Chapter Twenty-Six – Stumbling Upon the Poet Laureate: Ina Donna Coolbrith
Mark Twain’s gentle face was on the cover of the Time magazine I began reading as we jetted towards San Francisco in August of 2008. My universal alignment would soon seem impossible to believe…
The magazine had dedicated many articles to Twain, and I reveled in it, Twain having been one of those who made me realize the error in my life direction. Here this author, revered by hundreds of millions, spoke *directly to me* about elements of my religion from the grave. One article outlined his trip to visit Nauvoo, Illinois, and I learned that Rex had actually toured Nauvoo as a young adult. His recollection was that it was two religions giving two stories and you weren’t quite sure who was telling you the truth. His recollection was quite humorous and I chuckled for awhile afterward thinking about that whole scene.
After we landed we took a taxi to our hotel on Taylor Street. As we got out of the car I was amazed that right next to our hotel was the Hotel Mark Twain, we chuckled at the coincidence and checked in. I really love San Francisco, it represents all the things I never could really have as a Mormon. It’s eclectic, it’s artistic to the point of *embracing* the arts, it’s racially diverse, it’s oceanic, it’s just freakin’ cool.
We quickly decided when we’d visit the Dale Chihuly and Frida Kahlo exhibits, our wonderful reasons for this particular anniversary adventure. Rex had to work until dinner time and so I was excited to begin a walking adventure, I *love* walking through cities, and Rex and I typically walk ourselves to death in NYC. I loved wandering through Madrid, and this was making me deeply satisfied! I stepped out the front of our hotel, looked south towards Market Street, turned on my heels and looked up.
On the map I was heading northwards directly towards Pier 45; this was going to be a hoof. The terrain was quite challenging but I was enjoying getting winded in that gorgeous, salty sea air. Every ten feet brought something new to my vantage point, blossoming flowers, popping colors, stunning houses, and foreign-looking people. I was desperate to see the bay, and I knew that at any moment I’d skyline on a street and there it’d be to take my breath away. The moment I reached 1700 Taylor and Vallejo I was in seventh heaven! The vista from that exact spot out onto the Bay Bridge is arresting to the point of disorientation.
Huge ocean views on both sides, gigantic tankers pulling in and out from under the Bay Bridge. With Alcatraz to my left, and the Financial District to my right, I was standing on what *had* to be the best vista in the entire city! And not only *that*, but there was this open park, a winding walkway led in and I spied some park benches. Breathing heavy, I made a bee-line for a bench. As I sat there drinking it all in, a dragonfly landed on my pants.
Pay attention, Steve! Anytime nature intervenes with me this way, I know I’m on to something good. The dragonfly totem represents change. There seemed to be dragonflies everywhere I looked. I wondered why this pristine spot had never been built out, what luck! As I walked out the way I came in, I rounded a rock and something caught my eye, a glare, something shining.
I turned and there was a plaque mounted to this rock. I walked closer and I read:
INA DONNA COOLBRITH
Born Nauvoo, Illinois, March 10th, 1841
Died Oakland, California, February 29th, 1928
First white child to enter California by Beckwourth Pass,
in first covered wagon-train traveling that route, September 1852.
Thirty-two years a librarian, friend….
NAUVOO, ILLINOIS! 1841! WAIT A MINUTE!
This woman *had* to have *known* Joseph Smith Jr.! She *had* to have! Well, whoever her mother was, I am *sure* she did! My mind was reeling, how was it even *possible* that I had found the only public reference to Nauvoo, Illinois in this *entire* city? And we were *just* talking about Nauvoo on the plane! Unbelievable.
It set my mind racing into different possible scenarios. How could the Poet Laureate of San Francisco have started out her life in the midst of Polygamy Central? Her name seemed so non-Mormon, too. Ina? Donna? Coolbrith? Here was this absolutely stunning park dedicated to a *female* poet laureate, the very FIRST in San Francisco!
I spent the rest of the day enjoying myself thoroughly, and when Rex wrapped up his day, he set off up Taylor, and I set off back the way I had come. We were gonna wing it for dinner, you can’t go wrong in a city like that. We found the *perfect* place for dinner, ate Italian on the edge of Chinatown and headed back to the room. What a day!
We were pretty bushed after our walk back, and we were saturated with that beautiful city. We *smelled* like it. Ahhhhh. It would have been such a relaxing evening had I not searched for Ina Donna Coolbrith on the internet and had an explosive adrenaline fit of magnanimous proportions. “Holy Fucking Chryst!” I shouted, jolting Rex out of a beautiful slumber. “What? What!” he shouted. “You are *not* gonna believe this!”
