Belle Part XIII: 728 Montgomery St.

Oscar Wilde (Photo provided)

Following the break-up of the gang known in literature as The Silverado Squatters, in August 1880, the two newlywed couples comprising it went their separate ways. Mr. and Mrs. Robert Louis Stevenson and 12-year-old Lloyd Osbourne went east, all the way to Europe.

There they stayed for seven years, in three countries — Great Britain, France and Switzerland. Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Strong returned to San Francisco and resumed their lives as artists taking commissions in the bohemian Latin Quarter of old San Francisco. They worked at home from their new, even larger studio apartment on 728 Montgomery Street, also the title of chapter 17 in This Life I’ve Loved by Mrs. Isobel — ‘Belle’ — Field (1934, published after she remarried). Shortly before Joe and Belle moved to their new address, Austin Strong, their son was born and he is the subject of chapter 16, called My Son, ending with a summation: “Fortunately, Austin was a healthy baby, easily amused and good as gold.” (Austin grew up to be a notable playwright and like his mother and his uncle Lloyd Osbourne, also a member of and contributor to, the Stevenson Society of America in Saranac Lake.)

728 Montgomery Street had once been a courthouse but when Joe Strong and Jules Tavernier stumbled on it, they saw only a larger than usual studio apartment complex. The rent was surprisingly cheap for a two-story rental that featured a large skylight. Soon it was home and workplace for the Strongs and their little Austin, and Jules and his wife, Lizzie. “Jules, a Frenchman, born in Paris, always spoke with an accent,” says Belle in her book, “though he had been many years in America. He went through the Indian war against Geronimo, making illustrations for Harper’s Weekly and had a magnificent collection of Indian relics…Jules painted landscapes, Joe figures, so there was no rivalry between them.”

728 Montgomery also came with “a large kitchen with a real cook stove” which delighted Lizzie of whom Belle says, “Her one desire in life was to have a kitchen of her own where she could cook…While Lizzie and I were busy getting settled in our quarters, the two artists transformed the old bare courtroom into a studio. Here they installed our piano and Joe’s big model’s stand. On the walls he hung his Venetian curtains. Jules displayed his wonderful collection of Indian relics. They both ransacked Chinatown (then an almost untouched treasure trove) for brilliant costumes, masks, head-dresses, chests, carved ivory boxes, fans, and colored prints. … They worked with enthusiasm, climbing up and down the stepladder and teetering on chairs; they tacked and hammered, arranging and rearranging. … Joe and Jules hung several of their own pictures and many sketches on the walls. … Finally, when we were all called in to view the result we fairly gasped in admiration. The old room glowed with rich color, beauty and charm.”

This new studio attracted neighborhood artists and fellow members of the Bohemian Club and entertaining became routine for the two couples living at 728 Montgomery Street. After-theatre parties were typical “and several of our guests were actors and actresses. … The most successful party we ever gave at the studio was in honor of Oscar Wilde.”

Oscar Wilde, an Irish wit, poet and playwright was already a star at only 28 when he agreed to lecture in Canada and the U.S.A. in 1882. Oscar was a believer in aestheticism, a late 19th century movement in England that advocated art for art’s sake. That attitude would have made him appealing to the members of the Bohemian Club and them to him. He somehow made it to their clubhouse during his three-week presence in San Francisco. That’s where Joe Strong and Jules Tavernier met him and impulsively, without consulting Belle and Lizzie, invited him to show up for tea at 4 on the following Thursday.

“‘But why tea?’ asked Lizzie. ‘That was Charley Stoddard’s idea,’ Jules explained. ‘You see he is English, and the English always drink tea in the afternoon.'” Tea with Oscar Wilde at 728 Montgomery Street in San Francisco was only going to happen once and the inviters had only four days to get ready. It was all a big memory for Belle about a most intimidating prospect. “The idea of a tea party with invited guests was something altogether new in our lives and a little alarming. … Our forms of entertainment were varied, but not at all formal. We seldom sent out invitations ahead. It was usually, ‘Now that you’re here, stay for dinner’…Our after-theatre suppers were impromptu. … Our friends often came with their own contributions to a feast. It was all very casual and informal.” Not this time.

Sing Lee it was who came to the rescue, where it counted most–the tea! Belle says Sing Lee was “an old Chinaman who came in to work for us, washing dishes, cleaning brushes for the artists and giving the whole place a thorough sweeping once a week. He was a fine worker, and like every Chinaman I’ve ever known a great talker, full of interest and friendly curiosity about our affairs… When Sing Lee came over to give the studio an extra polish for the occasion he was deeply interested and as usual wanted to know all the particulars. We explained that the gentleman was a very important man who wrote things. ‘I savee,’ said Sing Lee. ‘He is a sunflower man. … How many come?’ … And then we realized, we not only lacked tea cups but everything else needed…’About 20 people’ we said,’and we give ’em tea.'” ‘Alright,’ said Sing Lee.’I bring him Chinatown. Don’t you worry!’ When the time came, “our Chinese friend had more than kept his promise. There on a teakwood table was arranged the most exquisite tea service of delicate china either of us had ever seen, but most surprising of all was the magnificent Chinaman who stood beside it.” Finished with her description, Belle says, “He looked so dignified and impressive that Lizzie instinctively returned his salutation. Joe and Jules were behind us, and we all stared in amazement.”

The main event had to wait until all the guests were seated. “And then when we were beginning to feel a little anxious and impatient the door flew open dramatically and Oscar Wilde, looking very impressive, stood before us. There was a sudden silence as he glanced at the assembled guests, the bowing mandarin, the rich background, even at the roses on the skylight. Without a word of greeting he burst out: ‘This is where I belong! This is my atmosphere! I didn’t know such a place existed in the whole United States…I’m leaving tomorrow. I’ve been here three mortal weeks. If you’d only opened your door to me I’d have come here every day!”

The ‘tea’ was a real party. “Joe, who welcomed any excuse to make his famous rum punch declared the rest could drink tea and welcome, but he’d have his favorite brew in the big glass bowl on a side table” and he was right when he said “I’ll bet it won’t get wasted.” Oscar had some too, and “Joe beamed when he asked for another glass of punch.”

The peak of the party came when the guest of honor stumbled against a life-sized female dummy, well articulated, that Joe used for his portraits. Dressed up in Lizzie’s clothes it looked real, even had a name, “Miss Piffle.” According to Belle, “It may have been our watchful attitude that gave him an inkling of the situation, for without changing his voice, he began a conversation with Miss Piffle that was a marvel of impromptu humor. He told her of his opinion of San Francisco, and incidentally of the United States and its inhabitants; he replied to imaginary remarks of hers with surprise or approval so cleverly that it seemed as though Miss Piffle were actually talking to him. It was a superb performance, a masterpiece of sparkling wit and gaiety. Never before, never since, have I heard anything that compared to it. When he left we all felt we had met a truly great man.”


Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)
Are you a paying subscriber to the newspaper? *

Starting at $4.75/week.

Subscribe Today