I will never have children, Caroline Rand decided. Children destroyed a woman, physically and mentally. She had seen it happen to her mother. Her father, an Oakland police captain, had died before Carrie turned six, leaving five children for his widow to raise on an insufficient pension. Carrie had barely turned eight when her beloved eldest sister, Mary, died, leaving her with the responsibility of watching her little brother, David, a kicking terror. It was Carrie's job to keep David from running out of their house onto busy San Pablo Avenue and under a passing cable car. In her teens, her mother had moved the family closer to the docks and taken in boarders-a necessity to keep the money coming in. Carrie learned how to prepare bean soup; it was a cheap meal that could stretch to feed many mouths. She mopped the floors each evening and scrubbed the dirty shirts of the boarders. No matter how long she scrubbed, the house always smelled of the previous night's food and of that afternoon's dirty laundry. No matter how many hours she lost to chores, her mother would yell at her. Her mother found fault with everything she did, whether folding sheets, ironing tablecloths, or even making a blessed cup of tea. Carrie wanted to yell back but couldn't. Only her mother was allowed to raise her voice. So when her mother's back was turned, she performed impressions of the boarders-their ball-scratching, nose-picking, and farting. Her two older sisters acted shocked and nicknamed her "Cad," but they still laughed.
Reading was Carrie's escape. On weekends, she put on one of her sisters' hand-me-down blouses and headed to Oakland's public library. She spent an hour or so perusing books before choosing one or two to take to Lake Merritt, where she could sit and read. If she had a dime, she could buy the Ladies' Home Journal on the way home. The articles were on fashion and crafts, as well as advice from famous wives on the qualities that make for a good husband. Mostly she enjoyed the illustrations of sophisticated women. Sometimes they were depicted walking arm in arm on the street with their flowered hats, gloves, and sweeping skirts-in the midst of sharing confidences, she supposed. Other times they danced or boated with gentlemen. Despite their impossibly narrow waists, they weren't dainty but rather seemed equally comfortable in society or at sport. They looked down at people from atop their bicycles, which they rode without apology. And yet, with all their independence, they still captivated men.
Carrie knew she wasn't beautiful. Hers was a fit but not voluptuous figure. Her face lacked any particular charm beyond a youthful glow, but she noticed that the boarders flirted with her anyway. She could not have been less interested in those men. If they were poor enough to eat her mother's bean soup, they weren't for her. The man who would win her hand would have to show her his bankbook first.
She made a plan to get out of her mother's house forever. She would find a job to make her own income until she could marry and marry well. In the mid-1890s, more women than ever were finding work outside the home. But she wouldn't apply for a factory shift or to be a maid (those jobs were for immigrants or the truly indigent), and she didn't want to be a schoolteacher (looking after all those children). She wouldn't meet eligible men in those jobs anyway.
Carrie's older sister Lila had hit the jackpot, securing an office position as one of the Bay Area's first woman secretaries in a firm called the Realty Syndicate. She worked for a former stockbroker named Frank Havens, who was making a big play for East Bay land. Each weekday morning, Carrie watched Lila don a candy-striped blouse with puffy sleeves and a long black skirt and head out the door to San Francisco. Each evening, Lila came home and told Carrie of the growing financial district above Market Street-a maze of banks and law firms punctuated by the oddball psychic's office.
Mostly Lila talked about what a genius her boss was. An attractive glad-hander, Havens could sell anything, working a room with colorful stories drawn from his seafaring early life; he had captained a riverboat in Shanghai and sailed around Cape Horn, coming to San Francisco the long way. His vision was to transform the Piedmont, an area of depressed farmland in the hills above Oakland, into a residential community for San Francisco's elite. He and his capital partner, Francis Marion "Borax" Smith (of the popular 20 Mule Team Borax cleaning brand), were buying thousands of acres and mapping out residential lots. People would buy, Havens was sure, to get away from the opium dens, saloons, brothels, and gambling halls that made family life in San Francisco undesirable. The city's wealthy wanted bigger houses and open spaces where their children could play. They wanted the filth, the laborers, and their prostitutes out of view.
