George Sterling at Play

By Austin Lewis

George Sterling and I were friends for about thirty years and, of all the charming memories that I possess, the picture of him as he was twenty-five years ago pleases me most.

He was then the center of a very interesting group, which ranged from Joaquin Miller to young and untried artists and writers. The more intimate members of this group met at Coppa's restaurant in San Francisco, on week days and on Sundays in Alameda County. None of us will ever forget those Sundays.

Jack London had then just started upon his career and was living at Piedmont with his first wife, Bessie, and two small children, Joan and Bess. Sometimes we went to Jack's place for the festivities. Frequently, however, we went to a farm house, the name of which I have forgotten, adjoining a large estate in Piedmont. Occasionally, we went to The Hights, Joaquin Miller's place, and would go over the fields and sit by the quarry, discussing the affairs of the universe and listening to the rhapsodical lies of the old bard. Those were glorious afternoons. Herman Whitaker told stories of the British Army and a settler's life in Canada. He was just beginning to write in those days. He was very poor and had a large family. He had limitless courage and unending perseverance. He died at the close of the war, a victim of his own energy. Hermann Scheffauer, then an architect and rising young poet, protégé of Ambrose Bierce, as was George Sterling, held forth on real-politik and modernity. We fought out the war more than ten years before it began and the ineradicable differences of honest opinion between Sterling and Scheffauer were manifest even then. Later, they were to flare into epistolary conflict, when the cessation of hostilities opened the postal service between Germany and this country. The afternoons at Piedmont were merry affairs. George's beautiful sisters frequently came. There was a gathering of youth and beauty. "Bob" Aitken, the sculptor, and other artists, like Xavier Martinez, were nearly always there. We picnicked, danced, played, sang and argued till night found us weary and happy. We usually finished up at George Sterling's house, where Carrie, his wife, was the loveliest and merriest of hostesses.

No one, I fancy, can claim to have really known George Sterling, without some acquaintance with him on these occasions. He was the happiest and most graceful of the crowd. An athlete of prowess, he gave Whitaker, formally an instructor in the British Army and Jack London, whose strength and vigor are well known, a good match. He could run and jump, haul and throw, drink and shout with the best of them. He made a sort of chant to which he used to sing "Thus spake the Lord in the vault above the Cherubim" lustily and well. He was then full of fire and life with no evidence at all of the mordant melancholia which was afterwards so destructive to his morale.

Then one would meet him on the boat in the morning, for he was working at the office of the Realty Syndicate. He wrote most of "The Testimony of the Suns" while crossing the Bay. Many times he has hunted me up on the boat to show me a new stanza. He was most particular about his work, carefully weighing every sound and eager for suggestion. He was sweet, modest and affectionate.

I like to think of George Sterling as he was in those days. I see him oftenest as he stood laughing at a picnic at Piedmont, with all his friends about him. I think that nothing will dislodge that picture from my memory.

The Overland Monthly and Out West Magazine (1868-1935); Nov1927; Volume LXXXV, Number 11; pg 344.