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Dalessandro sets the quake record straight with “1906”

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Beth Winegarner
News Pointer Editor
August 24, 2004

When James Dalessandro sat down to write “1906,” his novel about the events surrounding San Francisco’s most devastating earthquake, he set out to change history.

It is clear from talking to the author that Dalessandro is on a mission: his book, and his conversation, highlight the political scandals of the time, the efforts to hide just how many died as a result of the temblor and his drive to set the record straight.

“This is the biggest disaster in American history,” Dalessandro said. “A city of 450,000 was wiped off the face of the earth. Twenty-nine thousand buildings burned to the ground — that was 87 percent of all the city’s standing structures.”

To write the book, Dalessandro studied thousands of newspaper and magazine articles and more than 200 texts, including Gladys Hansen’s “Denial of Disaster.” “It’s the definitive text. It says everything [we know] about the 1906 earthquake is a lie,” he said.

Among those falsehoods, Dalessandro said, is that the death toll was grossly underrepresented. In 1907, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors gave the death toll as 478. “Easily 6,000 people died, or more. Nobody counted them. They made a conscious effort to cover up the magnitude of the disaster for fear nobody would rebuild the city, or they would be hanged when people found out what they did.”

“1906” is told from the perspective of a woman reporter, Annalisa Passarelli, as she uncovers the real story behind the political players in San Francisco at the time of the earthquake.

It includes a few historical figures, including San Francisco Mayor Eugene Schmitz, Fire Chief Dennis Sullivan and Frederick Funston, the general who took control of the city after the quake.

Dalessandro said he struggled to portray them accurately. “I think that’s what you owe it. If you are going to use history, I think it should be used properly, accurately. In this particular instance, I think these characters have been misportrayed for a century now. Schmitz is portrayed as a decisive hero who rallied the city in its darkest hour. I don’t know how decisive a man could be if all his decisions are wrong.”

The author cites such problems as what firefighters discovered when they opened the city’s underground water cisterns to fight the fires that followed the earthquake. “Schmitz took bribes from local corporations to use them as garbage dumps. When the Fire Department lifted the lids, they found rubble — no water. He should have spent the rest of his life in jail for what he did,” Dalessandro said.

In addition, the book describes how dynamite was used to try to halt the fires — but instead sent flaming pieces of wood showering over whole neighborhoods, starting yet more fires. Citizens were deputized as policemen and handed guns, charged with keeping the peace; more than 500 civilians were shot and killed for looting.

Born in Cleveland, Ohio, Dalessandro studied at Ohio University and the film school at the University of California at Los Angeles. In 1973, he founded the Santa Cruz Poetry Festival with Ken Kesey and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, featuring other writers like Allen Ginsberg and Charles Bukowski.

He has worked as a writer since then, contributing to the House of Blues radio hour and selling about 20 independent feature-film scripts. Writing “1906” took much of the past seven years, although Dalessandro also wrote another book, “Citizen Jane,” about San Anselmo resident Jane Alexander, who has solved 14 murders including the death of her aunt.

Both “Citizen Jane” and “1906” are currently in the process of becoming films; the former with Court TV, the latter with Warner Bros. In addition, Dalessandro is working on scripts for a series based in the Tenderloin, which may be run on HBO. His first novel, “Bohemian Heart,” was just optioned by producer Lloyd Silverman, a Tiburon resident who produced “Snow Falling on Cedars.”

Dalessandro thinks like a filmmaker. One of his motivations for writing “1906” was, “I wanted to know what the original San Francisco was like: we live in ‘San Francisco: the sequel,'” he said. “I got to visit the most wonderful and frightening part of our history. I got to walk down these streets and through the mansions and look at the clothes. I could tell you who served the best food and how many prostitutes there were on the Barbary Coast.”

His passion for San Francisco — and uncovering the real history of the city — has driven Dalessandro to co-produce a documentary on the 1906 earthquake and fire with Ben Burtt, a LucasFilm sound editor who has won four Academy Awards, and with Craig Barron, owner of Novato’s Matte World, a visual-effects company.

Already, the team has completed 19 minutes of footage in which still photographs have been animated to show the devastation of the earthquake. The clip will be shown Sept. 15 at the Depot in Mill Valley.

Dalessandro said if the truth about the 1906 quake isn’t revealed, San Francisco will be doomed to endure another disaster. “The city of San Francisco is in greater danger today than in 1906. It has a greater population, higher building height and more gasoline. The Fire Department is terrific, the Police Department is good, but they cannot solve the problem. There’s no master plan for what to do. The hospitals only have eight hours’ worth of supplies. This is not going to be like Sept. 11 — this is going to be worse.”

He recently wrote a city resolution encouraging San Francisco to report the accurate death count in honor of the centennial in 2006.

Dalessandro moved to Marin 10 years ago, living first in Fairfax before settling in San Rafael. He also worked as a wrestling coach at Sir Francis Drake High School for two years. His wife, Katie, works for BioMarin Pharmaceuticals, and the couple has adopted several children. For the past 11 years, he has taught a screenwriting class at Fort Mason.

“I love San Francisco and I love Marin,” he said. When pressed to choose a favorite part of the city, Dalessandro cites North Beach. “In my books, all the characters live on Telegraph Hill, in the same house. Some authors use the same characters; I use the same family and jump around in time from contemporary San Francisco to 1906.” He is already planning more books based in the city, including one set in 1864 and another set in 1934.

“1906” has already struck gold, selling out of its first printing and earning high marks with local bestseller lists and on “Book Passage can’t keep the book in the store,” he said. “It’s very gratifying. It’s been tremendous.”

This article originally appeared in the San Rafael/Terra Linda News Pointer.

Written by Beth Winegarner

August 24, 2004 at 6:34 PM

Posted in History, San Francisco

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