PROFILE

The First and Last Lives of Jack London

Jack London in November 1916, weeks before his death from uremic poisoning and a morphine overdose at his Beauty Ranch in Glen Ellen, California.
APIC/GETTY IMAGES
Jack London in November 1916, weeks before his death from uremic poisoning and a morphine overdose at his Beauty Ranch in Glen Ellen, California.
Wolf House represented the author’s ambition and success, but the Sonoma County mansion burned to the ground before he could move in. It was an emotional loss he never recovered from.

In 1898, Jack London was trapped in an Alaskan cabin while, outside, winter froze everything to icy stillness. “Nothing stirred,” he wrote later. “The Yukon slept under a coat of ice three feet thick.” London, then 22, had come to Alaska to make his fortune in the gold rush, but all he’d found was a small amount of dust worth $4.50. A diet of bacon, beans, and bread had given him scurvy. His gums bled, his joints ached, and his teeth were loose. London decided that, if he lived, he would no longer try to rise above poverty through physical labor. Instead, he would become a writer. So he carved into the cabin wall the words “Jack London Miner Author Jan 27, 1898.”

In the 1960s, that bit of graffiti helped verify the cabin, and it was divided in two. Half of the cabin remains in the Klondike, and the rest was moved to Jack London Square on the Oakland waterfront, where London grew up. The day I visited the Oakland cabin, the farmers market was going on, and smoke from cooking sausages wafted through the air. The cabin stands in the center of the square, surrounded by palm trees. Drought-resistant grasses cover the living roof like fur—something London, a pioneer in sustainable agriculture, might have appreciated.

A section of London’s Alaska cabin, where he lived in 1897–98 during the Klondike gold rush, now located in Oakland’s Jack London Square.CHRISTIE HEMM KLOK
A section of London’s Alaska cabin, where he lived in 1897–98 during the Klondike gold rush, now located in Oakland’s Jack London Square.

Since the cabin is closed to visitors, I peered through the windows, looking for his signature, which I later learned is in the Klondike portion of the cabin. It seemed fitting that this symbol of the creative sea change in London’s life stands in the place where he experienced abject poverty. London would travel the world and achieve immense literary success, but he would never fully shed the weight of that poverty. Beside the Oakland cabin is Heinolds’ First and Last Chance Saloon, opened in 1883. London was a lifelong regular. He started drinking there as a teenager, often to blackout as he tried to keep up with the older men. The saloon, made out of timbers from a scrapped whaling ship, stands out like a wooden thumb among the glass buildings along the waterfront. Inside, it’s small, dark, and covered in memorabilia. The floor slants steeply, so that sitting on a barstool feels like drinking on the mess deck of a pitching ship. It’s easy to imagine sailors and dockworkers crowding in there to escape the chill of the Bay Area fog.

People seemed delighted with the saloon. Several peered in through the doorway and said how cute it was. At a table, a man was talking local history to a rapt audience. A couple at the bar asked why the saloon was there, and the bartender explained that it was because of London. “People come in and say that Jack London drank here, so they have to drink here too,” he said. “Although, that has died off a bit lately. London’s not as popular with the kids. I don’t know why, because I had to read all his books in middle school.”

Join author Joy Lanzendorfer and Jack London scholar Iris Jamahl Dunkle for “You Don’t Know Jack,” a deep-dive discussion into one of California’s most legendary authors at Book Passage Corte Madera, Sunday, May 19, 1pm. 

For anyone who has struggled with money or sought to better themselves, London’s life and work still feel startlingly relevant. In some ways, Oakland’s current income disparity isn’t that different from during the writer’s childhood—the yachts along the pier are a sharp contrast to the homeless camps throughout the city. London often wrote about the exploitation he experienced as a “work beast.” At 14, he pulled 16-hour shifts at a cannery for 10 cents an hour. Then he became an oyster pirate, stealing from company oyster beds at night and selling his haul by day. He was a sailor, killing seals from the deck of a boat and getting a severe case of shingles. Later, he shoveled coal for $30 a month, spraining both wrists before someone confessed that he was working a job meant for two men. No matter how he tried, poorly paid physical labor did nothing to improve his circumstances.

Beside the Oakland cabin is Heinolds’ First and Last Chance Saloon, which London frequented throughout his life.CHRISTIE HEMM KLOK
Beside the Oakland cabin is Heinolds’ First and Last Chance Saloon, which London frequented throughout his life.

When London returned from the Klondike, he dove into writing, churning out thousands of words. For months, he got nothing for his efforts but rejection letters—over 600 of them. “Everything I possessed was in pawn, and I did not have enough to eat,” he wrote of that time. “I was at the end of my tether, beaten out, starved, ready to go back to coal-shoveling or ahead to suicide.” Then he sold two short stories, one for $5 and another for $40. Slowly, he began publishing, and in 1903 he wrote three books, including The Call of the Wild. He followed up with more hits—White Fang, The Sea-Wolf, and Martin Eden, among others. By his late 20s, he was the highest-paid writer in the United States.

