James Dalessandro Interview

1906James Dalessandro discusses 1906, a novel set in San Francisco at the time of the great earthquake and fire.

1906 is a work of fiction based largely on fact. It portrays a city on the eve of the earthquake bathed in wealth but rife with corruption. Dalessandro sat down to discuss 1906 prior to a public event at Book Passage on April 23, 2004.

Dalessandro writes in the voice of Annalisa Passarelli, a young reporter who secretly helps the police uncover graft and bribery at the highest levels. After the detective whom she is informing dies under mysterious circumstances, she joins forces with the detective's son Hunter. They grow fond of each other, and together they strive to expose criminality. Success is close at hand, but then the earthquake intervenes.

Suddenly matters of survival are paramount. A series of fires devours large portions of the city. People from all walks of life are thrown together, seeking safety wherever they can find it. I asked Dalessandro about one of those scenes.

Grant Howard: I got the sense from the book that every scene was based on fairly meticulous research. For example, that scene in Golden Gate Park where people are just lying there on the grass with all of their personal belongings. Was that based on facts?

James Dalessandro: Thank you for noticing that. You are first person who did. (Italian opera singer) Enrico Caruso and the young lady who became his escort--that actually is based on fact. A young woman found Enrico Caruso wandering through Golden Gate Park. He actually slept the night in Golden Gate Park, next to a young woman who befriended him--because he was all alone, he was separated.

So the description as the sun comes up, of all the people with all their belongings--I sort of pieced that together from letters and observations. That was a lot of research. I used some of my imagination, too. But I did know that people tore the bathtubs out of their houses and put roller skates under the bottom, and filled the bathtubs full of their most prized possessions. So I just asked myself, what would be the most prized possessions. And then I read things like, people saved their favorite skillet, people saved their grandfather clocks. A big thing was saving their pets. Dogs and cats were very popular. So when the crowd went up, you had literally thousands if not tens of thousands of people spread out through Golden Gate Park, and probably a couple of thousand animals.

GH: I also got a sense that you did a lot of research about what it was like in San Francisco on the eve of the earthquake. Very early in the book, in the voice of one of the lead characters Annalisa, she says it was "part Paris and part Dodge City". And I definitely got that paradox. On one hand, you have people going to the opera and hanging on every word. And then you have these toughs and thugs and fistfights on the Barbary Coast. Was that something that you were trying to evoke, that contrast?

Dalessandro: Yes, absolutely. Someone asked me recently to describe the city. I used the line, it was part Paris and part Dodge City. I have never been able to come up with a better description than that. It was urbane and sophisticated. The people were amazingly well-dressed. It was a very fashionable city. It had two opera houses. And Market Street was like Paris. Market Street was patterned after Bouevard St. Germain in Paris.

And yet you had the Barbary Coast and fistfights. On the day before the earthquake, the San Francisco Police rescued a 14-year-old boy from being shanghaied. I use that little story. Everything that I could use that was factual and real in the novel, I used it.

Some of the improbable events or some of the pulp-fiction-like events--that stuff actually happened. I mean, there were shootouts between cops and shanghaiers. There was a bouncer on the Barbary Coast named The Whale--a shangaier who also was a bouncer at a bar--who liked to get people in bear hugs and bite their noses off. And he had 20 of them or so stashed under a glass on a bar, with the dates and the places--like, "corner of Battery and Jackson"--where he bit these people's noses off. I mean, I fabricated very little. As close as I could get it, that's what it was like.

GH: Corruption is one of the themes of the book. I guess that was also true to life. I think you changed the name of the City Attorney.

Dalessandro: Political boss, yes.

GH: It looked like you condensed a lot of corruption within those two or three days that probably happened over a longer period.

Dalessandro: Well, two things. First of all, I think that's what a lot of novelists do; you compress time. Things that happened afterward and things that happened before--yes I compressed them. But again, it was a thread that ran through it. When my characters are looking in the logbook, the ledger, of Abe Rouf--the character I call Adam Rolf--reciting a litany of all the bribes. Those bribes had taken place over months and months and years and years. But every one of those bribes described in that ledger was actually based on fact.

