Dawn Reader

Dawn Reader
from Open Door Coffee Co.; Hudson, OH; Oct. 26, 2016

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Meeting Jack London's Daughter, III

the bookstore in Glen Ellen, Calif.
I've not really been stalling. Yes, it's taken me two days--two substantial posts--to arrive at my moment of meeting with Becky London, Jack London's younger daughter. But I needed to supply the context, right?

So ... here we are. In 1990 she would turn 88, and she was living in the World of Jack London Bookstore in Glen Ellen, California, near the ranch her father had once owned, near the ranch where her father died in 1916 (at the age of 40) when she was 14. Russ and Winnie Kingman, who operated the store, had offered to introduce her to me.

And so ... on July 18, 1990, I drove over to the store from Rohnert Park ... below, virtually unedited (okay, I fixed a few little problems) is the journal entry I wrote when I got back to my room after talking with Becky.

July 18, 1990
            After class today, I drove over to Glen Ellen to Russ Kingman’s store for two reasons: to give Russ a copy of the new Classics Illustrated version of The Call of the Wild (he had not seen it and was pleased); to see if I could meet Becky London.  As fortune would have it, when I arrived, she was meeting with the English biographer,[1] so I browsed around the store for about thirty minutes until she came out.  She bade farewell to the biographer (they embraced) and was about to head back in when Winnie Kingman stopped her and introduced me as someone from “Earle’s class” who would like to meet her.  (Thanks to Winnie!)
            I sort of stumbled around behind Winnie’s desk chair, reached out, and shook Becky’s fragile yet powerful hand.  She was so gracious, so friendly—without any real reason to be.  After all, she has just spent most of the afternoon talking about Jack (“Daddy” she referred to him throughout our conversation).  I told her that I’d read all of her father’s works, and she seemed so pleased, then asked me which I liked best.
            Uh oh.  Not to say the wrong thing.
            “The Star-Rover,” I opined.
            “That’s mine, too,” she said with a smile. “Along with The Valley of the Moon. You know,” she continued, “people used to ask Daddy if he believed in reincarnation, and he would just laugh and say that he knew about a lot of religions and found them all interesting.”[2]
            I said something stupid about how one of the best things about Jack’s writing was his enthusiasm for what he was himself learning; he became a great teacher through his books.  Becky agreed. “Have you read Martin Eden?”[3]
            “Well, that was Daddy. It was very autobiographical.”
            I was so—what? star-struck?—that it wasn’t until a few minutes into our conversation that I began paying attention closely to what she was saying.  She was alert, clever, and gracious the entire time.
            She appeared to be about Jack’s size (5'7" or so, perhaps a little shorter); she has his sort of square face, and the most penetrating pale blue eyes I’ve ever seen—their luster dimmed only by the fairly recent formation of cataracts. She looked startlingly like the photographs of her father, even though she has outlived him by nearly fifty years. We were so close I could smell her breath, soured a little by a long afternoon of talking about her father.
            I commented on her striking resemblance to her father, and she laughed—complimented, I hope. She said, “Except I don’t have that wavy brown hair, do I?” Then she told how she remembered going for walks with Jack and her sister, Joan, when she was just a little girl. “Daddy didn’t like city hats,” she recalled, “but he would sometimes wear one on our walks. He had a natural wave, but he would take his hand and sort of push it up a little before we went out. Before long, though, he would take off the hat. And then the wind would blow his hair all over.”
            I asked her to pose for a photograph, so she stood before some bookshelves; I trembled so much I don’t know how it came out. Then I asked her if she’d read her sister’s book, Jack London and His Daughters. She said, “No, I can’t read anymore. And I don’t know if anyone will take the time to read it to me.” I asked if she would write her name in the book for me, and, again, she graciously agreed.
            I put the blank page before her, and she asked, “Is here all right? There aren’t any words in the way, are there?” And then she signed it, without ever, I’m sure, seeing what she wrote.
            She turned to go back into the little apartment Russ had constructed for her next to his bookshop, and I thanked her, telling her what an honor it was for me to meet her.
            She turned back to me and spoke to Winnie: “Now make sure he doesn’t walk out with anything.” And laughed, those blue eyes blazing with humor and intelligence.

                [1] Probably Alex Kershaw, whose biography, Jack London: A Life, appeared in 1998.
                [2] The Star Rover, 1915, deals with the issue of “previous lives.” The Valley of the Moon, 1913, a title that refers to the Sonoma Valley, is London’s novel about the valley he loved, the valley where he built his ranch.
                [3] London’s strong autobiographical novel, 1909, which, oddly, was the first of London’s books I’d ever read. My parents had given me a copy of it (why?), and I’d read it during study halls at Hiram High School—oh, about 1960 or 1961? (Hey, beats doing homework!)

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