Dale Says

May 18, 2021

Ina Coolbrith: The Saving Power of Poetry

Filed under: Colorful Characters, Historical Article — Mr. D @ 5:46 pm

On top of San Francisco’s Russian Hill, on Vallejo Street between Mason and Taylor, is a small park with wonderful views of the Pyramid Building and Bay Bridge. It’s a quiet and secluded spot where tourists and locals can rest, reflect, and read about the San Francisco poet the park is named for.

Ina Donna Coolbrith struggled throughout her life with personal loss, family obligation, and illness. But through dogged persistence she became one of the best-known and most loved poets of her time.

Born in Navoo, Illinois March 10, 1841, her mother named her Josephina after her uncle, Joseph Smith (founder of the Morman faith). Her father died of malaria when she was five months old, followed by her sister. Her mother re-married, moved the family (including 11-year-old “Ina,” as the family called her) by wagon train to California, and supported the family while her new husband invested in failed gold mines. The family relocated to San Francisco, and then Los Angeles.

Ina fell in love with poetry on the way west, reading Shakespeare and Byron, and making up poems during the long, dreary days on the trail. She published her first poem in a Los Angeles newspaper at age 15. Two years later she married Robert Carsely, an ironworker, who abused her, and she lost a baby boy. She divorced, moved to San Francisco, and changed her name to Ina Coolbrith (her mother’s maiden name).

San Francisco and poetry became her refuge. She taught school, wrote poems, and developed friendships with writers and poets of the day – including Mark Twain, Bret Harte, Charles Stoddard, Joaquin Miller, and Ambrose Bierce. When the all-male Bohemian Club formed in 1872, Ina was made an honorary member.

Ina’s responsibilities grew when her sister died and left two children in her care, followed by her ill mother, and Joaquin Miller’s daughter. Suddenly, Ina had a lot of mouths to feed. She became head librarian of Oakland’s library, where she worked for 18 years. When she was abruptly fired (without cause) she became the Bohemian Club librarian. From her house on Russian Hill, she hosted writing salons and composed poems. Over time, she became a leading West Coast poet, and her work was familiar to a generation of Californians.

Ina never re-married. Men called on her and friends (including John Muir) tried to play matchmaker, and while she was admired by many men and may have had a tryst or two, in the end, her true loves were San Francisco and poetry.

The 1906 earthquake and fire destroyed Ina’s house and burned much of her writing. Friends took her in and collected donations to help rebuild her home on Russian Hill. She continued to write poetry and remained a vital part of the San Francisco literary scene for decades. She outlived most of her contemporaries and (despite severe rheumatoid arthritis) continued to write until her death at age 86, February 29, 1928.

There have been many tributes to San Francisco’s “Queen of the Meuses.” Books have been written about her, a mountain in the Sierras is named for her, and a park on Russian Hill is dedicated to her. But perhaps the utmost recognition was when she was named California’s poet laureate (the first in the U.S.) during the 1915 Pan-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco.

On the second day of the exhibition a standing-room-only crowd assembled to see Ina crowned. Poet Edwin Markham described her accomplishments. Senator Phelan introduced her. When the president of the University of California presented her with a laurel crown the audience cheered, waved white handkerchiefs, and threw flowers at her feet.

Ina was typically modest: “For those who are passed away and for my sister women,” she told the crowd, “I accept this laurel with deep gratitude and deeper humility.”

To San Francisco
By: Ina Coolbrith (1841-1928)

Fair on your hills, my City,
Fair as the Queen of old,
Supreme in her seven-hilled splendor-
You, from your Gate of Gold,

Facing the orient sunburst,
Swathed in the sunset gleams,
Throned in an ultimate glory,
City of mists and of dreams!

Alice Marble: A Story for the Ages

Filed under: Colorful Characters, Profile, Uncategorized — Mr. D @ 5:44 pm

The next time you explore San Francisco, you might want to spend a few minutes at the tennis courts on top of Russian Hill, less than a block from Lombard Street. From there, you can enjoy breathtaking views of the Pacific Ocean, the Golden Gate Bridge, and Alcatraz – and you can reflect on the remarkable story of a San Franciscan named Alice Marble.

