occupied the Lafayette Heights residence at 2151 Sacramento Street the plaque on the wall. Actually, Conan Doyle only visited for a few hours when this was the home of an associate, Dr. Abrams. Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, visited San Francisco once in his lifetime, in late May and early June of 1923. The author and his wife stayed at the Clift Hotel during Conan Doyle’s second and final lecture tour in the U.S. Though Conan Doyle’s stay was brief, his character Dr. Watson was married and practiced medicine in the City, according to a Conan Doyle play. One wonders what influence, if any, the exaggerated Sacramento Street plaque, which was placed by an owner of the house in the 1970s, has on the property’s value.
Herb Caen is one of a kind in the world but he is first and foremost a San Franciscan. The Sacramento native was hired by Chronicle editor Paul Smith in the late 1930s at the age of 20. Smith was a wonderkind who at 26 didn’t want to be the youngest person on the paper’s staff. After initially writing sports, Caen became known in all corners of the City for his man about town column, It’s News to Me, which debuted on July 5, 1938. He continued to chronicle the City for 58 years, guided by his instincts, his daily deadline, and his love for San Francisco. With a front seat at the epicenter of the City’s politics and society, the town belonged to him and him to it. There wasn’t a coming or going by a man, woman, or natural phenomenon here that wasn’t observed by Caen and distilled at the Loyal Royal, his well-worn manual typewriter. With his own brand of nostalgia and reportage he gave the City a voice nearly as natural as if the hills had spoken for themselves. In addition to lighter observations and gossip about visiting celebrities, Caen eloquently and poetically captured insights about this land and its people like no other writer before or since. Sometimes controversial, admired by countless readers throughout the 20th Century, Caen succumbed to cancer in 1997 less than a year after winning the Pulitzer Prize.
Ruth Witt-Diamant, who founded the San Francisco Poetry Center in 1954, hosted many famous poets in her guestroom when she owned the house at this address, 1520 Willard Street. Among the writers who slept here were Anais Nin, W. H. Auden, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, Stephen Spender, and Theodore Roethke.
Barnaby Conrad, author, artist, and raconteur is the founding director of the Santa Barbara Writers’ Conference and the author of more than 27 books including Tahiti, La Fiesta Brava, Gates of Fear, San Francisco, Dangerfield, How to Fight a Bull, Famous Last Words, Hemingway’s Spain, Learning to Write Fiction from the Masters and The World of Herb Caen. The native San Franciscan is also a former vice consul to Spain, amateur bullfighter, art teacher, and onetime secretary to novelist Sinclair Lewis. He studied art at the Academie Julien in Paris and named his former North Beach night spot after his successful 1952 novel, Matador. His 1994 memoir Name Dropping: Tales from My Barbary Coast Saloon is, as the title suggests, a collection of gossip and stories from El Matador, which was located at 492 Broadway and known by regulars as “the Mat.” From the book: “The night Ava Gardner first came into El Matador she was sober and gorgeous. But two hours later she had snatched a bullfighter’s hat off the wall and was doing a torrid, if lurching, flamenco solo on the bar, her skirt hiked up around her waist, while her anonymous escort looked pained and the customers applauded.” Gardner’s inelegant turn notwithstanding, The Mat set a standard for elegant socializing in North Beach the likes of which has not been seen since the 1950s. Conrad, who founded the Santa Barbara Writers’ Conference in 1972, is also the artist of a portrait of Bing Crosby that graces the receiving room of the Crosby mansion in Hillsborough.
Journalist and author Frances Bret Harte was the editor of San Francisco’s successful Overland Monthly when he published his story, “The Luck of the Roaring Camp” which brought him instant and wide fame in the late 1860s. Luck was the child of a camp prostitute raised with the help of altruistic miners in Victorian society. Much of Harte’s work features some kind of reprobate who’s redeemed by sacrifice and self denial. In 1870 his stories and his respected work at the helm of the Overland Monthly earned him a then lucrative $10,000 a year contract writing one poem or story per month for the Atlantic Monthly. Harte left California but not before his work greatly
Portrait of Bret Harte 1868 from Overland Monthly, August 1920 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
influenced local color fiction here and elsewhere. His work elevated and romanticized Gold Rush denizens for a culture that was ready to listen. The same year, 1870, Harte wrote the poem, “Plain Language from Truthful Jim,” aka “The Heathen Chinee” which was easily exploited by racists for its unflattering portrayal of a Chinese card shark and the pronouncement by its narrator that “We are ruined by cheap Chinese labor.” During and after his run with the Atlantic Monthly, Harte’s career took him to New York, Boston, Glasgow, and Crefeld, Germany. Harte later lived in England where he wrote marginal stories using familiar material.
