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Never let the facts get in the way of a good story.
“I ran for my life,” Florence often recalled with a shudder, “through two great walls of flames toward the bay.” She was only ten years old at the time.
Years later, as she recoiled from the memory, her trembling voice seemed to relive her absolute terror. Still, the actress in her had learned over many decades that her oft-repeated tale required a meaningful pause at this point. She had learned, too, that timing was essential to the telling of any good story. So, here, Florence would stop and touch her elegant jeweled fingers to the perfect, outsized, three-tiered pearl necklace caressing her throat. She held her audience, one by one, spellbound with her fabulous green eyes. Florence understood instinctively that beauty, as well as money, was power; and she had both in abundance.
The date she remembered was Wednesday, April 18, 1906. The place, San Francisco. The time, 5:12 a.m. For those friends who hadn’t heard her story before, Florence willingly retold how she had survived the great and terrifying San Francisco earthquake, embellishing the many death-defying details they expected to hear. Her friends in France—and particularly in Paris—had never lived through such a seismic cataclysm. Oh, there had been wars—cannonades heard across France’s northern plains, death beyond imagining in the Great War—and of course the Nazi occupation. Florence had lived through these man-made upheavals in France, too, but the horror she described was the death of an entire city within minutes. Even the survivors of the Paris floods of 1910 could not comprehend such an instantaneous tear in the fabric of tens of thousands of lives. Only with the onset of the nuclear age could those who hadn’t lived through a large earthquake begin to understand its swift devastation.
Florence’s first great badge of courage was the San Francisco earthquake, not that she needed any medal in her long and wildly lived life. Perhaps it made her feel more American to tell tall tales no one else could imagine. It certainly set her apart, like her American-tinged accent that she cultivated, despite a lifetime lived in France speaking French. Being an American somehow made her grander, more significant—and Florence craved significance. That and her lust for phenomenal wealth and her need to be loved were the driving forces behind who she was, and what she did. During her eighty-seven years of life, she would achieve all three ambitions. So what if the truth was often bent to her will? At the end of the day, she had the means to bend it, and her entourage came to expect and desire whatever enchantment she devised for their pleasure.
So, who was Florence? Born Florence Juliette Antoinette Lacaze in San Francisco on July 1, 1895, she would die in Cannes, France, in 1983 as Florence Gould. In the intervening period, she was on the guest lists of Her Serene Highness Princess Grace of Monaco, French and American politicians, millionaires, and movie stars. She rubbed shoulders with the famous, artists, and seedy underworld characters who haunted every casino in Europe. Her life would become a rags-to-riches dream, if not a fairy tale, and she would host the glitterati, the literati, and those who preferred to live their lives in the shadows. Her story fires the imagination in a life writ large. From the time of the San Francisco earthquake, she seemed to be at the heart of some of the most chilling events of the twentieth century, and proved time and again that she was a born survivor. She wielded power in a way only the super-rich and beautiful can do: unrepentant for and unaware of the damage done to others. Nonetheless, once you were adopted as her friend, she became your generous benefactor. Her enemies soon discovered that she could be a formidable foe.
Florence lived her life through many mirrors of varying hues, with an unshakable belief in her beauty, wit, and charm. The truth, as for so many people with power, existed only as she chose to tell it; and the great San Francisco earthquake is a wonderful example of the artistry with which she crafted her tall tales. Her catlike green eyes flashed as she retold the horror of those three days of fire and brimstone to her French audiences. The beauty mark on her upper-left cheek was the only flaw on her alabaster skin, as if proof were needed that she was human, and not some goddess descended to earth. Her beautiful slender, long fingers grabbed at the pearls caressing her throat, while her mellifluous voice speaking in French, tinged with her ever-present American accent, rose and fell with each rise and fall of the quake.
Yet Florence never made any allusions to the roaring of the earthquake or its immediate destructive effects. Nor did she describe the nauseating sulphur smells after the first two shocks, nor the horrid aftertaste in her mouth. How could someone who was so observant be so oblivious? Hadn’t she heard the family horses neighing and stomping in the stables, fearful of the seismic impending doom, as all the animals of the city were that morning? She omitted these details because, truthfully, Florence was in her bed, at home, presumably fast asleep when the terror struck.