“Tennis gave me the opportunity to serve my country, but it did not prepare me for what I was asked to do – be a spy!”

That’s how Alice Marble opens her autobiography, which quickly turns into a dramatic rise-and-fall-and-rise-again story. She calmly tells how she overcame vast odds (including tuberculosis) and massive loss, to become the best female tennis player in the world. It also tells how she lost everything, and then bounced back to help prosecute the people who tried to destroy her life. It really is a story for the ages!

No one would have predicted such an exciting life for a girl who grew up an ordinary tomboy in 1920s San Francisco. As a girl, Alice Marble was primarily interested in sports, especially baseball. When she was seven, her father died on Christmas Eve, leaving her mother to raise five children. Her uncle filled in by taking Marble and her brother to local minor league San Francisco Seals games. She enjoyed it so much she went whenever possible, arriving early to play catch before the game. Thinking she was a boy, one of the Seals players asked her to come on the field. Marble later wrote that “… my hero, Lefty O’Doul, asked me to shag flies for him. Joe DiMaggio, beside me in center field, yelled encouragement.”

After that, local newspapers printed stories about her, identifying her as the new “Seals mascot,” and a San Francisco Examiner sportswriter dubbed her the “Little Queen of Swat.”

When she was thirteen, her brother gave her a tennis racket and told her, “You can’t keep hanging around the ballpark, hitting balls through people’s windows and acting like a boy.” At first, Marble was devastated to lose her time with the Seals, but she learned to play tennis – and to play it well. She excelled at sports at San Francisco’s Polytechnic High School, and after school she became a champion tennis player, noted for her aggressive play on the court and pioneering a new form of women’s power tennis. She also started a new dress style for women’s tennis, being the first to wear shorts. She toured the U.S., Canada, and Europe, played in tennis tournaments, and won most of the time.

In 1934, Marble collapsed during a match at a tennis tournament in France. Doctors diagnosed her with tuberculosis and told her she would never play tennis again. She was taken to a sanatorium and confined to a bed, where she watched her muscles and her hopes wither. After nearly a year, she left the sanatorium and went to live with her tennis coach. Encouraged by her coach and by actress Carole Lombard, who became a friend and confidante, Marble made a remarkable comeback. Through excruciating rehabilitation and grueling effort she went back on the tournament schedule and, in 1939, she won tennis titles in women’s singles, women’s doubles, and mixed doubles. She became the best female tennis player in the world and was named the Associated Press Female Athlete of the Year in 1939 and 1940. Her comeback and championships won her fame and notoriety. She designed her own line of tennis clothing for women, gave inspirational talks, conducted tennis clinics, hung out with well-known people, including Clark Gable, Charlie Chaplin, William du Pont, and Randolph Hearst, and was mobbed by fans and given special treatment wherever she went.

During World War II, Marble volunteered to serve in the armed forces, but she was turned down because of her tuberculosis. Instead, she was asked by President Roosevelt to co-chair a physical-fitness program for the Office of Civilian Defense. To pass security, she was interrogated by the FBI, who questioned her about an earlier relationship with a Swiss banker named Hans and delved into her lifelong photographic memory. She also served her country by conducting tennis clinics for soldiers and by performing as a singer at U.S.O. clubs. She fell in love with and married a handsome, dark-haired pilot named Joe Crowley. They exchanged love letters and spent blissful days together when he was home on leave. She became pregnant and looked forward to raising their baby.

On Christmas Eve, 1944, as the Battle of the Bulge was being fought in Europe, the doorbell at Marble’s apartment rang. A man in a uniform stood in the doorway with a telegram in his hand. Joe was dead, killed in action over Germany. Only days before his death, Alice had a miscarriage with their child after a car accident. It was too much for Alice, and she wrote that “Joe was gone, and all my dreams with him.” She fell apart.

