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A WRITER'S RETREAT: AMERICAN AUTHORS AT THE DEL
Coronado, CA -Since it opened in 1888, the Hotel del Coronado has played host to a passing parade of famous patrons from every walk of life. There have been presidents, princes, glitterati and literati. But, perhaps no history is more revealing than the history told through the eyes of American writers.
Below is just a small sampling of some of the writers that have visited The Del:
Charles Nordhoff (visited 1888-1901): Writer Charles Nordhoff was paramount in The Del’s early success, even though his name is probably not widely known today. Nordhoff was an influential journalist who promoted California in his 1873 book, California for Health, Pleasure, and Residence. He wrote glowingly about his trip across the country (less than four years after the completion of the transcontinental railroad), and went on to become California’s biggest fan - not an easy task in 1873, when the state’s rough-and-tumble reputation was still foremost in America’s mind.
It was Nordhoff who was able to put a very positive spin on the American population that settled California as a result of the 1849 Gold Rush. Though contemporary historians are quite clear about the self-serving lawlessness that characterized many gold-seekers – and hence characterized California itself - Nordhoff saw it differently. According to him, the Gold Rush drew the best and the brightest from families back East, and then culled from that the best of the best, those who did not fall prey to strain, disease, whiskey, or failure. Nordhoff wrote, “The remainder you see here ... are above your Eastern average in intelligence, energy, and thrift.”
The promotion of California by the transcontinental railroad companies – who desperately needed customers – and by writers like Nordhoff, supplied the coattails that California’s fledgling tourism industry needed. By the time the Hotel del Coronado opened its doors in 1888, the entire country was well aware of the charms of Southern California: endless sunshine, a spectacular seacoast, exotic environments, and little disease. Without this information in place, there never could have been a Hotel del Coronado. One researcher – who characterized Nordhoff’s California as the “proverbial ‘land of milk and honey,’” said, “The book’s glowing report, along with a rate war between two rival transcontinental railroads ... helped to stimulate migration to California such as had not been seen since the Gold Rush.”
By 1888, the Hotel del Coronado itself had also become the object of Nordhoff’s affection. In an early hotel brochure, Nordhoff wrote, “For situation, architectural beauty, and comfort, the Hotel del Coronado is really the most perfect and charming hotel I know of in either Europe or America.”
Charles Nordhoff, who was born in 1830 and emigrated to this country as a young boy, authored several books about the sea, edited the New York Evening Post, wrote for the New York Herald and was a leading political commentator. He and his descendants eventually settled in Southern California in 1887, after Nordhoff took possession of a 50,000-acre ranch near Ensenada. Nordhoff retired to Coronado in 1890, and he and his family were frequent guests at the hotel during those years. Charles Nordhoff died in 1901.
Nordhoff’s grandson, Charles Bernard Nordhoff, co-wrote Mutiny on the Bounty, which was published in 1937.
Joseph Pulitzer (visited 1888, 1890): Joseph Pulitzer, who lived from 1847-1911, was one of The Del’s very first visitors in February 1888 and again in 1890. At one time, Pulitzer published the Saint Louis Dispatch, the New York World and founded the Evening World. During his 1890 visit to The Del, the Coronado Journal referred to him as “the most distinguished American journalist.” Through his will, Joseph Pulitzer endowed the Columbia School of Journalism and established the Pulitzer Prize.
Frank Norris (possibly visited 1891): Benjamin Franklin Norris, who went by the professional name of Frank Norris, was born in 1870 and enjoyed an impressive though incredibly brief career, dying when he was only 32 years old. Growing up in Chicago, Norris’ family eventually ended up in San Francisco, where he attended Berkeley from 1890 to 1894. His most famous book was McTeaghe, published in 1899. An 1890/1891 hotel guest register includes a guest named B.F. Norris from San Francisco, who stayed in the hotel from November 12, 1890 to January 31, 1891. Although it is not certain that this B.F. Norris is the writer Frank Norris, the name, city of residence, and dates of stay are all consistent with Frank Norris’ life.
William Gillette (visited 1898): Born in 1855, actor/author William Gillette wrote the play Sherlock Holmes while staying at The Del in 1898, and he performed it on Broadway two years later. Gillette, who was educated at Yale and MIT, and counted Mark Twain as a family friend, began his acting career in Boston.
