San Francisco History

Chambliss' Diary

Chapter III.

I LANDED in San Francisco in November, 1887.

Prior to the morning of my arrival the idea of coming here to stay had never entered my head.

I had read a great deal about California, and had heard many interesting stories from men who had been here.

Wonderful tales were told of the ease with which large fortunes were accumulated during the excitement of the mad rush for the gold regions, and later on in the fifties. I had met several gentlemen in New York, Philadelphia, and New Orleans, who had come out to California in '49, made fortunes in the mines, and then returned to their old homes in the East and South, "to enjoy the fruits of their labors."

So enthusiastic were those gentlemen in sounding the praises of the "glorious climate of California," that a person would feel tempted, at first, to ask them why they ever left such a delightful country. An attentive listener to their stories generally could draw his own conclusions without asking any questions.

They pointed out the vast resources of the State, and spoke of the opportunities that single men, who would do as they had done, would find here to make money enough in a few years with which to return to "The States" and settle down.

One thing, however, that impressed itself upon my youthful mind as being rather extraordinary, was the fact that those men who had made their fortunes in California, and invariably referred to the State in such flattering terms of praise, had not one good word for San Francisco's alleged high society. They never thought of advising a young man to come to San Francisco to live; but, on the contrary, their advice to men coming West was to return to the "States" when they were ready to get married and settle down. They declared that very few of the people who remained in San Francisco were of the class that would do to grace New York or New Orleans drawing rooms.

Married men who were determined to bring their wives out here were advised to steer well clear of San Francisco. They were told that any place in the State, even Sacramento and Oakland not excepted, would be better for married gentlemen who entertained hopes of raising children of their own.

According to some of the "wise men of the East," there seemed to be something in the climate of California that was peculiarly antagonistic to the most sacred laws for the government of domestic happiness and modern civilization.

This remarkable climate was more destructive to family peace and happiness in San Francisco than in any other part of the State.

But there were others, however, who stoutly maintained that the climate had nothing to do with the peculiar state of affairs in some of the alleged best families of the city, whose social pretensions could not be kept up, even in San Francisco society, except on a financial basis.

The defenders of the climate declared that it was the nature of those persons to be bad, and that bad blood would be the same in any climate. And they went on in defense of the climate by mentioning the indisputable fact that they could name a great many families in San Francisco who were just as nice and refined as any to be found in the East, or South.

Those descendants of the F.F.V.'s, for instance, who moved West after the close of the Civil War, should not be classed with the arch parvenu element that ascended from Lieddsdorff Street grog shops to Nob Hill mansions at one stride.

But those of the bad climate theory refused to give in; their arguments being based mainly upon the fact that some of the worst people in the city were supposed to be all right until they were found out.

So there the case rested.

However, this difference of learned Eastern opinion concerning the cause of San Francisco's numerous social eruptions amounted to nothing, for, whatever the cause, the effect was a matter of fact that was universally conceded.

The general opinion of the most liberal-minded men of the East and South, who spoke from actual experience, was that San Francisco's alleged society was in such a state that it would require many generations to purify it so that it would be prudent for a young married couple to undertake to live here for any length of time without losing confidence in one another. They said that there were more divorces in San Francisco in a given time than in any city in the world of twice its size; some of those getting divorces never taking the precaution of having them recorded. And in addition to this, they could name many prominent men of wealth who posed as leading members of the alleged best society, and kept second establishments, and raised two families at the same time.

"There seems to be a great deal of Crocker and lackey, but very little horse."-- Public Opinion.

An instance was related of a judge, surnamed Heydenfelt, who sat on the bench and dealt out justice to the public for a long time. When this judge's lawful wife died, he thought to consolidate both "families" under one roof, by moving his other wife and illegitimate heirs into the house with his lawful children. Of course, these latter objected to having their father's mistress take the chair just made vacant by the death of their mother, who, I am told, was a good-hearted woman, and endured for years this shameful treatment of her husband rather than seek a legal separation. It was then that this "judge" informed his legitimate children that if they were not satisfied with his decision they could leave the house, and appeal to a higher court. This little incident did not affect the judge's standing in Nob Hill "society," for he, like several other San Francisco "judges," had money, and money is the god of Nob Hill.

Of course, it would be extremely unjust to condemn the alleged best society of any large city on account of the actions of a few dozen of its prominent members; but older men than I am, and men who have had large experience in the world, hold to the argument that if San Francisco's alleged high society was any part of what it ought to be, to say nothing of what it pretends to be, it would never tolerate such characters as are to be found in its membership.

