The Journal of San Diego History
SAN DIEGO HISTORICAL SOCIETY QUARTERLY
Summer 1970, Volume 16, Number 3
Linda Freischlag, Editor
Although Jesse Shepard Grierson did not begin to pursue a literary career until he settled into the Villa Montezuma in San Diego, he was by then nearly forty years old, at the midpoint of his life, and in firm possession of the philosophy by which he lived and wrote. It could be said that the Villa Montezuma embodies in architectural forms many of the ideas from that philosophy that also find expression in Shepard’s writing. Certainly it is an exotic building, but it was designed with a harmony appropriate to his musical and artistic nature in a disciplined way that San Simeon, for instance, with its multiple allegiances and inspirations, was not. Nor is the style consonant with the prevailing architectural modes of its Southern California location. It is an urbane style in keeping with the manners and habits of a cosmopolitan gentleman and aesthete — from the tower study down through the formal waiting room all the way to the basement kitchen and servants’ quarters.
Shepard’s style — in building and in writing — was a distilled, finely-honed, aphoristic style. Although there are several dangling participles and many overly-fancy verbs in his autobiographical novel, The Valley of Shadows, there was nothing gross, nothing vulgar, in Shepard’s conception. Especially in his essays, every ingredient was carefully selected and polished to shine brightly in isolation. In his essays, just as in the rooms of his house, a beautifully expressed idea, well-formed and polished, stands in harmony with several others. It would be easy — and it is tempting — to lift out and carry away a single gorgeous window or a well-wrought paragraph without seriously disturbing the fabric of thought of design. For example, one of the art glass windows is missing from the Villa Montezuma. It may have been a geometric design; it may have been a study from nature; it may have been a life-like portrait of an admired human being; or, it may have been a symbolic representation of some religious, artistic, or mystic inspiration. It could have been any or none of these because such is the diversity of sources in the remaining examples. It is as though each unit is a bonus — surprising, rewarding, even thrilling — but were it not already present, it would not be an obvious omission.
To begin, let’s consider the subject matter of the art glass windows in the music room, focal point of the building and most dramatic setting for Shepard’s talent. Here, it is said, the lights were extinguished at the close of a piano improvisation so that Shepard could, during the darkened period of applause, place himself in proper position to acknowledge the adulation. In speculation, we may assume that he stood and bowed near the Orient/Occident window, a four by six foot expanse of art glass that graphically illustrates Shepard’s view of human motivation as fostered by opposing cultural traditions. On the right, representing Western man and subscripted “Occident” is the figure of a knight in armor, in marching stride with lance upright. Covered completely by chainmail and armor, the knight has his visor in place so that not even an eyelash betrays the identity of the man within. Behind the warrior, the spectator glimpses the crenelated tower of a medieval fortress/castle, hulking and forbidding. Such was Shepard’s view of man in terms of the philosophy advanced by the nations of the “western” world-worshippers of strength, speed, and force. On the left, in point by point contrast are the towering minarets of an Eastern mosque, graceful and beguiling, and in the foreground strolls a man clad in flowing robes and soft shoes with his gentle staff placed upon the path and his face open to the world of nature surrounding him. Here the face is open to inspection, and inspection reveals it to be the likeness of Shepard himself. Clearly, he saw himself as the representative of “Eastern” philosophies of meditation instead of militancy, of grace and beauty rather than power and action. It was that world he admired and described in his many essays on the nature and function of art, literature, music, and their practitioners.
In the music room, one other portrait window appears. A classical scene depicting Sappho and her companions, it illuminates the center of the longest wall in the room, the most likely location for Shepard’s piano. (Records indicate that the instrument was a seven and one-third octave Knabe, Style H.) The window represents Shepard’s devotion to lyric poetry. Poetry, however, was his least successful pursuit, for Harold P. Simonson, our foremost Grier son scholar to date, notes that
One of Grierson’s few poetic efforts was a privately printed, seventy-five line poem called “A Grecian Rhapsody” which he dedicated to Sully-Prudhomme. Inconsequential as poetry, it nevertheless indicates Grierson’s longing for a far-off romanticism, in many ways as difficult to pinpoint and describe as his mysticism. The setting for the poem is Mt. Parnassus where the Muses are found engaged in revelry with nymphs, satyrs, and fauns. Moonlight washes the scene with an effulgence of mystical whiteness.