In 1898, Gillette approached Sherlock Holmes’ writer Conan Doyle to obtain rights to the character (Doyle is said to have responded, “Marry him, murder him, do anything you please with him”). With rights in hand, Gillette settled into San Diego, where the San Diego Union observed, “the celebrated actor ... is at the Hotel del Coronado, where he will remain for some weeks and devote himself to writing his new play.” His four-week stay was later characterized as “glorious.”
Gillette, who became rich from the play he wrote, performed it from 1900 to 1910, and made a final tour in 1932, returning once more to San Diego.
L. Frank Baum (visited 1904, 1905, 1907, 1908, 1909, 1910): Perhaps the author most associated with The Del is L. Frank Baum, the creator of the Wizard of Oz series. Born in 1856, Baum adored the hotel, where he wintered regularly during the early 1900s, staying for the most part at The Del (although he was also known to have rented a house nearby).
Baum, who lived in Chicago, spent six winters in Coronado between 1904 and 1910. He called California the “Land of Enchantment ... where they grow sunshine and roses to offset our blizzards and icicles.” Baum was so enamored of the hotel that he couldn’t conceive of anyone not loving The Del, which he compared to Heaven itself. His wife wrote, “We like the hotel better than any resort in the state.”
Baum’s love of the hotel ran deep and lasted a lifetime. Although The Wizard of Oz (the story we all know as a result of the Judy Garland movie) was written before Baum’s first visit in 1904, he wrote at least three other Oz books in Coronado. Those books are: Dorothy and the Wizard (1908), The Road to Oz (1909), and The Emerald City (1910).
Baum’s days at The Del revolved around a strict work regimen, writing every day from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. Baum himself – though very well known at the time - was said to be down to earth and described as “kind, genial, gentle-voiced ... [a] true and fine ... gentleman.”
In 1908, after the birth of the first – and, perhaps the only – baby to be born in the hotel, Baum penned this verse for the child:
May your weeks be many
May your friends be fine and true
May you never lack a penny
Or your notes fall overdue.
May your heart with joy be lightened
As you climb the stairs of Fame
May with love your life be brightened
And Glory crown your name.
L. Frank Baum died in 1919.
Henry James (visited 1905): Renowned author Henry James epitomized the well-to-do, socially prominent Victorian traveler. James, who was born in New York in 1843, enjoyed a privileged upbringing that included intellectual pursuits and extensive world travel. His brother was noted philosopher William James, and Henry James claimed Edith Wharton as one of his closest friends.
James’ novels include The Europeans, Daisy Miller, Washington Square, The Portrait of a Lady, and The Bostonians. Although these were all written between 1878 and 1886, James wrote steadily until his death in 1916.
James – who always preferred the sophisticated European to what he saw as the socially ignorant American – eventually settled in Europe and England full time. To protest America’s slow entry into World War I, James renounced his American citizenship a month before his death (in England) in 1916.
Eleven years earlier, James had gone on an American speaking tour that took him from one coast to the other. The tour brought him to Southern California, and eventually to The Del, where he stayed from March 29 to April 6, 1905. In an April 5th letter to his sister-in-law, James wrote (about The Del): “The days have been of heavenly beauty, and the flowers, the wild flowers just now in particular, which fairly rage, with radiance, over the land, are worthy of some purer planet than this. I live on oranges and olives, fresh from the tree, and I lie awake nights to listen, on purpose, to the languid lisp of the Pacific, which my windows overhang. It breaks my heart to have so stinted myself here – but it was inevitable, and no one had given me the least inkling that I should find California so sympathetic.” In another letter, he referred to “the charming sweetness and comfort of this place.”
Actually, Henry James’ brother had already talked up California when William James had been a visiting professor at Stanford. Even so, Henry James’ enthusiasm for The Del is truly extraordinary, considering his almost life-long disdain for anything American. As one writer put it, “Henry James, who felt that the blood of Southern California’s civilization ran thin, enjoyed the Del Coronado, finding it an idealized garden of the South.”
Alexander Woollcott (date unknown): Journalist and critic Alexander Woollcott, who lived from 1887 to 1943, was described as “one of the best known journalists of all time.” Woollcott said of The Del: “It is the only ... place in America ... so attractive that, even if no business or skullduggery beckoned me there, I would head for the town just for the pleasure of staying at the hotel.” Unfortunately, there are not dates for Woollcott’s visit.
