Belle, part IX: Enter RLS … again

“City of Monterey, California,” 1875, by Leon Trousset

Joseph Dwight Strong (1852-1899) was a fair-haired, California-born boy who did much of his growing up in Hawaii, where his father was a minister in a family of missionaries. He took to art instead of saving the heathen, and some Catholic philanthropic millionaires encouraged him by financing a trip abroad to study at Munich.

After he returned, he fell in with members of the Bohemian Club in San Francisco and quickly rose to popularity within the art community as one of the more promising talents on the scene. Belle’s father, Sam Osbourne, was a member of the Bohemian Club, too, and that is why Joe Strong was there when Sam picked up his children Isobel “Belle,” age 20, and her brother Lloyd, 10, at the Monterey train station, which was a non-station in 1878. Belle said in her book “This Life I’ve Loved” that “The train stopped some distance from Monterey; there was no depot, no platform, only a dusty road …”

Belle and Lloyd had been summoned to Monterey from San Francisco by their estranged parents Samuel and Francesca “Fanny” Osbourne. Fanny’s youngest sister Nellie Vandegrift came also. Belle and her aunt Nellie were about the same age. Said Belle: “We began a friendship then that grew closer and closer as the years passed: Dear Nellie!”

Mrs. Fanny Osbourne and her two children had recently returned to California after three years overseas in France, where mother and daughter had gone, ostensibly to learn to paint, but then each got entangled in impossible romantic affairs. In Belle’s case, it was Frank O’Meara, a young Irish artist who could never commit to anything like marriage because he already had his art. In Fanny’s case, it was a younger man by 10 years, a gaunt invalid from Scotland who wanted to be a writer, Robert Louis Stevenson. A movie is waiting to be made about these people, but for now there are books like “Under the Wide and Starry Sky” by Nancy Horan.

If Belle had been still carrying a torch for Frank O’Meara, it seemed to sputter out pretty fast beginning with her first encounter with Joe Strong at the literal end of the train line in the sand dunes outside of the pristine “Old Pacific Capitol,” Monterey, a thoroughly old-time Mexican town where Zorro would have felt right at home. But that was about to end. Belle’s account says it all:

“My father was there to meet us … one of the riders hopped off his horse and came over to greet us. He looked like a young German with his twisted yellow mustache and close-cropped hair. To my surprise, it was Joe Strong, now one of California’s most successful artists.

“He was enthusiastic about Monterey. ‘It’s the most beautiful old town in California,’ he said. ‘But don’t tell anybody about it. If it’s ever discovered by fashionable people, they’ll tear it all down to build expensive hotels and fine shops. Then it will be ruined.

“I had known vaguely that California had once belonged to Spain, and then to Mexico, but I was not at all prepared to find Monterey so foreign. I could hardly believe I was in the United States. As we drove down the main street, we exclaimed at the old adobe buildings with their iron balconies and red tiled roofs. The narrow sidewalks were mostly of wooden planks, but here and there some were made of the vertebras of whales. At the street corners old Spanish cannons were struck upright to serve as hitching posts … the entrance to one garden was under an arch contrived of the curving jaw bones of a whale.

“We drew up at the house of Senora Bonafascio on the main street. My father had rented an entire wing of this roomy, old adobe house set in the midst of a walled garden full of flowers and fruit trees.”

How generous of Sam Osbourne to have rented half a Spanish hacienda for his family to use, that was at a good distance from their cottage in East Oakland where Sam had done his entertaining while the wife and kids were in France. Belle continues her story. This is the same Belle who left her parasol at the Robert Louis Stevenson Memorial Cottage in Saranac Lake in 1917:

“Here Nellie and I settled down for a very happy summer. It shocks me now to remember how little I noticed that my father’s visits grew fewer and fewer. … Joe Strong introduced us to his sisters. … As a rule the old California families spoke little English and looked upon the Gringo with suspicion but the charm of the young Strongs opened many doors. … There were no class distinctions in Monterey; we danced with the butcher, the baker, and — the saloon keeper. Particularly with the saloon keeper, for Adolpho Sanchez was the most popular young man in Monterey. He belonged to one of the oldest families there, his father and grandfather having once owned half the county. He was young, extraordinarily handsome, and was gifted with a glorious baritone voice. And he fell deeply in love with Nellie.”

This was apparently another “Romance of Destiny” which would bring into the world a child named Louis Sanchez, after the couple’s new friend-to-be from overseas, Robert Louis Stevenson. 1878 gave way to 1879, and Belle and her friends kept themselves occupied at Monterey.

“There were riding parties to Point Lobos, picnics on the beach, swimming off the wharf, and the gay weekly fandangos where we soon learned the old Spanish dances. … How often we waked in the middle of the night to the plunkety-plunks of guitars. … We heard beautiful old Spanish love songs, composed for just such moonlight nights.

“My mother often joined our riding parties and our rambles on the beach. She also painted little portraits, getting amazing likenesses. … Lloyd divided his time between boating, fishing, and riding the pony his father had given him. We saw very little of him except at meals.

“Nellie and Adolpho now announced their engagement, and it seemed too bad Joe and I couldn’t tell of ours. But we both knew a young artist with nothing to offer but a number of orders for portraits hadn’t a chance of meeting with my mother’s approval. So we decided to wait.

“Coming home one afternoon from the beach where we had sat for hours discussing our problem, I received the surprise of my life. Hearing voices in the sitting room, I opened the door. And there was Louis Stevenson! I had no idea he was even in the country.”


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