FAT MAN ON THE LEFT XI - JACK LONDON MAY HAVE SLEPT HERE
"There is no more compelling version of a writer's trials and tribulations than those described in Martin Eden; cranking out his manuscripts, spending his last few cents on postage rather than food, seeing each day's mail bring more and more rejection slips. After a while, he replaced his wallpaper with rejection notices. Yet when London struck it big, during the few short years that remained of his life, he had produced more than fifty books as well as countless articles and short stories. Not only did he write the great adventure stories, but he also produced such powerful social protest works as People of the Abyss, The Iron Heel and South of the Slot.”
by Lionel Rolfe
COPYRIGHT © 2003, 3 A.M. MAGAZINE. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
It's been nearly forty years since a friend who lived near Melrose and Wilton in Hollywood introduced me to one of the neighborhood's best-kept secrets. In an obscure alleyway called La Vista Court I caught my first glimpse of one of the most unusual-looking residences you'd ever hope to see. On its front, cast in the similar plaster to the house, was a bas-relief portrait of my favorite writer, Jack London. Beneath the portrait was the enameled inscription, "Jack London slept here."
For a couple of years my friend and I used to walk past the place and talk about it and Jack London, and wonder what the history of the place was. Then, in the mid-Ś60s, I got my first newspaper job in Pismo Beach, nearly two hundred miles north of Los Angeles. On the last night before I left town, I decided to knock on the door of the house and find out what it was all about.
The man who came to the door was not at all upset at my interest in his place. His name was Robert Gary and he invited me up the narrow stairs to a second-floor apartment. This was the main apartment of London House, Gary explained, and he lived in it. He was also the landlord of four other apartments in the building. Gary's apartment had a two-story-high ceiling capped off by a large skylight. There was also another set of narrow stairs inside his apartment going to a third-story penthouse bedroom that towered over the other buildings on La Vista Court. You could pick out London House from nearby Van Ness because of the third story.
That first night, Gary and I talked late into the night, discussing Jack London as well as a number of other things. But Gary insisted that he did not want his house to be written about. Although the place was historical, he also lived in it. I remember going away from the house feeling that I had been lucky to discover London House, which nobody had ever written about. I spent the rest of the decade as a wandering newspaperman, more in the northern part of the state than the southern. When I eventually resettled in Los Angeles, it was not long before I was showing my friends the front of London House in La Vista Court every time I got a chance. If I couldn't write about it, by God, I was still going to make people aware of an unexpected piece of Los Angeles literary history - namely that the great Jack London, who was known as a northern California writer, had also been something of an Angeleno.
Over the years I avoided knocking on the door of London House to talk to Gary, but I noticed that London House was looking more and more down on its uppers than it should have. The bas-relief of London had been knocked a little askew, whether by earthquake or just plain settling I didn't know. The blue-enameled "Jack London slept here" sign that had so intrigued me at first was gone. A car had knocked another bas-relief sculpture of a sailing ship off the front of the house, although most of the various satyrs and nymphs adorning the house seemed to have withstood the ravages of time. The ship's lantern on the second floor seemed less red than it had been, and part of the block and tackle over the large two-part barn door on the second-floor apartment had come down. The stucco looked decidedly shabbier and even the external redwood pegs between the floor and ceiling seemed to be aging poorly.
On a hunch, I knocked on the door again. Gary wasn't there, but I made arrangements to see him. As it turned out, Gary remembered me. And as I suspected he was now in a worse position than he had been the first time I met him. Although he's been pouring a good part of his salary into keeping up the house, it needs more and more work all the time. Ultimately, the place was going to require massive rebuilding, maybe fifty thousand dollars worth, Gary estimated. It needed an entirely new foundation, for instance. Gary explained that he had been trying to do the work because he loved the place and thought it had great historical importance, but none of this was easy. For the last four years, the Internal Revenue Service had called him in every year, demanding that he explain his rebuilding.
"They don't care if it's an historic house; my economics just didn't fit their computers. They think I take in too little income for the amount I'm spending on it," he said a bit ruefully. "If this were just a piece of real estate I guess that would be true."
Here I should explain that in the fifteen years between my first two visits to the inside of London House, the details of its history had taken on the warm, indistinct glow of a fantasy most of it going back, I think, to the intriguing blue enamel sign that said "Jack London slept here." This fantasy was partly based on what I thought I had remembered during my first visit with Gary in the early sixties. I think Gary himself had subsequently learned more about the house than he had known on the occasion of my first visit.
