Saucy Sausalito

By Jack Tracy

The following excerpt comes from Jack Tracy’s book, “Moments in Time.”

Sausalito in the 1880s generated considerable interest among San Francisco's rich. Saturday or Sunday excursions to Wildwood Glen or Damon's Grove had long been popular with the bourgeoisie. But now it became fashionable to be included on the guest list for a weekend at Hollyoaks or Hazel Mount, Casa Madrona or Alta Mira, the villas of Sausalito's aristocracy. However decorous these weekends might be, there was always something deemed slightly racy about Sausalito that livened up newspaper accounts of parties.

San Francisco started off early in a curious relationship with Sausalito. The natural beauty of Sausalito, its pure water and sunny climate were obvious, but it was seen as somehow "foreign," or at least European, filled with British, Portuguese, and French people, a place where protocol and convention did not quite adhere to the rough-and-tumble but God-fearing standards of San Francisco. Perhaps it was jealousy over the imagined (and sometimes real) lurid goings-on in the romantic "pleasure suburb" across the bay.

The founders of the Sausalito Land & Ferry Company were, for the most part, conservative San Francisco businessmen who worked hard to overcome Sausalito's reputation as a place of slight impropriety, where, as the San Francisco Chronicle reported in 1889, "Undoubtedly there is a considerable amount of quiet deviltry carried on in the snug little cottages." In an article that year entitled "Saucy Sausalito, A Motley Colony of English and Portuguese," a Chronicle writer revealed the popular conception of Sausalito, and in the bargain something of his own repressed fantasies.

"A number of English-Americans have made their home in the place, and it needs but the merest glance at the throng on the landing pier of a Saturday afternoon to decide that the 'blarsted Britishers' have found in Sausalito something that reminds them of their own 'tight little island,' for they swagger about in a pretentious style that would be highly unpolitic, not to say risky, in a typical American city. The Portuguese and the English colonies at Sausalito get along quite well… They are not prone to interfere with each other, or to inquire into their neighbors’ affairs. A New England hamlet of the same size as Sausalito would be the scene of as much scandal and gossip as would furnish the local paper with half a dozen columns of spicy locals every week.

“But the Sausalitans have so many glass houses around them that they do not encourage stone-throwing. They are told that well-bred people do not inquire how much champagne finds its way on board a certain yacht every week. The Sausalito gossip would never dream it worth-while to speak of little mistakes made with latchkeys by belated husbands returning from a club-meeting in the wee small hours, [or question] why a new Juanita or Phryne or Belladonna has taken up her quarters at one of the mansions on the hill.

"The demure-looking damsels who come across in pairs on Saturday evening by the 5 o'clock boat from San Francisco could tell some interesting anecdotes of champagne suppers and altogether unanticipated stranding of yachts on convenient mud flats just before midnight. It is perhaps for this reason that discreet parents are rather shy of trusting their daughters out on these evening yachting trips, for it curiously happens that though provisions run short the champagne is sure to have been thought of as the retiring tide leaves the stranded yacht in the blue moonlight.

"The Sunday yachting parties are comparatively select affairs, and many promising matrimonial flirtations are inaugurated this way. Once a month or thereabouts a ball is given at the El Monte Hotel, and here again there is a great gathering of sighing swains, laughing belles, and weary chaperones, whose chief pleasure is supposed to consist in accumulating evidence that their own youth has forever flown away."

In an attempt at praise, the reporter continues: "The artist and the camera fiend are wont to count Sausalito as a happy hunting ground. Wildwood Glen, when not invaded by a hoodlum picnic party is an exceedingly romantic, albeit damp and rhumaticky spot." He goes on to describe the town jail as "a crazy cage which would not hold a healthy school boy in durance vile for half an hour. It might be used for drunkards, but, as a resident explained, the law of sobriety can be very liberally construed. Just as old Joey Miller said, he never considered a man drunk as long as he could hold on to the grass."

“Moments in Time” is available for purchase at the Historical Society’s Ice House visitors center, 780 Bridgeway.