George and Carrie Sterling and the Havens Family

By Elsie Whitaker Martinez

Baum

In the years you lived in Piedmont, both as Elsie Whitaker and then as Mrs. Xavier Martinez, you met many of the creative people of the Bay Area. We've discussed your father and your husband and Jack London - now, what do you recall of these other picturesque people?

Martinez

Well, of course the Sterlings were most prominent in that group. George Sterling was a nephew of Frank C. Havens and it was to work as secretary to his uncle that he came out to Piedmont in the first place.

Baum

Did you know Frank Havens very well?

Martinez

I'll never forget Frank C. Havens. He had the cool assurance of a financial genius, an arrogant, but pleasant, easy manner with friends, and he wore an emerald as big as a pigeon egg - the most gorgeous thing I've ever seen.

He was a very interesting personality, but I didn't see too much of him. When they opened their big home in Piedmont we were all invited. I went with Carrie Sterling. Ruth St. Denis was there, sitting, a gilded Buddha in a niche. At the appropriate moment she came to life and danced.

Marty, Frank C. Havens and George Sterling, towards the end of the party, having had plenty to drink, with their arms about each other, faced this very middle class audience and sang the revolutionary songs - especially the beautiful ones with a Latin rhythm -the famous French revolutionary songs that Marty had taught them. It was delightful. All three holding on to each other and singing at the top of their lungs.

Walker

Jones insists that Sterling's voice was rather querulous and flat when he tried to sing.

Martinez

His voice was a curious, unusual voice. When he read his poetry it was sometimes almost sonorous. Normally it was, as Jones said, querulous, complaining. Often he had a complaining tone when things didn't suit him; or his tone could be startlingly clear-cut, clipped, when he was angry. It was not a low voice, nor was it a high voice. It could range from thin to surprising richness. He was always excessive. When he was affectionate and dear his voice was soft and caressing, especially with women. When he was angry at anyone it really was shrill and as sharp as vinegar. When he read poetry, he read it beautifully. His voice could be mellow and warm when he was inspired.

Walker

Could he sing?

Martinez

Very badly, very badly. Marty had a very good baritone and used to sing a great deal.

Baum

Frank Havens must have been outstanding in this middle class audience at his housewarming.

Martinez

Yes, he was one of those personalities that are outside of class.

You know, he made a big fortune in Piedmont real estate, as well as other ventures. I remember seeing the check he had for a million dollars - the check that he had made out for, I think it was the Dingle properties, for the Water Company he bought.

For a while he was Borax Smith's partner, you know. But Havens was too imaginative and too reckless to suit Smith, so they parted company. He put in the Key Route system. Later, he became a speculator on a large scale. He was very lucky until he took the fortune he had made in California and went to New York. Wall Street stripped him down to his last dollar. There was only a little land in his wife's name left for the family.

He returned to California to recover or remake another fortune. But the confidence in his genius was lost and he could find no one to back his really brilliant schemes. Soon afterwards he died.

Baum

What was the family relationship of all the Havens? I haven't got it straight in my mind.

Martinez

Well, there was Frank C. Havens; George Sterling was his nephew, and brought him out to be his secretary. He brought out the whole Sterling family. George's mother was Havens' sister. She reminded me of one of the old French marquises. She had a gorgeously decorated bedroom and sitting room and she always received like a court lady there.

I was very much impressed when I was a child and my father took me there. She was handsome, still, in her late seventies, and was interested in everything, with a socially brilliant mind. That's the mother of George Sterling.

They lived at the bottom of Scenic Avenue hill in a big old house. There was Lillian (Rounthwaite), Madeline, Marian, Avis, and Alice. George had two brothers, one a priest, who later became a mental case and died. All of the girls were beautiful, too.

Baum

I have a little note here which says, "Carrie Sterling, a sister of Mrs. Frank Havens."

Martinez

Yes, they were sisters. Mrs. Havens and Carrie - Lila and Carrie Rand - were the first lady secretaries in Oakland. They wore little candy striped blouses with little collars and cuffs and little flat straw hats. Carrie was George's secretary. Lila was Havens's secretary.

Baum

This was before Carrie was married to George?

Martinez

Yes, and before Lila Havens was married to Frank Havens. This is how the two secretaries became part of the family.