How else could she omit recalling the quake’s thundering northward into the city, lifting and rolling everything in its path, leaving utter destruction in its wake? She hadn’t seen any buildings as they crumbled in an unstoppable, destructive domino wave of bricks and stones crashing back down to earth skewed, as if they were toys tossed carelessly from an infant’s crib. The great commercial palaces of the American West’s premier city were reduced to billowing clouds of rubble in seconds. Born in the Pacific beyond the Golden Gate, the earthquake sucked the waters from the bay, then rolled them back in with phenomenal force, spilling the ocean onto the streets of San Francisco. Enormous breakers far beyond a surfer’s craziest conjuring pounded the city’s thoroughfares.
Florence hadn’t seen this, nor the total devastation of Chinatown, where she later claimed she was a constant visitor. From her home, north of San Francisco in Belvedere, in Marin County, she could not observe the frantic search and rescue of Chinese immigrants onto Angel Island in the bay. Only later would she hear about the metal cuvette known as the “Slot” for cable cars rising like a silk ribbon in the breeze before falling twisted and bent to the ground.*
There were, nonetheless, many eyewitnesses. Police constable Michael Grady had seen the Phelan Building lurch over Market Street, then be set back slanting onto its foundations, screeching and twisted. Constable Cook recalled the “deep and terrible rumbling” where “the earth seemed to rise under me, and at the same time both Davis and Washington streets opened up in several places and water came up out of these cracks.”1 The swaying of the Call Building, that of the Mutual Bank Building on Market, near Geary, and the twisting motion causing the windows to explode into millions of glass shards that showered the streets below remained a mystery to Florence in her retelling of that fateful morning.2
The great walls of flames Florence described occurred in the aftermath: the fire that engulfed San Francisco and raged for three days following the earthquake. The entire metropolitan area from Embarcadero North Street’s Ferry Building west and south to Mission and Dolores streets was destroyed. Chinatown was burned to the ground, save one “solid brick wall, unshattered by the earthquake shock and unblackened by the breath of flame.” Over its archway, the stone letters read “Occidental Board of Foreign Missions,” proudly indicating that here stood a Protestant refuge for unfortunate Chinese foundlings.3
Landmarks like the Golden Gate Park were in flames for days. Libraries and brothels, art galleries and jails, homes and churches were reduced to pulverized masonry and smoldering, twisted iron. Everywhere was choked with unfathomable clouds of smoke and dust that made breathing the air outdoors a feat of heroism. As her parents and their friends described the carnage, the fire-ravaged, shoddily built, brick and wooden structures of the city became as real to Florence as the safety of her family home in Belvedere across the bay.
On Tuesday evening, less than ten hours before the quake, this bright and beautiful fair-haired, beribboned child begged her mother and father to take her to the most celebrated event for San Francisco’s glitterati: the opera. It was only the second time that the Metropolitan Opera of New York was performing in San Francisco, and its tenor, the magnificent Enrico Caruso—one of the most admired tenors of all time—was to sing the role of Don José in Carmen. At thirty-three, Caruso was at the height of his fame. Significantly for Florence, who believed that she, too, would be a famous opera singer one day, the desire to see and hear the great Caruso became an all-consuming passion.
For his part, Caruso was not impressed with San Franciscans, whom he described as “hobbledehoys”—nondescript mongrels who lacked the sophistication of the East Coast’s audiences. When he read the reviews of his previous night’s performance in The Queen of Sheba, Caruso called his western spectators “provincial arrivistes” and “artless rabble.”4
Since Florence’s father was in the newspaper business, such goings-on were known to her and made her gasp for the refined air of the East Coast and its preferred elegance. Devastated at the thought that she was among the “artless rabble,” as the days passed and newspapers resumed their printing on makeshift presses in unsuitable premises, Florence poured over the society columns searching for something to redeem her and the rest of Caruso’s western audience. Relief came only from Charles Aiken of Sunset magazine, who wrote, “All society—with a big S—was out in force. Beautiful women gorgeously gowned, with opera cloaks trimmed with ermine, and diamonds on hands and hair; men with pop hats and the conventional cast-iron sort of clothes that mean joyous discomfort; here were wondrous bunches of orchids and roses; the singing and acting that charmed and the deafening applause.”5 Florence, like so many other westerners, felt slyly happy when she heard what a coward Caruso had been during the quake—how he held on to his mattress for grim life, and how he wandered the streets of San Francisco in a reported hysterical state afterward.
