HomeCommunity20 lost years of Carmel’s literary past reveal cyanide suicides, poisonings and a Bohemian legacy

20 lost years of Carmel’s literary past reveal cyanide suicides, poisonings and a Bohemian legacy

Published Dec. 14, 2023

BY ZANA BALABAN

Behind Carmel’s mission, art galleries and small-town charm, within the shadows of John Steinbeck and Robert Louis Stevenson, lies a dark and hidden past of passionate, vigorously intellectual and eccentric literary Bohemians who defined the town at the turn of the 20th century.

“It’s been romanticized,” says Elliot Ruchowitz-Roberts, a published poet and long-time resident of Carmel. “Much of American history is built on myth and overlooks what actually happened, which is very difficult to find.”

Nora May French alone on a walk in the pine woods of Carmel. (courtesy of HARRISON MEMORIAL LIBRARY)

In 1905, at the edge of the Pacific, an isolated village lay tucked away among gnarled pines, rich undulating valleys and the ruthless surf. It was that year that George Sterling and his wife, Carrie, moved to Carmel. The journey of this published poet–and known womanizer, nicknamed “The Uncrowned King of Bohemia”–is chronicled in thousands of letters penned and received by a Bohemian poet, collected by an English professor at California State University, Chico.

This settlement was located just over a day’s carriage ride down the coast from San Francisco, the hub of Sterling’s literary fame. According to Katie O’Connell, the local history librarian at the Carmel Public Library, writers and poets followed Sterling to Carmel after tragedy struck San Francisco with the earthquake and fire of 1906. Seeking solace, adventure and $6 rent, they inundated the village.

These lively additions to Sterling’s vision of a Bohemian Utopia continued for over a decade. Alongside his best friend and notorious binge drinker Jack London, as well as their wives, he drew in other members of the Bay Area’s literary community by hosting large parties. The lavish nature of these events was commented on by Ethel Duffy Turner, a Bohemian journalist and a close friend of Sterling and London, in her personal journal entitled “Notes of Early Literary Carmel.” The motive behind the parties was to advertise the future of this informal literary colony.

“[Sterling] was a real estate agent,” Ruchowitz-Roberts explains. “He was inviting people down so he could sell property.”

Langston Hughes enjoying a drink on a Carmel Beach with Una Jeffers in 1934. (courtesy of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA, BERKELEY)

Carmel soon gained wide recognition. The Mercury Herald, a Bay Area paper, noted the “fever of activity” in 1914 Carmel. Before long, Sterling’s inner circle became known as “The Crowd,” notes Carter Johnson, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Kentucky specializing in early twentieth-century American literature.

“By giving this group of innovative artists a name, they forged a collective identity,” Johnson says. “Although very different, one could compare Carmel to the Modernist scene in Paris that would develop a decade later. There was a sense of being part of a movement, a new generation.”

While most specifics of what occurred among The Crowd remain a mystery, the legacy of these penniless and exotic youth, as told through various firsthand diaries and memoirs, paints a colorful picture. 

Cigarette-smoking and heavily perfumed, the Bohemians spent days lying and drinking in the powdered sugar sand of Carmel Beach. A unique mix of a love for literature and for physical activity prompted horseback riding, abalone diving, cliff jumping and skinny dipping centered in and around the rugged Pacific Ocean.

According to Turner, they lived for the sake of both art and adventure.

“It was typical of Carmel in those days,” Turner wrote in her journal, “when lines were not drawn between the shopkeeper and the creative spirit.”

As months passed, the fine line between business and pleasure blurred further.

Bohemians on the rocks at Carmel Beach, including Sterling, London, French, Austin and Hopper. (courtesy of JAMES HENRY COLLECTION, HARRISON MEMORIAL LIBRARY)

“While The Crowd meetings were catalytic for creative development, they could also be described as parties,” Johnson says. “There was plenty of alcohol, food and drugs involved, creating quite a libertine environment.”

As James Haley wrote in the biography “Wolf: The Lives of Jack London,” the Bohemians ran around in a wild nature with sand in their shoes and in their hair.

“James Hopper [Carmel resident and neighbor of Jeffers] was taking a photograph of Sterling, who had scaled a cliff in his bathing suit and stood, posed as a Poseidon with a trident,” Haley wrote. “Mary Austin was communing with her Indian princess alter ego, standing on the beach in beaded buckskins, her arms raised to the Western twilight, chanting…. London, who had been gorging on an abalone steak, decided to bring her down a tone. ‘Hell!’ he bellowed at her with fork in hand. ‘I say, this sunset has guts.’”

