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Revolution in the House that Mrs. Jack London Built: Tales of a Museum and a World Famous Writer

Photo by JERRYE AND ROY KLOTZ MD | CC BY 2.0

Change has always been slow at Jack London State Historic Park in Glen Ellen, but when it does change, as it has in the past, it comes with a bang and fanfare, too.

The House of Happy Walls—which London’s second wife, Charmian, built after his death in 1916— is now in the midst of a radical upheaval that will reframe their mythic relationship as one of co-equal partners. Mucking about with a myth is tricky business and while it will please some it’s bound to displease others.

A power couple, Jack and Charmian were forerunners of that quintessential jazz-age duo, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. Like the Fitzgerald’s, the London’s radiated glamor, and like the Fitzgerald’s they had troubles galore.

Jack died at 40, a victim of his addictions. Charmian out-lived him by 39 years, though she knew great sorrow as well as unadulterated bliss. A daughter named Joy, who was born on January 19, 1910, died two days later. Charmian never had children of her own and she and Jack never lived in their dream house. It burned to the ground in 1913, and, though she and he both suspected arson, a forensic team that investigated decades later concluded that Wolf House caught on fire by spontaneous combustion.

The spooky ruins still call to visitors. No wonder, Charmian wanted her own house to have “happy walls.”

Charmian lived at the home that she designed from 1934 to 1955. Five years after her death, the sprawling property—which Jack had dubbed “Beauty Ranch”—became a park operated by the State of California. That’s when her home turned into a museum, and, while she wasn’t effaced from the historical record, Jack’s life and legacy eclipsed hers.

Still, for decades a silent sisterhood read Charmian’s work, studied her life and wrote love poems to her. Jack called her his “mate woman.” A writer, a globetrotter, a feminist and a homemaker, she carved out her own path and would probably enjoy the recognition that’s finally coming her way.

The redesigned House of Happy Walls will reopen in the summer of 2018. Donald Sibbett, who has long worked with museums and visitors’ centers, is creating the new exhibits and will install them. The old stonewalls will be unchanged, but nearly everything inside will look and feel different.

As one London fan observed, “The museum got old and lost its attractiveness. It needed a radical makeover.”

The new exhibits will be arranged thematically, not chronologically, and will allow for participation by the public. Long-time visitors accustomed to the musty rooms and old photos might not recognize the place, especially the second-floor that will be given over largely to Charmian, who had a keen sense of design and aesthetics. The overarching theme is the quest by two explorers who had a partnership of equals.

The restoration of House of the Happy Walls has been in the works for years. London scholars and aficionados of his fifty or so books say the museum finally gives credit to the woman behind the best-selling author, experimental farmer, and handsome globetrotter who cultivated his image as intensely as the early Hollywood stars who acted in the silent movies inspired by his novels, including Martin Eden.

London would approve of the changes at House of Happy Walls, and, while he would also be flattered by a park in his name, he preferred the great outdoors to the indoors, horseback riding to gazing at paintings in museums. Still, he thought that all publicity about him was good publicity as long as his name was spelled correctly. He would certainly like the fact that his books sell well at the park and that readers revere his name.

Mike Benziger, who lives downhill from the park, endorses the transformation at House of the Happy Walls. He’s the chairman of the Board at the Jack London State Historic Park, which has been in private hands ever since 2012 when Sacramento announced its imminent closure.

A group of Sonoma County citizens, many of them with successful careers in sales and marketing, created the Jack London Park Partners. They rallied community support and raised millions of dollars which have been spent wisely on the maintenance of the 1,400-acre spread and its buildings, including a costly but much-needed restoration of the cottage where Jack and Charmian lived and that now showcases the mementoes they brought back from their adventures on land and sea.

Managing the 1,400 acres has been nearly as challenging as creating the park itself. In the 1950s, the California legislature was slow to approve of a state park dedicated to the life and work of a life-long socialist who ran for mayor of Oakland twice and who called for a revolution that would overturn the capitalist system. In the era of McCarthyism and the Cold War, London was a hard sell in academia in the U.S., though he was the bestselling American author in the Soviet Union.

“Privatization has its benefits,” Benziger told me on a recent morning when we discussed House of Happy Walls. “We’re not tied to the state, as the park once was, and we can make changes faster than the state and in keeping with current needs.”

Benziger added, “Charmian is every bit as interesting as Jack and a perfect foil for him.”

Indeed, the allure of Charmian might help turn the park into a major destination in Wine County for moms, kids and travelers on the road curious about the park in the tiny town of Glen Ellen which hasn’t changed much since Charmian’s days. Over the past five years, visitors to the park have more than doubled. The Park Partners are hoping for 150,000 visitors annually, 50,000 more than current figures show.

“We want the park to be a draw for wineries, restaurants and local businesses,” Benziger told me. “We want to persuade visitors to travel away from the Sonoma plaza and go up valley to Glen Ellen.”