* * *
Florence’s father was a French immigrant named Maximin Victoire Lacaze. He came to the great western city in California, as most of its 80,000 new arrivals did, with nothing in his pockets, a quick mind, and a burning desire to strike gold. Born in the southwest of France in the sleepy, rural village of Mont-de-Marrast in the département of Gers, Maximin began his adventure to San Francisco in the company of his sister Marianne’s father-in-law in 1879. The California Gold Rush was long over, but the streets were still believed to be paved with golden opportunities. Despite many an illusion dashed, California—and its fair city of San Francisco—remained the mythical “land of milk and honey,” or the pays de cocagne, in the European imagination, far removed from war, disease, pestilence, and famine.
Maximin soon learned that utopias, alas, exist only in our dreams. The Mexican-American War (1846–1848) had been officially settled by the Treaty of Guadelupe Hidalgo, signed between the two nations on February 2, 1848. Only nine days earlier, while building a sawmill for Captain John Sutter, John W. Marshall had noticed thousands of metallic flakes in the tailrace water, and knew instinctively it was gold. Although he vowed to keep his find a secret, it was the beginning of the California Gold Rush. If the Mexican government had known of California’s sudden wealth, it might have fought on to retain the riches it so reluctantly ceded to its belligerent northern neighbor.6 Thereafter, California became a magnet for opportunists and immigrants, scoundrels and churchmen, as well as those who simply wanted a better life.
By the time Maximin arrived in California, all gold claims had been staked. There were, however, other types of gold mines to plunder. An immigrant of eighteen, he was blond and handsome with beautiful bedroom blue eyes. Maximin’s family often said that California-born Florence not only resembled her father with her long blonde tresses and her gorgeous, hypnotic green eyes, but that she also possessed her father’s deadly brainpower. Unlike Florence, Maximin found life was a hard graft out of poverty into his modest riches. He began by sweating—literally—while learning English as a typesetter in a print shop on Montgomery Avenue in the city. Twelve- to fourteen-hour days, six days a week, were the norm for all workers at the beginning of the twentieth century. Yet Maximin drew great strength as part of the thriving French community of some 7,500 immigrants to San Francisco and slowly—by California standards—rose like cream to the top.
Florence’s mother, Berthe Joséphine Rennesson Bazille Lacaze, was born in Paris on October 28, 1869, to a pretty little laundress, Florence Rennesson, nicknamed Florinte. The father’s name on Berthe’s birth certificate was inscribed as “unknown.” While Florinte acknowledged her baby rather than give her up for adoption or put her into an orphanage, as was so frequently the case in the nineteenth century, she was hardly the maternal type. Berthe Rennesson grew up in a convent, with all the severity of an education associated with such an upbringing at the time. Florinte, meanwhile, headed off to America with her new man, Jean Bazille, in tow. It was not until many years later that she sent for Berthe, and Jean Bazille gave his stepdaughter his family name. He was the only father Berthe would ever know, and she was thankful for his many kindnesses. She vowed if she ever had children, they would never know the harsh realities of the convent, or life, or the shame of needing to dissemble their thoughts.7 Berthe’s vow helped make her daughter Florence the person she became.
Florence’s only sibling, her younger brunette sister, Isabelle, would live in her shadow the whole of her life. Of the two girls, it seems that Florence was always the preferred child—the one on whom her parents focused their efforts. Perhaps Florence was the more charismatic, or even the more beautiful. Whatever the reasons, the girls remained in each other’s company, frequently sniping at one another, for most of their lives.
