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Photo courtesy Henry E. Huntington Library, Jack London Collection
White Thangs: In July of 1900, newlyweds Bess and Jack London aped for the camera in the San Lorenzo River and sent the photo to friends to commemorate their wedding.

London Calling

How Jack London's little-known sojourns to Santa Cruz changed his life.

By Geoffrey Dunn

"Santa Cruz!" 'Frisco Kid cried, "and no chance of being wrecked in the surf!"


The summer of 1901 was promising to be a scorcher on the Central California coast. Throughout the country, temperatures were climbing to record highs, and in Santa Cruz, the cooling marine layer of coastal fog had given way to a series of hot, sun-drenched days inaugurating the city's tourist season.

The community was bustling with economic energy. There were headlines heralding the prospects of new railroad lines coming into town, along with new industries. The Santa Cruz waterfront's ever-expanding Sea Beach Hotel, on the ocean side of Beach Hill, had been booked throughout August and into the first week of September, and the Boardwalk and saltwater bath houses along the Main Beach were bustling with tourists from the Bay Area and the sweltering inland valleys.

More than 25,000 visitors were expected to arrive in Santa Cruz for a series of summertime conventions, Fourth of July celebrations and California's Admission Day festivities on Sept. 9. The weekly schedule of "What's Going On?" in the Santa Cruz Surf offered a panoply of activities for the visiting throng—a band concert from the Odd Fellow's balcony; a cascarone party at the Capitola skating rink; a Methodist Picnic at the sylvan Isbel Grove, just north of town on Branciforte Creek.

And then, on July 2, an interesting item appeared in the Surf. It noted simply that on Tuesday, July 9, there would be a "lecture by Jack London." No time or location was listed.

Two days later, a front-page advertisement in the Surf provided the requisite details. The notice trumpeted a "Lecture by the Renowned Jack London, ... celebrated for his book of Klondike stories, The Son of Sea Wolf." London, the advertisement went on to note, would be speaking at the downtown Opera House on the subject of "Competitive Waste." The price of admission was 25 cents; "ladies" were to be admitted free of charge.

The Workers' Honeymoon
Jack London was no stranger to Santa Cruz. Indeed, this would be his third visit to the seaside community within the past year.

Born in San Francisco in 1876, London had been raised throughout the Bay Area, living at various locales in the East Bay—Oakland, Emeryville, Livermore—and as far south as present day Moss Beach in San Mateo County, then finally back to Oakland, where he attended grammar school and sold newspapers from street corners to help his family make ends meet.

London may have exaggerated his childhood poverty in later years, but as a teenager he most certainly worked various jobs in canneries, jute mills and laundries throughout his teenage years. He cleaned saloons and shoveled coal, worked as a ship hand and became an oyster pirate on San Francisco Bay.

Later, he hoboed across the country, was imprisoned in Buffalo for a month, returned to Oakland High School, dropped out, went back to try college at the University of California, then dropped out from there, too, before embarking on a remarkable, yearlong venture in search of gold in the Klondike.

Through it all, London was a voracious reader, as literature and historical texts provided him with imaginary escapes from the tedium of his work days. He had returned to California from the Klondike in the summer of 1898, essentially broke yet determined to become a writer.

By the spring of 1900, the 24-year-old London had already landed several of his stories in leading literary magazines, including Harper's Weekly, The Atlantic Monthly and McClure's. In April, his first book, The Son of the Wolf, a collection of short stories set in the Klondike, was published by Houghton, Mifflin & Co., to both critical and popular acclaim.

London had also become an ardent advocate for socialism. He had joined the Oakland chapter of the Socialist Labor Party as early as 1896 and had become a well-known regional figure on the stump for socialist causes. Handsome and charming, athletic and robust, London was also exploring the complex dimensions of turn-of-the-century romance. He would later recall many of his early encounters with women in a pair of semiautobiographical novels, Martin Eden (1909) and John Barleycorn (1913), but by the spring of 1900 he had forged a peculiarly utilitarian view of love and marriage. He then had strong feelings for a brilliant young Stanford student with socialist leanings, Anna Strunsky, with whom he was to write The Kempton-Wace Letters (1903), in which he declared that "I am not impelled by the archaic sex madness of the beast, nor by the obsolescent romance madness of later-day man."Indeed, London kept his romantic feelings for the Russian-born—and Jewish—Strunsky in check (it's believed that their relationship was never consummated), and in April of 1900, he announced with sudden notice that he was marrying the self-effacing and undemanding Elizabeth "Bess" Maddern, only a few months his junior.