(Simonson, p. 44)
In a rounded appendage at the northeast corner of the music room is a series of leaded, colored-glass windows depicting flowers representative of nature’s four seasons. This arrangement is one of several in dicative of Shepard’s reverence and respect for Nature as a guiding principle in men’s lives.
An adjoining room, the drawing room, has art glass portraits of Shakespeare, Goethe, and Corneille. There are portrait windows of St. Cecilia at the pipe organ and of a knight militant lighting two stairways in the house as well as a variety of allegorical and symbolic panes in windows and transoms. Throughout all of them, it is obvious that the subject matter was Jesse Shepard’s personal choice. The harmony that exists among them is the harmony that he felt among the ideas they represent, and even a superficial study of his writing reveals the high regard in which he held these ideas. So too with the subjects portrayed. It is obvious that Shepard had studied Goethe at length, for he refers to that writer extensively in his essay, “The Celtic Temperament.” As a devotee of the theatre, he felt competent to engage in its critical literature and would have been imbued with the works of both Shakespeare and Corneille.
However, because the house was completed before the literary career was fairly launched, we should expect the building to reflect the enthusiams of the first half of his life and the literature to embody the mature concentrations of its second half. In other words, it would be foolish to search the archives for direct correspondences between the walls and the words as though he were obliged to justify the carpentry he had lived with for two short years.
Beautiful and satisfying though the house must have been to him, he apparently never referred to it once he had given it up. It is hard to guess whether its loss pained him deeply or hardly at all, for his philosophy and his nature were apparently passive and receptive to both fortune and misfortune. Although these qualities are not forcibly clear in the lad and youth called Bub, as he describes himself in The Valley of Shadows, during his years on the Illinois prairie and his service as page to General John C. Fremont, much evidence from the later years supports the claim. In the essay entitled “The Conservation of Energy,” he disparages passion, hate, envy, and suspicion as destructive and avoidable, and he remarks that “To live above the elements of dissension and opposition means a spirit of independence which is almost indifference.”
Furthermore, as a twenty-year veteran of almost unceasing international travels, Shepard had both literally and figuratively come a long way from the log house of his boyhood. He was by then a cosmopolitan man, a keen observer of human nature who was apparently sensitive to most of mankind’s emotions. His life was unique, and although he has been described as a bizarre character, his published works show that he was a capable man of letters with a rather invincible personality that apparently endured until his death at nearly eighty years of age. Among his literary contemporaries he had plenty of company in the pantheon of his beliefs in traditional idealism, in the nonrealistic school of literary arts, in the supernatural power of music, in his subscription to mystical preoccupations, to physiognomy and to aristocracy, and in his preference for the power of intuition over the plodding, studied accumulation of knowledge. The magical and mysterious laws of nature, the personal magnetism of certain people (charisma, in our era), the bodyspirit-soul explanation of personality fascinated him; and he seems to have lived his whole life without deviating from or acting contrary to those beliefs. Simonson says:
. . . He made his position clear that all events in art, religion, and even politics are related to a higher law which scientific inquiry can never explain. Despite the inscrutability of this law, Grierson believed that intimations of it are perceptible to artistic geniuses who have first freed themselves from the tyranny of mechanistic principles and empirical methods. Furthermore, he thought it wrong to assume that the mind in its pursuit of truth is wholly dependent upon reason or intellect. Such dependency would stifle creative art which, for Grierson, included his own genius for musical improvisations . . . Like the Romantics who preceded him, Grierson believed that a strict reliance upon observation rather than upon fancy and imagination spelled the death of art. All this was Grierson’s early hue and cry which echoes again and again in his later essays.
(Simonson, p. 41)
In fact, for someone accused of charlatanry as often as Shepard has been, he wrote a surprising amount of enduring material. Perhaps to be considered somewhat seriously in view of Shepard’s own widely acknowledged skill as a performing artist, here is one of his observations on artifice and theatricality from an essay entitled “Theatrical Audiences.”
