In 1905, the poet George Sterling moved to Carmel-by-the-Sea, a coastal hamlet two hours south of San Francisco, to start an artist colony. The 36-year-old Sterling, nicknamed the “King of Bohemia,” was already prominent in literary San Francisco. He was Jack London’s best friend, a student of Ambrose Bierce, and the author of a single volume of poetry, The Testimony of the Suns, and Other Poems, published two years earlier.
At the time, Carmel was a tiny town near a Spanish mission that Father Junípero Serra founded in 1771. The stunning scenery—white-sand beaches, pine forests, and dramatic vistas—prompted several real estate developers to pitch Carmel as a resort. When would-be buyers resisted settling into the remote town, accessible only by stagecoach, the price of lots dropped: a $500 cottage could be secured with a $10 down payment or about $6 a month to rent, affordable even for artists.
Sterling envisioned a pastoral environment of beauty and simplicity where artists could devote themselves to their work. It would be a Bohemian Utopia, an idea he defined in a letter to Jack London:
“There are two elements, at least, that are essential to Bohemianism. The first is devotion or addiction to one or more of the Seven Arts; the other is poverty … I like to think of my Bohemians as young, as radical in their outlook on art and life; as unconventional.”
For at least a decade, artists flocked to Carmel, including writers such as London, Upton Sinclair, Mary Austin, Sinclair Lewis, Robinson Jeffers, Alice and Grace MacGowan, short-story writer James Hopper, and “muckraking” journalist Lincoln Steffens. Painters were also attracted to the town’s temperate climate and natural beauty, which helped inspire the California Impressionism school of art. Xavier Martinez, Francis McComas, Chris Jorgensen, E. Charlton Fortune, Armin Hansen, Guy Rose, and photographer Arnold Genthe all called Carmel home at some point.
But the colony also attracted scandal. Rumors flew that the Bohemians indulged in nudity, free sex, paganism, drinking, and drug use. Their supposedly simple lifestyle was at odds with late-night revelries and frolics on the beach, leading to indolence and despondence among some. The critic Van Wyck Brooks wrote of the colony in 1911: “They gave themselves over to day-dreams while their minds ran down like clocks, as if they had lost the keys to wind them up with, and they turned into beachcombers.” Death was a common topic, with persistent talk of a suicide pact involving vials of cyanide. A disturbing darkness lurked beneath the seaside picnics, abalone roasts, and swims in the surf. In the end, it would overcome many of the colony’s members, including Sterling himself.
Sterling was born in 1869 in Sag Harbor, New York, where his ancestors stretched back to the Puritans. As a young man, he joined the seminary to become a priest and excelled in studying poetry. In 1890, he decided against the priesthood and moved to California to work in real estate with his uncle, a successful businessman. Around that time, he began writing poetry seriously. In 1896, he married Carrie Rand, a stenographer in his uncle’s office.
By 1900, Sterling was active in every Bay Area literary circle, and his reputation was burgeoning. Novelist Mary Austin wrote of Sterling that in 1900, there was a “rumor of a new poet of Keatsian promise, rising somewhere about the Golden Gate.” He belonged to the Bohemian Club, where influential journalists, artists, and businessmen met behind a closed door marked with the cryptic motto “Weaving Spiders Come Not Here.” Along with London, Sterling also attended a salon at the artist Xavier Martinez’s house and studio in Piedmont, a San Francisco suburb. He ate at Coppa’s, whose owner, Poppa Coppa, was an art lover who served the Bohemians heaping plates of seafood. “One dined so well in San Francisco in those days,” Austin wrote. “And all for thirty-five cents!”
Sterling cut a striking figure. He was tall and thin with a classical profile that prompted London to call him “Greek” (Sterling called London “Wolf”). Others said Sterling resembled Dante. Historian Kevin Starr writes that Sterling was “celebrated as the embodiment of the local artistic sense.” California had yet to produce a major poet. “Throughout the nineteenth century, poetry in California tended to be escapist and amateur,” Starr notes. “No one talent capable of reversing its wistful, plaintive direction appeared.” Sterling seemed as if he might be that talent. Ambrose Bierce, the influential critic and satirist whom Sterling called “The Master,” aggressively promoted the young poet’s work.
