Bessie... I recently found a negative among Joan's papers, which, when developed, proved to be a photograph of young Bess Maddern London at the time of her marriage to Jack; revealing the face of a very handsome, passionate, and proud woman with a deep dreamy gaze in the eyes, strong dark brows, a fine, well-shaped nose and the most lovely mouth with the beautifully curved lips so often praised in Jack. I have his portrait too, taken at the same time, and one also of their grandson, Bart, taken at about the same age, and, once more, there is that same mouth; a strong feature passed down several generations including some, but not all of the great-grandchildren.
But Bessie ...I wonder how a man could have forsaken such a woman ...with those dream-filled eyes and that lovely mouth! But that's pure day-dreaming, for obviously, Charmian's allure was far more compelling.
Bart took me to visit Bessie in 1947. We planned to marry and he wanted his "Nana" to meet me. She lay in 'a bed at The Kings Daughters Home in Oakland. She had lain there inert for ten years having suffered a crippling stroke. Only her eyes showed life's quality, tracing the contours of her grandson's face in a curious questing way. He named me, explained me as he drew me into her line of vision and I received, what I like to think of as an appraising stare. Did she comprehend? Did I? She died soon after that visit. I had not known her. Neither had I known then the circumstances of her life. But the horror of seeing her there, a long, sheet-wrapped bundle, immobilized, struck dumb of speech, but not of mind, no, not of mind nor heart; those darkly gleaming eyes memorizing her grandson... that memory of Bessie caught me up as would a full blown tornado, when in 1994 I went back up the mountain and began to read letters exchanged between her daughter Joan and Jack London, the husband and father of their two daughters; the man who, in Bessie's mind had forsaken them, all three, for a woman who had betrayed them, all three, under pretense of friendship.
The letters began in 1905 when four year old Joan wrote the first letter to her father, who, unbeknownst to her, had that year married Charmian. On lined paper in the large round handwriting of the very young she asks;
"Dear Daddy, Why did you not write me a letter? Mamma said you were too busy. Lilie printed a letter for Irving. He does not know I can write. Bess and I send you a big kiss and a hug. Your loving little girl. Joan."
From that first most charming letter and the hundred or more that were to follow and stop abruptly with Daddy's premature death, a story of a child's bright dreams and shattered hopes unfolds; a child's joyful discovery of the written word that gave her access to her absent father, and so she courted him with joyous accounts of the goings-on of herself and her sister Bess; a growing girl's prideful belief that her father would be interested in their every accomplishment. And he was, as his early letters reveal. He praised her triumphs, advised her on her queries, corrected sternly her lapses or errors in accounting for costs of house or school supplies as well--as requests she would make for simple girlish trinkets for herself and her sister.
In the many letters Joan wrote to Daddy there shines from every page a little girl's desperate need to please, a need so great that for every mistake that elicited a lecture from Daddy that might indicate his disapproval, she would make brave efforts to placate him with words of agreement and assurance that she would do better. She became not only the family accountant but its historian; a diplomat too young to know what bitter fruit all that would bear.
On May 7, 1913, Joan, now twelve and unaware that her parents were engaged in battle over her, unwittingly brought the whole house of cards tumbling about her head, by taking the initiative in writing for the first time, a request for money that had not come by way of her mother.
"Dearest Dad," she writes, still in a childish hand. "I am game and determined to be a great writer. Now Daddy, please don't get angry with anybody but me with what is going to follow. Mother don't know a thing about it. When Bess and I were sick last month it took every bit of money she had saved from her teaching for the moving and having the carpets cleaned and sized. She is so worried over bills that she don't know what to do. Last night she came home utterly exhausted! Her poor tired face was drawn with pain. So Daddy dear, would you help this time with the moving expenses. Mother has borne everything on her own shoulders for the past twelve years and now I am trying to help her. Will you? It will only come to $30 dollars altogether for the moving: $9 for the moving and the rest for the carpets cleaned and sized.
"Please Daddy, remember you are to get angry with me alone, because, honest true, black and blue, Mother don't know a thing about it. I'm doing this because I'm trying to help drive away those nasty wrinkles in her face. You understand don't you? I wouldn't go to you if I could help it but you are my own Daddy so I'm sure you won't mind. Now don't forget don't scold Mother but me. Lots of love, Your big girl Joan."
On May 9, 1913 Jack responded with a long letter in which he analyzes and picks apart and chastises and explains almost every sentence of his "Big Girl's" letter. I know I may not quote his letter except to paraphrase. But it is a letter of warning... "Had you seen as much of me... as you have seen of your mother, you might have seen all sorts of wrinkles, and pain, and tiredness in my face... As regards your mother and me... I have never talked one word to you... there are lots of things you do not know-until you grow up, from the little that you do know do not make up your judgement... a great deal of the little that you do know is not true at all.
