Ina Coolbrith: The Bittersweet Song of California’s First Poet Laureate

I heard Aleta George speak at the Mechanics’ Institute Library and during the Q&A one audience member proclaimed the book to be one of the best she’d read about early California history. I can echo that sentiment, with the caveat that George’s prose was a bit blocky at times. Superbly researched over a decade by diving into the Bancroft archives where Coolbridge’s letters reside, we get a much fuller picture of Ina (“EYE-na”) than previous biographies. After tramping overland to California with the rest of the Mormon settlers, her family lives in San Francisco before heading to Los Angeles where as an 18 year old, Ina marries a man who later pulls a gun on her and turns out to be worthlessly violent (they divorce after he shoots and misses and her step-father shoots him in the hand which has to be amputated). She sweeps her mother and step-brothers under her arm and heads to San Francisco where she continues publishing poetry and begins to mingle with the other literati (Bret Harte, Charles Stoddard, Mark Twain, Joaquin Miller). She’s the head librarian of the Oakland library during the time when Jack London & Isadora Duncan visit and are influenced by her; sadly no evidence that Gertrude Stein & Coolbridge crossed paths, although Stein was living in Oakland during this same time.
Joaquin Miller dumps his daughter into Ina’s lap to raise along with supporting her niece, nephew and step brothers. Miller’s daughter, Calla Shasta turns out to be a bit of a hell-raiser, although she does leave this mournful clue about people suffering under patriarchy in the last century, “I am sadly disappointed for not being a boy.” Ina struggles to support a large household by slaving 70 hour weeks in the library, and her poetry dries to a trickle. After 20 years at the library, she’s forced out by the board and faces poverty made more dire by the 1906 earthquake and fire wiping out the manuscript she’d almost completed of A History of California Literature, along with all of her other possessions. Homeless, and having slept on the ground at Fort Mason for a few nights, she’s rescued by friends who fund-raise to grant her help. This pattern continues on and off for the remainder of her life, her friends sending money that she funneled into Carl Seyfforth’s greedy hands, a young parasite who Ina fell in love with as an old woman. She outlives all of her old friends, either dead by suicide (cyanide was a popular choice:

According to Elsie Martinez, Jack London was among a group of writers and artists who carried cyanide in their pockets. The group included her husband, George and Carrie Sterling, Ambrose Bierce, and Nora May French. Carleton Bierce, Ambrose’s nephew worked in the chemical division of the US Mint and supplied it to the group. Nora May French used hers in 1907. When Ambrose Bierce went to Mexico and vanished, his friends suspected cyanide. Sterling labeled the cyanide he carried in his pocket “peace.”

She spent 4 winters living in a hotel in New York City eating one meal a day and churning out poetry. She returned to San Francisco in the summer to escape the heat, cheaper than paying for a resort on the East Coast. Upon her final return to the Bay Area: “I do not like Berkeley… It is shrubs and shingles, and cold. Ugh! It is cold!”