Letter from London to Putnam

Special thanks to Kim Hall, descendent of Arthur Putnam, for providing this information and image. Hall also told me that, at one point, London and Putnam lived together in a boarding house in Monterey; perhaps when Putnam was doing work on the Sloat monument there. After that, the two men kept an ongoing correspondence.

letter from Jack London to Arthur Putnam

This letter from Jack London to Arthur Putnam confirms what I have long suspected; that indeed, the two men were not merely acquaintances, but were close and long–lasting chums. It reads:

Dear Putnam: -
If you’re ever down Frisco way for the love of Mike look us up on the ranch. Not forgetting that steelhead you let me play.
Sincerely yours, Jack London
Glen Ellen, Calif.
Sept. 14, 1911:/

The reference to "that steelhead you let me play", is talking about a fish that Arthur Putnam let Jack London reel in.

History of the Tablet
  • This redwood writing tablet was carved by the famous American sculptor Arthur Putnam in 1903.
  • It was the personal property of Jack London when he died on November 22, 1916.
  • Charmian London presented this tablet as an award at the Children’s Pets Exhibit held in 1917.
  • This award was presented to James Rolph III, the son of San Francisco mayor, James "Sunny Jim" Rolph II.

From there the writing tablet faded into obscuity, and eventually was completely forgotten.

As you can see, there is much that is still unknown about the early history of Jack London’s writing tablet, or where it has been from late 1917 until 1998. More research is needed, and it will be a fun and interesting project for Jack London scholars in the future.

I purchased this piece about 10 years ago because I loved the rugged style of the hand carved dog, and because of the interesting engraved bronze tags. I figured it had to be special because Mrs. Jack London had presented it, so although the price seemed high at the time, I purchased it.

When I got it home, I knew there was something special about it. I started looking for a signature, but found none, so I put it in my livingroom and started doing research in my spare time.

The bronze tags were the only clues I had to go on. I could tell that the tags were custom engraved, so the information on the tags was a good place to start. The tags indicated it was presented by the wife of famous author, Jack London, in her late husband’s memory, and that it was presented as an award at a "Children’s Pets Exhibit" in 1917.

The rest was a mystery and I started my journey to discover the tablet's secrets.

At the time, there was nothing on the internet that provided much help. I remember reading Jack London’s biography, and knew that the date of his death, Nov. 22, 1916, was consistant with the date on the tablet. From there, I began researching Jack London on the internet, and found that hiswife’s name was Charmian. I started looking for any presentation she had made in regarding her late husband and found an article where she had planted a tree in his memory in 1917. Then the trail went cold.

The oval bronze medallion was the next clue I examined. I thought the CPE were the initials for the California Pacific Exposition, an event which is well known to most San Diegans, that took place at Balboa Park in 1915. I had overlooked the significance of the engraved "San Francisco" on one of the tags because I knew CPE stood for the California Pacific Exposition. This oversight caused me to lose a few days of time and effort.

I called the San Diego Historical Society in Balboa Park and made an appointment to search the archives. I spent an entire day looking through everything I could find on the California Pacific Exposition. I was disheartened when I could find nothing about Jack London, Charmian London, or a "Children’s Pets Exhibit". When I realized the California Pacific Exposition ended in 1916, I knew I'd hit another dead end.

The tablet remained in the back of my mind, however, I did not have time to do much research, so it remained on the back burner.

In September 1999, I became very sick, and was dignosed with cancer. I was in the hospital for 5 weeks, and had two major surgeries. As I was recovering, my mother gave me a book for Christmas. Little did I know, this book, titled "100 Years of Art in San Diego", would provide the next important clue.

Putnam's Studio

I had the book around the house, and would glance through it from time to time. Then one day, while looking through the book, I recognized something very familiar… it was the work of Arthur Putnam. In this book there is an early photo of Arthur Putnam working in his studio. I could easily see that some of his work was very similar in form and scale to the work in my carving! I went to the computer and in just a few hours, I realized that my carved dog was, without a doubt, an original work by Arthur Putnam.

This clue rekindled my interest in researching the origins of the tablet. I read everything I could find on Arthur Putnam, and in my reading I discovered that he had lived in the San Diego area, and in San Francisco, and had gone back and forth a few times.

I started on my search to find the connection between Arthur Putnam and Jack London.

I found that Mr. Russ Kingman had written the difinitive book on Jack London’s life, so I tried to contact him, only to discover he had passed away. I spoke with his widow, Winnie Kingman, and she was intrigued with my story. She told me she would do some checking in Russ Kingman’s indexed file cards, and see if she could find any connection. A few days later, Winnie called me and told me she had found an index card stating Alma Spreckles had picked up Arthur Putnam and Jack London in her limousine, and taken them to dinner. Although this didn’t connect Arthur Putnam and Jack London with the carved writing tablet, it connected the two men directly, and that kept me going.

