╦¤ 4002. The Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco

isadora duncan virtual museum
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The Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco
Isadora Duncan (1878-1927)
by Samuel Dickson

The San Francisco part of this story came to me in bits, like the insignificant pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that have no particular import in themselves, but which, when placed in their proper positions in the over-all design, make a fascinating picture.

I found the first small piece in a book on old San Francisco. The year was 1878, and the item tells of the home of Joseph Duncan, a suave and cultured gentleman who was a cashier of the Bank of California and whose fortune crashed with William Ralston's. He was known as a connoisseur of the arts, and was often asked to select paintings and marbles for the palaces of his friends who knew little about them. His own home at Geary and Taylor Streets held many treasures. At one corner now stands a drugstore, at another a grocery and fruit store, at another the Bellevue Hotel, and the Clift Hotel on the fourth. In 1878 Joseph Duncan's home of art treasures occupied one of those corners. I'm under the impression that it stood at the northwest corner where the drugstore now stands. But it was shortly, after 1878 that the home was broken up and scandal and divorce resulted. Mrs. Duncan was a virtuous, high-principled Victorian lady. Joseph, the poet˛ a very good poet, too˛ the dreamer, the connoisseur of arts, had lost his heart to a spinster lady. on Russian Hill, and Mrs. Duncan divorced him.

The Duncans had several children and very little money, and that made the scandal more tragic. Joseph Duncan had been a brute and a scoundrel, and Mrs. Duncan virtuously spent many years telling the children what a scoundrel their father was. However, one of the children mat Papa some years later and found him a charming, cultured gentleman of appealing personality. But that all came later.

The second small piece in the jigsaw puzzle was a personal experience of mine that happened a few months less than fifty years after the scandal at the corner of Geary and Taylor Streets. It was the summer of 1927. I had been invited to a soiree˛ no other word describes the function˛ in a home out on Pacific Avenue. There were long-haired artists; there were hungry musicians; there were starving poets; and I, who belonged to none of those classes, joined the shrilling throng. It was the hour between sunset and darkness. Most of the guests congregated around a grand piano while a lady of mature years with a page-boy bob explained that she had never studied music or learned to play the piano, but in a dream had been inspired to go to the keyboard, and play. She now sit at the keyboard and played the most amazing music I had ever heard, while most of the guests congregated around her and sighed and clasped their hands. I sat on a small stool at Ina Coolbrith's feet.

Ina Coolbrith, the poet laureate of California, was very old. That was last year of her long life. She was a gentle, sweet-faced old lady, as old-fashioned and old-world as a miniature painted on ivory. She wore a simple, black silk dress, an old brooch at her throat, and her mantilla falling over her thin white hair. She told me of the men and women she had known when San Francisco was young. Her friends had been legion. Many of them had achieved greatness and died, and only Ina Coolbrith remained, a link between the Golden Dawn and the San Francisco of 1927.

Her friends had been Mark Twain, Bret Harte, Charles Warren Stoddard, Robert Louis Stevenson, Joaquin Miller, Harr Wagner, and Jack London, and they all had loved her. She told me about them quite simply as though their love was her rightful heritage. And there was one other. He was a poet, a dreamer, a musician, and a connoisseur of the arts! She had been the one great love of his life. His name was Joseph Duncan. Joseph Duncan was long since dead and she, the poet laureate, went on, dreaming in the memories of the departed years. Joseph Duncan! He had been so gentle, so great an idealist, and so fine a poet! What if he was a cashier in a bank; even a bank cashier could dream of sonnets. But he was dead and the pages of his story were closed. Yet it was not really ended, for he lived on in his children. There were four of them, and Ina Coolbrith had learned to know and love one of them well. Her name was Isadora Duncan.

As I stated before, that is the second bit in the pattern of the jigsaw puzzle. Now, before we come to the story of Isadora Duncan˛for after all, this is her story˛there is one more small piece in the puzzle pattern. It happened only a year or so ago. I went to see The Lute Song, one of the Theatre Guild productions at the Curran Theatre, and in that lovely pageantry one of the characters was an old blind father.

He was led across the stage, his steps faltering, as the blind should be led. But this wasn't acting; He was in fact blind, He was Raymond, one of children of Joseph Duncan.

There are the bits in the pattern. It was in Oakland, a few years after the scandal at Geary and Taylor Streets, that Ina Coolbrith met the child, Isadora. She came to the Oakland Public Library, as a few years later Jack London was to come, to ask the library lady, Miss Coolbrith, for a book to read. Just as Ina Coolbrith was to guide Jack London's reading some time later, so she guided and shaped the mind of the small daughter of Joseph Duncan.

Isadora was a quaint child, a strange mixture of practical common sense and worldly sophistication, and she was a dreamer like her father. The child loved poetry, beauty, and rhythm, and she hated reality. She was, in fact, a rebel. Her childhood had been an unhappy one. There was strife and divorce, with her mother's insistence that her father, Joseph, was a demon in human garb. Then there was her mother's disavowal of the religion in which she had been raised, and her espousal of the atheism of Robert Ingersoll. These were the unhealthy shapers of Isadora's childhood. Of course, when she eventually met her father, she found him a charming, lovable poet, and that heightened the confusion in her mind. Passing years tend to soften the intolerance of childhood, but Isadora Duncan never lost her contempt for the institution of marriage as she had seen it. When she was twelve years old she made a solemn vow that she would welcome love when it came, but she would never marry.

After the divorce, Mrs. Duncan found a small, drab home in Oakland for her brood of four children. The constant poverty in which they lived was softened by the wealth of poetry and music that Mrs. Duncan brought into the home, molding the lives of her small offspring. The four of them loved to sing, loved to play-act, and above all, loved to dance. Somewhere I have read that Isadora Duncan gave no thought to becoming a dancer until she had gone to Europe. This was an absurd distortion of fact. Isadora Duncan danced as soon as she could walk. The children read every book, good or bad, that chance flung in their path, and when chance was busy with other people's problems, Isadora went to the Public Library. There she met Ina Coolbrith. Ina possessed a rare talent. She not only created beaut