Bess Maddern had been a platonic friend of London's for the past three years and had tutored him in math for his university entrance exams. As Clarice Stasz has noted in her intriguing Jack London's Women, both London and Maddern "acknowledged publicly that they were not marrying out of love, but from friendship and the belief that they would produce sturdy children."In what was probably a delayed honeymoon excursion, the newlyweds arrived in Santa Cruz during the first week of July—just in time for Independence Day celebrations—and stayed for nearly three weeks. They had a swimsuit photo taken of themselves in the San Lorenzo River, with elbows up and pulled back, in a faux athletic pose that London would invoke often. They would send multiple copies of that photo out to friends and relatives for the next year in celebration of their marriage.

While Stasz notes that Bess' athleticism was in stark contrast to Strunsky's frailties—Bess "joined Jack for long cycling outings, handball games, and even wrestling matches"—Elsie Whitaker Martinez, the wife of London's close friend Xavier Martinez, would later recall that Bess "complained of the cold water at Santa Cruz and she proved a poor swimmer. Jack was furious."

Stumping for the People
When he arrived back in Santa Cruz for his lecture a year later, London was all the more successful and confident, even if his marriage was not the utilitarian ideal that he had envisioned. He was also now a father, Bess having borne the couple's first child, Joan, in January (they would have a second daughter, Becky, in October of the following year).

London kept up with his writing and was also busy on the political circuit. In March, he had run unsuccessfully on the Socialist Party ticket for mayor of Oakland and had given a series of political lectures throughout Northern California.The previous year, The Cosmopolitan, then a national magazine of general readership, had offered $200 for the best essay submitted on "loss by lack of cooperation." London's essay, "What Communities Lose by the Competitive System," won the contest (and, more importantly, the coveted prize money) and was published in the November 1900 edition of the magazine.London continued to revise the essay, shortened its title to "Competitive Waste," and took it on the lecture circuit. It was this speech that he gave to the crowd assembled at the Opera House (located near the present-day intersection of Union and Center streets) in the summer of 1901.

While the Santa Cruz Surf described London's audience as "small," the Santa Cruz Sentinel assessed it to be "fair-sized." London's lecture began with his Darwinian conceptions of human evolution. "In this sternest of struggles, man [sic] developed the greatest variability, the highest capacity for adaptation," he contended. "Thus he became the favored child of the keenest competition ever waged on the planet."

It is generally acknowledged that London was a talented, if not exceptional, speaker. He had honed his oratorical talents on the soapboxes and street corners of the Bay Area (he had even been arrested for so doing in 1897), and public lectures would remain an integral part of his life. One account of his oratorical skills noted that his "smile is pervasive, his voice charming." Another asserted that his "smooth face is guiltless of lines, and his eyes twinkle with boyish enjoyment. ... With a gesture that is familiar to those who have seen him on the lecture platform, the author shakes his tawny hair from his brow as he speaks, and he is a fluent talker, ready with his words, and uttering them in a voice as flexible as a child's."

In Santa Cruz, London laid out his critique of the "competitive system" (a euphemism for industrial capitalism) by pointing out the waste of "drummers" in bourgeois commerce (as London dubbed traveling salesmen); the additional costs to the collective by the devices of private property (he speculated that the cost of fences in Indiana alone stood at "two hundred million dollars"); and the ineffective organization of shop keeping into small, family-owned units.

What London was calling for was "the logical arrangement of industry" and an "orderly system of production and distribution"—his euphemisms for a socialized economy.

Some of what London argued seems naive and simplistic a century later. But his observation about the "aesthetic loss" promulgated by industrial capitalism was profoundly prescient in regards to public art. He accurately noted that the privatization of artworks kept them away from the masses.

Art, to be truly effective, should be part and parcel of life, and pervade it in all it interstices. It should be work-a-day as well as idle-day. Full justice should be accorded the artist of the period; to do this the whole community should enjoy, appreciate and understand the work of one who has toiled at creating the beautiful.

While the Santa Cruz Sentinel buried its minimalist report of London's speech on page three of its morning edition, the far more lively Santa Cruz Surf, edited by the combative and diminutive A.A. Taylor, provided full and front-page coverage of London's presentation, with above-the-fold headlines declaring: "Mr. Jack London. ... Under Somewhat Untoward Circumstances."The conservative Taylor had most obviously attended the lecture and took London seriously enough to warrant his personal coverage. "The composition which London read," Taylor noted, "was not without a certain degree of literary merit and was delivered clearly and well, but lacked the force, grasp and dialectical skill that one expects from a platform effort by the representative of a party so rich in oratorical ability as the socialists."