Again, Marble’s tennis coach was there to help her find a reason to go on. After a lengthy recovery Marble was approached by the U.S Army and recruited and trained as a spy. Her mission involved renewing contact with Hans, her former lover and a flourishing Swiss banker, and obtaining Nazi financial information from him. She received training in self-defense, firearms, and using a miniature camera.

She was sent to Europe to play in a series of demonstration tennis matches in order to attract Hans. The ruse worked — he contacted her. They dated, and she wound up falling in love with him. He made her feel alive for the first time in months and she was torn by her longing to be with him and her desire to help her country. Her conscience reminded her that she was the only one who could do what had to be done, and she decided to do her duty.

She discovered where Hans kept a key to a safe containing stolen valuables and names of the Nazis who had stolen them. She feigned an illness and while Hans was out she photographed the information in the safe. Just as she was finishing, Hans came home. She suspected Hans had left the keys in his car, as he usually did, so the servants could move it into the garage, and she waited until she heard him enter the house and go upstairs to look for her. She ran out the front door, got into his car, and fled. She was afraid he would follow, or that she would be stopped by police. Instead, she was flagged down by the Army contact assigned to her, who had been watching Hans’ house.

Her relief turned to terror when she discovered her contact was a double agent. He demanded she give the photographs to him, which was not the agreed upon plan. She refused and fled. He shot her in the back, took the photographs, and turned them over to the Russians.

Badly wounded, Marble spent months recovering in a hospital. Fortunately, she recovered fully and she was able to use her photographic memory to recall some of the Nazi names and information, which she gave to U.S. agents. It was valuable intelligence that was later used to help prosecute high-ranking Nazi officers.

***

After the War, Marble resumed playing and teaching tennis. She spent the rest of her life mentoring female tennis players, including Billy Jean King, and she contributed to the desegregation of the sport by writing an editorial in support of Althea Gibson, the first African-American athlete to cross the color line of international tennis.
***

In 1964, Alice Marble was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame. She moved to Palm Desert, California, where she taught tennis until her death in 1990.

***

The Little Queen of Swat had never given up. She spent her life overcoming adversity and fighting for what she believed in. Hers is truly a story for the ages.

May 3, 2021

On My Birthday 2021

Filed under: On My Birthday — Mr. D @ 11:53 am

On my birthday I am 70 years old. It’s a big ‘un, during a very strange time. After the past year of pandemic, politics, and pandemonium, I’m convinced that people age faster during difficult times. The past year has seemed a lifetime.

The concept of being 70 crept up on me a little at a time, beginning about a year ago. I’m not afraid of being 70, but there is a stronger sense of mortality and an urge to get on with things. And yet it’s difficult because of the pandemic. I can’t travel now, for example, at least in the traditional, overseas sense. And I haven’t been able to see friends, although that’s starting to change. And my writing career is stymied, but not wholly because of the pandemic.

A brief story about being 70: I recently had a delightful email exchange with a college student in Oregon who had purchased one of my Simon & Garfunkel record albums at a used record store. It had my name on it and he sought me out and asked if I wanted it back. The name on the front of the album is in my handwriting, and I clearly remember that being one of my favorite albums. He told me he loves 60s music and he listens to it when he and his dad take road trips. He asked me what my favorite Simon & Garfunkel songs are. I told him “Sounds of Silence” and “Old Friends” and I sent him the lyrics. You probably remember “Old Friends” about two old men sitting on a park bench. One of the final lines is “How terribly strange to be 70”.

And now, experiencing it in person, I have to agree — it is terribly strange!

Yes, it is strange to be seventy. Very strange! But you know what … it was strange to be 60. I remember a rather lengthy period of pouting then. And 50 … a half-century … that was the end of middle age, and that was a tough one, too.

So maybe it’s birthdays that end in zero that are strange. And yet, each of them has introduced me to a decade that was even better than the one before. I hope this is the same.

***

There is no way I could have made it through the past year without Patty. She is my rock and my inspiration. She encourages me and supports me and loves me all the time, even when I’m a pain. We have loved each other, and been with each other, and explored the world together for over 30 years. Together, always together. I’m stronger, and more adventurous, and an overall better person when I’m with her.