But knowing no one would buy unless they could commute quickly across the bay, the Realty Syndicate was also getting into the transportation game. They planned a three-mile pier-longer even than Oakland's "long wharf"-stretching from West Oakland toward Goat Island into the center of the bay. Their ferries would take off from the tip of the pier, shaving precious minutes off the existing commutes. Then they bought up and consolidated streetcar routes from the pier to all their developments. Via this unified system of transport, the Piedmont dweller could be deposited on busy Market Street inside of twenty-five minutes, a speed previously unheard of.
One day, Lila came home from work with great news. Business was going so well at the Syndicate that Carrie could join as an assistant to the bookkeeper. Carrie could hardly believe it. On her first day of getting ready with Lila for work, she gathered her brown hair into a smooth crown around her head and squeezed into a corset firm enough to approximate the proportions of the women in the magazines. With Lila nagging her to hurry, she laced her shoes and quickly grabbed her hat and ran out the door. At the waterfront, she followed her sister onto the ferry. As she looked across the bay, Carrie secured her hat to her head and gazed out at San Francisco's developing skyline in the distance.
Even before they docked, Carrie was pushed along by the swell of commuters. Down the gangway, through the ferry building's arcade, and under the clock tower exit she went, Lila already in front. Ahead, the pandemonium of Market Street. Horse-drawn carriages maneuvered around streetcars while pedestrians and cyclists and deliverymen and boys hawking newspapers jockeyed for space. The noise alone was disorienting. Carrie was nearly knocked off her feet by a produce cart emerging from a side street. Six blocks of this gauntlet until they arrived at 14 Sansome Street, shook the dirt off their shoes and skirts, fixed their hair, and entered the Realty Syndicate office.
Carrie's daily task involved organizing sales recipes and bills for the bookkeeper, George Sterling, who happened to be the boss's nephew. She loved the name "Sterling"-it had a nice ring to it. He was twenty-five, just two years older than she was. Tall and thin with dark eyes, dark hair, and a Roman nose, George had a noble air about him. Over time, she learned his ancestors were as close to noblemen as Americans could be: a combination of state congressmen and legendary Sag Harbor buccaneers on his mother's side and lawyers and doctors on his father's. Aside from his family's inexplicable turn toward Catholicism in the last generation, George was as eligible a bachelor as one could imagine. Carrie had never been all that religious, anyway, turned off by her pious mother, who would no doubt find something to complain about no matter what fellow she brought home.
George struck Carrie as lonesome. She found it took remarkably little to draw his attention-a brief smile or a brush with her skirt. He began asking her to accompany him to dinner in the evenings after work. He took her to expensive restaurants with French names to dine on oysters ˆ la poulette. She tried to be poised and confidant in these new surroundings, but she had rarely eaten out much, never mind in such luxury. She remembered how the girls in the magazines looked, and she conducted herself accordingly. At her urging, George took her to the opera, which Carrie loved, but she could tell he only tolerated. On weekends, they went walking in the hills above Oakland that the Syndicate owned but had not yet sold off. George, sitting with her beneath a tree, read her a sonnet he had composed to her beauty. He had studied poetry in college and was trying to get better at it. She often caught him writing lists of rhyming words when he should have been entering figures into the Syndicate's ledgers.
The poetry was nice, but the real clincher for Carrie was George's sheepish confession that as the eldest of eight, he felt no strong pull to have children. She accepted his proposal immediately, and Frank Havens blessed their union: The Sterling and the Havens families both only married Anglo-Saxons, and Carrie was, despite her poverty, purely that. Her mother always crowed about their ancestors, the Abbotts, who had commanded volunteer soldiers to reinforce the northern flank. She had certified all the girls as Daughters of the American Revolution.
Carrie and George honeymooned in Hawaii. It turned out to be an awful trip-George threw up the whole voyage over and then stayed in the hotel room writing poetry once they arrived, never wanting to go out dancing. After a few weeks of this "bliss," they returned to a Syndicate-owned house on the Vernon Heights tract of Oakland Avenue, where the smell from their neighbor's pink bougainvillea wafted over their fence. She could now invite her sisters to her own house. Nell, the middle sister, had married a businessman, Harry Maxwell. Lila, who had been circling around Frank Havens, waiting for his wife to die (which she finally did), pounced and became Mrs. Havens, married to a filthy-rich man two decades her senior.