Taylor pointed out that while London "eloquently dwelt on the evils of competition, [he] had no word to say to the stimulus, the energy, the inventiveness and the ambition in which it has resulted."

Taylor then went after the underpinnings of socialism itself and concluded by asserting: "Mr. London is one of a large class who find it much easier to enlarge upon existing evils than to prescribe adequate remedies, and we greatly fear that the system he advocates is but a collection of crude formulas, destined in practice to result in utter failure."

Not all in the audience were such harsh critics. "I'll never forget a lecture of Jack London's that I heard in Santa Cruz," Elsie Martinez would recall more than a half-century later. "I was 11 then. I'll never forget the figure of Jack London walking up and down and showing us the lock-step, as he recalled the time he was arrested as a vagrant and put into the work gang. ... He was able to make it vivid."

Either way, London's third visit here was brief. "Tuesday went to Santa Cruz to speak," he wrote Strunsky. "Came back Wednesday and pitched into work on back correspondence."

Utopia Unraveled
That was to be London's last visit to Santa Cruz. Within little more than a year, his marriage to Bess would be in shambles, and the ensuing divorce and matrimonial transition would be devastating to both parties. He had fallen in love with another woman, Charmian Kittredge, the niece of a close friend and five years his senior, and they would eventually marry in 1905, immediately after the contentious legal battles that dissolved his union with Bess.

During this difficult period—what he called his moment of "black moods ... and black philosophy"—London would craft his Klondike masterpiece, The Call of the Wild (1903), which was to bring him international acclaim and set his writing career in rapid ascendancy. During the next decade and a half, London would compose nearly 50 books and hundreds of essays and stories. He would become the most widely published and wealthiest writer of his era.

Only once in his career did he ever mention Santa Cruz in his fiction. In The Cruise of the Dazzler (1902), a work of juvenile adventure, London set his band of oyster pirates lost at night along the Central California coast. As day broke, "they could see the yellow beaches, flanked by the white surf, and beyond—it seemed too good to be true—the clustering houses and smoking chimneys of a town."

'Santa Cruz!' 'Frisco Kid cried, 'and no chance of being wrecked in the surf! ... It ain't much of a sheltered harbor for large vessels, but with this breeze we'll run right up the mouth of the San Lorenzo River. Then there's a little lake like, and a boat-house. Water smooth as glass and hardly over your head. You see, I was down here once before ...'

London would die in November of 1916, at the age of 40, of causes that are still clouded in controversy. His death certificate identified the cause of death as "uremia," but others have wondered what role he played in his own demise. His diet was often raw duck, and he smoked and drank heavily for much of his life. Moreover, he had taken to self-injections of pain-killers—strontium sulfate, strychnine, morphine and opium, among others—to curb the physical anguish from a variety of ailments that plagued him in his latter years. Bess Maddern London would remain hurt and bitter about her divorce from London for much of her life; in spite of her utilitarian approach to their marriage, she had grown to love him. She died in 1947. Anna Strunsky, who became a successful writer in her own right and the mother of four children, would also carry regrets about London until her death, in 1964.

London, for the most part, gave his heart to his second wife, Charmian, whom he dubbed "Mate-Woman." They would sail the South Pacific and develop an extensive ranch together in Glen Ellen, in Sonoma County, which remains a State Historic Park to this day.

In The Book of Jack London, a memoir she wrote long after her husband's demise, Charmian would claim that London had a memory of Santa Cruz several years into their marriage."I never said this to you," London asserted to Charmian one day, "but many years ago, before I knew you existed, I lay one afternoon on a California beach—at Santa Cruz ...

[and] there came to me, from very far off, almost like skylarks in the blue,
the voices of a man and a woman."His Santa Cruz memory continued:

At last, the nearing conversation guided me seaward where I could just barely make out the heads of two persons very leisurely coming in, talking cozily out there in deep water.
Something inside me suddenly yearned toward them—they were so blest, those two together. And I wondered ... if there was a woman in the world for me who so loved the water ... with whom I could go out to sea ... hours in the water holding long comradely talks on everything under the sun.

London's epiphany on the beach at Santa Cruz proved to be a revelatory, if not pivotal, moment in his life. In Charmian, London had found his nautical comrade and soul mate. She would outlive her husband by nearly four decades, dying in 1955, and her ashes were interred with his in Glen Ellen.

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