He spent that money on a 1,400-acre property in Glen Ellen that he called Beauty Ranch. Today, it’s Jack London State Historic Park, one of the most complete literary sites in the United States. For $10, you can take a self-guided tour, hike the trails, or join a free docent-led tour. There are also private tours and horseback riding. When I visited, wildfires had recently threatened the park, and artifacts that had been evacuated were still in storage. However, the museum, a rustic rock mansion that London’s second wife, Charmian Kittredge London, built after his death, had just undergone a renovation. My guide, Kristina Ellis, showed me highlights, including pictures of Alaska, souvenirs of London’s travels, and his letter resigning from the Socialist Party.

The museum also delves into London’s relationship with Charmian, his “mate woman,” who possessed qualities London wanted in a wife. She was sporty and liberated, and she never resorted to “hysterics,” something he wouldn’t tolerate. They honeymooned on his 55-foot sailboat, the Snark, which he had spent over a year and $30,000 building. It had state-of-the-art collapsible masts, flush toilets, room for 400 books, and even an ice maker. Sleek and graceful, it could go 11 knots at full sail. While London intended to sail the Snark around the world, he managed only one trip through the south Pacific before cost and illness forced him to sell it for $4,500.

Ellis pointed out London’s medical kit, a leather zip-up bag with vials of pills and powders. A nearby placard said that it “contained cocaine drops for toothaches, opium for pain, heroin for a bad cough, and mercury chloride to heal open skin wounds.” While on the Snark, everyone got sick with yaws, a bacterial infection that causes weeping wounds. “They all had their different remedies to cure it,” said Ellis. “And Jack’s remedy of choice was mercury chloride. So he was pounding the mercury into his system for about a year and a half, which of course damaged his kidneys beyond repair.”

A view of Beauty Ranch, now called Jack London State Historic Park.CHRISTIE HEMM KLOK
A view of Beauty Ranch, now called Jack London State Historic Park.
VALLEY OF THE MOON

When London first came to Glen Ellen, he was sick with another illness: depression. In 1905, he discovered the ranch while horseback riding with Charmian. Upon seeing it, he experienced a lift in spirits, writing in a letter that it was “the most beautiful, primitive land to be found in California. There are great redwoods on it, some of them thousands of years old.… I have never seen anything like it.” Loggers were preparing to clear the forest, so he had to act fast. He wrote to his publisher for an advance and purchased 128 acres for $7,000. Over time, he would buy more plots, increasingly convinced of the power of nature to heal itself—and maybe heal him as well.

It’s easy to see why he loved the place so much. Trails roll through Beauty Ranch, into manzanita forests and redwood groves, past vineyards and an algae-covered lake, and up onto Sonoma Mountain. While Glen Ellen is now part of wine country, when London came there, the soil was considered used up. Farming practices of the time were to plant large monocultures, dose them in chemical fertilizers, and move on. London wanted to model what we now call sustainable agriculture. His ranch would be a place of fertility, filled with thriving animals, rotating crops, and natural splendor. “When I go into the silence,” he told Charmian, “I want to know that I have left behind me a plot of land which, after the pitiful failures of others, I have made productive.”

The jewel of the ranch would be Wolf House, a four-story, 15,000-square-foot home of volcanic rock and redwood buttresses. As with the Snark, London was involved in its design. It had a spring-fed reflection pool, a gun and trophy room, servants’ quarters, a built-in vacuum-cleaning system, a sleeping tower, and a giant library. The foundation was strong enough to support a 40-story building. Construction began in 1911, the fulfillment of a childhood dream.

“When Jack was still a kid, he told his stepsister Eliza that he wanted his own house with one enormous room full of books,” says James Haley, author of Wolf: The Lives of Jack London. “Wolf House was the summation of all his other ambitions.… Of course we all want to live well, and so did Jack London. When he built his house, it was a castle.”

But London was spending more than he made. Though the best-paid U.S. author of his time, he never had any money. Most of it went to people he supported, including his ex-wife, two children, his mother, and his childhood wet nurse. He was a generous friend and sometimes made poor business decisions. He sold The Call of the Wild for $2,000 but received no royalties. The book made a fortune for his publisher, but not for him. To finance his lifestyle, he borrowed on advances for books he hadn’t even started yet. Friends said he had “mortgaged his brain.”

The cottage London shared with Charmian while waiting for Wolf House to be finished sits beside a 400-year-old oak tree that is nearing the end of its life and may need to be cut down. When London lived there, a thick branch of the tree grew right next to the house. To avoid disturbing it, London had his office built underneath the branch. As a result, when you’re standing inside the cottage, you look down into the room where he worked. It has three wooden desks, multiple bookshelves, a Dictaphone, typewriters, and a card catalog. Original art from his books hangs on the walls. Every morning, he wrote at least 1,000 words, which Charmian edited, before rushing out to what he thought of as his real work—ranching. In 1914, he admitted to a reporter, “I write a book for no other reason than to add three or four hundred acres to my magnificent estate. I write a story with no other purpose than to buy a stallion. To me, my cattle are far more interesting than my profession.”