"When you tell me that your mother "has borne everything on her shoulders for the past twelve years," you show that you have made up your mind. So, please unmake your mind and withhold your judgements on your Daddy until such time, when you grow up, that you will have more facts and truths out of which to build a judgement." He ends with: "Please do not fail to show this letter to your mother." and, "Please find herewith check for thirty dollars as requested. I await acknowledgement of Peter-Pan-and-allowance. Your loving Daddy."
From the position of hindsight I find I cannot fault Jack London for this first in a series of difficult letters; letters which were to become more accusatory, more insistent that a girl between the age twelve and thirteen make the choice to stay part time at the ranch or suffer the consequences, which promised to become ever more dire. But this first of the series, a prelude to the tragedy that was to overtake and punish two little girls for the rest of their lives passed unnoticed. by Bessie. The warning was there in that entire letter and confirmed in the statement; "Please do not fail to show this letter to your mother."
Joan's response three days later, May 12, 1913 "Dear Dad, I received your letter yesterday and before I write anything I want to thank you for the two checks, one for moving the other for Peter Pan, allowance, & dancing school. Mother was dumbfounded when the checks arrived for she knew nothing about it but she felt badly about the letter. When I wrote about being angry I felt my conscience pricking me for writing without letting Mother know. I see angry was not the word to use.
"Mother explained to me that the lines on her face were from pain and suffering, and not from worry as I thought they were You understand now don't you?" Typically, as in most of the thirty one letters Joan wrote to her father in this most painful year, 1913, she makes her apologies and goes on, as though to divert him, and regales him with long descriptions of walks she and her sister Bess took. "Bess and I took a walk. We found a beautiful red & yellow flower, its parts looking like four or five crimson horns tied together. We found a trail and followed it, seeing many beautiful ferns and wild blackberry bushes. The blackberries aren't black yet only red. When we got to the end of the trail we were rewarded with something lovely. I'll tell you what it was.
"I stood on a rock and surveyed the surrounding country, then my eye fell on something below me. On the branches of dark green shrub as I looked was a pale pink thing. It looked like a beautiful butter-fly yet it wasn't. I jumped off the rock and going nearer found that the pink thing was an exquisite wild rose. Bess and I hurried back and gave it to Mother."
Another page is devoted to other activities until at last she comes to the dreaded money transactions; "Oh, I almost forgot something! Mother got the estimate as to how much the chicken yard would cost to be built by the carpenter. It was $20! Twenty dollars! It was too much so Mother arranged to have a pupil of hers, who is paying for his lessons by doing odd jobs, make it for us. There being enough loose boards to make the frame, only the wire is needed, which will come to five dollars, $5. You don't need to send it this month but whenever is convenient. Lots of love, Joan".
These two letters, while relatively mild compared to what was to come had their origin in a letter Jack had written to Bessie in 1911. And that letter was the culmination of a year of frustration and tragedy; an eagerly awaited first baby by Charmian, a girl named Joy, born June 19, 1910, lived only thirty-eight hours. The grief and disappointment laid a heavy toll on the marriage. An almost unbearable sorrow created behavior in Jack that was to prove destructive, not only to Charmian and himself but to his daughters and their mother.
After the loss of Baby Joy, Jack made a strong appeal to Bessie asking that she and their daughters move to the ranch to a house he would build well removed from his and Charmian's cottage. She must have been tempted for she and the two girls were guests at a picnic lunch arranged by Jack and his "adopted Goddaughter", Adela Rogers St. Johns. "Just as the lunch was laid out," Adela writes in FINAL VERDICT, "Charmian appeared on horseback on the horizon, rode toward them like a whirlwind, circled the picnic scene at a mad gallop and kicked up enough dust to ruin the outing."
Bessie thereafter refused all subsequent pleas and by the end of that year 1910, Jack began a relentless campaign demanding that Bessie grant him visiting rights beyond those she freely granted; Jack could visit the girls at their home or on excursions but not in the presence of Charmian.
