More than just a scribbler of tales, Robert Louis was a frail and charming Scotsman . . . and a wanderer of the world
LEFT ALMOST penniless by his conventional Victorian parents, showing no success yet as an author, Robert Louis Stevenson journeyed across the Atlantic and the United States in the year 1879 to pursue the woman he loved, Fanny Vandegrift Osbourne, living then in Oakland, Calif. She was married, the mother of two children and 10 years older than RLS. He was 28 and unknown. Still to come were some of the most revered books in the English language: "Kidnaped," Treasure Island" and the gothic tale of man's dual nature, "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde."
One hundred years after Stevenson's arrival in this country, little on-site personal evidence remains of this prelude to the most productive period in his life. But the California locales are still there, even if many of the buildings have vanished. And the faithful readers of his stories still may compare his descriptions and sense his spirit if they follow in his footsteps.
What has come down to us is a picture of a tragic, much-loved writer of boy's adventure stories. But what manner of man was he really -- "this slender, slovenly, nondescript apparition," as he was described by his friend and literary mentor, Sidney Colvin -- this Scotsman who helped break up a marriage, who deliberately defied his proper, wealthy, Calvinist parents, who wore wild clothes and chased after older women, who was powerfully taken with frontiersmen, highwaymen, stagecoach drivers, derelicts and a "Hebrew tyrant" storekeeper during his year-long sojourn in the Golden State, and who will forever intrigue us, looking at us as he does -- speculatively and as a bit of the boulevardier -- in John Singer Sargent's masterful painting of him?
To be sure, Robert Louis Stevenson was a man of many parts, and far, far more than just a scribbler of boys' books.
He was lovesick over Fanny -- "a violent friend, a brimstone enemy," he wrote tongue-in-cheek of her -- when he arrived in Oakland on Aug. 30, 1879.
He as practically in rags, cut off by his pious, outraged parents in Edinburgh, and already long suffering with what literary historians believe was tuberculosis. He was to live only another 15 years and three months, to age 44.
As a student at Edinburgh University, he had been trained in engineering, the profession chosen for him by his father, a distinguished lighthouse builder, and later in the law. He abandoned both. Rebelling against his father's morbid religiosity, he haunted the back alleys of Edinburgh, conspicuously garbed in a velvet coat and boasting that he was a "dead hand" at a prostitute. Thus he tried to shut out his somber heritage. It was a conflict that dogged him all his days and that appeared as a theme in his most mature fiction.
Even then he was taking prodigious notes and writing -- learning his craft. In 1876, while traveling in France, he met Fanny, who was dabbling in art while thinking over her marriage to an amiable philanderer by the name of Captain Sam Osbourne.
With his long, yellow-brown hair and outlandish clothes, Stevenson fit easily into the rough and tumble frontier California of a century ago. Mrs. Maggie Turner of the Napa Valley town of Calistoga remembered years later that Stevenson had "big eyes that never missed a thing." But most folks paid him scant attention.
Stagecoach driver Bill Spiers remarked; "Fact is, I thought him kind of a fool livin' in that old shack awrittin' books." Spiers, whose 79-year-old daughter-in-law still lives in the converted stable where he had his stage business, apologized later. "I didn't know he'd be so famous, or i'd have noticed him more particular," he said. The converted stable is still there on Third Street in Calistoga, back a ways from the street, with peculiar entrances.
Fanny was commuting between her home in Oakland and Monterey, pondering what to do about her long-time marriage. She was dark, squat and fullbreasted. Her eyes, according to a contemporary, "were full of sex and mystery." She smoked cigarettes, had Stevenson's personal courage and his art in living, pretty hands (which were "busy even in repose," her sister nellie said) and size 4d feet -- "her pride all her life," says Stevenson biographer J. C. Furnas. She was a formidable woman.
She was not the first older woman he pursued. Fanny Sitwell, a dozen years older, captured Stevenson's heart in London. Mademoiselle Garschine, a middle-aged Russian noble-woman, called him her "drole jeune Ecossais" (droll young Scotsman). Perhaps this fascination for older women had to do with the attention lavished on him in his childhood by his nurse and over-indulgent mother. That is the usual explanation. One suspects there was also a legacy from his ambivalent father, with whom he had a love-hate relationship.
Fanny was staying at the Bonifacio place on Alvarado Street in Monterey when RLS showed up, presumably coming by train, though he does not tell us. Perhaps because of her own situation, but more likely because she relished center-stage, Fanny virtually ignored him. It probably amused her. In Indianapolis, Ind., where she was born, she was just plain Fanny Vandergrift. In France she was a Van De Grift.
