A Voice from the Underworld

Memoirs of a woman of the night in SF 100 years ago

For two months in 1913, the San Francisco Bulletin published daily installments of the autobiography of an anonymous prostitute the paper called Alice Smith. Her story, despite the impact it had on society at the time, was nearly forgotten and is collected for the first time in more than 100 years in Alice: Memoirs of a Barbary Coast Prostitute. The book has been published by Heyday, the independent nonprofit publisher based in Berkeley.

Ivy Anderson and Devon Angus, the book’s editors, discovered the story out of a mutual love for the underground book You Can’t Win (1926), by the hobo and burglar Jack Black, which had a profound influence on William S. Burroughs and was originally serialized by the Bulletin. Interest in that book’s backstory led Anderson and Angus to Fremont Older, editor of the paper, whose own life was fascinating; in reading about it, they stumbled on a mention of the memoir but had to scour through microfilm to find it.

“Alice’s own narrative immediately gripped us,” Anderson said by phone. “But the thing that really indicated to us that this was a special and remarkable document was, alongside these daily installments of Alice’s story, there were these letters to the editor that were published, and nearly half of them were written by other prostitutes or working-class women, reflecting on their own experiences in San Francisco and California in this really candid way.”

The paper published more than 200 responses, which are also collected in Alice.

“All sorts of people wrote in to the paper,” Angus said, “and at first they were just talking about the memoir, but as it started going along they started talking to each other through these letters, and you had all these different classes, and people from all different parts of society that very often wouldn’t be talking to each other — like rich conservative men who were actually going to the Barbary Coast and purchasing the favors of these women — who were having conversations they would never have in the brothel, through this newspaper, and it created this whole dialogue, this whole discourse that was really unique for the time.”

Alice’s story, A Voice From the Underworld, sparked what Anderson and Angus believe to be the first sex worker rights protest in modern U.S. history, organized in 1917 by two madams and Fremont Older against the closing of the Barbary Coast and the eviction of the brothel workers.

Anderson and Angus will present Alice: Memoirs of a Barbary Coast Prostitute, which won the 2015 California Historical Society Book Award, as part of UC Berkeley’s California Studies Dinner Seminars series, at 7 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 17, 2521 Channing Way, and in a Barbary Coast Walking Tour on Saturday.

“As much as this is going to be a tour that includes stories of vice and criminality, and sort of salacious, lascivious stuff,” Anderson said, “our attempt is really to broaden these discussions about vice and connect them to greater political and philosophical movements that were happening in San Francisco between 1849 and 1917, but that also are still continuing to happen in San Francisco today.”


Alice: Barbary Coast Walking Tour: Noon. Saturday, Nov. 19. Free. City Lights Books, 261 Columbus Ave.

This article originally appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle.

Image courtesy of the authors

Other book events

Michael McClure celebrates the publication of a new collection, “Mephistos and Other Poems,” with a reading at City Lights Books (Free. 7 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 17. 261 Columbus Ave.).

Bonnie Wai-Lee Kwong, Danusha Lameris, Susan Terris, Amos White and Javier Zamora lead an open discussion about diversity in literature, focusing on “how we decide what to read, who decides what gets published, and what we think about quotas, appropriation, identification, and nepotism” (Free. 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 17. Falkirk Cultural Center, 1408 Mission Ave., San Rafael).

CAConrad, author of the 2015 Believer Magazine Book Award-winning “Ecodeviance: (Soma)tics for the Future Wilderness” (Wave Books) is in town from Philadelphia to read for the Writers Series at the California College of the Arts (Free. 4:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 18. 195 De Haro St.).

Poets Judy Grahn (“Another Mother Tongue: Gay Words, Gay Worlds,” and “A Simple Revolution, the Making of an Activist Poet”), CAConrad, and Katie Ebbitt (“Another Life”) read from their work (Free. 7 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 19. Alley Cat Books, 3036 24th St.).

LOAN, the band of Tongo Eisen-Martin (“Someone’s Dead Already”), Chris Peck, Miles Wick and Jon Rogers, presents a night of interdisciplinary pairings featuring poet Bonnie Kwong (“ravel”) and guitarist Oliver Mok, and poet Josiahluis Alderete and guitarist Eli Carlton-Pearson ($10-$20. 7 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 19. Red Poppy Art).