I went back to the internet and when I found an article called the Dark Cat, by Alexander Nemerov, I knew I'd finally found the connection I'd been looking for.

Jack London writing

I was quite excited, because in this article published in 2002, it states that Jack London was a frequent visitor of Arthur Putnam’s studio!

From there, I read everything I could find on Arthur Putnam and Jack London. I finally got around to constructing timelines of Arthur Putnam and Jack London’s lives. I knew the tablet had to have been carved before Putnam had lost his ability to sculpt in 1911, and I knew that Jack London must have had the tablet when he died, for Charmian to have access to it, to choose it as an award to present at the Children’s Pets Exhibit in 1917.

After carefully making hand drawn timelines of both men’s lives, I realized the only time it could have been carved and delivered to Jack London was in 1903. There were a few facts which helped narrow down the time frame. From early 1904 through 1911, it wasn’t likely that it would have been carved and delivered, as Arthur Putnam and Jack London were not ever in the same place at the same time after late 1903.

I decided to find out what was happening in Jack London’s life around 1903, which might explain more about the carved sculpture. I discovered he had written The Call of the Wild, which was a book I knew was famous, but had never read. So I got a copy, and started reading… and it hit me like a ton of bricks… the carved dog was Buck! The carved dog at the top of the tablet, in a recumbant position, depicts the dog Buck as described in The Call of the Wild beautifully. By the way, I loved the story, and understood why Jack London became so famous!

“But for the stray brown on his muzzle and above his eyes, and for the splash of white hair that ran midmost down his chest, he might well have been mistaken for a gigantic wolf, larger than the largest of the breed. From his St. Bernard father he had inherited size and weight, but it was his shepherd mother who had given shape to that size and weight. His muzzle was the long wolf muzzle, save that was larger than the muzzle of any wolf; and his head, somewhat broader, was the wolf head on a massive scale.”

The Call of the Wild, Jack London, Ch.7

It was about this time that I realized that this oddly formed sculpture was a writing tablet, and Jack London’s personal property.

My excitment was hard to contain, as I knew I had made an important discovery. Now I had to find the evidence that proved it was indeed Jack London’s writing tablet.

As I pondered everything I had discovered, I could hardly contain my excitement. I knew I had discovered something unique, and very special. The carving had ties to a famous artist and author. Still I had unanswered questions and I knew people would be skeptical, as a discovery this important was just too good to be true.

I went back on the internet and found out that the Huntington Library held the largest collection of Jack London items anywhere in the world. I figured this would be the place to find more. I found that Sara S. Hodson was in charge of the Jack London Collection, so I contacted her, and told her everything I had discovered.

Sara was friendly and inquisitive, but I could tell she was a bit skeptical, so I emailed her photos and included the information I had found through my research. Sara (AKA Sue) called me back. She, too, felt I had found something special and very interesting, and worthy of more research. She offered to allow me access to the archives to do research, and scheduled a date. I offered to bring the tablet with me, but Sue said not to or I "may not be allowed to leave the Huntington with it", and we both got a laugh out of that! Needless to say, I left the writing tablet at home.

At the time, I was taking flying lessons and I told my CFI (certified flight instructor) all about the writing tablet. He found all of this very interesting and wanted to go along. I knew it make for a fun trip and that I could use his help doing research, so the day came and we drove up to the Huntington together.

When we arrived at the Huntington, we were informed that normally no one is allowed in the restricted archival areas, and that we must be accompanied by one of the staff every minute we were in that part of the archives. We agreed to stay with the assigned staff member, and were introduced to Sue Hodson’s assistant Alicin. Alicin guided us to a research room with big tables and microfich readers, where she stayed with us every minute we were there.

Sue Hodson left to start digging out possible archival materials that might have the information I was looking for. She started bringing stacks of papers to the research room. Alicin, Sue, my CFI and I, all started going through lots information. As the day went on, Sue would say "I know another place we should look", and she would vanish for a few minutes, returning with another arm load of stuff, and the seach continued. Then Sue brought in rolls of microfich, and roll by roll, we searched through them. I couldn’t have done it myself, so I am very grateful for all the assistance that was provided.

Later in the day, this effort culminated in the discovery of the needles of information gleened from the mountain of 60,000 items that would eventually provide the crucial information culminating in the full authentication of the writing tablet as the personal property of Jack London.

