Author examines old S.F. milieu, writings of Alice B. Toklas pal

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Born in 1867 to a wealthy Orthodox Jewish family in San Francisco, Harriet Lane Levy led an unorthodox life. Free-spirited and independent, she went to college at a time few women did, had a career and never wed.

Along with Jack London and Frank Norris, Levy wrote for The Wave, a San Francisco periodical, and was the drama critic for the city's newspaper, The Call.

And she brought her friend and neighbor Alice B. Toklas to Paris, where they became part of the circle that included Gertrude Stein, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. She was an art enthusiast, and much of the work she collected now hangs in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

In 1947, at the age of 80, Levy wrote the first volume of her autobiography, "920 O'Farrell Street: A Jewish Childhood in Old San Francisco." Last year it was re-issued by Berkeley's Heyday Press with an introduction by Redwood City author Charlene Akers.

On Sunday, July 20, Akers will discuss Levy and "920 O'Farrell Street" at the Berkeley Richmond Jewish Community Center. She will also speak on Friday, July 25 at the JCC of San Francisco.

Although Levy started a second volume, a memoir of her Paris years, she died before it was completed. The manuscript is available at Berkeley's Bancroft Library but, at her family's request, it has never been published.

Akers, who is the author of "Open to the Public: A Guide to the Museums of Northern California" as well as "First and Foremost: A Guide to Northern California Independent Bookstores," plunged herself into Levy's life before writing the introduction to "920 O'Farrell Street."

"I would love for Harriet to be better known," says Akers, who read Levy's book about 20 times as well as the author's Paris memoirs. She also read the works of authors who mention Levy and interviewed members of Levy's family. "I feel very connected to [Levy]. I feel like I'm her champion."

But one person who was not a fan of Levy's, she says, was Stein, who mentions Levy in her writing but only in the most unflattering terms.

"Gertrude was strong-willed and intent on having her way," says Akers, who thinks the animosity between Stein and Levy was the result of competition for Toklas' attention. Levy and Toklas were flatmates in Paris although Levy's family members do not think they were lovers. In spite of Stein's attempts to pressure Toklas into living with her, Toklas remained loyal to Levy for a while, probably because Levy had financed Toklas' trip to Paris.

"Gertrude tried to woo [Alice] away from Harriet," says Akers. "It took her three years to get Alice."

But "920 O'Farrell Street" pre-dates all that. It is a delightful account of growing up Jewish in post-Gold Rush San Francisco when O'Farrell Street, near Van Ness Avenue, was the outer limit of the city's residential area and cow barns were at the end of the block. It was a society severely circumscribed by the mores and class structures of the time. In the Jewish community, the more assimilated German Jews who belonged to Temple Emanu-El looked down on the Polish Jews of Sherith Israel.

Describing a trip to the cemetery with her mother to buy a burial plot, Levy writes: "We sought a plot in the cemetery of the congregation Sherith Israel, next to The Home of Peace, which housed the more aristocratic dust of the members of the Temple Emanuel. I felt as ill at ease among the bones of the people buried there as I had felt among their living bodies."

With the irony and wry humor that accompanies hindsight, Levy's book offers a bird's-eye view of a familiar city during an unfamiliar time.

A recurrent theme is the obsession with marriage. "It depicts this terrible anxiety; are we going to marry these girls off?" says Akers. "That's how Victorian girls were brought up. Harriet escaped this."

Levy also talks about the challenges of maintaining a kosher kitchen. "Temptation to delinquency lay ambushed in cupboard, drawer and closet bin. To possess one's self of a slice of bread and butter without committing a Mosaic offense was a feat. Nowhere was my fear of Mother so great as in the kitchen, where her native capacity for anger was reinforced by her priestly office."

With the death of Levy's father and the marriages of her two older sisters, the house at 920 O'Farrell Street became too large for Harriet and her mother. Eventually, it was rented and Levy set off for Europe.

The house was destroyed in the fire following the 1906 earthquake. But Levy's book has preserved not only the memories of one family but a whole way of life.