Benziger is the perfect person to call for changes at House of Happy Walls. A biodynamic grape grower, and more recently a cannabis cultivator, he made Benziger Family Winery on Sonoma Mountain adjacent to the park, a haven for wine lovers.

Now, he’s creating world-class cannabis products that are marketed under the label “Glentucky Family Farm,” and with an icon of a wolf, London’s totem, which appeared on the cover of his first book.

The famous author himself would approve of Benziger’s accomplishments. After all, Jack smoked hashish, which he called “the most beautiful of maidens.” He also grew grapes and made grape juice that he marketed under the Jack London label. Unlike Benziger, he had a drinking problem. He outed himself in John Barleycorn, Alcoholic Memoirs, a book that Charmian helped him write.

“She kept him organized and focused,” Benziger told me. Indeed, without her London would have fallen apart before he hit 40.

The challenge for Benziger, for Tjiska Van Wyck—the savvy executive director of the park—and the whole transformation and restoration team, including designer Donald Sibbett— is to select what goes in and what stays out of the exhibit. London himself would understand. Good writing, he explained in a December 1898 letter, required “the art of omission.” He added that for him, “it was the hardest to learn.”

The new museum at House of Happy Walls can’t include everything about the London’s. As Van Wyck told me, “Jack crammed a lot into 40 years. You can’t please everyone.” The shrunken heads that the London’s collected won’t make the final cut.

Benziger echoes Van Wycks’s sentiments.

“When Jack died at 40, his obit should have said he was 80,” he explained. “He was a polymath and lived 48 hours in every 24-hour day. No one single museum can tell his whole story.”

The restoration of Charmian London means the downsizing of Jack’s first wife, Bessie, and their two daughters, especially Joan, who wrote one of the first books about her father that she subtitled “An Unconventional Biography.” If dad had lived until the 1920s, Joan argued, he would have become an admirer of Benito Mussolini, the Italian fascist. That’s a stretch, though London certainly admired Nietzschean supermen.

When Charmian died, the estate went to Jack’s stepsister, Eliza Shepard who ran Beauty Ranch for decades. When she died her descendants took over. Over the years, members of the Shepard family have often given the impression that they’re related by blood to Jack.

Joan London’s granddaughter, Tarnel Abbott, a former librarian and a keeper of the London flame, isn’t happy about the erasure of her grandparents from the official story. London biographers will also be saddened by the marginalization of Anna Strunsky, a Russian-born Jewish socialist, who attended Stanford, loved Jack dearly and turned down his proposal of marriage before he went on to propose to Charmian.

Her new, improved perch at the park has been building for decades. Sonoma State University professor emerita, Clarice Stasz, wrote about her in 1989 in American Dreamers: Charmian and Jack London. Rebecca Rosenberg has just published an historical fiction called The Secret Life of Mrs. Jack London in which she explores Charmian’s real life romance with magician and escape artist, Harry Houdini. Biographers have known about their affair for decades, though they haven’t emphasized it.

Susan Nuernberg, who teaches a class about Charmian at SSU, doesn’t approve of the fictionalization. “There’s no need to make up stuff,” she wrote in an email to me. Indeed, there are enough true-life stories to fill volumes.

If biographers of Jack and Charmian have made up stuff it might be his fault. After all, he embellished and exaggerated his achievements, and in the process turned himself into a legend in his own time, albeit with help from newspaper and magazine editors who touted him as “a boy socialist,” “the Rudyard Kipling of the Yukon” and as a “barroom brawler.”

To his Boston publisher, London wrote on January 31, 1900, “I was a salmon fisher, an oyster pirate, a schooner sailor, a fish-patrolman, and a longshoreman.” More than one hundred years later, it’s not possible to say with certainty if and when he worked at all or any of those jobs, and for how long.

In the very same letter, London boasted that he was “self-educated” and “had no mentor but myself.” He seems to have forgotten that he went to public schools in the San Francisco Bay Area, attended UC Berkeley briefly and rooted for Cal in the big game against Stanford.

A host of women, including Ina Coolbrith—an Oakland librarian and the first California poet laureate—plus Anna Strunsky and Jack’s first wife, Bessie, took the ruff-and-tumble kid with street smarts, gave him books to read and helped turned his life away from poverty to riches.

Jack’s biological mother, Flora, and his African American foster mother, Virginia Prentiss, an ex-slave, also helped nurture the man and the myth. Women surrounded him from birth to death.

“A lot of people thought Jack was a nut job,” Benziger told me. “Yes, he did have flaws, including his addictions that led to an early death. He had to anesthetize himself or reality would have overwhelmed him.”

Benziger added, “London inspired me to travel and come back with new ideas and technologies. I learned from him that you can protect the land and also have a profitable crop. I hope he persuades today’s kids to get away from their screens and experience the real world.”

 

Jonah Raskin is the author of Burning Down the House: Jack London and the Wolf House Fire, and the editor of The Radical Jack London: Writings on War and Revolution.

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