Spirits of the City

Spirits of the City: Inspirational Ina Coolbrith Park

By Gary Kamiya and Paul Madonna

The view from Ina Coolbrith Park. (Illustrated by Paul Madonna)

One of the most spectacular, but least known, parks in San Francisco is found just below one of Russian Hill’s three summits, on the pedestrian-only stretch of Vallejo Street just east of Taylor Street. Ina Coolbrith Park is more of a meandering, bench-lined walkway than a conventional park, but with its stunning close-up views of downtown, the Bay Bridge and the East Bay, it packs more sublimity per square foot than just about any other open space in town.

The lyrical, and profoundly Californian, beauty of this park is fitting, for it is named after a lyric poet whose essential subject was California. Ina Donna Coolbrith, California’s (and America’s) first poet laureate, and friend and mentor to the likes of Mark Twain, Bret Harte, Jack London, Joaquin Miller and Charles Warren Stoddard, lived a life as remarkable as her circle of intimates.

She was born in 1841, the niece of Joseph Smith, the founder of the Church of Latter-day Saints. Her widowed mother broke with the Mormon Church and migrated to California in 1851. Ten-year-old Ina made a suitably epic entrance into the state: She crossed the Sierra on the saddle of famed mountain man James P. Beckwourth, becoming the first non-American Indian child to cross the Sierra by the Beckwourth Pass. Living in Los Angeles, at age 17 she had the misfortune of marrying a pathologically jealous and violent actor named Robert B. Carsley.

Carsley accused her of infidelity, called her a whore and fired a rifle at her. She was granted a divorce in 1861 and moved to San Francisco.

Coolbrith, who had already published acclaimed poetry in Los Angeles, began writing graceful lyric poetry for two leading journals, the Golden Era and the Californian. She, Harte and Stoddard edited the Overland Monthly together, a carefree time Harte commemorated with the limerick: “There is a poetic divinity/Number One of the Overland Trinity/Who uses the Muses/Pretty much as she chooses.” The three would often walk up steep, unpaved Russian Hill to drink tea and laze away the afternoons at her Taylor Street apartment. Those were the happiest days of her life.

Coolbrith was unfailingly generous and encouraging to her fellow writers, who in turn regarded her as an ideal mentor and muse. (Some had deeper feelings for the tall, graceful poet with the beautiful eyes: It was said that Harte and Twain were rivals for her favors.) But she never remarried. And while her peers all went off to Europe, she was forced by circumstance to remain in California, taking care of her sister’s children and the abandoned child of Joaquin Miller, Cali-Shasta. She was the librarian at the Oakland Free Library for 19 years, where she guided the reading of Isadora Duncan and introduced the schoolboy Jack London to “the big books.” The great writer never forgot her. In 1906, he wrote, “No woman has affected me to the extent you did. I was only a little lad; I knew absolutely nothing about you, yet in all the years that have passed, I have met no woman as noble as you.”

After the 1906 earthquake and fire, Coolbrith’s friends and supporters built her a house at 1067 Broadway, where she held literary salons. In 1928, at the age of 86, the most beloved figure of San Francisco’s golden literary age died.

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