A New Biography by Iris Jamahl Dunkle: Charmian Kittredge London: Trailblazer, Author, Adventurer

Charmian Kittredge London: Trailblazer, Author, Adventurer by Iris Jamahl Dunkle, University of Oklahoma Press, September 17, 2020, 358 pages, with photos; $26.95.

Reviewed by Jonah Raskin

At the start of her riveting biography of Charmian Kittredge London, the author, Iris Jamahl Dunkle, writes, “Charmian was the kind of woman you would love to have known” (ix). Over the course of the many years that she has spent researching and writing about her, Dunkle has gotten to know nearly everything that can be known about Charmian, who destroyed crucial documents that would have helped biographers and critics. Dunkle offers a quotation from Clarice Stasz who noted of Charmian in her book, Jack London’s Women: “Exactly what she burned was never itemized; thus, a mystery remains regarding the completeness of the Jack London archives” (294). Jack and Charmian both kept journals and notebooks. Both were in the public eye and were intensely scrutinized by reporters, but they still remained to a large extent private individuals with secrets. Jack concealed essential facts about his origins and Charmian followed his example.  

In her two-volume biography of her husband, Charmian repeated information she knew was inaccurate. Dunkle observes that “Some of the ‘facts’ she presents—especially about Jack’s heritage (stating that John London, rather than William Chaney, was Jack’s father) and resetting the timing of their affair to a more appropriate date—were misleading” (236). This biography sets the record as straight as it can be straightened, given the fact that material was burned and that the couple was not always forthright about their lives, including the affair they had while Jack was still married to his first wife, Bessie.

Despite her flaws, or perhaps because of them, Charmian is indeed the kind of woman whom one would love to have known. After reading this comprehensive, carefully researched biography, many Jack London fans will probably feel that they do indeed know Charmian. They will know her better than many of her friends and acquaintances, including the famed author Irving Stone, who violated Charmian’s privacy, poked around where he was not authorized to poke and in some ways fictionalized Jack London’s life in his landmark book, Jack London, Sailor on Horseback, which still riles scholars. In hindsight, Charmian realized she ought not to have trusted Stone. Indeed, she trusted him so much that she allowed him to be in her home when she went away, never suspecting he would violate her trust in him. 

Dunkle begins her book with Charmian’s complex interactions with Stone who flattered her, courted her and deceived her. According to Dunkle, Charmian gave Stone access to material about which she wasn’t fully aware. She writes that in 1925, Charmian “hastily sold Jack manuscripts” and other material to the Huntington Library “to get funding to complete the construction of the House of Happy Walls” (11). Dunkle adds that Charmian “had not curated the bulging cartons of letters and documents that she handed over to the representative from the library” and therefore “had no idea which documents made it into the archive” (11).

Jack had asked Charmian to destroy their early love letters, if he died before her. She did not do that. Instead she concealed them in a safe. Jack’s stepsister, Eliza Shepard, led Stone to the safe, which she opened and offered him access to the material, some of which he copied and then used willy-nilly.

The first part of this biography reads like a mystery, with Stone and Charmian engaged in a kind of dance, and with him acting as a literary detective and with her as a widow who wanted to control the narrative about her late husband. As it turned out, she failed in many respects. Stone chose to tell his story about Jack, which didn’t always adhere to the facts. London fans have excoriated him and his work ever since then.

Dunkle clears up whatever mysteries and uncertainties fans of London’s work might have had about his biological father. It was William Henry Chaney, not John London, as the world knows by now. When it comes to other controversial topics, including the Wolf House fire, Dunkle presents much of the available information and leaves it to the reader to decide what’s true and what’s not true. She explains that Jack and Charmian both assumed that it was arson, that decades later a team of experts concluded that the fire was caused by spontaneous combustion, but that “There are many scholars and local historians who do not agree with this theory and still think the fire was caused by arson” (274).

Dunkle’s biography of Charmian makes it clear that Mrs. London had a profound hand in shaping nearly aspect of her husband’s life. As all London scholars know, Jack had written for years before he met Charmian— and before they were married in 1905—that he had already launched his literary career, found his own voice and crafted his style. What might not be as widely known, and as Dunkle shows, is that, from the moment they met and for years afterward, Charmian was indispensable to Jack in a whole series of roles as friend, lover, mistress, wife, secretary, typist, co-creator, fellow traveler and hostess who oiled the wheels of their social life. Dunkle offers a remark from Charmian herself who was responsible for entertaining guests for lunch, tea, dinner, a bridge party, swimming, theatre, and dancing. It was fun and it was also exhausting. Using Charmian’s letters and her diary, Dunkle documents the key role that Mrs. London played in the creation of The Valley of the MoonThe Mutiny of the ElsinoreCherry and other works.

At the start of her biography, Dunkle describes Charmian as a woman who lived an independent life and “fought to become a writer” (ix). The operative word in that passage is “fought.” She also describes Charmian as a wife who scaled back her own projects and put Jack’s projects front and center in her own life. Early in their relationship, Dunkle explains, Charmian learned that “being Jack’s mate meant that when he needed her by his side she was expected to comply or there would be consequences. Her sweet lover turned moody and irritable” (77).