***

Physically, I feel good. Over the past year I’ve had some sciatica issues, and troubles with my right foot required visits to a podiatrist. But by my birthday I can say that my overall pain level is low and I can keep it that way by stretching and exercise.

Emotionally, I’m a little worn out. The craziness of the times and the past “pandemic” year have been hard on me, and they’ve slowed me down a little. That’s given me a chance to sit back and assess things.

All things considered, I’m happy with who I am and where I’m at on the day of my big ‘un. It’s been a tough year, but I’ve come through it in pretty good shape. I’m strong, and vital, and have things to look forward to.

***

The world is still in a pandemic, which has been going on for more than a year. The worlds is in the midst of another wave of cases and deaths, in some places. Cases and deaths are increasing in India, South America, parts of the Middle East, and a few U.S. states. We’re all tired of it, and it seems the world is about to explode. We hold our breaths and hope that vaccinations will roll out soon enough to contain this virus spike and prevent others. People are weary and miss their normal lives: kids haven’t been in school, parents have been working from home, businesses have been shut, travel has been severely curtailed.

The pandemic has roiled global economies, upset the lives of everyone on earth, and taken more than three million lives, including 600,000 in the U.S. The worlds is in the middle of a third (or fourth) surge of the virus, and variants of the virus are appearing that are more contagious, and maybe deadlier. Vaccines have been available for a few months, and countries are getting them into peoples’ arms as quickly as possible. It’s amazing how well it is working, at least in the more developed countries! In the U.S., about one-third of the population have been vaccinated. Patty and I had our two shots a couple of months ago, so we feel protected. We still wear masks when we go out, and we still practice social distancing in public.

Living through the past year has been a challenge. We are fortunate to be retired and not raising kids because the pandemic has been hardest on working people with school-age children (who haven’t gone to school for a year). For us, restrictions meant we couldn’t travel, or see friends or family, and we haven’t had a meal in a restaurant for a year. So we spent a lot of time in our house last year. As the months went on, we made adjustments and we began to see Patty’s brother, then my brother and his wife, and we started going for outdoor hikes with Ken and Vicki. That helped, and it made our lives seem a little more normal.

***

My writing career has had ups and downs; mostly downs the past year. My book about San Francisco people did not sell well and, if the truth be told, hardly sold at all. That has been a disappointment. I worked on it for four years, and I thought it would be a hit, but it hasn’t been (it has sold less than 300 copies). It was not well received by local bookstores. I dropped off copies (with notes) at more than a dozen bookstores and never got a call back. I appealed to bookstores and history associations to give talks about the book and never got a call back. I advertised it on Facebook, and ran promotions on Goodreads, and ran an ad in a local newspaper – but I received only a handful of orders. I did presentations on Zoom, which were well-received, but didn’t result in book orders. I donated copies to a local senior program, which resulted in requests for me to make a couple of video presentations, but didn’t increase book orders.

I’m not sure why the book didn’t go over better, but I am beginning to suspect (from the reviews on Amazon) that some people didn’t like the brevity of the stories, while other people didn’t care for the illustrations.

It’s been a disappointment.

***

Over the past year I put together a collection of my short stories about people, added articles by my mother and Aunt Margaret, and added a more personal chapter with articles about my sister’s struggle with Covid-19, my mother’s dementia, and a summary of my birthday stories. I published the collection in a book called “Good People.” I didn’t try to sell it, but instead sent it to friends and relatives. It has been well-received (by those who read it), and I’m satisfied with how it turned out. And I published a book about the Dashiell Hammett society I belong to with background information on the group and meeting minutes I’ve written over the past 20 years. Again, I didn’t try to sell it, but am giving it to society members, friends, and a few family members.