Baum

Frank C. Havens was older than George, wasn't he?

Martinez

Oh yes, quite a bit. Havens was his mother's brother. He had had a family already in New York; the wife had died. Then he married Lila Rand, Carrie Rand's sister.

Carrie told me that when she and George went on their honeymoon, they thought they'd take a boat and go to the Islands. That was the romantic thing to do then. It was not a large boat and the season was unseasonable - storms mostly - and the cabins dank and cheerless. They were both seasick and by the time they got off at the Islands, she said romance was almost dead. (Laughter) Carrie said even the Islands had a hard time reviving romance for them.

After Lila married she started to build their beautiful home in Piedmont. It took years to build and it was very beautiful. Lila had brought over from India and Japan expert wood carvers. It was a labor of love and asceticism.

At that time Lila had become interested in Theosophy and belonged to a group of Theosophists in Oakland.

When I first met George I think I was about twelve. He was one of the kind of people who, when they become friends, are all-absorbing. He was very kind and very gentle with us. We Whitaker children just loved him because he always brought tremendous amounts of the old-fashioned broken candy for us. He'd come to wheedle my father, who should have been writing at the time, to go to something special - much to the annoyance of my mother.

For about a year or so George and my father were great friends and they saw a great deal of each other. Then my father introduced him to Jack London. I think my father was very hurt because George deserted this friendship and it was Jack who was the center of his universe. He was a little inclined to be that way. He was also a little inclined to carry on feuds. I still have a letter somewhere, I think it's in the album that is in the Oakland Art Museum, "I'm so angry with so-and-so and I'm telling my friends that no one should speak to him. But don't tell this to Elsie." (Laughter) I had always made fun of his feuds.

Baum

What was his mutual interest with your father? What did they do together or talk about?

Martinez

Literature, poetry, the British Empire. Like Jack London, he was a bit of an Anglophile.

Baum

Did they go to meetings?

Martinez

Oh no, my father was out of socialism then. His interests became purely literary; he'd already gotten into Harper's Magazine. Socialism was dead as far as he was concerned. He used to give literature classes in Piedmont on writing, and I think it was at that period that he met George. George was beginning to be known as a poet, while still working for his uncle. I think his uncle probably supported him for the rest of his life really.

George left Piedmont right after the earthquake and went down to Carmel. My father and Sterling were really separated then. I didn't come into the picture again until I married Marty and then I was snapped right bang into the center again. It was my father's old group of friends. Marty was my father's friend and he was three years younger than my father. When I was 17 my father was 40 and Marty was 37

Sterling went to Carmel and gathered about him a new group. Through Harry Lafler he knew Jimmy Hopper. Father was a friend of Harry Lafler. He had gone down the Coast with Lafler to homestead a bit of land, below Big Sur. He hoped to establish his claim with two or three of his boys to work on it. But, by the time he went to San Francisco to make out his claim, he found that Teddy Roosevelt had signed the papers making this land a National Park. Oh, was he upset about it! He was going to send down half of his boys to build a ranch house and they could have been, at least, useful. He had plenty of children to plant there and he would have loved real pioneering

Joaquin Miller every year used to have Whitaker day because in those days it was phenomenal to have families - imagine seven

Ambrose Bierce's nephew was Carleton Bierce. Through George Sterling we met Laura and Carleton Bierce and through them we got to know Ambrose Bierce. He came out every year to see his brother Albert, his nephew Carleton and Carleton's wife, to whom he was devoted. They also were great friends of Joaquin Miller's

Jack London, Carleton, my father, and George often went up to Joaquin Miller's place for barbecues. One time Jack London thought it would be fun to have rattlesnake stew. When we were kids and thought nothing of it - rattlesnakes were common in Piedmont in those days and we'd heard it was good meat - we tried it and found it like immature chicken. So he had this big stew and he told everybody it was a rabbit. I think he had put rabbit in it to disguise it. Anyhow, there were some Easterners at the party, and at the end of the party he said to them, "Well, I hope you'll live. This was a rattlesnake stew." Well, of course they were all ill. He loved to play tricks like that.

Baum

It sounds like George Sterling liked those things, too.

