Lady photographer and Oriental girl capture San Francisco’s heart.
There’s a picture of us that ran in the paper in 1918. In it we’re standing side by side, me with my Graflex around my neck and Caroline with a smile that dares you to look elsewhere. She’s wearing a tunic with long, bell-shaped sleeves and a thick satin strap cinched at her waist. It’s a kind of costume, and so is my outfit: flowy crushed-velvet dress, stacks of silver bangles, a long paisley scarf. We both have bobbed hair, except that mine’s a mass of dark-blond curls and hers is black and sleek. There’s a glint in Caroline’s kohl-rimmed eyes, but it’s a black-and-white picture, so you can’t see their color, which was the color of cut glass.
Whenever I saw this picture in the years that followed, I was immediately transported back to our studio at 540 Sutter Street in San Francisco—or 540, as we’d called it. As if it was still just the two of us, Caroline and me, so lit up with hope and so at home. We’d both gone so long thinking we had no place in the world that we couldn’t imagine belonging to anything but each other. By the time that picture was taken, the studio had become our home, the home we built through grit and sheer will. We worked eighteen-hour days, Monday to Saturday. Exhausted as we always were, we loved it, every minute of it, but if there was a time we loved more than any other, it was those nights when our friends streamed down from Monkey Block. Everybody brought everybody, and 540 filled with music and dancing and brilliant talk.
Within two years all that ended and I was on my own again.
After the scandal broke and Caroline disappeared, I’d see the whole story come into focus in a single frame. What happened. What I could never undo. I’d see Caroline sitting on the floor, knees pulled up to her chin, head bowed. I’d see her lifting her eyes and fixing me with a distant, unblinking gaze. I’d see the shadow on her cheek that would deepen to purple by morning.
If only I could have picked up my Graflex, flipped open the lens, and taken a picture, there would have been some kind of proof. But I couldn’t do it. I loved her so much, and in that moment I couldn’t bring myself to capture her pain. Still, the story was in every picture I took afterward, in the ones people talked about and remembered, but also in the ones that were hidden, destroyed, or forgotten. Especially those. It’s the image that never varies or fades, even though I’m the only one who knows it’s there.
To take a truly good picture you have to learn to see, not just look. I once said a camera can teach you that, but the truth is that sometimes it only gets in the way. The realization was born that night. This many years later, it takes me back to San Francisco, to a portrait studio at 540 Sutter Street, to a ravaged darkroom where one story ended and another one began.
The first and most important thing that happened to me when I got to San Francisco was that I learned what it felt like to be alone and penniless, to have no tie to the world but fear, hunger, and need. That’s where it all started for me.
I set out in the spring of 1918. I was nearly twenty-three, eager and restless, with just-bobbed hair. I had all sorts of ideas of who and how and where I wanted to be. I’d scrimped for two years to save the hundred and forty-two dollars folded inside my wallet. Two years of hand-sewn dresses, borrowed books, lunch pails of leftover mackerel or canned beans on stale black bread, but I’d done it. I’d seen my last East Coast winter. Nothing could hold me there any longer.
I sailed from New Jersey in a steamer, traveled five days down to New Orleans in a third-class berth, then another twelve days across the country by train. I’d been saving up to go to Paris, but with the war on there was no chance of that. My plan now was to spend a few weeks in San Francisco, then head south to Mexico. The details fell off from there, but I figured I’d just keep going until my money ran out, and when there was no farther I could go, I’d work out what came next.
I carried my camera in a case that hung to my hips. There’d been little else to keep and even less I cared to hold on to. On my lap sat a battered leather valise I’d picked up in a thrift shop before leaving home. It held a half dozen rolls of fresh film, a pencil and sketchbook, a few days’ change of clothes, a toiletry kit, and a secondhand copy of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s Renascence.
The train was crowded and noisy; the food was terrible and cost too much. For days I was tired and hungry, my body was stiff from trying to sleep upright in my seat, and my bad leg had cramped up, but the moment the conductor lurched through the car calling, “Oakland Station! Next stop Oakland Station!” I sprang to my feet, belted my coat, and gathered my valise.