With each agricultural experiment, London went full bore, sparing no cost. Sometimes this led to failure. With botanist Luther Burbank, he tested spineless cactus for its potential as a drought-resistant cattle feed, but the spines grew back. He planted 16,000 eucalyptus in the first year, aiming for a fast-growing hardwood, only to discover he’d put in the wrong kind of tree.

Still, other experiments worked. He used the manure from his purebred shire horses to increase soil fertility. Inspired by his travels in Asia, he created the first terraced hillside in the U.S. to keep topsoil from draining away. Today, the soil’s richness is evident in the grapes growing throughout the park. The wine from them is sold at nearby Kenwood Vineyards.

Then there’s the Pig Palace, a round rock structure surrounded by pens that was built by Italian stonemasons. London designed it with sanitation and efficiency in mind—a feeding chute allowed one man to feed 200 pigs at once. The press mocked the $3,000 “palatial pig pens.” In response, London shrugged, saying that with saved labor and healthy pigs, “the money I have spent will be returned to me again and again.”

London spent $3,000 to build the Pig Palace.CHRISTIE HEMM KLOK
London spent $3,000 to build the Pig Palace.

By 1913, however, he had $3.46 in his bank account, and paying staff had become “Jack’s monthly miracle.” Charmian miscarried a child, marking the second such tragedy for the couple—their daughter Joy had died in 1910 after only a few hours of life. London was sick as well. Years of smoking up to four packs a day, alcohol abuse, and a meat-heavy diet—including copious amounts of raw duck—were catching up with him. The mercury had injured his kidneys. He was taking morphine for pain.

Yet Wolf House was almost done. It was a lovely home, open and tasteful. Workers were finishing the wood floors and trim with linseed oil. The Londons were making plans to move in.

BURNING DAYLIGHT

Then, on August 22, it burned down. London’s stepsister, Eliza Shepard, who managed and lived on the ranch, woke him in the middle of the night, alerting him to the blaze. London, Shepard, and Charmian raced to the house, but it was too late to save it.

The ruins of Wolf House stand in a redwood grove a half mile from the museum. Even today, a hundred years later, the massive rock walls hold the shape of the home. It’s an eerie sight. Moss grows in the cracks between the purple lava rocks, coating the surface with green. Redwood trees have sprouted around the ruins, mimicking the rock chimneys that jut, unsupported, into the air. The reflection pool lies in the center of the building, an empty concrete pit.

Ellis led me around to what would have been the back of the house and pointed through a window, where I could see the remains of a white-tiled fireplace. I was looking at the room where the fire had started. In the 1990s, experts determined that rags soaked in linseed oil had caused a spontaneous combustion.

“At the end of the day, workers would bring their rags to this location, and someone would come and take the rags away,” Ellis said. “And one day, someone forgot to take the rags away. It was a triple-digit day, very, very hot, and these rags had been left alone in a pile, and they combusted. And because the house was so well insulated from fire, it burned for many hours before it got to the roof and anyone could see it.”

London never recovered from the financial and emotional loss. With his ranch, he had written to a friend, he was throwing out an anchor “so big and so heavy that all hell could not ever get it up again.” The house, he’d thought, would stand for a thousand years. It was all supposed to be stable and permanent, but it wasn’t working out that way. And time, he knew, was running out.

The ruins of Wolf House, a four-story, 15,000-square-foot home that was nearly completed when it caught fire in August 1913.CHRISTIE HEMM KLOK
The ruins of Wolf House, a four-story, 15,000-square-foot home that was nearly completed when it caught fire in August 1913.

On November 22, 1916, London died on his sleeping porch. He was 40 years old. The cause was uremic poisoning and a fatal shot of morphine—the overdose was likely unintentional.

Not far from Wolf House are the graves of two pioneer children, David and Lilly Greenlaw. David died in 1876—the year London was born. Nearby is London’s grave, marked by a lava rock that was too big to use in Wolf House. Charmian had it moved there and placed on top of his scattered ashes.

His funeral was on a gray November day. The story goes that as London’s loved ones stood at the spot, the clouds parted and a ray of sun shone down on the rock. “That’s something that Charmian had written down,” Ellis said. “And it was sort of seen as a nod from Jack.”

We said goodbye, and I walked through the woods toward the parking lot, past burgundy manzanita bushes and shaded thickets where dappled light played on the leaf-covered ground. I thought that London had been right about this land. He left behind a ranch that remains productive and, after all this time, remarkably unchanged. His description of being here is one that any visitor can still experience today. “I ride over my beautiful ranch. Between my legs is a beautiful horse. The air is wine. The grapes on a score of rolling hills are red with autumn flame. Across Sonoma Mountain, wisps of sea fog are stealing. The afternoon sun smolders in the drowsy sky. I have everything to make me glad I am alive.”

Joy Lanzendorfer is a writer who lives near San Francisco. While she read Jack London as a child, she became fascinated with him as a person when, as a young writer, she learned he had garnered over 600 rejection letters from publishers, a truly impressive effort. Her interest in London has only grown since then.