Joined: 27 Nov 2007
Location: Monterey County, California
|Posted: Mon Apr 14, 2008 2:14 pm Post subject: Stevenson House
|THOUGH Robert Louis Stevenson lived physically but three months in Old Monterey, he lived in it spiritually the rest of his life. Jules Simoneau was probably the magnet that held him, though the spirit of the beloved Scot and the spirit of the Old Capital clicked from the first.
Arriving on a mellow afternoon in late September of 1879, weary from his grueling third-class passage across the Atlantic, and "tourist" overland from New York, Stevenson found lodgings in the old French Hotel, back of the old Cuartel, facing Houston Street.
The house, built of stone and some adobe, was a happy haven for the impecunious. Rooms were cheap, and the owners, Dr. Heintz and his wife, kind. Just the place for R.L.S. who, in thoroughly artistic fashion, had turned his back on home, parents, friends, security, honors in Europe, to follow the light of love, even to the far shores of the Pacific. But to the end, on the green, wet hills of Samoa, he knew that love had led him true.
A summer near Fontainebleau brought to him the heartening friendship of the Californian family of Osbournes—mother, son and daughter. When word reached him that Fanny Osbourne had been freed from a philandering husband in California, the romantic Scot was soon on his way to join her. Tormented by reports of her illness, he embarked for New York without the formality of taking leave of his parents in Edinburgh.
In Monterey, the lady was recuperating, under the tender care of her sister, Mrs. Nellie Van de Grift Sanchez. To Monterey he came at once. Its old-worldness fascinated him. He loved the mystical beauty of the place, between the sea and the dark pine-crested mountains. He loved the soft Spanish tongue, so beautifully spoken, even by those of the humblest station. He loved their courteous manners and noble bearing. And, himself a knight of the court of love, he was enamored of the serenade, the old-world art of the lover, guitar in hand, singing beneath his lady's window.
The first weeks of his visit were gloriously spent in the garden of Dona Ignacia Maria Bonifacio, in whose famous home his inamorata was staying. Then, growing stronger, she returned to Oakland. But not before he had won her promise to marry him in May.
Lonely at her departure, he found solace in the company of the old French restauranteur, Jules Simoneau, with whom he "discussed the universe."
He busied himself writing the bizarre experiences of his trip overland, the Amateur Emigrant, often in bed to keep warm. But the old ghost "T.B." had caught up with him, and again laid him low. It was then that he set out for the "goat ranche" in the Santa Lucias, his provender in an old spring wagon.
"It was an odd, miserable piece of my life," he writes, "and according to all rule, it should have been my death; but after a while my spirit got up again in a divine frenzy, and has since kicked and spurred my vile body forward with great emphasis.” Saved to life through an "old frontiersman, a mighty hunter of bears," who came upon him lying by a stream below his house. Weak, he "could do nothing but fetch water for myself and horse, light a fire, and make coffee, and lie awake all night hearing the goatbells ringing, and the tree-frogs singing, when each new sound was enough to set me mad." Pronounced "real sick" by the hunter—Jonathan Wright—he was carried up to the house, where he was tenderly nursed. To show his appreciation, R.L.S. says he "taught the little girls reading, their mother being away ill." One of these little girls lives in Monterey today—Mrs. Sarah Bolce. Thus Monterey holds a living link with the man whose art has spread the story of her romance and history wherever world classics are read. All honor to the kindly mountaineer, who, in all probability, saved the life of the gentle Scot in this low moment of his career.
Another living link remains, perhaps a closer one— the daughter of the gentle old French philosopher himself—Mrs. Thomas Fussell, still living in Euschia Cottage (though considerably changed) where R.L.S. and his friend, Charles Warren Stoddard, used to swap yarns and indulge their souls. It was this gentlewoman to whom fell the precious books sent to Simoneau by the grateful Scot, always bearing a loving inscription.
They repose now in the library of the University of California.
The chess set spoken of by Robert Louis—Simoneau's set—that so often beguiled hours of weariness, reposes in a Stevenson case in the Bohemian Room of the Customs House, due to the great kindness of Mrs. Fussell. Here, too, are photographs of Old Monterey that Stevenson knew and loved.
Few of Stevenson's admirers know how close their idol came to swinging at the end of a California noose. He tells it on himself. "I set fire to a forest, for which, had I been caught, I should have been hung out of hand to the nearest tree. You should have seen my retreat (for strategic purposes). I ran like hell. It was a fine sight. At night, I went out to see it. It was a good fire, though I say it as may not." He had touched a match to some Spanish moss hanging from a pine tree, to see if it would burn. It did.
