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I found Joan London's memoirs in the Center. Finally her long-suffering book had been published. It took Joan a painfully long time to put together her memories of her father. One question was burning in her mind all her life: "How could he neglect the future of his children if he really loved them?" Yes, he did buy them a nice house with a great view over the bay, in Piedmont, upon leaving the family. He gave them money for education and other expenses, but . . . . Of course, her mother, who wasn't able to forgive her father, was definitely to blame for their abrupt and irreconcilable quarrel. But what about his cruel words uttered 10 years later regarding the break up of his relationship with his daughter? His letter written to the thirteen-year-old Joan was bitter and unforgivable. Surely, the letter was meant for the mother, but was addressed to the daughter. Hurt to the core of his soul by her perceived indifference to his tragedy (his dream Wolf house burned to the ground), Jack threw around, as a verdict, words about how even on his death bed, he would not care whether or not she (Joan) would come to his side.
We now know that Bessie had not told the girls about the fire on the ranch. London found himself in a devastating financial state, among other hardships. He hoped for compassion and sought empathy, yet Bessie had sheltered the girls from their father. Jack passionately condemned the uncompromising position of his former wife. Joan, who was not old enough to be an objective arbitrator, was fully on her mother's side. Hence, came the explosive reaction from Jack — the angry letter.
The memoirs contain other revelations, which, in Becky's opinion, damaged the good memory of the writer. She had her reasons to object to the publication of her sister's book. Becky remembered a different, more pleasant side of the events, and she often expressed those recollections. Of course, Joan had the right to disagree with her. Becky was younger (one-and-a-half years is the difference between them) and didn't always understand the uncompromising fights between mother and father. Joan, on the other hand, held direct correspondence with her father and was able to understand more deeply his moods, and later, his work. Her first book, Jack London and His Times is a vivid testimony to that.
Much later, with both her mind and her heart, she understood the extent of suffering her dying father experienced when his ex-wife categorically refused to let him contact the growing daughters. It was an especially hard blow, having come after the fire, the death of his and Charmian's child, and other misfortunes that fell on him from every direction. In his letters, Jack London cursed Bess, calling her a miserable person, a shrew, who was only hurting his daughters. He invited them to the Beauty Ranch, asked her to come live there with the kids. Yet, she, full of passionate hatred toward her insidious rival and not being able to find forgiveness (after 10 years) for the betrayal, stood her ground, undeterred.
Jack saw no possibility of reconciliation and decided to cut all ties. In his will, he decided to place the care of his daughters' financial well-being in the hands of Charmian. He put the Ranch in her name. This was his last pre-mortal strike against Bess. Yet, anger was never a wise advisor — the strike turned against his beloved daughters!
Joan's book, Jack London and His Daughters was left unfinished at her death.
Bart Abbott finished the book; yet, upon Becky's insistence, the memoirs weren't published for many years. Finally, they were available to readers.
While London's children received money for their education, his Ranch and his literary rights were left to Charmian. The parent didn't leave anything to his direct descendants. After Charmian's death, everything passed to London's half-sister's (Eliza's) son, Irving Shepard. Irving was the one who made the founding of the Jack London State Historic Park and Museum possible. Needless to say, Bart and the daughters felt uncomfortable on the Ranch.
In 1996, two anniversaries of the World-famous writer were celebrated — that November marked 80 years since his death. The Jack London Society organized the scholarly symposium in acknowledgement of that date. I received an official invitation to speak on a topic of my choosing. The invitation was backed by a warm letter from Milo Shepard, inviting my wife and me to be his guests.
While the birthday banquet took place in the main city of Sonoma County, the symposium was held in another, not less important, California city — Santa Rosa. Over one hundred London scholars and fans from USA, Great Britain, Japan, Canada, Russian and Morocco, gathered in the halls of the cozy one-storied hotel "Flamingo" to share their findings and achievements in the study of the life and art of Jack London.
Over 50 specialists delivered their message at two parallel sections and plenary sessions held over the four-day period. Among a number of established authors of remarkable manuscripts, such as Hensley Woodbridge, Earle Labor, Earl Wilcox, Jacqueline Tavernier-Courbin and Clarice Stasz, there was a number of young graduate and undergraduate students, as well as amateur fans. There was a heated discussion on who was the writer's father. Someone suggested a possibility of exhuming the remains of Flora Wellman's first husband, William Chaney and conducting a genetic analysis of his DNA. This made Jack's granddaughters, Darcy, Chaney and Tarnel think about it. The realization of their presence at the conference brought out applause. Milo Shepard also got an ovation as one of the main sponsors and organizers of the symposium. Everyone's gratitude went to the Society's Executive Director, Jeanne Reesman, for a perfect organization of the forum.
During a break, Darcy, Chaney and Tarnel, together with their mother, Helen, suddenly showed up in our hotel room. All of us were now 22 years older than the first time we had met. The sisters engagingly reviewed my essay published in the Spring issue of Literaturnaya Gazeta about their family, Joan's memoirs and my January meeting with Tarnel and Helen. I relayed the brief summary of that essay to them.