Martinez

Well, not as much as Jack. Jack was always the ringleader and the practical joker in the group. He would do the most wild and reckless things

As George's poetry became well known, thanks to Ambrose Bierce, who made a great deal of it. Soon he was a popular figure. Then the problems began for Carrie. She had never questioned too much about his poetic love affairs because, of course, he always told her it was poetry. She had not taken them very seriously until it happened to come up with one girl, Vera Connally.

Vera Connally's father was an English army officer and she, her mother and brother had come over from the Orient to San Francisco. I met her in Berkeley through a friend of mine there. She was going down to Carmel. I said, "Well, I'll send you to Carrie Sterling and you'll meet George Sterling, the poet". I didn't dream anything would come of it; she was not too attractive. She was a big handsome girl but, I did not know then that when she wanted anything, she went after it. She met George and decided that George was her man.

Anyhow, they had quite a Greek episode. This was old Carmel. She made herself a beautiful Greek, filmy garment and George had a Greek outfit and they used to float through the woods. It was terribly romantic to her. She used to tell me about it. But alack and alas, that romance wound up in San Francisco in a miscarriage - poor thing. That experience cured Vera of men. She went to New York and became a Christian Scientist. She was on one of the women's magazines for years as a sub-editor or something. After Sterling died, she published this book of Poems to Vera, the only memento of her romance.

Walker

Was it the affair with Vera Connally that broke up his marriage to Carrie?

Martinez

Well, it didn't cause the break up with Carrie herself. It was Mrs. Havens, Lila, who had become a society woman and very proper. I think she'd become a Theosophist, too. She decided that Carrie could not stay with George. Carrie was a darling and still devoted to George, and I think she thought poets were that way, that's all. But he'd gotten the girl — she was 23, not so young — into trouble and it was a scandal. Lila said to Carrie, "You've got to leave George. This won't do. You can't be involved."

Walker

Was this in the newspapers?

Martinez

Not all of it, no. Some of it came out in a sort of veiled form, for gossip was not as open as now. That's when Carrie went to live on the Havens place in the little house in the oak tree built by the Japanese carvers. It was during that period, while she was there, that I saw so much of her. She was taking care of the art gallery that Havens had.

There was a large collection of Russian paintings in the Custom House, held for custom duties. After the allotted waiting time and no duties forthcoming, the collection was sold at auction. Havens picked it up for a song and built a gallery to house it on his property. And Carrie took care of it. It was simply adorable. There was a beautiful gilded Buddha on a bamboo stand and just beyond that were the doors, or rather, beautiful movable Japanese screens. Lila had bought, Carrie told me, Oriental birds — exquisite Bantam pheasants that wandered in and out of the house. Every day one little female pheasant would come up to where the screen doors were opened, wait until the screen opened, then she'd hop into the lap of Buddha and lay an egg. She laid thirteen eggs before she felt done her duty and didn't appear again. So Carrie took these thirteen eggs to a bird fancier she knew and had them hatched. Every single one of them was a rooster. Every one of the entire thirteen laid in the lap of Buddha was a rooster, which delighted Carrie, and mystified the bird fancier.

But Carrie was never happy. She hadn't yet divorced George and George begged her not to divorce him. Finally, Lila decided Carrie should divorce George and start life over again. Carrie didn't want a divorce and George didn't want it, either. In the meantime the affair was over and the scandal had died down. After all the girl was 23 and that's a little bit old to pursue them with Victorian disapproval. Carrie herself was not sure she should go on with the divorce; she talked it over with me at the time. She was seeing George quite often; he wanted her to come back to Carmel; he promised her it would never happen again. She was thinking it over very seriously, but Lila was dead set against it. She said, "You can't trust him. Maybe it's the beginning of a series, because women pursue him. He is too weak, how could he resist?" So finally she persuaded Carrie to get a divorce. So the divorce was granted and Carrie shortly regretted it tragically.

After two years she finally decided she could not adjust herself to the dull single life. She missed the gay, colorful life in Carmel, the swarm of visitors, and sharing the honors with her poet. She realized that she'd made a mistake and that there was nothing to do about it except to take the suicide route.