***

My sister Anne had an incredible struggle with Covid. She was in the intensive care unit of a Portland hospital for seven weeks (on a ventilator for more than two weeks) and in a rehab unit for another three weeks. Patty and I drove to Portland to see her when she was released and to stay with she and Buzz to help her recover. She was thin and weak, but she had a positive attitude and recovered somewhat over the summer. Her recovery was a remarkable tribute to the U.S. healthcare system and Anne’s determination. Since getting home, she has struggled to regain her strength and balance. I continue to be impressed with her strength and perseverance.

***

Our group gatherings have been less frequent and smaller the past year. We stayed in touch on Zoom for a while and held gatherings in Misty’s garage, or wherever we could safely get together, and instead of the whole gang getting together we have had family members or a couple of friends over for holidays and special occasions. We crave time with family and the gang.

***

Over the past years I have developed an appreciation for Pt. Reyes National Seashore, and I love spending time there. Last Fall, I found a cottage to rent that really fit us, and Patty and I stayed there a week each month from November through March. It was a great change of pace from our routine in San Francisco, and we enjoyed the beauty and solitude. We loved having friends and family members join us. The nights were especially memorable with coyotes howling at the moon, wind shaking the trees, and quiet. It was just what we needed!

***

We managed to fit in a couple of driving vacations, despite the virus situation. We went to Drakesbad in August for four days. There were just five of us this year, as the rest were concerned about the virus. It was a good getaway, and we enjoyed the change of scenery, hiking, and stargazing at night.

Patty and I drove to Oregon just after Christmas, to spend time with Anne, Buzz, and Ian. The drive was long, but good, and the time with Anne was special.

***

Our Dashiell Hammett group continued to meet during the pandemic. We met in person last March just as the pandemic was shutting things down, and then we met on Zoom for a while which wasn’t very satisfactory. So, we met in person, outside one of our houses. The group has lost a little of its previous spirit and some of the meetings were a little tense, but we are all happy we continued to meet.

***

I have continued to volunteer, although the focus shifted from serving meals to shopping for people who can’t leave their homes because of health issues and the virus. For the past year I have gone shopping for groceries and supplies for three elderly women, including Ina. It has made for some long Fridays. But the women have been grateful, and that has been a good reward.

I have continued to support several local organizations with donations; including Telegraph Hill Neighborhood Center, NEXTVillage, Smuin Ballet, the San Francisco Symphony, Pt. Reyes, and the San Francisco History Association.

***

The pandemic was the major news item over the past year. As the death toll grew (100,000 in June 2020, to 300,000 in January, and 500,000 in March) state and local leaders tried their best to contain it and prevent illness and death. But hospitals and health care workers were overwhelmed in many states. As the situation worsened some state and national leaders turned it into a political issue – refusing to mandate or enforce safety measures, rebuking those who did, attacking health care leaders, and endorsing questionable measures to contain or cure the virus. By April of 2021 there were more than 500,000 deaths from the virus in the U.S. and over three million worldwide.

***

The world lost a trailblazer and champion of truth when Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died last September. She spent a lifetime fighting for women’s rights and served 27 years on the nation’s highest court, becoming its most prominent member. Her death left a huge void that will take a long time to fill.

***

The U.S. has been in disarray much of the past several years, with deep divisions and a great deal of anger over the appropriate future direction. Some of it has merit, as income and racial inequities are increasing, but much of the rage is over “perceived” inequities and fear by whites that they are losing their majority and traditional way of life. Those perceptions and fears have been exploited by Trump, opportunistic members of congress, and right-wing media. There seems to be little interest in actually fixing the country’s problems; instead, most of the rhetoric centers on power and resentments. Meanwhile, the big issues like immigration, climate control, gun violence, and racial unrest fester.

Under those circumstances, we all held our breaths last November when we went to the polls to choose between Trump and Biden. On election night Patty and I were glued to our televisions, hopeful but gravely concerned. Trump was ahead much of the night as in-person votes were tallied. Then, as the night wore on Biden started to catch up, and as more mail-in ballots were counted he pulled ahead. A handful of states would decide it – including Michigan, Wisconsin, Georgia, and Arizona. The first three were called for Biden, and then Fox News, which had been Trump’s propaganda arm the past four years, declared Biden had won Arizona. Trump’s people tried to pressure Fox executives to change their call, which was refused.

