George Sterling was, in his time, an acclaimed California-based playwright and poet who had famous mentors to lean on such as Ina Coolbrith and Ambrose Bierce. He was, according to many of his friends in his literary circle, the “uncrowned King of Bohemia” which referred to his regular presence in The Bohemian Club. This was a private gentlemen’s club that was set up in San Francisco in 1872 and was frequented by artists, writers, musicians and journalists. Sterling’s work was certainly lauded in the west coast area yet was barely acknowledged in other parts of the United States.
George Sterling was actually born on the east coast on the 1st December 1869. This was in Long Island, New York and his father was a physician who dearly wanted one of his nine children to make the priesthood. George was sent to St Charles College in Maryland and fell under the tutelage of an English poet called John B Tabb. Perhaps this dissuaded him from any ambitions of becoming a priest (if ever he had any) and once his education was complete he saw his future in California.
His uncle Frank had already gone west and had become a lawyer and real estate developer, and George followed in his footsteps when, at the age of 21, he entered the real estate brokering business. His passion though was in literature and he soon fell into the bohemian artistic scene in Carmel. This tiny enclave in San Francisco eventually became world famous for its artistic and literary residents and, of course, was associated with the movie actor Clint Eastwood in the late 20th century.
Sterling was determined to make his living from writing poetry and one long piece attracted a great deal of critical attention. A Wine of Wizardry was described as “breath taking” and “the greatest poem ever written by an American author.” He also wrote plays to be performed at the Bohemian Grove theatre, an example being his 1907 drama in verse called The Triumph of Bohemia.
In the same year Sterling’s mentor Ambrose Bierce made it possible for A Wine of Wizardry to be published in the September issue of Cosmopolitan magazine and this gave his work a degree of national attention. Bierce wrote the following as an introduction to the poem:
Bierce likened the poem to the act of flinging “a profusion of jewels into so small a casket”. Unfortunately this did not have the galvanising effect on Sterling’s career that it should have. There was much suspicion about narcotic habits with easy access to his father’s drug store being quoted as a likely reason for it. This was never proved though, but his abuse of alcohol was a lot more evident. He had hoped to get a glimpse into another world through his work but, instead, he fell deeper and deeper into depression. Perhaps an ironic view of such a world could be seen in his poem The Wine of Illusion:
A visionary, sometimes mystical poet, Sterling occasionally wrote children’s material such as The Saga of the Pony Express and he was influenced by poets such as Poe, Shelley and Keats. Yet, despite all this, he seemed to have a death wish during his later years. He carried a vial of cyanide with him and justified this extreme act with the following statement: “A prison becomes a home if you have the key”.
Tragically, he used that “key” on the 17th November 1926 in his lonely room at the Bohemian Club. He was found dead, aged only 56, and it was written that