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Jack London had two daughters: Joan and Bess. I met Joan during my last visit to California. Joan was Bart's mother. Now Bart was taking me to his aunt, the younger daughter of Jack London. She lived in Oakland, on Fleming Street. Her married name was Fleming—Bess Fleming. Her hair had turned fully gray. She resembled her father, especially her profile. In spite of her age (she was 72), she was an energetic, active woman. She also spoke rapidly, and I was not always able to understand her. Luckily, I brought my tape recorder. Bess shared with me some poignant memories of her father:
"There used to be a big amusement park in Oakland. When we were little, father took Joan and me there. My first memory — a ride on a little train. There also was a small zoo, but we never visited it. Father, like us, did not like to look at caged animals. There was this ride, up-and-down — it took our breath away! After the ride, Joan said in relief, ‘Finally, it is over!’ ‘You didn't like it? Why?‘ — asked father. ‘It's scary.!’ ‘My children should not be afraid of anything.!’ He bought a bunch of tickets, using all the money he had, and we went on the ride again, up and down! We rode until exhaustion, until Joan said, ‘Oh, I am not afraid anymore.!’ And I loved that ride ever since."
"Having barely learned how to write, Joan and I composed letters to our father. At first, I would receive some of my letters back with several words circled in blue pencil. From father's letters of correspondence, we found out that those blue markings indicated either wrong spelling or an awkwardly expressed thought. Moreover, father suggested not to ask Mom for correct spelling, but look up a word in a dictionary ourselves. Even better would be if we could think of several different variants before we chose the word that most exactly expressed our thought. In the beginning, a lot of those letters were returned, but later there were less and less of them. I had learned how to write without mistakes. Father's lessons were very helpful. Father treated us like his equals," said Bess. "He was so unlike the way other adults treated us, and we liked it very much. He was interested in how we studied, what games we played, what books we read. Every time we went to a theater or a restaurant in Oakland and San Francisco, people recognized him."
"Joan was closer to mother. Mother was a strong character. I did not want to be a teacher, but mother insisted on it. Later on, I found the strength to disobey and became a specialist in shorthand writing. Joan was more stubborn and always did what she wanted."
"What book written by your father is your favorite?" I asked.
"It is very difficult to say. My favorite novel is The Valley of the Moon. I like The Star Rover, The Sea-Wolf is good, but I like The Mutiny of the Ellsinore better. Of course, I like The Call of the Wild. I love his stories, especially the ones about California. I read The Iron Heel when I was still a child. Particularly, I remembered this novel because of its footnotes. They give the novel that flavor of fiction. Jack London wrote a lot of science fiction works: The Star Rover, "The Minions of Midas," Before Adam, The Strength of the Strong, and "The Shadow and The Flash." Before Adam, according to one anthropology professor, is the best science fiction book in anthropology. The Little Lady of the Big House is also science fiction. This novel embodied father's dream to reorganize his ranch and reflect his ideals of the exemplary life conditions," said Bess.
I inquired about the life of Mabel Applegarth. "Jack London adored her," said Bess, "but both of them were very different. She was of refined intelligence, of English descent. And he was a rough guy, a sailor," she said.
"They belonged to different classes," Bart added.
Bess continued. "Father had been reading a lot in his youth, but his speech revealed folk dialect, and Mabel, whom he met through her brother, tutored him in literary English and, together with her brother, she taught him good manners. Martin Eden is a realistic and autobiographical book. Mabel died very young, some time around 1910, from tuberculosis."
During the War, in Oakland, Bess was present at the ceremony of the send off of the merchant ship "Jack London." Bess brought a family album with the picture of her mother, who was a very interesting person in her early years; pictures of her father; of Flora, her grandmother and numerous photos of her and Joan. Their father took pictures of Joan and Bess as kids. He wanted to capture every step of his beloved daughters. For a minute, the room was filled with silence. Then, the conversation turned to the 100th anniversary of the writer's birth. I talked about the great popularity of Jack London in the Soviet Union, and the fact that his novels and stories had been translated into 33 languages of the peoples living in the former USSR surprised everyone.
