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Wish they all could be....

October 09, 2005|Lisa Grunwald | LISA GRUNWALD is a novelist and the coauthor, with her husband, Stephen J. Adler, of "Women's Letters: America from the Revolutionary War to the Present," published last month by the Dial Press.

WHEN MY HUSBAND and I set out four years ago to choose 400 American women's letters for an anthology spanning the country's history, we certainly didn't plan to represent California women as among the strongest, most resilient and most glamorous in the nation. Why would we? We're both lifelong New Yorkers. But that's how it turned out.

We began with Virginia Reed, the ultimate survivor. To students of the Donner Party, she is well known as a member of one of only two families who survived the cross-country trek with no deaths -- and, as she explained in the 1847 letter she wrote from the Napa Valley -- without resorting to cannibalism:

thay was 11 days without any thing to eat but the Dead.... O Mary I have not rote you half of the truble we have had but I have rote you anuf to let you now that you dont now what truble is but thank god we have all got thro[ugh] and the onely family that did not eat human flesh we have left everything but i dont cair for that we have got thro[ugh] with our lives.

In New York City, we consider it pioneering to make it through the housewares department at Zabar's, so we were especially struck by the adventurous spirit of the relatively few women who set up shop in California during the rough-and-tumble Gold Rush years. In 1849, Mary Jane Cole Mequier wrote from San Francisco to a friend in Maine:

I suppose you have heard one thousand and one stories of this land of gold and wonders, they may differ widely but still all be true ... in three months [some] will find themselves worth fifty thousand, while others whose prospects are much brighter, will in the same short space of time be breathing their last in some miserable tent without one friend, or a single dime to pay their funeral charges, they are tumbled into a rough box with their clothes on, in which they died, this has been the fate of thousands since I have been here, yet there never was a place where money is spent so lavishly as here, it is said that one million changes hands, every day at the gambling tables.

Californians, of course, are stalwart veterans of natural disasters; from our vantage point, it takes either a frank love of danger or at least a madcap spirit to live where cliffs routinely collapse, fires rage and the Earth tends to move not in a good way. Though Margaret Wright wrote this letter 100 years ago, she described the San Francisco earthquake in images that resonate especially strongly in the aftermath of Katrina:

In the city the lights are destroyed, fires not permitted in the chimneys, there is no sewerage, and street cars not yet running. Everybody there is cooking out of doors. The business portion of the city is a mass of ruins. . . There is not a trace left of China Town. I suppose every San Franciscan has suffered greatly from the fire. Many are destitute, and numbers are homeless.

Other Californians in the book dealt, variously, with tuberculosis, internment camps, lawlessness, border patrols and mining accidents. But none held quite the glamour of the Hollywood figures (although what they had in glamour they often seemed to lack in steadiness). In 1929, "It Girl" Clara Bow, having gone AWOL from a movie set, begged her producer:

Please don't be angry with me and try to understand my feelings. I am sick in heart as well as body.... I will be back as soon as I am able to resume my work at the studio, that is if you still want me. If you don't, well, that's up to you to decide.

And in 1952, Marilyn Monroe asked her surgeon to be careful of her reproductive organs while performing an appendectomy; she taped the note to her abdomen.

But our favorite letter was written by a California woman whose name has long since disappeared. In 1881, she who was living in Bodie when she sent this extraordinary message to a neighboring lawman:

Kind and Respected Cir:

I see in the paper that a man named John Sipes was attacted and et up by a bare whose kubs he was trying to get when the she bare came up and stopt him by eating him in the mountains near your town.

What I want to know is did it kill him ded or was he only partly et up and is he from this plaice and all about the bare. I don't know but he is a distant husband of mine.... If it is him you will know by his having six toes on his left foot.

He also had a spreadagle tattooed on his front chest and a anker on his right arm which you will know him by if the bare did not eat up these sines of it being him.

P.S. Was the bare killed? Also was he married again and did he have propty wuth me laying claim to?


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