FIFTY MILES NORTH of San Francisco, in the small town of Glen Ellen, lies the Wolf House. “We are heading up to Glen Ellen for a long weekend because there is this nice bed and breakfast my in-laws raved about,” Campo Santo’s Jane Ng told me about her plans for the summer. “The Wolf House is basically the only noteworthy thing in that super cute tiny town apparently.”
The Wolf House was gutted by fire in the summer of 1913, days before its owners, the American author Jack London and his wife Charmian, were to move in. London died three years later, the desecration of his dream home having extinguished something vital inside him. The truth behind the fire was never revealed in his lifetime.
In his life, Jack London had been homeless on the streets of San Francisco, incarcerated, a pilgrim on the Klondike Gold Rush and a war correspondent. But he was best known as a writer of adventure fiction. Notably, he wrote the novels Call of the Wild, The Sea Wolf and White Fang, but, all told, he produced over 21 novels, three memoirs, three plays, over a hundred short stories and an abundance of poetry, non-fiction and essays.
Often these were stories about wolves. London loved wolves, and dogs, and dogs who yearn to be wolves. Call of the Wild is written from the perspective of a domesticated dog cast into the Alaskan wilderness, who reconnects with his savage ancestry and comes to lead a wolf pack. White Fang tells of a wolf-dog entering civilisation. Bátard chronicles the hateful relationship between a wolf-dog and his abusive owner that ends in murder-suicide, and was published in a 1904 issue of Cosmopolitan. “You write so many books about wolves, we should call you the Wolf,” a friend of London’s once told him, demonstrating the least amount of imagination ever put into a nickname.
The Wolf had better luck with books than he did with houses. Years before Wolf House was in the picture, an attempt at building a barn went poorly, as London recalled in a 1906 essay. “The man who was a liar made beautiful stone walls. I used to stand alongside of them and love them. I caressed their massive strength with my hands. I thought about them in bed, before I went to sleep. And they were lies.
“They were beautiful, but they were not useful. Construction and decoration had been divorced. The walls were all decoration. They hadn't any construction in them. ‘As God lets Satan live,’ I let that lying man live, but—I have built new walls from the foundation up.”
Wolf House would be different. The 26-room mansion was under construction for three years in London’s 1200-acre Sonoma Valley ranch (which is like 120,000 acres in today’s acres) and meticulously designed by London to be beautiful and utile. It sported a sleeping tower, a grand library for London’s 15,000 books, a piano room for Charmian (or ‘Mate-Woman,’ her pet name) and the very best in modern amenities: electric lighting, refrigeration, vacuum cleaning, a reflecting pool, whatever a ‘milk room’ is. And its sturdy walls were made from stone and volcanic rock, built upon a concrete, earthquake-proof platform. “It will be a house of air and sunshine and laughter,” London resolved. “These three cannot be divorced. Laughter without air and sunshine becomes morbid, decadent, demoniac.
“It will be a usable house and a beautiful house,” he’d said, “...or else I’ll burn it down.”
On August 22, 1913, the interior of Wolf House mysteriously caught fire. The Londons were on the ranch at the time, half a mile away, but by the time they were reached the house was beyond saving. On horseback, London watched the Spanish tile roof collapse into the blaze and the flames reach up toward a red sky.
“The razing of his house killed something in Jack,” wrote Charmian, “and he never ceased to feel the tragic inner sense of loss.” London vowed to rebuild, but the insurance payout from the fire wasn’t nearly enough and he died three years later. He was 40. Wolf House was never restored.
SUSPECT #1: FRENCH FRANK
Arson was considered a possibility – but who would dare torch the dream mansion of a popular writer? Well, London was not always such.
London grew up borderline impoverished, and as a child he worked twelve-, eighteen- hour days in a cannery, before packing it in at thirteen to become an oyster pirate. He bought a sloop, the Razzle Dazzle, from a grizzled 50-year-old oyster pirate named French Frank, and made love to French Frank’s girlfriend Mamie upon its deck. Within months, London was known as ‘Prince of the Oyster Pirates,’ with Mamie his adoring Queen – but he would betray his friends by leaving the pirate game and joining the California Fish Patrol, which hunted oyster pirates. After this he enrolled in high school.
French Frank resented the teenaged London for reasons that are fairly clear. He even tried to murder London once, ramming the Razzle Dazzle with his own pirate sloop in a pique of cuckolded rage. London later claimed that he kept French Frank at bay with shotgun fire while he steered the Razzle Dazzle with his feet, which can’t possibly be true. In any case: motive.
SUSPECT #2: THEODORE ROOSEVELT
Life in 1907 was good for Jack London. He was rich, he was in a loving marriage with the sexually adventurous Mate-Woman, he had bought a ranch in Sonoma Valley where he was planning his dream house, and was sailing the world on the Snark, a yacht he built and paid for, and all the while a new enemy lurked in wait.
Although London’s stories of the wild were fiction, truthfulness was as important to him there as it was in house walls. London’s animal books weren’t just about animals. They were about getting inside the minds of animals, and representing them truly. London ￼portrayed dogs and wolves as he believed them to be: not mindless automatons driven solely by instinct, but wild creatures capable of reason, foresight, cunning, and some basic version of what we know as human thought.
