Author uncovers the legend to rewrite the legacy – Monterey Herald

The good news is that death by inhaling or ingesting cyanide comes quickly, reportedly within a matter of minutes. The bad news is, should regrets surface, it’s hard to change the plan. Moreover, those minutes are, suffice it to say, horrific.

Nora May French had choices. Right up until the moment she consumed cyanide in the Carmel home of her paramour de ella and his wife de ella, George and Mrs. Carrie Sterling. Likely the young woman, admired as much for her delicate beauty as her facility for selecting the same words available to everyone, and weaving them into seductively emotional poetry, was the only one unaware of her options. Hence her despair of her.

It was Carrie Sterling who found her, groaning in the throes of her rapid death, Carrie Sterling who would suffer the same death nearly 11 years later, as would her husband, eight years hence. It was Carrie Sterling who summoned something as impossible as help, said the San Francisco Call newspaper on Nov. 15, 1907, two days after French died. She was 26.

She didn’t leave a note. But then, she had already abandoned her words from her.

Catherine Prendergast

Dr. Catherine Prendergast, an English professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, had no intention of writing a narrative nonfiction book, exploring a love triangle by the sea. In fact, the Guggenheim grant she was awarded to fund her research de Ella had launched the pursuit of a more academic take about the numerous art colonies that surfaced in America at the start of the 20th century, creating a culture of creative expression.

Carmel was a wonderful place to start.

“When I found letters that revealed Nora May’s incredible story and felt the impact of her poetry,” said Prendergast, “I thought, ‘OK, we begin here.’ This is a very different kind of book than I was planning to write, but the story is so riveting, almost in a true-crime way, I worked on getting an agent and went in a different direction.”

“The Gilded Edge: Two Audacious Women and the Cyanide Love Triangle that Shook America,” was published in October 2021 by Dutton, an imprint of Penguin Random House. Various book clubs across the Monterey Peninsula have been talking about it ever since.

Seeking Nora May French

Born in Aurora, New York in 1881, all she ever wanted to do was write. So, with great expectations, in September 1906, a mere five months after the earthquake that had devastated San Francisco, Nora May French packed very little and moved to the ravaged city by the bay, first into a boarding house. She later spent time in a house her married boyfriend de ella, also a poet, had constructed from earthquake refuse. What she hadn’t expected was to become pregnant.

Perhaps a young woman who can effect her own abortion also has the courage to effect her own death.

Prendergast pieced together the experiences and emotions of her characters by poring through letters and poetry and newspaper clippings. Sitting in the manuscripts room at the Bancroft Library on the UC Berkeley campus, she came upon a letter, penned by French to her spineless boyfriend de ella, which ended, mid-sentence. Prendergast had no idea where her emotions from her went from there, if her boyfriend from her ever received the letter, or what he might have said.

It was at this moment in French’s story that Prendergast paused in telling, to explain her own process and perspective to the reader. The book continues to shift between storyline and commentary, introduced at key moments when wonder surfaces in the reader and returning to the story, intuitively, when the reader is ready for more.

“I guess the best way to think of it is, I’m a detective, working a very cold case,” said Prendergast. “I love the detective mystery genre. I wanted to give the reader the same experience of being invited to puzzle over those clues themselves. This is, at best, all we can do.”

Coming to Carmel

Before she began researching her book, Prendergast had been to Carmel only once, during grad school. She remembered the fog, the beauty, the beach, and the great food, all of which gave her a sense of place when she returned to begin researching “The Gilded Edge.”

She came up with the title because, although the back story took place during the Gilded Age, reportedly 1870 to the early 1900s, most of her story was at the end of the age, on the edge, if you will, which was exactly the way her characters lived.

“I’ve since been to Carmel many times to do research,” she said. “On the last trip, I brought my husband since it’s kind of a bummer to be a single woman in Carmel, sitting there with my laptop, while everyone else is drinking wine with their significant other.”

Part of her research method, particularly when exploring artists or writers, is to begin, not with the person, but with the property records of a place, which slips her behind the legends and lore, giving her a more realistic, if not accurate sense of it all.

“I have a motto,” she said, “that everybody lies. They don’t mean to, but they do. Many of the characters in this book lied to the newspapers and to each other, and they burned things up. George Sterling even lied in his own diary about him. Knowing it would be a public document someday, he was afraid his friends would read it. ”

As she researched the Carmel archives, she encountered a trail that had been deliberately wrecked. Letters written by her characters from her or about them had the top or bottom ripped off, and names or other incriminating information, she wrote, had been rendered illegible.

“Carrie and Nora were not buried in the archives because they were dull women whose lives were of no consequence. They were buried,” she wrote, “because their personal histories exposed events and insights far too revealing of the flaws of the men who surrounded them.”

It was Ashlee Wright, Carmel Library and community activities director, who directed Prendergast to the diary of Herbert Heron, the eighth mayor of Carmel, and a Shakespearian actor and playwright, who was devoted to the culture of his city by the sea. It was Heron who, after visiting with George Sterling, decided the city needed an outdoor theater in the woods. In 1925, he built the historic Seven Arts Building, where his studio and bookstore became a gathering place for the likes of Jack London, Robinson Jeffers, Upton Sinclair, and Sterling.

“I relied on Heron’s diary a lot,” said Prendergast, “to understand how everything was falling apart at a certain time. You’ll get to that chapter in the book. Herbert Heron was both hilarious and, in some ways, more of a diehard socialist than George Sterling, who was more of a champagne socialist.”

Prendergast ultimately focused her writing on a young woman whose spirit jumped off the page, a young writer who reminded her of her own friends who are brilliant but struggle emotionally, yet never lose their humor.

“I feel like Nora May is entirely relatable for people today. When I pick up her writing de ella, ”she said,“ and hear her talk about getting through a boring dinner with a boyfriend by molding bears out of bread as he drones on, I can see this. ”

Through the process, she became her champion and her friend. French’s poetry is so much better than George Sterling’s, she says, but he has a big park named after him in San Francisco, while she becomes a footnote in history as a femme fatale who inspired everybody to take cyanide and die.

“Turns out the truth,” she said, “is more sordid and horrible than the legend.”

“The Gilded Edge” is available at Pilgrim’s Way Community Bookstore in Carmel, River House Books in The Crossroads Carmel, Bookworks in Pacific Grove, and Olivia & Daisy in Carmel Valley.

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