Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Getting to Know San Francisco

On the same day that I cast my vote for the next individuals to be honored on the St. Louis Walk of Fame, I encountered a story about someone in San Francisco worthy of renewed attention, someone who feels a tad like a soul sister.

Ina Coolbrith (1841–1928) was the first Poet Laureate of California and the first female Poet Laureate in the United States. Some of her poems were published in the Overland Monthly, where she helped Bret Harte edit the storied magazine. She hung out with Samuel Clemens (before he took the name of Mark Twain), Joaquin Miller (known as the Poet of the Sierras) and journalist Ambrose Bierce.

Legend has it that John Muir, another friend of hers, set up Coolbrith on a blind date that went bad, and she promptly wrote a 75-line poem about the experience. A fire in Coolbrith’s home burned some of her work and all of her letters, letters from the likes of Alfred Lord Tennyson, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and even Marie, Queen of Romania.

Born Josephine Donna Smith in Nauvoo, Illinois, Coolbrith was the daughter of Don Carlos Smith, who was the brother of Joseph Smith Jr., the founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. One account of Coolbrith’s life states that when her father died, her mother married William Pickett, a lawyer who owned a printing press in St. Louis. Supposedly, the two met when Pickett went to Nauvoo to follow up on reports about violent anti-Mormon sentiment there. When Pickett married Josephine’s mother, he requested that she keep her background a secret, and that’s when Josephine took her mother’s birth name and shortened her nickname, Josephina, to Ina. 

In 1849, when William Pickett got Gold Rush fever, the family traveled from St. Louis to California by wagon train. At age 10, Coolbrith was said to be the first white child to enter California over the Beckwourth Pass in the Sierra Valley’s eastern edge, riding on the saddle of scout Jim Beckwourth himself. Years later, while working as a librarian in Oakland, Coolbrith served as a mentor for 10-year-old Jack London and a young Isadora Duncan.

In a most round-about way, Isadora Duncan led me to Ina Coolbrith. After watching “American Masters: Jerome Robbins” on PBS (, what I most wanted to do was talk to Ross Winter, spend hours talking about dance, thinking about dance and learning how Ross put dances together – but Ross has been gone 18 years. Instead, I looked on Google for stories about Isadora Duncan, who was mentioned in the PBS program on Robbins.

Remember the 48 boxes of books I gave away before moving to San Francisco two years ago? I brought with me “Where She Danced” by Elizabeth Kendall because of the stories about Isadora Duncan. I have been a fan for decades! On line, I learned about Duncan’s family’s home at Taylor and Geary. I also learned of a dance studio in San Francisco dedicated to teaching the Duncan style of dance (, a studio that offers a Duncan Dance Workshop for people of all ages and levels. (Note to self…)

Next, on a website called the Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco (, I learned that Samuel Dickson, the author of the article on the site, found out at a party he attended in 1927 in San Francisco that the love of Isadora Duncan’s father’s life was a woman named Ina Donna Coolbrith. Dickson, a writer for an NBC radio station in San Francisco in the 1920s, reported that Coolbrith herself, in the last year of her life, told him the story at that party. Coolbrith also told Dickson about getting to know Duncan’s young daughter from her frequent visits to the Oakland Public Library.
I spent another hour reading on line about the feisty Ina Coolbrith. Next I ordered out-of-print copies of Dickson’s “Tales of San Francisco” and a biography, “Ina Coolbrith, Librarian and Laureate of California,” by Josephine DeWitt Rhodehamel and Raymund Francis Wood. I even learned where Coolbrith’s papers are – the Bancroft Library on the Berkeley campus just across the Bay. (Another note to self…)  

These books now sit in a stack that includes “The Best of Herb Caen,” a collection of the columnist’s works that ran in the San Francisco Chronicle; “San Francisco Bay” by newspaper reporter and environmentalist Harold Gilliam; Gilliam’s “Weather of the San Francisco Bay Region,” a region that boasts both advection fog and convection fog; and “San Francisco Poems” by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, whom I have admired since I bought “A Coney Island of the Mind” when I was in college. (And yes, I brought that book with me too.)

And that’s what I’ve been doing with my spare time while I wait for my Good Foot to heal from an injury originally sustained at (what else?) a dance class. A word of thanks is in order to TIVO, which dutifully recorded the program on Jerome Robbins that inspired an evening of Internet research. And to my adopted City, a City of unparalleled sunsets (see photo above, taken from my apartment window), I sing a few bars of “Getting to Know You.”