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Bess "Becky" London Fleming

© 2006 by Clarice Stasz, Ph.D.

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Becky and Joan Jack's second daughter (on left) was born on October 20, 1902 while he was traveling alone in Europe. Thus she was still an infant when he deserted his family in 1903. Becky, as she came to be known, was very unlike her sister in both appearance and temperament. Blond and fair-complexioned, she was playful, athletic, and loved to perform before others. Though blessed with high intelligence, she was less competitive at academics than Joan, and preferred popularity to leadership positions. During her youth, she loved her dance lessons and recitals, appearing in costume in parades, and playing violin as much as raucous physical play.

Becky's relationship with her father was less involved with Joan, who wrote him regularly. He admitted to a correspondent once that he really did not know her well, and wrote friends of Joan's activities, but not of Becky's. At the same time, Becky was not ever the brunt of his anger, so her memories of her father were less complicated and very positive. In later life she was unhappy whenever Joan suggested that Jack was at times less than a good father.

Following high school, Becky also majored in history at the University of California at Berkeley, and did a fifth year of teacher's training after graduation. College also meant fun, and she later recalled with pleasure the parties and dances. By then strikingly beautiful, she had many suitors and enjoyed the social freedoms women gained in the 1920s. Despite her education, Becky was more easygoing than her sister, and content to do secretarial work rather than seek a professional career. She also suffered what was then a terrible social sin, bearing a child, daughter Jean, out of wedlock. The baby was born at her mother's house in 1924, and through the cooperation of the family's doctor, false names were listed as parents. Jean Wellman was presented to the public as a distant relative's orphaned daughter that Becky had agreed to raise.

Becky married Percy Fleming in 1927, but the couple continued to live with Bess London. Becky had a son, Guy, and worked alongside her husband at stationery stores they owned in Oakland. She later admitted she had not married for love, and was unhappy for many years as a result. Although Becky and Joan were very different, they remained in contact throughout their lives. Becky even joined in some of Joan's radical political groups during the 1940s. She was not an activist, however, and preferred reading and following her favorite local professional sports teams in her free time.

While growing up, both daughters had been regularly featured in newspapers, for good and ill, as though they were local celebrities. As a result, in adulthood Becky avoided identification with her father, and disapproved of her sister's more public affiliation and refusal to take on any married names. Consequently, Joan was the "official" London daughter for purposes of the news media. Becky appeared only rarely, as at the official opening of Jack London State Park. During the 1970s, however, she was befriended by Russ Kingman, who organized annual Jack London Birthday Banquets in the Bay area. On his encouragement, Becky began to appear at local events and speak about childhood memories of her father.

Becky and Joan in 1940s

Becky's stories were full of typical childhood activities with a non-custodial parent. Her favorites were going to Idora Park for the amusement rides, and trips. Twice a year Jack mailed boxes of books to the girls, and corrected their errors in letters. Her favorite memory was of her 7th birthday, the only time she went out alone with her father, to a restaurant and vaudeville show. She emphasized his sympathy for the working classes, combined with his emphasis on hard work as the means to success. As for his death, she always challenged claims that he had committed suicide.

Following Joan's death in 1971, Becky's appearances increased. After Percy died, Kingman and his wife Winnie invited Becky to move out of Oakland and live with them in Glen Ellen. As owners of a bookstore and the Jack London Foundation Library, the Kingmans were visited by numerous London aficionadoes, who were delighted to visit with Becky. She became beloved for her unpretentious manner and good sense of humor. Consequently, she finally enjoyed the fruits of her famous birth name. Fortunately, she put some of her memories down for posterity. Only when Bart Abbott sought to publish his mother's book about their childhood did she object and even prevented its publication with one press. She remained with the Kingmans until illness forced her to move to a convalescent home in Sacramento, near her daughter Jean. She died there on March 26, 1992, and at her request her ashes were scattered at sea.

SOURCES

Fleming, Becky: Writings.
Kingman, Russ. A Pictorial Biography of Jack London, New York: Century, 1979.
Labor, Earle, Robert C. Leitz III, and I. Milo Shepard, The Letters of Jack London, 3 volumes, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1988.
London, Joan.Jack London and His Daughters. Berkeley, CA: Heywood Books, 1990.
Sinclair, Amdrew.Jack: A Biography of Jack London. New York: Harper & Row, 1977.
Stasz, Clarice American Dreamers: Charmian and Jack London. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1988.
______.Jack London's Women. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2003.