Bierce had strong, unyielding standards for just about everything. He believed poetry should express beauty and encouraged Sterling to leave human experience out of his poems in favor of higher pursuits. “You shall be the poet of the skies, the prophet of the suns,” he wrote to Sterling. “Don’t fiddle-faddle with such infinitesimal and tiresome trivialities as (for example) the immemorial squabbles of ‘rich’ and ‘poor.’” From 1896 on, Bierce closely edited Sterling’s poems, down to word choices and line breaks. When Sterling asked whether to use the phrase "bubble-eden" or "heaven of rapture," Bierce replied, "I like 'Eden,' but not 'bubble.' It has hardly dignity enough." Bierce also acted as Sterling’s de facto agent, placing poems for publication and co-financing his first book, which had a print run of 600. Sterling sold half and gave away the rest.
Under Bierce’s tutelage, Sterling favored formal verse, stilted language—he was fond of exclaiming lo! or oh!—mythological references, and cosmic themes. Consider “The Testimony of the Suns”:
“O armies of eternal night,How flame your guidons on the dark!Silent we turn from Time to harkWhat final Orders sway your might.[…]Dim veils of fire, O world! that wereThe stubborn bastions of thy frame,And reaches of abysmal flameWherein thy spectral oceans stir—"
Bierce proclaimed that if the poem had been "written in French and published in Paris, it would have stirred the very stones of the street.”
Though many of Sterling’s poems are in this vein, his best works are restrained depictions of nature, whether an evening star in “Aldebaran at Dusk,” wildlife in “The Black Vulture,” or the onset of autumn in “The Last Days.”
“The bracken-rust is red on the hill;The pines stand brooding, somber and still;Grey are the cliffs, and the waters grey,Where the seagulls dip to the sea-born spray.Sad November, lady of rain,Sends the goose-wedge over again.”
In 1903, Mary Austin published The Land of Little Rain, a collection of meditative essays about California’s Owens Valley, which Sterling admired. Soon after, Austin joined the Bohemians for dinner at Coppa’s. According to Hopper, she didn’t know she was auditioning for the Bohemians’ approval. Whenever the group dined with someone new, they voted under the table via hand and feet signals on whether that person would be invited back. Austin didn’t make the cut. Many Bohemians saw women as muses rather than artists. As Hopper put it, “She was writing beautiful stuff, but she wasn’t pretty.”
Sterling, who often dropped to his knees in front of women he found attractive, nonetheless respected Austin and championed her work. When he learned she was writing a novel set in colonial California, he took her to see the Carmel Mission. Not long after, they decided to take advantage of Carmel’s cheap land and start an artist colony.
One reason for Sterling’s move was to escape San Francisco, where, under London’s influence, he fell into drunken benders, stayed out all night, and cheated on his wife. He wrote Bierce that he intended a Waldenesque existence in Carmel, where he would raise vegetables, “raid mussel-reefs, and cultivate a taste for rice—not to mention cold water and ‘just one girl.’” Nonetheless, he urged friends to join him in Carmel and built a house on a hill. Designed for entertaining, it had an enormous living room, 30 feet long by 18 feet wide, and a fireplace made from local stone. A wide porch looked out toward the ocean. Behind the house, Sterling installed a “sacred grove” with a pagan altar and cow skulls nailed to trees.
By 1906, other artists had moved to the colony, including Hopper, Genthe, and Austin, who wrote in a tree house called The Wickiup, named after the dome-shaped dwellings of the Paiute tribe. On April 18, Sterling noted in his diary: “Earthquake knocked over chimneys—Monterey isolated—breakdown of telegraph and telephone. Began 5:15 a.m.—lasted 15 seconds.” It’s a terse account of one of America’s deadliest natural disasters. The 7.9 magnitude earthquake and the fires that followed destroyed much of San Francisco, killed 3,000 people, and left more than 225,000 homeless. Coppa’s was looted, and Coppa and his patrons held a memorial dinner in its ruins, questioning the future of California bohemia.
The answer, of course, was to flee the ravaged city and follow the King of Bohemia to Carmel. By June, Sterling had recorded a whirlwind of activity in his diary, including a barbeque with more than 40 guests: “Sergeant had a keg of beer, and made Martini cocktails. We had lots of enchiladas, chips and sausages. … A great day.”
