Jack London Online Collection

Jack London's Final Will

Jack London's final will is a good example of why people should not write a will without legal advice.  London composed it during a difficult time in his life.  The previous June, his second wife Charmian delivered a baby girl, Joy, who died within a day of her birth.  Charmian almost died as well.  In subsequent months he pressured his first wife, Bess, to allow his daughters to visit him on the Beauty Ranch.  She refused to do so, because she did not want her daughters in the company of the woman who had broken up their marriage.  She insisted he continue to visit Joan and Becky in Oakland, where they lived.  The codicil was written as Jack was on his way to cover the Mexican Revolution for Collier's magazine.  Contrary to its claim, he was not in Glen Ellen that day.

This will was a significant break from his earlier ones, where he had protected his estate so that it would ultimately revert to his daughters.  After his death in 1916, it took several years to settle this less precise set of bequests.  As a result, Joan and Becky received support until age 21, but never received the land or benefit of posthumous royalties.  Charmian London and Eliza Shepard remained on the Beauty Ranch, preserving as much of it as possible.  In 1954, Eliza's son Irving inherited the ranch, and donated a portion of it to the state as Jack London State Historic Park.

Because London's handwriting is so large, the will covers 11 pages, plus one page of codicil.  This transcription of a photocopy of the original was prepared by Ted Byrnes.  Clarice Stasz has added annotations to clarify points.

Glen Ellen, California

May 24, 1911

I, Jack London, being of sound mind on this day, do declare this to be my last will and testament, cancelling and nullifying all previous wills thereby.

I do not want this will probated. The executors to serve without bounds.  The executors are Eliza Shepard, George Sterling, and Willard L. Growall. [1]

In all questions relating to my books, plays, translations, and literary dealings and interpretations, my present wife, Charmian K. London, is to be consulted. Her advice and judgment are to be considered of paramount importance.

To Charmian K. London I do hereby give and bequeath my whole estate, real and personal and of every sort and description, including any and all investments, royalties and rights in books, plays, translations, etc., except insofar as the following exceptions and legacies may leave claims upon said estate.

To my mother, Flora London, the estate shall pay monthly the sum of forty-five dollars, and in addition see that she is suitably housed, said housing to be paid from estate. [2]

To my former, divorced wife, Bessie M. London, I bequeath the sum of five dollars, During her single life-time she is to have the use and occupancy of the house, 519-31st street, Oakland, but must pay all taxes, repairs, etc., on same. The instant she marries, all use & occupancy of said house must automatically cease. [3]

To my daughters, Joan London and Bess London, the estate shall pay to each of them twenty-five dollars a month as long as they remain unmarried. Immediately on marriage or death the estate will cease paying this monthly allowance.

Here, in relation to Joan London and Bess London, my daughters, let me state that any additional help they may obtain
shall not be from my estate, but from my present wife, Charmian K. London. To her must they be beholden for anything additional to the twenty-five-dollar monthly allowance accorded each of them from the estate. Whatever additional may be given them shall be a benefaction and a kindness from Charmian K. London and shall arise out of Charmian K. London's goodness and desire. [4]

To my old mammy Jennie Prentiss, my estate shall pay fifteen dollars each month. Also, and in addition, my estate shall see that she is suitably housed and shall pay for said housing. Also, any expenses extraordinarily accompanying her demise within reason, shall be borne by my estate. [5]

To my sister, Eliza Shepard,  I give & bequeath the sum of two thousand five hundred dollars ($2,500.00). In addition, my estate shall pay to her each month the sum of $35.00 (thirty-five dollars) is not to be considered a legacy over all annuity, but is to be earned by her as follows: Having proved to my satisfaction in the past that she is peculiarly fitted for the post, I appoint her business manager and agent of the estate, in consultation, of course, with the other two executors, and acting under the instructions of the three combined, of which she is one. I add that, according to the judgment of the executors and according to any increase in the responsibilities & earning powers of the estate, her monthly salary shall be increased accordingly.