The Rand girls had all escaped the dockyards of Oakland. They had made it out of poverty. But most importantly, they had evaded their mother's fate of a life of servitude to grubby strangers.
By 1901, five years into their marriage, George had risen to become auditor of the Syndicate, overseeing a capitalization of millions of dollars and bringing in more than $100 in salary a month. Carrie had a house large enough for a servant, but the Sterlings didn't have one: unlike Lila, who had a Chinese cook. Carrie knew she could cook better than anyone she could hire, and George appreciated her for it. Now she cooked and cleaned only for her husband. Every morning, she prepared George's breakfast as he donned his suit for his commute across the bay. Every afternoon, from the top of her front steps, she gazed down the hill toward the roof of her mother's house, and smiled.
. . .
In the Oakland Public Library where I had gone to reconstruct Carrie's early life, there's a 1905 photo on the wall of the Realty Syndicate's three-mile pier. It's quite impressive. To get to the main library from my San Francisco hotel, I essentially had to perform Carrie's commute in reverse. I started down Market Street-every bit as bustling as it was in 1895, with sidewalks still packed with pedestrians, even as streetcars have replaced carriages. Then I took the BART to Oakland and emerged at the Lake Merritt station, walking the several blocks toward the library, which has moved since Carrie's time. Now, of course, we take such routes for granted, but in 1902, when the Realty Syndicate constructed their long mole toward Goat Island (now Yerba Buena Island) so ferries could take off from its tip, they were indeed creating the path that the Bay Area Rapid Transit system would follow in 1974 with a transbay tunnel. The East Bay as you encounter it today is largely a product of the Realty Syndicate's imagination. And Carrie's work helped make it happen.
The archivist of the local history room, a woman who knows her stuff, showed me what they had on early Oakland history: old city directories, photographs and tract maps, newspaper clippings, and even original correspondence from Jack London and other contemporaries of the Sterlings. An 1896 brochure printed by the Realty Syndicate demonstrates the atmosphere of heady entrepreneurialism that surrounded the young Carrie Rand. The Syndicate knew that to compete in the development game against the mighty Pacific Improvement Company-the development arm of the Southern Pacific Railroad-they were going to have to sell Oakland and its surroundings as more than just a railway terminus. The rhetorical job of the brochure was to convince the reader that Oakland, a city known for handling freight, was the next hot residential buy. The Syndicate pointed out that San Francisco had nowhere to expand that wasn't already drenched in fog. They bragged that the "death rate" of Oakland was only 11.85 per 1,000 inhabitants, the lowest of any similarly sized city in the United States. Tracts were advertised by the minutes it took to travel from there to the foot of Market Street. The brochure included land surveys showing a lot "Sold for $10,000"-certainly a fictional number given the actual sale prices of the lots as recorded on Syndicate company in-house maps. The capitalization of the corporation in 1896 was given as $5 million.
I have no idea if that number is accurate. Because the Syndicate was as much a stock scheme as a realty company, peddling securities where investors could buy shares in the company's land investments, they inflated all their numbers. Who would know? Moody's Manual of Industrial and Miscellaneous Securities wouldn't be around for a few more years.
Frank Havens and George Sterling, aided by Carrie and her sister behind the scenes, must have been good at their jobs. The Piedmont, where Carrie and George began their married life, is now every bit as wealthy and exclusive as Frank Havens hoped it would become. Sprinkled with mansions, it became known in the 1920s as the "City of Millionaires." The area has achieved its goal of remaining overwhelmingly wealthy and white, with the median house price now $1.7 million. These days, a child growing up in the Piedmont can expect to live twelve years longer than one born in East Oakland. And the inhabitants haven't forgotten whom to thank for their excusive address; the elementary school is named after Frank Havens.
Even back when the Piedmont was just getting started, however, Carrie's move from her mother's house to the hills, only just a mile or so in distance, placed her a world away. Against great odds, she had made a leap from one social class to another by the only route available to women: marriage. Once Carrie wedded George Sterling, her prospects entirely relied on his; the percentage of married white women working outside the home in 1900 remained in the low single digits. Her exhilarating career as a secretary was over. Her career as champion of her husband's ambitions had just begun.