I saw Carrie the day before her death. She had a photograph taken by a friend and she afterwards gave us the picture. She phoned me on the morning she died to say "Goodbye". I had spent hours with Carrie two or three times a week those last two years. I felt chilled and exclaimed, "Carrie, `Goodbye' sounds rather ominous!" She laughed so heartily that the feeling of tragedy faded out as she talked naturally and gaily. She had a grand sense of humor and I called her "Madame Rabelais". Her humor some Victorian souls called coarse, but we found her very acute and sometimes very witty. (Marty made a very delightful drawing of "Madame Rabelais", which is in his scrapbook.) However, the tone of her voice at that "goodbye" still worried me, so I went down to see her at noon. But she was as gay as usual, so I returned satisfied that all was well with her.

However at four o'clock she carried out her plan to commit suicide as the only way out of her tragic dilemma. She had put on her beautiful dressing gown over a lovely filmy nightgown, arranged her hair elaborately, and on a little record machine beside her bed, put on Chopin's Funeral March. Then she took cyanide and passed away before the record stopped. The old friend who found her in the morning told me how beautiful she looked, peaceful at last. It was a shock to us, we had grown so fond of Carrie and would feel the loss for some time to come.

The funeral service was very simple and only a few old friends were present — Laura Bierce and myself, and several others I did know well. The only jarring note in it was her mother; her mother came in, stood at the head of the coffin and said, "Carrie, you've done a terrible thing and you're no daughter of mine," and walked out. We were all upset and tried to hide our tears. The minister made no reference to suicide, so we decided he knew nothing about it. If I remember, it was some days before the newsmen found out and published it.

Baum

Did George come?

Martinez

No, he was in New York. He was terribly upset about that whole thing. He said he'd always felt that Carrie hadn't wanted the divorce and he blamed Lila for it. At first, of course, he felt himself as part of the guilt for her suicide, and then finally, little by little, he felt that the whole thing had been done by Lila. I guess that eased his conscience considerably. He'd always begged her not to divorce him; Carrie told me that over and over, and he asked her to come back to Carmel. He took it very hard. He returned immediately and was terribly upset. His friends had difficulty trying to make him feel that he was not entirely responsible. Of course the Bierces — Laura and Caret — blamed Lila entirely, because they were very fond of George.

But there was a side of George not generally known. His father, a Catholic convert, persuaded George and his brother to become priests, and they were sent to the Paulist St. Charles Seminary. While he was in the Paulist Seminary, Father Tabb, also a poet, discovered George's poetic talent, developed it, and finally told him he had he had no vocation and that he should go into the world and be a poet.

George then came to his uncle, Frank C. Havens, in Oakland, or Piedmont, rather, to be his secretary. The Catholic side of George - we only hear the pagan side that's been too much emphasized. There was a compassion in George. He felt very strongly his friends' troubles and woes. He always was helping people, always doing things for people. That side of George I never understood until I was a Catholic convert. George's fine qualities were very Catholic; his gentleness and his compassion for his friends when they were unhappy. They always turned to George because of his gift of understanding.

Cyril Clemens, who was a nephew of Mark Twain . . .

Walker

You should say, a bogus nephew.

Martinez

. . . he was a writer for The Commonweal, and he came out to write an article on George Sterling. After seeing many people who knew him in Carmel, Clemens said, "Mrs. Martinez, what I have heard of the pagan side of Sterling has grown very tiresome. I've met about eight or nine of his friends and I haven't heard one word except all about his paganism." He said, "I'd love to hear something different."

I told him, if you could find the correspondence with the Bierces - Laura Bierce had all the correspondence of Sterling's for twenty years - there are letters in which he talks about his past. Laura had said definitely to me, however, "I am not going to let anybody look at them. I'd feel I'd be betraying our friendship." Anyhow, before she died in Guerneyville she might have destroyed them. Her newphew inherited everything, but there was no mention of any letters. All those letters, documents and masses of photographs that Laura had — what has become of them I don't know. There are a number of Ambrose Bierce letters there, too.

I said to Clemens, "The one who knows the Catholic side of George is his sister, Madeline Dimond, you write to her. She lives in the Hawaiian Islands. She was the oldest one of the girls and remained a good Catholic, very orthodox. All the rest of the girls drifted away from the church, but Madeline. She was a very fine person and George loved her very much. She can give you that side of him." I never heard from him after that; an article never came out, so I guess she couldn't give him enough to write about the spiritual side of George, which was what he wanted to write about.

