by Paul R. Spitzzeri
This afternoon’s presentation, “The Second Life of Yda Addis,” highlighting the research of Baltimore attorney Ashley Short as she explained how genealogical research on her family inadvertently led her “down the rabbit hole” in pursuit of what happened to Addis, a brilliant, but troubled, writer whose clashes with or involving powerful men, including ex-governor John G. Downey, Harper’s Monthly magazine editor Charles Dudley Warner, and Santa Barbara lawyer and district attorney Charles A. Storke, involved legal, social and personal tribulations and trials that were remarkable in their range during the last couple of decades of the 19th century.
Addis was convicted of libel for writing “poison pen” letters accusing people of Santa Barbara of complicity in murders, but managed on appeal, even as she served out her one year term in county jail, to secure a new trial from the state supreme court. Not only was a rehearing not brought forward in Santa Barbara, but, as the 20th century dawned, Addis left town and, seemingly, vanished, even as some sources claim she was institutionalized by her ex-husband Storke, a story that has no verification whatsoever.
What Ashley found, though, through assiduous and careful research, was that Addis reinvented herself as Mrs. Adelayda Hillis Jackson, masking her unusual first name, shedding the name “Addis” and taking on the surname of her former attorney, Grant Jackson, to whom Yda claimed she was married during her legal woes in the 1890s. While a Mrs. A.H. Jackson was in San Francisco in the first decade of the new century, including in the aftermath of the great earthquake and fire of 1906, the first definitive identification of her was in 1910, when she appeared in Texas.
Likely living with her brother Judge (also known as Carlos), her mother and her aunt in Chihuahua, México, where the Addis family lived frequently when she was young, Yda spent the remaining three decades of her life in Laredo and San Antonio. Census records showed her as a journalist and correspondent and newspaper articles referred to her literary past clearly linking Mrs. Jackson to Yda Addis. Ashley further confirmed the connection through vital records, including death certificates in 1913 for her mother and aunt.
Sadly, in 1930, Yda was committed to the state hospital, formerly called an “insane asylum,” on a diagnosis of paranoia at San Antonio, where she spent over a decade living in conditions that, by any standard, must have been awful. She died in the facility in 1941, well into her eighties, with the last four decades of her life largely spent in obscurity, in contrast to much of her first 43 years of life, a good deal of which was enshrouded in controversy.
Still, it bears repeating that Yda Addis, whatever her mental state and personal and professional turmoil, was a talented writer when women, during the late Victorian era, were not expected to pursue public professional lives. Unconventional, to be sure, Addis proved to be an excellent researcher, investigator, journalist and, when she was a high school student in Los Angeles, a fine poet.
Tonight’s post features some of her early versification, for which she received no small degree of local literary renown. In fact, after her earliest pair of poems appeared in the Los Angeles Express early in 1874, less than a year after she and her family arrived in the Angel City, where her father, Alfred, set up shop as a photographer and the precocious poet enrolled in the recently opened Los Angeles High School, words of praise and protection were directed her way.
The 31 January edition of the paper included a letter titled “Words of Encouragement” and the correspondent, known only as “W,” lionized “the young and beautiful authoress whose genius promises to be a crown-jewel in the coronet of our Golden State.” It referred to her first two productions as “like the prelusive drops to a welcome shower” and offered that the letter was not meant to be mere flattery, “but we hope that every generous heart will encourage her efforts.”
The issue of 4 February from “L,” however, produced words of caution as the title indicated: “Don’t Spoil Her.” While agreeing with “W” on the “commendation of the poetical effusions” published by the Express, the writer expressed concern that the praise of “W” was such that “I fear that he [she?] allows his [her?] enthusiasm to get the better of his [her?] judgment in thus gushing over” the work of the talented teen.
Adding that the poems appearing so far led to speculation on their author, “L” added that “I have been acquainted with Miss Yda for a period extending over a year, or more,” and that they’d met a few times at most. Still, the letter continued,
She is simply a winsome little school girl in short clothes, with a sweet clam and wonderfully expressive face which wins all hearts, and a dignity of manner far beyond her years. Long before her two little poetical gems had been given to the world through your columns, I had said to myself and some friends, “Nature certainly belies herself most wo[e]fully if that pure, classical face—if that child with her studious habit and love of books, has not a literary future which will be an honor to her and to her friends.” But Miss “Yda” is a mere child, and undue adulation and flattery have spoiled many a young author of fine promise.
“L” continued to observe Yda’s “budding genius” with “affectionate interest and tender concern” of a florist tending to their charges, but there was also “fear and trembling” that each submitted work of verse “may not surpass in merit, or even be equal to its predecessors.” Yda was to know that she had many fans of her work “and withal remember that it is only by the most patient, plodding toil and study and untiring attention to every detail of the art of poetry that she can ever attain to the fame which her admiring ‘W’ predicts for her.”
At least a dozen published compositions were located for the remainder of 1874, all but one appearing in the Express and a few of the early ones are offered here. As to whether they are fine specimens of Juvenilia, indicative of the potential for a wider field of possibilities with that “patient, plodding toil” that “L” mentioned or not, is, of course, in the eye of the beholder, if not the professional critic.