Near midnight, Patty started to get ready for bed. That’s it, we both thought, Biden has won. But wait, was Trump going to concede, or would he do something crazy? He is a reality TV guy, after all. News organizations were told that Trump would make an announcement. A concession speech, we wondered. No, that’s not his style. Then what?
About midnight (West Coast time) Trump walked to a podium and proclaimed that he had won the election, there was wide-spread election fraud, and he walked off.
We were flabbergasted! Trump continued to say that for the next two months, and he sent cronies to pivotal states to file lawsuits to overturn voting results. He summoned state election officials to the White House and asked them to change state voting results. He called other state election officials and asked them to “find” enough votes to make him the winner. Court after court and election official after election official said “no” — there’s no fraud – certainly not enough to overturn the election. Trump’s own election official said this was a clean election, so Trump fired him. There were re-counts, and challenges, and Trump continued to say the election was rigged and he had really won.

While Trump continued his “big lie” right-wing news organizations perpetuated it on air. That got Trump’s supporters worked up and they vowed to overturn the election. Finally, the day came (January 6) when the United States Congress was to certify the electoral college results. Trump’s supporters planned a huge rally in Washington D.C. to support their hero. When the day arrived, there were thousands of Trump supporters in the nation’s capital — with Trump flags, and American flags, and baseball bats, and bear spray — ready to do whatever needed to be done to accomplish their goals, whatever those were. Trump sent out sycophants to rile up the crowd, and then Trump himself came out and told the crowd the election had been stolen from him, and he encouraged them to march to the capitol building where he would join them. They did, but he didn’t. When they reached the capitol building, they stormed it — fighting police, trampling barricades, breaking windows and doors, entering the building, stealing furniture, photographing documents, trying to locate election results, and threatening to hang the Vice President.

Patty and I watched it on television in disbelief! It was an insurrection, in the U.S. capitol building, incited by a U.S. president!

It took several hours and thousands of police and national guard soldiers to clear the miscreants. Five people died in the process. At first Trump refused to call it off, and by the time he asked his supporters to go home the damage was done.

Despite the horror and chaos, Trump continued to say the election was stolen from him and he had really won, and he continues to say that today. He has never conceded the election, refused to go to Biden’s inauguration, and left town before the inauguration began. Today, half of his supporters continue to believe the election was fraudulent and Trump really won. Meanwhile, some states run by Republican governments are changing election laws to make it harder to vote – out of fealty to Trump and fear of his backers.

The House of Representatives impeached Trump for inciting a riot. That gave Trump the distinction of being the only U.S. president to be impeached twice. Republicans in the Senate refused to convict him, using the excuse that the Constitution doesn’t allow a president who is no longer in office to be convicted.

The world watched and couldn’t believe this was happening in the country that used to be leader of the free world. “How sad,” my friends from other countries wrote to me, “What has happened to your country?”

***

The past year has been a terrible one for the United States and the world. More than three million lives have been lost to a virus (many unnecessarily), and the damage the virus has had on economies will take years to recover.

The past year has been a challenging one for me. Spending the last year of your 60s in “lockdown” has been hard. Having a major writing project fall on its face has been discouraging. And not being able to travel or see family and friends has been tough. But over the past year, Patty and I comforted ourselves by realizing that Anne is alive and recovering and we are in a very good house in a very good city and we have each other. That, more than anything else, will get us through.

Things are beginning to turn around. Vaccinations are proceeding quickly, and new virus cases are decreasing. Stores and restaurants are re-opening, and more-and-more public events are being held in person. Soon we will be able to see family and friends, and one day we will be able to do it without masks and social distancing.
Competent, caring leadership is in charge in California and in the U.S., and we seem to be moving in the right direction.

So, there is hope that reason and truth will prevail, good people will undo the damage done by bad people, and the pandemic will come to an end.

That’s something to cling to.

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