A man named Walter Bean wrote a book, I think published in 1934, called "Abe Rouf's San Francisco". And he had all the documents and all the records from the trial. And all that stuff was true. Abe Rouf actually made a complete confession, and detailed all the bribes and all the shenanigans. All that stuff is very, very factual. But again, even though it wasn't all happening on that particular day, the threads still ran through that day. And a lot of those things were coming to a head at that particular time.

GH: And there really was a federal investigator, a federal prosecutor appointed by (Theodore) Roosevelt?

Dalessandro: Fremont Older, who was the crusading editor of the Evening Bulletin.

GH: And that's a real person?

Dalessandro: Real person. He went to the White House in 1905 in the spring and asked Theodore Roosevelt to back a corruption probe. And Roosevelt said, "We have no money." And Fremont Older said, "I will get the money from someone." And he got $100,000 from Rudolph Spreckels, the youngest son of Klaus Spreckels, the sugar magnate.

And Roosevelt sent the greatest investigator, a man named Burns, from the Secret Service Department--the greatest detective in America and the most ambitious prosecutor--his real name was Francis Haney. Abe Rouf's goons did try to kill Francis Haney. It wasn't until after the earthquake and after a trial began, a goon shot Francis Haney in the face in a courtroom during an intermission. His favorite way of getting rid of his enemies was dynamiting their houses.

So I changed Haney's name, and I moved the events a little bit forward. And I showed them striking back at their enemies, because I couldn't continue the story to a year later. So I just compressed time a little bit. Some of that stuff will become clear. I hope to do a continuation of this book called "1906: The Aftermath." The trial is just as sensational as the earthquake.

GH: One of the main characters, Hunter, becomes (Annalisa's) romantic interest. And they are both fresh out of college. And he decides to follow in the footsteps of his father and be a detective. Do you think it is fair to say that there is a theme, in terms of his character, of trying not only to avenge the death of his father--which happens fairly early in the book--but even of trying to measure up? Several times in the book people say, "Oh, your father was a great man." And it is like he is trying to measure up to that. Is that a fair statement?

Dalessandro: I never really thought about that. I guess maybe a lot of sons try to measure up to their fathers. I looked up to my father when I was young--not so much so when I got older. I think he is just enamored of his father--his honesty and integrity. It is something that was bred into him very young, and he just feels it's the noble and right thing to do to sort of follow in his father's footsteps.

And of all the members of his family, of all of the Fallon clan, he is probably the most qualified for the job--because he is the smartest and the most resourceful. He is the one that wants to bring scientific techniques into the department. I started doing all that before this fascination with these television shows like "CSI" and "CSI Miami".

GH: "Law and Order"?

Dalessandro: "Law and Order". Well, they don't do as much scientific analysis. But Hunter's stock in trade is, he uses scientific analysis, photographs and crime scene analysis. And he also was a big fan of Sherlock Holmes. And he says in the book, it was just logic, it was just a question of observation. And then also, Darwin wrote an incredible book called "Emotion in Man and Animals," which he would have studied in his science and anthropology classes. And Darwin believed that you could use the human face as a sort of lie detector. So he uses that, too. He is able to read people's faces.

There is a professor at San Francisco State who believes that reading people's faces is one of the great skills that could actually replace the lie detector. And I didn't find that out until later, until I was well into the book. It's funny. As I started to create some of the characters, I would then find factual things that supported some of my ideas and enhanced my ideas.

And I think there is a turning point (for Hunter). After his father dies, I thinks that is when Hunter really does want to measure up to his father. He wants to finish the job his father started. I think he picks up the mantle from his father.

GH: And there is a heroic quality. I mean, I don't want to spoil the book. But in the aftermath of the earthquake, he definitely has this heroic aura. I think that's fair to say, wouldn't you?

Dalessandro: Yes. I still believe in heroic figures. Not to support cliches by any stretch, but I think there are people who do heroic things every day in this life. Honest cops that stand up against corruption. Honest judges who refuse to back down. People who take on criminal cases, or who defend people who are not popular and who are innocent. And so you see heroism every day. And I think a little dose of old-fashioned heroism--if it's well done and it's not cliched--I think can still be a very powerful element in storytelling.

