Life and career
Sterling was born in Sag Harbor, New York, the eldest of nine children. His father was Dr. George A. Sterling, a physician who determined to make a priest of one of his sons, and George was selected to attend, for three years, St. Charles College in Maryland. He was instructed in English by poet John B. Tabb. His mother Mary was a member of the Havens family, prominent in Sag Harbor and the Shelter Island area. Her brother, Frank C. Havens, Sterling's uncle, went to San Francisco in the late 19th century and established himself as a prominent lawyer and real estate developer. Sterling eventually followed him to the West in 1890 and worked as a real estate broker in Oakland, California. With the publication of his small volume of poetry in 1903, The Testimony of the Sun and Other Poems, he quickly became a hero among the East Bay literati and artists, some of whom included Joaquin Miller, Jack London, Xavier Martinez, Harry Leon Wilson, Perry H. Newberry, Henry Lafler, Gelett Burgess, and James Hopper.
In 1905 Sterling moved 120 miles south to Carmel-by-the-Sea, California, an undeveloped coastal paradise, and soon established a settlement for like-minded Bohemian writers and other children of the counterculture. A parallel colony of painters was also developing in this enclave. Carmel had been discovered by Charles Warren Stoddard and others, but Sterling made it world-famous. His aunt Mrs. Havens purchased a home for him in Carmel Pines where he lived for nine years. In addition to the Bay Area residents mentioned above, Sterling managed to attract, as either visitors or semi-permanent residents, the satirical iconoclast Ambrose Bierce, novelist Mary Austin, art photographer Arnold Genthe, writer Clark Ashton Smith, and poet Robinson Jeffers. When a firestorm of controversy followed Sterling's publication of A Wine of Wizardry in the Cosmopolitan magazine of September 1907, other rebels flocked to Carmel, including Upton Sinclair and the MacGowan sisters. What attracted so much attention in the press were the stories (both fictional and true) of nude beach parties, free sex (including homosexual), wife swapping, opium dens, and the spate of suicides. The most notorious was the painful and prolonged suicide by poison of the popular poet Nora May French in Sterling's own home. Reports of French's nymphomania and the numerous male lovers just prior to her death scandalized the public. The suicide of Sterling's wife by cyanide only added fuel to the flames. Sterling's own diaries and correspondence reveal a more sedate, but still Bohemian community. He often volunteered at Carmel's Forest Theatre and once played a starring role in Mary Austin's play The Fire. He is depicted twice in Jack London's novels: as Russ Brissenden in the autobiographical Martin Eden (1909) and as Mark Hall in The Valley of the Moon (1913).
Sterling, posing with caricatures of himself at the Bohemian Grove
Kevin Starr (1973) wrote:
The uncrowned King of Bohemia (so his friends called him), Sterling had been at the center of every artistic circle in the San Francisco Bay Area. Celebrated as the embodiment of the local artistic scene, though forgotten today, Sterling had in his lifetime been linked with the immortals, his name carved on the walls of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition next to the great poets of the past.
Joseph Noel (1940) says that Sterling's poem, A Wine of Wizardry, has "been classed by many authorities as the greatest poem ever written by an American author."
According to Noel, Sterling sent the final draft of A Wine of Wizardry to the normally acerbic and critical Ambrose Bierce. Bierce said "If I could find a flaw in it, I should quickly call your attention to it... It takes the breath away."
Sterling joined the Bohemian Club and acted in their theatrical productions each summer at the Bohemian Grove. For the main Grove play in 1907, the club presented The Triumph of Bohemia, Sterling's verse drama depicting the battle between the "Spirit of Bohemia" and Mammon for the souls of the grove's woodmen. Sterling also supplied lyric for the musical numbers at the 1918 Grove play.
Bierce, who acclaimed Sterling's poem The Testimony of the Suns, in his "Prattle" column in William Randolph Hearst's San Francisco Examiner, arranged for the publication of A Wine of Wizardry in the September 1907 number of Cosmopolitan, which afforded Sterling some national notice. In an introduction to the poem, Bierce wrote "Whatever length of days may be according to this magazine, it is not likely to do anything more notable in literature than it accomplished in this issue by the publication of Mr. George Sterling's poem, 'A Wine of Wizardry.'" Bierce wrote to Sterling, "I hardly know how to speak of it. No poem in English of equal length has so bewildering a wealth of imagination. Not Spencer himself has flung such a profusion of jewels into so small a casket".
Sterling fell into drinking and his wife departed. Noel, a personal acquaintance, says that when he began the poem, Sterling "was persuaded that there was another world than that we know. He repeated this to me so frequently that it became a trifle tiresome. Of the means he employed to get a glimpse of that other world, I am not so sure." He observes that "many before Sterling had used narcotics to this end;" that "George, a doctor's son, had always had access to whatever drugs he fancied;" says that Sterling's wife said "that George had purloined a great quantity of opium from his brother Wickham," and speaks of "internal evidence in the poem" in which "Sterling writes his Fancy awakened with a 'brow caressed by poppybloom.'" Despite all this, Noel makes a point of saying "there is no direct evidence that Sterling used narcotics."
Sterling also wrote for children The Saga of the Pony Express.
Despite such famous mentors as Bierce and Ina Coolbrith, and his long association with London, Sterling himself never became well known outside California.
Sterling's poetry is both visionary and mystical, but he also wrote ribald quatrains that were often unprintable and left unpublished. His style reflects the Romantic charm of such poets as Shelley, Keats and Poe, and he provided guidance and encouragement to the similarly-inclined Clark Ashton Smith at the beginning of Smith's own career.
Sterling carried a vial of cyanide for many years. When asked about it he said, "A prison becomes a home if you have the key". Finally in November 1926, Sterling used it at his residence at the San Francisco Bohemian Club after not receiving an expected visit from H.L. Mencken. Kevin Starr wrote that "When George Sterling's corpse was discovered in his room at the Bohemian Club... the golden age of San Francisco's bohemia had definitely come to a miserable end."
Sterling's most famous line was delivered to the city of San Francisco, "the cool, grey city of love!".