Carmel was soon overrun with artists. By 1910, some 60 percent of residents did "work connected to the aesthetic arts,” reported the San Francisco Call. Although the colony was informal and had no central leadership, residents did have ideas about what constituted a proper Utopia. They eschewed electric lights in favor of lanterns and dreaded paving over the pristine sandy trails to create roads. According to historian Michael Orth, “No stores or other businesses beyond those already present would be allowed. Orders for groceries and other necessities were left in covered wooden boxes on posts or trees, and tradesmen … returned the next week to pick up the money.”
Austin described life in Carmel as focused on simple things. “We achieved, all of us who flocked there within the ensuing two or three years … a settled habit of morning work, which it was anathema to interrupt.” Whether or not this was true of everyone, by afternoon the colony buzzed with activity. The Bohemians often picnicked on the beach, where they engaged in what Austin called “talk—ambrosial, unquotable talk!” They discussed politics, as many of them were socialists. (Bierce described the colony as a “’nest of anarchists,’ radicals, Socialists” and compared it to “Hawthorne and Brook Farm.” He visited Carmel only once, for a week.) They attended pagan ceremonies in the sacred grove, where Sterling presided in Pan-like animal skins and a flower crown. And they swam, hiked, and harvested abalone, which they pounded while singing “The Abalone Song”:
Oh! Some folks boast of quail on toastBecause they think it's toney;But I'm content to owe my rentAnd live on abalone.
A 1910 article lampooning the colony describes Austin wandering the woods with her hair loose, London eating undercooked duck and drinking cocktails, and Sinclair consuming one tomato a day, for health. The town, the article insists, was infected with the arts. “The plumber of Carmel has subscribed to the Harvard Classics. The butcher reads Browning, and the liveryman wears long hair.”
Although exaggerated, this recalls other contemporary descriptions of the colony. Genthe, who lived there until 1907, described one evening thus:
“Sterling … had climbed to the top of the cliff in his bathing trunks. Somewhere or other he had procured a trident and he was standing silhouetted against the sky while Jimmy Hopper was taking his picture. This was too frivolous for Mary (dressed in a beaded leather costume and long braids of a Indian princess) who was gazing at the setting sun. Standing on the beach with outspread arms, she began something which sounded like an incantation, but which turned out to be a quotation from Browning: ‘Tis a Cyclopean blacksmith,’ chanted Mary, ‘striking frenzied sparks from an anvil of the horizon!’ London was standing with a fork in hand, having just disposed of an abalone steak. Taking a look around which included both Mary and the horizon, he exclaimed, ‘Hell! I say this sunset has guts!’”
It’s hard to say how much Sterling wrote amid this hubbub. His diary reports days spent hiking, swimming, hunting, chopping wood, and socializing. As Starr writes, “Sterling’s Carmel Diaries record a trivial existence, odds and ends of puttering days which never really amounted to much: days … [that were] neither rest nor creative leisure.”
The diaries also reveal disturbing bouts of destructiveness. On August 30, 1907, Sterling shot a leopard seal for no apparent reason. “A handsome seal. His blood smells very fishy.” On another occasion, he came upon seabirds nesting and records “about 500 nests, almost all with eggs,” which he promptly plundered. Over six days in 1910, he killed at least a dozen blackbirds, seven ducks, six killdeer, nine squirrels, two snipe, a mud hen, and a lark. He never explained why.
Other indiscretions went unrecorded. Elsie Whitaker Martinez, wife of Xavier Martinez, told an interviewer that Sterling had several affairs in Carmel. One was with editor Vera Connally, who “made herself a beautiful Greek, filmy garment and [Sterling] had a Greek outfit and they used to float through the woods.” According to Martinez, Connally got pregnant by Sterling, as did another, younger, unnamed woman.
Sterling believed that sex spurred creativity and didn’t seem to emotionally connect with the women he pursued. He was unable to “enter participatingly into the psychic life of women,” Austin said. In 1901, he even rented an apartment in San Francisco just for his infidelities, which he kept for the rest of his life. He sometimes wrote love poems in triplicate and sent them to women he admired. When he met the writer Mary Craig Kimbrough—who later married Sinclair—he didn’t say a word; he just took her hand and kissed it. Then he wrote her 100 love sonnets in 100 days, some of which were published in the posthumous volume Sonnets to Craig. (From “Adoration”: “Love! I await thee with my flesh a flame. / Oh! breast to breast, and mouths a-salt with tears / Of rending bliss, soon let us lie!”) Likewise, in 1938 Connally published the posthumous Poems to Vera, a collection of Sterling’s poetry to her.
