Living in Sonoma Valley, we sometimes think we know all there is to know about Jack London — his life of adventure, his prodigious literary output, the fire that destroyed his dream Wolf House and his death at the age of 40 at Beauty Ranch, now Jack London State Historic Park.
But a newly released historical novel demonstrates there’s a lot we don’t know, not only about the writer’s final years, but about his second wife, Charmian, their life together and even their controversial friendship with the 20th century’s most famous magician, Harry Houdini.
“The Secret Life of Mrs. London” reveals all that and more — more than you knew, more than you bargained for. Author and longtime Sonoma Valley resident Rebecca Rosenberg has spent years researching the story, not only at the state park’s Cottage House, House of Happy Walls and of course the Wolf House; but at the Huntington Library in Pasadena, where Charmian London’s diaries are kept.
“A lot of people have no idea about Jack London, and younger people may not have any idea who he was at all,” says Rosenberg. “And certainly not Charmian.”
Rosenberg brings to the story an empathy for Charmian, telling the story through her eyes — in first-person present tense, for an immediacy rarely found in historical fiction.
“I wanted to bring past history into the present,” she said when reached by phone in Southern California.
Rosenberg is staying with family in La Jolla because the Kenwood house she shared with her husband, Gary, was destroyed in the October fires, taking with it the acres of lavender plantings that had made the couple’s Sonoma Lavender Farm a local tourist attraction. So much so that in June of 2016, the crowds forced a half-hour traffic jam along Highway 12 when the Rosenbergs posted on Facebook that the farm was open for free visits.
But the fires took it all away, just a month after she and her husband sold their company, Sonoma Lavender. They kept the house, and the lavender fields, all of which were destroyed by fire — which brings up two separate aspects about “The Secret Life of Mrs. London” that bear examination: social media and fires.
Rosenberg has proven an adept social media marketer, with posts throughout the month that help promote the book — from Jack London’s birthday on Jan. 12 and Bessie Houdini’s on Jan. 22 to spicy rumors that the young author was an oyster pirate, and the unpleasant fact that London was born out of wedlock, and his mother shot herself soon afterward.
That, and the postage stamps. Early in January, reviewers were sent copies of the book with its distinctive cover photo of a fur-wrapped femme fatale in a red hat — not exactly Charmian, but based on a photograph of her. And then there is the book itself, the packaging included a bookmark and a folded note card, all inside an envelope with six postage stamps, each bearing the same image of the book’s cover. It was marketing on steroids.
The other commonality is fire, with which so many of us have become uncomfortably intimate. The still-mysterious fire that destroyed the Wolf House in 1914 when it was nearing completion figures in the book, and the mystery of its conflagration remains a mystery. Sort of. Was it arson or accident?