On this week’s episode of Now & Then, “Women Journalists and Their Fight to be Heard,” Heather Cox Richardson and Joanne Freeman told the stories of four trailblazing women journalists – political portraitist Anne Royall, war correspondent Martha Gellhorn, White House correspondent Ethel Payne, and truth-telling sportswriter Lisa Olson. Heather and Joanne highlighted how each journalist battled against ridicule and abuse in their quest to chronicle current events. Another influential, pioneering, and largely forgotten journalist was San Francisco’s Frona Eunice Wait, who battled relentlessly to be taken seriously by the male-dominated journalistic community.
Frona Eunice’s early life remains somewhat obscure in the historical record. She was born in 1859 in Woodland, California, a then-tiny community near the state capitol of Sacramento. Her father owned cattle and mines and her mother was a descendant of John Quincy Adams. Wait seldom talked publicly about her early personal life, but records indicate she married the much older John Courtland Wait in Washington state when she was 16.
Wait left her husband some five years later, following the death of her infant son. She moved to the Bay Area, and devoted herself to a career in journalism.
In her own writings, Wait was far more open about her professional quest. In November 1923, Wait, by this time an elder stateswoman on the staff of the then-popular California magazine The Overland Monthly, wrote a brief piece of memoir, “Getting on the Staff,” about her difficult journey to becoming one of the first female staff writers on a San Francisco newspaper.
She started out in the mid-1880s at the Santa Rosa Republican, where she focused on learning the technical skills that could later allow her to demand pay equity with her male counterparts. “Meaning to be thorough and fully intending to demand a man’s salary, I learned to set type, and worked two years at the case,” she wrote in “Getting on the Staff.”
She soon came under the tutelage of Hubert Howe Bancroft, an ethnologist and publishing magnate who was in the midst of orchestrating a 39-volume history of the West. Wait was inspired, and penned her first story for San Francisco’s Morning Call newspaper, a report on a love affair between two Nez Perce indigenous Americans. Wait’s views on indigenous Americans, while a bit obscure and considered progressive at the time, now seem starkly racist.
In January 1887, Wait became a staff journalist at the San Francisco Examiner. She received $5 per week, with bonuses if she got stories printed. “For the first ten days no man would speak to me,” she recounted. Rather than deal with the icy newsroom, she went to the Examiner office in the middle of the night. She described sprinting past the seedy fish and poultry markets en route: “I used to gather up my skirts and run as fast as I could.”
One of Wait’s early tests at the paper was the inaugural ball in Sacramento of California’s new governor, Washington Bartlett. Wait brought an assistant to help her identify attendees, but he got “gloriously drunk.” She instead turned to bribery: “The greased palms of the special police at the door got me the names of all the guests.”
Wait’s article about the inaugural was a grand success, and her male counterparts began to recognize her talent. Just as Wait was settling in at the Examiner, however, she found herself covering a startling act of violence. On February 9th, 1887, the famed soprano Adelina Patti performed at San Francisco’s opera house. After singing the “mad scene,” “Eccola!” from Donizetti’s Lucia de Lamermoor, a bomb exploded under a seat in the balcony.
“In all my varied experience I only got rattled once,” Wait said of her eyewitness experience of the blast. No one was killed, and Dr. James Hodges, a member of the Socialist International Workmen’s Association, seemingly detonated the device in a badly-planned attack on fellow attendee, silver magnate J.C. Flood. Patti, for her part, calmed the audience by singing Sir John Bishop’s then-world-famous song “Home Sweet Home.”
“My news instinct hurried me from out of the upper boxes,” Wait wrote of her reaction to the explosion. “Outside I fairly pulled a dozing driver from his coupe seat, and ordered him to take me to the Examiner office quick.”
That Wait was never rattled was an impressive feat given the sheer power of those she interviewed for the Examiner. During a San Francisco visit, President Benjamin Harrison, for example, confided to Wait, “If I tell the truth about California, my associates will say I am as big a liar as any other Eastern tourist.”
When iconic stage actress Sarah Bernhardt came to San Francisco, Wait brought her to Chinatown, where Bernhardt touched the faces of dazed opium addicts. “I am in love with death,” Bernhardt explained to Wait as a means of explanation.
Wait also distinguished herself for her wide-ranging knowledge of foreign affairs. In the aftermath of the Panjdeh Incident, a standoff between Russia and Britain over the future of Afghanistan, one of Wait’s more senior colleagues interviewed the visiting Russian Consul General. The Examiner’s editor called Wait in to editorialize and contextualize the tensions for the paper.
“If the great unwashed had known the sources of some of the comments on foreign affairs they would have gone up in the air, every prejudiced man among them,” Wait said of her private foreign policy consulting effort. “It will take a long time to make the public understand that a woman can think in terms of world consciousness.”
Wait did not get widespread recognition for her knowledge of Middle Eastern politics, but she dramatically entered the national conversation in early 1893, as a California member of the National Board of Lady Managers for the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Wait raised much of the money for the “California Room” in the Woman’s Building, a redwood-lined space with an ornate imitation cactus, a grizzly bear pelt, and paintings of Californian landmarks like San Francisco’s Cliff House.
In a further effort for the Exposition, Wait initiated a “California Venus” contest. She instructed California women to send her photographs of themselves in crepe cloth or drapery. The woman most resembling Venus de Milo would be carved in marble by a German-born Bay Area sculptor named Rupert Schmid and set on a central pedestal in the California Room.
“Of course the photograph need not be entirely from the nude,” Wait wrote in explaining her vision. “The candidate, when posing for photograph, may wear a drapery of cheesecloth or crepe, which will conceal while yet revealing.”
