Arnold Genthe’s portrait of the poet Nora May French
Nora May French (1881-1907) was a talented, free-spirited poet caught between the suffocating strictures of the Victorian era and the insecurities and confusions of the evolving modern age.
Born in New York State, she migrated to the Los Angeles area with her family in 1888, when she was seven. By her early teens she was drawing and writing precociously, and her work began to appear in local newspapers and magazines, especially Charles Lummis’s Land of Sunshine/Out West.
Correspondence with Henry Anderson Lafler, an assistant editor on the Argonaut, drew her into an impassioned romance and a move to San Francisco shortly after the 1906 earthquake. She played cards with Jack and Charmian London, picnicked in the Oakland hills with Xavier Martinez and other artists, rode horseback at Carmel with the writer Jimmy Hopper, and traded quips with the humorist Gelett Burgess, who noted her “eerie eyes” and “eager, curious, inquiring soul.” She drew increasing respect as a poet as well: George Sterling spoke of her “crystalline poems,” while Mary Austin pronounced her “the only other woman in our circle whose gifts approached Sterling’s or London’s.”
In the fall of 1907, she sought refuge from her problems in Carmel, living with Sterling and his wife Carrie. At midnight on November 13, 1907, Nora May French took cyanide and died. A poet of great promise, she was just twenty-six-years old.
This is an abbreviated version of the A Biographical Sketch of Nora May French by Pamela Herr