The name isn’t familiar today, but 100 years ago Ina Coolbrith was the most beloved poet in California, an accolade that earned her the historic honor as the state’s first poet laureate. She was a friend of John Muir and Mark Twain, Bret Harte and Isadore Duncan.
Most local literary enthusiasts, however, might know her as an acknowledged mentor and inspiration to Jack London, who encouraged the 10-year-old boy to read even though he was too young to use the Oakland library where she worked. Her positive role in the writer’s life led him to remember her until the day he died.
“Do you know, you were the first one who ever complimented me on my choice of reading matter?,” London wrote Coolbrith years after he had borrowed his first book from her library. “Proud! If you only knew how proud your words made me.”
On Saturday, Aug. 27, Jack London State Historic Park will recognize Coolbrith in an event featuring Aleta George, author of “Ina Coolbrith: The Bittersweet Song of California’s First Poet Laureate,” at the House of Happy Walls from 2 to 4 p.m.
Coolbrith’s first love was poetry, but she earned a living as Oakland’s first public librarian, where she fought gender discrimination in the workplace among other social issues. “I call her a literary ambassador in early California,” said George. “She was kind of a literary star in her day,” publishing poems in nearly every issue of the West Coast’s first recognized literary magazine the Overland Monthly for nearly a decade.
Not only did the state recognize her as poet laureate – making her perhaps the nation’s first state laureate – Luther Burbank even named a hybrid poppy after her, the crimson California poppy. There is far more to Coolbrith’s story, too, from her birth in Mormon Country in the Joseph Smith clan (her real name was Josephina Donna Smith); to her relationship with the eccentric poet Cincinnatus Hiner Miller, who later called himself Joaquin Miller; to her loss of all her possessions and library in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire; and her following a handsome young protégé to New York when she was in her 80s. Not long after, she was found destitute in the city – but still striking enough that a young Ansel Adams took her portrait when she returned to the East Bay.
She died on Leap Year Day in 1928, on the eve of the Great Depression. But among other posthumous honors, her name is memorialized in the Sierra Nevada, where a 7,900 foot peak near the Feather River Canyon bears her name.
Currently living in Solano County, author Aleta George lived in Sonoma when she was a high school student at Sonoma Valley High School in the early 1970s. She also worked as a docent at the Toscano Hotel, one of her first introductions to history. “I marched right down there in my little paisley dress and said I want to volunteer and give tours.” She counts it her first job as “a history nerd.”
George’s book won a bronze medal from the 2016 Independent Publisher Book Awards in the biography category.
Admission to the Aug. 27 event at the House of Happy Walls in Jack London State Historic Park is $10 plus JLSHP parking fee, but free to active Jack London Park volunteers. Limited seating is available.