Still, for mid-1870s Los Angeles, a frontier town with a population of not that far over 10,000 persons, but growing into a small city during its first significant and sustained period of growth, during which the arts, including music and theater, were becoming more pronounced, young Yda Addis was indicative of the gradual transformation of the community.
In some ways, she was representative of a subsequent generation following Ina Coolbrith (born Josephine Smith, 1841-1928, and who was the niece of Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon church, though her widowed mother left the church), whose earliest published poems appeared in the Los Angeles Star nearly two decades before. Coolbrith, who took her mother’s maiden name, went on, after moving to the Bay Area, to work with Bret Harte in editing The Overland Monthly as well as writing poetry and, late in life after a career as a librarian in Oakland, became the first California poet laureate and the first of any state in the Union.
Yda’s path was, of course, very different, but she unquestionably had some significant literary prowess and the poems featured here at least showed her promise and potential. These early works were the product of a young woman who turned 16 just a few months earlier and, at the very least, show that she was very well-read, imaginative and possessed of a highly sensitive soul and advanced level of literary maturity for her age and where she lived.
The first of two works reproduced here was published in the Express on 10 February, just under a week after the cautionary letter from “L”:
Silent Cities! Are ye silent?
No! for through each dreary street
Echo ghostly, mournful foot-falls,
Never made by mortal feet.
Thro’ your casements, zephyr-wafted,
Echo sweetly vibrant chords;
On your ramparts, in the moonlight,
Glitter shad’wy, spectral swords.
And from out a distant belfry,
Sounding on the evening air,
Chimes of almost heavn’ly sweetness
Seem to tell the hour of prayer.
While a choir of mellow voices,
And an organ’s notes of praise,
Swell an anthem of rejoicing,
Sweet in every thankful praise.
While the great moon, rising slowly,
High above a distant hill,
Shines upon the mystic ocean,
With its waters never still;
And the ships, in graceful groupings,
Out upon the peaceful bay,
Rock upon the swelling billows,
Bright with phosphorescent play.
Silent Cities! Still—not silent—
Where is found your happy strand?
In the Oriental countries—
Or some blest Utopian land?
No! ’tis Memory brings the semblance
Of the happy days now gone;
But the sweet, sad vision passeth—
Leaving me alone—alone!
Silent ye may be to others;
But to me no harp can thrill
Half the tuneful notes of rapture
That your slightest murmurs fill.
And no spot can e’er be dreary,
And no breath can e’er be cold,
While such glorious panorama
Recollections can unfold.
The second piece of verse, “As the Leaf,” was published in the 18 April issue of the Express, which separately observed that the work was “a very striking poem . . . written by our gifted contributor, Miss Yda Addis.” It added that “it develops a deep vein of chaste reflection, and a power of imagery that could only emanate from a true poet.”
In its 8 May edition, the paper exulted “we are glad that Miss Yda Addis’ exquisite poem, “As the Leaf,” has been extensively copied from the EXPRESS,” proudly noting that “it is one of those rare productions that at once appeal to the tender emotions.” Moreover, it was constructed “so artfully that its rhythmical flow lingers on the ear with a tone of the most delicious melody.”
As a “chaste and poetical” composition, “As The Leaf” offered such “delicate but striking imagery” that the paper was sure that “this performance of our gifted young friend [assumes] the happiest auguries of her future fame.” The “conspicuous place for this admirable little production through the state also surely meant that it heralded “the dawn of a higher order of appreciation” than previously among “the editorial fraternity of California.”
As The Leaf
Thro’ the forests, low winds sighing,
Seem like wand’ring spirits trying
To give vent to some weird grief;
And the fading sunlight lingers,
Tinting, as with magic fingers,
Traces of these mystic singers
On each leaf.
Like the bright glow of the wildwood,
Fades the vivid flush of childhood;
Then come cares without relief :
But we hope, as each new sorrow
Comes, that we may haply borrow
Respite, on the Autumn morrow,
Like a leaf.
Like the leaves that here are gleaming,
Is the life from strong hearts streaming—
Shining out in bold relief;
For, like leaves from off their branches,
Out of cities, deserts, trenches,
Every moment some soil launches—
Slowly, too, our lives are fading;
First in dimly traced shading—
Then in veinings—bright but brief,—
Till the dim life lights up wholly,
And the new light drifts in slowly,
Gilding on each plant so lowly
Many a leaf.
Like the leaves are we succeeded:
If we fall, we are not needed.
God affords us this belief:
Tho’ we fall, our dust will nourish
Other leaves to live and flourish,
And our memories they’ll cherish—
Each new leaf.
By our Savior’s calm direction,
In the day of resurrection,
Out of earth shall every leaf
Be uplifted into Heaven—
Never more be tempest-driven—
In His crown a place be given—
We’ll look to share more of young Yda Addis’ verses in future posts on this blog. Meantime, for those who missed today’s presentation and are interested in seeing it, please check out the recorded version on the Homestead’s YouTube channel.