Ina Coolbrith & the Nob Hill Berth of the West Coast Bohemians

I just finished reading Ben Tarnoff’s The Bohemians: Mark Twain and the San Francisco Writers who Reinvented American Literature (Penguin, 2014) which follows Mark Twain’s time in San Francisco, his rise to fame, while interweaving the stories of Bret Harte, Charles Warren Stoddard, and Ina Donna Coolbrith. Coolbrith officially became California’s first poet laureate in 1919, and is the person I’m concerned with in this post. This is not a review of Tarnoff’s book, though I found it thoroughly enjoyable.

There was one, major detail in Tarnoff’s text, however, that had me digging into old directories and newspapers myself: where exactly was Ina Coolbrith’s 1860s home and parlor – that early sanctum of West Coast Bohemia – truly located? Early in, and throughout The Bohemians, Tarnoff again-and-again mentions its being on Russian Hill. Fact is, the parlor where the “Overland Trinity” converged, &c., was actually on Nob Hill, though the hill was not yet known by that name (in the 1860s, the closest hill name for where Coolbrith lived would have been Clay Street Hill). However, standing in front of her home, looking northward, one would have seen the south side of Russian Hill rising up in the near distance.

Ina Coolbrith - 1871
Ina Coolbrith circa 1871, when she was around thirty, before moving to SOMA from Nob Hill.

Born into Mormonism in Nauvoo, Ill., Coolbrith’s family left the faith in the early-1850s and crossed the plains to settle in Los Angeles. Circa 1862, when Coolbrith was about 21, her family (the Picketts) moved north to San Francisco as the Civil War raged on the East coast. The family was made up of Ina’s mother Agnes, her sister Agnes, her stepfather William Pickett, and her twin half-brothers, Don Carlos and William Pickett, Jr. After a year or so on John Street (Langley’s City Directory of 1863, p. 292), the family moved up hill a bit to the west, ultimately settling into 1302 Taylor St., near the NE corner of Taylor and Washington (the first correct listing of the Picketts at 1302 Taylor is in LCD of 1867, p. 392). While Tarnoff, a San Francisco native, does list this address in the notes of his book via this same directory, it appears that Coolbrith’s later-in-life association with Russian Hill ultimately trumps the fact that 1302 Taylor St. – “on the east side of Taylor Street, just north of Washington,” as Charles Warren Stoddard reported – was actually on Nob Hill, a few blocks south of Pacific Avenue, the main thoroughfare dividing the two hills. (Charles Warren Stoddard, In Old Bohemia (Part II): The ‘Overland’ and the Overlanders,” The Pacific Monthly (March 1908))

It’s a shame that Tarnoff missed this nuance, for not only does it add more weight to Coolbrith’s economic plight in the 1870s, but also the breaking apart of the Overland Trinity and San Francisco’s early Bohemian heart paralleled to the effects of the transcontinental railroad and the Long Depression (which Tarnoff discusses in Chapter Six). While Coolbrith’s loyalty to her family, her sense of duty, as well as her feeling trapped is no doubt (along with the disappearance of her stepfather), it becomes extra-interesting when one ponders how the early Nob Hill hotbed of West Coast Bohemia was broken up circa 1872, just as the neighborhood around it was becoming world-famous “Nob Hill,” where the railroad barons, silver barons, and plutocrats started building up their palatial mansions and reigning supreme. Likewise, on leaving Nob Hill, Coolbrith moved south of Market to 1139 1/2 Folsom St., and then in 1875 to 91 9th St., where she lived until moving to Oakland (LCD of 1872, p. 174; LCD of 1875, p. 207). These Coolbrith facts are not mentioned in The Bohemians, but become extremely poignant when one reconsiders Tarnoff’s Chapter Six, where giving a backdrop of the times, he waxes about the rise of the “Big Four” on Nob Hill, the ever widening gap between the rich and the poor, and relates the slum-like conditions of the South of Market area in the 1870s – mentioned because Stoddard’s parents lived there – compared to the widespread growth and prosperity of the previous decade.

Coolbrith Salon - 1862
Drawing of Nob Hill from Russian Hill in 1862. That’s Mason Street up in the top left, and Taylor is at right. The near-future Pickett home appears to be the furthest home to the lower left, on Taylor, there are a few people walking past it. As for the numbers on the photo: 3-Mission Bay, 4-Mason Street, 7-Clay Street, 8-Taylor Street.