The year 1911 was the year of the first quarrel involving the "window incident", the writing of a "will" that would be disastrous, and a letter to Bessie that seemed beyond cruelty. The letter, dated Jan. 8, 1911, is published in it's entirety in Letters from Jack London, Odyssey Press 1965, edited by King Hendricks and Irving Shepard; pgs. 329-331. It would take a very able psychiatrist to unravel and explain this intentionally hateful letter, in which Jack laces Bessie up and down and most likely, in my opinion, left her hog-tied to suffer in silence, and thereby render her incapable of saving herself, much less her children. He begins by complaining about his lack of money, his debts, the many people he supports, the cost of his farming efforts, salaries to his laborers, doctor bills for each and all of those who depend on him, etc.. This, he says is for their future, all those dependants. "Do you think this is for myself? I can live on $20.00 a month. Do you think this is for Charmian? She can do the same.
"Now I am working like hell. What am I getting for it? A rare chance to see the children, and in the most unnatural conditions of being a visitor. I have no opportunity of getting acquainted with them. What chance have I? I live in the country. At long intervals I come to the city, and then I am too busy to do anything more than take a passing look at them.
"As usual, and as of old and always, I am putting up and getting nothing in re turn...," This is the opening sentence of the first warning to Bessie about what will happen if she fails to allow him to have his daughters share some time with him at the ranch. "Please don't think you are the only person who loves Joan and Bess. And don't forget this danger! The less I am acquainted with my children, the less I shall know my children, the less I shall be interested in my children. And insofar as you stand between me and knowing my children, by that much will my interest be lessened, and by that much will what I shall do for them be lessened. Don't forget that the program I have permitted you to employ for some years now, is a process of alienation of me from my children, a process that leads to lack of knowing my children and lack of interest in my children ... Do you think you are so uniquely made that you only can have a love and interest and care for our children? If you think you' want the children so strongly, as you say you do, how strongly do you think I want them part of the time?"
If Jack had stopped at this point he might have won Bessie over to his need. She surely must have sympathized with him, and, as woman to woman, leaving old hurts aside, pitied Charmian for the loss of Baby Joy; to have known the exquisite wonder and joy of holding one's longed-for baby and to have that precious life taken so swiftly within a few hours is surely the cruelest of sorrows. It is known that Jack attempted to anesthetize himself with his old nemesis John Barleycorn, which, unfortunately led to a barroom brawl, jail, and news headlines.
I myself believe the children would have had a marvelous experience living part of the time at the ranch. I don't believe that Charmian would have caused them harm. It is possible that Jack's violent behavior and noted alcoholic bouts during this period of tragedy, coupled with Charmian's disruption of the picnic scene were the contributing factors that froze Bessie into the inflexible stand she was to adopt for the next two years; no limits to Jack's visiting rights provided Charmian was not present. One notable exception to that; Joan and Becky accompanied by Flora visited their father at the Oakland flat he and Charmian maintained when staying in Oakland. He was recovering from emergency appendectomy. Charmian was present sitting silent in a dark corner. Bessie waited downstairs.
The letter goes on and reflects circumstances which I will mention later since I frequently find myself enmeshed in a web from which I see no escape. The battering of Bessie continues: "Your narrowness is the narrowness of the narrowest cell in all hell. I have yielded to this narrowness a long time. I am a philosopher. But the time has come, and in fact it is long since due, when I should have something of my children; and I refuse further to sacrifice all of my father-love and interest in order to satisfy the narrow prejudice of your narrow mind.
"What is your narrow prejudice? You are suffering from what you deem a sex-offense. You blame me for that sex-offense, never deeming for a moment that it is due to your own sexual shortcoming. Your attitude is not that of a co-partner in the procreation of our children. It is the attitude of a separate individual female, sexually offended because I found a woman who could make me happy as you never made me happy and never could make me happy..." (at this point he takes lethal jabs at the entire Maddern family )
"Are you so much wiser than I? Am I so stupid, so vilely rotten that I cannot have some hand in forming my children's minds and souls? Let me warn you that you `are playing the part of a dog-in-the-manger when you insist by your past and present attitude by dwarfing my children through their lack of me - and all because Charmian proved herself a better wife and mate than you proved yourself.
"Remember that when I asked you to marry me, and you accepted me, that it was there and then stated explicitly by me that I did not love you. You accepted me on that basis. Long afterwards I found someone whom I could love.
"Do you think that Charmian wants to alienate my children from you? Please don't forget that no woman is particularly enthusiastic about taking a hand in raising another woman's children. Yet Charmian is noble, Charmian has no peasant mind, and Charmian is willing to meet me and go any distance with me in this matter at issue.
"And another thing that you must not forget, is: That over half of my work is done by Charmian. That for every dollar you receive from me, Charmian has earned over 50 cents of it: that every piece of bread and butter or chunk of meat you put in your mouth, Charmian has paid more than half of the same. And yet you are willing to eat this bread and meat and ask for more, and at the same time deny me any acquaintance with my children, because you are a sexually-offended, jealous female creature.
