The Lost Autobiographical Works of Once Famous Sausalito Author Frederick O'Brien

By Charles Willcox

The following is excerpted from a 1993 article in the Historical Society’s newsletter:

Portrait of Federick O’Brien from Sausalito News

By any definition, Frederick O'Brien was a vagabond. O'Brien travelled more in any given year than most travel in a lifetime.

O'Brien, who lived the latter part of his life in Sausalito, has also largely been forgotten, yet the visions he shared in his three books, White Shadows in the South Seas, Mystic Isles of the South Seas, and Atolls of the Sun, created lasting and haunting images of places and people, now long gone, who once dwelled on the many lone­ly islands strewn throughout the South Pacific.

At 18 years of age, in 1887, he dropped out of college and signed aboard an American Clipper ship bound for South America. He found, however, that life aboard didn't afford the freedom he sought, and so when the chance came to jump ship in Brazil, he took it, and began the life of a nomad, tramping through the then little known interiors of Brazil and Venezuela.

Eventually, with his fill of South America, and still essentially a hobo, he ventured out onto the Caribbean before finally returning to the States.

Settling down, as best he could, O'Brien began a respectable career as an accomplished, though itinerant, journalist. Over the next 25 years, he managed to write his way around the globe from Paris to the Yangtze Kiang delta. Of all his writings, however, his most endearing stamp was left on his descriptions of the fading people and cultures inhabiting the islands of French Polynesia.

Although his life during sojourns in the South Seas was well chronicled in his three books, the rest of his life, equally filled with adventure, remained for the most part undocumented. It wasn't until later years that Frederick O'Brien, urged by friends, started his autobiography, titled On Paper Wings. Unfortunately, O'Brien never completed this work before his death in 1932.

There are many questions. Why didn't anyone write O'Brien's biography, given that one was fully expected? Did O'Brien's personal secretary, Margaret Watson, ever publish her "memoirs" and include the contents of it? If not, did she at least keep her copy and pass it on to someone else? Although married once, O'Brien had long been separated from his wife at the time of his death, and he never had children. Nor did he have any close relatives that lived in the area.

In all probability, most of the possessions of O'Brien's went to close friends who were with him at the time of his death. It is known that among his closest friends were Dr. Leo Stanley (the famous San Quentin physician and Sausalito resident), as well as William M. Simmons, a well-known attorney, and Dean of Hasting's School of Law. Simmons was also the executor of O'Brien's estate.

This raises the question, why is there no will or probate on record in Marin County? Did any of the three key people close to O'Brien at his death —Stanley, Simmons or Watson — ever receive any of his estate belongings, such as his unfinished manuscript, photographs, or any of the countless rare objects and curios O'Brien had collected.... like the smoked head of a Solomon man O'Brien used to keep in his closet?

At the end of his essay Willcox asked the aid of local residents “who may remember something about O'Brien himself, or information that will help in the recovery of the lost.” He concluded: “The lack of trails may be symptomatic of the fact that although O'Brien had many friends from around the world, he was at heart, a loner. He once wrote that he was ‘always a lover of sunsets on far shores, of books, of men, of women and animals, of speculations upon life and morals, customs and reactions, of merry song and brave deed, and also of being alone.’ When death claimed Frederick O'Brien, it was in the sunset of the day as he had always wished. It could be that nothing remains of On Paper Wings, or his personal belongings, and given his quiet and reticent nature, maybe he wanted it that way.”

The Historical Society has been able to unearth only a few reports of O’Brien’s time here. In a 1932 Sausalito News tribute after his death, Edmond Terence Casey (who described himself as O’Brien’s  friend and familiar”) recalled the author’s “great full-length windows with matchless view of San Francisco, Angel Island, Tiburon and the beautiful scape of bay,” adding: “Frederick O’Brien passed his more serene and Olympian years, sybaritic, happy, poetic, greatly honored; Sausalito's most illustrious and acclaimed citizen and one of America’s most distinguished literary men.”

In the 1962Sausalito Pictorial Quarterly, nationally known writer Edward H. Dillon, a native of Sausalito, called O’Brien “One of the first ‘discoverers’ of Polynesia,” pointing out that “His forward to Mystic Ideas is datelined, “Kahoa, Sausalito, California.”

Dilllon told of how O’Brien was followed here by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall “who also did much of their writing of the Bounty trilogy in Sausalito. What drew them?  Perhaps something of John Webster’s 1851 description remained in ferryboat days: ‘Saucelito is a safe anchorage, inside the harbor. . . The village of the same name, surrounded by an amphitheater of hills, contains but a few cottages in the modern style of architecture…It enjoys advantage of San Francisco in the salubrity of the air, in the possession of good water, and in the absence of dust’.”