Aloha Wela Wela, Charley Stoddard!
Aloha Wela Wela interpreted into colloquial Irish means, “The top of the mornin’ to you!” Aimée wrote that along with a few other Hawaiian words of love and admiration to her “chum”–travel writer Charles Warren Stoddard in his autograph book. Other contributors of poems, illustrations and inscriptions included Mark Twain, Rudyard Kipling, Oliver Wendall Holmes, Edwin Booth & Teddy Roosevelt, and other lesser known but equally dynamic friends Ada Clare, Bret Harte, Joaquin Miller, Ina Coolbrith, Edgar Saltus and Edmund Russell.
Early in his career, Stoddard mailed copies of his poems to his favorite authors, fishing for compliments from the most famous writers in the English language. These included literary lords of New England—Emerson, Longfellow, Holmes—and British eminences like Alfred Tennyson and Charles Darwin. “I was hoping against hope the attention of the immortals.” Incredibly most replied. Emerson enjoyed his poems: “I am much touched with them, and I think so well of their superior skill and tone that I would hear with pain that you discontinued writing.” Tennyson said simply, “I have read your verses and I liked them.” Herman Melville was “quite struck” by a certain piece. Oliver Wendall Holmes warned him to use writing as “an apology for neglecting humbler and more steadily industrious pursuits.” Stoddard exchanged letters with his hero Walt Whitman for several years. Jack London revered Stoddard referring to him as Dad in his letters. He had a pen pal love affair with Yone Noguchi (poet and father of sculptor Isamu Noguchi). “I, I am a hero worshipper no more, I have met all my heroes!” Stoddard would later tell a house guest.
Walt Whitman, Ada Clare, Robert Louis Stevenson and Mark Twain would have a profound impact on Charles Stoddard’s personal and professional life and all would shape Aimée Crocker’s irreverent world view directly and indirectly.
In 1855, Stoddard’s family migrated to San Francisco from New York City when he was eleven. Stoddard began writing verses at a young age amid the growing literary climate of California. His first piece was published at aged nineteen in The Golden Era, then the chief literary organ west of the Rocky Mountains, under the pseudonym “Pip Pepperpod.”
Boys of Hawai’i
In the spring of 1864, the “Boy Poet of San Francisco” needed to recover his equilibrium after an emotionally devastating year at Oakland’s Brayton Academy. The family doctor prescribed that nineteenth century panacea for any sort of mental or physical indisposition: a lengthy sea voyage… Stoddard’s family, hoping to improve his health, arranged a stay for him in Hawai’i where his sister was married to a wealthy planter. On the eve of his twenty-first birthday, Stoddard left San Francisco for a six-month stay in the Kingdom of Hawai’i.
Literary phenom and “Queen of Bohemia” Ada Clare, whom he met at The Golden Era offices, had gone to the islands a few weeks earlier. She had always been interested in fostering younger writers and especially those who looked up to her. Their casual relationship deepened on the islands. Clare became a thoughtful and supportive friend, encouraged the fragile Charley to continue writing poetry, and later helped him get published.
While staying at a Hilo mission house, “whose lips pursed with the prunes and prisms of propriety,” he became entranced by a native Hawaiian boy he met at Rainbow Falls whom he called Kana-Aloha. The friendship ripened and in a few days the young native and Stoddard were inseparable. He traveled with him to the Big Island. They separated from their companions. Stoddard wrote of their dalliance:
There were no sign posts on that road pointing the way to Crater or Creature-comforts, no notices to “Keep off the Lava” or, “Beware of the Missionary.” No Town Criers ran after us filing the vales with the clang of their dreadful bell. We had nothing to do but to get as lost as possible and hug ourselves and chuckle in sheer delight at the thought of our delicious predicament. Sometimes upon the breezy hill-tops with the azure sea curled up at the horizon brim like a wine cup, we paused to laugh aloud, or shout, for the very joy of living, and our hearts were ready to burst with the love and lust of it all.