Judging from the fact that some persons can do almost anything and still be received into some of the wealthiest homes, and also at the gatherings of the alleged ultra "set," any thinking person is bound to come to the conclusion that the majority of the alleged best element is made up of very coarse material.

When a man can marry his common-law stepmother, and take her into "society," and flaunt her name in the papers as a "belle," it is time to protest.

It is bad enough for the father of grown-up sons to keep a second establishment; but when one of those drunken sons marries the mistress of his father's common law home, the limit of depravity seems to have been stretched beyond comprehension.

While it is quite true that many of the wealthy men of the city came here without anything, not even common school education,--some of them having been born of parents who never knew what it was to live outside of the humblest sections of New York, or some of the other large cities of the East, and Europe, where people descend to the lowest depth of degradation to be found outside of China,--we would naturally suppose that, with the accumulation of wealth, those persons would make some effort to show a little more appreciation of the good fortune that circumstances, in many instances, have thrust upon them since they came here. I do not mean those who have made their way in the world by honorable dealings with their fellow-man; I mean those vultures, of the dive-keeper, saloon-keeper, and gambling house-keeper element, who came here to prey upon the generosity and hospitality of the reputable classes of citizens who made California what she is to-day, in spite of the opposition of the S.P.R.R. faction of the Parvenucracy.

Nobody envies those vultures in the possession of their accidentally and dishonestly acquired wealth, except, perhaps, the commonwealers and strikers, and even those, bad as they are, would hesitate about exchanging places with some of the alleged society lights, if reputations and past records had to be exchanged, and those of the latter published in the papers.

Nobody wants the Parvenucracy to divide its wealth among the poor, and go back to its original occupations, and it is very ridiculous for it to think so, because all intelligent citizens know that there are too many saloon-keepers and hod-carriers and men of that ilk out of employment already, while the city is very much over-supplied with "clairvoyants" and "massage artists" and other females of that class. It is utterly useless for such creatures to undertake to deceive the public as to what they really were before they struck the streak of good luck that enabled them to go forth and display their ignorance and arrogance to the world. You can tell them as far as you can see them. But, after all, if those creatures tried very hard, they could at least master the common rules of politeness, which would give them the appearance of a better breed of swine, if nothing more. You can never expect to change a pig's real nature, but you can, by shutting him out, prevent him from rooting up your front yard and spoiling your flower beds.

The Parvenucracy makes itself very conspicuous in large crowds, at the park, at the opera, at the race track, and around the hotels and summer resorts. The height of its ambition seems to be to make indifferent people believe that it belongs to some "exclusive set."

More particularly noticeable are the members of the Parvenucracy when they manage to get into social gatherings of really well-bred, cultured, refined society. They sometimes secure invitations to nice places through the courtesy, or rather, I should say, the carelessness, of some business acquaintance who may be on the ragged edge of a polite set, or is perhaps an optimist.

Then after they get in they are in perfect agony from the time they enter the house until they leave. Being conscious that they are out of their element, they feel their position keenly, and, in desperation, they put forth their best efforts to act like the rest of the assemblage. But in this they only remind you of the Anglo-maniac, who, undertaking to impersonate the English dude, only succeeds in imitating his valet.

I saw a striking instance of this kind at a little gathering in Yokohama, in honor of the Duke of Newcastle. The duke is a very unpretentious little man, and he is a cripple besides. One of his legs is several inches shorter than the other. His man-servant, who accompanies him everywhere, is a typical dude. A young nincompoop named Blanchard, from San Francisco, who had never seen the duke, succeeded, by some means or other, in getting in, and was standing near the door, when a naval officer greeted him with, "How is the duke this evening?" The poor fellow, thinking that the officer had mistaken him for the duke, began to swell out like a toad, and gasp for breath. Before he recovered his voice sufficiently to enable him to reply, the officer discovered his mistake, and apologized to him by saying, "Excuse me, old man, I thought you were the duke's boy."

Speaking of the duke, I wonder if some of our "society belles" remember how they followed him up and down the coast from one summer resort to another during his visit to California in the spring of 1893. Many of those "belles" will, no doubt, remember the time that they rushed over to San Rafeal, looking their prettiest, when they heard that the duke was going there to see the Fourth of July tennis tournament. The grounds of the Hotel Rafael and the tennis court certainly presented a beautiful appearance on that occasion, for some of the prettiest girls in San Francisco were there. Those who have seen as many San Francisco girls as I have, know what that means.