Despite his many romances, Sterling seemed closest to Jack London. Though London never lived at the colony, he visited and wrote about it in his 1913 novel The Valley of the Moon. Their friendship deepened in 1903 when London sent Sterling a probing letter: “You know that I do not know you—no more than you know me. We have really never touched the intimately personal note in all the time of our friendship. I suppose we never shall. And so I speculate & speculate, trying to make you out, trying to lay hands on the inner side of you, the self side of you—what you are to yourself in short.” Sterling was flattered, and the two men became close. He wrote songs about London and urged him to move next door in Carmel. London, meanwhile, based characters in Martin Eden and The Valley of the Moon on Sterling and wrote a poem about him containing the line “for a moment he was almost God.”
The nature of their friendship is unclear. In Wolf: The Lives of Jack London, James Haley writes that the two skinny-dipped and photographed each other nude: “Sterling posed naked, his penis pinched demurely between his thighs, and London photographed him.” In her biography of her father, Joan London wrote that “both would have furiously resented and denied the inferences that would readily be drawn today.” Still, it’s impossible to say what happened in the Carmel woods when no one else was around.
The publication of Sterling’s poem “A Wine of Wizardry,” in 1907, was a minor literary sensation. Bierce had sent the poem out for three years and amassed a pile of rejection letters before Cosmopolitan finally accepted it. The poem follows the character Fancy on a journey through a California-style landscape laced with wine and opium. After awaking “with brow caressed by poppy-bloom,” Fancy flies
“To strands where opals of the shattered lightGleam in the wind-strewn foam, and maidens fleeA little past the striving billows' reach,Or seek the russet mosses of the sea”
In his introduction to the poem for Cosmopolitan, Bierce declared “A Wine of Wizardry” a monumental moment in American literature, on par with the works of Keats, Coleridge, and Rossetti. “I steadfastly believe and hardily affirm that George Sterling is a very great poet—incomparably the greatest that we have on this side of the Atlantic,” he wrote.
A storm of criticism followed. “The lines seemed packed—literally stuffed—with poetic verbiage,” wrote critic Porter Garnett, adding that the poem was “so intensely sweet that it burns.” Ella Wheeler Wilcox parodied the poem’s overripe language: “I ponder words, on mighty nothings writ: / In westrous glyre from gibberings of grit.” Meanwhile, an editorial and cartoon in the San Francisco Examiner depicted Bierce and Sterling praising each other under the title Pegasus of Hearst’s Stable, referring to the media mogul William Randolph Hearst. Bierce fired back in two follow-up editorials, one titled “An Insurrection of the Peasantry.”
Sterling was mortified. He accused Hearst of milking the situation for publicity, writing, “It’s as though he had launched a drove of swine into my big sitting room, or had dumped a can of sea-sick vomit on my head.” Nonetheless, the poem made Sterling a celebrity. Tourists appeared in Carmel and stole wood chips from his firewood pile as souvenirs.
In the midst of this, the 26-year-old writer Nora May French arrived in Carmel from San Francisco. She was blonde, blue eyed, and considered a promising poet, with work in Goodwin’s Weekly, the San Francisco Call, and the Saturday Evening Post, among others. Sterling was enamored with her and wrote in his diary about their poker games, walks, and jokey dinner banter:
“Dialogue at supper:Nora May French: ‘I think I’ll have an inch o’ milk.’I: ‘Why don’t you try an enchilada?’”
But French’s cheerful exterior masked a troubled woman. She’d had an affair with a married man, Henry Lafler, an assistant editor of the Argonaut literary journal, and she was engaged to Alan Hiley, a timber merchant whom she didn’t seem to like much. According to Judith Allen’s 1963 biography, French was also in love with Hopper, a married man with four children. In Carmel, she tried to court him but was rejected.
