Robert Louis Stevenson in San Francisco

“I was keeping a lodging house then at 608 Bush Street,” said Mary Ann Carson in 1908 to a reporter for the San Francisco Sunday Call. “One cold day a young man came to the door. He was roughly dressed; he wore a cape or mantle over his shoulders and heavy Scotch brogues on his feet. He wanted a room. I looked him over closely. . . . I never saw such eyes — black eyes that looked right through you. I saw that he was a foreigner.”

It was just days before Christmas 1879, and the “foreigner” was author Robert Louis Stevenson, then 29-years old. “The room was satisfactory to him and it was rented,” continued Mrs. Carson, with an Irish accent, “He had just returned from Monterey and he stayed with me until he went to Oakland, just before he was married. We became good friends while he was with us. . . . [he] liked to talk.” (S. F. Call, June 21, 1908, p. 12)

Robert Louis Stevenson 1880
Robert Louis Stevenson in 1880

Born in Edinburgh, Scotland on Nov. 13, 1850, Robert Louis Stevenson was racked with illness growing up^: “his health was infirm from the first,” wrote his friend Sidney Colvin, “and he was with difficulty kept alive by the combined care of his mother and a most devoted nurse . . . In 1858 he was near dying of a gastric fever, and was at all times subject to acute catarrhal and bronchial affections and extreme nervous excitability. . . . Schooling was interrupted in the end of 1862 and first half of 1863 by excursions with his parents to Germany, the Riviera, and Italy. The love of wandering, which was a rooted passion in Stevenson’s nature, thus began early to find satisfaction. . . . By [1867] Stevenson seemed to show signs of outgrowing his early infirmities of health. He was a lover, to a degree even beyond his strength, of outdoor life and exercise (though not of sports).” (Sidney Colvin, The Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson, Vol. I, 1868-1880 (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1923), 3-7)

In 1876, at the age of 26, RLS along with friend Walter Simpson, canoed from Antwerp, Belgium to Grez, France (a journey RLS later wrote about and published as An Inland Voyage, his first book-sized work). While in Grez, RLS met Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne, a 37-year old woman from the San Francisco Bay Area who was vacationing with her three children, and studying painting. While RLS fell in love with Fanny, she was married, and her husband Sam was indeed a philanderer, Fanny feared the societal repercussions a divorce may bring her; however, she did take a fancy to RLS, and the two kept up a correspondence for the next few years, which came to a head when Fanny wrote to RLS in early-1879, reporting she’d grown sick from her marriage, and had removed herself to Monterey, Calif. to rest and recover.

Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne, ca. 1876

Having recently finished and published a new book titled, Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes, RLS made plans without hesitation to travel to the United States, not only with rescuing Fanny on his mind, but also the idea of experiencing the journey for a future book, given that now he was a budding and critically-acclaimed travel writer: “One of the pleasantest of this year’s summer books,” wrote the New York Evening Post in regard to Travels with a Donkey. Likewise, the Detroit Free Press wrote, “one of the most delightful books of the season . . . the author has a genial way of seeing the bright side of everything and an exceedingly felicitous style.” (Boston Post, June 13, 1879, p. 2, c. 8; Detroit Free Press, July 19, 1879, p. 3, c. 2)

Without the support of his family, or friends (who thought him mad), RLS shipped out aboard the immigrant ship Devonia, and experienced the journey with the masses. Likewise, on arrival in the United States, he traveled west by rail in cars jammed with folks. Between Pittsburgh and Chicago in August 1879, making light of his situation, RLS wrote in a letter, “I had no idea how easy it was to commit suicide. There seems nothing left of me; I died a while ago; I do not know who it is that is travelling.” (Colvin, Letters, 283)

When RLS arrived in Monterey and met Fanny, he was on the brink of collapse, and the fogs didn’t do any favors for his bronchial condition. Therefore, RLS sought higher ground and clean air. His condition was already such however, that while camping out, he became extremely ill: “I was pretty nearly slain,” he later wrote, “my spirit lay down and kicked for three days; I was up at an Angora goat-ranche in the Santa Lucia Mountains, nursed by an old frontiersman, a mighty hunter of bears, and I scarcely slept, or ate, or thought for four days. Two nights I lay out under a tree in a sort of stupor, doing nothing but fetch water for myself and horse, light a fire and make coffee, and all night awake hearing the goat-bells ringing and the tree-frogs singing when each new noise was enough to set me mad. Then the bear-hunter came round, pronounced me ‘real sick,’ and ordered me up to the ranche. . . . after a while my spirit got up again in a divine frenzy, and has since kicked and spurred my vile body forward with great emphasis and success.” (Colvin, Letters, 288-289)

Once again with his health, RLS returned to Monterey, and soon after, Fanny and her children went back to Oakland. Fanny moved forward with divorcing Sam, and it became official on Dec. 18, 1879. Soon after receiving word, RLS moved up to San Francisco, therefore knocking on Mrs. Carson’s door at 608 Bush St. (Roy Nickerson, Robert Louis Stevenson in California (Chronicle Books: San Francisco, 1982), p. 73)

RLS Plaque - Bush and Stockton
Plaque at 608 Bush St. which commemorates RLS today. However, the 608 Bush St. where RLS actually lived was closer to the corner of Bush and Dashiell Hammett.

