The Ambrose Bierce Site
by Don Swaim
click to enlarge The Alley
Ambrose Bierce wrote to an acolyte, the poet George Sterling, on September 12, 1903, "All my life, I have been hated and slandered by all manner of persons except good and intelligent ones and I don't greatly mind... And the same malevolence that has surrounded my life will surround my memory."
Bierce's gloomy, near paranoid assertion did not happen. His unforgettable tales of war and the supernatural, as well as his acerbic epigrams, live on -- even as most of the writers of his generation have been forgotten. If Bierce was the cause of animus in his lifetime [Franklin K. Lane, President Wilson's Interior Secretary, called him, "a hideous monster... so like a mixture of dragon, lizard, bird and snake as to be unnameable."], it might be fair to say all has now been forgiven.
Many notables receive commendation by having buildings, highways, or airports named after them. (Bierce cynically defined commendation as, "The tribute we pay to achievements that resemble, but do not equal our own.")
So it was that San Francisco named a street, actually an alley, for the native Ohioan, who lived in California for the best part of thirty-three years (1866-1899). In addition to San Francisco, Bierce also resided at various intervals in Oakland and Marin County.
He married a young socialite, Mary Ellen Day (Mollie), the daughter of successful mining engineer Holland H. Day. The wedding was held at the Day home on Folsom Street in 1872 just before the couple's three-year odyssey to England.
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Ambrose Bierce Alley will be found at Third and Market Streets behind the site of the old San Francisco Examiner, where Bierce was William Randolph Hearst's star columnist and the paper's only writer with a byline.
The narrow backstreet was formerly called Aldrich Alley, named for Mark Aldrich (1801-1874), although why is lost to history. Aldrich, born in New York, was later elected to the Illinois legislature. In 1844, he was tried and acquitted in the murder of Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormon church, a victim of a lynch-mob in Carthage, Illinois. Aldrich followed the Gold Rush to California, but spent his last years in Tucson, Arizona, as postmaster, judge, mayor, and a representative in the territorial legislature.
Most San Franciscans are unaware of Ambrose Bierce Alley, among them the affable proprietor of San Francisco's Argonaut Book Shop at nearby Sutter Street, Robert Haines, Jr. Mr. Haines says he never heard of the alley until recently informed by a visitor to his shop, which is a treasure trove of California lore and letters.
Ambrose Bierce Alley, alas, may have had better days. This rank passageway has a juice bar on one side and a sterile office building on the other. The walls are marred by graffiti, and at the time the photos on this page were taken (April 2008), building construction blocked off half the street.
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The idea of naming the alley for Bierce was that of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, owner of San Francisco's esteemed City Lights Bookstore on Columbus Avenue. Mr. Ferlinghetti proposed renaming certain streets, mostly alleys and cul-de-sacs, after famous writers and artists who lived and worked in San Francisco.
Ferlinghetti, sometimes referred to as the father of the Beat writers and a prominent poet in his own right, co-founded the store, which was declared an official historic landmark by the city's Board of Supervisors in 1953. In 1955, Ferlinghetti launched City Lights Publishers, which published Allen Ginsberg's seminal Howl a year later. Ferlinghetti was arrested for publishing an obscene book, which led to a precedent-setting legal decision on the side of the First Amendment, signaling the death-knell for future would-be censors. [Don Swaim's audio interview with Ferlinghetti here]
Mayor Art Agnos and the San Francisco Board of Supervisors approved Ferlinghetti's street-sign proposal on January 25, 1988. On Sunday, October 2, 1988, a gala party was held at City Lights, which was also marking its thirty-fifth anniversary, to celebrate the unveiling of the first signs: Kerouac Street and William Saroyan Place. Understandably, the revelers partied well into the night at nearby Tosca Cafe.
In addition to Bierce, Kerouac, and Saroyan, other honorees include Kenneth Rexroth, Richard Henry Dana, Dashiell Hammett, Jack London, Frank Norris, Mark Twain, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Isadora Duncan. The dancer, of course, was not a writer, but there's little doubt she was a writers' muse. A small park in Russian Hill is named for Ina Donna Coolbrith, chosen as California's poet laureate in 1915. (Her Taylor Street apartment with all of her notes and manuscripts was destroyed in the earthquake of 1906.) Another small park with a stone tablet at the crest of Hyde Street in Russian Hill is dedicated to the poet George Stering. There is also a Gold Street, but it appears to have been so named because the city's first assay office was located there, not for the splendid San Francisco novelist Herbert Gold, like Bierce a native Ohioan.
A highway marker to honor Bierce went up in his native Meigs County, Ohio, in 2003. The following year, retired priest James Lienert erected a gravestone for Bierce in the Mexican desert town of Sierra Mojada, based on the theory that Bierce is buried there. The University of Akron's Bierce Library is named for Lucius Verus Bierce, a former Akron mayor and Ambrose Bierce's uncle.
What would Bierce make of the shabby alley named for him? One can almost hear him saying, "If it weren't for the honor I'd refused it."
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As most literary buffs know, Bierce vanished in Mexico in 1913, purportedly after trying to join Pancho Villa's rebel army. I couldn't resist including this shot of the Pancho Villa Taqueria, 3071Sixteenth Street, in the Mission District, a taqueria being a modest Mexican restaurant specializing in tacos. The Pancho Villa Taqueria is known for its salsa -- and its grilled vegetable burritos are pretty good too.
Bierce left San Francisco for good in 1899 for Washington, D.C., although he paid a final visit to the City by the Bay in 1912. San Francisco is a vibrant and colorful metropolis with a harsh terrain and contentious weather. It has to be a wondrous place to live for the young. It's clear why the youthful Ambrose Bierce made his home there -- and why he chose to leave.
Sources: Streets of San Francisco by Louis L. Lowenstein, Wilderness Press, Berkley, 1996; Names of 12 San Francisco Streets Changed to Honor Authors and Artists, City Lights Books, San Francisco, 1989; The Letters of Ambrose Bierce edited by Bertha Clark Pope, Gordian Press, New York, 1967. I am also indebted to the Center for California History, San Francisco Library.Photos by Don Swaim
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