This would be his first “aikāne” homosexual relationship. The Hawaiian aikāne relationship is well known to have been a part of Hawaiian noble life, including that of Kamehameha. They were an accepted tradition for both men and women, and they are one of the best examples of a nominally heterosexual community also accepting homosexual and bisexual relationships. The Protestant missionaries, however, deeply deplored known aikāne relationships.
Stoddard met another boy, Kana-ana, on the island of Molokaʻi (know by the natives as Molokaʻi Ka Hula Piko), then respected by native Hawaiians as the spiritual center of the archipelago. “Chumming with a Savage” describes Stoddard getting into bed with Kana-ana for the first time:
Over the sand we went, and through the river to his hut, where I was taken in, fed, and petted in every possible way, and finally put to bed, where Kana-ana monopolized me, growling in true savage fashion if anyone came near me. I didn’t sleep much, after all. I think I must have been excited.
Stoddard admitted, “[we] reveled in riotous living. We had certainly transgressed the unwritten law, but we were not in the least sorry for it.” Kana-aloha, Kana-ana, the great Ada Clare and the Islands rocked his world. Stoddard claimed his first trip to Hawaii changed the whole current of his life.
Stoddard made a total of five trips into Oceania between the years 1864 and 1882, four trips to the Kingdom of Hawai’i and one to Tahiti. On his last trip, Stoddard happened to be aboard the same steamship from San Francisco as King David Kalākaua. Honolulu gave a royal welcome to Kalākaua, who was returning from a successful goodwill tour of the world, a tour which included, incidentally, meeting a sweet sixteen-year-old Aimée Crocker in London. It was during his trips into the Pacific that Stoddard honed his skills as a travel writer of wide acclaim during the late nineteenth century.
Golden Gate Trinity
When the literary journal Overland Monthly was started in 1868 editor Bret Harte called on Ina Coolbrith and Charles Stoddard to contribute to the first issue. As writers and arbiters of literary taste, Harte, Stoddard and Coolbrith were known as the “Golden Gate Trinity” and with the help and support of Mark Twain and Unitarian minister Thomas Starr King, are credited with founding San Francisco’s literary culture. Later that year Charley sailed again to Hawai’i as a free-lancer for the San Francisco Evening-Bulletin. He roamed the countryside, visiting villages, spending nights with native boys. “You will easily imagine, my dear sir, how delightful I find this life,” he wrote to Walt Whitman. “Those tender and primitive personal relations away off there in the Pacific Islands as described by you, touched me deeply,” the great poet replied, recognizing a kindred spirit.
“A South-Sea Idyl” appeared in the September 1869 issue of the Overland Monthly. Those who knew Stoddard only for his poems would be surprised to see him transformed into the gloriously indolent sun worshipper who narrated this tropical tale. Stoddard managed to make the eroticism obvious without crossing the line. When he sent Whitman a copy, the poet replied warmly, praising the piece as “beautiful and soothing.”
When Stoddard described being “petted in every possible way,” Whitman surely knew what he meant. But the coyness of Stoddard’s tone kept him safely within the bounds of propriety… Whitman’s coded celebrations of gay love in verse in the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass had inspired Stoddard to do something similar in prose. On March 2, 1869, Stoddard wrote Walt Whitman of his joys in spending nights with supple Polynesians: “I have done wonders in my intercourse with these natives. For the first time I act as my nature prompts me. It would not answer in America, as a general principle—not even in California, where men are tolerably bold.” The word homosexuality did not exist prior to 1869. “Walt Whitman,” according to Stoddard, “breathed the breath of life into me.” Whitman gave his life meaning, direction and purpose. He praised the magnanimous, patriotic poet who’s vision for the country was that America should welcome all, “…Chinese, Irish, German, the pauper and the criminal, favoring everything that broke down fences and brought together East and West, creeds, classes, races, customs and tongues.” Stoddard and Whitman corresponded frequently from 69-71.