Bess and I had our picture taken together on the front porch of her house and then said our goodbyes. She was very excited, joked a lot, and waved to us from the doorstep as she watched Bart's VW start down Fleming Street. On the following Sunday, I invited the entire Abbott family to visit a "Soviet Youth" exhibit that had opened a day before in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park. Bart, Helen, and Tarnel responded favorably to my idea. Darcy, however, was not able to go because the medical nurses of San Francisco went on strike. Chaney was getting ready to leave for Canada. The situation was ironic: one of London's granddaughters could not come because she was on strike while another prepared to leave her country.
Jack London's descendants looked around the Soviet Youth pavilion with sincere interest. Bart looked deeply into the faces of Soviet young men and women gazing at him from the pictures; he was amazed at the sight of the work of their hands: complex technology, electronic equipment, and a flying motorcycle. "Look, Helen, just look at what they are doing!" Bart said at almost every item in the exhibit. Helen, a professional artist, spent a long time looking at Palekh boxes, crystal vases, pictures, and drawings. And then, after completing her excursion around the three halls of the exhibit she came back to the art exhibit. Having learned that Tarnel was Jack London's great-granddaughter, Oleg Vishnyakov, an artist at the exhibit, became very interested. He sat her down in a chair, opened up his stand and drew her portrait. Oleg spoke English quite well, and they even found a common topic of conversation: both of them had visited Cuba.
We spent over two hours at the exhibit. Tired and pensive, we returned to Oakland. Tarnel's portrait had already been displayed among the portraits of fifteen other Americans that Oleg had met in different cities. In the atmosphere of misinformation and false rumors about the Soviet Union, this exhibit was a breath of fresh air for my friends. We slowly proceeded toward Oakland. The night before, I had asked Helen about the details of Joan London's death. Now, in the car, she asked for my notebook and wrote the following lines: "Joan died of throat cancer. She asked her doctor to tell her how long she had left to live. She insisted on an exact answer. He told her: ‘Eight days.’ She needed to know this, for she was reconciled to her inevitable death. We were in a hospital in Mexico. I flew with her to Oakland, to Kaiser Hospital. There, she persuaded her doctor to perform a painful operation that could prolong her life for just several days, so she could live till her birthday. Also, a critical review of her book, So Shall Ye Reap, written together with Henry Anderson, was supposed to be published on the same day. The book itself was to be released in bookstores on that day as well. The doctor complied and performed a tracheotomy. I am telling you this as an example of her courage."
"On the way from Mexico to Oakland, she was very concerned with her appearance, because she knew that her granddaughters would meet her at the airport. For that reason, she put a thick layer of foundation on her face and used lipstick and face powder. She asked me to put a black ribbon in her hair and scolded me until I did it just right. She wanted to look energetic; she talked fast, was the center of attention, and refused to use the oxygen pillow that was crucial for her to have. She got so excited that she was ready to refuse a visit to the hospital, where she died nine days later."
"It happened on January 18, 1971. Three days before that, Joan turned 70. Joan's last request, as Helen told me, was to scatter her ashes into the ocean. Bart went on a cruise ship to fulfill his mother's will, but could not make himself throw the urn into the waves. So they decided to bury Joan's remains in Yosemite Valley." Helen made a sketch of the place in Yosemite National Park where, under the roots of a giant oak, now lie the ashes of Jack London's favorite daughter. Joan's book about the agriculture workers, So Shall Ye Reap, was written with co-author H. Anderson. It came out in 1971, while the book about her father and his daughters remained unfinished. She kept writing and rewriting it, condensing and editing it. Her illness stood in the way. According to Bart, one of the main factors that held her back was a question that constantly bothered her for which she could not find an answer: how was Father able to leave his children if he loved them? Yes, it is true that in leaving the family he bought them a large house with a marvelous view on the bay, in Piedmont. He provided money for his children's education. Definitely, the mother was the one at fault. But how could he not worry about the future of his children . . . how?
