|Home | Introduction | Biography | Beauty Ranch | Wolf House | Museum|
Dale L. Walker
IS entire life had been an uphill scramble, a tale of veritable Darwinian survival and one he proudly told and retold in his fiction: outlasting frustration, persevering, turning disappointment into triumph. The destruction of Wolf House devastated him but momentarily. He went back to work, the Jack London anodyne, and in many ways the three years and three months separating the fire and his death were the happiest and most productive of his life.
John Barleycorn, that "bare, bald, recital of my own experiences in the realm of alcohol," appeared in August, the month Wolf House burned, and earned a rhapsodic endorsement from the Women's Christian Temperance Union of California. (Later, the National Prohibition Party also adopted it and to his amusement, suggested Jack might run for president on its ticket). The book was a light-hearted but devastating first-person insight into alcoholism from his first drunk, at age five as he carried a pail of beer to his father plowing in the fields and drank from the bucket. He told of bouts with whiskey which almost cost him his life, and of his self-imposed rule not to drink aboard the Snark nor at home during his daily 1,000-word "stint". He had mixed success with hard liquor to the end of his life.
The Abysmal Brute, an exposé of the prizefight game, and The Valley of the Moon, a pastoral novel set in London's own adopted paradise of Sonoma County, were also published in 1913 and before the year ended he began the writing another Sonoma novel, a love-triangle melodrama, The Little Lady of the Big House.
He wrote his daily thousand words and answered a flood of correspondence on the Dictaphone in a new workroom attached to the cottage—still dreaming of rebuilding Wolf House—and ran his ranch, now 1,439 acres in size. He oversaw the building of a dam and the terracing of the grain and produce acreage, adding to his Jersey cattle herd and starting another of Angora goats. He relaxed with Charmian watching Charlie Chaplin movies in San Francisco, dined with friends at the Saddle Rock Restaurant in Oakland, and cruised on the bay on his yawl Roamer.
Outwardly, his riotous life seemed to have taken a tranquil turn: The sailor had been becalmed, enjoying a homebody's routine of work and play, friends and family.
The looming threat to his happiness was the state of his health which had declined steadily from about 1910 following his return from the South Seas, the decline exacerbated by a life too suddenly sedentary and excessive in drink and diet. After an appendectomy two months before the Wolf House fire, London's physician, William S. Porter, told him his kidneys were infected, that uremia was taking its toll, and that he must switch instantly to a bland diet with no alcohol and strengthen his body by a rigorous exercise regimen.
Jack respected Dr. Porter but ignored the medical advice, and proceeded to embark on a strenuous assignment offered him by Collier's in the spring of 1914. The magazine wanted him to serve as its correspondent in Mexico to cover an explosive international incident. Some American sailors had been arrested in Tampico and while they were released soon after, the Woodrow Wilson administration had made certain demands of the Mexican government which were denied. Wilson authorized the navy to seize the harbor at Vera Cruz, a strategy that resulted in a two-day fight in which nineteen American sailors and marines, and 126 Mexican troops were killed.
Collier's offered London the unprecedented salary of $1,100 a week plus expenses to report from Vera Cruz on the fight and its aftermath. Perpetually in debt and forever neglectful of his health, he accepted the assignment. He arranged for Charmian to travel with him and the two rode the Sunset Limited from Los Angeles to El Paso in mid-April, then on to Galveston and to Vera Cruz on a transport ship. In the Mexican port city he reunited with Richard Harding Davis and other correspondents from the Russo-Japanese War a decade past, and spent a month interviewing soldiers in the field, sailors on warships in the harbor, and soaking up information. He saw no fighting—it had ended before he reached Vera Cruz—but wrote several long and colorful dispatches which put Collier's readers in the midst of the tense military and political atmosphere of a country still in the throes of a bloody revolution. The articles also served to further alienate him from the American Socialist Party which accused him of reversing his opinions on the justice of the revolution, and of being co-opted by American oilmen in the country.
In late May, he took to his hotel bed with dysentery, ran a high fever, complained of pain in his colon and bloody diarrhea, and returned home, shaken and weak from the brief Mexican venture.
