Published on Tuesday, November 15, 2016
The renowned and beloved Scots novelist, poet, essayist, travel writer, and fabulist spent a few short months in Monterey in 1879. But Stevenson’s time in Monterey is significant for a few reasons. One is that is marked a dramatic turning point in the author’s personal life. Just months before arriving in Monterey, and over the objection of his parents, Stevenson left Scotland seeking independence, his livelihood, and to be with the object of his first and last romantic passion, the already-married Fanny Osbourne. Despite his delicate constitution, Stevenson had crossed the Atlantic in steerage, endured a miserable journey on a train across the American continent, and arrived in California weary, desperately ill, and almost penniless.
In Monterey, while Fanny pondered indecisively about divorcing her philandering husband, Samuel Osbourne, the physically unwell Stevenson traveled by horseback to Carmel Valley where he was soon found at his campsite in a state of delirium. Stevenson received care for two weeks at Jonathan Wright’s goat ranch, and recovered sufficiently to make his way back to Monterey. He found lodging in Girardin’s French House on Houston Street, and nourishment and companionship at the saloon of Jules Simoneau. When Stevenson collapsed from overwork, it was Jules Simoneau who brought specially-prepared food and drink to him until the crisis passed.
Simoneau has been described as “a rare and beautiful character,” French by birth and educated at the Sorbonne. He was philosophical, deeply interested in human affairs, a lover of art and literature, and possessed a kind and generous nature. Adept at cooking, he made his livelihood by operating a small restaurant on Pearl Street near Munras Avenue. Simoneau’s establishment was the haunt of many Bohemian artists who often had no money to pay for their meals; instead Simoneau allowed them to decorate the walls of his restaurant with their paintings.
In Stevenson, Simoneau found a soul mate with whom he spent countless hours playing chess and discussing the universe. Stevenson loved Simoneau’s little saloon and wrote, “The intended diner found himself in a little, chill, bar adobe room, furnished with chairs and tables, and adorned with some oil sketches roughly brushed upon the wall in the manner of Barbizon and Cernay. The table, at whatever hour you entered, was already laid with a not spotless napkin, and by the way of epergne, with a dish of green peppers and tomatoes, pleasing alike to the eye and palate.” Later in life, Stevenson recalled, “Of all my private collection of remembered inns and restaurants…one particular house of entertainment stands forth alone…Some were beautifully situated, some had an admirable table, some were the gathering place of excellent companions; but take them for all in all, none can be compared with Simoneau’s at Monterey.”
Simoneau has often been credited with saving Stevenson’s life. At the very least, his care and friendship upheld the suffering Stevenson and enabled him to eventually succeed in literature. Stevenson wandered far and wide in his short lifetime. After Fanny Osbourne was at last free to marry Stevenson, they had many adventures together, and his career flourished. The couple eventually settled in Samoa where Stevenson died in 1894 at the young age of 44.
Stevenson’s time in Monterey with Simoneau lasted only a few months, but the friendship they forged was maintained by correspondence until Stevenson’s death. As each complete volume of essays, stories, or novel was published, Stevenson never failed to send an autographed first edition to his old friend in Monterey. Simoneau’s collection Stevenson’s letters, photographs, and books were his most cherished possessions. In his inscribed copy to The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Stevenson wrote, “It would be a stranger case still if ever Stevenson forgot his old friend Simoneau.” Stevenson’s inscription on Simoneau’s copy of New Arabian Nights read, “What there are of my travels, I find nothing more to scribble about. Do not forget – RLS.” Simoneau, in his own hand, added, “He will not forget.”
By Jeanne McCombs
Note: The Josephine Simoneau Fussell Collection, 1902 – 1968, was donated to the Monterey Public Library’s California History Room by the RLS Club of Monterey. The collection includes correspondence, greeting cards, programs, printed matter and memorabilia related to the friendship of Robert Louis Stevenson and Jules Simoneau. The photograph, also in the California History Room Collections, depicts an elderly Simoneau, who continued to make tamales and sell them to his old customers by way of keeping in touch.
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