Like many children at the age of ten, Florence was a follower of Mark Twain’s adage “Never one to allow the facts to get in the way of a good story.” With an eye for the dramatic, she reinvented herself in the image she wanted to portray to her world. “We had a golden youth, and could stroll the streets of San Francisco on our own,” Florence recalled wistfully the illusory memory. She spoke of the fairy-tale life of her imagined youth roaming at will in the Presidio, Golden Gate Park, and Chinatown, either alone or with her sister. Her friends in Europe, listening to this fiction, could only sigh with envy at the independence Florence enjoyed as a child in an otherwise wasp-waisted world of corsets and suitable chaperones.8
And yet, given the Presidio’s military role in the Spanish-American War and the Philippine-American conflict from 1898 until 1902 as one of an armed encampment, it is hardly likely that Florence’s mother allowed her young daughter to wander there unattended. At the time of the earthquake, and the state of martial law imposed in its aftermath, the soldiers of the Presidio provided shelter, food, clothing, and protection from lawlessness and looting for the civilian population. Chinatown was marked in the Annals of San Francisco as a “no go area” for other immigrant communities, since the Chinese—or “celestials,” as they were called then—were “aloof, infuriatingly haughty, separate, and stoically indifferent” to the Yankees of San Francisco. The Annals stated categorically that the Chinese immigrant could not be “materially modified.” Nor could the Chinese, in this earlier age when differences in culture were frequently misunderstood and often expressed in blunt racial terms, be “closely assimilated to those of the civilizing and dominant race.”9 Given such bias, even the free-spirited Berthe Lacaze could hardly allow her treasured little blonde and brunette daughters to wander about in Chinatown on their own—day or night. After all, the term “shanghaied” originated in San Francisco’s Chinatown in the late nineteenth century—a term born out of fears of being kidnapped into white slavery.10
Nevertheless, Florence’s life was quite unlike a normal Yankee child’s. No matter how hard the Lacaze family tried to assimilate, there was always an unhealthy prejudice in the city against foreigners. While Florence and Isabelle attended the local elementary school, they would remain outsiders. Not only was French spoken at home,* but the education of the girls remained a high priority for both their parents. At a time when most girls were brought up to become wives and mothers, Florence was encouraged to consider a profession that would grant her the freedom Berthe had been denied. What this “otherness” gave her was a perpetual alertness to opportunities as they arose, and the ability to develop new strategies to “belong.”11
Her father found his own way of belonging through the newspaper community. By 1906, he was the city editor of the only French-language newspaper, Le Franco-Californien, which had a potential readership of 7,500 souls in a city of 400,000 inhabitants.
The founding owner of the paper, a dyed-in-the-wool reporter and printer, Alfred Chaigneau, had immigrated to San Francisco back in 1849 at the height of the Gold Rush. Learning his trade on a French journal called Le Phare, Chaigneau launched his first title in 1886 in competition with pioneer journalist Edouard Debrec’s L’Echo du Pacifique. A year later, the two French newspapers merged to form a daily and a weekly under the united title of Le Franco-Californien when Debrec lost the last of his several fortunes and became an inmate at the French Hospital of San Francisco. In 1898, Chaigneau sold out to a consortium of investors—while retaining a modest shareholding—headed by Auguste Goustiaux. It was Goustiaux who became the outspoken champion of the French colony in San Francisco.12
Goustiaux and by extension his city editor, Maximin Lacaze, were valued members of the press and San Francisco’s thriving Bohemian Club. Bohemianism began, of course, as an international movement inspired by Henri Murger’s Scènes de la vie bohème in 1845–49, in which the artist rejected the significance of money and suffocating social conventions of the day. Instead, bohemians embraced the life of a free spirit, something that suited many newcomers to San Francisco in their pursuit of gold.
Yet Yankee San Francisco adopted bohemianism with a significant western twist. Bret Harte, the author who so vividly depicted the miners, gamblers, and other rapscallions of the California Gold Rush, wrote that “Bohemia has never been located geographically … but any clear day when the sun is going down, if you mount Telegraph Hill, you shall see its pleasant valleys and cloud-capped hills glittering in the West.…”13 Writers and journalists headed the roster of members at San Francisco’s Bohemian Club, which was formed in the offices of the San Francisco Chronicle. Soon, it encompassed all important members of the chattering classes, including those from the twenty-odd foreign-language press corps. Their bohemian ideals would leave an indelible imprint on Florence’s upbringing, too.