The independent Charmian became codependent, as she herself recognized and wrote about in The Book of Jack London, which Dunkle rightly relies on for much of her information. She quotes a long passage from Charmian’s book about her husband in which he told her: “You tell me this and you tell me that, and you state your reasons. But your true inner impulsions are withheld in spite of yourself. Close as we are, you and I, hard as we strive to give ourselves to each other, the old reticences remain, repressing the utmost revelation. You do your best. It is not enough. Can’t you see, oh, my dear, can’t you let go completely, and let me see the real you that I want to fathom? . . . I’d give my soul to know what you are actually thinking!” (276-77).

Dunkle traces Charmian’s early life as a young, independent woman making her way in the world. She also traces Charmian’s life, after Jack’s death when she became an independent woman again. She traveled widely, had affairs with men, including Houdini, whom she described as her “Magic Lover,” did what she wanted to do much of the time and came to think of herself as a liberated woman (239). She died in 1955 at the age of 84. For much of the time they were married, she and Jack seem to have been codependent and were often ciphers to one another.

The fact that her husband had affairs—Dunkle assumes he did— doesn’t seem to have been one of Charmian’s hot button issues. His consumption of alcohol was. She tried for years, Dunkle shows, to persuade him to cut back. She would be willing to become pregnant again, Charmian explained, even after two miscarriages and baby Joy dead after only 38 hours alive. When it came to alcohol Jack wouldn’t budge. Time and again the issues between them were about freedom and independence and their absence in the relationship.

“Charmian kept her frustrations about her work and her inability to be independent to herself,” Dunkle writes, “Ever since she was a child living with her controlling aunt Charmian had learned to please those around her” (166). In the last years of his life, as his body and his mind fell apart, Jack became increasingly controlling. “His debilitation only intensified his dependency and need for control,” Dunkle writes (212). She quotes from a long letter Charmian wrote to Jack’s old friend, Cloudsley Johns, a month after her husband’s death: “While in the past thirteen years, I have been learning from Jack, my brain has been dependent upon his to some extent—to a great extent. But, instead of my brain having been pressed too much, it seems now to be profiting, blossoming . . . just now it seems to me that I am very much alive, very independent, while at the same time possessed” (219). In a letter to one of her lovers, Charmian explained that after Jack’s death she “got to liberating herself” (231).

Dunkle writes about Charmian’s three published books, The Log of the SnarkOur Hawaii, and The Book of Jack London. She acknowledges their literary value, but she stops short of portraying Charmian as a masterful, triumphant author. House of Happy Walls, Dunkle writes, “may have been her greatest creative work” (250).Visitors to the park may well agree with her. After all, the house is a testament to Charmian’s sense of aesthetics, her attention to detail and her ability to marry form to function and beauty to utility. Perhaps Jack helped in spirit. One might also say that Charmian’s creativity expressed itself most fully as Jack’s wife. It’s understandable that Dunkle would want to bring Charmian out from behind her husband shadow and give her the attention she rightly deserves, but to describe her as “Trailblazer, Author, Adventurer” and to omit the words “wife” and “mate” and don’t seem to accord her the respect and admiration she deserves.                                                                                                     

As a biographer, Dunkle stands on the shoulders of the many librarians, scholars, researchers and authors who preceded her. In the Acknowledgements at the front of the book she thanks them, including Clarice Stasz, Susan Nuernberg, Sue Hudson, Jack Ritchie, Jeanne Reesman Campbell, Kenneth K. Brandt, Darius Anderson, Fred Fishback, Joy and Steve Shafer and many others.                                          

The bibliography is excellent, the footnotes at the back of the book are illuminating and the photos add greatly to the narrative. There are many pleasant surprises in this book: an account of Charmian’s visit with Sigmund Freud in Vienna, an encounter with Vincent Van Gogh’s relatives in France and her role as a hostess when a bevy of Hollywood stars, including Ronald Reagan, Edward G. Robinson, Mary Astor and Jane Wyman showed up at Beauty Ranch when The Sea-Wolf was made in a feature film and screened at the Sebastiani Theater in the town of Sonoma.                                                                                                       

For those who are puzzled about the correct way to pronounce her first name, Dunkle explains that it sounds like “Charm-Me-In,” which might also serve as a hyphenated middle name, along with Kittredge (vii). Charming she was. She never lost the “me” part of herself and she was definitely a member of the Jack London “in” crowd.

The young Miss Kittredge seems to have had few doubts about entering into a relationship with and marrying Mr. London, who was younger than her. She knew there would be adventures, that she would go places around the world and do things (like attend boxing matches and meet celebrities) that she wouldn’t have been able to do had she remained single or become the wife of one of her pedestrian suitors. In Louisa May Alcott’s novel Little Women, the publisher and editor of the aptly named Weekly Volcano, tells Jo the fledgling novelist that she can’t end her narrative with the main character as a spinster, that if she did that readers would be greatly disappointed. As Dunkle so dramatically illustrates, spinsterhood wasn’t in the cards for Charmian, though widowhood clearly was.

Jonah Raskin is the editor of The Radical Jack London: Writings on War and Revolution and the author of two booklets about Jack: Burning Down the House and The Mysteries of Jack London.