The year ended with publication of his rousing sea story, The Mutiny of the Elsinore, and good news from two of his mainstay magazines: the Saturday Evening Post offered him $750 for all the stories he could supply and Cosmopolitan agreed to pay two-thousand-dollar advances to serialize The Little Lady of the Big House and a novel he was planning, a dog story set in the South Seas.
But the decline continued: the uremic infection, recurring dysentery, vomiting, and "gripes"—stomach and colon pains. He and Charmian shipped to Honolulu in January, 1915, hoping the sun and sea breezes might invigorate him. He rested and worked, wore a loose kimono and sat at his desk on the lanai of a guest bungalow facing the sea. There he wrote Jerry of the Islands, his dog story set in the New Hebrides, and dreamed of books he longed to write. ("Lord, Lord, man," he wrote to Roland Phillips, his editor at Cosmopolitan, "I haven't begun to write yet.")
They sailed home in July. Jack's last great novel, The Star Rover, appeared in October. The book was based upon the experiences of a San Quentin inmate named Ed Morell who wrote of tortures in prison, including being straitjacketed for days at a time. The ex-convict told of learning to escape the jacket by "astral projection," in which his spirit left his body and roamed through time and space. London heard of Morrell's claims and invited him to the ranch to tell his story. The resulting novel, said Joan London , the author's daughter, "was Jack's last attempt at a serious work. Into this extraordinary and little-known book he flung with a prodigal hand riches which he had hoarded for years, and compressed into brilliant episodes notes originally intended for full-length books."
The Londons returned to Honolulu in December, 1915, and on New Year's Eve attended a reception for Queen Liliuokalani in the throne room of her palace. The seven months they spent in Jack's beloved islands provided few clues to his wide circle of friends there of the dire state of his health, his advancing uremia, his morphine-induced sleep to escape the agony of kidney stones. The Londons entertained friends at their Waikiki cottage, held card parties where everybody talked about the Great War in Europe and the chances of American involvement, attended banquets, minstrel shows, movies, charity balls, luaus, polo games and picnics. He managed to write Michael, Brother of Jerry, a sequel to his island dog novel and a few Hawaiian stories before returning home in August.
Outwardly at least, his routine seemed little changed. He wrote his stories, answered correspondence, rode the ranch, greeted and entertained guests—a good many of them complete strangers, old hobos, sailors, down-and-out pugs from the boxing ring, seeking a handshake, a handout and a meal from the notorious soft-touch, Jack London.
Few of the visitors saw beneath the generosity and joviality the pale, irritable, despondent, dying man suffering from the agonies of advanced kidney disease, finding peace only in morphine-induced sleep.
One of the joys of these last days was London's discovery of Carl Jung's newly-published Psychology of the Unconscious. In Jung, he said, he saw a whole new world opening up for his fiction and experimented with a long fever-dream sequence in a final Klondike story, "Like Argus of the Ancient Times," later published in Hearst's Magazine.
On November 20 he rode up to the top of Sonoma Mountain to look at some land he hoped to buy. That night he barely slept and spent the twenty-first listless, fatigued, unable to hold his breakfast. He wrote his stint on a Hawaiian novel, Cherry, he had begun and wrote a letter to his daughter Joan, the last letter he would write. In it he asked that she and her sister Bess join him for lunch at the Saddle Rock in Oakland. He suggested taking in a matinee movie and a sail on Lake Merritt and wrote of leaving in a few days for New York.
In the evening London talked with Eliza about the chores he wanted done on the ranch while he was away, talked with Charmian for an hour, then, at eight, went to his room to read. His last words to her were cryptic: "Thank God you're not afraid of anything."
She took a walk, returned at nine, and saw a light in his room—her bedroom only a few feet from his with a porch between. He had fallen asleep, feet propped up, chin on his chest, green eyeshade on his head, while reading Around Cape Horn, Maine to California in 1852, by James W. Paige.
© 2004 by Dale L. Walker. From The Calamity Papers: Western Myths and Cold Cases (New York: Forge Books, Dec. 2004).