"Are you a woman? Or are you a mere sexual beast, filled with such sex-jealousy and hatred that you will sacrifice your children and your children's father to your` own morbid hatred? Wild Indians, headhunters and cannibals, have, sometimes in their deepest depths of degradation, been like this: Are you willing so to classify yourself?
"I've watched you, and waited for you to show your better self. It's high time you did, if you've got any lingering shreds of it in you.
"I want you to answer this letter by a letter. I don't want any drawing up within your narrow, prejudiced sacredness of isolation (as you have done in the past); I want you to verify my assumptions of you in this letter, or to prove to me that you have developed into something finer and higher and nobler and more civilized than a mere jealous sexually-offended, unmotherly, peasant-minded female." (signed) Jack London.
I read this letter for the first time in 1994 when I began searching for answers to the many whys: why was Joan's JACK LONDON AND HIS DAUGHTERS memoir suppressed, why were Jack London's only children disinherited, why was there an ongoing slander against Joan and why, why, why, does the denigration of the women, Jack's mother Flora, and Bessie, Jack's first wife, the mother of his only children, continue?
This letter upon first reading filled me with horror. My mind instantly held the vision of Bessie lying sheet-wrapped, bereft of speech and movement and perhaps dumb mad, as the prophetic "dumb beast" who "will die dumb mad in the slaughter house"; Jack had used such phrases about her mother in several piteous letters to twelve year old Joan during that tragic year of 1913 when he was exerting enormous pressure on her to make the choice to visit the ranch for set periods of time. In three such letters to this beleaguered and bewildered girl, he writes; "Your mother is a sexually jealous beast," and, "Your mother is a sexually thwarted female".
In the last of these terrible letters, dated Feb. 24, 1914, a letter no father in his right mind would write to a daughter just turned thirteen, he likens Joan to a ruined colt: "Alas! as the colt, you were already ruined by your trainer. You were lied to, you were cheated. I am sorry. It was not your fault. But when the time came for you to decide (not absolutely between your mother and me) - to decide whether or not I might have a little hand in showing and training you to your paces in the big world, you were already so ruined by your trainer, that you declined. It is not your fault. You were trained. It is not your mother's fault-she was born stupid, stupid she will live, and stupid she will die. It was nobody's fault-except God's fault, if you believe in God. It is a sad mischance, that is all. In connection therewith I can only quote you Kipling's "Toolungala Stockyard Chorus": That quote was the tornado that carried the image of Bessie "the dumb beast" dying "dumb mad in the breaking yard."... the last four lines chilled and horrified me as I could see Bessie trussed up so cruelly on her deathbed. The reference is of course to the training of colts:
"Some-there are losses in every trade-
Will break their hearts ere bitted and made,
Will fight like fiends as the rope cuts hard.
And die dumb-mad in the breaking yard."
In her memoir JACK LONDON AND HIS DAUGHTERS, Joan simply paraphrased from this incredibly devastating letter. She had the grace to omit these dreadful attacks. She had no wish to attack her father. As she stated in the suppressed and unpublished synopsis and afterward, she had come to understand and to forgive her parents. Which is not to deny that both she and her sister Becky were marked, and suffered from the tragedy of perceived abandonment. It was the Shepard estate that demanded the letter be printed in its entirety in the Appendix. An unnecessary cruelty, in my opinion. But there it is and there - you may read it. Malcolm Margolin of Heyday Press, Berkeley California keeps the book in print.
It is in letters where so much is revealed, and in the letters to follow next I believe you will see Jack London's suffering over the loss of fatherhood. I believe also, that he was trying desperately to appeal to Bessie and that Joan, as the family chronicler was not the target, but the instrument; as here in a letter of Oct. 11, 1913:
"Dear Joan: I am in a great hurry. Find enclosed check for $4.00 to pay the Whitaker boy for the work he did in the back yard. The $80 for the front steps, and the $185 for the back yard is too extortionate... The estimate for the awning comes to $11.50. Do I understand this means canvas alone? Please give me details. What does this $11.50 pay for? Does it pay for the mere canvas, or does it pay for the canvas, for the wood, for the nails, for the ropes, pulleys, etc, etc. Also you failed to tell me what your friend Mr. Thoms will do the work for. How do I know what his work will amount to? Please give me full details about the total cost of this canvas, and of the labor involved in putting the canvas in place, and about what sort of guaranty this Mr. Thoms will give that the thing will work after he has put it up. Give me this clearly and immediately, so that I may be able to tell you to go ahead and work on it..."
