By Paul Wilner
Special to The Examiner
Catherine Prendergast didn’t set out to write a book about the misconceptions surrounding the famous artists’ colony at Carmel-by-the-Sea around the turn of the last century. The English professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign originally had a Guggenheim Fellowship for a study of writers’ colonies. But the startling revelations she uncovered early on in her research caused her to change direction.
A mystery wrapped in a love triangle begins to describe Prendergast’s examination of a local artists’ colony.
“The Gilded Edge: Two Audacious Women and the Cyanide Love Triangle That Shook America” — part detective work, part narrative nonfiction, combined with Prendergast’s personal observations about what she learned — is an indispensable corrective to romantic myths of the early 20th century and our present day.
As the title suggests, it’s the tale of two women: neglected poet Nora May French and Carrie Sterling, the long-suffering wife of George Sterling, self-styled “King of Bohemia,” who was carrying on contemporaneous affairs with French and countless others. In what became a national scandal accompanied by lurid headlines, all three ultimately ended their lives with cyanide overdoses, at different times and for very different reasons. Prendergast also discovers French’s affair with Harry Lafler, another wannabe poet of the time.
“I was going to write a very academic book when I came across Nora May French’s letter to her married lover at [UC Berkeley’s] Bancroft Library, which talked about the self-induced abortion she was having as she was having it,” Prendergast says. “I thought, ‘Whoa, this is a different kind of story.’”
Further digging into the archives of the Harrison Memorial Library in Carmel revealed that Sterling was working for a real estate group called the Carmel Development Company, which hired him to persuade writers and artists to move to the Central Coast — a far cry from his free-spirited pose.
“Corporate records often tell a truth that diaries and newspapers miss,” Prendergast adds. “While I was going through them, Ashlee Wright, a local historian at the library, goes, ‘You know, I think George Sterling left town because he got a girl pregnant.’ Everywhere I went I was running into the inconvenient reality of women’s reproductive rights that was buried in this colony’s history.”
Prendergast initially worried that opening the book with an abortion might turn off potential readers. “But when the Texas law hit, and I was seeing the way things are going in this country, I was like, ‘We’re starting here.’”
Beyond the romantic portrayals of the group — depicted in Arnold Genthe photographs taken on Carmel Beach of gatherings including Jack London, an occasional visitor whose fame was used to attract others — the early days of the seaside town were as much an exercise in gentrification as aesthetics. Bay Area prospects for relocation took the train down to Monterey, then treated themselves to lunch at the Hotel Del Monte before repairing to Carmel to sign the contracts.
Echoing the underside of the Gilded Age chronicled in the novels of Edith Wharton, Prendergast notes that French could have created a comfortable life by sacrificing her independence. “She was very beautiful; she had options,” the author says. “Each time, she realized, ‘I’m not going to be able to live or write the way I want.’ The punishment at that time for women was poverty and early death. There were not a lot of options.”
Prendergast contends that the real history of Carmel is a lot more complex, and rewarding, than the myth. “Women’s lives have a lot of incomplete histories,” she says. “Either we keep repeating the men’s perspective about them over and over again, or we try to piece together what happened to the remains. If we just leave these silences there, or take the word of men who had everything to lose in terms of reputation, we’re not really doing ourselves a favor. Especially when we encounter the same circumstances again and again.”