×

Belle, part 2

Virginia City, “Bonanza” country, is where the Cartwright brothers — Adam, Hoss and Little Joe — go to do business and get in trouble in TV Land. The famous Comstock Lode made Virginia City the biggest silver mining operation in the USA for much of the 19th century, and so it attracted a big enough population to support 120 saloons and 800 prostitutes, with an average consumption of 16,000 quarts of whiskey a week. That spiked dramatically when they threw the biggest, most drunkest celebration ever on account of the end of the Civil War. It lasted over a week, and the agony of the hangover was intensified by the news of Lincoln’s assassination.

In the midst of such a raucous society, Isobel — “Belle” — Osbourne, 7 years of age, had a most valuable experience. Her famous stepfather to be, Robert Louis Stevenson, would pen a popular saying on the subject: “We are all travelers in the wilderness of the world; and the best that we find in our travels is a friend.” Chapter 2 of Belle’s autobiography, “This Life I’ve Loved,” is called “Billy Bird.”

“Billy Bird was not only half Cherokee Indian and half mulatto, but he was a professional gambler as well, and also kept the only barber shop in Virginia City. I adored him, and I believe that I owe to his beautiful and tender friendship, the fact that I have never suffered the blight of race prejudice.”

Virginia City wasn’t entirely sinful. Enough culture could be found to enable a few optimists to call her the Athens of the West. Mark Twain did time there as one of the editors of the Territorial Enterprise. Then there was the International Hotel where foreigners liked to stay, like Adah Menken, the future mistress of Alexandre Dumas, and the celebrated actress Modjeska, who performed in the nearby Western-style opera house, Piper’s Opera House. There had to be a degree of law and order in this frontier city, and that’s where Belle’s father, Samuel Osbourne, went for employment after losing everything on his failed gold mining attempt in the desert mountains of Nevada. Conflicting accounts have him as a court stenographer or a court clerk. Next came an epidemic of scarlet fever. Belle seemed to have symptoms, so as a precaution, Sam put Belle and Fanny on a stagecoach for San Francisco to be around the best doctors.

Now Sam began his infidelities that would have consequences for literature. Walking home through downtown Virginia City, he was surprised and pleased to see the pretty face of Mrs. Betty Beaumont Kelly, an alluring young widow he had met on board ship when he and George Marshall were sailing to Panama, en route to California. Many people believe, and some of them even preach, that good can come from bad. They will tell you in this case, and with justification, that if Sam hadn’t taken up cheating on Fanny, then the circumstances could have never existed that enabled Sam’s son to plant the seed of “Treasure Island,” the world’s most enduring adventure story, inside the head of its creator, Robert Louis Stevenson — and in Scotland, of all places. So, on behalf of the world, thank you, Sam, for being true to yourself.

Things turned out well for Belle, and she and her mother returned to Virginia City where Fanny, no fool, discovered the affair. B.B. Kelly Lodgings was the boarding house the widow Kelly owned and operated on C Street, and that’s where Fanny took Belle to confront the intruder. She did that by leaving Belle outside while she barged into the place yelling, “Thief” and other choice words loud enough to stop traffic in the street. Sam insisted that he was just helping out a friend to return the favor when Betty helped to comfort their friend George Marshall when he was dying of consumption in Panama.

Then Sam disappeared for the first time. He had been tempted to go on a prospecting expedition into the Coeur d’Alene Mountains of Montana. On the morning of March 28, 1866, Belle watched her father leave with 39 other miners on horseback and a mule train of eight wagons. They never came back but instead went down as that year’s most complete massacre of an invasive species by Indigenous people in that region. All were reportedly killed, but Fanny, still unforgiving, held out hope anyway and took Belle to San Francisco along with her recently acquired taste for smoking self-rolled cigarettes. Fanny knew how to sew and made money doing it to support them in the Occidental Hotel. Then one day a stranger came along and told her that Sam might be alive. Finally, after almost two years, Sam showed up alive, with his escape story and the dim memory of long wanderings in the desert to fill in the rest of the time, which might have raised eyebrows. Belle loved her father intensely, and her loyalty would go to him along the rocky road of parental feuding that lay ahead. That trait was a major flashpoint in mother-daughter relations, which were competitive by nature.

The damaged family moved to East Oakland, where Belle would get two brothers, Samuel Lloyd Osbourne in 1868 and Hervey in 1871. Sam bought a cottage with a garden there using money from his new courthouse job across the Bay and where he became a member of the new Bohemian Club. San Francisco was booming in the 1870s, and there was lots to do, and for the first time, art mattered. Belle and her mother discovered it at the Woodward’s Gardens, an amusement park with a botanical garden, zoo, aquarium and artificial lake with mechanical swans. The centerpiece of the place was the first real art gallery in the Far West, with a spectacular exhibition of paintings, advertised thus: “A unique spectacle — In a well-lit pavilion hung with red velvet, with deep carpets and comfortable pillows for the visitors’ convenience, under good lights and with a clear view, all the masterpieces of history have been assembled here solely for the pleasure of San Franciscans. From now on, crossing oceans to bury yourself in the old museums of France and Italy is pointless: For a few cents, Woodward’s Gardens offer you that journey.” The paintings were competent copies, and Virgil Williams was the name of the artist. He spent 10 years in Europe doing them.

Born a New Englander, Virgil Williams ended up in San Francisco, where he became its pre-eminent painter and a driving force behind the city’s cultural aspirations. He used his overseas experience to start up an academy of fine arts, which became the famous School of Design, which he ran with his wife Dora, also an artist, until his death. Virgil even got the Louvre in Paris, France, to ship him plaster casts of several of their statues. Virgil’s paintings in the Pavilion were an epiphany for Fanny and Belle Osbourne. They signed up for lessons, and both appeared to have talent. Fanny couldn’t count on a meaningful life with Sam anymore. Discovering art came with infinite possibilities. It could open doors, in her case, into “A Romance of Destiny” (the title of a biography of her by Alexandre Lapierre, 1995). As for Belle, she liked it, too, and says so in her book:

“I was taken out of High School and sent, three days a week, to the School of Design in San Francisco. This was my idea of Heaven — to be allowed to do what I liked better than anything in the world, and at the same time have it dignified by such stodgy words as ‘study’ and ‘work.’ … Virgil Williams, Director of the School, was a fine artist and a very good teacher. … When my mother joined the class she made the acquaintance of Dora, his wife. … She and my mother became friends at once and years later, when my mother married [Robert] Louis Stevenson, Dora and Virgil Williams were the only witnesses to the ceremony.”

Meanwhile, as if to guarantee the performance of that future event, Sam Osbourne’s philandering became increasingly indiscreet to brazen, and for Mrs. Fanny Osbourne, the tipping point had been reached. Belle remembers that “I think there must have been a new disagreement between my parents.” Fanny gathered all her children — Belle, Lloyd, and Hervey, only 4 — and announced that everybody was going to Europe to assimilate culture and to study art — except their father.

To be continued.

NEWSLETTER

Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)

Starting at $4.75/week.

Subscribe Today