It was a study that Mr. Wores or Miss Foster should have immortalized on canvas, to watch the expressions on their pretty faces while Basil Wilberforce, the lawn tennis fiend, was piloting the duke around the grounds, before the doubles commenced.

I felt a little sorry for some of the girls whose mothers had persuaded them to go, for it certainly looked pitiable to see so many lovely young women drawn up in a line, as it were, for a man so little favored by nature as the duke to take his pick from.

When I went over to San Rafael a year later, to see the famous Hardy-Driscoll tennis contest, July 4, 1894, I noticed in the crowd quite a number of people who were there during the summer of '93. Among those, I took particular notice of a little blond-haired woman, with a complexion that reminds you of sliced peaches and cream. She sat around the hotel and the tennis court with a languid air, and a forlorn look on her once pretty face, that would have led you to believe that she had lost her last friend. She was the very personification of unhappiness. I could hardly believe that she was really the same bright, high-spirited young woman who, only one short year before, went over to San Rafael with the avowed intention of capturing the duke, and, failing in that undertaking, did the next best thing, by taking charge of the champion of the day--for the day only.

Inspired by curiosity, I asked a mutual acquaintance if he could tell me what ailed the unhappy little creature.

This acquaintance explained that after the duke went away the poor broken-hearted girl had married the first man that she could get. "Come over to the club-house," said the acquaintance, "and I will show you what she married."

We walked over to the club, and there, leaning over the bar, in company with a lot of other feeble-minded nincompoopish dudes, stood the husband, a great, stupid, overgrown, flabby specimen of humanity, with a big vulgar red face, and regular bologna-sausage and sauerkraut cheeks, that almost rested on his disgustingly rounded shoulders. Altogether, he was a curious looking individual, and he could safely be called, what Alex Kenealy would term, a typical mutton-head. Just what the little blonde who married this beautiful specimen of manhood should be called, I will let the reader decide.

These were not by any means the only interesting persons whom I saw at San Rafael.

Besides Mr. Wilberforce, who always makes people weary when he attempts to talk, and Webster Jones, who is always talking about the quantities of wine consumed at the latest parvenu dinner party,--but never mentions his father-in-law's "business," or past record(?),--and Charley Hoag, who was looking around to see if there was anybody in the crowd whose name he did not have in the Blue Book; and "Billy" Barnes, who ruined his prospects of getting the nomination of the "Octopus" party for governor, by publishing his picture in the Wave; and Ward McAllister, Jr., whom C. P. Huntington appointed to a fat position, as Pacific Mail attorney, in order to curry favor with a certain leader of some of New York's prominent dancing people, there were some remnants of a crowd of silly parvenus who disgusted everybody of any refinement at the Sea Beach Hotel, Santa Cruz, in June, 1893, by putting "private parlor" signs on the reading room door.

Among those remnants there was one young woman who made her " debut," through the newspapers, three or four years ago, and is still single in spite of the fact that her name appears in the "society," columns of certain papers all the time. Her father uses her name in the "society" columns as a free advertisement for his profession.

Corporal.   General, U.S.A.W. H. L. BARNES, "GENERAL U.S. ARMY."As he was and as he imagines he was.-- Deduced from the history of the Seventh New York.

Occasionally her picture comes out (this costs money) accompanied with a lot of taffy about her beauty, which is, in fact, purely imaginary. Mr. Anthony E. Kaeser, a young society man from East Oakland, in speaking of the young woman's mouth, remarked that had it been made any larger, her father, who is a "prominent" doctor, would have been obliged to set her ears further back in order to permit of the additional enlargement.

Some men have an aversion for big-mouthed women; but the young naval lieutenant, who will be away at sea a good portion of his married life, could scarcely fail to congratulate himself on that score, if he really intends to marry her at all.

Apropos of the "prominent" doctor, it is a well known fact that he has acquired nearly all of his "prominence" through the fake society reporters whom he hires to write up the doings of his wife and daughter.

The rest of his "popularity" he gained by endorsing the "new discoveries" of patent-medicine men and corn doctors.

Source: Chambliss, William H. Chambliss' Diary; Or, Society As It Really Is. 1895: New York.  Library of Congress, "California as I Saw It:" First-Person Narratives of California's Early Years, 1849-1900.


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