Upton Sinclair (visited 1916): America’s most famous muckraker, Upton Sinclair, produced what one historian called “a stream of novels directed toward a variety of social ills.” Sinclair is probably best known for his book, The Jungle, which was published in 1906 and exposed Chicago’s corrupt meatpacking industry. Born in Baltimore in 1878, a January 1916 edition of The Californian made a short reference to the fact that the author was in residence at The Del. Sinclair, who ran for Democratic governor of California in 1934, died in 1968.
F. Scott Fitzgerald (may never have visited before 1920 – or after): A distant relation to The Del is writer F. Scott Fitzgerald, who helped define and then chronicle the “Jazz Age” in America. In his 1920 book, This Side of Paradise (which catapulted Fitzgerald to almost instant fame and fortune), the author makes a not-too-veiled reference to the Hotel del Coronado, when he describes the activity of character Amory Blaine as follows, “From his fourth to his tenth year he did the country with his mother in her father’s private car, [including] Coronado, where his mother became so bored that she had a nervous breakdown in a fashionable hotel.”
Although it doesn’t appear that Fitzgerald got out to the West Coast before this book was published, Fitzgerald – who had a life-long fascination with the rich – would no doubt have been familiar with the legendary Del.
Edgar Rice Burroughs (visited 1930): American writer Edgar Rice Burroughs, who was born in Chicago in 1875 and wrote Tarzan of the Apes, was a war correspondent in the Pacific during World War I. His varied professional life also included a stint in the Arizona cavalry, gold mining in Idaho, police work in Salt Lake City, and jobs as an accountant and a stenographer. He created the Tarzan character and brought him to life in a 1912 magazine story, followed by his first book in 1914. Burroughs ultimately wrote 23 books in the Tarzan series.
For health reasons, Burroughs and his wife left Chicago in 1913 to winter in San Diego. Although it is not known whether he visited the hotel at that time, Burroughs returned to San Diego in 1930, where he did do some writing at The Del.
Burroughs died in 1949, but not before his Tarzan character had been immortalized in comic strips, television shows, movies, and in the California community, Tarzana.
Edmund Wilson (visited pre 1931): A close friend of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s, writer Edmund Wilson was very familiar with The Del. Wilson, a prolific and respected novelist, critic, poet, journalist, and editor, had become acquainted with Fitzgerald in 1913, when they were classmates at Princeton University. In a 1931 article for The New Republic, Wilson said of The Del, “It is the most magnificent example extant of the American seaside hotel as it flourished in that era on both coasts; and it still has its beauty as well as its magnificence. White and ornate as a wedding-cake, polished and trim as a ship, it makes a monument not unworthy to dominate the last blue concave dent in the shoreline before the United States stops and the Mexican Republic begins.”
Interestingly, Wilson, who lived from 1895-1972, is said to have also influenced the work of another Del author, Upton Sinclair.
Ogden Nash (visited 1942): Ogden Nash, who lived from 1902-1971, became famous for his verses – among them, “Candy is dandy, but liquor is quicker.” A hotel guest newsletter references Ogden Nash’s October 1942 visit. Other famous visitors that month were Don Ameche, Lana Turner, Joan Bennett, Darryl Zanuck, Ira Copley, the Ballet Russe, and Mr. and Mrs. William Vanderbilt of New York.
Arthur Miller (visited 1958): Born in 1915, Arthur Miller was one of America’s most celebrated writers in the late 1940s as a result of two plays: All My Sons, written in 1947 and Death of a Salesman written in 1949, both of which won New York Drama Critics’ Awards, making Miller the toast of New York’s literary society. His next play, The Crucible, was critical of McCarthyism (“before,” as one biographer put it, “it was either fashionable or safe to do so”). Not surprisingly, this drew the attention of the House Un-American Activities Committee, where Miller testified in 1956, the same year he divorced his wife of sixteen years and married actress Marilyn Monroe.
Two years later, Miller accompanied Monroe to the Hotel del Coronado for the filming of the movie Some Like It Hot. Although it is reported that Miller appeared rather grim throughout (one newspaper characterized him as a glum cigar store Indian), other observers noted that he provided a steady hand for Monroe, who suffered from a combination of depression, prescription drugs, and alcohol.
