Am I the only one to ring the tocsin? Is there not one among you; those of you who write of Jack London, of his life and his work, who has had some twinge of misgiving over the persistent denigration of Jack's mother Flora and his first wife Bessie? An author may escape the formula that has for too long dominated the field of Jack London "study" and soar off on another tangent and may even name Charmian as less than laudable and still manage to get published. However most biographies, with the exception of Joan's JACK LONDON AND HIS TIMES, dwell on whatever negative characteristic of both Flora and Bessie they select from the paucity of the menu available to them with no attempt to analyze these women in the context of their time and place; Flora is characterized as the "unloving mother, driven in pursuit of frivolous money-making schemes, which kept the family impoverished", Bessie as first wife is given the role of a "jealous, vindictive, ever-martyred woman". This and variations on the general theme apparently did not strain the imagination of these biographers.
The majority of the biographers are male and they get their information from previous writers who probably got their information from the same misogynistic "experts" who have controlled the Jack London myth ever since Irving Stone revealed the true circumstances of Jack London's birth; that William Henry Chaney, not John London, fathered Jack London.
I don't exactly go out searching for examples of this kind of misinformation that wends its way into the public press but here is one published this year, 1997. Aside from the usual canards, its author added a slight, but mean-spirited twist on Flora, a nasty little bit of malice. I quote from the article which appeared in The Montclarion, Tuesday March 4, 1997:
"London's mother openly hated her newborn," Rogers says, his head bowed when he tells why. "He was her badge of shame and she had as little as possible to do with him. In fact," Rogers says, "she wouldn't even give the baby a name for the first year of his life - he was eventually named by his stepfather, John London, and turned over his care to a black Oakland wet nurse and nanny." This article is from an interview with Ian Rogers and Jerry Rose by Doug Hayward. Flora is accused in this article of trying to prevent Jack from visiting Jennie Prentiss and "doing her best to instill in Jack a hatred of blacks"! Even Jack gets off to a bad start with this opening sentence; "Off and on Oaklander John Griffith London was a notorious and admitted thief who boasted about his lawbreaking in waterfront bars he frequented along the foot of Broadway." This historian, one of the guardians of the tired old myths, must have indulged his own creative flight of fancy about Flora's failure to name her child for I had not read this particular canard in any other biography.
For future reference; John Griffith Chaney was the name Flora Chaney gave to her newborn son shortly after his birth which took place in the home of Captain William Slocum and his wife Amanda Slocum, who, with a doctor present, assisted at the birth. The name "Griffith" was the name of one of Flora's nephews, Griffith Everhard, son of Flora's sister, Mary Marcia Wellman Everhard. Mary Everhard also had a son named Ernest, the name Jack was to give to the hero of THE IRON HEEL.
If Mr. Rogers was unable to research the origin of the birth name of Jack London and chose instead to manufacture a baldfaced lie designed, apparently, to denigrate still further the much maligned Flora, I wonder why he holds the position of some influence at the Jack London Museum and Bookstore in Oakland. Are the Jack London museums and bookstores destined to be the repositories of scandalous lies and gossip? If so, perhaps a series of T.V. soap operas could be made from these tired old fables starring these-oh-shucks-shame-faced men who gad about spouting their own evils.
I have copies of two scenarios purported to be interviews with Becky; one titled "Becky's Life", the other "Becky's Sister". They are part of the same derogatory and utterly vile stories that have been used as "studies" pertaining to Bessie, Flora, and Joan. The person who conducted the interview is not named, neither is there a date. I know the papers came from the Kingman museum and bookstore at Glen Ellen. I have a sense of this family of mine as having been besmirched. I think of the many people from all over the world who have passed through there seeking knowledge of Jack London. Have they had access to this sort of stuff? I myself cannot reprint these two terrible papers.
It's rather like reading THE NATIONAL ENQUIRER when it comes to reading these tales of Kingman's. You stand by the check out counter and can't help but read the outrageous large captions but do you take it as gospel truth? I have heard people who are connected in some way with the Jack London literary scene claim Kingman's tabloid-style biography of Jack London as their Bible. The Bible? Come on!
Biographers, historians, and others who participate in the various Jack London Societies and Foundations, those of you who truly respect and admire Jack London's work, and yet, still succumb to the gross calumnies as though you wear blinders and take the words of these bamboozlers to heart, you might, sometime, rethink and re-examine your own senses. Is not the work of Jack London after all, the reason for such museums to exist? If interest centers around his family, let it include the circumstances, the political and economic and social aspects of their lives in the familial pattern, which to my knowledge has never been explored.
The statements on the two papers that supposedly emanated from Becky's mouth are so wretched that shame overwhelms me. The mastermind controlling, Becky is all too evident to me. I want to give up this battle I have chosen as though I'm some kind of Joan of Arc. Then, when I say that name "d'Arc" I have to laugh at myself since that is my birth name... D'Arcy. And it gives me the courage to go on. Then someone leaves a message on my desk: "The Good Shepard cares for the homeless, disabled, disinherited offspring as long as they are voiceless." Such a message came at just this moment of feeling disheartened and gave me the boost I needed.
