The Artist as a Young Man

John Robinson Jeffers was born in Allegheny (now Pittsburgh), Pennsylvania on January 10, 1887 to Dr. William Hamilton Jeffers (a Bible scholar and Presbyterian minister) and his young wife Annie Tuttle. The boy was named John Robinson Jeffers, and he went by Robin. He was named after his maternal grandfather’s cousin, John Robinson, whose banking wealth would finance the boy’s education as well as his future life as a poet. Robin’s father was a task master who sent him to a variety of schools in Europe to make sure that he had a diversified classical education.

It began at age 4 with kindergarten in Zurich, Switzerland. From there he went Lucerne, and then back to Pittsburgh academies for five years before returning to Europe when his little brother Hamilton came of age. The two then then attended schools in Leipzig, Vevey, Lausanne, Geneva, and Zurich.

Robinson Jeffers at age 12It was surely a difficult upbringing with serious social consequences, but the boy responded well to it. By age 12 he had been immersed in three modern languages and had good command of Latin and classical Greek. After Robin completed a year at the University of Pittsburgh, his family moved to Los Angeles, California. By age 18 [1] he had a bachelor’s degree from Occidental College. He then took courses at the University of Southern California (USC) and then the University of Zurich.

It was at USC, in 1906, that he met Una Call Custer, the wife of a prominent LA attorney. Una was on her way to earning a master’s degree, which was one better than Robin would ever do. Una was several years older than Robin and unlike him in several key ways, but she was one woman who could maintain a spirited conversation with this highly intellectualized young man. The two had good chemistry, and in time they fell in love.

After working for a while as a translator, Jeffers entered medical school at USC. He excelled there as a student, an athlete, and a merrymaker. After a couple years at USC, Jeffers lost interest in the medical profession and dropped out of medical school. He then moved to Seattle, his parents in tow, to study forestry at the University of Washington. He dropped that after a semester and returned to LA.

At this point in his life, Robin’s plans were to write poetry and await his 25th birthday, when he would receive an inheritance check from his Uncle John.

Robin and Una had convinced themselves that they were over each other, but they were soon at it again. When Una’s husband caught wind of it, he convinced Una to go to Europe for a year, which she did — for seven months.

Jeffers occupied himself with drinking, wasting, and — upon Una’s return — romancing. In February and March 1913, the affair raised a scandal that led to two feature stories in the LA Times, but Una’s husband found a mistress several months later, making it possible for Robin and Una to marry, which they did on August 2, 1913. Their marriage got off to an idyllic start but took a hard turn nine months in, with the death of their one day-old daughter on May 6, 1914. —Next—>



1. See Bennett, The Stone Mason of Tor House (2007 printing), page 30