Many Californians were scandalized by the idea of their wives or daughters sending Wait partially-nude photographs to be immortalized in marble. In early March, the Los Angeles Times editorialized, “We say that the fathers and mothers of modest and virtuous California girls ought to frown down and put an effectual quietus upon this attempt of bastard art to persuade their daughters to do an indelicate and immoral thing.”
The Los Angeles Times also declared, perhaps hyperbolically, that the contest had made Wait more famous than the First Lady: “No woman has been more talked about in the whole United States than she, since her artistic idea was made public—not even excepting Mrs. Cleveland.”
By March 12th, Wait’s contest had generated such publicity that Levy’s Clothing House in Louisville, Kentucky created a competing – potentially tongue-in-cheek – male-focused challenge for the Exposition’s Kentucky Pavilion, modeled after the Belvedere Apollo statue at the Vatican.
The catch: that men had to wear an overcoat purchased at Levy’s in their entry photograph: “Every ‘chappie’ in the Commonwealth, who owns an artistic pair of calves, and every amateur Corbett who is ‘stuck on his shape’ and muscle, is encouraged to enter our contest. We furnish the OVERCOAT; he must do the rest.”
And Ambrose Bierce, the popular Civil War veteran, poet, and short story writer – and an Examiner colleague – penned a scathing poem, “A Competitor,” about Wait’s scheme, arguing that Wait was power-mad and even arguing that she should enter the competition: “Mrs. Frona Eunice Wait / Head Venus-herder of the State / Round up your girls. But Frona, dear / I think it very, very queer / That you yourself do not compete / Are you too plump or too petite?”
By the end of March, the Bay Area’s Stockton Mail was declaring Wait’s project – and the journalist’s reputation – dead on arrival, getting in some digs at the Examiner in the process: “If Mrs. Frona Eunice Wait is dissolved in tears at this summation, if the Examiner has filed away another failure in the reservoir it devotes to its exploded enterprises (and it is so used to that kind of thing that it should not mind) the people of the state will not share their mental anguish.”
Wait persevered. Schmid, who briefly bowed out during the controversy, ultimately crafted a much-lauded likeness of “California Venus” winner Marian Nolan. The sculpture toured widely and now resides at the Oakland Museum.
Moreover, Wait began to regain her acclaim for her encyclopedic knowledge of wine. In 1889, early in her tenure at the Examiner, Wait wrote a book called Wines and Vines of California. By the late 1890s, the rest of the nation was ready to talk about Californian wine, and in 1898 Wait offered a national viticulture lecture series. She seldom actually swallowed more than a few drops of wine, embracing temperance and relying largely on smell.
In a December 1898 interview with the Chicago Tribune, Wait positioned wine as a reflection of femininity, saying, “Wine is as sensitive and as changeable as a woman, for one thing, and it has the moods, tenses, and unaccountable whims just as all women have.”
She also argued to the Austin Statesman that she was not – as she was often characterized – alone among women in her love of wine. “I am a wine expert, but I am not the only woman in the world who is,” she declared, going on to cite Madame Louise Pommery, the head of a champagne concern in France.
Wait’s wine ambassadorship went international in 1900, when she encouraged California vintners to send their wares to a contest at the Paris International Exposition, where six Golden State varietals won awards.
Wait’s diverse and energized pursuits continued far into the 20th century. In 1897, she published the first of several versions of a speculative history book called Yermah the Dorado, set 11,000 years in the past in a San Francisco colonized by Atlantans who rode caribou-drawn carriages and worshipped at Sun Temples atop the city’s many hills. Wait wrote another collection of mythical tales called Stories of Dorado. She sent this to famed populist politician and science fiction author Ignatius Donnelly for edits. Donnelly responded, “My child, I would not change a line of it.”
In 1900, Wait married a San Francisco banker named Frederick Colburn. For their honeymoon, they traveled 350 miles by mule through the jungles of Chiapas, Mexico, and produced a jointly-authored short book about their journey.
Surprisingly, Wait was an anti-suffragist. She penned pamphlets opposing the vote for women, including the 1915 polemic 80 Per Cent of the Women in California Do Not Want the Vote – a questionable claim in itself.
Notwithstanding her views on suffrage, Wait continued to mentor and highlight Bay Area women changemakers, particularly after she made the switch from the Examiner to the more long-form friendly Overland Monthly. In the late 1920s, she wrote detailed and personal reminiscences on her relationships with UC Berkeley-affiliated child development pioneer Cora Lenore Williams, philanthropist Alma de Bretteville Spreckels, and poet Ina Coolbrith. She also mentored Alma Reed, who went on to be a leading foreign correspondent and archaeologist in Mexico and a searcher, at Wait’s urging, for the lost city of Atlantis.
In a glowing 1926 essay, Overland Monthly colleague Agnes Tenney summed up Wait’s catalyzing role in the Golden State’s journalistic life: “The character of Mrs. Colburn’s example as a long and faithful public servitor, entitles her to be known as the Dean of women journalists in the state of California.”
This has barely scratched the surface of Frona Eunice Wait’s fascinating life. Much of this information comes from Spain-based wine aficionado John Maher’s 2012 article “Frona Eunice Wait (Smith Colburn) — “Herculean deeds of Worthwhile Achievement,” published in the Wayward Tendrils wine newsletter.
And head to the Twitter account of Now & Then Editorial Producer David Kurlander for supplemental archival threads on each Time Machine piece: @DavidKurlander.
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