But it was while living at 1302 Taylor on Nob Hill, during the 1860s and early-1870s, that Coolbrith flowered into a critically-acclaimed poet and became the “center of a little world,” in the words of Joaquin Miller. Coolbrith’s stepfather, William Pickett, and half-brother, William Pickett, Jr., both worked for newspapers. Either one or both of them worked in the 1860s for a time at the Golden Era, American Flag, Californian, &., papers in which Coolbrith published her poetry (not sure about American Flag, but Golden Era and Californian for sure). For example, Langley’s City Directory of 1867, has William and William, Jr. both working at the Californian; the father a foreman, the son a compositor. While not mentioned in The Bohemians, this helps account for why, outside of Coolbrith’s literary aspirations and personality, the Pickett home parlor was wide open to other writers who published within these publications.

Also, the Pickett home wasn’t simply the haunt of writers, either. For instance, in 1892, Joaquin Miller wrote of first visiting Coolbrith’s parlor: “Charley Stoddard first took me to see her, with her mother still then. . . . [Coolbrith] was the center of . . . the San Francisco world. Such women as Mrs. Preston Moore [Martha R. Moore], a most remarkable woman who did great good in Oakland and elsewhere, Mrs. James Bowman, Mrs. Harry Edwards and the like grouped about her.” (Morning Call, Aug. 21, 1892, p. 14, c. 6) Martha Moore was an art-lover, world-traveler, and generous philanthropist. She was married to J. Preston Moore, of Moore Brothers, one of the most prominent and wealthy shipping firms in San Francisco. Mrs. James Bowman was wife to James F. Bowman, an editor who lived just down the hill at Clay and Powell, and was one of the founders of the Bohemian Club in 1872 (LCD of 1872, p. 111; Daily Alta, Feb. 24, 1872, p. 1, c. 2). Mrs. Edwards was wife to Harry Edwards, a popular stage actor, who ran the Metropolitan Theater for a time. Though Nob Hill was not yet known as “Nob Hill,” the Taylor Street enclave on which Coolbrith lived, and hosted, was indeed a fashionable district of town. In 1869, for instance, when the Hastings family – the Pickett’s neighbors on the SW corner of Taylor and Washington – held a wedding and reception for their daughter at their “splendid residence,” a journalist reported it as “the most fashionable wedding that has ever taken place in San Francisco,” and added, “you may well imagine the sensation and talk it has created in society.” (Sacramento Union, Oct. 9, 1869, p. 1, c. 6)

Haggin - Nob Hill -
Looking north up Taylor Street around 1877, as the hill became known as Nob Hill, that’s James Ben Ali Haggin’s mansion at right, which was on the SE corner of Taylor and Washington. The old Pickett house can be seen across Washington, second house to the right; the facade, and Federal style architecture, match the building in the 1862 sketch above. South side of Russian Hill is in background at left. Today, Ina Coolbrith Park is located at the apex of what you see of Russian Hill there, on the right side of Taylor.

Another interesting bit I located in regard to Coolbrith during the 1860s comes from the Sacramento Union on May 5, 1865, when a San Francisco correspondent reports a letter received by 25 year-old poet “Ina D. Pickett,” from someone she’d sent poems for input. The writer is Henry W. Longfellow of Cambridge, Mass. “I need not go into any minute criticism upon them; but one thing is evident,” writes Longfellow, “and that is, that you possess a true instinct of versification, which is a prophesy of success, so far as regards the expression of your thoughts. Then in the thoughts themselves, there are certain felicities which are also prophesies; and I can give you no other advice, than to look upon life with your own eyes, and to write always as simply and naturally as you have begun.” While not mentioned in Tarnoff’s book, this helps explain how while Coolbrith’s confidants hoped and waited for validation from the New York and New England literary set, Coolbrith became a “woman of growing confidence and wicked humor.”

Following the death of her mother on Dec. 26, 1875, the discontinuance of the Overland Monthly, and being offered the job of librarian at the new Oakland Free (Public) Library, Coolbrith moved across the bay to Oakland, where she resided for the next 20 years or so at 1267 Webster St. (Oakland Tribune, Aug. 5, 1919, p. 12, c. 6) Circa 1898, around the age of 57, Coolbrith moved back to San Francisco to work at the Mercantile Library and resided at 618 Golden Gate Ave., near Van Ness Avenue (Crocker-Langley Directory of 1898, p. 448). In 1900 she lived in the Western Addition at 2913 Bush St., and in 1901 in Nob Hill at 1200 Leavenworth (1900 C-LD, p. 459; 1901 C-LD, p. 471).