Stoddard returned again in 1872; he was a Robinson Crusoe in reverse. He didn’t go to conquer but to be converted. He loved the islands not just for the naked boys and their scented frescoes of foliage but because they let him inhabit more of himself. They let him be lazy and mischievous, sleazy and spiritual; above all, to speak in his own voice instead of perpetually imitating everyone else’s. “I know there is but one hope for me. I must get in amongst people who are not afraid of instincts and who scorn hypocrisy.”
In 1873, Stoddard’s collection of writings from Tahiti and Hawai’i were published under the title South-Sea Idylls and was well received and reprinted in 1892. His veiled homoeroticism wasn’t visible to the nineteenth-century readers. The critical consensus was that South-Sea Idylls was a delightful example of “California humor.” Literary friends knew about Stoddard but in a way that does not correspond to modern knowing through medicalized categories; and although they tolerated Stoddard’s “homosexuality” insofar as it remained discursively marginal, they also did not hesitate to depreciate him, usually by treating him as a hapless child.
Chicago Daily Tribune believed that the writings of Pacific Coast men, like Bret Harte, Joaquin Miller and Charles Warren Stoddard be kept out of the public schools. “No one wants the children to be reading about Poker Flat and Oyster-Can Gulch as described by Harte, nor about a dalliance with a gentle Sandwich-Island savage as described by Stoddard. Joaquin Miller has written some pretty good poetry, but it is not common-school poetry by a great deal.”
The Nation wrote, “…life in the Southern Seas is such a peculiarly non-moral life, that we cannot recommend South-Sea Idyls as a book of invigorating and purifying tone. The Southern Seas—as it used to be said of Paris—are not a good place for deacons.”
As a Chronicle correspondent Mr. Stoddard roamed the world for four years, living for a time in Rome, passing a longer period with artist friends in Munich, and rambling as far east as Palestine and Egypt. He spent two months on a flat-bottomed boat on the Nile. He had an audience with Pope Pius. Stoddard converted to Catholicism in 1867 drawn to the pageantry and the possibility for forgiveness through confession. He struggled with the ideology of pious Christian Victorians who damned his sins of the flesh.
Mark Twain in London
In the winter of 1873-74, Stoddard met Mark Twain while he was lecturing in London. “He seized me at once and said how nervous and miserable he was—and I guess he was as lonesome as I—and that, if he was to continue to make a success of the lectures, I’d have to stay with him. ‘Let your letters go for a while; I’ll pay your salary and you just come and companion me.’ And that was all there was to it. I just had to go.” They breakfasted on chops and went for long walks in the afternoon.
Twain found the London fog indigestible and six lectures a week at the Queen’s Concert Room, Hanover Square, a burden. “I loved him and coveted his respect,” Stoddard wrote, “Every night we talked till cock-crow…I could have written his life just after our eight weeks together were over.”
Homosexuals went to prison in England. Friend Ambrose Bierce was tolerantly aware of Charley’s penchant for falling in love with “nigger boys.” He cautioned him, “your lightest word and most careless action noted down, and commented on by men who cannot understand how a person of individuality in thought and conduct can be other than a very bad man…Walk, therefore, circumspectly…avoid any appearance of eccentricity.”
Stoddard enjoyed Bierce’s sardonic sense of humor. Infernally handsome, he stood nearly 6 feet tall with curly blonde hair and bright blue eyes. His animal magnetism earned him admirers wherever he went. Stoddard was accepted as a “fellow tankard-man” by a wide variety of people, ranging from the ultra-feminine to the ultra-masculine of both sexes. By the late 70s, the two men had become estranged. Bierce was becoming increasingly scornful of the “Miss Nancys” of American literature, who struck him as unbearably sunny, nice, and namby-pamby. Bierce once remarked to a mutual friend, George Sterling, “my objection to him was the same as yours—he was not content with the way God had sexed him.”
My dreams, ambitions fine. My youth, my joys divine. My fasts, my feasts, my wine, were thine, Bohemia!
