Monday, July 19, 2010

The Amazing Jean Taggart

On July 18, Jean Taggart, a fourth-generation Californian and writer, left this world. She was 91 years old and though very well-traveled (she took a cruise to Guatemala in her 80s) she had spent most of her life in San Francisco, a city she revered.

I first met Jean 16 years ago; I was working on my first historical novel and looking for a group to join in the area. I saw an ad in the Noe Valley Voice for a group called the Sunset Writers and called; Jean answered the phone. She had a rough, sexy voice - she was in her 70s at this time but she sounded decades younger and we had almost instant rapport. She told me the group had openings and to come to their next meeting. "They'll have to audition you," she said, "but don't worry. I'm sure you'll do just fine."

That first meeting, I was a bundle of nerves. It was my first live encounter with other writers; I didn't know what to expect. I'd brought a few chapters of my opus-in-progress; as I walked up the steps to Jean's cozy home, shaded by trees on a sunny hillside corner near Noe Valley, I heard laughter coming from within. Jean opened the door, a tall, slightly stoop-shouldered, white haired woman with sparkling blue eyes and an infectious grin. "Good, you're young," she said, motioning me in. "We need young blood here." She offered me coffee - she always had coffee and cookies available at every meeting - in a crowded kitchen where her cats languidly inspected my shoes and over which presided a framed poster of a faerie-like woman holding a broom and the words: F*#K Housework.

Over the next years, myriad group members came and went; we had our internal dramas, controversies, even fights, but Jean remained a constant, her house a place of refuge where we gathered to read aloud from our work and receive criticism and advice. Jean was a gifted writer with a knack for the cut-to-the-chase critique; like many intelligent, quick-witted people she did not suffer fools gladly. She loved youth, and though our younger members arrived like whirlwinds of enthusiasm and invariably moved on, several kept in contact with Jean after they left our group.

Her own writing tended to reflect her chief passion: her love for California. Raised in the Sacramento area, Jean had been through the war and lost a brother overseas; her other brother, also gone by the time I met her, had been a talented novelist whose life had often been difficult. She'd traveled abroad many times; she loved to discover new places and never complained about the hardships that travel must have imposed on a woman of her years, but home was San Francisco - the City by the Bay whose history she had experienced firsthand and was chronicled in her marvelous unpublished series of stories, Taylor Street Tales. Though Jean was married for only a short time, when she spoke of past beaus and of her glamorous, heady life in San Francisco in the 1940s and '50s, you could see in her eyes the secret joy of a woman who had loved often and loved well. Men and cats: each had felt the magnetic pull of her ardor for life. Though men faded eventually, cats remained. Jean always had a cat, or two, frightened creatures she rescued and nurtured back to trust.

Jean dabbled in painting, as well - her splashy watercolors were often haphazardly arranged about her house, with and without frames. Her eclectic sense of decor carried over to her taste in books; she was attracted to literary works, but also loved a good mystery. One of the highest compliments she ever paid me was that I'd made her appreciate historical fiction, a genre she'd always associated with "big gowns and hair." When I finally managed to get published after years of disappointments and perseverance, Jean took immense pleasure in my success and rallied her neighborhood bookseller to order in my books.

Some of my favorite moments with Jean were spent at her kitchen table, in the half-hour before the rest of our writing group arrived; over coffee and the occasional furtive cigarette, she'd share with me stories of San Francisco; of the speak-eases in the Tenderloin where she used to go dancing; the clatter of cable cars on Nob Hill where she lived; the busy downtown office where she worked; and of the aura of endless promise shimmering over a time when the end of the war had heralded a burst of optimism in America. Jean lived through it all: the penciled seam up-the-leg stocking of the 40s; the ice-cream crinolines of the 50s; the hedonistic smoky rebellion of the Beat Generation; the sexual napalm of Flower Power; the bra burning and glitter balls of the 70s; the Me-Me 80s, Woe-is-Me 90s, and into the uncertain early years of a troubled new century. She had experienced more history than most of us will ever see and lost most of her contemporaries in the process. Her face would sometimes turn distant as she recalled everyone she had loved and said goodbye to during her remarkable long life; though Jean rarely indulged in self-pity or regret, I could tell that all those goodbyes lived inside her. We had a term for it: 'The Price of Longevity.' She herself had narrowly escaped the shadow of her mortality on various occasions; a breast cancer survivor, she was proud of her scars and matter-of-fact about the horrors she'd undergone as a result of her mastectomies and implants. Still, Jean never wasted time on looking back; she reveled in the present, in the thrill of opportunity, and even took up blogging.

Toward the last few years of her life, after a series of serious health setbacks that curtailed her independence, she expressed to me her aversion to reaching the 100-year mark. She didn't mind being old, she said; she just didn't want to fall apart. The last time I saw her was at our group; though frail, she still chuckled with me in the kitchen as I boiled water for tea and mentioned how much she had enjoyed coming to my book party - a haul for her, which she had insisted on making. I said goodbye at the night's end and told her I'd see her at our next meeting, but I ended up not making it due to conflicts in my schedule. I never saw her again.

Jean Taggart wanted us to say of her that she was a fourth-generation Californian and proud of it. As the song says, 'I know when I die, I will breath my last sigh for sunny California,' but Jean always said, she planned to go out laughing.

I can hear her now.

1 comment:

BurtonBookReview said...

What an amazing tribute. You have done her proud.. Then & now. She sounds like an amazing inspiration who blessed many. Enjoy your memories & thanks for sharing.