Hurt by her reception after he had come all that distance, Stevenson took off for the mountains, fell gravely ill, and spent two nights in the open before he was rescued by an Indian and a bear hunter. They took him to their goat ranch outside Monterey, where he was bedded down, this Scotsman of affluent birth, "nearly naked, with flies crawling all over me and a clinking of goat bells in my ears."
Back in his small room in the two-story adobe house at 530 Houston St. in Monterey, Stevenson was cared for by the owner, Dr. J. P. E. Heintz, and by the beraish, great-hearted Jules Simoneau, who owned the best French restaurant in what was then an almost exclusively Mexican city, where, in 1850, California had been born a state. Simoneau was warm and outgoing. It was his secret campaign that raised $2 a week to pay Stevenson for articles he submitted to the weekly Monterey Californian because the editor couldn't. Stevenson never found out.
The house on Houston Street with its battleship-gray shutters still stands, run by the state and open to the public, with much Stevensoniana in it. Some items were given by Norman H. Strouse, the retired predicent and board chairman of the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency. A Stevenson collector for nearly a half century, this gentle, retiring man founded the Silverado Museum of Stevenson memorabilia at St. Helena in the heart of California's wine country. Just outside St. Helena one day, Stevenson tasted 18 varieties of wines and got nearly drunk.
His house in Monterey is interesting, but more so narrow Houston Street with its odd, jungle-like appearance that somehow puts one in mind of Nathaniel Hawthorne's Salem, Mass. Alvarado is close by, though the Bonifacio lodgings are gone. However, there is a Bonifacio Place in Monterey. I think old Monterey is more fascinating than cheapened Cannery Row. Nearby, at the corners of Munras, Pearl and Tyler, is a small plaza with a fountain and a plaque to mark the spot where Simoneau's restaurant stood, and where a dejected Stevenson ate, played chess and unburdened himself to the bonhomie owner, while Fanny played darts with his heart.
In mid-October 1879, Fanny and her son Lloyd returned to an Oakland "gleaming white among its gardens," RLS wrote, while he went to San Francisco to preserve appearances, as they had agreed. Stevenson was glad to leave Monterey. There is this revealing passage in his long essay, "The Old Pacific Capital": "At the approach of the rainy season, a deathly chill and a graveyard smell began to hang about (Monterey), and diseases of the chest are common and fatal among housekeeping people of either sex." "Still, at Monterey he discovered the Pacific, "this Homeric deep," he wrote, at what is doubtless today the spectacular Seventeen-Mile Drive past Pebble Beach and other wonders, and stood on high ground to watch the fogs' "crawl in scarves" off the central California coast.
The ghost that appeared in the doorway of her wooden rooming house at 608 Bush St. in San Francisco frightened the Irish landlady, Mary Carson. It was just before Christmas 1879, and Mrs. Carson hesitated to rent a room to such "a strange-looking shabby shack of a fellow," as she portrayed him. Reluctantly, she took him up to a second-floor room with French windows opening to a lovely portico and said in a discouraging voice:" Here is all there is of it." Stevenson -- "so thin and emaciated that he looked like a bundle of sticks in a bag," said the distinguished American historian, Henry Adams -- took the room and surprised the landlady with the first month's rent of $4.
We have a record of that first encounter because, many years later, an elderly Mary Carson turned up at the dedication of the Stevenson monument in San Francisco's historic Portsmouth Square and was eagerly sought out by newspaper reporters. An old white stucco apartment house occupies the Bush Street site today, and a Stevenson plaque was put on it only 6 1/2 years ago.
The Carsons were good-natured working people who became quite fond of the frail, utterly charming Scotsman -- "this seraph in chocolate," in poet William Ernest Henley's unforgettable phrase -- whose conversation was often brilliant, whose manner was engaging, but whose ways were sometimes strangely juvenile. In Monterey, "under the influence of Satan" he lamely tell us, he deliberately started a forest fire. "I have run repeatedly, but never as I ran that day (because) I came so near to lynching," he says.
H. L. Mencken, one of Stevenson's most devoted detractors, wrote in the 1920s: "The man, in truth, was a small boy on a lark almost to the end, (who) insisted upon playing the zany as well as the profligate, (who) cut himself off from the Scots race and became a wanderer up and down the back alleys of the "world."
Like all such appraisals, they contain only a germ of the truth.