He follows this passage with: "And please remember what I told you on Sunday evening, concerning the fact that the less I see of you and Bess, the less I would be-bound to be interested in you..." He tells her of Nakata and of the six or seven years they have been together night and day... "through every danger over the whole world... storm and violent death... when the cannibals assailed us 1500-strong, Nakata stood nobly by, standing on the wreck of our vessel, dashing to pieces on the reef, a rifle in either hand ready to pass me whenever I wanted to use it... how Nakata nursed him through the hours of sickness, how they laughed together through hours of fun, remembering so many, many of these hours of contact of all sorts, of contact (with Nakata, his Korean servant)... "that I know him ten thousand times better than I know my own daughters."
Next he explains that the world is populated by big people and little people, that almost the entire population of the world consists of little people, that here and there are a few big people... "It is a hard proposition to put up to you at your age, and the chances are that in deciding on this proposition that I put to you on Sunday night, you will make the mistake of deciding to be a little person in a little place in a little part of the world. You will make this mistake because you listened to your mother, who is a little person, in a little place in a little part of the world, and who, out of her female sex jealousy against another woman has sacrificed your future for you. If you join with your mother in this little sex jealousy of a thwarted female, you will doom yourself to grow up in the little environment of the little place called Piedmont, which is populated by little people. on the other hand, I offer you the big things of the world; the big things that big people live and know and act. You are now a little woman. (Joan, going on 13 had written to him: "Mother said to tell you that I am now a little woman. That you would understand") You will grow into a mature woman. In the next four or five years your entire future life, so far as your development be concerned, will be determined. The chances are, since you know more about Jim Whitaker, or Jim Whitaker's boys, or your mother, or Uncle Ernest or Aunt Florie, or all the other persons about you, than you do about me, your Daddy - the chances are that you will decide to follow your mother's policy which, as I have already told you, is based on the sex jealousy of a thwarted female. The result will be that when you are a mature woman of eighteen or twenty, you will be a little person in the little place in a little portion of the world..."
This letter goes on brilliantly and should be read in its complete form which is in LETTERS FROM JACK LONDON, edited by King Hendricks and Irving Shepard, 1965. How excruciatingly painful it must have been for Joan at age sixty-four to have seen this letter and others of intimate kind published completely out of context; a selection so designed as to show Joan, the girl, and her mother in a cruel light.
If I could print the letters of anguish, appeasement, cajolery, defense of mother and the pleadings of a young girl for Daddy to give her more time, time to be older that she might understand... thirty-one letters ...love letters such as a girl barely twelve years old should not have had to write, you would see the magnitude of the tragedy that befell Joan who, suffered most of her life believing she had caused her father's supposed suicide. If Joan's letters were published side by side in sequence by dates with those of her father's, a different story would surface. I will go into that possibility later on since I seem to be untangling the threads of a more intricate tapestry than I could have foreseen. To that end I will continue with that same incredible letter of October 11, 1913 for it is in that letter that I found the unimaginable! The clue that had eluded me since I first began this unraveling, this exploration.
The letter: Jack to Joan, October 11, 1913. "Well, anyway, I gave you on last Sunday night several problems. I referred you to the New Testament and the study of Christ. Christ was a big man. He was not a little person in a little place in a little portion of the world. If you do not study out these problems, or if in studying out these simple problems I gave you, you come to the wrong conclusion and elect for yourself to become a little person in a little place in a little portion of the world, it will be a great misfortune for which there will be no help. Although it will not avail you any to do so, you will then be unable to charge this malformation of you in your development period, this wizening and pinching of you into the little person -- you may be able to charge this directly to your mother's conduct in influencing your conduct, because your mother is so small, so primitive, so savage, that she cherishes a sex hatred for a woman who was bigger than she to such an extent that her face is distorted with passion while she talks about it as it was distorted last Sunday night. Now, Joan, remember the silence so far has been on your part. If this silence continues, I shall not break it. Any time you want to break it, I shall be here or somewhere in the world. In the meantime, carry my warnings and my problems closely to your heart and head." Signed, "Affectionately yours, Daddy."
It is strange indeed that in this letter's end Jack accuses Joan of silence, when in fact I count twelve letters from Joan to Daddy dating from August 17, 1913 (when he increased the pressure on her about coming to the ranch') up to the date of this particular letter of October 11, 1913 and beyond. Only now, when I was preparing this letter for printing did I realize something was amiss. I had read these letters, had separated and filed them by dates and still I had overlooked the meaning inherent in that statement; "Now, Joan, remember the silence so far has been on-your part..."
I have about seventy letters of Joan's to her father; twenty eight of them were written during that most disastrous and painful year, 1913. I have now rechecked all the 1913 letters and will show you by interweaving some of the most difficult letters in which Jack berates his daughter and her responses.