Jack at desk

Armed with this new research I set out to obtain indisputable authentication. I knew the authentication would only be as good as the reputation of the authenticator so I made several dozen phone calls to the largest, most well known and respected dealers in early California art. I asked them "Who is the most respected authority in early California art and sculpture?". Again and again, the name of Mr. Jeffery Morseberg was mentioned.

I looked him up, and found that he was the owner of Morseburg Galleries in Beverly Hills, and that he was from a family with a long history of dealing in early California art.

I called Mr. Jeffery Morseburg and told him what I had found, and about the information I had discovered. He told me that this sounded incredible, and that he would have to be convinced beyond any doubt that it was indeed genuine, or he would not write the authentication papers. I understood and agreed, and made an appointment to bring the tablet, along with all my research, up to his offices in Beverley Hills. I arrived and showed Mr. Morseberg all my research and the verifiable sources of information it was based on.

Mr. Morseberg examined the writing tablet at length, and looked over my information. He said it looked very interesting, and explained that he would need time to do his own research before he would stake his reputation on written authentication papers. It was going to take some time, but once he decided, he would get back to me.

A few months later, Jeffery Morseberg called me to say that after carefully examining the writing tablet, and doing his own research, he was convinced that it is a genuine work by Arthur Putnam, that it is Jack London’s writing tablet, and that, based on all the research, he felt very comfortable writing the authentication papers.

I drove up to Beverly Hills to pick up the authentication papers, and from there embarked on a vacation to Sonoma County to visit the Jack London State Park to celibrate my discovery.

I called the Jack London Society and told them about the writing tablet and recent authentication, and that I was coming to Sonoma to visit the Jack London State Park. I also said I would like to show Winnie Kingman, and the members at the Jack London Society, the writing tablet. To say the least, they were very skeptical, but still wanted to see it. They made an appointment to meet me at their offices.

I arrived in Sonoma and my first stop was Jack London State Park. I loved the area, the House of Happy Walls, and especially the Wolf House Ruins. I even discovered that there are wolf heads made up of naturally shaped stones hidden in the patterns of the cobble stones. At first I thought I was seeing things, and that the long drive was causing my mind to play tricks on me. I then went looking for more wolf heads, and discovered that there are many of them, purposely designed into the cobblestones in fun, creative places, all over the ruins.

I also took the hike to visit Jack London’s grave site, and I felt sad for the early loss of such a great man.

I loved touring the House of Happy Walls, with the massive redwood furniture and huge redwood beams. This was the kind of place, built in the Arts & Crafts style, that the writing tablet would have fit into perfectly.

After the visit to Jack London State Park, it was time to head for The Jack London Society headquarters.

Jack London at home

I arrived and brought the tablet in a locked suitcase. I met with members who invited me into a room, where there was a big table. Before I could open the suitcase, they let me know my claims were pretty fantastic and that they were very skeptical. I asked where Winnie was, and they told me she would be there in a few minutes. I told them I was going to wait for Winnie before I opened the suitcase, as I wanted her to be the first one to see it, because she had helped me with some of the early research. Winnie arrived a few minutes later, and I opened the suitcase in a manner that she would be the first to see it. I watched her face, and slowly a big smile formed! She and the members started examining it very carefully, and in just minutes all the skepticism vanished. We all enjoyed looking at it and had a good time. They were surprised that they had never heard about the writing tablet before, and didn’t even know it existed. Looking back at my visit, I really enjoyed the warm, genuine people at the society. By the time I left it felt like we had all been good friends for years. Part of me wanted to stay in Sonoma, but it was time to head back to San Diego. They wished me well, and thanked me for bringing the tablet. I left, feeling really glad I made the trip.

There is more to this story, but from this point forward, the discovery was confirmed, and my goal was accomplished. I put the tablet away, and got back to the challenges of life.

I embarked on this website to share this amazing discovery with everyone who appreciates the quality which Jack London has brought to our lives through his stories and perspectives on the timeless struggles we all face.

In Conclusion:

Much of the known history has been determined by verifiable facts, but many pieces of the puzzle remain unanswered today. This is due to the fact that I have not had the time or energy to do more research.

The origin of Jack London’s writing tablet is determined by the inherant characteristics of the tablet itself. It is without any doubt, a work by Arthur Putnam. Arthur Putnam’s works have distinct qualities and consistant characteristics that set them apart, stylistically, from all other sculptors.

The engraved bronze tags which are affixed to the writing surface, provide proof of it’s history in 1917, which has been verified by news articles published at the time.

Notice: content is continually updated for accuracy. Please contact Christian Chaffee with any and all comments, questions, and corrections.