I hope (Hunter) is not one-dimensional, because he starts out--he is kind of afrivolous kid. He talks fast, he answers his own questions, he's all over the place. And when his father dies and the mantle is passed to him, he becomes a different person. It changes him, and it galvanizes him and focuses him.

There is an old cliche that a boy becomes a man when a man is needed. And I think that is what happens to Hunter Fallon. People say that in fiction, and I know this is true in film a lot, that we look to see how the characters evolve. We look to see how the adventure changes them. And I think what happens truly changes the character Hunter. I think he is a different person at the end than he was at the beginning. And that's a good thing, I think.

GH: And you might say that also about Annalisa. The sense I got from her character is that she enjoys being a newspaper reporter but that she wants more than that--something with a stronger sense of purpose, perhaps, or just more excitement. Is that what you were aiming for?

Dalessandro: Well, initially when she graduates from UC Berkeley, Fremont Older's Evening Bulletin is sort of the beacon of reform in San Francisco. And she graduates at the top of her class at Berkeley in 1904, the same year that Lincoln Steffens publishes "The Shame of the Cities," which was a huge success and had a profound effect on this country. It exposed all the corruption in 24 major cities. And so she wants to join the Evening Bulletin and become a muckraking journalist, but they won't let her because that's a man's job. Since she's fluent in Italian and French, and since she wrote theater and opera reviews for the Berkeley newspaper, she gets that job.

And low and behold, there she is sitting next to all the bad guys. And they are literally bragging. They are so brazen and so blatant, and they would literally drink in their opera boxes, which you can't do now. They would talk in their opera boxes, which you can't do now. And eat in their opera boxes, which you can't do now. And they would have parties and get drunk. And they would brag about how much money they stole and who they bribed. And their wives would complain about how much the bribes had gone up.

So (Annalisa) becomes the secret informant for the corruption and graft hunters. And I think what changes her is, she is a very independent woman. Now, there is obviously a romance between her and Hunter Fallon. But in the month after the earthquake, they granted more marriage licenses than they ever had at any time. And by making it that they knew each other since childhood, and that she had a schoolgirl infatuation with him, I felt that the romance was organic. She is an independent woman who is not looking to get married, not looking to get a husband. And yet when he reappears, and she sees what a marvelous person he has become, it awakens the feelings that she had when she was younger.

And when he finds out how brave and heroic she was, that she was his father's closest ally and only real friend--I think it is very organic. I really was concerned about that being a realistic romance, and not just some sort of slapped-on Hollywood device. And so I paid a lot of attention to making that--hopefully--integrated into the story and believable and functional.

GH: There is a short passage in Annalisa's words that struck me early in the book. She says, "It did not have to happen. Good men and women, the unlikeliest of heroes, might have stopped it. The warning signs were everywhere." Now, I know you are not saying that somebody could have stopped the earthquake.

Dalessandro: Not the earthquake but the fire. Not the earthquake, of course. In 1905, the Fire Underwriters Association--this is a true story--issued a report that said, paraphrasing, "San Francisco has violated every modern notion of building and fire prevention. And a conflagration of epic proportions is inevitable." That's a paraphrase.

And the Fire Chief, Dennis Sullivan, was ironically--horrifically--was the fourth reported casualty. His fire station was shattered, just like it says in the book. And he fell three stories onto his head, lingered in a coma for three days. Dennis Sullivan was the man who had a plan. He probably would have tried to fix the water supply.

There were lots of warnings. Dennis Sullivan had issued hundreds of warnings, the fire underwriters had issued hundreds of warnings. Dennis Sullivan had fought the city administration, to build a supplemental salt water system, which we now have; to buy fire boats, which we now have; to do many, many things that could have made a difference. If not saving the entire city--that's always a real question--there are sections of the city they could have saved. The destruction would have been less--and the death toll would have been lower--had they listened to Dennis Sullivan and taken the precautions that he had ordered and listened to the warning signs. But once again, nobody listens because they are too busy stealing the money.