Throughout most of the seventies, I showed many people the square, three-story structure that stood so tall and looked so different from anything else in the neighborhood. And I told them what I believed to be the information I had gotten from Gary on my first visit. I had always said that the house dated back to 1870 or so. No one who ever saw the place doubted that it had to be at least a hundred years old. I remembered Gary's saying that London House was originally the ranch house of a cattle ranch that extended from Hollywood past where City Hall is now, in downtown L.A. Jack London - or so the story went - would come to this ranch house, which had been renamed in his honor by the friend who now owned the ranch, to buy livestock for London's Glen Ellen ranch in Valley of the Moon fifty miles north of San Francisco.
My impression, in other words, was that the London House had a noble and untold past as sort of a bohemia South. I imagined great scenes occurring at the London House, where London and his companion George Sterling and other such bohemians got together for extended conversations. Over those fifteen years, I had often thought of the one piece of evidence that really linked London House to this imaginary bohemia South; an inscription, on an inside wall of Gary's apartment, from Sterling, who was famous in his own right as a California poet laureate as well as being London's close friend.
Like many writers since London, I first felt the call of the literary arts after reading his autobiographical Martin Eden. It was, of course, The Call of the Wild which first brought Jack London fame and fortune right after the turn of the century. He became one of the most successful and popular writers the world had ever seen, the Skid Row bestseller who was far bigger in his day than any movie star has been since. He was also the bastard son of an eccentric spiritualist. London's harsh childhood was spent in the slums of Oakland and environs, and sometimes on farms. It was a childhood of poverty and defeat. By the time he was ten years old, he was working nineteen-hour days in waterfront factories to help support his family. By the time he was out of his teens, he had been a king of the San Francisco Bay oyster pirates, a sailor around the world, an adventurer to the Yukon, a hobo, a famed revolutionary socialist, an alcoholic, and most of all, a writer.
There is no more compelling version of a writer's trials and tribulations than those described in Martin Eden; cranking out his manuscripts, spending his last few cents on postage rather than food, seeing each day's mail bring more and more rejection slips. After a while, he replaced his wallpaper with rejection notices. Yet when London struck it big, during the few short years that remained of his life, he had produced more than fifty books as well as countless articles and short stories. Not only did he write the great adventure stories, but he also produced such powerful social protest works as People of the Abyss, The Iron Heel and South of the Slot.
The last years of London's life were spent at Glen Ellen. The hoboes, sailors, drifters and criminals, working men and hangers-on he had met in his world travels, knew they were always welcome at Glen Ellen -- for London was a generous man. It is said that Glen typically had as many as five hundred visitors a day. And, if a man wanted a job at a good wage, London tried never to turn him away.
Glen Ellen also was the meeting ground for some of the most famous men of San Francisco's bohemia. London was the great star of a distinguished literary set that included such characters as Ambrose Bierce, George Sterling and Joaquin Miller. London actually hated Bierce, although it was Bierce who spanned the careers of both London and Mark Twain. It is probably not just coincidence that both Twain and especially London were instrumental in introducing the notion of realism to the then all-too-genteel world of letters. London's influence on later 20th-century writers as diverse as Hemingway and Kerouac was pronounced.
Before a return visit with Gary, I reread Irving Stone's biography of London, Sailor on Horseback. Stone appropriated the title from an autobiography London never got around to writing. I was looking for evidence that London had indeed slept at London House. I thought I had found it when Stone mentioned that, in 1906, London came to L.A. to buy livestock and stayed in the home of a sculptor friend named Felix Piano. I remembered vaguely something Gary had said, that the man who owned London House was a sculptor friend of London's. London had lived in Piano's house in Oakland as well - the Piano house there was adorned with a profusion of bas-reliefs of satyrs and nymphs, as well as nudes on pedestals. Surely, I figured, Stone was talking about London House on La Vista Court in Hollywood.
Yet I wasn't so sure when I went back into old issues of the Los Angeles Examiner, which had interviewed London during his 1906 trip. For one thing, my dream that Jack London sat on the roof of London House and saw no houses all the way to the original pueblo just could not have been true. By 1906 - it was apparent from the pages of the old Examiner - there were more than a quarter of a million people surrounding the old pueblo.
So the first thing I asked Gary was - and I assumed his answer would be yes - were the bas-reliefs and the house built by Felix Piano? Gary laughed. No, he said. He had thought that, too. But the fact was the house had been built by Finn Haakon Frolich, a sculptor and sailor friend of London's who was, a much closer friend than Piano had ever been.
I looked around the place and suddenly realized why it felt so much as though Jack London had been here. The narrow steps, the cabin-like bedroom, everything about the place gave one the feeling of being inside a ship. It was a subtle thing, but that was Frolich had done with London House. In Sailor on Horseback, Stone describes Frolich as London's "court jester and sculptor" at Glen Ellen. It is Frolich's bust of London, for instance, which adorns the entrance to Glen Ellen, which today has been made into a state park and the Jack London Museum. And it is Frolich's bust of London that was cast in bronze by the Oakland Port Authority when it built Jack London Square.