This letter from Jack to Joan dated Aug. 24, 1913 and published in LETTERS FROM JACK LONDON: "Dear Joan: I feel too miserable to write this at my desk. I am sitting up in bed to write it. First, please remember that I am your father. I have fed you, clothed you, and ---- you, and loved you since the moment you first drew breath. I have all of a father's heart of love for you. And now we come to brass tacks. What have you done for me in all the days of your life? What do you feel for me? Am I merely your meal-ticket? Do you look upon me as merely a creature with a whim, or fancy, or fantasy, that compels him to care for you & to take care of you? ---- because he is a fool who gives much & receives... well, receives nothing?
"Please answer the forgoing questions. I want to know how I stand with you. You have your dreams of education. I try to give you the best of my wisdom. You write me about the demands of the U.C. in relation to selection of high school courses. I reply by (1) telegram, (2) by letter, and I receive no word from you. Am I dirt under your feet? Am I beneath contempt in every way save as a meal-ticket? Do you love me at all? What do I mean to you?
"Answer above queries of mine.
"My house, as yet unoccupied, burns down - and I receive no word from you. When you were sick I came to see you. I gave you flowers and canary birds. Now I am sick - and you are silent. My home - one of my dreams - is destroyed. You have no word to say.
"Your education is mixed up by conflict between high school & university. You write me. I reply by telegram and letter. I spring to help you with my wisdom in your trouble, in the realization of your dream. I say, very sadly, that when my dream is ruined, I do not notice that you spring to me.
"Joan, my daughter, please know that the world belongs to the honest ones, to the true ones, to the right ones who talk right out; and that the world does not belong to the ones who remain silent, who, by their very silence lie and cheat and make a mock of love and a meal ticket of their father.
"Don't you think it is about time I heard from you? Or do you want me to cease forever from caring to hear from you?
No wonder some biographers had a very negative opinion of Joan. Joan's letters were unpublished. Some were either sold, loaned, or given to some libraries. It is to the diligent work of Jim Sissons and Tony Bubka that I owe heartfelt thanks that I have copies of letters that Joan wrote to her father during this period of 1913. Most of Joan's letters were returned to her by Charmian after Jack's death and it wasn't until Joan began writing her memoir that she realized a particular letter was missing from the collection. She could not know then that there were others missing too for how could she as a young girl know or remember what or how many letters she had written to Daddy. How could she defend herself or even remember that she had, prior to this accusatory letter, addressed all the points he raised in this Aug. 24th, 1913 letter? Unlike Charmian who typed and kept copies, Joan, as a girl with no thought of keeping copies, wrote in long hand, sometimes in pencil, mostly with ink. All of the letters that I have are copies. Some have the mark of Utah State University and one was at The Huntington. It is obvious now to me that certain critical letters that were a determining factor in her future were not seen by her father. Else why would he heap such reproaches upon her and accuse her of silence?
First, I will here print Joan's heartfelt response, which is also a copy. It is in Joan's handwriting, yet it appears to be a carbon copy or perhaps a poor xerox or maybe some other method was used;
August 27, 1913: "Dearest Dad, Oh, please, please, forgive me for acting so indifferent towards you when you were sick and your lovely dream vanished into a heap of ashes. In the first place, Daddy, we only heard for the first time, Monday, of the fire and that by chance. We met Uncle Henry and he told, us about it and oh! I felt so sorry. It really didn't look as if I did to judge from my postal card but I did., If my house had burned down while we were just getting ready to move I would have felt just like you are feeling now, only you feel ten times worse. I didn't even pay for my house, or have the expenditure in any way, but you have to bear it all. "I do love you Daddy. I love you just as much as I love Mother. Not for your money do I love you but for your kindness, for your sympathy, and your tenderness. "I have not tried yet, Daddy, to repay you, but when I grow up and become a famed authoress, I will repay you to the very best of my ability. People will praise me for my work but I will always say "My Father and Mother did it." Mother, with her never ending encouragement and suggestions and Dad, with the wisdom of hardship and the help that authors alone know how to give. Then will I try to repay-you for your repeated kindness.
"No, Daddy, you are not dirt under my feet, but my highest ideal of man. Every boy I meet must measure to the standard which you have unconsciously placed for them, You are the goal which I sometime hope to reach. The goal which is attained only after years of hard work like you have done.
"You wished me to come to Glen Ellen to see you. I wanted to, I want to more than ever now that you are sick, but, Oh Daddy! can't you see? Don't you understand? If it was only you that I would see if I came to Glen Ellen, I would come in a minute. Oh, daddy dear, surely you can understand!