I have come to realize that my husband Bart, and Joan too, shied away from involvement with the brand of Londoniana that Kingman foisted on the public. It was embarrassing to them and out of their control. They did not stand up on their hind legs and howl as Jack London would have advised. They were the disinherited and as such, suffered its cruelty and its affect on others. A certain kind of adulation is thrust upon the ones who inherit wealth and power while a kind of contempt or pity is accorded the disinherited. The sycophants praise the one and the bullies rail at the other.
Joan wrote two fine biographies of her father and was writing notes for still another. I found them in one of the large hard-bound binders she kept for all her proposed writings. There are about thirty-five pages. I will quote from her first paragraph:
"Before the myths encompass him entirely, I want to try to present him, young and whole, on the threshold of his career, with some twenty years behind him, and twenty years more to come. This is the vital, important Jack London as human being, thinker, husband and father, idealist, socialist and writer. Here, with all the odds against him, he had arrived at the point when all his hopes, ambitions and dreams would be realized. Some of these, for a long enough time were realized; the will and the perspectives that had carried him thus far spent themselves slowly. Why then, as too many have done, celebrate the down-hill road that led to the disaster of his last years, when the struggle, the triumphant victory and its fruits, are what should be, and are not only noteworthy of celebration, but the source of hope and inspiration to all who have and will come after?" Joan London Miller, 1969 one year before her death.
There are villains and victims in this story of Jack London and the women whose lives centered around his star. There is the legend and the dream, the myth and the reality. Must the sins of the fathers pass on down to the seventh generation or can they be expiated by a third? Bart's and my children represent part of that third generation. I am in my old age and have grown impatient and seek if nothing else, recognition of the rights of Jack's descendants.
I have opened Pandora's Box, and found there injustice, and, remembering the note an unknown person left on my desk about the Good Shepard and those who are voiceless, I will not be voiceless. I will speak for those who are and who have been voiceless.
Let's start with Flora who was not voiceless in her time, but since she cannot now speak from the grave nor through "Plume" who might have been the voice of her alter ego, she might in some spiritual sense allow me to speak for her. She needs no defense. She was a powerful personality, a temperamental little dynamo, who had the courage to leave behind a world of wealth with its stifling conventions, and cross the country all the way from Mission, Ohio, to San Francisco, California. This in the mid 1860's, when young unmarried ladies stayed home minding their P's and Q's and awaiting (decorously) proposals of marriage from acceptable gentlemen.
Flora was only three years old when her mother died, and eight when she fell ill with a "long fever" that stunted her growth, left her with impaired eyesight and scant hair. She grew up in the lap of luxury; a gracious home of thirty three rooms, with servants, private tutors, a loving step-mother, adoring father and older sisters, who, she was later to tell her granddaughter Joan, gave in to the tempers that afflicted her after her illness.
Her tempers, however harshly they may have been judged in the scant notice given to her by her famous son's biographers, should be viewed in light of the harsh poverty into which she fell after the desertion by William H. Chaney. I find it hard to believe that this free-thinking spirited woman was bent on suicide when she accidentally shot herself in the forehead after her husband threw her out because she refused his demand that she rid herself of the child she was carrying. In view of the hot temper reputed to be characteristic of Flora, wouldn't it be more likely that she went after the man? I can just see her confronting him, waving the pistol around and in the process letting fly a bullet that grazed her temple.
The many differing accounts of this incident has been one of three favorite themes that biographers have chosen to define Jack London's mother; the other two being her supposed unloving indifference to her son and her rush rush rush in pursuit of the almighty dollar. Given the circumstances of her need to support herself and child in an economy that offered little opportunity to women, let's now give Flora a modicum of praise. She did not abort, nor abandon her baby. She did not place him up for adoption, nor send him to an orphanage, nor did she become a whore nor a slattern, neither did she hire herself out as housemaid, laundress or cook. She had ambition. She was a go-getter, eager to secure a vestige of the better life for her son and herself.
If she could not nurse her baby was it scandalous that he be nursed by another? The resulting friendship between Flora and Jennie Prentiss was to last throughout their lives. When Jack left Bessie and his two babies for the sake of Charmian, the three women, Flora, Jennie, and Bessie, formed an alliance, a kinship of family against Charmian who, in their minds had stolen "their Jack".
The doctor who was caring for Flora after Jack's birth was responsible for that long time friendship between Flora and Jennie Prentiss. Flora's high-strung disposition aggravated by Chaney's defection and the birth travail put her into a state of malaise that prevented her milk from "coming down", and there was Jennie Prentiss, known to the doctor to be in need of a baby to nurse. Her own child, her third had died sometime after nursing and before "drying up", which can be a very uncomfortable condition.
