The Tree House

In the 1980s, while working in San Francisco, I rented a 600-square-foot tree house on a hillside estate, high above the fishing village of Sausalito, overlooking San Francisco Bay. The tree house was surrounded by acacia trees, giant eucalyptus trees grew through the decks, and the steep driveway up to our gravel parking lot was lined with 30-foot-high hedge of night blooming jasmine. It was like a houseboat surrounded by a deck, that had somehow landed in the trees. I awakened every morning before dawn to the sound of sea lions barking on the rocks of the Bay below. 

“Doesn’t this look like the perfect place for me to write a bestselling novel?” I asked all my friends. 

“Nope,” one said, “it looks like it would inspire a work of great literary merit that no one would ever buy!”

The main house on the estate was a “Queen Anne” style Victorian with a wrap-around porch, built by a German artist in the early 1900s, before the Golden Gate Bridge was built. My tree house had been his open air studio. 

The original house of the estate, in the early 1800s, had been a lodge built of giant logs, by Captain Richardson (for whom “Richardson Bay” is named)–the first Englishman to sail through the Golden Gate, on a whaling ship. He jumped ship, married a Spanish woman, got a land grant for most of the southern peninsula opposite San Francisco, and founded the town of Sausalito–meaning “a little grove of willow trees.” The willows and the fresh water springs that fed them were still there just below my house. 

My landlord told me that the ghost of Captain Richardson still haunted the big house, in a pique, ever since the German artist had demolished it to build his own. (The German artist must have haunted my tree house, since I painted up a storm and wrote my first two novels there!)

The mayor of Sausalito, when I lived there, was Sally Stanford, owner of Valhalla restaurant on the waterfront, which served great food, though the decor was done up as a bordello with gaslight and flocked red velvet wallpaper. Sally was infamous: decades earlier, she had been madam of the most notorious brothel in San Francisco, on Nob Hill. Gossip columnist Herb Caen (whom I knew) said the early United Nations, in San Francisco, was “founded at Sally Stanford’s whorehouse.” She had a lot of important visitors, up through the 1960s. Sally was, as the French say, “Such a one.”

As a practical businesswoman, Sally was an excellent mayor. As longtime mayor of Sausalito, she held the “swing vote” on town council, which she often used to prevent developers from demolishing the rustic but charming historic places. The day she died, as I drove to work along the waterfront, the crews were already in place with giant wrecking balls.

Twenty years later, while I was on Book Tour, the new owners of the estate let me rent (and borrow) my Tree House over a two-year period.