Sonoma County writer dives into the bohemian life of Alice Adams

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She was a Southern girl with enough beauty to qualify as a belle. But Alice Adams was a 20th-century rebel, breaking with the social constraints of her North Carolina roots and proper Radcliffe education to build a bohemian writer’s life in the San Francisco Bay Area during the age of free love.

By the time of her death in 1999 at age 72, she had produced 15 books, both short story collections and novels, including the bestseller “Superior Women,” following the lives or four Radcliffe grads from the war years to the 1980s, a story loosely inspired by her own experience.

Another novel, “After the War” and another collection of short stories, were published posthumously.

A writer very much of her time, Adams gave voice to the experiences of a generation of women whose lives straddled two worlds — the strict formality of a pre-World War II girlhood in a segregated south to the social unraveling and women’s liberation of the 1960s and 1970s.

“I was bright in school and ran into trouble because of that Southern thing that women are supposed to be stupid,” she once said.

Adams pushed the boundaries of social convention and finally found her writing voice after moving with her husband, Mark Linenthal, to the San Francisco Bay Area in the late 1940s.

Carol Sklenicka was intrigued by the story to be told in Adams’ life. The Jenner writer’s last biography, “Raymond Carver: A Life,” was named one of the Top 10 books of 2009 by the New York Times. In the wake of that triumph, she looked for another Northern California writer to examine. Adams, she said, seemed ideal.

This month, the New York Times singled out Sklenicka’s book, “Alice Adams: Portrait of a Writer” (Scribner), as one of “Nine Books to Watch for in December.” The Christian Science Monitor also named it one of their top 10 books for December.

“I was interested in writing about another short story writer. I’ve always loved short stories and with the Raymond Carver book, I was just really fascinated to find how the life and the stories lined up,” she said. “Not what is true in the stories, but how does a creative person make art out of the mess of their life, because everyone’s life is kind of a mess as they experience it from day to day.”

Carver, known for his “dirty realism,” offered a lot more mess to work with. The son of an alcoholic millworker and fisherman, he also struggled with the drink at the bare margins of the middle class, constantly on the move and financially struggling with two kids and a long-suffering wife.

Adams, by contrast, was raised an only child by two intellectuals. Father Nicholson Adams taught Spanish literature at the University of North Carolina. Her mother, with a graduate degree, toiled in the shadows as a frustrated faculty wife and later went back to school to become a librarian.

Through eight years of research, interviewing dozens of people, combing through Adams’ papers at the University of Texas at Austin, reading and re-reading everything Adams had written that she could find, and spending time in Chapel Hill where Adams spent her early years, Sklenicka explored the darker corners of the writer’s life. Her father dealt with depression and cheated on her mother, who became embittered and critical. Adams ran through a string of relationships, including with the writer Max Steele and the handsome, hard-drinking San Francisco interior designer Bob McNie.

“Alice’s love affairs and unembarrassed sexual vitality didn’t go with the picture of an intellectual woman we have in our culture,” Sklenicka said shortly before delivering her first reading at The Book Passage in Corte Madera earlier this month. “I was curious about it, and I came to admire her openness about it.”

At the reading, Skelenicka was wearing a long strand of blue glass beads, once worn by Adams and a gift from Adams’ only child, Peter Linenthal, who offered unqualified support for this first in-depth biography of his mother. Alice wore the necklace frequently over the years.

“I really trusted her and so I would just tell her anything she wanted to know,” said the 68-year-old artist, who lives on Potrero Hill in San Francisco and controls his mother’s literary legacy.

“The bulk of the primary material was at the Ransom Center (University of Texas), but I had some drafts of stories. I had things they didn’t have. And I connected her to anybody that I could think of that might be helpful who knew my mom.”

In the more relaxed world of the Bay Area, Adams shed her Southern formality, although she continued to draw from her early life in many of her stories, like the haunting “Verlie I Say unto You,” inspired by her family’s black maid, and Sklenicka’s favorite, “Roses, Rhododendron.”

“What I’ve come to love about Alice and what drew me to her in the first place was how she was a smart, attractive, ambitious woman who managed to do all these thing in an era and time when it was very difficult for a woman,” Sklenicka said.

“When Adams and her contemporaries emerged from Radcliffe, the war was over and there were no jobs for women. The pressure to default to marriage and motherhood was powerful.”

Adams married and had a child in her 20s but never succumbed to “The Feminine Mystique” identified by Betty Friedan in the early 1960s. “She never gave up on her dream of being a writer.”

Adams was 40 when her first novel, “Careless Love,” was published in 1966.

While her work was well-regarded in literary circles and regularly published in the New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly and other marquee publications, she might have felt she was not a full member of the club.

The prestigious American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters honored her with a prize in 1992, but never elected her to be a member even though friends, like fellow Bay Area writer Diane Johnson, were.

“It meant a lot to her and never happened,” Sklenicka said. Some sources suggested that while Adams was celebrated in New York and her books sold well, her absence from the scene may have undermined in her some ways.

“She thought New York or San Francisco were the best cities for a writer (but) that New York would be too much literary competition all the time,” Sklenicka said. “Too many parties with other writers. She felt she was more free to live her own life here and be a writer.”

Adams did receive her share of accolades, including the O. Henry Special Award for Continuing Achievement.

The writer spent her later years in a Victorian on the south side of Alta Plaza Park in Pacific Heights, which inspired her short story “The First and Only House.” She was well knit into Bay Area literary circles, and counted among her friends Anne Lamott, Ella Leffland, Millicent Dillon and Orville Schell.

Sklenicka is diligent and meticulous in her research. It wasn’t easy locating some of Adams’ stories, particularly those published in women’s magazines that tend not to be archived by libraries.

“Some of them were considered potboilers. But I found a lot of them interesting, because of how they related to her life,” she said.

In her research, Sklenicka uncovered details about Adams that even her son did not know.

“I didn’t know my mom had an affair with my preschool teacher,” he said. “There were a number of affairs I didn’t have any clue about. And at one level, well, great. She had a full life.”

Adams’ recognition as a writer has diminished in the last 20 years, Sklenicka conceded. But she said she hopes that will change with the publication of her biography and the reissue of a new version of “The Stories of Alice Adams” by Vintage.

Adams wrote in a voice that was both literary and conversational.

“It’s like someone talking to you. She skips around. One thing reminds her of another,” Sklenicka said. “It’s a lot like the way two people might just be gossiping and telling stories.”

Sklenicka said Adams’ mid-century milieu may be dated, but her themes transcend eras. “I would like to see her up there with some of the male writers whose names we all recognize, like John Updike and Saul Bellow and Raymond Carver,” Sklenicka said. “It may sound pretentious. But she’s in that realm of that amount of talent with so many beautiful stories.”

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at or 707-521-5204.

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