The Carmel Bohemians

Stephen Lindsley

It was mid-November, and after a week of perfect weather in Carmel the fog had rolled in to stay. Cold and moisture hung in the air, turning midday into a protracted dusk. Nora May French sat alone on the front porch of George Sterling's bungalow, listening to the ocean. All she could see through the pine trees between the house and the beach was a few pearly sparkles of water, but the sound of the waves rolling onto the shore, now soft, now booming, was strong and constant.

It had been a glorious summer in the little village of Carmel-by-the-Sea in the year of 1907. Yet, only the year before the great San Francisco earthquake had brought tragedy into the lives of thousands. George Sterling was the first poet laureate of San Francisco, a dominant literary figure whose close friend Jack London called him "the Greek." Sterling was at the center of a small group of artists and writers who frequented the Bohemian Club and trendy cafés such as Coppa's, exchanging ideas and planning periodic dramatic works and "High Jinks."

When the earthquake struck many of their favorite haunts crumbled and burned. Sterling and his wife had built a cottage in Carmel the year before. Now they were trying to convince friends to abandon the city and forge a rustic community among the cypress trees and eucalyptus groves. Nora May had been among those who accepted. She came not as a wife or a lover, but as a literary peer to these Homeric poets and artists, the last of the classical romantics.

At night they gathered on the beach in small groups, roasting abalone and mussels over driftwood fires, drinking wine and singing songs. They could not help but be inspired by the pure spectacle of their surroundings - a place where the perfect commixture of elements reveals nature's full dynamic grace. Grand romantic epic poems were dreamed in their entirety in those evenings on the beach, and other kinds of romance blossomed as well.

The romantic life had been a blessing and a curse for Nora French. She was young and lovely, with a strong nose, piercing blue eyes and wispy blonde hair that seemed to glitter with moonlight, even in the daytime. She loved horses, walking on the beach and strolling the needle-strewn paths that threaded Carmel's old pine forest. Her poetry reflected her coastal life, but also betrayed a melancholy that few recognized as portentous. She had followed her star where it would take her, and by the time she arrived in Carmel by way of San Francisco, Los Angeles and originally Albany, New York, she had already loved and lost more than once, and seen much that the world could offer. And now she was deeply in love once more, but she knew the man she loved thought of her only as a friend and nothing more. At the age of just 27 years she had the sense that her life was already behind her.

She had carried the cyanide with her for some time. Sterling and several of his close friends all had identical vials they carried in little envelopes marked, "Peace." It sharpened Nora's senses to know that death was just an impulse away, though she had already seen death in many forms, from the devastation in San Francisco to the termination of her unborn child. In her life and in her writings she celebrated art, drama, literature, the beauty of the land and sea, the wonder of life and the mystery of death. Her poems had been published alongside those of the best of her age, and she had eaten, drunk and slept among many of them.

But this afternoon she was wistful. The melancholy had seeped back into her mind, propelled by the fog that had shrouded the Carmel River valley. It left her strangely calm. She had done nothing half way. Her life had been lived to a romantic ideal that could not be matched with words on paper. And now, with love lost once more, Nora May had come to a moment of peace. She knew that at this moment, sitting alone on the edge of the continent in the most beautiful, magical spot imaginable, she was as happy as she was ever likely to be.

Ten minutes later she was dead.

When they gathered at Point Lobos to scatter her ashes into the sea, emotions ran high. This small group of men had lived their lives by the example of the gods of Olympus. Yet they seemed to have forgotten how much tragedy and destruction the Olympians wrought. They called her "sister," but failed to treat her as one. Through their hubris and narcissism these men had calmly condemned this young beauty, and also themselves, to a terrible fate. The cries of the seagulls and the sound of waves crashing on rocks below swept past them as they faced the cold November wind. There were sharp words of contention, and a scuffle broke out among them. Nora May's dust returned to the world in a moment of passion. Her influence remained strong, even then.

Caroline Sterling endured her husband's philandering for another 10 years, and then she left him for good. Soon after, she followed the tragic example of the woman she had most admired and reviled. She was the next one to open her envelope.

Eventually George Sterling returned to San Francisco permanently, where the Bohemian Club became his only residence as the years wore on. He continued to publish his writings and the work of others, mostly without notice. By November 1926, when Sterling was to host a dinner at the club for noted author H.L. Mencken, the measured life of the businessman had long supplanted Sterling's former bacchanalian ethos. In the process he had become marginalized, while more modern authors such as Mencken garnered the favorable reviews.

The night of the party Mencken was late in arriving, so Sterling retreated upstairs to his rooms alone. He poured himself a glass of brandy and paced back and forth, thinking back on his career, the life he had led and the people he had known. In a crystalline vision he saw what lay before him - a slow descent into obscurity and death. His hand reached into his pocket to touch the small envelope, now worn with age. The word "Peace" was faded but still legible. Those best acquainted with him knew it was only a matter of the right moment for him to make use of it. They wondered why he had waited so long. His wife and former lovers were now a faded memory, and most of his closest friends had followed them beyond the pall. Ambrose Bierce had drifted alone into Mexico in 1913, perhaps to join the Zapata revolutionaries, but never to be seen or heard from again. Jack London had died a painful death a decade ago at the age of 40; the victim of a life lived in utter disregard for any of his body's needs, save the most superficial and carnal ones. And Nora May French had shattered her own fragile beauty so many years before, while drawing a fey vapor down upon her entire generation as her light expired.

At long last the moment was right. The time had come. Suddenly the brandy tasted sharply of almonds as Sterling sat back in his favorite chair.

For a scant few days thereafter, George Sterling was once again foremost in the minds of the San Francisco literati. And as a result, perhaps for the last time, the name Nora May French was once again briefly upon the lips of those few who knew her and cared to remember.

Reprinted from Stillness.