Frolich was very much a part of the San Francisco bohemia of which London was the star - and he was very much an intimate of London's. Frolich had a tremendous, booming laugh and loud voice by all accounts, and he had been one of London's friends who witnessed the final disintegration of London during his last days at Glen Ellen.
London committed suicide in 1916 at the age of forty. In some haunting words, Frolich described the change in his friend. "He didn't do the sporting things he used to do - wrestle, play, didn't want to go into the mountains riding horseback any more. The gleam was gone from his eyes. Of course, in the forty years of his life, London lived more lives than a hundred mortals combined," he said.
London predicted his own suicide in Martin Eden, written at the height of his career several years earlier. He said that Martin Eden had been written to show the folly of extreme individualism but if London was anything, he was a great individualist as much as he was ever a socialist.
How about the inscription on the wall I had seen from George Sterling? Gary pointed to the wall -- the inscription is still there. But it wasn't carved into the wall, as I had remembered; it was a decal, dark and opaque and hard to read except under a very strong light. The words were woven into a latticework of the nymphs and satyrs London's bohemian friends all seemed to cherish. Gary said the decal had originally been sandwiched between two pieces of glass in an old sash window in the back bedroom. "The window was so rotted out I had to replace it," he explained. "Here's what it says," he added, swinging open the top part of the large barn door on the front of London House to catch the sunlight. "The young in heart shall find their love and laughter anywhere." The words around the bottom of the decal are harder to make out. "He only in bohemia dwells who knows not he is there," he added. "Dedicated to Finn Frolich by George Sterling." He paused again. "And there's a date," he slowly added. "It is 1924."
I asked Gary to repeat the date of the inscription. If Sterling inscribed the decal to his friend Frolich in 1924, and Frolich was one of the regulars at Glen Ellen during the last year of London's life, the sculptor probably didn't come to Los Angeles and build what, after all, was really his studio until after London's death. To my direct question -- had Jack London ever slept in London House? -- Gary was a bit evasive. He said this was what had been rumored. "We found a basement downstairs, six feet square. Probably a wine cellar. We found a few things." Gary showed me a rusted metal toy locomotive. "We found this and some paper matchboxes from the twenties and some handmade bottles down there," he said. "A friend of mine suggested we keep digging because we'd probably run across some bottles London himself drank out of." But Gary said he wasn't even sure when the house was built -- he estimated sometime between 1900 and 1920, "although it looks older than that, I know." Gary said he was sure London House had been the only structure in the neighborhood when it was built.
Gary suggested I contact Frolich's son and daughter, one of whom he believed lived in London and the other in San Francisco. Whatever the connection of London House and Jack London, he added, he definitely knew the house was rich in Hollywood lore. Gary ought to know -- he worked as a script supervisor on films and television serials. La Vista Court, he said, used to be called McDougall's Lane, and McDougall's Lane sloped into a pond. Most of the scenes where a car runs into a pond in the Keystone Kops movies were shot in the alley, he said. The rest of the Keystone Kops pictures were usually shot on nearby Larchmont, which runs only a few blocks between Melrose and Third Street, Gary said.
"I've heard both Tony Quinn and John Carradine lived here. I know my friend Dick Beymer, who was a big star for some years -- he was in ŚWest Point Story' -- lived here. And my frind Vincent Buono almost always stays here whenver he's in town working on a movie," Gary added.
Hefty Buono? I ask. how does he get up the steep, narrow stairs? "With difficulty," Gary replies. "He always says gravity is his enemy." Gary goes on: "You know, Jack London was really one of the first writers for movies -- his "Sea Wolf" was one of the first silent films. It was remade as a talking picture later with Edward G. Robinson, but Hobart Bosworth, the early screen star, played in the original "Sea Wolf." I have a picture taken here in the house of Frolich and Bosworth admiring Frolich's bust of Bosworth."
Gary bought the house from Frank Lopez, a pioneer Chicano activist who has since died. "Everyone who has had the house was somehow on a line from Jack London. Lopez was a friend of Frolich in part because of their politics. Frank was an incredible landlord. Never pried into your business or raised his rents. I became very attached to the place, so when he wanted to sell the house in 1957, I purchased it from him." Because London House is named after a man who had a reputation as a flaming socialist, Gary also works on keeping his rents low and isn't interested in real estate speculation. That would mean tearing down the house and building apartments or breaking up old houses into bootleg apartments as Gary says many of his neighbors have done.