San Franciscan Jewelle Gomez is the esteemed activist and author of the award-winning novel, The Gilda Stories. Recent works include Forty Three Septembers (a book of personal and political essays), Don’t Explain (a collection of short fiction), and a Gilda stage adaptation entitled, “Bones & Ash: a Gilda Story.” Gomez is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts literature fellowship and two California Arts Council fellowships. She has served on literary panels including the National Endowment for the Arts, the California Arts Council and the San Francisco Arts Commission. In addition to numerous anthologies, Gomez’s fiction, essays, criticism and poetry have appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle, The New York Times, The Village Voice; The Advocate, Ms Magazine, Essence Magazine, and Black Scholar. Gomez recently served three years as executive director of the Poetry Center and American Poetry Archives at San Francisco State University. She frequently lectures at universities throughout the U.S. and is currently working on a comic novel about 1960s black activists facing middle age.
Robert Louis Stevenson came to San Francisco in August, 1879. A few months later he rented a room in the narrow three-story wooden building which then stood at 608 Bush Street. This plaque on the building at the Bush Street location commemorates Stevenson’s presence in San Francisco, as does a memorial at Portsmouth Square. While living at #608, Stevenson wrote From Jest to Earnest as well as essays about Benjamin Franklin and William Penn and a dime novel that he later abandoned.
Tom Wolfe‘ s 1968 best seller The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test is a record of the hippie movement that the New York Times Book Review likened to Norman Mailer’s Pulitzer Prize winning The Armies of the Night, a historical novel of the Vietnam protest movement. Wolfe rode around with Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters in a bus driven by Kerouac cohort Neal Cassady. Wolfe’s brilliant book details the road trip and acid parties, the “acid tests,” given by the band of hippies and attended by Hunter S. Thomspon, Allen Ginsberg, the Grateful Dead,Wavy Gravy, and many, many other leaders and followers of the psychedelic movement. Two acid tests were given in San Francisco among others in Palo Alto, La Honda, Los Angeles, Mexico, and Portland, Oregon. The acid tests were the epoch of the psychedelic lifestyle. Wolfe is also the author of The Right Stuff, for which he was given the American Book Award for nonfiction, the National Institute of Arts and Letters Harold Vursell Award for prose style, and the Columbia Journalism Award.
George Sterling called San Francisco “The Cool, Grey City of Love.” The poet was born into an old Puritan family on Long Island in 1869. Young Sterling left Catholic study after he picked up poetry and moved to Oakland. He was later befriended by writers Jack London and Ambrose Bierce. Sterling referred to his mentor Bierce, with whom he had a tumultuous association, as “the Master.” Sterling made a name for himself with the publication of “A Wine of Wizardry” in 1907. He is closely associated with the Bohemian Club and is sometimes called “the King of Bohemian San Francisco” or “the last classic Bohemian.” Sterling wrote and directed a number of plays for the club’s world famous summertime High Jinks, and commited suicide in his room at the club on Sutter Street in 1926. Two years later, a park on Russian Hill was christened in Sterling’s honor. In 1982, the George Sterling Glade was restored by a committee lead by Don Herron, Bill Kostura, and John Law.
William Bronson is the author of “The Earth Shook, the Sky Burned,” published in 1959. The collection of stories and more than 400 photos of the devastation from the April 18, 1906 Earthquake and of the City that rose from the ashes remains the definitive book on the disaster. Bronson, a third generation Californian, began his literary career at the age of nine when he sold newspapers on a City street corner.