–Charles Warren Stoddard
Stoddard became a member of the Bohemian Club within the first year of its formation in 1872. The young writers, artists and musicians of San Francisco who started the club aligned themselves against the business class. In an early meeting they blackballed the president of the Bank of California, declaring that it was easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of Bohemia. The Bohemian Club’s anti-materialism was a stance of have-nots, artists who lived in the Bay Area from Oakland to Carmel. Their headquarters on Pine Street was a place for drinking and tomfoolery.
Mr. Stoddard proposed that the Club, being a worthy Club, ought to have a patron Saint, and what better or more appropriate Saint could it have than the bravely reticent Saint John Nepomuck, a Czechoslovakian from geographic Bohemia, who died rather than tell a woman’s secret.
Stoddard practice a “genteel” Bohemianism of Chopin at twilight, Oriental bric-a-brac, incense, lounging robes, and fragrant cigarettes.
In 1878 the club acquired property near Camp Taylor on the Russian River, where members engaged in midsummer antics, swimming in the nude and having mock ceremonies. For some of its members, the club was a fraternity where “feminine” tastes could be enjoyed.
Robert Louis Stevenson
Stoddard met Robert Louis Stevenson in 1880 by chance and invited him into his “plover’s nest” on the side of Rincon Hill. Stevenson never saw such a chamber. It was a “museum of strange objects,–paddles and battle clubs and baskets, cocoanut bowls, snowy cocoanut plumes—evidences of another earth, another climate, another race, and another (if a ruder) culture.” Stoddard talked of his tramps in the islands. “You can imagine with what charm he would speak, and with what pleasure I would hear…It was in such talks, which we were both eager to repeat, that I first heard the names—first fell under the spell—of the islands,” wrote RLS. The poet lent him Melville’s Typee and Omoo.
Stoddard was adamant that Stevenson should go to the South Seas:
I said to myself apart from the inevitable animate attractions, the consummate splendor of vast palm plantations, the lisp of the reef-zoned, effeminate sea, the almost overwhelming fragrance of indolent gales, heavy with the perfume of citron and lime—these will surely paint [Stevenson’s] skies a richer color and inflame the blood of his heroes, if not that of his heroines.
RLS took Stoddard’s advise a few years later. He traveled extensively in the South Seas living in Hawai’i, the Gilbert Islands and Tahiti, and eventually settled in Upolu, an island in Samoa where he purchased 400 acres. While living in the Tropics, Stevenson wrote The Master of Ballantrae, The Bottle Imp, The Wrecker and In the South Seas among other great works.
Sexual morays in the fin de siècle
Stoddard spent the summer of 1891 with Aimée and her second husband Harry Gillig aboard his yacht, the Ramona, with painters Theodore Wores and Julian Rix, publisher of the Argonaut Jerome Hart, composer and Bohemian Club president Joseph Redding, playwrights (and Lambs Club presidents) Clay Greene and Augustus Thomas, and the dashing actor Henry Mygatt Woodruff.
Aimée Crocker, like Ada Clare before her, connected with Stoddard on many levels. They were all sexual outsiders. Clare was a single mom who had a child out of wedlock and therefore a fallen woman. Stoddard and Crocker were 19th century “perverts” who had unnatural and unrestrained sexual desires. Aimée’s second husband Harry Gillig, like Stoddard, preferred the company of men. Husband and wife were beards for one another. Each would never report on the other’s indiscretions. They appeared to be a happy, monogamous married couple. Stoddard, Aimée, Harry, and Frank Unger (Harry’s companion) went to Hawaii often to enjoy the relaxed morals—and the nearly naked natives—at a time when men in America weren’t allowed to walk on the beach topless.