GH: And you suggest in the book--I mean, more than suggest, you portray it--that the mayor and the police chief conspire to keep the death toll down, right?

Dalessandro: Absolutely right. In 1907 the Board of Supervisors of San Francisco set the official death toll at 478, where it has stood for 98 years now. Gladys Hanson, the Archivist of the City of San Francisco, has found the names of 3,400 dead. The number is easily double that figure. So you're talking about close to 7,000 dead. There are several historians who believe the actual figure could be 10,000. It could be that high.

This is the biggest lie and the biggest cover-up and the biggest disaster in the United States. It's unbelievable, uncoinscionable to me that this could have happened.

GH: More than 9/11, more than Pearl Harbor.

Dalessandro: Greater death toll than September 11 by possibly three times, yes. That's an astonishing figure when you stop to think about it. The greatest death toll in American history outside of war. The biggest death toll we have now for a natural disaster is the 1900 Galveston hurricane, which killed 6,000 people out of 29,000 residents of Galveston. Right now that stands as the worst disaster in terms of death toll in the United States. I believe unequivocally that the San Francisco death toll was higher.

GH: Now, this business about General Funston deciding that it was a good idea to make a firebreak by blowing up buildings. That really happened?

Dalessandro: That actually happened. Frederick Funston hated the city administration. When the earthquake hit the general in charge, Adolphus Greely--I believe he was in Seattle on the day that it happened. And that left Funston in charge. That was another disastrous circumstance. Greely, when he returned, was appalled by what Funston did.

And Funston's men--they were issued orders to shoot any suspected looters. Well, unfortunately, scores of soldiers got drunk and looted stores and started shooting people. They shot several hundred people. It could have been as high as 500. And the other thing they did was, because two of the three main water lines were broken, they decided to use dynamite to blow up buildings. Well, ask any munitions expert, the effect of granulated dynamite--black powder and gun cotton--on wood-frame buildings, and they'll tell you. It had been tried before, and it has never worked. In order for that to work, you have to soak the buildings with water, blow them up, and be ready to put out fires. They had no water.

Dennis Sullivan would have tried to fix the water. Dennis Sullivan would have gotten pipes and pumps. The Army Corps of Engineers at the Presidio--those guys once built a pontoon bridge across a river in the Civil War in 20 minutes. Those guys could have fixed the water. There were things that could have been done. The number of fires that were started by the improper use of dynamite--and they even used cannons at the end--was in the hundreds if not the thousands. It spread the fire all over San Francisco. It was disastrous.

GH: I am not sure that that's really a well-known part of the fire story.

Dalessandro: It's not, it's not. So this leads me to perhaps another question, if I could jump ahead of you. People ask me, why fiction? Why didn't I just write another historical piece? Well, because we learn from storytelling. It's what Aristotle called the imitative arts. The power of the imitative arts to put on the costume and adapt the voice of a Julius Caesar or a Cleopatra or an Abraham Lincoln, grabs people's attention because it makes it more visceral, more emotional.

There are dozens of books already written on the San Francisco earthquake and fire, and all of these facts are in those books, and nobody has ever paid attention to them. You walk down the street in San Francisco and stop a hundred people, nobody knows this story. But when I wrote a novel about it and created fictitious characters and reinterpreted the real people, for some strange reason everybody is starting to pay attention now. So that's just a testimony, I think, to the power of storytelling.

GH: Now, do we know whether there was an actual argument between (Mayor) Schmitz and (General) Funston somewhere?

Dalessandro: There was, there was. After General Funston took charge of the city--I believe it was on the second day, on the afternoon of the 19th (of April) at about 3 o'clock--General Funston's men were using cannons to blow up buildings on the east side of Van Ness Avenue. And it was starting fires. And Eugene Schmitz got in his car or his buggy--I forget which, I think he had the car then--and he drove out there.

And nobody knows what the argument was about because it was just the two of them. But the two men got into a screaming match in the vestibule of St. Mary's Church on Van Ness Avenue. And when Schmitz drove away, Funston shut down the dynamiting. So we know what this conversation was about.