Fritz Leiber is one of the world’s foremost authors of science fiction fantasies. Among his many acclaimed works is Our Lady of Darkness. The supernatural horror novel was written at 811 Geary Street, where Leiber and his alter ego, lead character Franz Weston, lived. In the novel, San Francisco literary icons Dashiell Hammett, George Sterling, and Jack London appear as characters in flashback sequences. Leiber’s most famous novel is 1943’s Conjure Wife, which portrays all women as witches who control the world’s men. Leiber, who died in 1992 at the age of 82, is a multiple Hugo Award winner.
California’s first Poet Laureate and the first woman member of the Bohemian Club, Ina Donna Coolbrith is not only a pioneer in literature, she’s also a Pioneer. Coolbrith came to California on the back of a horse at the age of ten after her widowed mother denounced the Mormons and headed West with a new husband. Led by mountain guide James P. Beckwith, the family arrived in California from Illinois in September, 1852. Raised in Los Angeles, a young Coolbrith became a published poet. After a bad marriage, she reinvented herself and moved to San Francisco at the age 20. Her life here is marked by her distinguished career as a librarian and, with Charles Warren Stoddard and Bret Harte, as a member of “the Golden Gate Trinity,” the editors of the Overland Monthly. Coolbrith was a friend and mentor to three generations of writers including Mark Twain, Isadora Duncan, and Jack London. Though she achieved world acclaim, Coolbrith is perhaps equally famous for something she didn’t write. When the fire of 1906 burned her flat at 1406 Taylor Street, all of her notes were destroyed. Coolbrith’s lost history of literary California is akin to a record of the Italian Renaissance were it not to include the The Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini. Among her accomplishments, Coolbrith was the first librarian of the Oakland Public Library. Born Josephine Donna Smith, her name is a composite of her birth name, a nom de plume, and her mother’s maiden name. A park dedicate in honor of Coolbrith is located near the Taylor Street address. With beautiful views and layers of walks and gardens, it is the pride of Russian HIll.
Frank Norris is best remembered for his 1899 novel, McTeague, the sordid story of a Polk Gulch dentist. Norris died in 1902 at the age of 32, but made his mark with naturalistic novels influenced by the work of Emile Zola. In his short but storied life, Norris studied art in Paris, attended Harvard University for a year, worked in South Africa as a travel writer, and covered the Spanish-American War in Cuba for McClure’s. Norris’ observations as a journalist covering the local scene for The Wave between 1891-1898 provided the writer with material for McTeague and his other San Francisco novels, Blix, and Vandover and the Brute. The alley named in honor of Norris is located off Larkin Street between Bush and Pine. McTeague became the basis for Erich Von Stroheim’s silent epic,Greed
As a teenager, Dr. Maya Angelou’s love for the arts won her a scholarship
to study dance and drama in San Francisco’s during World War II, she attended George Washington High School while studying dance and drama on a scholarship at the California Labor School. Before graduating, she worked as the first Black female streetcar conductor in San Francisco. Three weeks after completing school, at the age of 17, she gave birth to her son, Clyde, who also became a poet. Maya Angelou born Marguerite Ann Johnson; April 4, 1928) is an American author and poet. She has published six autobiographies, five books of essays, numerous books of poetry, and is credited with a long list of plays, movies, and television shows. She is one of the most decorated writers of her generation, with dozens of awards and over thirty honorary doctoral degrees. Angelou is best known for her series of autobiographies, which focus on her childhood and early adult experiences. The first and most highly acclaimed, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969), tells of her first seventeen years, and brought her international recognition and acclaim.
City Lights Bookstore on Columbus Avenue is an enduring icon of North Beach and a valuable resource for new voices in literature. Founded byLawrence Ferlinghetti in 1953, City Lights became the center of gravity for the Beat movement. Still owned by San Francisco’s former Poet Laureate, Mr. Ferlinghetti, City Lights continues to support freethinking writers and poets who fall under the mainstream radar.
Unmistakable with its cave like entrance at 916 Grant, Li Po’s is a Chinatown literary bar named for the erudite Chinese poet Li Po (701-762). Li Po’s work celebrates natural beauty, love, friendship, solitude, and drink. He is one of the great poets of the Tang Dynasty, China’s Golden Age of poetry. (The Lipo bar has lost some its charm since its owners installed a TV for sports watching.)