In December 1879, the building that RLS lived in for the next few months, 608 Bush St., was closer to Monroe St. [Dashiell Hammett] than it was Stockton. It would have been around where 630 Bush St. is today (Oso Salon). (In 1879, west of Stockton, Burritt Alley at the south of Bush signaled 603 Bush, and Monroe Street signaled 610 Bush: Langley’s City Directory of 1880, p. 48., etc.)

Interestingly, when RLS died in 1894, the address immediately tied to him in San Francisco was 7 Montgomery Ave. [Columbus Avenue today] This was an apartment building located at the gore corner where 1 Columbus is today (Colombo Building). RLS’s association to this address came from the fact that Fanny’s sister, and her painter husband had an apartment there, and while surely RLS spent some time there, it appears that it wasn’t until RLS’s letters were published posthumously that his stay at 608 Bush St. became generally known.

630 Bush St.-Stand-in Photo for Now
Just to the right of the tree is around where 608 Bush was in 1879-80, when RLS lived in a building there, today long gone. The street rising to the left is Dashiell Hammett, originally Monroe Street.

In 1921, Charles Ulrich, who’d been a reporter for the S. F. Chronicle in the late-1880s, realized he’d lived then in the same apartment as RLS at 608 Bush St.: “I desire to deny the statement of some of Stevenson’s biographers that the house at No. 608 Bush street was a ‘tenement.’ The structure, erected in the later fifties . . . Originally it had been a two-story house, but when a lower story was added years before Stevenson took up his residence there the frail balconies had been converted into comfortable porches, one at each floor, framed in at the ends by massive square supports and rails three feet in height.

“The house stood on the north side of Bush street, about eighty feet west of Stockton street. It had served as a private residence for many years, but in the later seventies the city’s increase of population rendered its conversion into a lodging house a profitable venture. Situated on the southern slope of Nob Hill, it stood almost within the shadow of the palatial homes of the railroad kings — Collis P. Huntington, [Mark] Hopkins, Charles F. Crocker, James Flood and others. Its tenants were of the middle class and not of that character one associates with the ordinary tenement of the present day. . . . When I took possession of the room in 1887 the view of the bay had been cut off by the erection of the Beresford, a family hotel, immediately next door on the east. But the southern view was unhampered.” (Langley’s City Directory of 1888, p. 1168; Oakland Tribune, Feb. 6, 1921, p. 8)

The Beresford Hotel at the NW corner of Bush and Stockton streets in 1902. Per Ulrich's description, I'm pretty sure that's the old 608 Stockton at the far left.
The Beresford Hotel at the NW corner of Bush and Stockton streets in 1902. Per Charles Ulrich’s description of 608 Bush in relation to the Beresford,^^ particularly of the balconies, floors, etc., I’m pretty sure you can see RLS’s 608 Bush still there at the left edge of this photo (I can’t recall exactly where I came across this photo, but I think it was an ad for the Beresford in the Blue Book).

In regard to what exactly RLS was up to when living at 680 Bush St., the best source is RLS himself, in a letter he wrote to his friend Sidney Colvin on Jan. 10, 1880, after having lived in San Francisco for a few weeks. Interestingly RLS states it as a “circular letter,” in other words, he hoped it would make the rounds among his friends, and it’s a caricature of himself from a third-person perspective, amused with his new lifestyle as the solitary, bohemian writer in San Francisco: “Any time between eight and half-past nine in the morning, a slender gentleman in an ulster, with a volume buttoned into the breast of it, may be observed leaving No. 608 Bush and descending Powell with an active step. The gentleman is R. L. S.; the volume relates to Benjamin Franklin, on whom he meditates one of his charming essays. He descends Powell, crosses Market, and descends in Sixth on a branch of the original Pine Street Coffee House, no less; I believe he would be capable of going to the original itself, if he could only find it. [RLS is laying a joke here in regard to the fact that the place he’s frequenting called itself ‘Pine Street Coffee House Branch of Original’ — most likely this was in connection with Pine Street Coffee House in Portland, Or.] In the branch he seats himself at a table covered with waxcloth, and a pampered menial, of High-Dutch extraction and, indeed, as yet only partially extracted, lays before him a cup of coffee, a roll and a pat of butter, all, to quote the deity, very good. A while ago and R. L. S. used to find the supply of butter insufficient; but he had now learned the art to exactitude, and butter and roll expire at the same moment. For this refection he pays ten cents, or five pence sterling. . . .