The insurance, which falls to my two daughters, Joan London and Bess London, will constitute a separate fund, which will be managed for them until they are twenty-one years of age. The executors I hereby empower, by their discretion and judgment, to draw upon said insurance, and even to reduce it or (illegible) it, (illegible) the purpose of education of Joan and Bess or for other expenses extraordinary that shall be for the benefit of Joan and Bess.

Should Charmian K. London marry, all the estate shall still be hers, with the exception of the foregoing exceptions and claims upon it, and with the additional exception that she must pay to the insurance fund of Joan and Bess London the sum of five thousand dollars cash.

I recommend that my daughters, Joan London and Bess London, be personally housed, cared for, and managed, by my beloved wife Charmian K. London, of whose fitness and goodness for this duty I am amply confident. [6]

The reason that I give all my estate to Charmian K. London with exceptions noted, is as follows: Charmian K. London, by her personal aid to me in my literary work, and still vastly far more, by the love and comfort, & joy & happiness she has given me, is the only person in this world who has any claim or merit earned upon my estate. This merit and claim she has absolutely earned, and I purely earnestly, sincerely and gratefully accord it.

Again repeating that I am of sound mind, I put my signature to this document, my last will and testament.

(signed) Jack London

Glen Ellen, California

May 24


Owing to the absence of George Sterling from the state of California I hereby drop his name from my will as executor and appoint Eliza Shepard and Willard L. Growall to act as executors to this will and to carry out the terms of same.

(signed) Jack London

Glen Ellen, Calif.

April 17, 1914


[1] Eliza London Shepard, referred to in the will as London's sister, was in fact his stepsister, the daughter of John London.  Jack was a young adult before he learned that John London was not his real father.  Poet George Sterling was London's closest male friend.  Willard Growall was a successful haberdasher in San Francisco, and Charmian London's uncle.

[2] Flora Wellman London had lost favor with Jack as a result of her public support of his first wife following the divorce.  He provided her a home in Oakland, and moderate monthly support, but otherwise had little to do with her after 1905.

[3] The 1904 divorce settlement granted Jack "visiting rights" to his daughters, while Bess Maddern London held full custody.  In an unfortunate move, she signed away rights to all royalties for herself or her daughters, in exchange for monthly support and the 31st Street house.  After the will was written, he paid for construction of a new home at 606 Scenic Street in Piedmont. Bess was puzzled that he did not refer to this house in a later codicil.

[4]  Charmian did not want Bess to think she would use the will to move the girls to the ranch.  Consequently, immediately after London's death, she advised Bess to apply for guardianship, which she did in December, 1916.  The final estate settlement granted both houses in Oakland, financial support until the daughters reached 21, and the equivalent of a $10,000 insurance settlement.  Because it took so long to be finalized, Joan worked her way through the University of California at Berkeley.  While his own daughters came out with little of the estate, Charmian was left with considerable indebtedness and a ranch not yet developed enough to provide compensatory income.

[5] Once slave Virginia (Jenny) Prentiss was Jack London's foster mother.  She nursed him and raised him in her home through infancy when his mother was too ill to care for him.  Throughout his youth he found her a source of comfort and support, played with her children, and accompanied her to African American community events.  When he became an adult, she asked him not to refer to her as "mammy," a derogatory term, but he continued to do so. and called himself her "white pickaninny."  After she was widowed, he hired her to help care for his daughters, and she lived with his mother in Oakland.

[6] Upon learning of the final will, London's daughters were understandably not favorable toward Charmian.  For several years following his death, she wrote to them, sent presents and money, and they responded politely.  In 1925 Joan London asked to meet Charmian, and she became a mentor for the young woman, who was hoping to become a writer.  They had a mutually affectionate relationship for about a decade, but eventually Joan withdrew, and claimed to have never known her stepmother.  Becky London relied upon her older sister to handle communications with Charmian, and made no attempts to know her.

SOURCE: Clarice Stasz, Jack London's Women, Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, forthcoming 2001.