The social freedoms women experienced in Carmel were found in few other places in the early 1900s. O’Connell notes that the Bohemian’s lack of interest in “polite society” left room for normally marginalized groups to live as they wished, though this was subject to restraint. It was also true that married women were still expected to fulfill traditional household roles, regardless of their own creative endeavors.

“Several [women] were pulled to Carmel from the Bay Area by their husbands’ whims, with no regard to their own wishes in the matter,” the librarian explains. “Many female artists and writers exhibited or published their work using their initials to obscure their gender or under their married names (e.g., Mrs. George So-and-so) as a matter of convention.”

Charmaine and Jack London and Carrie and George Sterling (left to right) on the porch of the Sterling home in Carmel. (courtesy of HENRY JAMES COLLECTION, HARRISON MEMORIAL LIBRARY)

Amid this, a blonde-haired and blue-eyed aspiring poet named Nora May French entered the scene.

French was bright, beautiful and young, or at least such was said in a series of letters between Sterling and London. Her promising career, however, failed to balance her lust for life and her struggles with depression, and she both charmed and crazed The Crowd with her tragic love affairs. 

During the summer of 1907, French was found dead in Sterling’s home after drinking cyanide. As the Bohemians scattered her ashes off Point Lobos at her funeral, which Turner narrated became their last party together, French’s suicide and the speculated love triangle between herself and George and Carrie Sterling became a national scandal.

“The cyanide pill she used was a type of calling card among the Bohemians,” Johnson says.

The Bohemian Utopia unraveled by tragedies recounted through letters, one by one.

In 1913, Carrie Sterling filed for divorce. The following year, an artist and member of The Crowd was found murdered and buried by her Bohemian lover on Carmel Beach, and a pair of novelist sisters discovered the food in their home poisoned with cyanide. In 1916, London died from a morphine overdose, which reporters speculated to be another suicide. Just two years later, Carrie Sterling drank a vial of cyanide and was found dead in her home. After his ex-wife’s death, George Sterling’s drinking worsened, and in November of 1926, he, too, swallowed cyanide.

“The substance abuse and volatile, ill-defined interpersonal relationships in The Crowd contributed to increased levels of depression,” Johnson explains.   

With these deaths and devastations, the golden age of Carmel’s bohemia had seemingly lost its raw edge. Sterling’s far-reaching inspiration, however, had catalyzed a new literary generation. According to Ruchowitz-Roberts, Sterling had been a close friend and something of a father figure to poetry genius Robinson Jeffers. By the early 1920s, Jeffers and his wife, Una, were raising a family in the stone Tor House he built in Carmel overlooking the Pacific.

“This was now Jeffers Country,” says Thomas Rusert, the program coordinator and head of education and outreach at the Tor House.

“[Jeffers] would write every morning religiously while they were building the home,” Rusert explains.

While starlit beach parties became house suppers and the legacy of Sterling’s circle began to fade, Jeffers and his family remained connected to outside influence differently than their predecessors. Instead of attending social gatherings, Rusert comments that the Jeffers family took great pride in hosting a number of notable writers and poets in their own home.

“He was very much a recluse,” Rusert says. “But the parade of people that would come here…it was like a pilgrimage to come to their home.”

Most of the literary influencers and celebrities who were guests of Robinson and Una Jeffers were also great admirers of Sterling and his work, such as Sinclair Lewis, Edna St. Vincent Millay and Langston Hughes, Rusert notes.

Today, remnants of both The Crowd and Jeffers Country remain somewhat intact in Carmel. 

Sterling’s committed “hedonists” of the early 1900s, as Turner called them, insisted on streets without sidewalks, light posts and formal addresses, all values which have remained intact for many locals through the 21st century.

Comparable to what drew the Bohemians, Jeffers and his guests to the coastal landscape, Carmel remains partly occupied by members of the artistic and literary community seeking scenic inspiration. The pull factors are under great strain, however, amid the commercial development of a settlement once considered an informal colony and the now high-priced food, drink and real estate.

“Carmel has changed,” Turner reflected. “Houses are everywhere. The wide lonely spaces are no more. But the sea birds still fly, and now and then a whale spouts in the bay. Sea otters play on the rocks at Point Lobos. Robinson Jeffers died, but his stone tower still stands. There are wonderful restaurants; art shops are everywhere. There is no more Mary Austin, who used to wean a wreath of yerba buena around her hair. . . Are any ‘crazy’ poets and artists to be found?”

“I hope so,” she said. “I hope so.”

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