Unfortunately, 12 hours later Funston started the dynamiting and the demolition again. And it started another fire that raced up Russian Hill and down into North Beach. And that was one of the worst fires. That was the one that trapped all the people on the waterfront. That was the most disastrous thing that Funston did.

There were dozens of police officers who saw him do it. The fire was already out on the east side of Van Ness Avenue; Funston's men started the fire again. The police officers who saw it happen were outraged. They wanted to court-martial the son-of-a-bitch. They wanted to shoot Funston.

GH: Whatever happened to General Funston?

Dalessandro: Everybody was afraid to start a big political witch hunt and trial and everything. He almost got court-martialed. William Howard Taft, who was the Secretary of War and was soon to become the President of the United States, said--and this is a quote--he said, "It would take an act of Congress to save Frederick Funston from the damage he did to the United States Constitution." That was the Secretary of War.

When Adolphus Greely filed the report on Funston and the military, they claimed that only nine people had been shot, and that not one of them had been shot by soldiers. It was an absolute lie. There are dozens and dozens of eyewitnesses--honest, honorable people--who saw the military shoot people.

GH: Well, not only that, but you have scenes in the book where there is the roar of the fire, and the people can't hear them saying, "Stop." And you don't know what the people are doing. Are they getting food for their families? Are they getting axes to help with the fire? So we don't know if any of those people were guilty of looting.

Dalessandro: That's exactly right. And the people who were doing the shooting were tired and hungry. And some of them were drunk. And then they franchised citizens' police. They gave a thousand badges out and a thousand guns. Military cadets--anybody who had any kind of uniform who could possibly be deputized--were given free reign to shoot anybody they thought was looting.

There is a story of an old man walking down Van Ness Avenue. Some soldiers yelled at him to help them haul hoses for the fire department. He was an old man who was an Italian immigrant, spoke no English, had no idea what they were talking about. A soldier ran him through with a bayonet and killed him.

There was a 15-year-old military cadet from Berkeley who was bent over somebody, probably looking to see if the man had any identification, to see if the man needed help. A soldier shot him in the back and killed him, killed a 15-year-old boy who was a very proud cadet who had taken a ferry boat over from Berkeley.

It's insanity. Nowhere in any civilized nation is the right to summary execution granted to everyone. Funston and Schmitz and anybody that participated in that should have been court-martialed and been shot themselves for what they did.

GH: In terms of the political boss.

Dalessandro: Abe Rouf.

GH: Yes. He goes by the name of Rolf in the book.

Dalessandro: I called him Adam Rolf, because I changed his character. Let me answer that question. He was a composite of several different characters, that's why I changed his name.

GH: Well, I was going to ask you, there are very vivid and disturbing scenes in the book where they take advantage of the disorder to exact revenge on people.

Dalessandro: This, I believe, is a true story. What happened was, Rudolph Spreckels was their sworn enemy. They found out on that day--on the 17th, the day before the earthquake--that he had put up $100,000 to get Rouf and Schmitz. And in the middle of the fire, the fire had not reached the west side of Van Ness Avenue. Yet a neighbor saw Klaus Spreckels' mansion start burning from the attic down. Somebody went in the attic and set the house on fire. And what I think happened was, Abe Rouf sent his goons over to burn down Spreckels' house, and they burned down the wrong house.

Afterward, one of the men who turned against (Schmitz) was a man named James Gallagher--Rouf's goon squad blew his house and business up three times trying to kill him. Their way of getting rid of their enemies was to blow up their houses and burn their houses down.

And everybody thought that the Spreckels mansion had documents in it. But they burned the wrong mansion down. That's highly speculative. But I honestly believe that they did. There was no other fire in any other mansion anywhere around. And it started from the inside, in the attic. A neighbor named James Stetson saw it happen. So I honestly believe that they went to burn down Rudolph Spreckels' mansion, and they burned down Klaus Spreckels' mansion by mistake.

GH: A brother?

Dalessandro: His father. Burned his father's mansion down by mistake. They burned the wrong mansion.

