Virginia Woolf famously said women need a room of one’s own, but many California writers also found it necessary to build one-of-a-kind homes. From towers to charred ruins to spectacular views, these are just a few of the literary riches you can visit within driving distance of the Bay Area:
Robinson Jeffers’ Tor House: Carmel-by-the-Sea, CA
“My fingers had the art to make stone love stone,” wrote Robinson Jeffers in his eponymous poem about his home, which he built from 1919 until about 1925. Jeffers’ poetry (he is most well-known for the epic poem "Roan Stallion" and the collection Tamar and Other Poems) is infused with a deep appreciation of the natural world and so is the home he built himself after an apprenticeship with a stonemason.
Visitors can climb the steep steps of Hawk Tower to see the unicorns and hawks (personal symbols of Jeffers and his wife, Una) along with other treasures associated with Irish folklore embedded between the stones. (There’s also a secret staircase inside that Jeffers built for his sons.) Inside his cottage-like home, guests can find rocks and treasures inserted in the walls from around the world (including pieces rumored to be from an Egyptian pyramid).
In this intimate tour, guests are asked to read his poem “The Bed by the Window” and to gaze at the very bed in which Jeffers wanted to – and did – pass away in in 1962. While Jeffers was, at first, well-appreciated in his time (gracing the cover of Time Magazine in 1932), he was later disregarded due to his belief in inhumanism and opposition to U.S. involvement in WWII.
Steinbeck Country, Monterey County
Of course, if you’re in Carmel, thoughts drift towards the other, incredibly popular writers of the area – especially John Steinbeck. There’s a wealth of riches in “Steinbeck Country,” including the National Steinbeck Center, his final resting place, and his childhood home (now a restaurant – I highly recommend the Steinbeck lasagna!) in Salinas. In Monterey, Steinbeck fans can look at his best friend Ed Rickett’s lab (the inspiration for the character Doc in Cannery Row) or even stay in one of his family’s homes.
Other local highlights include the Robert Louis Stevensontribute in Monterey and the Henry Miller memorial library in Big Sur.
Sure, it’s fun to visit Jack London’s favorite watering hole – Heinold’s First and Last Chance Saloon -- in Oakland’s Jack London Square, but London’s real home was in Glen Ellen, CA, not far from the heart of Sonoma’s Wine Country. London, the thrill-seeking early 20th Century writer most known for the adventure stories The Call of the Wild, White Fang, and The Sea Wolf, ultimately craved tranquility. “All I wanted,” London wrote, “was a quiet place in the country to write and loaf in and get out of Nature that something which we all need, only the most of us don't know it.”
After visiting the mountains of Sonoma with his second wife, Charmian, London set out to create his retreat. Once he built Beauty Ranch (a large, working ranch along with a cottage where the Londons lived), the writer decided to create a permanent stone house, named after the animals he was so often identified with – wolves.
Unfortunately, this grand house designed by San Francisco architect Albert Farr burned to the ground in 1913, only days before the Londons could inhabit it. Today, the area is a state historic park where viewers can hike to London’s grave, visit the Museum Charmian designed that includes much of the furniture and books never moved into Wolf House, and, of course, tour the charred ruins of the home. While the effervescent London lived only a few years after the fire (he died at age 40 in 1916), these tributes to the larger-than-life man still thrill visitors nearly a century later.
In 1914, America’s most honored playwright wrote, “I want to be an artist or nothing.” By the 1920s, he was awarded three Pulitzer Prizes for his plays, all of which tried to uncover the mysterious forces “behind life,” which helped to shape human destiny.
After being awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1936 (still the only American playwright to have received that honor), the Irish-American artist was restless. After traveling and living all over the world, he and third wife, Carlotta Monterey, bought the 158 acre site that was eventually to become Tao House (inspired by the great Chinese Taoist religious traditions) and a National Historic Site.
Carlotta’s deep love for Spanish-colonial architecture and Chinese furniture is evident throughout the house. While O’Neill was sickly during his seven-year stint at Tao House (the longest period he ever lived in one place), he completed first drafts of some of his most famous plays – The Iceman Cometh, Long Day's Journey into Night(for which he posthumously received a fourth Pulitzer), andA Moon for the Misbegotten.
Visitors to the remote site get a sense of the great tranquility O’Neill must have felt as he spent the morning working in a study closed off by three separate doors before a quiet evening at home listening to jazz and blues records with his beloved dog, Blemie. While O’Neill died in 1953, the legacy of what he had hoped would be his “final harbor” lives on. Apart from the stunning views of the San Ramon Valley, Tao House hosts a great many events for artists and the public.
Since the tour only takes about two and a half hours (including the shuttle ride from Danville), visitors can also take in the John Muir Historic Site in Martinez, CA.