In her early-60s, around 1902, working as librarian of the Bohemian Club, Coolbrith moved to Russian Hill for the first time in her life. She lived on the southeast slope of the hill, at 1604 Taylor St., just above Broadway, three blocks north of the old Pickett home on Nob Hill (1902 C-LD, p. 478). It was an appropriate location, given that in the latter part of the 19th century, San Francisco’s Bohemian enclave had become Russian Hill, mostly located up around Vallejo and Florence streets, just above where Coolbrith was now living. This had been the neighborhood of Les Jeunes, Gelett Burgess, Willis Polk, Kate Atkinson’s salons, etc. Coolbrith fit right in.

Coolbrith home - mantel
“Work room and fireplace in [Coolbrith’s] home on Russian Hill, San Francisco, where she wrote many of her most beautiful verses.” This blurb comes from the Oakland Tribune in 1921. Given that the photo was earlier printed in a 1911 article about living California writers, it seems likely it was taken at that time within her final Russian Hill home at 1067 Broadway, where she penned and published “From Russian Hill” in 1915.
Tragically, in 1906, along with most else in the eastern part of San Francisco, 1604 Taylor was destroyed, along with all of Coolbrith’s works-in-progress and belongings. She found lodging nearby at 15 Lincoln St. (Macondray today), which survived the flames and remains to this day (1907 C-LD, p. 441). Following a benefit held by Gertrude Atherton for Coolbrith at the Fairmont Hotel, Coolbrith eventually built a new home on Russian Hill at 1067 Broadway (1910 C-LD, p. 459). It was while living at this home that Coolbrith was most celebrated as a poet in her lifetime. She was honored by Senator – and former SF mayor – James Phelan at the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition, San Francisco’s 2nd World’s Fair. And in 1919, she officially became California’s first poet laureate. Of Coolbrith’s Broadway abode, a columnist for the Chronicle wrote, “Yes, it is an athletic feat calling upon Ina Coolbrith, but it is worth far more than the effort. There are only a few, some say only two, superwomen in the world today, and if you live in San Francisco and care for poetry, you can call upon one of them for the expenditure of a nickel in carfare and a little shoe leather. There is a steep hill to climb, but when there it will be found the nearest you have ever been to the summit of Parnassus. She sits a queen upon one of the seven hills of San Francisco.” (S. F. Chronicle, April 5, 1919, p. 20, c. 4-5)

As poet laureate of California, Coolbrith left San Francisco for New York City, as she’d always dreamed. She remained in New York for a few years, traveling back to California in 1921, then living between Berkeley and New York (Chronicle, May 15, 1921, p. 2 c. 4; Indianapolis Star, May 27, 1921, p. 6, c. 4; Oakland Tribune, June 7, 1921, p. 1 c. 2). While in New York, she began writing her memoirs. “I have written more in the last two years in New York than in the preceding twenty-five,” she said, “in California there is always the temptation to play. Oh, it will get you, too, the spirit of ‘manana’. . . California is like Italy . . . one cannot help making a ‘fiesta’ of every possible occasion.” (Chronicle, Sept. 11, 1921, p. 2, c. 1)

While in Berkeley at this time, Coolbrith lived at 2731 Hillegass Ave., near Telegraph and the University of California campus. (Oakland Tribune, April 16, 1924, p. 17, c. 2-3) By 1924, she was living exclusively in California once again, and moved back to San Francisco. In 1925-1926 she lived at 112 Lyon St., in the Haight, just south of the Panhandle. (1925 C-LD, p. 530; 1926 C-LD, p. 586) This proved to be her final San Francisco home, for in 1927, due to illness, Coolbrith moved back to Berkeley to live with her niece’s family at 2902 Hillegas Ave. (Oakland Tribune, March 4, 1927, p. 18, c. 3) She died on Feb. 29, 1928. She was 85. Her funeral took place at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Berkeley on March 2nd, and her body was buried next to her mother’s at Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland. (Santa Ana Register, March 1, 1928, p. 1, c. 3)

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2 thoughts on “Ina Coolbrith & the Nob Hill Berth of the West Coast Bohemians

  1. Hudson is the Sherlock Holmes of Nob Hill History………..his ‘Guided Eyes’ delving deep into SF history to unveil these anecdotal gems……Nice Work.

  2. Thank you for this article.

    I have researched much on Jack London at a visit to his Glen Ellen ranch as well as visiting two of his Oakland homes. During this research I wanted to know more of Ina as well. I have learned much from this article. If only I would have discovered this earlier and before the other sites that gave little detail.

    Thank you very much,

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