Thursday, May 19, 2005

Smoke and Mirrors

On the day that Sean Wilsey’s memoir is set to go on sale, it may be appropriate to see what others have said about California’s rich and powerful. One biting commentary is that of Benjamin II, a popular 19th century German Jewish author of travel books. Benjamin spent 1861 in California and was impressed with the opportunities available roughly a decade after the discovery of gold. He was less impressed with the piety of San Francisco’s Jews and regarded the city’s citizens’ display of wealth as an illusion.

“There is not land in all the world where the passion to cause a sensation is so prevalent as in California. The hunt for gain can hardly be compared to the eagerness to outdo others in the building of splendid houses, driving swift horses, or in dressing in costly clothes. … In California, the emphasis on appearance is not to be compared with that anywhere else. For elsewhere, wealth is generally inherited: handed down from father to son, from mother to daughter, as particular families won, as it were, the privilege of ornamenting themselves.

But here in California, a woman sweeps along, dressed in silk and showing her diamond-studded jewelry – what the Yankees in their colloquial speech call “cutting a dash” – while her sister rides proudly through the streets, and both forget that only a little while before they supported themselves by taking in washing or at some trade”.

There have been so many flamboyant California characters, rich men and women whose stories have captivated the masses: James Ralston, the founder of the Bank of California, whose body was found floating in San Francisco Bay the day his bank collapsed in 1875 – no one knows if it was a suicide or heart attack; E.J. “Lucky Baldwin,” a gambler and businessman who owned the Santa Anita racetrack, the Baldwin Hotel on Market Street, and a large interest in a silver mine in Nevada. When he went on trial in Los Angeles for making a pass at an innocent, unmarried girl (he was a notorious lecher) it was front-page news; Alma Spreckles knew how to spend money better than most millionaires -- San Francisco has the Museum of the Legion of Honor because of her competition with the De Young family (the owners of the Chronicle who managed to get the museum that was built for the 1894 Mid-Winter Exposition named after them; the same De Young museum that Wilsey’s stepmother, Dede, raised $180 million for).

The Wilseys are joining a long and illustrious line of characters. Let history be the judge.

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