Miller’s contribution to The Del’s history may go well beyond his two-week visit - Miller may be the sole reason Monroe agreed to do the film in the first place. The fact is, by 1958, Miller’s literary reputation had begun to slide, while his legal costs (from battling the House Un-American Activities Committee) remained. An article about Monroe which appeared in the September 2000 issue of Biography Magazine, sums it up as follows, “To help pay her husband’s legal bills, Marilyn took a role she didn’t want.”
This, in spite of the fact that Monroe was tired of playing “dumb blondes.” In addition, she wanted to have a child and longed to stay in Connecticut, where she and Miller had a home. All of that was put aside, however, for the California filming of Some Like It Hot. Miller, by the way, did not accompany Monroe to Los Angeles where the majority of the movie was made, but he was on hand during the entire Coronado production.
As Miller affected Monroe’s career (starring in Some Like It Hot was probably one of the best career choices ever made), so did Monroe affect Miller’s career – although possibly not for the better. He wrote the 1961 movie The Misfits for Monroe, which was her last starring role. By this time, however, the Monroe-Miller marriage was on the rocks, the production was even rockier, and the couple divorced the same year.
After Monroe’s death in 1962, Miller detailed the darker side of their marriage in his 1964 work, After the Fall, generating a lot of criticism for the way in which he exposed his life with Monroe. Miller never did regain the professional popularity he enjoyed in the late 1940s and early 1950s, although today some of his works have definitely reached “classic” standing.
Ray Bradbury (visited since the mid-1960s): Writer Ray Bradbury – known best for his science fiction novels such as Fahrenheit 451 and The Martian Chronicles – went public with his unabashed enthusiasm for The Del in a 1995 magazine article. In answer to the question, “Where is your favorite place in Southern California?,” Bradbury responded, “I love the Hotel del Coronado at Christmastime.” Futurist Bradbury went on to laud the back-in-time resort, “First of all,” he said, “it’s like you’re back 100 years, which is where you should be at Christmas.” Bradbury, who was born in 1920, says he raised his daughters at The Del, where he and his family started spending summers over thirty years ago.
Richard Matheson (1970s): Richard Matheson wrote the 1975 Del-based novel, Bid Time Return. It is the story of “Robert Collier,” who visits The Del and falls in love with a beautiful young woman featured in an old painting. Ultimately, Robert Collier is able to go back in time to the year 1896, meet the beautiful woman in the portrait – who was also a guest at the hotel – and fall in love.
In 1980, the book was made into a movie titled Somewhere in Time, starring Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour. Although the book was written about The Del, the movie was filmed at the Grand Hotel in Michigan due to its very isolated location and limited season (for most of the year, the hotel is off-limits to guests).
Tennessee Williams (visited 1976): Playwright Tennessee Williams began his professional writing career in the 1930s, and produced a string of famous plays in the 1940s and 1950s, among them: The Glass Menagerie (1945), A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955), the last two of which won Pulitzer Prizes. Williams was photographed at the hotel in 1976, just a few years before his death in 1983.
John Updike (visited 1977): Born in 1932, novelist John Updike began publishing in the 1950s and has enjoyed a long career - writing novels, poems, and children’s books on a wide variety of themes. According to hotel records, Updike stayed at The Del in March 1977.
More Recent Writers: Some popular authors from more recent times include Maya Angelou, Erma Bombeck, Art Buchwald, Dr. Seuss, Louis L’Amour, Robert Ludlum, Robert Massie, Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, and even the creator of “Snoopy,” Charles Schultz.
Founded in 1992, KSL Resorts manages six time-honored resorts with outstanding recreational amenities, including spa, golf, tennis and ski. Each is refined yet unpretentious, rich in legacy, and genuine in service. The KSL Resorts are:
Hotel del Coronado (San Diego, CA)
La Costa Resort and Spa (Carlsbad, CA)
Rancho Las Palmas Resort & Spa (Rancho Mirage, CA)
Vail Mountain Lodge & Spa (Vail, CO)
Barton Creek Resort & Spa (Austin, TX)
The Homestead (Hot Springs, VA)
For more information, call 1-866-KSL-7727 or visit KSLResorts.com.