GH: And Rudolph Spreckels' wife really had a baby outside?

Dalessandro: There is a granddaughter. In 1949, when Eleanor J. Spreckels died, her obituary in the San Francisco Chronicle carried two big references and descriptions to how she had given birth to a baby on the lawn of her mansion as her house burned down. Her granddaughter wrote a letter to the San Francisco Chronicle disputing my portrayal of the story. That story has been told by every historian I have ever known, and it was in the San Francisco Chronicle in a huge half-page obituary.

I have never found a retraction or a contradiction to that story other than from the granddaughter. I have always hoped that my book might lead us to discover--I honestly don't know what the truth is. I can only tell you what the Chronicle said, and what the story has been. I don't know if Eleanor Spreckels' granddaughther's version of the story is accurate. I don't know what the truth is. I have always believed that the Eleanor J. Spreckels story is true.

GH: ...I am fascinated by this character Scarface. Was that a composite?

Dalessandro: I made him up. I made up Scarface, the character who is one of the killers in there.

GH: He is just so ruthless.

Dalessandro: He is ruthless. They were like that, they were like that. I think I saw a description of a Norwegian shanghaier who was very tall and had a scarred face. I don't know anything about him other than his physical description.

There is a great book called "Shanghaiing in San Francisco" by a merchant seaman named Bill Picklehoff, who is a waterfront historian. And I think I took the physical description from Picklehoff's book. But (Scarface) and Shanghai Kelly are fictional characters.

Shanghai Kelly was a real character but his name was James Kelly. I call this one John Kelly. There were probably 50 Irishmen--if not 500 Irishmen--who used the name Shanghai Kelly on the Barbary Coast. The most common name on the Barbary Coast was Kelly. And tacking Shanghai in front of the name was almost automatic.

GH: Was that a sign of respect, do you think?

Dalessandro: It's just like every Italian trying to claim they are connected to the mob so they can be tough guys. If you put Shanghai Kelly in front of your name, maybe people will think you're a tough guy.

GH: There is one other thing that occurs to me about the interaction between the mayor and the political boss and other businessmen. Was there really a move afoot to have the Transcontinental Railroad bypass Oakland and come into San Francisco?

Dalessandro: The war between Abe Rouf and the corrupt city administration and the railroad was ongoing. And whoever controlled the railroad controlled the state of California. And they had long fancied moving the Transcontinental Railroad from Oakland to San Francisco. Because the railroad stopped in Oakland, and then had to be moved by cargo ship. And you had to unload it in San Francisco. It was very expensive, and it also kept San Francisco from controlling the Transcontinental Railroad.

The Bay Bridge was originally supposed to be a railroad bridge so that the train could go right over it. The easiest place to send it across is Dumbarton. It is a much easier bridge to build that the Bay Bridge was. And they may not have been trying to do that right on that specific day. But it had long been the design of San Francisco power brokers to controll the railroad by re-routing it to San Francisco, absolutely.

GH: What was happening in San Francisco was not that different from other big cities, right?

Dalessandro: Just on a bigger scale. Our corruption was white-collar, theirs was blue-collar. Abe Rouf was a lawyer; he called it honest graft because it was all legal fees. They took corruption and graft to another level. Boss Tweed and them--they plundered city hall. In San Francisco they plundered the whole city. Anybody that wanted anything in San Francisco--building permits--they controlled it.

I believe that the graft and corruption in San Francisco was more sophisticated and more pervasive than in any other city in the United States. Because there was more money here. This was the great money town. This was the wealthiest city per capita in the United States. The power and money was unimaginable.

GH: And in the book at the end, you get the feeling that the bad guys get their comeuppance eventually. But the corruption didn't end because of the earthquake. It kept going, right?

Dalessandro: Well, it really cut into a lot of it. There was a reform movement. The earthquake did have a big effect on shanghaiing, on slave-trading. You would not see that level of corruption again.

The corruption probe had a pivotal effect. It accomplished what it set out to do. It exposed the level of it, it started to cut back on it. And it had a ripple effect through the United States. It really did have a profound effect.