Virginia Forstad, Frolich's daughter, lives today in Hollywood, an old woman surrounded by mementos of the past, including pictures autographed for her by Jack London. She's not very clear about early details of her life.
Gilbert Frolich says that his sister lived with London and Frolich, all right, but it was at the Glen Ellen ranch in northern California. There's a famous picture of London and Virginia, who is four years of age, and Gilbert, at one-and-a-half years. The kids are nude and in the presence of the great author, who is wearing a black bathing suit, with a fishing pole in one hand, and the other arm over his wife Charmian.
Gilbert is very precise in his recollections. Since his father's life was so mixed up with California's early bohemian and literary history, he's made a hobby of researching his father's background. Gilbert says his father brought his children to Los Angeles from northern California in 1920 in a Model T. He remembers that the trip, for unexplained reasons, took three months. Shortly after he arrived here, Frolich bought the land on McDougall's Alley and began building his house and studio there. Although Gilbert says he realizes that Frolich's studio was widely known as London House, "he dedicated it more to himself than to Jack London." He says the bas relief of London wasn't even finished until the middle of the Depression.
So Gilbert rules out the possibility that London ever slept at London House, even though Gary used to get mail delivered to "London House, La Vista Court, Hollywood," for many years. Gilbert, however, said he's pretty sure George Sterling slept there.
Gilbert remembers Sterling sitting on the porch of some friends, crying over a lost poker game, not very far away from his father's sculpture studio. In some ways, says Gilbert, Sterling was a greater man than London. Or at least a great character, if not a writer. London wrote about Sterling as Brissenden in Martin Eden.
Gilbert adds he's sure that John Carradine lived there. "Mom and I came down from Oakland to put Carradine out for not paying the rent in the middle of the Depression." Carradine called the cops on Gilbert and his mother, Gilbert explains, because they were keeping a bust Carradine had made of Cecil B. DeMille. Carradine, who had been a good sculpting student of Frolich's, wanted the bust because he said he was going to "break into Hollywood" with it. Gilbert's mother finally relented and returned the bust to Carradine, who later did indeed present it to DeMille.
"My mother said Carradine was such a good actor that he was almost, but not quite, the only tenant ever to talk her out of collecting the rent," Gilbert says.
Gilbert says he's been writing a detailed history of the house, but a couple of heart attacks have slowed him down.
On my return visit to the house, Gary was having nightmares about the house being torn down. The most vivid nightmare he ever had involved the proposed Beverly Hills Freeway. "My nightmare used to go like this: I look out the barn door windows and I can see that the bulldozer has knocked all the other houses on La Vista court down, and now it's making a U-turn at the end and is headed at London House," Gary said with a shudder, adding that when Jerry Brown was elected governor, he eliminated the planned freeway.
Gary used to think he would turn his troubles with London House to the good. For many years he worked on a screenplay about a young writer who moves into London House. One day the writer's girlfriend asks him if he's ever read Jack London. The young writer says no. But he begins to read London, and that changes his life and his writing -- an effect which London had on many people. Gary saw the movie as a chance to do a London biography as both a documentary and a piece of fiction. Gary, who casually mentions he's distantly related to Mark Twain, says of London: "he was the first writer who wrote about life in the raw and didn't try to sweeten it up with sugar."
Gary says that even though he's broke, he's still dedicated to saving London House, but he hyped an historical society that was too stupid to understand the value of the house. "I'm so angry I might just turn London House into the Church of Jack London. People will be ordained. The bible will be Irving Stone's Sailor on Horseback, and we'll argue about different things London wrote. I'll take a vow of poverty and give my house, car, and income to the church in exchange for supporting me. Just the way the Catholic Church does. I won't have to pay taxes that way. If I have to do that to restore London House, I will."
By the nineties, Gary had done better -- and he fixed up the place and did the foundation by more prosaic ways. But back when we were having that conversation, we discussed some of the things that had broken off or were stolen from the front of the house. That was when he brought up the matter of the matter of the sign. Before I could ask Gary how that sign came to be affixed to London's bas-relief, he was explaining it.
"In London, England, you know, all the houses where famous writers lived have little enamel plaques. Well, a friend of mine made one of those to go under the bas-relief in front. It was just like the ones I've seen in London. it was enamel blue with white letters. It was really authentic looking."
"What did it say?" I ask, getting excited again.
"Oh my friend just made it up, I think. It said, "Jack London slept here.'"
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Lionel Rolfe is the author of Literary L.A., Fat Man On The Left, Bread And Hyacinths: The Rise and Fall of Utopian Los Angeles, and the forthcoming My Yaltah: The Story of Yaltah Menuhin and Willa Cather.
Photo by Boyd Lewis