Women’s History Month guest, Jill Zeller

I‘m terribly guilty this month of introducing my guests by how long I’ve known them. I blame the series of crises: it makes me chronicle my life. Jill is someone who challenges that chronicling. Look at her website . Jill belongs in a group of writers that can be summed up by a few keywords and those keywords play differently for each of us. This means that I never remember when I first met Jill online, much less when I first read her work. It’s as if she’s always been welcome. Gillian

The Financier from Mendocino, by Jill Zeller

From the Kelley House garden, I can see south along the California coast. The landscape is a Mandelbrot set of curves, indents, points and zigzags breaking up a vast openness called the Pacific Ocean. Mendocino, 154 miles north of San Francisco, isn’t easy to get to. You can fly here, if you can afford a private plane. You can drive here, if you don’t mind miles of hairpin curves choked with RVs. There’s a bus or two: Greyhound comes through, or you can take a three-hour shuttle from the Santa Rosa airport.

In 1850, until a clipper from China was brought up on the rocks, only Pomos understood the forested, rocky landscape as they came down from warm eastward valleys in search of shell fish.

In 1850, California was overrun with gold fever. Prospectors needed housing. The men who came to the Mendocino bluffs looking for the shipwrecked clipper found trees. Big ones. Thousands of them. Logging began.

Hundreds of tiny towns appeared. Railroads, logging roads, shipping crowded onto and around the hilly, canyoned, rocky land. The Kelleys were among them. They got rich from the logs. They built a fine house on a northside bluff where Big River meets the sea.

Canadian William Henry Kelley came to California to find gold, but recognized a more lucrative method of getting rich: lumber. He married his Canadian wife, set up shop in Mendocino, and together Eliza Lee Owen and he produced four children.

Elise Abigail Kelley, number 3, was born in 1866.

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A life-trail brought Elise Kelley into my mind for this blog. Life-trails are, to me, turns in the road you think you’re on. They’re pleasant or terrifying, depending on circumstance. Maybe I’ve always had undiagnosed ADHD, but I am easily distracted by tangents. A small bit of information, like the photograph of a determined, steely-eyed little girl (circa 1875) in the Kelley House Museum, changed my direction. I had to see where the trail goes.

This trail brought me to Elise Kelley Drexler, San Francisco real estate mogul and philanthropist, and for many decades of the early 20th century the richest widow in the City. The Kelley girls, Daisy (eldest) and Elise were educated—they both attended college. They both had European tours.

They both married wealthy men.

Elise, however, differed from her sister in important ways. She decamped from Mendocino early on, moving as a single girl to San Francisco to live with her aunt. There, she was “brought out”, became the subject of the society pages, and began, on her own, to feed her interest in the business of real estate. Elise liked the high life, the excitement of the City, and the fun of playing with money. She must have seemed a curiosity to SF’s wealthy society of Crockers, Stanfords and Huntingtons. When she chose to marry, at 27, she decided it should be to Louis Philippe Drexler, 18 years her senior and a millionaire. She only had to put up with him for six years before he died in 1899.

Philippe, in his will, tried to hogtie Elise’s inheritance by preventing her from selling certain properties. Elise, determined to not allow to her real estate games to be undermined, contested the will and won.

She had no children. She never remarried. Maybe she didn’t have time for husbands and children. She continued her business, funding rebuilding after the 1906 earthquake while living in her Julia Morgan-designed estate in Woodside, an exclusive Pennisula town, where she entertained her many nieces and nephews.

There are great gaps in Elise’s bio. But having just a taste of her makes me think of the meal one could make of writing a novel loosely based on her life. At some point she left behind her Woodside retreat and moved back into the City, to a house on Pacific Heights where she lived until she died in 1951 at the age of 87. The Kelley House archival records include the cryptic remark that she disliked her fancy San Francisco digs until the day she died. I wonder why. The evidence might be found in letters to her sister Daisy, but Elise could have lived anywhere she wanted. Who can explain the personal perversity of a woman with freedom and means deciding to no longer exercise them? Had all the fun gone out of her life? Did she become a recluse? Was she chronically ill?

Short of going back to Mendocino (no matter how hard it is to get to, I’ve managed it dozens of time since I was 9 years-old) to read Elise’s letters, I can only speculate and save those ideas for the book. It seems more fun to just guess.

A few delicious tangents:

Elise Kelley’s scrapbook contains a sketch of John F. Wheeler, a convicted felon who learned dentistry in San Quentin, moved to Mendocino to practice, and plotted to rob the Sheriff as he left the coast for Ukiah with $15,000 of the county’s tax money. This portraiture seems a macabre artistic project for a cultured young lady. Wheeler was convicted of the murders of two of the Sheriff’s posse. Using vials from a stash of chloral hydrate hidden in his coat, he killed himself in the Ukiah jail.

The Drexler house in Woodside was sold to a family who offered occasional tours of the Julia Morgan home. After changing hands several times, it was purchased by Oracle founder Larry Ellison. Like many of his ilk, including Steve Jobs, he didn’t like it much and wanted to tear it down. Woodside preservation groups forced him to dismantle it and distribute these sections. Where they went and who bought them I was unable to find out.

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