In George Sterling's yard at his home in Carmel, he had a beautiful circle of trees. On all the trees he had placed beautiful animal skulls - deer mostly - whenever he found one, he'd put it on a tree. The legend went around that this was a Greek altar and he used to hold pagan services there. Of course it was most excessive, but he loved the talk and helped develop some of those legends himself. He believed, as Jack London said, "Make them talk about you. Anything is better than nothing."

Baum

Did you see George Sterling again after Carrie's death?

Martinez

Oh yes, a great number of times. We saw him often and I had become fond of him. It gave him much consolation to have me tell him of Carrie's real devotion to him.

Two days before he committed suicide, he came up to see Marty and brought him the poems of Jeffers. There was a beautiful dedication to George in it. He said, "I'm leaving you this, Marty. I want you to have it." And he said twice, "I want you to give my love to Elsie." He took cyanide two days later.

Baum

Then he was contemplating suicide; I think the general impression is that it was really the immediate events of Mencken's ...

Martinez

No. Before George committed suicide, he often talked of it, so when he did commit suicide we knew it had been brewing for some time. In the same way, London's had been mounting for some time. As far as George was concerned, what brought it to a head was the fact that Mencken hadn't come to see him. As a matter of fact, for quite a while, he'd been talking about how he hated age and loved youth. It disturbed him terribly to grow old. To him, to think of growing old was really terrible; it was part of his pagan philosophy, too. We looked upon that as a temperamental thing, but it was all part of the undercurrent.

Baum

Was he aging rapidly?

Martinez

He was about fifty then, I think.

Baum

Had he changed noticeably?

Martinez

No, but when you reach fifty - thirty is the first time that you begin to look back, at forty you begin to say it's over, at fifty you look into what's coming and see age ahead of you. All of them had the cult of youth then. Jack London had it too. Marty had a young painter friend who said that everyone should commit suicide at thirty. Marty said, "Well, I'm not fifty yet, so I can't agree." He said he thought perhaps fifty was the right time to do it. The boy did commit suicide at thirty; Marty didn't at fifty, he lived to be 74.

They were all very much concerned with suicide as the noble end, as the proper end of your life when it ceased to be vital. London did it, Bierce did it (though Bierce was a man of seventy), Sterling, and half a dozen others. Somebody asked Marty if there wasn't a suicide club, because eight of his friends committed suicide. But they all had tremendous vanity, and naturally the loss of youth was a painful thing to face.

Bierce had gone before and they were all shocked by Bierce's death, you know. He had meant a tremendous amount to George and had brought George into the public eye, mostly. And Carrie's death upset him, too.

Baum

There'd been a girl named Nora May French much earlier in Sterling's life. Did you know her? She committed suicide about 1907.

Martinez

Yes, Carrie told me that story. Carrie said Nora May had been very despondent and was staying with her while George was away.

Baum

She was a budding author, I think.

Martinez

A poetess. That night, Carrie told me, Nora May talked at great length about her disillusionment of life and everything, especially men. Carrie was somewhat worried but decided she was too young to follow through yet. Carrie woke up suddenly in the night and heard a strange sound. She turned on the light and went over to Nora May who was dying — she stopped breathing just as Carrie reached her. She saw the glass with a tiny film of white in its depths and she knew what it was — cyanide. Carrie was quite shocked, but then she remembered the evening's talk: Nora May French was disillusioned, she was not in love with anybody. The silliest thing of all is in that Footloose in Arcadia. Joseph Noel said she was in love with Jimmy Hopper. She loathed Jimmy Hopper; we actually knew that. Jimmy didn't like her and she didn't like Jimmy.

Baum

I thought Nora May French had been associated with George Sterling.

Martinez

Oh no. Harry Lafler was the one who brought her down to Carmel. He was the one who found her and developed her talent. Oh, yes, George knew her; whether they had an affair or not I never knew. All I knew was that he was very interested in her. But at that time she was disillusioned in men. Carrie said she had been disillusioned for years and there was nothing to live for.

Baum

I read that Carrie carried that little phial of cyanide—

Martinez

Oh, yes. Marty had one, too.