Returning to the French Hotel, R. L. S. wrote an essay on Thoreau, Vendetta in the West, the Amateur Emigrant, blocked out Prince Otto between coughs, aconite sweats and a hemorrhage or two. He did not, however, write Treasure Island while here, though it is a popular legend that he did. It has not the slightest tie with Monterey, either in locale or in characters. In fact, he himself says the locale was purely imaginary, though it does smack of the Scottish coast.
His friendship for Jules Simoneau, who fed, cheered and loved the writer in his dark days, has become a human classic. Few remittances came from his publishers, though $2.75 a week was paid to him regularly by the local paper. He took his dinners in the little restaurant near the corner of Pearl and Munras Avenue, where he met a group of congenial souls. His coffee he had "with the little French doctor and his wife. The rest I sponge."
The restaurant was reached through an alley back of the house, since closed by the Tyler Street extension. His room—cause of much controversy and conjecture—is, according to the best evidence obtainable, the north room on the second floor of the main building, its one window facing west. The balcony of which he writes is still in place, but a recent owner moved the stairs from near Stevenson's door to the north end of the balcony. True, there is the story of "my airy rooms [plural] with five windows" in the Colvin letters, to controvert the findings. But a careful study of the building proves the "five windows" to have been physically impossible. Surely Stevenson did not misstate facts. There was no "side" to him.
Besides, he had not the wherewithal to pay for "rooms," according to his own announcement of his finances. The rooms were rented to fishermen and other impecunious persons for from 50 cents to $1.50 a night; less, of course, by the week. The discrepancy between ocular local evidence and the "airy rooms, with five windows" has been charged to padding and rewriting of his letters. By whom, and why, does not appear, except, perhaps, that interested persons wanted to give the writer a better background. The matter is discussed quite frankly in a diary of Charles Warren Stoddard, the Scot's warm friend, at one time an item in the Customs House Museum and still available. Be that as it may, that is the room that the Monterey History and Art Association hopes to have set aside at not too distant a day as a memorial to R. L. S.
The legend "STEVENSON HOUSE" is painted quaintly over the former "FRENCH HOTEL.” Let us pray it so remains.
Stevenson House is the only building in California hallowed by the presence of the brilliant Britisher. The old Bush Street house in San Francisco, from which he went forth as a bridegroom in May, '79, went up in the big fire in 1906. The Oakland cottage of his bride—Rose Cottage—went the way of all perishable things. The hotel and cottages on Mt. St. Helena, near the Silverado mine, to which the bride and her ill husband betook themselves, in the hope of his getting relief above the fogs of the bay, have likewise disappeared. Thus do Californian honors go solely to Monterey's "Stevenson House," Western shrine of all lovers of R. L. S.
The only other place in the United States in competition with Monterey is the hotel at Saranac Lake in the Adirondacks, where he and Mrs. Stevenson visited in 1888. The honor is duly proclaimed to the world by an appreciative tablet.
The Monterey building back of the Cuartel is owned by two public-spirited women of California families, Mrs. Tobin Clark and Mrs. William Van Antwerp of San Mateo and Pebble Beach, who have done the world of letters a service by saving the building from destruction.
Regretfully, it must be recorded that the site of Simoneau's famous Bohemian rendezvous is occupied by a gasoline station. Some years ago the building was torn down, and the curious old Mexican calaboose that flanked it on the rear, to make way for "Progress" with a big "P."
The land, as elsewhere pointed out, was obtained from Congress in 1906—an acre and a half. The deed restricted its use "to the purposes for which the Mexican government used it—obviously, for government uses. But many quaint things have happened to it since coming into municipal ownership, not the least of which is the presence of three gasoline stations on the historic site, one of them in private ownership.
The "Applegarth Preservation Plan" aims to restore the famous Old Plaza at the northwest corner, and the restoration of the delectable old buildings and pleasure-places that grew up around it. Probably its most dramatic feature is the "Alameda of Memory"—the proposed line of trees along the old streets on which stand the historic landmarks. Thus, to facilitate location. The dream was instantly seized upon by large groups, the painters represented by Francis McComas, the "practical" persons by Mrs. Frances Elkins, S. F. B. Morse, and Allen Griflin, the latter valiantly using his newspaper to educate the educable.