Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Elizabeth Gunn, 1811-1906

I stayed at the Gunn house in Sonora several times before learning that its original owner had written about her travel to and life in California. She went around the Horn with four children in 1851 to join her husband Lewis, who had been mining for two years. He owned the local newspaper, and upset locals with his liberal views. In 1861 the family moved to San Francisco. In 1928, daughter Anna Lee Marston edited her father's journal and mother's letters into Letters of a California Family. This is one of the few documents to include three members of a family, for Marston adds her own remarks, with regard to settling the state.

Thanks to the Library of Congress, you can read the full book online.. It is part of a collection called California As I Saw It: First Person Narratives of California's Early Years, 1849-1900. Gunn's writing is crisp and filled with anecdotes telling of the time's attitudes and daily life. Whenever you can, read original documents from a period of interest. This LOC site could keep you entertained for days!

I also recommend the Gunn House when you are visiting Route 49 and the Gold Country. It retains much of its adobe structure and its cozy rooms are furnished accordingly. The lounge/breakfast room is particularly inviting, and the breakfast buffet among the best you'll find at a B&B.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Maxine Crissman, "Lefty Lou"

Depression Californians brought a new music to the state, old timey hill tunes and style. Woody Guthrie is usually honored for playing the key role in introducing this format, but he was not alone. Guthrie settled in LA (not the farmlands) in 1937, where he met California-raised Crissman, an experienced singer, guitarist, and sax player. (His brother Jack had worked for her father and dated her for a while. During their lifetime, Jack actually gained much greater popularity than Woody as a performer.)

The duo were hired by a progressive radio owner, J. Frank Burke, to do daily programs on KFVD radio. Titled Woody and Lefty Lou, the pair introduced a wide variety of music, including old blackface minstrelsy, hillbilly, and public-domain folk ballads. Guthrie's lyrics to established tunes, including some by the Carter family, reached out to the working-class listening audience. Crissman's alto voice provided the lead, while Guthrie's higher voice offered harmony. The result was known as a "crossnote trademark."

Crissman and Guthrie used their own experiences to encourage listeners to realize they were part of a community. Populism ran through their songs, which grew increasingly political through attacks on political leaders and police who abused the migrants. They urged listeners to vote, to join political groups, to walk on picket lines. Outside the radio station they appeared at rallies in support of the Ham and Eggs Plan of Francis Townsend.

Crissman was on the show only two years. I have not been able to discover what she did afterwards. Anyone who knows, please tell me! Did she drop out of performing completely? This seems strange, given her popularity equal with Woody's at the time. Together they helped make country music an urban phenomenon, as well as contributed to populist pride among migrant Californians.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Grace McCann Morley

While researching California women artists, I came across Grace Morley. She is one of several women during the 1930s (e.g., Gertrude Whitney, Juliana Force, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller in New York) who recognized the value of American modern art. Morley was the first director of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, which she managed for 23 years beginning in 1935.

Although women started MOMA and the Whitney in New York, and hired male management, it was men in SF who founded SFMOMA and selected Morley. She was originally from California and had already established her credentials as expert in modern art. Typical of the day, her salary was $2,400 a year, compared with $9,000 for Alfred Barr, the head of MOMA. Morley worked well with Barr toward getting traveling shows from his museum on exhibit in San Francisco. Morley was quick to create and curate shows that left SF for other museums.

Morley was gay, though "coming out" was not in practice then. The fact of her having female companions was well known, yet not an issue in her management. Thus anyone interested in GLBT history would benefit from exploring her life and relations.

Morley's renown is significant beyond establishing SFMOMA as a major museum in its own right. She was vocal in explaining modern art and encouraging the support of contemporary artists. Her skills in museum management led to her becoming Chair of the Museum Division of UNESCO, which led to the International Council of Museums. She also served as founding editor of that body's professional journal, Museum. These are only a few of her accomplishments in the 20th century art world.

Several years after quitting SFMOMA, Morley left San Francisco for India, where she spent her final years running the National Museum. She was unhappy, she later claimed, that the locals would look at art but not spend money on art nor help living artists. She died there at age 84.

There is yet no published biography on Morley. Suzanne Reiss conducted an oral history for the Bancroft Library in 1960. Kara Kirk wrote her Master's Thesis on Morley for Stanford University. It's about time someone went into the archives and gave Morley her due.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Frances Fuller Victor, 1826-1902

Victor's best known work is her story "The New Penelope." There she challenges traditional gender views of the mid-nineteenth century by describing women who take advantage of the opportunities of the new West, yet refuse to submit to customary femininity. Throughout her short stories, Victor presents independent female characters and advises women to follow their model. She repeatedly attacked the "women's sphere" (home, children, piety) as narrow and ambiguous. [Photo courtesy of Oregon State University.]

Victor and her husband arrived in San Francisco in 1862, and published in both the prestigious Overland Monthly and San Francisco newspapers during her time in California. She also wrote an advice column and other woman-centered articles as "Frances Fane." The couple moved to Oregon in 1864, but she divorced her husband several years later.

What is less known about her is her contribution to Hubert Bancroft's massive history of the West. After moving to California again in 1878, she spent thirteen years working as a researcher and writer on his project. She is now acknowledged as author of The History of Oregon, The History of Washington, Idaho, and Montana, The History of Nevada, Colorado, and Wyoming, and substantial portions of others. To her understandable dismay, Bancroft claimed full authorship of these books, and mentioned her contribution only in an acknowledgment. At the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago, she displayed these four volumes with her name added to the spines alongside Bancroft's.

Victor continued to write well-received books and stories until her death. She became known as the "Historian of Oregon," even though she dared to challenge the favored mythology concerning early settler Marcus Whitman. Though not a lifelong Californian, Victor's influence was nationwide, and her presence in the California publishing scene significant. She deserves new attention and a comprehensive biography.