London was contemptuous of nature and fiction writers who portrayed animals with sentiment and without regard to realism. Writers who wanted to portray animals with human characteristics, individual personalities, and draw them with sympathy, romance and nobility. He thought of these writers as nature fakers. Nature fakers. Real pieces of shit. Not London: he was around dogs all his life, and held his writing to be accurate and truthful to the dog experience. But not everyone agreed.
The President of the United States couldn’t stand Jack London. To Theodore Roosevelt, London was the real nature faker: a writer who feigned towards realism and justified his implausible tales of adventure with specious scientific observation. One evening around a log fire outside the White House, Roosevelt, himself an esteemed naturalist and hunter, shared this expert opinion with his friend Edward Clark. Clark, a journalist, suggested that they publish the President’s thoughts.
“I don’t believe in a minute,” said Roosevelt in the 1907 article that followed, “that [these writers who] claim attention as realists because of their animal stories, have succeeded in learning the real secrets of the wilderness... [They] may have been in the wilds, but they don’t know the wilds. They either have not seen at all, or they have seen superficially. Nature writing with them is no labor of love. Their readers in the main, persons who have never lived apart from the paved street, take the wildest flight of the imagination of these ‘realists’ as an inspired word from the gospel of nature. It is a false teaching.”
Roosevelt specifically called out London for the novel White Fang: “London describes a great wolf-dog being torn in pieces by a lucivee, a northern lynx. This is about as sensible as to describe a tom cat tearing in pieces a thirty-pound bull terrier. Nobody who really knew anything about either... would write such nonsense.”
As a diatribe from a sitting president against a popular fiction writer, Roosevelt’s article was well covered by the press. It turned out, however, that the President had gotten the facts of London’s story wrong. In White Fang, London’s wolf-dog had in fact destroyed the lynx. London pointed this out in an essay for Collier’s, where he labelled the President a “homocentric amateur.”
Roosevelt replied to the editor of Collier’s to nitpick. “Get his book White Fang to which I am about to refer, and open it at the pages I shall mention, comparing them with my article on the page I have given you, and with his article in Collier’s,” he began, in the most boring thing ever written by a US president, before haughtily declaring himself above the debate. “I have not the slightest intention of entering into a controversy on this subject with London. I would as soon think of discussing seriously with him any social or political reform.”
London emerged from the nature fakers controversy unscathed, probably because the public never cared at all. Roosevelt had been foiled this time, but would he let it pass?
SUSPECT #3: ROLLO
London’s trial for nature fakery meant his dog bonafides were called into question, and obviously this couldn’t stand. London knew dogs, and he proved it in his response to Roosevelt by telling the world about a dog named Rollo, and the special history they shared.
Rollo was London’s pup when the writer was a young lad of nine. “Rollo and I did a great deal of rough romping,” London recalled. “He nipped my legs, arms, and hands, often so hard that I yelled, while I rolled him and tumbled him and dragged him about, often so strenuously as to make him yelp. In the course of the play many variations arose.”
London began to prank the dog. The boy would loudly pretend to greet a school friend or a bill collector, and at the prospect of playing with someone new, Rollo would drop what he was doing and race to find this non-existent person. “The laugh was on him, and he knew it, and I gave it to him, too.”
Eventually Rollo wised up and ceased to fall for the boy London’s tricks. London perceived how the dog had learned and changed its behaviour, and used this to justify his later portrayals of canines as intelligent and adaptive. But Rollo hated to be laughed at. And if he could learn this... what else could he learn to do?
WHO DID IT
If Rollo, Theodore Roosevelt or French Frank – acting either alone or together – played any part in the burning of Wolf House, it was never proven. Fittingly, perhaps, after surviving multiple attempts to destroy his life and career, the thing that finally broke Jack London was the thing he respected the most: Nature.
Eventually, the fire was put down to spontaneous combustion. It was generally agreed, and affirmed by a 1995 forensic investigation, that one of the Wolf House workmen idly threw an oily rag in the wrong part of the house, and a fire somehow resulted.
The ruin of Wolf House still stands today, as part of the Jack London State Historic Park in Glen Ellen. I got in touch with the volunteer docents at the Park, who told me how it has changed since London’s time. “The house location itself, now deep within a redwood forest, has a tranquility and majesty to it that almost has a spiritual feel,” wrote Rich and Susan Rodkin, who happen to be Jake Rodkin’s parents. “Perhaps the loss of such a grand, magnificent structure is a metaphor for the early and tragic death of indisputably one of the all-time great American authors.”
London’s last years on the ranch were not remarkable. He dedicated this time, somewhat half-heartedly, to the rebuilding of Wolf House, but he had neither the money nor the respect of his workers. They viewed him as an alcoholic dilettante and bad manager, and Wolf House as a vanity project. London died in 1916, on a porch, with dysentery, uremia, alcohol and morphine all in his system, and Wolf House still and forever ruined. “The main hurt comes from the wanton despoiling of so much beauty,” as he’d once said.
Jane Ng stood in the ruins of Wolf House. Here, she had learned of Jack London’s attempt to grow spineless cacti to feed his cattle; that he planted 80,000 eucalyptus trees without knowing that their wood was useless; and that upon his ranch he presided over something called a ‘pig palace.’ It seems hard to look at Wolf House and not think of failure. But, as Jane could testify, if nothing else, the walls still stand. The stone walls are sturdy and thick in their construction and these walls, Jane thought, are no lies.