"But, since it is not only you, I communicate with you by mail. As you gave me flowers and canary birds when I was sick, so will I send you newsy letters filled with the doings of High School and the like.
"I know that I ought to have written when I first received your letter, but the excitement of High School brought my period sooner. Then I stopped and when I got home, went straight to bed. Mother did what she could and finally brought me around. I went to school but still sick. Then Saturday came and I answered your letter, still too ill to write but little. Oh, I did want to write more, honest I did, but my head was swimming and I just wrote as much as I could.
"Am I forgiven now Daddy dear, for if not, I'll try hard to redeem myself. Lots and lots of love and deepest sympathy, Your sorrowful & repentant Joan.
Poor Joan. The beauty of this letter, its charm and loving admiration will be ignored in his response-She will be bitterly attacked for implying that another stands in the way of her visiting at the ranch. Forgotten by both' Jack and Joan were her caring letters and notes about his illness and loss by fire of his Wolf House and his wisdom regarding choice of classes when she enters high school. Of course I now am thinking he may not have received some of them. Here briefly are some of Joan's notes to Daddy:
March 21, 1911. "Dear Daddy, I was very sorry to hear that you were sick. You and Mother are twins. She has blood poisoning (sic) in her finger and you are sick." As usual in her letters she goes on with girlish glee describing the activities she and her sister enjoy. Three months later Joan almost died of Diphtheria. This may have been the occasion of "flowers and canary birds".
Another letter: July 10, 1913, "Dearest Dad, It was such a shock to me when I heard you were to be operated on and I am so sorry it had to be. I do hope that you will be able to get out very soon. Mother wants me to ask when it will be convenient for Bess and I to come and see you and, is there anything we can do?" Five pages of beautiful description follows and she signs: "Lots of love, Your big girl Joan".
Joan and her sister, accompanied by their Grandmother Flora and their mother Bessie, were able to visit their father in the Oakland flat he and Charmian maintained when they were away from the ranch. Flora and the two girls went upstairs where Jack was recovering in bed. Charmian sat quietly in a dark corner and Bessie, the girls' mother, waited downstairs. I must presume it was a matter of diplomacy on Bessie's part, since I have known a number of women, one of them still alive, who had often remarked on Bessie's forgiving attitude, how she never said a mean word against Jack. Any antagonism or ill feeling that was wont to come up was directed toward Charmian.
To return to the two remaining complaints in the Aug 24, 1913 letter which I have been using as an example of possible mischief regarding Joan's "silence", I will attempt the business of Joan's notes and letters. The post card she mentions in her apologetic letter is brief and hurried... thanks him for apples, the date is August 27, 1913 the same date as her letter of apology which baffles me ...she writes:
"I am very, very sorry that your new house burned. It has taken so long to build and just as you are ready to get in this ... happens." She ends with "lots of love, Joan." His wise advice regarding the subjects she should take in high school which she asked for in May amounted to his checking them off on a printed form she had sent him in May. This was sent back to her. I have found a four line message typed, which may have been the telegram he refers to. It simply confirms the subjects he had marked on the printed form.
From that time up to August 17, I count seven letters from Joan to Dad, most of them full of excitement over her up-coming graduation from grade school; two of them are invitations for him to attend. He may not have received them as I am now suspecting. One of them was so appealing how could he resist? The first in a 9 page letter of June 19, 1913 reads in part:
..."As I was saying we graduate on Friday the twenty-seventh. If you could possibly make it I should dearly love to have you come to my graduation. I have written and I'm pretty sure, shall read the class prophecy and history and so I want you to be there to be proud of me. So please Dad, think seriously about it, because your big girl shall only graduate from Grammar school once"... ends with "Lots of love, Your big graduating girl Joan". She writes again the next day; a four page letter reminding him of her previous letter and invitation to see her graduate and now she writes "to double my request in behalf of Mr. Dunbar, the principal, and Mrs. Grunman my class teacher. "...Mr. Dunbar said he wished very much that you would come and speak to the boys and girls on graduation day. Now please come Daddy dear, because the dear old gentleman is hoping very much that you will..."
There is no letter of response from Jack and he did not attend the graduation. It is possible that he might have been in the hospital. On July 3, 1913 she writes him a 22 page letter filling him in on the highlights of the graduation ceremony, and it is not until July 10 that she learns of his surgery and writes the letter I quoted previously which led to the visit in the Oakland apartment where Jack was recuperating.
