Arts Listings

Books: Hildegarde Flanner and the Great Berkeley Fire of 1923

By Phil McArdle
Tuesday June 26, 2007

Hildegarde Flanner’s Wildfire: Berkeley, 1923 is a clear-eyed description of a natural disaster seen at close quarters; and, for Berkeleyans, an unforgettable picture of nature’s fury turned against us in our own homes. After reading it, even the greenest greenhorns will understand the dreadful power of wildfire and how rapidly it can consume a neighborhood.  

On Sept. 17, 1923, Flanner and her mother were living on Euclid Avenue in North Berkeley, just above Buena Vista Way. She wrote that it “was a hot, dry day. At mid-morning the wind blew heavily from inland ... while the big tea-colored hills of Berkeley appeared to rise and float ... It was between noon and one o’clock that we became aware of the scent of smoke coming from the eucalyptus trees on the hills above us.” To the reader it seems as though she and her mother took an agonizingly long time to shake themselves free from the rhythm of their ordinary, daily routine.  

When they finally fled downhill to the relative safety of Shattuck Avenue they looked back in a state of shock at the unbelievable: “... the increasing smoke. Only smoke. No flames could as yet be seen. Up there, hidden in turmoil and destruction, our home was burning. Up there, deep in smoke and terrible heat, our home was being consumed, and only just now we had walked out the front door and in no time at all the house was burning and all our possessions were burning and the smoke rose thickly in huge malign puffs.” 

As she tells of the fire she also gives us a memorable portrait of her mother. Mary Flanner, her daughter says, was an actress, “a religious woman whose true vocation was the theater.” On stage she gave “touching and poetic performances of Deirdre and Kathleen ni Houlihan” and other heroines in the repertory of the day. But in her daughter’s eyes, none of these equalled her display of conscience-stricken grief when she was seized by the obsessive thought that she might somehow have started the fire: “It was drama, but the drama of truth uncontrived, and in it life and art met and no one could have told the difference.” 

Hildegarde Flanner’s account of the fire is self-effacing but she is firmly present in it. She says next to nothing about herself. She seems to be a young woman, twenty something, who arrived in Berkeley some time before the fire and vanished afterward. Not a word suggests she was already a well-known poet, with two books to her credit, publishing regularly in The Nation, The New Republic and Poetry. In 1923 her expatriate sister wrote that she was known in Paris “as Hildegarde Flanner’s sister.”  


Early life 

June Hildegarde Flanner Monhoff, to give her full name, was born in Indianapolis, Indiana, in 1899, the youngest child in a prosperous upper middle-class family. At the time of her birth, her sister Janet was 7 and her sister Marie was 12. Frank Flanner, her father, was a successful businessman, and her mother gave recitals of poetry and dramatic readings at women’s clubs throughout the Midwest and the South. 

“We were not rich, and we were not poor,” Hilldegarde told Brenda Wineapple, her sister’s biographer, “and we did not lead dull lives.” The Flanners appeared to be happy and deeply rooted in their community. 

All this changed in 1912, when Frank Flanner committed suicide. The circumstances remain unexplained to this day, but he seems to have been suffering from a deep, pathological depression, a condition not understood or even recognized then. He left his mystified, desolated widow and children a fortune of more than $100,000. 

Within a few years Marie went to live in New York, where she became a piano teacher. Janet made her way to Paris and became famous writing for The New Yorker under the pseudonym “Genet.” Paris Was Yesterday: 1925-1939 is a captivating selection from her journalism. Janet’s literary fame eventually surpassed Hildegarde’s. 

As the youngest child, Hildegarde was expected to look after her mother. In 1915 they explored California together, visiting Pasadena, San Francisco and Berkeley. They liked what they saw, and Hildegarde enrolled at the University in Berkeley, studying poetry with Witter Bynner. And she met Frederick Monhoff.  


Southern California  

After the fire, she and her mother moved to Altadena, a suburb of Pasadena, in the Sierra Madre mountains. Frederick Monhoff also came south, and Hildegarde married him in 1926. An artist and an architect, he taught for more than twenty years at the Otis Art Institute, became the Principal Architect for Design for Los Angeles County, and illustrated her books. Like Berkeley, Altadena was subject to wildfires, and she has recalled how, “More than once, when wind brought the fire into the outskirts of our community and we were less than a mile from flying embers, my husband spent the night packing two cars with what he decided was most valuable among his collection of architectural designs, books, Chinese scrolls, Japanese prints and Navajo rugs. Onto this pile I always added his own etchings and paintings, which he characteristically delayed in gathering...” 

After a life-time of witnessisng wildfires Hildegarde Flanner concluded that, “People who come to California to live with the exhilarating joys of scenery and climate must learn to pay for the privilege, faithfully and painfullly.” 

During these years, according to Dana Goioa, she “became the central poet in Pasadena’s thriving artistic community, writing as a dismayed witness to urban sprawl and environmental threats.” In 1962, when her husband retired, they moved north to the Napa Valley. Part of their motivation was shared anger at the pillaging of Southern Callifornia by developers.  


Northern California 

In Napa Valley, where she lived for the next 25 years, she and her husband continued their environmental activism and she continued to write. In all, she published twelve volumes of poetry and four collections of essays. Poems: Collected and Selected is a selection of her work she made near the end of her life. The essays in Brief Cherishing tell the story of her life with Frederick Monhoff. He died in 1975, and she passed away in 1987, at 87 years of age.  



Hildegarde Flanner is one of the outstanding poets of the California landscape. (No doubt more than one developer called her “a tree hugger.”) Her evident love of the land has, however, promoted a narrow view of her work. She was a deeply humanistic writer who thought and felt seriously about issues of concern to all of us. Her language—always the measure of a poet—is as euphonious as Ina Coolbrith’s, but she writes with wit and humor foreign to the older poet. Flanner’s talent is fully on display in “One Dark Night” (see below). 



Her essays provide use with wonderful pieces about the people and places she loved, as well as the ones she didn’t. “The Place of a Sequin” gives us a glimpse of her childhood in Indianapolis. “Wildfire” and “Roots and Hedges” share the early years of her life in California. 

Of “A Brief Cherishing,” Janet Lewis wrote, “It is a vivid evocation of some of the best years of a long and deeply happy marriage, the story of a great love, and a great experience of living on the loved earth ... a clear and tender and witty vision of life perceived, fortunately remembered and recalled for us.” 

Her years of widowhood are evoked unsentimentally in “The Chronicle of Zoe,” the story of a young friend of hers and their efforts to protect land in the Napa Valley.  




Jess Dooley’s dog and Ralph’s old Duchess 

Have booed the hoodlums off our vineyard hill. 

Oppossums and raccoons and skunks have slid away 

And two fine dogs lie down upon tranquility, 

Full of the best ill-will... 

On a dark night perhaps like this 

There was a dingy shed made beautiful 

By a smack of radiance  

And silver of fresh fallen clover hay, 

But here at home, dear one, we say 

To Jess’s dog and Ralph’s old Duchess, Dogs, alas, 

The times are gnawed clean out of chance 

For a second savior to be born... 

And as we hear the tread of turmoil toward us 

We can only try to do 

Whatever it is that we do best, 

And in a dark night of the soul’s inconsequence 

Humbly to make love, 

Boldly to make sense. 

Dogs, amen.