French also suffered from severe depression. In a letter to Lafler, she confessed that depression “sways me periodically when I have pensive and dark thoughts of suicide (and from which, of course, I react wildly).” Themes of love and death recur in her poems, as in “The Mourner” and “The Outer Gate”: “Always the outer hall is very still, / And on my face a pleasant wind and clear / Blows straitly from the narrow gate of Death.”
The Bohemians knew French was depressed, but they were shocked when, on the night of November 13, 1907, she killed herself in Sterling’s home. Sterling was away in Oakland at the time. Around midnight, Carrie Sterling heard French get out of bed and assumed she wanted a glass of water. Instead, French drank cyanide and was dead within minutes.
It was a nationwide scandal. The press jumped on the story of the beautiful young poet dying in the famous, older poet’s house. “Young Poetess A Suicide In Poet Sterling’s Home,” wrote the Oakland Tribune. The San Francisco Chronicle echoed this headline, adding “Talent and Beauty Hers, Motive Unknown.” Reporters speculated about her affair with Lafler and repeated the false claim that she and Sterling were lovers. One story reported that French took cyanide during a party, then wandered out into the moonlit ocean, where Sterling discovered her body and carried her back inside. Under the subhead “Gets In Bed With Corpse,” the Oakland Tribune described Carrie finding the body and, thinking French was cold, climbing under the covers to warm her. The San Francisco Call included a friend’s “telegraphic vision” of French’s death, and other newspapers falsely reported that she’d tried to shoot herself. Newspapers also breathlessly followed French’s funeral, at which the Bohemians scattered her ashes off Point Lobos in Carmel. Starr notes that Sterling, Lafler, and Hopper came to blows over who would release her ashes to the wind. In 1910, these same men published a posthumous volume of French’s poetry simply titled Poems.
According to Thomas Benediktsson’s biography of Sterling, in the wake of French’s death, the Bohemians “began to talk obsessively, ‘almost voluptuously,’ about suicide as the only appropriate death for a poet or a hedonist.” Given their tendency to transform women into muses, French’s death assumed mythological proportions. “That girl! If I evaded her in life, she certainly has seized me good and plenty in Death,” Hopper wrote to Sterling. For his part, Sterling wrote poems about death, including “Nora May French”: “Stars that the deaf, eternal skies annul, / Were not so lonely as was she.” In 1908, his “Three Sonnets on Oblivion” were printed in the Century Magazine.
At some point, the artists formed a suicide pact. According to Elsie Martinez, they asked Carlton Bierce, Ambrose Bierce’s nephew, who worked at the San Francisco Mint’s chemical division, to get them cyanide. They divided the poison into vials with the idea that if life got too hard, they would have an easy exit.
Elsie Martinez: Marty [her husband] was given a little phial of it. George had a little phial—Jack London had a phial, but he didn't use it—and George distributed some among his friends, too. It's very potent, it takes just a few drops. Marty had it and he buried it somewhere in our cellar here.
Baum [interviewer]: This was very much a part of the whole group's philosophy, then.
Elsie Martinez: Oh, yes. It was a kind of a cult—though Marty was not going to do it [laughing]. He lived his life out.
It’s unclear whether the group formed the pact before or after French died. Martinez claimed the pact was how French got her cyanide, although other sources say she bought it at a drug store, telling the pharmacist that she needed to polish silverware. In any case, the colony’s fascination with death was evident, even to outsiders. Van Wyck Brooks described Carmel as “a wildwood with an operatic setting where life itself also seemed half operatic and where curious dramas were taking place in the bungalows and cabins, smothered in blossoming vines, on the sylvan slope.” After witnessing a violent altercation that almost turned deadly, he added,
“What was it in the Carmel atmosphere that so conduced violence? … nihilism too was endemic in Carmel, like suicide and murder and along with the Mediterranean beauty of the scene.”
Tragedies occurred one by one. In 1913, Carrie Sterling filed for divorce. In 1914, the artist Helena Wood Smith was murdered by her lover and found buried on a Carmel beach. That same year, Alice MacGowan discovered that food in her house had been poisoned with—you guessed it—cyanide. The attempted murderer was never caught.