* * *
Despite her tendency to exaggerate, some of Florence’s truthful recollections of San Francisco shine through. The morning fire drills at school remain a common practice today. Unsurprisingly, the comic strip Buster Brown, about the disturbingly pretty boy with a mischievous streak for practical jokes, was her favorite and she spent happy hours reading about his latest adventures. Then there was the abiding and fascinating memory of the family’s Chinese manservant, who would spit on the freshly washed laundry as he ironed.14 Still, why didn’t she mention any childhood friends or family social engagements? Did she feel that these were not grand enough for her powerful adult image?
In truth, Florence frequently “summered” with her mother at private homes or hotels outside San Francisco. In September 1902, the social-climbing Berthe Lacaze placed a personal advertisement just below the society column in the San Francisco Call, announcing her week-long sojourn with “her little daughter Florence” at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Alfred Chaigneau at “Fern Grove, their beautiful home in Guerneville.”15
The personal advertisement speaks volumes. A society column placement announcing the week-long stay of Mrs. Lacaze and her daughter at the Chaigneau home was, of course, placed in Le Franco-Californien. The San Francisco Call, however, did not deem either Mrs. Lacaze or the retired Alfred Chaigneau’s social agenda of sufficient interest to the Yankee community to merit a society column’s free placement. Yet, by 1904, the San Francisco Call did include the vacationing Berthe and Florence at Skaggs Springs in their society column, along with other glitterati of San Francisco, demonstrating Maximin’s rise in significance in the city. That said, neither Mr. Lacaze nor little Isabelle accompanied them.16
Despite Florence’s invented memories and embellishments, the San Francisco earthquake utterly changed the Lacaze family’s future. Their wrangling over remaining or leaving the city would divide them forever. Maximin was a lone male voice amid a determined, terrified female chorus.* Later, Florence’s rose-tinted memory imagined her father bundling her into a boat along with her sister, mother, and grandmother and escaping through the “two great walls of flames.” Like so many of Florence’s recollections, it was a colorful fiction.
Over 300,000 inhabitants of the city were evacuated by the Southern Pacific Railway free of charge; approximately 25,000 other inhabitants were evacuated by the navy from Fort Mason; and thousands more escaped via the Union Ferry Building in San Francisco to Belvedere’s near-neighbor, Oakland Pier. Given their position north of the city and proximity to the railway line, it is probable that Florence and her family were among the 300,000 evacuees aboard the Southern Pacific Railway. Interestingly, her future brother-in-law was one of its owners. The railroad was built by San Francisco’s great entrepreneurs, Mark Hopkins, Charles Crocker, Collis P. Huntington, and Leland Stanford, back in the days of Jay Gould. Only later would Florence discover that one of the Goulds’ bêtes noires, Edward H. Harriman, had muscled his way into the Southern Pacific’s ownership and had squeezed millions away from Jay Gould’s son, George.
Florence’s memory might have been clouded by a simple, veiled, youthful wish. The bay became symbolic of her need to quench the family fire that raged at home, with her father arguing to stay, her mother and grandmother militating to leave. Within minutes, the quake had robbed Florence of her cherished childhood. Le Franco-Californien’s presses were destroyed. So, too, was the real estate Florinte had inherited from her husband on Montgomery Street, Spofford Alley, Clay Street, and Stockton Avenue. Literally, her vast wealth had crumbled to dust and ashes. Devastated at her losses, Florinte swatted aside any hint of her son-in-law’s objections: her daughter and granddaughters would be brought to the safety and civilization of Paris.17
Like any good newspaperman at a time of peril, Maximin resolved to remain amid the chaos. He would rebuild his life and earning capacity, despite his mother-in-law’s and wife’s determination to go. He would oversee the rebuilding of Florinte’s property holdings, in the hope that she would relent and bring the family back. As the women left San Francisco on the train to take them east, Florence etched the ruined city into her memory. Would they ever return? Would she ever see her father again? Maximin undoubtedly assured her that she would. For Berthe Lacaze and her mother, San Francisco was an experiment that had failed. In their opinion, it was no longer a fit place to bring up two little girls.
Copyright © 2018 by Susan Ronald