Wednesday, March 6, 2019

WHO WAS THAT WOMAN? by Arletta Dawdy

She was born in Nauvoo, Illinois, the niece and , later, step-daughter of Joseph Smith, founder of the Church of Latter Day Saints. Upon the death of her second husband, her mother left the church,  the mother resumed the use of her maiden name in her efforts to dissociate from the church and relatives, and  married a printer/lawyer. The family traveled to Southern California by wagon train. The ten year old girl sat on horseback with Jim Beckwourth, famed African-American scout as they neared Los Angeles. She had spent the travels reading the works of Lord Byron and Shakespeare!

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         In her teen years , she maintained what became  lifelong correspondence with her cousin, Joseph F. Smith, professing their love for one another. She was writing poetry regularly, was known as a beauty to the point of opening a ball with the last Mexican governor of California,  Pio Pico.  A disastrous marriage at seventeen to a union iron worker/part-time actor resulted in abuse, the loss of her infant son, the beating of her husband by her step-father that resulted in the vile man losing a hand. The couple’s divorce finalized three yeas later after a sensational trial.

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         In 1862, the family moved to San Francisco and the woman shed her married name, took her mother’s maiden name again and taught  English. She also made new literary friends that included such notables as Bret Harte, Mark Twain and Adha Menken. The woman continued to write and her poetry caught the attention of John Greenleaf Whittier, Alfred Lord Tennyson, John Muir and Charles Warren Stoddard. With Harte and Stoddard, they edited the Overland Monthly and became known as “The Golden Gate Trinity.” Her poetry attracted attention in many corners of the state and country.


         Her work and beauty continued to bring accolades to her doorstep. Tennyson described her as “divinely tall, and most divinely fair.” The New York Times reviewed her poem about her lost child. “The Mother’s Grief,” positively. Ambrose Bierce praised much of her work in the 1870’s only to turn against her in later years, destroying their personal relationship.

         That woman took under her wing the unusual poet Cincinnatus Hiner Miller, convincing him to take the pen name of Joaquin Miller,  adopt a new look by ridding himself of his Mountain Man appearance and sent him off to Europe for a tour. They both admired Lord Byron and Miller was to lay a laurel wreath at his tomb. Her poem “With a Leaf of Laurel” commemorates their time together on the project. There are inferences that she and Miller were a couple and also that she may have bedded other of her admirers, like Harte and Stoddard    
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She had hoped to go with Miller but had taken over responsibility for her sick sister, her niece and nephew and her mother. In 874, she took a job as Oakland’s librarian and moved the family across the Bay. Her sister died in 1874 and her mother two years later. Meanwhile, Joaquin Miller left an Indian girl in her charge, a child who may have been his. He took off again for Brazil and Europe.

              The library job was intense with ten-hour work days, six days a week. Her poetry and other writings suffered for some nineteen years. In the course of her time with the library she befriended and guided the readings and education of Jack London and Isadora Duncan, She is reputed to have been the love of Isadora's father's life, which led to the parents' divorce. 

             Literary friends, including novelist Gertrude Atherton, Harte, Miller, Stoddard and many others honored and assisted her over the years of her long life. The sudden loss of her job was a shock, perhaps more so as she was replaced by her nephew whom she had trained, provided for and no doubt cared for. He went on to make significant changes to better the program while she was left to find her way once again in the face of upset and loss.


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         I will share much more about INA COOLBRITH next time!
March 10, 1841- February 29, 1928
1.Wikipedia for an extensive biography and bibliography
       2. for same bio, abbreviated, and poetry
       3. Photos: Google Images        


  1. Arletta, I hadn't heard of her and am fascinated. I'm also eager to learn how she supported herself and her family after losing the library job.

  2. Thanks, Caroline. I've known of her for many years,primarily as tutor to the young J.London and one of the earliest members of the CA Writers Club...I belong to the chapter here in Santa Rosa. I was startled to see the post show up today and sorry for however I replaced Cheri's post.

  3. What a difficult, sad, and crazy interesting life she led. So many terrible things happened to her and yet, her life was filled with such literary greats--exciting and terrible.
    Your blog was so fascinating. I'm glad I got a chance to read it, Arletta.

    1. Sarah, I'm glad Ina's story fascinated you. There will be much more next month, including some of her poetry.

  4. Most fascinating. Of course, growing up near Navoo, the history was equally fascinating. Look forward to more on this fascinating person. Doris

    1. Doris, do you remember coming across anything about Ina as you grew up? I'd be interested in learning what a Levirate marriage was/is as her mother had with Joseph Smith after Ina's father died.


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