Jack London in Love
Maybe you've always thought of this author as a fighter, not a lover
If anyone pioneered the image of the hard-driving, hard-living American writer, Jack London did. London, who died 90 years ago, came of age fighting and drinking on Oakland’s streets and in its waterfront saloons, seal-hunting off the coast of Japan, and panning for gold in the Yukon. And in a fashion later perfected by Ernest Hemingway, London turned those experiences into short stories and novels packed with adventure and philosophical musings about the human struggle for survival.
But London’s success wasn’t only due to his life-risking exploits. Equally important were his poetic soul and his sensitive side, which were nurtured by his second wife, Charmian Kittredge.ï¿½
“You are more kin to me than any woman I have ever known,” London wrote in one of his many letters to her. He also called her his “mate-woman” and “twin brother,” testaments to how much he saw her as integral to his identity as a man and as an artist.“
Any competent secretary could have handled what Charmian did on a daily basis for Jack,” says Clarice Stasz, author of American Dreamers: Charmian and Jack London. “But Charmian also provided the unconditional and affirming love he needed.”
Both Jack and Charmian came from unconventional backgrounds. London’s mother, Flora, made a living conducting sï¿½ances. London’s father was an already-married attorney who abandoned Flora upon learning she was pregnant. Within a year of London’s birth in 1876, Flora married a Civil War veteran, John London, and the two reared Jack in towns around the Bay Area, including San Francisco, Alameda, Livermore, and, finally, Oakland.
Flora and John London were not model parents: Flora wasn’t affectionate, and John was an alcoholic. As a result, Jack was wary of intimacy and prone to isolation but also driven to succeed. At 14, he left school to help support the family—and to pursue the real-life adventures that would inspire his writing. He worked in an Oakland cannery, learned to sail, and poached oysters around San Francisco Bay. He also worked on a seal-hunting ship, tramped around the country agitating for labor rights, and joined the Klondike Gold Rush before returning to the East Bay in 1898.
Charmian’s childhood, too, was marked by emotional loss. She was born in Petaluma, and when she was six, her mother died of the flu.ï¿½ She was then sent to live with her socialist aunt and uncle, Netta and Roscoe Eames. They provided her with all the material things a well-off girl of the time required, but Netta was self-centered and failed to nurture Charmian emotionally. Perhaps as an escape, the young girl became an adventurer in her own right.
“Charmian was a naturally gifted athlete, hence fearless about activities that many would avoid,” Stasz says. Charmian rode horses astride and became an expert markswoman. She also bucked social convention. She put herself through Mills Academy (now Mills College), supported herself in San Francisco as a secretary, and pursued free love at a time when Victorian prudery still dominated the sexual landscape.
Jack and Charmian met in Oakland in 1900, while she was working for The Overland Monthly. Charmian’s uncle Roscoe ran the magazine, and Jack sent him articles to publish. At her aunt Netta’s suggestion, Charmian met Jack for lunch and wrote the first published review of one of his works, The Son of the Wolf, a book that stirred her so much she read it in one sitting.
It wasn’t until 1903 that Jack and Charmian first kissed, when Charmian delivered some clothes to Jack, who had injured his knee in a carriage accident. Charmian actually maintained some reserve in the face of Jack’s ardor, but within a few months they were emotionally, spiritually, and physically entangled. She couldn’t resist his honesty, politics, love of fun, and tender heart. Jack, in turn, admired her sexual openness, intellect, athleticism, and artistic talent (she was an accomplished pianist and photographer).
This meeting of soul mates faced one big hurdle: London was already married to the more conventional Bess Maddern, with whom he had two young daughters. Although Jack had countless affairs with other women throughout this marriage, it was his love for Charmian that finally prompted him to leave Bess. He and Charmian kept their affair secret for nearly a year before marrying.
They finally wed in 1905 in Chicago, then settled in Sonoma County. Together, the two documented the devastation wrought by the 1906 San Francisco earthquake—she with a camera, he with a notebook—spent two years sailing around the Pacific Islands, and traveled to Mexico in 1914 to write about the revolution.
Charmian was very much her own woman, yet she devoted a good deal of her life to supporting her husband’s work: typing his stories, sending them to publishers, responding to letters, keeping him to his routine of writing 1,000 words each morning, and helping him flesh out story ideas.
“Charmian always said that she found bending to Jack at times to be no sacrifice because he provided her with a life of adventure and fascinating friends that she would have lacked otherwise,” Stasz says. In turn, he featured characters like her—athletic, free-spirited, outspoken, and sexually confident women who refused to be hampered by the mores of the time—in a number of his works, including Maud Brewster, The Sea Wolf’s poet heroine.
As in any relationship, the love affair between Charmian and London was not always ideal. They had a baby who died at birth and lost another to a miscarriage. Charmian dealt with depression and bouts of insomnia, while Jack battled alcoholism. Finally, there was the tragic 1913 burning of Wolf House, the home Jack had built of local wood and stone on the couple’s 1,400-acre Glen Ellen estate, Beauty Ranch.
Perhaps most tragic, Jack developed kidney disease in his thirties, which led to his death of renal failure in 1916. His last words to Charmian were, “Thank God you’re not afraid of anything.”
Charmian, indeed, persevered. She went on to build a smaller home, which still stands in Jack London State Historic Park. She wrote three books about their life—The Log of the Snark, Our Hawaii, and the two-volume The Book of Jack London—and continued to publicize her late husband’s life and writing. She had several lovers (including Harry Houdini) and continued to ride horses into her seventies.ï¿½ï¿½
In 1955, at the age of 84, Charmian died at Beauty Ranch. Her ashes joined Jack’s beneath a stone on a knoll a short walk from the ruins of his beloved Wolf House.ï¿½ï¿½
Their final resting place recalls a note Jack wrote to Charmian in a copy of one of his final works, Little Lady of the Big House. Biographers consider this novel to be a thinly veiled account of their marriage. Jack described the novel as “all sex from start to finish,” while signing her copy with a tenderness that marked their years together:
“The years pass. You and I pass. But yet our love abides—more firmly, more deeply, more surely, for we have built our love for each other not on the sand but upon the rock.”