Nora May French Biographical Sketch

Pamela Herr

Nora May French (1881-1907) was a talented, free-spirited poet caught between the suffocating strictures of the Victorian era and the insecurities and confusions of the evolving modern age. Beautiful, high strung, and eager for life, she attempted to live as a Bohemian artist, an unconventional course that proved far harder for a woman than a man.

    Born in New York State, she migrated to the Los Angeles area with her family in 1888, when she was seven.   By her early teens she was drawing and writing precociously, and her work began to appear in local newspapers and magazines, especially Charles Lummis’s Land of Sunshine/Out West. Meanwhile, the California dream eluded the family, whose fruit ranch failed during the drought and depression of the 1890s. Her education thereafter was sporadic: periods at Los Angeles State Normal School (now UCLA), art studies in Los Angeles and New York City, all curtailed by financial problems.   By the early 1900s she was employed as a designer in a leather factory. In her spare time, she worked on a haunting and lyrical series of poems entitled "The Spanish Girl," portraying the phases of a doomed love affair.

    Correspondence with Henry Anderson Lafler, an assistant editor on the Argonaut,  drew her into an  impassioned romance and a move to San Francisco shortly after the 1906 earthquake. There she struggled to earn a living while plunging into the Bohemian life of the city.  She played cards with Jack and Charmian London, picnicked in the Oakland hills with Xavier Martinez and other artists,  rode horseback at Carmel with the writer Jimmy Hopper, and traded quips with the humorist Gelett Burgess, who noted her "eerie eyes" and "eager, curious, inquiring soul." She drew increasing respect as a poet as well:  George Sterling spoke of her "crystalline poems," while Mary Austin pronounced her "the only other woman in our circle whose gifts approached Sterling’s or London’s." But she was often ill, distraught over love affairs that seemed to bring more pain than satisfaction, and unable to earn enough to support herself as a poet.

      In the fall of 1907, she sought refuge from her problems in Carmel, living with Sterling and his wife Carrie.  But by then "the worm was at the bud & she couldn’t overcome it," as Carrie said afterward. At midnight on November 13, 1907, Nora May French took cyanide and died.  A poet of great promise, she was just twenty-six-years old.  "It was her personal nearness to the great unseen," Mary Austin tried to explain the tragedy. "To her the film between life and the hereafter was so thin that it seemed but a little thing to break through it."