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920 O'Farrell Street: A Jewish Girlhood in Old San Franciscoby Harriet Lane Levy
Synopses & Reviews
A rare portrait of Victorian San Francisco Harriet Lane Levy (1867-1950) left us, in her memoirs of childhood, a rare account of the life and manners of an upper-middle-class San Francisco Jewish family of the late 1800s. Without exaggeration or sentimentality, but with affectionate detail, she writes of her home at 920 O'Farrell Street--and the people in and around it. Life for Levy was disciplined by the dictates of Jewish orthodoxy and a stern, exacting mother. Through her vibrant reminiscences, we see her lively personality, the somberness of her life at home, and the strictures of social propriety that enveloped her family. Hers was a world of parlors and sitting rooms, maids and cooks, family intrigue and neighborhood affections. Instead of a quiet, comfortable, almost ritualistically bourgeois adulthood, Levy went on from 920 O'Farrell to lead a courageous and unconventional life. She attended the University of California at Berkeley at a time when few women went to college and, along with Jack London and Frank Norris, wrote for The Wave, a literary journal. She then moved to Paris with Alice B. Toklas and became an intimate of Picasso, Matisse, Gertrude Stein, and other figures of the Parisian modern art movement.
The girlhood memoir of Harriet Lane Levy, friend and neighbor of Alice B. Toklas, provides an intimate and detailed glimpse into San Francisco's Victorian past.
Originally published in 1937 in the later years of her extraordinary life, Harriet Lane Levy's memoirs of her childhood in San Francisco during the late 1800s give us a rare view into the traditional life and manners of an upper-middle-class Jewish family of the era.
With sly wit and a writing style critics compared to Jane Austen's, Levy vividly portrays an often stifling world of parlors and sitting rooms, maids and cooks, family intrigue and neighborhood pretensions, eased by the warmth of family affections and Levy's own independent spirit.
In 1906, Harriet Levy was talked into moving to Paris by her friend Alice B. Toklas and suddenly found herself immersed in a strange world peopled by artists who spoke a language she could not understand--a colorful world that she could only remotely observe in black and white.
Paris Portraits is a short masterpiece. This sparkling manuscript, long hidden in the archives of the University of California's Bancroft Library, brings to life a vibrant and mythic time and place. Through Harriet's eyes, we circulate among the artists and patrons in the salons of Gertrude and Sarah Stein, overhear conversations between the up-and-coming Matisse and his students, and see Gertrude Stein's reaction when she learns of Picasso putting his hand on Toklas's knee. We're present when, while reading the poetry of Tagore, Harriet looks up and for the first time, sees really sees and understands with the heart what Matisse is doing.
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