Like Charley, Aimée appalled the islands’ missionaries. Her antics sometimes made it into Hawaiian scandal sheets. When Harry and Aimée were on their original wedding tour and were in Honolulu, the bride made a bet that she would run around the block in her nightgown. She won the bet. On the run she was accompanied by a Hawaiian string band in bathing suits. The Cousins’ Society discussed the matter a whole afternoon. It was unanimously decided that Aimée could never hope to be saved. The missionaries were outraged when the Gilligs, Unger and King Kalākaua emerged from a hotel cottage clad only in their bathing suits and, thus attired, drove to Waikiki beach. In April of 1891 a cryptic report in the “On Dit” gossip page claimed that “Frank Unger has been hungering after the forbidden fruit, having strayed into Gillig’s orchard.”
None but the most powerful and privileged, the educated, the literati, the artists had the courage to live out sexual fantasies, or openly live alternate lifestyles. Even among these elites, there was risk involved. That was the draw. If they were found out, if they were reputed to have committed certain impermissible sexual acts, they were demoted to a lower class. They were deviants. Their reputations were forever stained.
In the late 1800s many European “explorers” who sought forbidden sexual fulfillment found refuge in colonial outposts in Africa and southeast Asia as well as the Pacific and Caribbean Islands and among partners who were not peers in any way. They had love affairs (or hired sex workers) with people outside of their social and intellectual class, from other cultures, preferably third world cultures and oftentimes from another age group. This was certainly true for Aimée Crocker and Charles Stoddard. Aimée referred to her gigolo companions as her “secretaries.”
In the course of Stoddard’s life, attitudes toward “maleness” and “femaleness” and toward sexuality in general were changing. The “feminine” was linked with the religious impulse, the unconscious, spontaneity and creativity. Homosexuality was not yet as defined or feared as it later became. People of the same sex might hold hands, embrace or kiss without necessarily arousing notice. But whether the late 1800s was a “more innocent” time could be debated; any undeniable appearance of adult homosexual behavior was met with horror and possibly draconian legal treatment. The year of Oscar Wilde’s trial and imprisonment, 1895, might be viewed as a turning point. From then on, homosexuality began to be thought of as a deviation, a sin and a crime. Homosexual activities, secret to begin with, were forced to go even further underground. The once free wheeling Bohemian community of San Francisco returned in the late 18th and early 19th centuries to the Philistine world of prosperity, respectability and social structure.
Aimée Crocker would be branded an “adventuress,” which at the time was a code for a promiscuous man-eater. Even though Aimée spent most of her life rebelling against gender inscriptions and societal norms, she wanted to regain some control of the wild narratives that the popular media spun. There were those in high society, in the church and in the press who painted her as a sexual deviant. Crocker pushed back:
I have been accused of living adventurously. Let us admit the word. But I have never been an “adventuress.” I have never cared about your man-made conventions (and every modern school-girl would laugh at those of my day), I was not immoral, but un-moral. If I have often loved, I have at least loved well and fully. I have nothing to be ashamed of, in spite of the scandalous press reports that hopeful reporters managed to use to amuse a scandal-loving public. And if I have dared to stick my nose into trouble just because the game was fun, does it make me a brazen hussy?
Aimée couldn’t be a proponent for promiscuity or polygamy but would advocate for “seasonal marriage.” She did in fact have several short marriages and did most certainly cheat on four of her five husbands…
Charles Stoddard took a position as chair of the English literature department at the University of Notre Dame in the mid-1880s, but would be forced to resign because of the Catholic Church’s position on homosexuality. That pronounced shunning put an end to his struggles over prominently held religion beliefs and his alternative lifestyle. He made peace with his temperaments and his inclinations. “I’d rather be a sea islander sitting naked in the sun before my grass hut,” Stoddard wrote during his later years, “than be the Pope of Rome.”
Both Aimée and Charley, in spite of their indiscretions, were well liked in Bohemian circles and by the public at large. In April 1903, Stoddard returned to San Francisco and was the guest of honor at a welcome-home party at the Bohemian Club with Henry James and Enrico Caruso in attendance. He then settled in Monterey, California, with a hope of recovering his failing health. He traveled within California on occasion and was in San Francisco during the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire. Stoddard stayed on in Monterey, where he was diagnosed with heart disease, until his death from a heart attack on April 23, 1909.