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©2023 Dispatches Media
January 1-6

excerpts from “Dear California”

David Kipen
December 19, 2023
Mount San Antonio, William Wendt, 1912. Dallas Museum of Art

As a loyal Dispatches fan throughout its four-issue existence, I’m honored to share this small taste of what awaits readers of my new book, Dear California: The Golden State in Diaries and Letters. It tries to tell the story of our state through correspondence, journals and other occasional writings never originally intended for publication. The catch: I’ve organized Dear California calendrically, in chronological order day by day, instead of year by year.

For example, on New Years’ Day alone, we see the Donner Party freezing to death at one end of the state while Commodore Stockton sews up the Mexican-American War at the other. On the same date in 1969, a doomed young GI writes home from Camp Pendleton. Two years later, his president complains to H.R. Haldeman about the Stanford football captain posing for pictures with topless dancers. These juxtapositions create a kind of flipbook effect, collapsing the centuries as patterns emerge and recur across time and place.

My previous book, Dear Los Angeles, attempted to pull off the same trick for L.A. Now, modestly, I think of Dear California as my Ulysses: The protagonist of the earlier book has returned as a supporting character in a more ambitious sequel. And if you think James Joyce has no place in a book about California, by all means pick up a copy and check out the third entry for May 4….



…on January 1, 1795… pagan parents presented a child, which was three months old… The parents were from the rancheria of Cajatse…



We pray the God of mercy to deliver us from our present Calamity if it be his Holy will Amen. Commenc’d Snowing last night… sun peeps out at times provisions getting scant…

—PATRICK BREEN, Donner Party diarist


…[Commodore Stockton] with his staff passed the night at the Ranch—and report says had a fine supper…

—JOHN S. GRIFFIN, MD, Mexican-American War surgeon


This indenture made the first Day of January [italics mine] in the year of our Lord One thousand Eight hundred and fourty eight between Pulpuli and Gesu, Chiefs. Colule and Sole, Alcaldes of the Yalesumney tribe… and John A. Sutter and James W. Marshall…

the Yalesumney tribe… doth rent and lease unto Sutter and Marshall the following described track of Land for the term of twenty years, beginning at the mouth of a small creek known by the Indian name of Pumpumul where said creek empties into the south branch of the American fork… [and] grant to the said Sutter and Marshall… the right to erect a saw mill… [and] open such mines and work the same as the said aforsaid tract of land may contain…

the said Sutter & Marshall doth bind themselves… to pay on the first day of January each year one hundred and fifty dollars [and] to give quiet and peaceable possession of the aforesaid premises unto the said Pulpuli, Gesu, Colule and Sole their heirs and assigns[,] they paying the said Sutter and Marshall a reasonable price for the mill…

In witness whereof the said parties of the first and second part set their names and seals. Done this the fourth day of February [italics mine] in the year of our Lord one thousand Eight hundred and fourty eight…

Done in the presence and with my aprobation

—JOHANN AUGUSTUS SUTTER, Sub-Indian Agent, backdating his lease on the gold discovery site


New Year’s day was celebrated here as usual: noisy crowd at Van Ness and Fillmore, shouting, men in a state of joy, strangers wishing each other Happy New Year and giving each other long, warm handshakes. Everybody has had a good dinner, everybody is happy, but as it is San Francisco, there has to be, from time to time, some little scuffle with pistol shots.

Just nine months since everything burned and they dance to a different tune! San Franciscans are built of galvanized iron, or something just as hard but more elastic…

—linguist, writer JAIME DE ANGULO


…saw Song of Bernadette—and Otto stayed the night here. Hope next year will be as nice.

—actress KAY FRANCIS


Dear Mom, Dad, Scot & Paul

Hi again hope you had a Happy New Year. I got to stay here on base, what fun. I figure if I can’t drink I won’t celebrate the New Year that’s all there is to it…

Say Paul if its okay with you people could you come down and get me out of here this Saturday…

—PRIVATE JAMES CHARLES VANDEVENTER at boot camp in San Diego, killed five months later in Quang Tri


…[President Nixon] was very upset by a report in the sports section today that the Stanford football team was running around their hotel in sandals and shorts and that their quarterback had enjoyed posing for pictures with the topless dancers from San Francisco. The story was trying to make them out as being good guys because of this, and sneering at Ohio State as squares because they were wearing neckties and blazers. The P said for the first time he was going to root for the Midwest team in the Rose Bowl.

—H. R. HALDEMAN, White House chief of staff


…I have written an awful lot about death—at times I have thought I must be getting monotonous, but then I think of Emily D who seemed to write ONLY well about death, so I suppose it’s a good large subject, about which there’s an awful lot to be said. I have rather few friends left, but a greatly increased wardrobe. That seems to be the legacy of AIDS, the survivors do end up with heaps of shirts!