“Half an hour later, the inhabitants of Bush Street observe the same slender gentleman armed, like George Washington, with his little hatchet, splitting kindling, and breaking coal for his fire. He does this quasi-publicly upon the window-sill; but this is not to be attributed to any love of notoriety, though he is indeed vain of his prowess with the hatchet (which he persists in calling an axe), and daily surprised at the perpetuation of his fingers. The reason is this: that the sill is a strong, supporting beam, and that blows of the same emphasis in other parts of his room might knock the entire shanty into hell. Thenceforth, for from three to four hours, he is engaged darkly with an ink bottle. Yet he is not blacking his boots, for the only pair that he possesses are innocent of lustre and wear the natural hue of the material turned up with caked and venerable slush. The youngest child of his landlady remarks several times a day, as this strange occupant enters or quits the house, ‘Dere’s de author.’ Can it be that this bright-haired innocent has found the true clue to the mystery? The being in question is, at least, poor enough to belong to that honourable craft.

“His next appearance is at the restaurant of one Donadieu, in Bush Street, between Dupont [Grant] and Kearney [sic], where a copious meal, half a bottle of wine, coffee and brandy may be procured for the sum of four bits, alias fifty cents . . . The wine is put down in a whole bottleful, and it is strange and painful to observe the greed with which the gentleman in question seeks to secure the last drop of his allotted half, and the scrupulousness with which he seeks to avoid taking the first drop of the other. This is partly explained by the fact that if he were to go over the mark — bang would go a ten pence. He is again armed with a book, but his best friends will learn with pain that he seems at this hour to have deserted the more serious studies of the morning. When last observed, he was studying with apparent zest the exploits of one Rocambole by the late Viscomte Ponson du Terrail. This work, originally of prodigious dimensions, he had cut into liths or thicknesses apparently for convenience of carriage.

“Then the being walks, where is not certain. But by about half-past four, a light beams from the windows of 608 Bush, and he may be observed sometimes engaged in correspondence, sometimes once again plunged in the mysterious rites of the forenoon. About six he returns to the Branch Original, where he once more imbrues himself to the worth of fivepence in coffee and roll. The evening is devoted to writing and reading, and by eleven or half-past darkness closes over this weird and truculent existence.”

Charles Ulrich, the chap that lived in the RLS apartment at 608 Bush later in the decade, had this to say about RLS’s wood-chopping: “I can attest to the vigor of his chopping, for after a lapse of seven years, the indentations in the French window sill were plainly visible. Without any knowledge of the authorship of this seeming vandalism, and attributing it to the children of some forgotten lodger, I one day filled in the indentations with putty.” (Colvin, Letters, 309-311; Oakland Tribune, Feb. 6, 1921, p. 8)

Married - RLS - Fanny - 1880
Daily Alta, May 22, 1880, p. 4, c. 2

Following the downward spiral of RLS’s health once again, Fanny moved him to Oakland where one Dr. Bamford brought him back to health. On May 19, 1880 RLS and Fanny were married in San Francisco at 521 Post St., the home of Presbyterian Rev. William A. Scott. Following their marriage, RLS and Fanny stayed at the Palace Hotel for a few days, and then left to honeymoon in Napa County.



^ In regard to RLS’s health: “Although it is obvious that the illnesses that plagued RLS throughout his life had various causes — the dampness of his childhood home in Edinburgh, the self-imposed poverty he suffered while waiting to be able to support himself by his writing and the bad eating habits this often brought on — his weak lungs were his main disability. There are more biographers of RLS even today who pass off his illness as tuberculosis — he himself had called it consumption, that day’s term for TB — than there are who have taken a serious look at his medical history. . . . The two foremost doctors who treated RLS . . . never did render a firm verdict of tuberculosis. Many years later, men of medicine studying all the available data on RLS’s illness and its records have agreed that it was bronchiectasis. . . . a heavy erosion of the bronchial region.” (Roy Nickerson, Robert Louis Stevenson in California (Chronicle Books: San Francisco, 1982), p. 79)

^^ Ulrich said that when he lived at 608 Bush, it was a different landlord. Mrs. Carson speaks of meeting Stevenson’s Mom later on, when he’d returned briefly, before heading to explore the South Seas. In what is considered the most unreliable biography of RLS over the years, RLS and his mother search for both Mrs. Carson, and the old building, but neither are to be found. It appears quite the opposite on both accounts.

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