Someone propped open a window, and a breeze rushed through the cabin. There was a great deal of shuffling and maneuvering around me; people were crowding on one side of the train, craning their necks to catch sight of something outside.
At first I couldn’t make out a thing, but then I edged my way closer to the window and stepped up onto my toes. The bay emerged, splendid and sparkling, the low angle of the sun catching it and setting it aglow. When I squinted hard, I could make out steamer tugs and fishing boats and beyond that a city skyline, clinging to the edge of the earth and struck gold by the afternoon sun.
San Francisco. The Jewel City. Paris of the West. A place where everything—absolutely anything—
could happen, and probably was happening at this very moment. A place you could disappear into if you dared.
Here it was. Here I was.
I’d grown up close to the water, not far from the Hoboken shipyards, but nothing prepared me for that first glimpse of San Francisco in May 1918. Until that moment I didn’t know everything around a city—sky, land, sea—could make it look so small. But even if San Francisco seemed smaller than I’d pictured, it was still a thing of beauty and wonder, what with the bay and deep-green hills encircling it. Also, it wasn’t just beautiful; it was foreign to me in a way Manhattan had once been and wasn’t anymore. No one here knew me, which meant I could be whoever I wanted to be.
When the view disappeared behind factories and rows of clapboard houses, I cracked open my camera case and admired my Graflex, its sleek metal shine, its perfect polished lens. Arnold Genthe had given it to me a few months after I’d started working for him. It was my first camera and by far the best gift anyone had ever given me. “You have an eye, Dorothea,” he’d told me. It always made me smile, remembering that day. Genthe’s eyes dancing as he held the camera out to me. The moment when I took it in my hands, felt its exquisite weight, and understood it was mine.
The train jerked and tilted and stopped. I made my way down the aisle and out onto the platform, half-carried by the crowd. I hurried along as fast as I could, as fast as my limp let me. Soon I was in the streets, heading toward the docks with my bag thumping against my thigh and my heart slamming against my chest. I had on a split skirt that ended at my ankles, a tan mackintosh cinched tightly at my waist, and high-buttoned brown boots. The boots could’ve used a shine, but I was bent on catching the very next ferry out to San Francisco, so that would have to wait for now.
The whole business was over so fast. One minute the ferry was rocking softly, easing into the terminal, and the next minute it bumped hard against the piles, jostling the passengers and knocking us into one another. I stumbled and nearly fell, but then a hand grabbed my waist, its hold warm and firm.
“Careful there, miss,” came a voice from behind me.
I twisted around. The man standing there was handsome and beautifully dressed, with a three-piece suit and a checkered bow tie, blue eyes, and blond hair slick with brilliantine. I felt myself staring. It was rare to see young men nowadays, particularly young men out of uniform. Somehow the war hadn’t claimed him—or hadn’t claimed him yet.
It took me a minute, but I came back to myself, straightening up and lifting my chin. When I thanked him, the man winked and gave me the richest smile in the world.
Well, hello, California, I thought, and felt my cheeks go warm.
Once we disembarked, there was no sign of that young man, but it hardly mattered, not with all the plans ticking through my head. Then, a few steps from the ferry building, I happened on a bakery. Through the window I saw a stack of doughnuts under a glass dome. My stomach gave a twist. The last real meal I’d eaten had been somewhere in Texas. It was only some minutes later, when I’d ordered two doughnuts and a cup of coffee, that I reached into my pocket and discovered that my wallet had disappeared. I reached inside the other pocket, the one where I always kept my watch, but it, too, was empty.
For one wild, dumbstruck moment I stood completely still, heart kicking against my chest, and then it came to me in a slow seep of understanding: That handsome and beautifully dressed man on the ferry was a thief. In what I’d always count as one of the genuine miracles of my life, I still had my camera, but as for my money, it was all—every dollar of it—gone.