Baum

I mean Nora May French's phial, the remainder of it.

Martinez

Yes; that's what she used.

Baum

That's why I wondered if Nora May French's suicide had anything to do with George Sterling.

Martinez

Oh, no. This cyanide had been given many years before to the group and there was enough for each person.

Baum

Who gave them that? Or maybe there was a suicide club.

Martinez

I know who gave it to them, yes. (Laura Bierce's sister had one boy — that's the only descendant of that family. I don't know what became of the boy — but I can tell you now.) Well, Carleton Bierce was in the Mint, worked there in the chemical division. His friends had asked why couldn't he bring them some of this because at that time they all believed that if you didn't get what you wanted out of life that poison was the easiest way out. So he was the one who brought it. Marty was given a little phial of it. George had a little phial — Jack London had a phial, but he didn't use it — and George distributed some among his friends, too. It's very potent, it takes just a few drops. Marty had it and he buried it somewhere in our cellar here.

Baum

This was very much a part of the whole group's philosophy, then.

Martinez

Oh, yes. It was a kind of a cult — though Marty was not going to do it [laughing]. He lived his life out.

Baum

Was Carrie your age?

Martinez

No, Carrie was much older. When I married Marty, he and my father and George were all about the same age.

Baum

How did you and Carrie Sterling become friends?

Martinez

Well, the reason we became very close friends was that after she left George I sensed that she was very lonely, and I used to go down to the Havens' art gallery which she looked after, every other day at least, and sit and talk to her for hours. I loved to hear her reminisce about the past. I found a sensibility that I had never dreamed of, and the sadness that had come of her leaving George, and the mistakes she was conscious of having made. She considered her life ended. She had followed Lila, with her Victorian notions, and that was why she decided it was all gone and ended. When she died I was pretty mature, 28, and she was 45 or so. There's not an awful lot of difference between thirty and forty, though there's a lot of difference between twenty and thirty.

Baum

I wondered if these people all accepted you as an equal, since you were Marty's wife, though you were younger, or were you still little Elsie Whitaker?

Martinez

Well, sometimes when I was annoying, I was little Elsie Whitaker. [Laughing] But I also, as I grew older, grew very much mellower. At thirty I had lost a lot of that annoying sharpness that youth has. I'd come closer to a number of them. The last time I saw George he put his arm around me and said, "Elsie, I really love you." And I said, "I know you do, George. In my way, I love you too." I never would have thought that possible years before. Then I was practically thirty and I had learned to understand much about him. He was trying to tell me that he thought that I thought he disliked me, but he wanted to show me he didn't. And the last thing he said to Marty he said twice, "Be sure and say goodbye to Elsie for me." After Carrie's death we had grown very fond of each other.

I'd gotten more mature and he'd mellowed too, but his mellowness was like Carrie's, a kind of sadness and withdrawal from life. He'd lost his pettiness, he no longer had feuds as he'd had in the early years, and I recognized in him that change as he recognized the change in me, that I'd gotten more mature, more human, and he'd gotten more detached from the excessive prejudices and disliked he'd had. There was something sad about all those people at the last. Carrie would go over her whole life with me and explain what mistakes she had made, and how naive she'd been in accepting George's telling her all this was just nothing but poetic fancies and then when it became a reality — Vera and George's scandal — it was very upsetting, of course.

Baum

Did she think she'd made a mistake in not stopping George's poetic affairs before?

Martinez

No. She simply felt that she should have understood George. I don't think she thought at all about the affair, except the scandal. That was the reality that hurt; that was the reality for which she was blamed, too.

Baum

Was Carrie as cultured and educated as George was? Was she able to keep up with him on an intellectual basis?

Martinez

No, she never attempted it. Carrie was one of those lovable people who have no particular mental interests. George kept her in contact with the poetical and literary events that were happening; she'd meet people and learn about them, but she had no intellectual interests of any kind. She was a warm, lovable person. I think there was a lot in that warmth that kept them together all those years.

Pages 155 to 175 from:

Elsie Whitaker Martinez
San Francisco Bay Area Writers and Artists

With an Introduction by Franklin D. Walker Professor of English, Emeritus
An Interview Conducted by Franklin D. Walker and Willa Klug Baum

The Bancroft Library
University of California, Berkeley