Opinion column by Joe Mathews:
I can no longer think of Carmel without thinking of abortion — and Nora May French.
For this, I blame the U.S. Supreme Court, and literary scholar Catherine Prendergast’s searing 2021 book “The Gilded Edge: Two Audacious Women and the Cyanide Love Triangle That Shook America.”
From visiting Carmel, I knew about that town’s early 20th century history as a colony of bohemians. But I hadn’t heard of French before encountering Prendergast’s book.
“The Gilded Edge” begins with French’s account of her own 1907 abortion — a document Prendergast unearthed in the Bancroft Library. I found it hard to read last fall. It’s infuriating to read now that the high court has overturned Roe v. Wade.
French, a brilliant 25-year-old poet, couldn’t afford a hospital abortion or find a doctor who’d risk doing one, so she induced an abortion by swallowing pills bought at a San Francisco drugstore. Such abortifacients contained dangerous chemicals like turpentine.
French swallowed the pills on a Saturday. On Sunday, she was awakened by a contraction. Spasms, nausea, and intense pain followed.
Since moving to San Francisco in 1906, French had succeeded as a writer — winning a poetry contest, being published in literary journals. But if she had the baby (she was pregnant by her married boyfriend Harry Lafler, an editor), she would risk her career and have to raise a child alone.
Between contractions, French wrote Lafler. “Very dear, I have been through deep waters, and proved myself cowardly after all ... I have gone through every shade of emotion … It was as if we were walking together and my feet were struggling with some pulling quicksand under the grass. I would come near screaming very often.
“Motherhood! What an unspeakably huge thing for all my fluttering butterflies to drown in! A still pool, holding the sky,” French wrote.
French survived her abortion, relocated to Carmel, and moved in with a married couple with literary connections, Carrie and George Sterling.
George Sterling, who styled himself as a writer, was a member of the Bohemian Club, an elite male social institution with an artistic bent. But Sterling’s real business was real estate. He used his literary network to attract artists and writers to Carmel — among them Jack London — to give the place a creative cachet to help the Carmel Development Company sell land.
But Sterling spent more time philandering and drinking than writing.
In Carmel, George and Nora became lovers. Then, Nora French died of cyanide poisoning. Carrie Sterling found her body.
What actually happened remains a mystery.
The death of the young poet made news nationwide (one headline: “Midnight Lure of Death Leads Poetess to the Grave”) and inspired copycat suicides. Carrie and George Sterling split up; each would later commit suicide by cyanide.
The saga took place in an era when people talked of the “New Woman” with more possibilities, Prendergast notes. But the reality was different as Carrie Sterling and Nora May French knew.
“Carmel was a roiling pot of exploitation. Women’s horizons were limited by the identities the men assigned them, namely scorned wife and elusive muse,” Prendergast writes. “Even when men claimed to want women who were more sexually liberated or allowed to work outside the home, all the negative consequences of the flowering of liberation were women’s alone to bear.”
The indignities these women suffered didn’t end with their deaths. Nora May French and Carrie Sterling were largely left out of the mythology of Carmel. The lecherous George Sterling, whose poetry is hackery, is still remembered as the great Bohemian writer who helped make Carmel what it is.
There is no archive of French’s papers, Prendergast writes. She located French’s letter, describing her abortion, among Lafler’s records.
“Wouldn’t it be nice, I think, to see it amid a collection of other letters testifying to the length of women’s struggle for reproductive freedom, rather than among the papers of an abusive ex-boyfriend?” the author asks in the book.
Today, in our own Gilded Age, this story speaks loudly, and not just about abortion. It’s about the human horrors of letting authorities determine our rights on the basis of history — because history omits too much.
Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.