Also in late 1913 or early 1914, Bierce disappeared. By then, he and Sterling had drifted apart as the poet pulled away from Bierce’s influence. The 71-year-old writer penned kiss-off letters to his loved ones—including Sterling—and rode off to join the Mexican Revolution, never to be seen again. In 1916, London died from a morphine overdose at age 40, a possible suicide. In 1918, Carrie Sterling killed herself in her home. Dressed in an elegant gown, she swallowed cyanide from the suicide pact while listening to Chopin’s Piano Sonata no. 2—the “Funeral March.” She was dead before it ended.
Sterling had left Carmel in 1914 to make a go of it in New York, but the East Coast literary scene was indifferent. Though he published 17 books in his lifetime, including plays and nonfiction, his style began to seem old-fashioned as poetry moved toward Modernism. In the March 1916 issue of Poetry, editor Harriet Monroe dismissed Sterling's work as “tempted by the worst excesses of the Tennysonian tradition: he never thinks—he deems; he does not ask, but craves; he is fain for this and that; he deals in … tinsel and fustian, the frippery of a by-gone fashion.”
Sterling acknowledged the truth in this critique, even as he resented that it came from a woman. "The funny thing is that the old girl is probably correct! Peace to her undemanded maidenhead!" he wrote.
After Carrie died, Sterling’s drinking worsened. By the end of his life, his benders landed him in the hospital. In 1926, when his friend H.L. Mencken, the famed journalist and critic, was delayed for a visit, 57-year-old Sterling drank all the bootleg liquor he’d stockpiled for the occasion. When Mencken arrived, Sterling was too sick to see him. “He looks to me to be in a really serious condition,” Mencken wrote to Sinclair. “I am thoroughly glad I wasn’t here when he began [drinking].” That evening, Sterling couldn’t host the Bohemian Club dinner in Mencken’s honor. Lying in his room above the festivities, he likely heard the men applauding downstairs. He’d never stopped carrying the cyanide he’d procured in Carmel, on which he’d written the word Peace. On the night of November 17, 1926, he finally swallowed it.
Mencken was among the men who discovered the body. Sterling had burned his papers before committing suicide, but a charred scrap of poetry remained.
“Deeper into the darkness can I peerThan most, yet find the darkness still beyond.”
With Sterling’s death, Starr writes, “the golden age of San Francisco’s bohemia had definitely come to a miserable end.” However, the Carmel artist colony had not. A new generation of artists moved to the area, including poet Robinson Jeffers and artists E. Charlton Fortune and Armin Hansen. Though much of the early writing produced at the colony faded into oblivion—many Bohemians were genre writers who published now-forgotten Westerns, mysteries, and sci-fi—Carmel artists were an important part of California Impressionism. Photographers produced influential work there as well. Genthe experimented with early color photography in Carmel, for example, and Edward Weston and Ansel Adams later moved to the area. Jeffers built a house and tower out of Carmel rock and hosted many illustrious guests, including D.H. Lawrence, George Gershwin, Charlie Chaplin, and Edna St. Vincent Millay. Langston Hughes lived in Carmel for a time and mentions it in his poetry. Henry Miller moved to nearby Big Sur, Jack Kerouac visited the area several times, and John Steinbeck made Monterey’s Cannery Row famous with his eponymous novel.
Ironically, the region’s soaring real estate costs helped end what had begun as a bargain-rate Utopia. As people migrated to the area—in part because of Sterling’s influence—the cost of land skyrocketed. Today, Carmel is one of the most affluent cities in California, with median home prices of $1.2 million. The only artists who can afford to live there now are movie stars. In the 1980s, Clint Eastwood served a term as Carmel’s mayor. Still, trappings of old Bohemia remain. The Forest Theater, an outdoor amphitheater where Austin and Sterling staged plays, still exists, and the downtown is full of art galleries.
Sterling’s colony also had a lasting spiritual impact. The Bohemians’ emphasis on freedom, pleasure, and connection to nature presaged the 1960s counterculture. After all, the hippies emerged from the Beat poets, who were in turn indebted to London. Jack Kerouac said that his “first ‘serious’ writing took place after [he] read about Jack London at the age of 17.” (Kerouac’s 1962 novel Big Sur reads like a darker version of Sterling’s early days in Carmel.) In this sense, Sterling’s legacy is profound and far-reaching. His poetry may be forgotten, but his role as a Bohemian who lived life for art’s sake has inspired people well beyond his lifetime. In the end, that’s perhaps his greatest achievement.