Back in January, toward the very end of my visit, I was finally able to find Tarnel. At first, with Milo's help, I found Helen, and then the great granddaughter. She then lived in the town of Richmond, not far from Oakland. In response to my call, Tarnel came with a friend to the Ranch to see me off. During all the years since our first acquaintance, she had only been on her great grandfather's estate once. You can see the level of separation between relatives. Her sisters are also rare visitors there.
Tarnel and Robert took me to the airport in San Francisco. We had dinner in one of the suburbs. I learned then that Bart Abbott had died three years earlier and was now buried next to Joan, in Yosemite. I also learned that the urn with Becky's ashes had been dropped on the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. Americans were aware of the significant changes taking place in Russia (for them, the USSR had always been Russia). Yet, some things still surprised them. Tarnel, for example, who was an activist in anti-war and democratic movements, was very characteristically surprised (even her eyes got big and round) when she heard me mention something in passing. I was talking about how the Russian mass media were persistently forcing out the word "Tovarisch" (Comrade) from the everyday language, thrusting in the word "Gospodin" (Mister) instead.
Our parting in the airport, virtually at the very metal gates, was warm, almost kindred. I hugged both Robert and Tarnel. They kept watching me until I successfully passed the check-in point and waved me goodbye as I turned the corner to the gangway leading to the plane.
As we know, Bart had five daughters from his two marriages. Well, now they have children of their own. Julie, his oldest one, has two daughters. Jill has a daughter and three sons. Darcy has a daughter. Chaney — one son and two daughters. The youngest, Tarnel, has two sons. Thus, Jack London, from Joan's line, has six grandsons as well as six granddaughters. There are also some descendants from the youngest daughter of Becky's, but that is not something really talked about.
Bart's modest bungalow in Oakland, where his family spent more than one dozen years, burned to the ground. Their house in the Yosemite National Park was also burned in the overall fire. The young families have their own houses and were building together a new cottage on the land in Yosemite. Helen rented a two-bedroom apartment in Vallejo, in a retirement community. It seemed, not one family lived in excess. Everyone lived within his or her means, working hard.
Darcy dreamed of archeology and art, but became a nurse instead. Her job dealt with caring for the sick and the elderly. She hadn't forgiven herself for not being at her dying grandmother's side in the hospital. After a tracheotomy, Joan was unable to talk, and no one was near her. Tarnel was a bibliographer in a children's library. Chaney, both in her job and in her social activities, was involved with helping the poor and the homeless, helping to improve their housing needs. Their lives were full of worries and active participation in democratic and anti-war movements. Their fighting youth and probably the genes from their great grandfather became the basis of their concerns and worldview, as well as their call of the soul. Helen, following the requests of her husband, was fully occupied with efforts to publish Joan's memoirs in Russia. After a thorough examination of her mother-in-law's archive, Helen became an advocate for the writer's mother, Flora, and his first wife. Biographers, with the help of Irving Stone, have downplayed the roles of both.
Helen offered weighty arguments in defense of the talented and selfless mother, who, far away from her family, was deserted by the heartless father of her newborn baby. She also defended the beautiful Bess, who was cheated on and humiliated by her scheming husband. The analysis and conclusions drawn by Joan's daughter-in-law and evident in Helen's publications can help augment the one-sided views of these two women who were close to Jack London. Helen also revealed serious issues with Kingman, who, in her opinion, had created obstacles to publishing the memoirs of Joan London.
Dark-haired, with a few gray strands, slim Darcy closely resembled Joan. She was her favorite granddaughter. It was with her that the grandmother shared her life wisdom, introduced the young woman to her taste in clothes and manners, while her gifts stimulated the mind. Darcy sent me a tape with her story about her grandmother and her daughter, Claire — a very sweet, Russian-looking (judging by the photos) 18-year-old girl.
Chaney looked more like her great grandmother Bessie — with classical facial features, calm, reserved — she was probably the most laid back and persistent among the sisters. Tarnel was lively, approachable and decisive. Chaney invited my wife and me to stay with her after the symposium. Their house, located in Santa Rosa, had three bedrooms, a kitchen and an added structure. Half of the lawn was taken up by the workshop of her husband, Steve, who built bicycles of his own design.
Chaney and Steve had two daughters. Sybil, a lively, curious, delicate, spontaneous 10-year-old, was just pure joy of a child. Lily, who was seven, was calm, like her mother and very smart, but stayed in the shadow of her older sister. Early in the morning, Chaney either drove or walked them to school. It was very close, about four blocks away. If walking, they always took the older dog, whose sense of duty and pride for doing it evoked my respect. Such duty was not trusted to the younger puppy.
Chaney showed us a recent Sunday issue of the local newspaper. In it there was a full-color photo of their whole family riding Steve's bike creations — comfortable and light, with reclining seats, reinforced with backs.
In the evening, Chaney's son from her first marriage, a smiling and good-natured twenty-year-old, Alan, came to visit with the guests. He worked as a dental technician and lived on his own. Tarnel's oldest son, Riley, then 25, was in the army. The youngest one, Devin, was about twelve. Tarnel had her own small house in the "one-storied America," an industrial city of Richmond that is on the way to Oakland. We visited her modest, cozy abode, also with a garden. This was at the very end of my second visit when she was taking us through Berkeley and Oakland, a master in figuring out traffic patterns on the way to the airport.
Copyright © 2004 by Vil M. Bykov