I couldn’t believe what my eyes were reading in Wikipedia: Ina Donna Coolbrith -
Ina Coolbrith’s mother was Agnes Moulton Coolbrith and her father was Don Carlos Smith, a brother of the Mormon Prophet Joseph Smith, Jr.. Don Carlos Smith died in 1841 and Agnes was married to Joseph Smith, Jr. in 1842. Leaving this polygamous marriage and the Latter-day Saint community, Agnes took her daughter Josephine Smith with her and moved to Saint Louis, where she married a newspaperman named William Pickett. Pickett, Agnes, and young Josephine, travelled overland to California in 1850. Josephine is said to have been the first white child to enter California, riding on the saddle of Jim Beckwourth. The family settled in Los Angeles. To avoid identification with her former family or with Mormonism, Agnes reverted to using her maiden name, Coolbrith.
The reeling set in again! Agnes was married to Joe Smith’s brother! Could it be true? She had to become one of Joe Smith’s polygamous wives! Which one was she? Why did Agnes leave? How did she get away? How many children did Agnes have? How old was Ina when her mother left? Were Agnes and little Ina followed? The early members didn’t look kindly to apostates at all! I wonder if they were pursued for their lives given the Blood Atonement doctrine via Brigham Young?
I was flooded with questions and excitement! What a lovely discovery! The more I read, the more I learned that yes, they *were* pursued for their lives, and that their move west was almost in tandem with the Mormon movement to the Salt Lake Valley.
Of course, the *Mormon* version is *much* different. But the basic story couldn’t be masked: Agnes *had* to get away, and she left in the middle of the night with Ina, having to leave some children behind. She ended up in Los Angeles, her daughter Ina the first white child to ride into the Los Angeles Valley on the saddle of Jim Beckwourth, a famous Black Scout. Mother and daughter had to eventually change their names to finally rid themselves of the Mormons.
As Beckwourth carried the first little white child into that valley, the sun lighted it as if on purpose for this moment. He lowered her off his horse, and standing with her in the midst of a blowing storm, pointed to the glowing valley lying against a range of blue and said to her, “There, little girl,” he said, “there is California! There is your kingdom!”
Ina had left the suffocating kingdom of the Mormons and had reached her very own kingdom. It wouldn’t be easy, but she was away from her disastrous beginnings where women were treated like cattle, ever-increasing property for a power-hungry prophet. What strength these two women had! Running away from them in the deep of the night, being literally chased because Ina was the bloodline of the Smiths, a blood that the violent Mormons wanted to spill on the ground as they desired to slash her throat.
I couldn’t imagine what they had to go through! In 1862 after a deep depression from the death of her young infant and a sad marriage, Josephina changed her name to Ina Donna Coolbrith, taking her mother’s maiden name and dropping the fated Smith as she transitioned into the San Francisco community. But she didn’t give up, she kept going, she was pursuing her bliss!
A new chapter was just beginning for Ina. She had already published some of her own poetry, but it turns out Ina’s true calling was that of a role model, mentor and coach. As she expanded her desire of writing and composing, she mentored some of the biggest names in literary history.
She began writing for the Overland Monthly, a prestigious paper, and in 1873 Ina became the librarian at the Oakland Free Library. In 1895 she befriended and mentored the 12 year old Jack London. Jack London called her his “literary mother.” She also mentored the poet, George Sterling, and later in life, she campaigned for a proper burial in Westminster Abbey for the remains of her favorite poet, Lord Byron.
It wasn’t without hardship, she would lose her San Francisco home and all her possessions in the earthquake and fire of 1906. But what an *amazing* life! In 1915, Ina was named the first poet laureate of California by the Regents of the University of California. Her name is commemorated by Ina Coolbrith Park at Taylor and Vallejo in San Francisco, and Mount Ina Coolbrith, a 7,900 foot peak near Beckwourth Pass in the Sierra Nevada mountains near State Route 70.
Ina’s lifelong literary work led to her friendships with Alfred Tennyson, John Whittier, Bret Harte, Charles Warren Stoddard, Joaquin Miller, Ansel Adams and last but not least…Samuel Clemens, who is *Mark Twain*.
KaPOW! In that moment my mind blew a gasket. A full 360 in one day. I had boarded the plane that morning catching up on Twain, and had ended the day by learning how this brilliant woman of talent, who had begun life and weathered much the same road I had, rose from the middle of the craziest American life into the notoriety of the first Poet Laureate of San Francisco because she did not give up. She is my hero! (I am currently writing a screenplay in her honor.)
Can you imagine what a life she led? But the story I learned was this: If you know deep down that you are in the wrong situation, the wrong unbalanced life, the wrong place living disingenuously, do *not* let that slow you down!
You might lose your children, you might be pursued by your lineage, you might have to leave your family, you might lose everything in a fire, you might face unbelievable odds, but do not let this stop you! Rise above it and succeed.
I know I can do it, because Ina did it.
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