…I shall be 60 in a year and a half! Amazing, I think. Not that I look any younger than I am. I’m just so surprised that I’m almost there already. The years do flash by like a strobe light don’t they…




We were to take Hearst’s special train, leaving Los Angeles at eight o’clock in the evening…

Soon we passed herds of buffalo, striped zebra, deer and antelope, exotic birds that looked like white ostriches. Abruptly, in the distance, at the top of a tree-spotted mountain, we caught sight of a vast, sparkling white castle in Spain. It was right out of a fairy story. ‘Gosh,’ I said…

Indoors, the mob crowded the assembly-room and waited for midnight. We drank champagne, tried to be hilarious, exchanged kisses all round. But the party was so large that many of the guests remained strangers one to the other. Bells ringing, sirens going off and a whining moan in the distance announced that the New Year was in. Marion [Davies] had sudden spurts of energy, did a Charleston, shook her hands frenziedly, then hurried out of the room to consult with Hearst. Gradually, all hopes of an orgy disappeared. We dwindled to bed.

—couturier CECIL BEATON


Tor House. Carmel. California

[Our son] Garth got down from the gold mine where he is in charge of the ore reduction mill,—70 mi up in the mts. above Bakersfield—down a terrific mt. road in a big truck. He is still held there by deep snow & doesnt know when he can get up again with his load of dynamite & drums of gasoline. You can imagine how little we like his slithering over these roads with such a load…

We’ve had much excitement here, blackouts & airplanes, supposedly enemy ones, a partial evacuation, much organization of citizen defense etc. People behaved very well mostly, a few hysterical ones had to be soothed…

—writer UNA KUSTER JEFFERS, to publisher Bennett Cerf



Passing the winter on the island of La Posesión [San Miguel Island], on the 3d of the month of January, 1543, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo… departed from this life, as the result of a fall which he suffered on said island when they were there before, from which he broke an arm near the shoulder. He left as captain the chief pilot, who was one Bartolomé Ferrelo, a native of the Levant…




I have been looking over my journal that I keep for the year past and I find that there have been forty one births, eleven marriages and 19 deaths in town. The lowest reading of the thermometer was on January 31st, 10o above zero; the highest, August 3d, 102o above…

I hope the War will be prosecuted and I am willing to do my part toward prosecuting it, to the end, till the South is conquered, annihilated, made a desert of, if need be. I would accept no terms of peace but unconditional surrender—come back into the Union as you are without any compromise or yielding on the part of the free States, if it takes five years to do it. I want the programme carried out—them’s my sentiments and that is the platform of the Union Party in California.

—forty-niner FRANKLIN A. BUCK



It is precisely a week ago that we suffered a fright with Miguelito. He was crossing the street nearby when he was hit by a car. Even though it was not serious, it wasn’t without consequences, for the car passed over him and dragged him a good stretch. It seems that perhaps he will come out of it with only slight bruises and contusions that have kept him in bed for a couple of days. He now gets around with a bit of a limp, somewhat like don Cuco.

Lola did go through a terrible ordeal. Since I wasn’t there when it all happened, she went out to see what was going on and there she found only his shoes and was told that her boy had been carried away dead and had been taken to the hospital. And so she returned with his shoes in hand and with her heart in pieces. We immediately telephoned to find out which hospital they had taken him to so we could go see him when a man arrived with him very much alive…

—DOLORES VENEGAS, to family in Mexico


I wish I could see you. It has been many years since we saw each other. We are very happy because dad has a store, and… when I was going to buy tortillas I was struck by a car that dragged me about 10 blocks. My dad is thinking how we can return and be together again with my aunt Anita and with all of you.

—JOSÉ MIGUEL VENEGAS, to family in Mexico


Carmel is not so much an art colony as it is a work of art. The secret of its charm can be summarized briefly: the land is lovely. Its effects are startling— and unforgettable…

The present fascination of Carmel owes much to the presence of Robinson Jeffers… His Carmel “retreat” is now a thing of the past. Neighbors crowd in about Tor House, and a huge highway is crawling north along the coast and will some day pass within a stone’s throw of his door. Los Angeles “realtors” are already at Cambria, a few miles down the coast, and are even now gazing on Carmel like the lady feasting her eyes on the Roan Stallion. It is unforgettable. Carmel has become a splendid experience in the lives of many western artists and they will view its desecration with unspeakable horror.