Unless we, men or women, can appreciate the vulnerability of women in the particular circumstances in which both Flora and Jennie found themselves, we cannot then know the strength of the bonds that were forged; race had no place in this intimate friendship as some historians have stated. Flora gave birth to a child she ardently longed for. Nature does that ...fills us with this desperate need especially in women and usually in men. William Chaney may not have been so inclined. With any one of his several relationships he may have fathered a child without either his or the woman's knowledge since the relationships, by his own admission, were of short duration and by his own admission he was quick to travel on.
Flora went to work as soon as she was well. What the heck else was Flora supposed to do? Frittering away her time, making shirts, giving piano lessons (translated by some biographers as playing the piano), and even running a kindergarden, earning enough to rent a cottage and pay Jennie. That's what Flora did. Fate stepped in by way of those shirts which Mr. Prentiss wore, whether on the job or socially has not been recorded, but the story on this much disparaged alliance of Flora Chaney and John London came to pass due to John's great admiration of those shirts and his desire to have same. You can bandy about who most needed who. Did Flora in desperation marry to give legitimacy to her child, "her badge of shame" as our shamefaced historian, Ian Rogers, claims in the aforementioned Montclarion news article. Or did Flora need a breadwinner? Did John marry Flora because he needed a mother for his two motherless children? Or did he marry her for her obvious talents? Almost any answer to these questions may as well be taken as fact, since all the biographies I have read on this subject leads me to believe their authors personally witnessed the courtship.
My own speculations run the gamut from what is documented to that which came down through family (Joan's) history; John London, a fifty-five year old widower, had eleven children by his wife Anna Jane. My opinion based on this documentary evidence is that John felt (1) he'd had enough kids and, that Flora, a woman past thirty, with no discernible husband to father her baby would jump at the chance to acquire one, and (2) it would be cheaper to provide his two remaining children with a built in stepmother with no salary, as opposed to the cost of keeping them in the orphanage where he had placed them, and (3) since, according to some biographers, John was engaged to a beautiful actress he must have been smitten by the superior charms of Flora, and abandoned the actress.
Family history through Joan claims that Flora lost her beauty at age eight when she suffered the "long fever", but even in her old age Flora had beautiful small hands and feet and trim ankles. So why did Flora marry John? Since I am not a qualified historian I can always fall back on maybe... Maybe for love, maybe for companionship... who knows what lies in the hearts of men... and women.
John got a hard working woman who refused to accept poverty and struggled against incredible odds to keep food on the table, worked side by side with John when he was well and nursed him in his sick times, for he was a badly wounded Civil War veteran who, it seems was either too ill or too pacific to be the good provider. Why must Flora be so harshly censured for being the go-getter? She obviously had imaginative and creative ideas. She apparently pursued her interest in Spiritualism and maintained for a number of years a coterie of devoted clients, who, according to Joan were very admiring of Flora's ability, and who paid Flora for that ability. Both her stepdaughters, Eliza and Ida left the home in their late teens; Eliza to marry and Ida to disappear, only to return with a baby boy, left behind for Flora to raise! Now wouldn't you think Flora might be given, at the very least, an honorable mention? Ah no! According to most of the biographers, Jack was jealous of the loving care Flora gave to this child! The goodness of heart that drove Flora to raise this child to manhood is totally by-passed.
Questions arise in my mind... What happened to Ida? What were the circumstances that prevented her from raising her child? I know that somewhere down the line Ida was married to Jack Byrne, who, after Ida's death, became Charmian's assistant secretary! Why didn't Ida take care of her child during her marriage if Flora was supposed to be such an unloving person? Why didn't Jack Byrne care for his step-son? Why did Jack London pay the total support of Ida's child? There are too many questionable events surrounding these arrangements of Jack Byrne becoming Charmian's secretary, and the naming of him by Eliza's husband, during the trial when she was seeking to divorce her husband. In light of all this I think Flora comes off in the best light.
I have the advantage of having absorbed much family history primarily through Joan and her many friends with their sympathetic chit chat gossip about Charmian, the Shepards, and, of course the big WHY; why did not Joan and Becky receive at least a share in the many millions pouring into the Shepard estate? I didn't realize way back in 1947 that I had such big ears or that the brain is the most complex computer system, retaining all impressions and memories.
I know that often I was awestruck by many of these people; some of them world famous writers, diplomats from Europe, Hollywood screen writers and stars of the "silver screen", composers and musicians, members of Xavier Martinez' family and twice I met Anna Strunsky who was visiting friends in San Francisco and the Bay Area. Some of these people came to meet the daughter of Jack London, some were long time friends, most knew Bessie, many were those, who, in their student days depended on Bessie's incredible mastery of higher mathematics. She became their much beloved and valued tutor.