Carmel, California’s cautionary tale for Post Roe America

I can’t think of Carmel anymore without thinking of abortion and Nora May French.

For this new habit of mind, I blame two things: the Supreme Court of the United States and the searing 2021 masterpiece by literary scholar Catherine Prendergast, The Gilded Edge: Two Bold Women and the Cyanide Love Triangle That Rocked America.

From my visit to Carmel, I had heard about the start of 20 years of Carmele century of history as a colony of artists and bohemians. But I had never heard of the poet French, or understood how much people’s Carmelite history leaves out – until I picked up Prendergast’s book, which defies categorization. It’s a head-spinning story, a maddening mystery and a very timely reminder of how easily women’s aspirations and achievements can be erased, even in avant-garde Northern California.

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Portrait of Nora May French. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Public domain.

The golden edge begins with French’s own real-time account of her own abortion in 1907. This description, discovered by Prendergast at UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library, was difficult to read last fall when I met her for the first time. It’s infuriating to read now, weeks after the US Supreme Court struck down the constitutional right to abortion. Someone really should put the text on a neon billboard outside Judge Samuel Alito’s bedroom window.

French, a brilliant 25-year-old poet, “couldn’t afford a ‘therapeutic’ abortion in a hospital even if she could convince a doctor to give her one,” writes Prendergast. So, the poetess caused an abortion by swallowing pills she bought at a local pharmacy in San Francisco. These abortifacients, advertised in newspapers as safe and reliable, came in colorful boxes bearing names such as “Dr. Conte’s Female Pills” and “Dr. Trousseau’s Famous Female Cure”. They also contained chemicals dangerous, like turpentine.

French says he swallowed pills one Saturday morning and felt nothing. The next day, she is awakened by a contraction, then waves of spasms, nausea and intense pain.

French had moved to San Francisco the previous year, months after the earthquake, and was already successful as a poet and writer, winning a newspaper’s poetry contest and being published in literary journals. But if she had the baby (she had become pregnant by her married boyfriend Harry Lafler, a literary journal editor), she knew she was risking her fledgling career and might end up raising a child on her own.

Between contractions, French wrote to Lafler. “Dearest, I have walked through deep waters and been a coward after all.” “I went through all the shades of emotion… It was like we were walking together and my feet were struggling against quicksand pulling under the grass. I was almost coming in screaming a lot.

“Motherhood! What an indescribably huge thing for all my fluttering butterflies to drown in! A still pool, holding the sky.” I watched it day after day, and sometimes I could see the sky, and sometimes only my drowned butterflies. Oh-“

This is where the letter breaks off.

At the end of our own golden age, and the beginning of the post-roe deer era, this story speaks too loudly. It’s about the human horrors of letting judges, or anyone else, determine our rights based on history, especially when history omits so much.

French survived her abortion and soon moved to Carmel, where she took up residence in the guesthouse of a married Bay Area couple with many literary friends, Carrie and George Sterling.

George Sterling introduced himself as a writer (sponsored by Ambrose Bierce) and was a prominent member of the Bohemian Club, a famous elite male social institution with an artistic bent, and founded in 1872. But Sterling’s real business was real estate. He used his literary network to attract artists and writers to Carmel—among them Jack London and Upton Sinclair—to give the place a creative cachet that would help Carmel Development Company sell land. Prendergast shows that Sterling spent more time running and drinking than writing. Carrie Sterling did most of the recruiting work.

In Carmel, many bohemian men pursued the beautiful and talented Frenchwoman, showering her with writing advice while seeking to co-opt her talent. George and Nora have become lovers. Then, less than a year after her abortion and move to Carmel, Nora French died of cyanide poisoning. George Sterling was absent. Carrie Sterling has found her body. What really happened remains a mystery.

The death of the young and pretty poetess made national headlines (“Midnight Lure of Death Leads Poetess to the Grave”, sung title) and inspired copycat suicides. In the years to come, Carrie and George Sterling separate; each would later commit suicide, by cyanide. Others linked to the Carmel colony also met unfortunate ends.

The saga took place at a time when people were talking about the “new woman” enjoying more rights and opportunities, notes Prendergast. But the reality was different, as the stories of Carrie Sterling and Nora May French demonstrate.

“Carmel was a boiling pot of exploitation. Women’s horizons were limited by the identities men attributed to them, namely despised wife and elusive muse,” Prendergast writes. “Even when men claimed to want more sexually liberated women or allowed to work outside the home, all the negative consequences of the flourishing of liberation were the only ones to bear on women.”

The indignities these women suffered did not end with their deaths. Nora May French and Carrie Sterling have been largely left out of Carmel mythology. The lustful George Sterling, whose poetry is hack, is still remembered as the great bohemian writer who helped make Carmel the place it is today. (He even has a park named after him in San Francisco.)

There is no archive of French’s papers, writes Prendergast. She located French’s letter, describing her abortion, among Lafler’s files. “Wouldn’t it be nice, I think, to see it among a collection of other letters bearing witness to the length of women’s struggle for reproductive freedom, rather than among the papers of an abusive ex-boyfriend?” asks the author in the book.

Today, at the end of our own golden age, and the beginning of the post-roe deer era, this story speaks too loudly. The lesson goes beyond abortion or discrimination. It’s about the human horrors of letting judges, or anyone else, determine our rights based on history, especially when history omits so much.

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