The method which the fathers observe in the conversion is not to oblige anyone to become a Christian, admitting only those who voluntarily offer themselves, and this they do in the following manner: Since these Indians are accustomed to live in the fields and the hills like beasts, the fathers require that if they wish to be Christians they shall no longer go to the forest, but must live in the mission, and if they leave the Ranchería, as they call the little village of huts and houses of the Indians, they will go to seek them and will punish them. With this they begin to catechize the heathen who voluntarily come, teaching them to make the sign of the cross and other things necessary, and if they persevere in the catechism for two or three months and in the same frame of mind, when they are instructed they proceed to baptise them.

If any Indian wishes to go to the mountain to see his relatives or to hunt acorns, they give him permission for a specified number of days. As a rule they do not fail to return, and sometimes they come bringing some heathen relative, who remains for the catechism, either through the example of the others or attracted by the pozole, which they like better than their herbs and the foods of the mountain; and so these Indians are usually caught by the mouth.



At around four, the doorbell rang. It was two neatly dressed Americans about thirty years of age. They said, “There is something we want to ask Aoki.”

…I called Sachiko and told her, “Go get Father from Mr. Onodera’s place.”

Sachiko said, “Okay.” And in her cheerful way as usual, she took off, walking like she was jumping sideways, so I hurriedly ran down the front stone steps and caught up with her and in rapid Japanese told her, “They are FBI. Father is going to be investigated, so keep that in mind.” She said, “What?” And the little girl’s face that was always shining white with health suddenly went pale and turned blue, and with tears in her eyes, she took off running!

After a short while, my husband came home; and with my husband, we sat at a table facing the two Americans.

The two Americans rose slightly and said, “This is who we are.” And they opened their coat and showed us their FBI badges and let loose their first arrow of questions.

—author, internee AOKI HISA



Here in Pasadena it is like Paradise. Always sunshine and clear air, gardens with palms and pepper trees and friendly people who smile at one and ask for autographs.



Dear Miss Manners,

Last April you very kindly agreed to be my etiquette consultant. I need your advice rather urgently. To explain: I’ve just got a FAX machine, and have been sending out lots of letters on it. One of my sisters in England also has FAX (much to my amazement) so naturally I sent her one straight away. I was surprised that she didn’t answer by return—hers came the next day. However, she did say that she was in London when mine arrived, hence delay. Which brings me to the point: What is an answer “by return” in the case of FAX?

For a letter, it’s simple; one should answer if possible by return of post. From California, where I live, to England letters take a minimum of 4 days, often much longer, so one is fairly safe in allowing a week or so before answering. One has had it dinned into one since childhood that if you get a letter from somebody, you should answer within a week—or max. two weeks. Anything later requires an apology, or rather an excuse even if untrue (“awfully sorry for late answer—I just got back from Alaska/Timbuctoo/etc,” depending on lateness).

With FAX, should one answer within the hour? Or even 15 minutes, given the speediness of transmittal?

Perhaps every new technology requires some re-thinking of the correct response. For example, telegrams (which you are probably too young to remember) almost always had bad news; as they were jolly expensive, the answer was simple, such as “Desperately sorry. Mitford,” only 3 words. Or if it was just a broken limb, not a death: “Rotten luck. Mitford.” Again, only 3 words; ample, at a shilling a word.

Eagerly awaiting your response. It’s now about 1:30 p.m., Wednesday. I’m sitting by my FAX machine.

—author, journalist, activist JESSICA MITFORD


We did see wild swans on Rte. 20 from Grass Valley to Marysville. Jackie said we would. Their heads were tucked under their wings and they were floating in the rice paddies near Marysville. It was an easier ride than the route north, when I almost turned around and went home. White-knuckled on the I-5 in pouring rain, arguing with Lloyd about how to use the car’s heating system…

Today is Epiphany, day of Claire’s birth. We met her just-birthed on the same trip north when we last saw Uncle Herb, then 103. The oldest and the youngest. Herb was of the last survivors of the SF Earthquake. His mother carried him down the stairs outside. He was three. Claire is 13 and first-born of a new generation…

Bumped into Janet Fitch in front of Gingergrass, the Vietnamese noodle place…


Excerpted from Dear California: The Golden State in Diaries and Letters edited by David Kipen, published by Redwood Press, ©2023 by David Kipen. All Rights Reserved.

David Kipen, a California native, has worked as the San Francisco Chronicle‘s book editor/critic, Director of Literature at the NEA, and, lately, L.A. Times critic at large and founder-director of the Libros Schmibros Lending Library. Previous books include Dear Los Angeles and four reissued WPA Guides. His California-set historical paranoid conspiracy thriller, The Anniversarist, is forthcoming. Really.