During the year of 1913 this 12 year old girl is to be the recipient of five letters of such ferocity that even the most worldly of women would find their hearts shrivel in their breasts. Four of these letters are published in "Letters from Jack London", King Hendricks and Irving Shepard, Odyssey Press, 1965, pgs. 394, 395, 396-397,405-408. The most cruel of this series of letters which I quoted earlier, known as "The Infamous Colt Letter" of Feb. 14 1914 is also published in the "Letters from Jack London" pgs. 414-417. This is the last of these tragic letters. It reached Joan one month after her thirteenth birthday and was to leave its scar on her for the rest of her life.
In her memoir "Jack London and His Daughters" Joan simply paraphrased from this letter. It was never her intent to disgrace her father. She was long dead and her son, my husband, Bart Abbott, was also dying at the time the unfinished memoir was to be published (he died one year later). It was Milo Shepard, who insisted that the "Colt letter" be printed in full in the Appendix. At the time, 1990, neither Bart nor Malcolm Margolin the publisher, knew that the letter had already been published in all its cruelty by Milo's father, Irving Shepard in the 1965 "Letters from Jack London." I have only, belatedly, in the course of re-examining Joan's letters (not published) and re-reading the manner in which some of her father's most cruel, and even some of the more mild letters, chastising her for sloppy grammar and other petty girlish failures, were presented and designed, by the omission of explanatory notes, to show Joan in the worst possible light. (see "Letters from Jack London" pgs. 417, 446-447,453, 455-456, 457-459, 459-460,464-465, 467-468, 480). I will add my own explanatory notes to three of these letters.
The letter dated August 25, 1915 (pgs.457-459) is in response to reminder about promised vacation money and forgotten allowances. Dated Aug. 6, 1915 she apologizes for asking and for the poor grammar for which he had chided her. Once the apologies are done with she writes Daddy: "This term the editor of the AEgis is Edmund de Freitas and he is the boy I go with. Of course I'm on the Weekly AEgis staff as Associate Editor... I am enclosing a copy of the first issue of the AEgis and I was wondering if you would criticize it. We would be so proud if you would, even if the criticism wasn't exactly complimentary."
This is an ecstatic letter of a 14 year old girl in love: "I'm enclosing a picture of him... it isn't very good of him. He's really awfully good looking... brown eyes... brown hair! Mother always calls him 'Brownie'". The letter goes on and on about "Brownie's" accomplishments, ending with "I must have literally worn you out with this so I'll close, Love, Joan". Then a P.S. "Edmund has just been elected President of the low Senior class."
In "Letters from Jack London", pgs.457-459, dated Aug. 25, 1915, Jack responds: "Dear Joan: In reply to your good letter of August 6, 1915: First of all, Daddy must apologize for not having let you understand how busy a man he is. First of all, let me tell you how busy I am. I, personally, write many thousands of letters each year. But that is 'not all. Many other persons write letters for me, let me name you a few; Jack Byrne, my secretary, writes a very great many for me; so does Aunt Eliza, so does Charmian, so does Nakata, and so does a new boy by the name of Sekine, whom I am now breaking in. On top of this, I have various agents who do a great deal of writing for me in the City of New York, for the United States, in England, in Norway, in Sweden, in Denmark, and in the rest of Europe. Now the point is, that while all these other people write all these many letters for me, I have to keep track of all the letters they write. Because I am thus occupied, along with my writing, and with my education, and all the other things in the world that I do, you will understand how impossible it is for me to remember what I did with you about vacation money last year."...
This is a very loving letter: "You can never wear me out by writing the longest letters you are able to write, are capable of writing and care to write." He blesses her new maturity with kindly fatherly advice. "Only just now have I, in the course of reading your letter, read the last name of Edmund or Brownie. All the more do I feel the necessity of talking to you about men and women in this world, though I assure you it is not so material to me as it will be to you." He praises the new aegis and ends his letter with a father's most poignant yearning towards his daughter: "0, my daughter, I should like dearly to be able to talk to you about men, and women, and race, and place. Sincerely Yours, Daddy."
The explanation given to Joan regarding the number of people who write letters for him confirms my suspicion that certain of Joan's letters were never given to him to read; for example, the three letters of Jack's wherein he accuses Joan of "silence" and warns her that her whole future is at stake if she does not reply, and the fact that some of Joan's letters were given or sold to Utah State University and The Huntington, has confirmed my suspicions. I have shown you earlier in this section on "Letters" that Joan had written her father some of the most yearning replies to his increasingly threatening letters. The only time there was a break in her letters was midway in 1914 when Jack forbade her to write to him; a stricture she obeyed for a while until she herself could bear it no longer and wrote him a joyful letter.