Where to stay in San Francisco

I had an interesting reference question recently: was there the equivalent of AirBnB in the 19th century? and How did San Francisco cope with the tourist industry? The person who asked the question wasn’t exactly sure what she was after in terms of an answer but it led me on an illuminating romp through the old city directories and historic newspapers. Hotels were built in the San Francisco area as early as the mid 1840’s (then it was called Yerba Buena). One of the first known hotels was called the City Hotel, ironically because there was no City yet (!) opened by William Leidesdorff.  Another one that claims to be the first was the Portsmouth House, opened by a fellow named Brown in 1846. After the declaration of war with Mexico in mid 1846, more...

Dreaming of my subject’s life

Back in December I crafted an outline, detailed table of contents, and sample chapter for the Hazel Rowley Prize offered by Biographers’ International. It was an extremely useful exercise for a variety of reasons but, perhaps it’s needless to say, I didn’t win the prize. While I was moderately disappointed, by the time the decision was made (sometime in April?) I was already well on the road to rethinking my proposal’s contents. It so happens that the night I submitted my materials I had a terribly vivid dream about my subject. In my dream, not only was he alive and well, but his workshop was located within the confines of a beached submarine that I had the pleasure of touring.  With my subject as my guide, he showed me around the place,...

What’s In My Book Bag

One of my New Year’s resolutions was to start keeping track of the books I’ve read. As a lifelong heavy reader I’ve started and stopped this sort of record keeping a couple of times. Since I’ve started my biographical project however, keeping track of informational and inspirational sources has become a necessity. In the same place (a Black n’ Red hardbound notebook) I record both the fiction and non-fiction titles I read, along with a few notes on their content and my thoughts. The only rule is that I must read the book in its entirety (no skimming – I’m a champion skimmer). Here’s what I’ve been reading that relates to writing. Developmental Editing: a handbook for freelancers, authors, and publishers by...

Learning From Other Biographies

I awaited the publication of Karin Sveen’s  The Immigrant and the University: Pedar Sather and Gold Rush California with great anticipation because it is set in Gold Rush California and follows the life of Pedar Sather, for whom Sather Gate, the Campanile, two professorships, and the Sather Center at the University of California at Berkeley are named.  Sveen’s book boasts a preface by Kevin Starr and has been beautifully translated from Norwegian by Barbara J. Havelund – beautifully because the author’s voice clearly shines through with dreamy passages such as this from page 20. “I picture him in his cabin, head bowed over his grammar book and dictionary, in calm weather and when storms tore at the sails and tugged at the rigging. I...

James Lick Bust at the Mechanics’ Institute

One of the first things one sees upon entering the beautiful landmark building of the Mechanics’ Institute is the bronze bust of James Lick. Lick, a wealthy land owner, carpenter, and millwright had come to the aid of the Mechanics’ Institute several times between 1855 and his death in 1876. His remembrance of the Institute in his will, $10,000, so impressed our Board of Directors that in 1896 they commissioned the bust, designed by local sculptor Francis Marion Wells and cast by Messrs. Louis De Rome and Neil Whyte of the Globe Brass and Bell Foundry, to hang in our lobby as a memorial and testament to Lick’s generosity and commitment to the mechanics of this city. This was not the first time Wells had sculpted Lick’s likeness. In 1890 when the James...

Crossing bridges and connecting the dots

Researching the life of my subject has been fraught with trials. While research is rarely easy my particular problem is that  he died a few years before the 1906 Earthquake and Fire. This catastrophe destroyed San Francisco’s Hall of Records, a repository that contained the paper proof of vital occurrences such as births and deaths, divorces and medical records. The fire also destroyed thousands of homes and business that contained the other kinds of records one desperately needs to reconstruct a life: business documents, diaries, photographs, personal artifacts and letters. Fortunately the really big events (especially if you were famous) were often covered by the local newspapers so I have been able to reconstruct the benchmarks to some degree. What has...