“Gilded Edge” by Catherine Prendergast on Bohemian California


On the bookshelf

The Gilded Edge: two daring women and the cyanide love triangle that rocked America

By Catherine Prendergast
Dutton: 352 pages, $ 28

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One afternoon in 2014, academic Catherine Prendergast was rummaging through the archives of UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library when she came across a letter. “Motherhood! What an unspeakably huge thing for all my fluttering butterflies to drown! A still pond, holding the sky,” wrote the poet Nora May French. As I read Prendergast, the writing became more trembling; French was in distress. She wrote to her lover, Henry Anderson Lafler, and told him – in real time – the effects of the drugstore-bought abortifacient that was now ending the pregnancy they had conceived together.

Such a first-hand narrative was extraordinarily rare at the time, but its style was equally stunning. “She found me,” Prendergast said. “I felt like I knew her. You know, like those other writers I hang out with who are incredibly intelligent, writing about their own lives and their traumas and always turning it into something… her voice was amazing.

Prendergast and I were talking via Zoom last month about “The golden edge», His first publication for the general public. Perhaps without diplomacy, I described the book, which came out this month, as “bonkers.” She couldn’t be more thrilled. “Like I told my editor,” she told me, “my goal is for someone to say ‘Shit’.”

“The Gilded Edge”, Catherine Prendergast’s first general public book, tells a scandalous story from the perspective of the female victim.

(By Catherine Prendergast)

Nora May French is only part of the story. “The Gilded Edge” revisits the early 20th century settlement in Carmel-by-the-Sea: famous for hosting writers like Upton Sinclair and Jack London; scandalous in its time for drunken orgies; infamous for a love triangle and suicide that inspired several imitators not only within the colony, but across the country.

Prendergast is Professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, has been a Guggenheim Fellow and Fulbright Fellow, and generally deals with academic monographs on topics such as school desegregation, racial justice, and human rights. with disabilities. But as a self-proclaimed “archive rat”, she couldn’t resist the rabbit hole of a mysterious poet who died by her own hand – or is she?

French was an extremely talented poet surrounded by male counterparts who were, to put it simply, hacks. Prendergast pits poems written by the French against another member of the Carmelite group of writers, George Sterling. The difference is clear even for a non-poet. “It’s rambling,” Prendergast says of the man’s verse.
Yet it was Sterling who secured the patronage of famed writer Ambrose Bierce, who was named the San Francisco Poet Laureate. Carrie Sterling, George’s wife, grew up in poverty. After their marriage, the two socialized with the wealthy elite of San Francisco. Eventually, they settled in Carmel, where they set out to create an artists’ enclave.

There, the couple spent much of their time charming writers and artists whom they hoped to buy property in their “colony”. Prendergast sees Sterlings as the prototype of what we now call influencers. That is, people who take advantage of their fame to sell things. What they were selling, in short, was a “bohemian chic” lifestyle – a fictionalized version of artistic poverty that must have privately angered George’s once impoverished wife.

The Sterlings have hosted nationally renowned authors and given them the tough selling of real estate marketing on many levels; their early purchase would attract lesser-known artists and increase the value of their property in the process. As Prendergast discovered, Asian Americans and wealthy blacks were actively discouraged from living there. The dark side of the pastoral ideal promoted by such settlements was the implicit escape of the multi-ethnic masses from the cities.

The Sterling met French and, taken by both her beauty and her talent, settled her into a guesthouse on their property. A single woman living with a married couple in 1907 raised her eyebrows. George already had a reputation as a serial womanizer, and true to himself, he and Nora became lovers. One weekend, while George was away, Nora swallowed cyanide and died. Carrie found the body of the poet, and hers is the only eyewitness testimony to the events of that night. But what really happened?

French’s death is often assumed to have precipitated the collapse of these early 20th century bohemians. But Prendergast says his research does not support this conclusion. “The truth behind what happened is both more intimate and sordid and sadder and more important than what has become a good selling Carmel story.”

The disappearance of the beautiful poet was reported breathlessly by the national press, leading to imitated suicides. Eventually, the two Sterlings would also meet premature endings. It was in keeping with Carmel’s scandalous reputation, including accounts of Jack London’s debauchery. What’s astonishing about Prendergast’s research is that it revealed crazier stories the yellow press missed – including a brawl that broke out during French’s memorial service.

Ultimately, “The Gilded Edge” takes on the cast of a great detective story – albeit without an orderly conclusion. One of the barriers to shedding light on the deaths was the lack of material on women, compared to the glut of news on men. “I had a one-on-one with my history colleague, Dana Rabin, about what I was trying to rebuild,” recalls Prendergast. “And she said, ‘You have a choice in women’s lives. They are not as well recorded. So what are we going to do? Are we going to write about men over and over again? Or will we try to make a good faith effort to fill in the gaps? “

Prendergast does this by recounting her personal reactions to the material she has discovered – as well as responses that have eluded her. “I made a conscious choice that I was going to find as much as possible and then write my way through the gaps,” she said. “The more transparent we are, the more transparent it becomes. »Stories are always works of interpretation. Prendergast wanted to make sure readers know this.

Nora by a river

Nora May French by a river; Catherine Prendergast investigates her cyanide death a century later.

(Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley)

The reader as a detective can draw their own conclusions, and the author listened patiently as I told him what I thought had happened in French. She said her agent and publisher – the book’s two closest readers – had “completely different views” on French’s fate.

Seven years after discovering French’s letter, Prendergast has ample proof of the continued relevance of this neglected poet surrounded by smaller men: doing exactly what Nora French did, claiming that we’ve somehow progressed since that woman. a hundred years ago ? “

One more continuity: In 2021, literary gossip can dominate Twitter for days. In 1907, the national press coated its pages with photos and French drawings. Yet 100 years later, most of us have never heard of her, despite her obvious talent and outrageous ending. The mystery surrounding the Prendergast mystery is why French disappeared from public debate so quickly after the hubbub ended. This disappearance is an integral part of the story told by Prendergast. What it reveals about genre and the arts is perhaps the least surprising aspect of this unpredictable and addicting story.

Berry writes for a number of posts and tweets @BerryFLW.

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