As the theatrical world has its seasons and days, so there are special theatres for special classes. A playhouse is like a human entity; every theatre has its soul; each has its own form, colour, and influence. Theatrical superstition springs from an ignorance of the psychological laws which rule here as elsewhere. It is not then merely in the physical formation of a theatre that the secret lies, but in its personal social attraction. Attraction or repulsion, all depends upon a unity of material and mystical law. The material depends upon the structural form, the mystical on a combination of subtle moods and influences too illusive to be grasped by any save those who feel them without being able to explain them. So subtle are the influences which govern here that certain theatres may be likened to the planets: they have their seasons of ascendancy. They rise above the social horizon, increase in brightness, then grow dim, and sink just beneath the realm of royalty and fashion, perhaps to rise again into brilliance and favour after a long period of obscurity.
(The Celtic Temperament, pp. 12022)
Shepard may have been drawing on personal experience in this analysis. Certainly the Villa Montezuma served as a theatre and showcase for his musical and mystical performances before it “grew dim and sank below the realm of fashion.” Perhaps it too will “rise again into brilliance and favour after a long period of obscurity,” for the remarkable old building is still whole and redeemable. If we need justification beyond its unique beauty and priceless elements, or if we are not intrigued by historical and literary curiosities, the printed word of statistical record and literary preservation still provides considerable substantiation. Jesse Shepard has received praise from his contemporaries and study and evaluation by such eminent critics as Edmund Wilson and Bernard DeVoto and by such competent scholars as Harold P. Simonson, whose 1966 book length study and bibliography gave Shepard high marks as a literary figure. Simonson on page 46 says, “Grierson’s essays … are like slender goblets which sparkle exquisitely when left alone in recessed light.” And his major work, the autobiographical The Valley of Shadows is a fine piece of craftsmanship praised by Wilson, DeVoto, and Carl Sandburg among many others.
Certainly, Jesse Shepard Grierson is an interesting phenomenon in San Diego’s gallery, and though no record of the music that brought him here remains, some of the man can be discerned in his published works. Here are a few thoughts from the “Reflections” published with “The Celtic Temperament” in 1901:
The greatest poets have been those who studied least, but who possessed a certain faculty of diving the mysterious. Application, which fortifies the intellect, kills imagination, for in rendering the mind positive it clips the wings of fantasy. Hence, the more a poet studies his style the more he limits his creative power.
Style is a siren who charms more by her melody than by her words. The writers who charm us most do not resemble the diamond whose value lies in mere bulk but the one whose facets reflect the clearest light. It is the difference between preponderation and quality. Such writers are almost always found where the critical explorer least expects them. They are analogous to those rare denizens of the deep that live in the silence and the shadow of profound waters, eluding the most patient and adroit fisherman, only mounting to the surface at certain hours of the day, certain seasons of the year, certain periods of a mystic cycle.
And, finally, the concluding entry from Shepard’s reflections,
The moment we cross another’s threshold we leave our personality at the door, like the Mussulman who takes off his sandals before entering the mosque. For every man is a god in his own house, and on entering the house of a stranger we put ourselves under the domination of another god. Friend or enemy, we render him homage as long as we remain. This is why we say: “You did me the honour of paying me a visit;” for the most stupid feel that no honour could equal the loss of one’s personality, even for an hour. If you doubt the truth of this, call on your acquaintances a day or two after having received them as guests, and you will be surprised at the confident and authoritative air of these same people who, the other day, at your house, showed you so much deference. You feel that, whether you like it or not, you, in your turn, have left your aplomb at the door, and that this time it is for you to bend before a host with an eye full of confidence, or easy mien, and free from all constraint.
The greatest proof of our admiration is to pass voluntarily some time under the domination of another, particularly if that person be gifted. In this case the word “master” takes a double sense — master in the intellectual world, and our master as long as we are in his house.
Grierson, Francis. The Celtic Temperament. London, John Lane, The Bodley Head, 18.
…… The Valley of Shadows. Boston, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1948.
Simonson, Harold P. Francis Grierson. New York, Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1966.
Joan Bigge holds a B.A. and M.A. degree from DePauw University. She has taught at San Diego State, City College, and Mesa College. Mrs. Bigge is president of the Klee Wyk, women’s auxiliary to the Museum of Man. She is very active in many San Diego undertakings including the Research Committee for the San Diego Historic Site Board.