Oakland Public Library organized a Jack London's Museum. My American friends took me there. London's early years were closely connected with the Oakland Library. During those years, however, it was located not in the same bright, modern building where it was at the time of my visit, but in a tiny one, with narrow windows. Jack brought home piles of books from there and then devoured them overnight. Later, on walls and on shelves, behind the glass covers at that library, Jack London's books, pictures, illustrations of his works, carvings and manuscripts were exhibited. Among the pictures of the famous Californian were a number of very rare shots: There was one of a young Jack, not even an established writer yet, reading a book in his house. Another showed him, again with a book, at the summer cabin at Wake Robin Lodge.
There were other interesting photos and exhibit items: A photo of Jack and Charmian aboard their yacht, "Snark," another of Jack on a hospital bed, after surgery for appendicitis, holding a pencil and a piece of paper. Then there was a snapshot of Jack and Charmian in a horse-drawn carriage. More than likely, that photo had been taken at the ranch in the Valley of the Moon. There was even a picture of Jack London in disguise, in the slums of East End of London. Protected under a glass cover was a poster for the movie "Jack London" filmed in 1943. The movie was based on the biography of the writer. Michael O'Shea, Susan Hayward and Virginia Mayo played the main roles. The two latter were famous American actresses. Another stand held a photograph of the houses in Oakland in which London's family had lived. Also, there were copies of the writer's books translated into other languages and published abroad.
Laura Dumont, the woman who initiated the exhibit, gave us a tour. She was proud of her creation and worried that cutting funds for the exhibit was likely due to the economic crises in the country. Laura Dumont kindly thanked me for the gift of my books on Jack London. Her eyes sparkled as we approached the movie projector. Looking at me, she said, "And now, I will show you a recently found documentary that was made on Jack London's ranch."
This was really sensational. Just three minutes long, but we were able to see Jack London, alive, in November of 1916. Here, he was shown helping Charmian get on a horse, and she disappeared in the distance. He was on the cart, pulled by a couple of beautiful working horses, bringing hay from the fields. Jack could also be seen holding little piglets in his arms. They were apparently trying to get away from him, but he, laughing, held them even tighter. London was proud of his estate. In another scene, he was cleaning a horse, tenderly petting him on his neck. There was also a shot of Jack in his study. Jack London looked very active; he was in a good mood, but he did not look healthy. His face was puffy. According to the text after the movie, the film was made just three days before the death of the writer. The last frames of Jack London will remain etched in my memory forever: He suddenly appeared on the screen close up. He said something, laughed, waved, then took a hat off his head and waved at the camera again.
Laura Dumont looked at us, obviously happy with the effect the film had on us. I asked to see the film once more. Impatiently, I waited for soldiers to finish their march along the streets of some European city (a documentary from the WWI); then, there were some scenes of a football game. Finally, the captions came on: "Glen Ellen, California. Jack London — world-famous traveler and writer has died. The film was taken by one of our cameramen three days before his death." No one knew about this film. According to Laura Dumont, it had been found very recently. The only reason it survived was because it was stolen. Ms. Dumont was willing to allow me to make a copy of this film.
Again, making great noise with its propeller, the helicopter carried me above the bay. In front of me, I saw the white skyscrapers of San Francisco. Behind them, splashing in the smoky gray background was the Pacific Ocean. The airport was visible. On the left was Oakland where London's family used to live when he was a child, and behind it Jack London Square. The structures of Oakland were fading away at the top of the steep hill.
Somewhere in the distance stood Bess' house and at the foot of the precipice, the bungalow of Bart and his family, my American friends, who kept the wishes of their ancestor close to their hearts.
Copyright © 2004 by Vil M. Bykov